Born in 1933 in (United States)
Liste expositions


"I would say that I like video best because – although, of course, there are a lot of other interesting sides to it – it is able to take a message or opinion from one point to another." (Douglas Davis)

Douglas Davis tackles video in a very thoughtful manner: both by questioning the medium and by a theoretical discourse on its possibilities. For Davis, the issue of the advantages of this new technology arises in view of his most important objective: to allow communication between people by bridging spatial and temporal distances.

Born in Washington in 1933, where he studied at Rutgers University, he uses electronic media and media of communication but also works with drawing, photography, screen printing and performance. Above all, Davis is a theoretician, a publicist of papers on cultural theory and art history, and deals with art in connection with communication and technology, also with a view to the future. His work: "Art and the Future – A History/Prophecy of the Collaboration Between Science, Technology and Art" was published in 1973. In 1972, he was among the first to make clear statements on the nature and possibilities of video as a form of art.

Text, that is language as a method of communication in general, is often an integral part of his video works, objects, and installations. As he writes in a contribution to a volume of essays on the new form of television (The New Television, 1977), the issue of directness, of the significance of direct live broadcasts in real-time is of immense importance for the artist in today's cultural context. In confronting this question, he is dealing with a problem about media of communication and people's powers of imagination in respect of the dynamic factor time which are often neglected.

One of his earliest works, Studies in Myself, created in 1973 for the Everson Museum in Syracuse, depicts Davis typing his current thoughts, simultaneously transmitting them onto video screen for the viewer. The topic here is the communication of real-time and the mental participation of the viewer in his work. The subject of the Santa Clara Tapes (1973) is to use the camera like a drawing-pen in a free, experimental fashion.

In his three-part Austrian Tapes (colour, 1974), consisting of Handing, Facing and Backing, Davis seeks physical contact with the viewer. Through the video, the artist asks the viewer to make physical contact by putting his hands on the screen and connecting with Davis' hands or his back, or by placing cheek against cheek. The act of touching is transformed into a simultaneous media event which, however, can be no more than a simulation of the concurrent touch because of the dividing pane, since space is bridged by the medium but is, in fact, a separating factor.

Florence Tapes of the same year deals with the same subject, including three-dimensional space as Douglas Davis encourages the viewer with appeals and questions to undress like him and to experiment with the video, to stand with him foot to foot on the screen or to feel the pressure of the other's finger. The viewer sees a bird's-eye view in optical foreshortening of Davis in the nude, pressing his hands against the television screen. In a graphic work of 1976, a cycle entitled Keeping Time, Davis deals with the preserved body print as a "one-way street" without addressee. His combination of techniques appears interesting: collotype with ink (to blacken the feet).

Inspirations from Fluxus artists from New York have influenced Davis as he, too, was integrating the audience or the viewer into his work and at the same time portraying the confrontation with himself.

His encounters with Paik, Beuys, Acconci, Campus, Baldessari and concept artists were important for Davis. Like Paik and others, Douglas Davis was involved in the manipulation, refusal and rejection of television, as for example in his installation for Project '74 in Cologne, Images for the Present Tense, in which he pointed the television set towards the wall, with a hissing, brightly flickering screen, and used it as a source of light or reflection.

In 1975, he tried to get away from the fixation on the video and produced a work with the provocative title The Last Videotape (in the World) with the following note in the catalogue: "trying to get away from the video image, deciding to turn the screen completely off, use reflection only on the screen, light the context is a dead world."

In his graphic works, the artist occasionally also used images from his performances: Thus he realised a picture from Reading Brecht in ¾ Time (1976) in his series Keeping Time in collotype and coloured ink. The action itself was produced in collaboration with Manhattan Cable Television. The reading lasted two days and took place in three different locations, aiming to address both public and private viewers and to overcome spatial distances via the cable.

Here, it is already apparent how Davis makes use of cable television for video and for simultaneous actions in a number of locations, emphasising the component of global telecommunication in television.

Also in 1976, he realised Questions New York Moscow New York Moscow, a collage of photographs, text, and telephone calls, a work produced over one year in collaboration with the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. Photographs by Komar and Melamid that had been created simultaneously to the left of a vertical black line on white background, and Douglas Davis' photos to the right of the line are meant to bridge the existing distance visually. Both held in their hands signs– the Muscovites in English, Davis in Russian – with these questions: "Where is the line between us", "Why is the line between us", and "What is beyond the line", and afterwards tried to reach each other by phone but unfortunately without success.

