Sarah Hromack / Writing / Douglas Davis (1933–2014)

Douglas Davis (1933–2014)

In kind memory of artist Douglas Davis (1933-2014)

Douglas Davis was an artist, art critic, and teacher whose work with a remarkable variety of mediums—including video, television, performance, and later, the Internet—was prescient in its consideration of the social relationship between people and technology. I didn’t know him personally, but I’ve been told that he was a bit of a dreamer in the day-to-day—a visionary, even. He must have been, since he observed in his art—and equally, if not more perceptively, in his writing—the subtle shifts in public behavior around television that would come to inform the complex (if not outright ambivalent) personal relationships that most of us have with digital technologies today. Tinged with an almost mystical sense of optimism tempered by the counterculture of his day, Davis’s particular brand of wide-eyed intellectual openness positioned him perfectly as an early adopter of the Internet, a space whose potential as a social and artistic medium he clearly recognized.

Davis is perhaps most famously remembered for co-organizing, with Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys, a then-unprecedented live telecast of performance-art pieces that were broadcast to twenty-five countries as part of Documenta 6. In his personal contribution to the project, a video titled The Last Nine Minutes, a youthful, T-shirted Davis appears to be trapped inside a television set, pressing his palms and banging his fists against its glass in an attempt to . . . what? Communicate with the pair of hands on the other side of the glass—presumably, the viewers’—that press against his own? Call for help? In Write With Me on Your TV Screen, another work made a few years later, in 1979, Davis, presumably trapped inside his television (yet again!), scrawls the simple command of the title in reverse, to ensure its legibility to the viewer.

Davis’s video works were exceptionally earnest in tone. Yet in watching him inscribe relationships between his own body, the screen, and some other, imagined viewer, we can still see that for Davis, television (and later, the Internet) wasn’t simply a vehicle for passive consumption, even if it is perennially and all too easily dismissed as such. He described the “exhilaration” he felt, as an artist, while acting live: “To know that the moment the camera turns on is the moment of record or of broadcast is to experience a heightened reality, to perform at another level.”

Some of the real poignancy—and foresight, for that matter—of Davis’s work may be seen and felt in the way he negotiated with language. He effectively predicted the social Web to come, after all, with The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, an interactive work made in 1994 for the then-nascent World Wide Web and acquired the following year by the Whitney Museum of American Art through a donation by the work’s first owners, Barbara and the late Eugene M. Schwartz. The Sentence is perhaps best considered as a functional, interactive expression of Davis’s keen social observations. Users—the first were visitors to Lehman College Art Gallery, in the Bronx, where the piece was shown in 1994 as part of “InterActions,” a survey of Davis’s work—were invited to add their own texts, images, and sound files to an online “performance” of a never-ending stream of consciousness: The project’s only rule was that each user’s contribution could not end with a period.

As a Web-based project exhibited in several galleries over the course of time—in 1995, the piece was installed in the Gwangju Biennale, as well as the School of Visual Arts’ “Digital Salon” exhibition, which toured internationally; in 1999 it was exhibited at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany, as part of the exhibition “net.condition”—the effect of the (very real) physical relationship between people and the Web can be felt in the polyvalent nature of its contributions. In 2013, the Whitney executed a preservation project around the work, effectively saving it from digital demise while preserving its original interface, designed by Davis, and allowing for new user contributions. This interface invited users to interact with the Web in a way that blogs and social-media platforms would beg—nay, demand—years later. The Sentence has effectively invited users to write what now, in 2014, amounts to an ungodly number of Web pages devoted to the inner musings of thousands of people; produced collaboratively but read as an endless stream of consciousness, the work both imitates and challenges the solipsism of the social Web as we now know it. It is comforting—satisfying even—to place Davis and his work in historical post-mortem terms, given the series of rapid technological developments that marked the decades in which he lived, worked, wrote, and taught. The Sentence, it turns out, was likely the first known work of Net art, a genre whose ephemeral and yet incredibly specific nature continues to trouble the art world’s market-driven sensibilities.

