Gwen Allen— Ephemeral Interventions: Media as Art in the 1960s and 1970s

In 1966, the American conceptual artist Dan Graham published a short article, “The Artist as Bookmaker: The Book as Object,”
In 1966, the American conceptual artist Dan Graham published a short article, “The Artist as Bookmaker: The Book as Object,”

In 1966, the American conceptual artist Dan Graham published a short article, “The Artist as Bookmaker: The Book as Object,” in which he described an imaginary book, Le Livre. Originally dreamt up by the 19th century poet Stéphane Mallarmé, it was a three-dimensional book with a set of mobile sections contained in boxes. Instead of being read privately by individuals, the book would be performed aloud collectively. Le Livre was never realized in Mallarmé’s lifetime, but Graham, who was then primarily a poet, publishing in experimental little magazines such as Extensions and 0 To 9, came across Mallarmé’s posthumously published notes about it in the avant-garde music journal Die Riehe.As Graham explained:

The linear book’s ‘time’ is enclosed, whereas Mallarmé’s ‘Book’ exists in a moment-to-moment specificity, its duration being formally identified with the constituent group of ‘readers’ whose presence literally informs it. Unlike the old book, the reader does not work his way progressively through in one direction.[1]

Graham was not alone in his fascination with the possibilities of the book as a new kind of object and social space in the 1960s. At a time when Marshall McLuhan was hailing the end of print, Roland Barthes was declaring the death of the author, and the countercultures—including the civil rights, anti-war, gay rights, feminist, new communalist, and environmental movements—were launching widespread social revolution, the book was ripe to be reinvented as realm of radical, utopian promise. Printed publications were no longer just places to record and store texts and images, but spatio-temporal entities in their own right, with the potential for actions, events, and relationships.[2]

The following year, Graham had the opportunity to put some of these ideas into practice in an issue of Aspen magazine, an unbound periodical that included posters and booklets, Super 8 films, Flexi-disc records, and various kinds of artists’ projects contained in a small, laminated cardboard box.[3] Issue 5+6, a special double issue, was dedicated to Mallarmé. Contained in a square, white box, it evoked the proverbial white cube, and functioned as a miniature traveling gallery space with contributions by artists and writers including Sol LeWitt, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Robert Morris, William Burroughs, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. However, rather than cloistering art away from everyday life, Aspen released it back into the world, prompting a distinctly temporal and participatory experience. For example, Cage contributed “Fontana Mix,” an interactive score, and Tony Smith created a dollhouse-sized cardboard sculpture that could be cut out and pasted together by the reader.

Graham’s own contribution to Aspen 5+6 was a conceptual do-it-yourself poem, “Schema,” which consisted of a generic list of variables—such as “(number of) adjectives,” “(type of) paper stock,” “(name of) typeface”—which were to be completed by the editor or reader. Like Mallarmé’s own site-specific poem, “Un Coup de Dés Jamais N'Abolira Le Hasard,” 1897, Schema relied upon the materiality of the printed page: each time it was published, the piece was modified, registering the graphic design and typography of the specific publication in which it appeared—adopting the stark modern style of sans serif, for example, or the bureaucratic, old-fashioned look of Courier. To “read” the poem is to be momentarily distracted from the meaning of words and instead become captivated by the shapes of letters and numbers, and even by the texture and pliability of the page on which they are printed. In addition to foregrounding the materiality of the page, however, Schema called attention to its distinct temporality and transience—the fact that periodicals are linked to a specific window of time, after which they are relegated to the status of back issues. This limited duration was, according to Graham, key to Schema’s critical function. As he explained, “[the work] subverts value. Beyond its appearance in print or present currency, Schema is disposable, with no dependence on material (commodity), it subverts the gallery (economic system).”[4]

Schema was just one of numerous examples in which artists created works of art expressly for the printed page. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, publishing became an important new medium and distribution form—one that promised to circumvent traditional exhibition venues and reach new audiences. The disposability and seriality of magazines and newspapers dovetailed with the aesthetic concerns of Minimalism and Conceptual artists, who were abandoning canvases and pedestals in favor of ephemeral, process-oriented works. Graham went on to produce several such works, including his well-known “Homes For America,” (1966-67), an article he wrote about suburban tract housing developments, which in its tone and terminology uncannily mimicked the way art critics were discussing Minimalist sculpture at the time. Appearing in the now-defunct periodical Arts Magazine, it masqueraded as an ordinary article, which was part of its effectiveness since it allowed Graham to infiltrate the magazine and catch the reader off guard. Likewise, Mel Bochner and Robert Smithson published “Domain of the Great Bear,” (1965), a campy essay about the Hayden Planetarium embedded with found publicity materials, in an art magazine called Art Voices.

Artists also published works in other kinds of publications, including fashion magazines and underground newspapers. Graham published his work Figurative, a reproduced shopping receipt, in the March 1968 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, where it was serendipitously sandwiched between ads for Tampax and Warners bras, inflecting its meaning with a gendered double entendre. Moreover, artists began to tap into advertising space itself, in order to circulate their ideas under the radar of editorial oversight. For example, Graham’s project Detumescence, (1966), based around a clinical description of the post-coital state of the human male, took the form of advertisements placed in Screw, the New York Review of Sex, and National Tattler. Likewise, the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth took out ads in newspapers and periodicals, including the New York Times, Artforum, Museum News, and the Nation, as part of his Second Investigation (1968), in which he published excerpts from Roget’s Thesaurus. And the Brazilian artist Cildo Miereles used actual Coca-Cola bottles to circulate subversive anti-imperialist messages in his Insertions into Ideological Circuits, (1970).