The synthesis into a visual exchange of an action taking place in different locations is the theme of Two Cities, A Text, Flesh and the Devil. The first live broadcast from a museum was Four Places Two Figures One Ghost (1977). Two people act for the viewers via cable television, one of them live, the other from tape, and they are watching a third figure, the ghost of Douglas Davis' earlier self who is leaving a message on a video typewriter.

At the 1977 documenta 6 in Kassel, Douglas Davis started a satellite television broadcast around the world instead of a video transmitting his live performance in the Orangery entitled The Last Nine Minutes in which he made hand contact with someone in Caracas in Venezuela. The accompanying text explains Douglas Davis' intention to make the distance between both potential communication partners disappear and to enter into a real discourse.

This is also happening in Double Entendre (1981) – two museums, the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Whitney Museum, are connected via satellite through Douglas Davis and Nadia Taleb who recite a dialogue based on Roland Barthes "Discourse on Love" in their respective languages. Davis runs out of the museum into Madison Avenue and into the camera, resurfaces on the square in front of the Pompidou in Paris and there meets Taleb.

In that sense, satellite TV and video serve merely as vehicles for a real encounter. Davis is right to ask why this satellite broadcast should take place: "To what end? For what purpose? The same purpose that lies behind the invention of language, of the portable canvas painting, at home in any living room, of the photograph. To reach out, to contact a man, a woman, to consummate the ideal of human fraternity – by communicating a thought …"

… for the true ideal is found in the communication between people and in the sharing of a common idea.

In his most recent work, Douglas Davis takes up this idea again but adds another dimension: for the first time, he sets up a truly interactive dialogue with his recipients via the Internet, asking them to participate in his discourse, or to get involved in the asymptotic enlargement of a never-ending "work in progress". From a work from his retrospective Interactions (1967-81) organised by the Lehman College Art Gallery grew "The World's First Collaborative Sentence", a "sentence" that can never be completed, whose ideas and Internet page were acquired by Barbara and Eugene M Schwartz in 1995 and passed on the Whitney Museum of American Art in the spring of 1996 for its graphic and curatorial management as it is constantly expanding (co-designer: Gary Welz, authorisation and support: Susan Hoeltzel, director of the Lehman College Art Gallery, assistance and maintenance: Prof. Robert Schneider, Faculty of Mathematics, N.Y.).

The only rule for the active participant with regard to the expansion of this conglomerate of philosophical, political and artistic speculations, poems and thought fragments on sexuality, religion, literature, art, and life in general as well as of self-reflections on the nature of this patchwork quilt made up of text, graphics, video, photographs, and sounds linked up with many Internet pages, is the injunction not to produce any complete sentences so as to guarantee the endlessness of a constantly changing oeuvre. On his web-site connected with "The World's First Collaborative Sentence", Davis returns to the subject matter of his work of 1973 – The Santa Clara tapes where he pointed his camera out of the video directly at the viewer (camera: Bill Viola).

In his installation in the Gallery 312 in Chicago, also of 1995: "Joseph, When Will You Call?" – a reminiscence of the later Beuys consisting of a Beuys sketch, redrawn in 1974, its frame adorned with a mobile phone - Davis invited the Fluxus artist and the audience to a live telephone call.

In 1997, Douglas Davis created Metabody: The World's First Collaborative Visions of the Beautiful, a complex interactive forum on the Internet intended to get web users world-wide to theoretically reflect on the "body" and to exchange views of the body in texts and digital art for live transmission, as in his "Collaborative Sentence". In this way, it is possible to discuss both the theory (in "BodyBodyBody") and one's personal view (in "Metabody) of the body and the notion of beauty everywhere in the non-space of the World-Wide Web: all the more so since in these times of cyberspace and telecommunicative reality, the concept of the body may have to be re-examined in view of the idea of the virtual, interactive meeting.

Davis' commitment to a direct interactive exchange across long distances found expression in further projects: in collaboration with the Parsons School of Design, the New York State Council of the Arts, and Dimensional Media Associates, he developed a multimedia theatre and the Internet page ID where with a click of the mouse, the web user can experience the changeable position of female and male in juxtaposition. For October 1998, there are plans for several lectures on cyberspace jointly with the scientist Susan Flynn-Hummel of the IBM Watson Center, with further interactive discussions among students and the public via the Web and in video conferences.

Douglas Davis who worked in Russia during Perestroika as a Fulbright scholar (1995), has found a forum for his reflections, views, and theories in many radio stations and publications in renowned art magazines. He has taught at over twenty-five art colleges and universities and now lives in New York.

Lilian Haberer