Video Journey Through Utopia
by Paul Ryan
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not
worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at
which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there,
it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail.
The founder of the Raindance video collective, artist Frank
Gillette, distinguishes between the Fluxus current in video history
and the utopian current. The Fluxus current, which surfaced in
the careers of a host of individual video artists, led by Nam
June Paik, overwhelmed and diluted the utopian current which
lived and died with the video collectives of the late sixties
and early seventies. ( Gillette, 1995) The anomalous case in
the Fluxus tradition is Joseph Bueys who considered his work
social sculpture. However, just as with the video collectives,
Bueys failed to actually change society in any radical way.
One "sociological" way of describing this "victory"
of the European Fluxus current over the indigenous American utopian
current is to say that the institutionalization of video as art
came at a price. The anonymous collectives (once the Videofreex
collective refused to given out any name to an interviewer, except
the name of the house cat) gave way to "name" artists.
To become validated as "art" the collective desire
to radically change society with video, triggered by the Civil
Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, had to mutate into celebrity
status for selected individuals willing and able to structure
their ego's in compliance with the star system for solo artists.
Currently, there is a renewed interest in utopia. Pierre Levy's
book Collective Intelligence (1997), recently published
in English, echoes both the early Lewis Mumford and Marshall
McLuhan by linking utopia with electronic technology. The subtitle
of Levy's book is "mankind's emerging world in cyberspace".
He sees mankind as emerging out of a commodity space into a knowledge
space. In this space, humans can relate to knowledge in all its
diversity. Identity becomes nomadic. We involve ourselves in
the production of meaning. We generate worlds of signification.
New ways of living in time and space emerge from collective becomings.
(Levy p. 175) Collective intelligence is a "utopia of the
unstable and the multiple." (Levy, p. 202)
Levy sees utopias, not as unrealizable dreams for fools and
fascists, but as seeds that can engender the actualization of
highly differentiated pluralistic societies. This article reports
on a utopian "seed" that emerged from my own experience
working with video in the collective current. This brief article
is a modest sequel to "A Genealogy of Video" inspired
by Foucault which I published in Leonardo in 1987 about
video history in New York City between 1968-1971 (Ryan, 1993,
see also Bolye, 1997). In that essay, I traced the tension between
video as a tool of social change and video as an art form. Just
as that essay was "a" genealogy that asks to be considered
in context with related genealogies, so this essay is "a"
case history that asks to be considered in context with related
More specifically, this presentation reports on my own effort
to start a video utopian community between 1971 and 1976, after
having participated in the Raindance video collective from 1969
to 1971. Through this report, I want to suggest that the utopian
current in video history can be reinterpreted as a fecund virtuality.
For the reader to accept my suggestion does not necessarily
require a willing suspension of the post sixties cynicism that
now uses the term "utopia" in a disparaging way. What
it does require is an appreciation of the distinction, used by
Pierre Levy, between the possible and the virtual. This distinction,
put forth by philosopher Henri Bergson, is key to what I am articulating.
(Bergson, 1992, pp. 91-106; Deleuze, 1991, pp. 91-113)
For Bergson, the possible is linked to the real; the virtual
is linked to the actual. The link between the possible and real
is one of a model and its copy. The concept is complete in the
model before being executed in the copy. According to this way
of thinking, the fully formed human being is already "modeled"
in the fertilized egg. Embryological development is just a rendering
in reality of a correct copy of the model of the possible. Monsters
are failed copies. By contrast, the link between the virtual
and the actual is a link of differentiation. The fertilized egg
encodes a virtuality that generates a range of self differentiating
organs which actualize into a self organized fully formed human.
The virtual does not make copies of itself but creates differences
that make differences in the actual world. Failure of the virtual
is the failure to create differences. Artists understand this
distinction. Serious artists with shared interests, such as the
impressionists, do not copy each other but form a virtual community,
a "mutual differentiation society" that manages to
actualize a plurality of work. Before applying this distinction
to the utopian current in video history, let me specify my own
In the fall of 1971, I moved from New York City upstate to
the beautiful Shawangunk Mountains near New Paltz. At the time,
New Paltz was a thriving countercultural center, populated by
art students and former arts students at the State University
of New York campus in New Paltz, then known for its arts programs.