Identifying “firsts” is a standard art-historical practice—a means of manufacturing value through precedence; it’s one way academics and institutions lay claim to artists. And considering the practice of historical claim-laying can be productive here, if we recall just how radical the domestic arrival of the Internet during the 1990s really felt as a social phenomenon—how enormously novel it truly was to build communities of shared interest by interacting with other, unknown people in other, unknown places through a computer. On the 2.0 (and now, post-2.0) social Web, however, to “call firsts” is to lay a different kind of historical claim: The phrase describes the practice of bragging loudly online that one was the first to react or to serve as the original source for a piece of information that gained subsequent digital traction. A social byproduct of the intersection of digital technology with late capitalism, “calling firsts” reeks of frantic editorial desperation, smacking of a desire claim supreme and unassailable ownership over shared experience—over time, even.

Everything arrives at once in the great and terrifying enterprise that is today’s Internet: I believe that Douglas Davis and his Sentence in particular are best remembered as agents in a messy, unwieldy digital emergence that can’t be fully known or understood. Davis came before “firsts”—but he also didn’t need them.

Updated on November 23, 2016

As a critic, I have written for publications including Frieze, Artforum, Art in America, Red Hook Journal (Bard College), Mousse, Print, Paper Monument, and Rhizome, amongst other websites, blogs, and print publications. While my interests are manifold, much of my published writing has considered the social mediation of art institutions and publications through digital media.

First launched as an art school thesis project and now long offline, my blog, Forward Retreat (2000-2008), was part of the early cohort of American art blogs that bore initial influence on then-emerging digital publishing practices in the arts. My work has been supported by a Creative Capital|Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

Since giving birth in 2017, I have been writing about more personal and honestly, more pleasurable subjects including (but not limited to) motherhood — material that I haven't yet decided to publish and may never do.

Some Essays

An Idea for Interview

2018 Frieze
A memorial op-ed on Interview Magazine (1969-2018), "an enduring symbol of downtown cool, even as downtown became Disney"

Narcissism in the Digital Age

2017 Frieze
A review of Kristen Dombek's "The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism"

Sign on the Dotted Line

2016 Frieze
An op-ed in support of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy)'s efforts at New York's New Museum

It’s Complicated: The Institution as Publisher

2016 Superscript Reader, Walker Art Center
An op-ed on the politics that govern institutional publishing, written by invitation on the occasion of "Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age" at the Walker Art Center

What is Metahaven?

2015 Frieze
A feature on the Dutch design studio Metahaven

Another ‘C’ Word: On Content and the (Techno) Curatorial

2015 Red Hook Journal, Bard College
An essay on digital, linguistic, and curatorial intersectionality that begins with Raymond Williams's "Keywords" and ends at the NSA's XKEYSCORE

The Real Power of Open Innovation

2014 Mousse
A conversation with New York-based artists João Enxuto & Erica Love about the critical intersection of technology and institutions

The Museum Interface

2014 Art in America
A conversation with Rob Giampetro, Creative Lead, Google

Safety in Numbers

2014 Frieze
I and others including Laura Poitras, Trevor Paglan, Jordan Ellenberg, Martha Rosler, Mercedes Bunz, and Shoshana Zuboff responded to a question posed by editor Jörg Heiser: “Algorithms, Big Data and surveillance: what’s the response, and responsibility, of art?”

Douglas Davis (1933–2014)

2014 Artforum
In kind memory of artist Douglas Davis (1933-2014)

Beyond the Scene and Herd Effect

2013 Artpapers
A consideration of the social web's impact on art magazines' websites and editorial strategies over the course of time

Off the Page

2011 Frieze
A profile of Paul Chan’s new publishing venture, Badlands Unlimited

A Thing Remade: A Conversation with Paul Chan

2011 Rhizome
A conversation with artist Paul Chan

I Was Here

2010 Paper Monument | N+1
An investigation into the social role of gallery sign-in books as physical relics of experience in the digital age

Collective Collections

2010 Print Magazine
A homage to art collective Group Material’s seminal work from the 1980s and 1990s; in collaboration with Project Projects

What It Is: A Conversation with Jeremy Deller

2009 Art in America
An interview with British artist Jeremy Deller on the occasion of his solo exhibition at the New Museum, "It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq"

A Theater of Absurdity: Parody, Power, and the Politics of Display at the 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art

2007 California College of the Arts
Graduate Thesis in the MA Visual and Critical Studies program at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco, CA (essay version)