Wavelength speaks with Michael Callahan of USCO, an artist communal collective founded in the early 1960’s in Garnerville, New York with fellow artists Gerd Stern and Stephen Durkee. USCO is currently featured in the exhibition “The Particle and the Wave” at Index Art Center of Newark, New Jersey. The interview addresses the history of USCO and Callahan’s ongoing obsession with technology.
WL: Can you tell us how you came to be a part of USCO?
MC: I was with the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Gerd Stern was having a show at the San Francisco Museum of Art and wanted to stage a multi-media event. Through a mutual friend, Michael McClure, contact was made with the Tape Center. After the performance (“Who R U and What’s Happening”) Gerd and I collaborated on various works and performances. Gerd and his wife Judi returned to Woodstock in the spring of ’64, and I joined them in August. Gerd and Judi, Steve Durkee and his wife Barbara and I took the name USCO –Company of Us– to reflect the involvement of a number of individuals as well as to play down the ego aspects of authorship.
WL: Can you characterize the development of technology since of the beginning of USCO to the present?
MC: When we started vacuum tubes were common and affordable. Solid state technology was well under way, but did not lend itself to low budget operations. Computers made by IBM and Univac due to their cost and overhead requirements were limited to large business and government installations. Even those behemoths pale in comparison to today’s smart phones. Much of the technology was still electro-mechanical, with electric motors actuating switches. Yet, it was still possible to achieve remarkable results with available technology. The main difference between now and then is that things are smaller and cheaper, but not necessarily better. (Take the control box for the Traffic sign; the solid state computerized version just sits there quietly, whereas the sixties version emits a marvelous click-click-clack-clack. So aside from being smaller, the function is the same, but the sound adds a great deal.) The integrated circuit, the basis of today’s devices, was still decades away.
WL: How have these developments influenced your practice?
MC: Not as much as they perhaps should have. Having constraints is not always a bad thing. Frequently a work came about because it was possible to exploit some aspect of some piece of surplus IBM equipment. So much of the work started with a definition or at least an inspiration from an existing object. In a way, there is an advantage to having limited resources: the choices are limited to the practical. Today’s practitioner is confronted with an imponderable number of possibilities.
WL: One of the more interesting things about your work is the adaptation of existing technologies to create new outcomes. Can you describe some of the artworks in which you’ve invented or altered technologies?
MC: I tend to view a technology along the lines of how a psychologist might view their subjects, learning by observing what it behaves, rather than the technical aspects of how it works. At the Tape Music Center this approach proved useful, taking a circuit developed for one purpose and asking “what else can it do?” What it boils down to is being careful not to stereotype or prejudge a technology based solely on its prior intended application. We made extensive use of strobe lights, which were originally invented by Harold Edegerton of MIT as an aid to working on electric motors. We incorporated them into several works, such as Triple Difraction Hex, as well as the strobe rooms like Final Flash.
WL: Is there any particular technology that still captures your imagination despite ongoing changes?
MC: Anything to do with sound, preferably something with knobs on it.
WL: The recently published article on USCO in Art Journal[i] noted how Marshall McLuhan, one of your contemporaries, saw technology as a bodily prosthetic. How, if at all, does this concept apply to your work?
MC: In many ways, we were attempting to reduce McLuhan’s theories to practice, in much the same way an experimental physicist treats the work of a theoretical physicist. Except in our case, the laboratory was the audience. Some things worked, others didn’t, but Marshall’s work provided a solid foundation, or at least a plausible rationale for what we were doing. Also, the time was ripe, in that the population was just becoming aware of life under electrical conditions. I am quite fond of the concept of media as an extension of our central nervous systems.
WL: USCO’s work often unifies spirituality and technology, how do you reconcile these seemingly polarized concepts?
MC: We Are All One. Fred Turner talks about how “technomysticism” filled the bill. “Each production required input by artists with a variety of technical skills, and the collaboration in turn required both a contact language in which the artists could speak to one another and a rationale to drive their production”[ii] Besides, technology is but the harnessing of the universe’s forces, which, deeply, are of a mystical origin. As Wallace Stevens said, in Idea of Order at Key West:
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
[ii] Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) p. 50