The local movie theater played King of Hearts monthly
to a full house of locals who believed with Shakespeare that
"the poet, the lunatic, and the lover are of imagination
all compacted." This wonderful movie about the eccentric
inmates of a mental institution let loose in town in the midst
of the follies of World War One provided the town of New Paltz
with a self image during the Vietnam War.
Through a conduit organization, I had a $20,000 grant from
the New York State Council on the Arts to figure out how to produce
video interpretations of ecological systems. In 1972, the Council
provided another $5,000 to support my efforts. By 1973, I had
hit an impasse with my work and did not apply to the council
for funds. During a trip to the southwest that year, a conceptualization
for a utopian community of ecological videomakers came to me
in a burst and I wrote it up in three days. (Ryan, 1974, 1993)
The idea was to configure an intentional community of thirty-six
videomakers. Each videomaker was to be part of three different
triads. The first triad was to care for its members, the second
to take care of the business of supporting a community, and the
third to produce video interpretations of ecological systems.
My intuition was that if self-correcting teams of three people
could be stabilized, a leaderless, thriving community could be
stabilized. Of course, my own attempt to start a leaderless
community involved a personal contradiction that I became keenly
aware of over the next few years.
In the early seventies, the idea of utopian communities living
within ecological limits was in currency. Ernest Callenbach's
widely read book about a breakaway state in the Pacific Northwest
called Ecotopia appeared in 1975. In conceptualizing Earthscore,
however, I did not rely primarily on readings from the utopian
tradition. My key text was the rule of Saint Benedict, the founder
of western monasticism. From the age seventeen to when I was
twenty-two I had lived in a contemplative preaching order of
the Roman Catholic Church. I wanted to start a non-celibate,
aesthetic order capable of interpreting ecological systems with
video that would be as sturdy and long lasting as the ascetic
order of the monastic tradition I had experienced.
In an attempt to recruit members for the community, I passed
out over a hundred xeroxed copies of the Earthscore utopian document
to people I knew in the town of New Paltz and got two takers:
videographer Steven Kolpan and artist Robert Schuler. We started
working together in 1973, setting up a non-profit organization
and drafting an intricate set of triadic bylaws. We applied to
the New York State council on the Arts, submitting the utopian
document. From 1974 through 1976, NYSCA supported us with $60,000.
During that time we produced an enormous volume of videotape
of ecological systems as well as forty five hours of triadic
tape, tape of people interacting in threesomes. As mentioned,
the premise of the utopian document was that self balancing groups
of three would be the basic unit in this video utopia community.
There would be no hierarchy. However, since normal interactive
patterns usually involve hierarchy and two against one dynamics,
we first had to "invent triadic behavior". Most of
these triadic tapes were produced in collaboration with the Dancing
Theatre company in New Paltz founded and directed by tap dancer
A showing of this work took place at the Kitchen Performance
Center in New York City in the spring of 1976. After that, Earthscore
Foundation went dormant. We had produced shelves of video interpretation
of ecological systems, some of it merely exploratory, some quite
successful and beautiful. We also invented a basic repertoire
of collaborative behavior for three people. But we had used up
all our emotional coupons doing so, did not develop a triadic
decision making process and could not figure out how to address
issues of gender and triadic behavior. Moreover, the New York
State Arts Council decided to zero our funding.
If you think of Earthscore strictly as a utopia, a possibility
that went unrealized, then you can consider this utopian effort
a failure. Your post sixties cynicism is justified. End of story.
I ask you, however, to think of Earthscore as a virtuality that
has been actualized in many different and divergent ways, none
of which are simply executions in practice of the plan in the
original utopian document. If fact, only after the effort to
realized the possibility of Earthscore as a utopian community
was abandoned did the virtual power of Earthscore start manifesting
itself. For myself personally this meant that rather than be
trapped in an isolating effort to realize the utopian concept
of a video community, I was released into the actuality of the
world, and the actual, as poet Wallace Stevens says, is a "deft
Since 1976, Earthscore has mutated from a utopian plan to
a notational system. That notational system is based on three
comprehensive categories of knowledge organized for collaborative
learning by a relational circuit. The notation also includes
a formal way of understanding events and a method of interpreting
anything to anybody. The full codification of the Earthscore
Notational System was published in 1989 in Leonardo magazine.
