Juan Downey’s artistic pursuits – part anthropology and part political activism – have guided him through an expansive web of geographies and social structures. Titled ‘A Communications Utopia’, this survey traced Downey’s career-long interest in system feedback, revealing a continued idealism towards the potential of a networked world. In 1977, he called for an ‘Information Revolution’, recognizing cybernetics as ‘a call for social change: a revolution within the detection, processing and dispersal of information’. Downey believed that a networked society had the potential to restructure the power hierarchies of his day into multi-directional exchanges.
The exhibition’s entry hall, with a timeline of ephemera, explained the context of Downey’s work from the late 1960s to ’80s, predominantly the alternative art spaces of New York. Much of Downey’s work in these venues was performative: documentation of Energy Fields (1972) shows dancers hopping, laying flat and sitting on one another’s shoulders. Their bodies were intended to interrupt a field of electromagnetic waves, setting off sonic responses and, in turn, charting the limits of the invisibly networked wavelengths that filled the space.
The same year, Downey and Gordon Matta-Clark presented their Fresh Air Cart to bankers, labourers and passers-by on Wall Street. The artists parked a two-seater cart set up with an umbrella and large pressurized tank, and served pure oxygen. A black and white video, Fresh Air (1972), shows throngs watching with curiosity and apprehension, while others don the breathing masks. Documentation of the artists’ playful, benevolent idea also underscores the nature of the contaminated environment – Wall Street – from which it offers relief.
A year later, Downey took a nomadic turn when he embarked on the three-year project ‘Video Trans Americas’ (1973–6). Following New York and a stop in Texas, the artist travelled through Central and South America to produce 14 short videos. Downey filmed the indigenous cultures at each place he stopped while introducing recordings of those he had met previously along the way. He intended to bring cultures out of isolation, gain awareness of difference and variety, and knowledge of shared myths. At the Tamayo, a thickly outlined vinyl map of the Americas spanned the floor and walls of one gallery; screens are positioned at the respective points on the map at which they were recorded. Other pieces show Downey’s political engagement: a 1974 ‘Chile Sí, Junta Nó’ (Chile Yes, Junta No) T-shirt, designed and printed for a demonstration in New York, and Make Chile Rich (1970), a poster advocating the export and widespread use of Chile’s nitrate-rich natural fertilizers. In the travelogue for ‘Video Trans America’, the artist wonders: ‘Should art be political? Art and politics do not mix, but look beautiful together, just like oil and water.’
For Downey, there wasn’t a disconnect between the work he produced and the social context of its audience. He was also aware of the legal systems around the productions of objects themselves: when he fabricated Against Shadows (1969), Downey included with it his own production drawings alongside photocopies of the apparatus’s original 1913 patent application. The work – made from wood, light bulbs, circuit boards and photocells – reacts to the shadows an individual throws over a perforated horizontal surface, re-creating the shapes on a wall-mounted grid of activated bulbs. Its aim to make manifest invisible energies (rays of light) run parallel to Downey’s own efforts to make industrial schematics and intellectual copyrights visible, and detract from the privileged singularity of the material object.
A great deal of this exhibition consisted of sketches for mechanical apparatuses that, like Against Shadows, connect with an organic entity. For example, two coloured pencil drawings from 1970 schematize beanbag-like chairs that ‘breathe’ and ‘beat’ like the sitters’ lungs and hearts. The artist’s vision was one of the human embedded in a system.
Downey died in 1993, the same year that Intel shipped its first Pentium processing chips. He never lived to see the widespread embrace of the smartphone. He was extremely critical of globalized corporate interventions in economics and communications. Alongside vast state surveillance and the monetization of data itself, the network Downey advocated has now redefined our biological and political understandings of autonomy. Today, his call for informational revolution re-emerges gleaming with both urgency and idealism.
First published in Issue 158