For a while, one of Dan Graham’s catchphrases was, “We Aries Horses have to stick together!” As it so happened, Dan and I shared the same Western and Chinese astrological signs. He seemed to have the ability to remember anyone and everyone’s star sign. With this, he could automatically tick off anyone’s – i.e., the person standing directly before him – supposed character traits. This reading could swing wildly between identification and alienation. He treated the “empty monologue” as a kind of performance. Its logic was not so far removed from Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975), a work in which Graham described (that is, subjected to linguistic representation) his audience members and himself while standing before a panoramic mirror. The performance began with Graham facing the audience, his back to the mirror. Halfway through, he turned his back to the audience to face the mirror and repeat the descriptions.
Performer/Audience/Mirror grew out of a series of video installations in which the presentness of the spectator was the point. In these installations, video cameras, monitors, two-way mirrors, and the architecture of the white cube combined to serve as an apparatus that made viewers more aware of themselves in the here and now. The mirrors and monitors reflected the audience and confronted it with its own image in real time. Paul Ryan’s book Cybernetics of the Sacred inspired this approach. Ryan’s claims for video as a therapeutic technology undoubtedly left Graham bemused. Yet, the book’s insight into the transformative potential of video as a feedback mechanism was indisputable. Performer/Audience/Mirror replaced video with language as the ultimate apparatus. Graham simply demonstrated how the act of naming and describing affected the person or persons being described. In this way, he exposed a dimension of reality as a dynamic social construction. The critic Donald Kuspit specifically argued that Graham, by establishing a closed circuit between audience and performer, used language to create a feedback loop that expresses an inner map of social organization. In short, Performer/Audience/Mirror brought forth an otherwise unnoticed topology. That the work was borne of awkwardness and social anxiety cannot be underestimated.
I first met Graham at the Rhode Island School of Design in the spring of 1977 when I invited him to conduct a workshop in the school’s video department. For the occasion, we had somehow obtained a large, concave mirror. To prepare for the workshop, we connected a hulking studio camera to several Sony Trinitron monitors. Video was still in its infancy. Cameras were extremely low-res and highly sensitive. Point one at a bright light, and you could burn out its cathode-ray tube in just a few seconds. Which is exactly what Dan did within two minutes of his arrival. A fateful accident. We watched helplessly as a black dot appeared in the center of all the Trinitrons and held for a beat. Then all the screens went black. Two thousand dollars down the drain. So much for our collaboration.
I heard Dan lecture at the Whitney Independent Study Program the following fall. Halfway through, one of his 16 mm films got stuck in the projector and caught fire. Clearly, Dan was a klutz with equipment. The Whitney seminars always took place on Friday afternoons. The teachers and most of the students had made plans for the evening, unaware that, in his talk, Dan planned to cover every work he ever made. One by one, people filtered out, but Dan pressed on, undeterred. Even after the fire. As the evening wore on, the director, Ron Clark, became increasingly flustered. As an Aries Horse, I stayed to the bitter end. This overview was a rare opportunity.
In the spring of 1978, Dan came to CalArts, where I had begun my MFA work, to give a talk. Kim Gordon, who was studying at Otis, went to the lecture and met Mike Kelley for the first time. Dan mostly spoke about punk music. He was just in the process of producing a 45 with Glenn Branca’s band, The Static. The Q&A quickly devolved into debating the merits of punk with a malcontent who vehemently held out for Rod Stewart.
Although Dan visited, in short order, everywhere I had ever studied art, we didn’t become friends until the mid-’80s. One night, Aura Rosenberg and I went out to a party. Dan was sitting in a corner, all alone, so Aura said we should talk to him. As soon as we said hello, Dan opened an untapped reservoir of stories, jokes, quips, and observations. It was just a question of someone making the first move. Years later, I was surprised to find that Dan had described an uncannily similar scenario in his essay “Dean Martin/Entertainment as Theater.” The text concludes with an account of going to the Cerebrum, a New Age club in “Lower Manhattan’s loft district.” Upon entry, everyone strips and dons a diaphanous robe. There, the audience members, as Graham stresses, are also the performers, which meant rubbing each other with a white lotion and patting helium balloons about. Having left on his underpants, Graham finds himself embarrassed. “One of the attractive girls on the platform across from me walks onto my platform … ‘Why have you been sitting alone all evening?’” I’m not sure if any of this ever happened, but the story nonetheless offers a revealing self-portrait.
I consider Dan Graham one of the most significant artists of the postwar period. That, however, is a pronouncement he would have hated. Rather than declaring himself an artist, Graham was more interested in defining his work as a system tied to a medium and context. Likewise, he loved to deflate any claim that he considered overblown or overly theoretical. I once wrote something about Alteration to a Suburban House (1978) that hinged on the premise that the work, like Claes Oldenburg’s proposed monuments, remains unbuilt. At this, Dan cavalierly tossed out, “By the way, I did one in England.” I have yet to find any evidence of this. Later, sensing that “conceptual” had become a self-congratulatory term, Dan abruptly disavowed it, claiming that his work had always “been about comedy.” At first, this seemed facetious, but ultimately, I had to ask myself, What is Performer/Audience/Mirror other than an extremely dry form of stand-up? In Art as Experience, John Dewey drew a sharp distinction between the art object and the artwork. The latter, according to him, includes reception as a social process. With this, Dewey pushed for an art that is rooted in everyday life, open to all. Ultimately, Graham’s biggest achievement may have been to engage materialist aesthetics by matching his work, as closely as possible, to common, lived experience and the collective processes of reception, however intractable these may be.
John Miller is an artist and writer based in New York and Berlin.
Image credit: Andrew Boyle