(Ryan, 1989, 93)
The power of Earthscore as a virtuality, as a notational system
for generating differences, is evident when you consider the
non-utopian actualities that have been generated using the Earthscore
Notational System. Let me cite some of the projects that have
been actualized by myself and others using components of the
Earthscore Notational System. Please note that just as video
was originally deployed for both art and social change so the
Earthscore Notational System has been deployed in both the realm
of art and the realm of social change. Here are some of the projects
generated by the Earthscore Notational System.
The conceptualization of a bioregional magazine in North Jersey
called Talking Wood that included a Watershed Watch Program.
Talking Wood was published in 1979-80 and successfully used a
three-person procedure for making editorial decisions. Before
folding, the magazine managed to identify and publicize the dumping
of toxic waste by Ford Motor company in an abandoned mine shaft
near a reservoir and secret test drilling for uranium by Shell
and other oil companies. The waste site was put on the Superfund
list and a law banning uranium mining in New Jersey was enacted.\
The design of a two week intensive program to retrain workers
displaced from the defense industry in Connecticut. The program
used a three-person team learning strategy to teach the workers
to use "new workplace skills" in their job search.
Fifty out of the sixty workers trained found work.
An art of relationships called Threeing, that works for three
people the way T'ai Chi or Yoga works for an individual. This
art of relationships has been presented at the Museum of Modern
Art in New Your City and elsewhere.
A design for an environmental television channel that has
been presented at the the Cathedral of St John the Divine and
the United Nations and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Other uses of the notational system include the design and
implementation of an educational program on sustainability for
New York City public school teachers, the design and implementation
of an architectural curriculum at Parsons School of Design and
the production of numerous videotapes.
I submit that these iterations demonstrate that Earthscore
as a notational system can cultivate differences that make differences.
I think that the notational system itself is a kind of virtual
code for organizing differences that can help actualize a rich
and healthy pluralism of differences in society. I consider this
notational system more valuable than any videotapes I've produced.
I doubt, however, if the notational system itself could have
been generated without a video journey through utopia.
I am suggesting that historians willing to question the current
prejudice against utopia could find it useful to revisit the
utopian phase of video history. For example, perhaps there may
be instructive parallels between the 19th century utopian communities
in upstate New York such as the Shakers and the Oneida Community
and the video collectives that fled New York City and went upstate
to the Hudson Valley. In any event, the case of Earthscore invites
historians to look at the utopian dimension of video history
with fresh eyes.
1992, The Creative Mind, Citadel Press, NYC.
Berneri, Marie Louise
1971, Journey Through Utopia, Schoken Books, NYC.
1997, Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited
Oxford University Press, NYC.
1991, Bergsonism, Zone Books, NYC.
Employment and Training Institute, ( ETI)
1996, Success Skills (Worker Training) archive. Ringwood,
New Jersey .
1993-95, Videotapes made of Frank Gillette, Ira Schneider, John
Giancola and Paul Ryan as research on Raindance. (Giancola's
Private Archives. Inquire University of Tampa, Florida)
1993, Without Sin The Life and Death of the Oneida Community
Penguin Press, NYC.
1973-76 Video Archives, Kingston, NY.
1987 -Utopia and Anti-Utopia, Basil Blackwell, Cambridge
1997, Collective Intelligence, Plenum Trade, NYC.
circa 1995. Raindance, Archive Video and Audio of Raindance Celebration
at the Kitchen, NYC.
Pascal, Merrily, Hour long production about Earthscore in
series on Intentional Communities, CBC, Canadian Broadcast Company,
"Ideas" program, 1975.
1974, Cybernetics of the Scared, Doubleday Anchor, NYC.
1993, Video Mind, Earth Mind, Peter Lang Press, NYC. (Includes
both Earthscore as Utopian Community document and Earthscore
Notational System document. Also contains "A Genealogy of
1996, Fire Water Father (with Jim Ryan) Private Circulation
(includes Video Wake Text)
Earthscore Video Archives (Private)
1973-76, Video Archives, High Falls, New York. See also Tethys,
Schuler's Ocean Burial Project.
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© Davidson Gigliotti, 2000CE
1996, McLuhan, or Modernism in Reverse, University of
Toronto Press, Toronto. (Discusses McLuhan's utopian strain in
relation to Lewis Mumford.)