Patinated handprints cover the copper pedestal, begging you to touch it – and sure enough, your touch triggers an electric chirp: the sound of a living philodendron, encased and rigged like a lab specimen to biosensors, transducers and outputs. Such is the proof of concept for Juan Downey’s A Vegetal System of Communications for New York State (1972/2017), which proposes to harness the sensitivities of plants to conduct signals through wooded areas. The piece is a fair summary of ‘Radiant Nature’, the late artist’s retrospective that stretches across three venues: two galleries at Pitzer College in Claremont and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in Hollywood. As Downey experimented with the new tools and concepts of the late 1960s and early ’70s, his vision of machines and technological systems began to incorporate a hidden animus: animal, vegetable and mineral energy. An installation of one of the artist’s ‘Life Cycle’ works (1970–71) begins with electric light and ends with honey, and has a colony of bees in between. Pollution Robot (1970) is a box on wheels, tethered to an electric cord; when engaged, a person inside (Downey, originally) follows gallery visitors around and ‘breathes stuffy air’ on them through a mouth-like vent. Its ‘face’ is a one-way mirror.
Downey relished guinea-pigging the art world. The graphs he produced for the 1970 series ‘A Research on the Art World’, for instance, draw on a number of questionnaires he mailed to collectors, artists and critics. Some reveal good info: In Artists’ Yearly Income, a jagged diagram shows that artists with the most art-school education have either the highest or the lowest earnings, while the middle of the saw-toothed chart admits little correlation. Other pieces plot results that require more subjective interpretation, such as Mailed One Thousand Forms to Artists and Collectors, a drawing comparing just how punctual the subject groups were when returning their surveys. Another asks how long the respondents spend ‘talking about art’ versus ‘considering works of art’ – but then, the data set is just more raw material for Downey’s own work. In his Information Center (1970), a grid of white lightbulbs hangs on a wall behind two long minimalist bars with mirrored faces, one on the ceiling and one on the floor. When you stick your body between them it breaks a circuit and triggers a recording of one of the survey questions, while the lightbulbs display the shape of the corresponding graph. Forget the binary precision of circuits, the decimal objectivity of statistics; at such resolution, and in jumbles of up to four graphs at a time, the marquee is illegible as anything but an artwork.
The LACE portion of the show features video works and video documentation of performances – among reams of Portapak footage, one fades into the other – augmented by black and white mural prints and blown-up contact sheets. In his early ‘happenings’, Downey exhibited an interest in the latest technological forms, while holding a mirror to the spectator. One highlight is Three-Way Communication by Light (1972), represented by a diagram and a rough recreation, where three participants in isolated rooms communicated via a relay of lasers, mirrors and Super-8 projections. Films of their faces were superimposed, enmeshing humans in the web of machines by which they were constrained to interact. If the performance has been flattened, inevitably, into documentation, the three pale blue palimpsests of faces and their compressed, coppery voices are an image to itself, and the final hard-edged technology by which the artist sends their signals.
Main image: Juan Downey, Life Cycle: Electric Light + Water + Soil → Flowers → Bees → Honey, 1971/2017, installation view, Pitzer College Art Galleries, Claremont. Hives, lavender, rosemary, red apple ground cover, flowers, video camera, video monitor, retro grow lights, and bees, 122 x 122 cm. Courtesy: Pitzer College Art Galleries, Claremont and the Estate of Juan Downey; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer
First published in Issue 192