Among the most elaborate and sustained uses of advertising space during this time was Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being project, for which she placed a series of seventeen advertisements in the Village Voice between 1973-1975.[5] The ads chronicled a performance in which she adopted a macho African American persona and walked around the streets of New York in order to explore the stereotypes and subjectivities of race, gender, and class. However, Piper’s advertisements, which consisted of photographs of her dressed in drag, superimposed with thought bubbles of excerpts from her diary, not only documented her performance, but in some sense augmented it by extending the performance from the public space of the city into the communicative space of the media, where a much larger pool of viewers/readers might have the opportunity to encounter it.  

While such practices had a pragmatic, even entrepreneurial, aspect, allowing artists to garner publicity, and reach larger audiences, they also had an antagonistic dimension. Taking out paid advertisements was a way for artists to commandeer media space and repurpose it for their own interests, which often involved challenging the dominant institutional and economic conditions of art. Tucked away among the usual run of articles and advertisements, these stealthy interventions by artists were tactical: they exploited commercial publicity, and used it against the grain. The irony of utilizing mainstream advertising space for anti-establishment ambitions was not lost on these artists. Indeed, the ambivalence of these practices and the contradictions they sustained was central to their effectiveness as works of art, and remains one of their most fascinating qualities.[6]

Artists’ publication projects from the 1960s and 1970s anticipate more recent appropriation and détournement practices by artists such as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Keith Haring, Group Material, Gran Fury, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Alfredo Jaar, to name but a few. Displayed on billboards, LED displays, t-shirts, shopping bags, and posters, these “interventions” are by turns activist and agitprop-oriented, or poignant and personal. Certainly, as communication technologies and historical conditions have changed, the meaning of such practices has evolved.Yet, the past can shed important light on the possibilities of this work today.

Indeed, as far back as the 19th century, Mallarmé himself was presciently attuned to the then-novel possibilities of commercial media such as posters and newspapers, which he called an “electrifying accomplishment.”[7] Comparing headlines and advertisements to poetry and collage, he observed that, among other things, the oversized, sectioned format of the newspaper changed the role of the reader. With their random juxtapositions of different kinds of information, newspapers encouraged readers to devise alternative and idiosyncratic ways of filtering meaning, as they scanned or perused the page.[8] Mallarmé’s Book was in fact inspired by these new possibilities. He insisted that books be “restored to the people” and described that ways in which Le Livre would empower readers to participate in the meaning of the text and establish their “right” to circulate it.[9]

As Graham recognized, Mallarmé located the emancipatory potential of printed matter in its conditions of circulation and distribution, and ultimately, in the indeterminate possibilities of its readership. Graham himself conceived of the publication not so much as an object or final product, but as an intermediary—a broker between the reader and the world, connecting the two, however temporarily. He imagined a publication that might foster these possibilities, and encouraged artists to collaborate with corporations to create ads/artworks whose meaning would be “immediate, topical and more or less short-lived,” and which would “[point] directly to the outside world—to products to be played (maybe records) and services to be rendered.”[10] What began as an experience on the page would thus necessarily extend beyond it, activating future meanings and experiences—moments that can never be fully predicted, contained, or controlled.

[1] Dan Graham, “The Artist as Bookmaker II: The Book as Object,” Arts Magazine 41, no. 8 (Summer 1967): 23, quoted in Gwen Allen, Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2011), 53.


[2] For an account of the artistic and political significance of artists’ publications, see Gwen Allen, Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art. For an excellent account of the role of publications in the counterculture, see Geoff Kaplan, Power to the People: The Graphic Design of the Radical Press and the Rise of the Counter-Culture, 1964-1974 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).


[3] For a more detailed history of Aspen, see my chapter “The Magazine as a Medium: Aspen, 1965-1971” in Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art.


[4] Dan Graham, “Other Observations,” in Marianne Brouwer, ed., Dan Graham: Works 1965–2000 (Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2001), 97, quoted in Allen, Artists’ Magazines.


[5] For an excellent account of Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being series, see Cherise Smith, Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper, and Anna Deveare Smith (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).


[6] For a discussion of artists’ publication interventions and advertisements see “Chapter 1: This is Not To Be Looked At: Artforum in the 1960s and 1970s” in Allen, Artists’ Magazines


[7] Stéphane Mallarmé, quoted in Anna Arnar, The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artists’ Book, and the Transformation of Print Culture. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 50.


[8] For an excellent account of Mallarmé’s interest in mass media see Arnar, The Book as Instrument.


[9] Stéphane Mallarmé, quoted in Arnar, The Book as Instrument, 5; 7.


[10] Dan Graham, editorial statement for Aspen 8, 1970-71, quoted in Gwen Allen, Artists’ Magazines, 66.

Gwen Allen is an Associate Professor at San Francisco State University, where she specializes in contemporary art, criticism and visual culture. She writes for publications including Artforum, Bookforum, Art Journal, and East of Bourneo. She is the author of Artists' Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art (MIT Press, 2011)

We were very inspired by Gwen's research regarding Dan Graham's work in the 60's, as well as his interest in Mallarme's work. In fact, the title of this publication, Moment to Moment, comes out of Gwen's research. We felt that this publication could not exist without some sort of historical context, and so we commissioned Gwen to write an essay on Dan Graham's work in the world of advertising spaces.  





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