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Recognizing Robert Whitman

Born in 1935, Robert Whitman was a member of an influential, innovative group of visual artists– Allan Kaprow, Red Grooms, Jim Dine, and Claes Oldenburg– who presented theater pieces on the lower east side in Manhattan in the early 1960s. Whitman has presented more than 40 theater pieces in the United States and abroad, including The American Moon, Flower, Mouth, and most recently Passport (2011) and Swim (2015).

Recently, I sat down with Whitman, and our friend and colleague, Kathy Battista, Editor in Chief of the Benezit Dictionary of Artiststo discuss some of his recent work, including NEWS, Local Report, and Swim in a conversation recorded for the Oxford Comment podcast series.

Like the first work of Whitman’s that I saw – The American Moon in November 1960 at the Reuben Gallery – his non-narrative, poetic works are rich in visual and sound images, and incorporate actors, film, sound, and evocative props in environments of his own creation. Along with these deeply felt theater works, Whitman was one of the co-founders in 1966 of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), and has been involved in projects incorporating new technology, working with collaborators – engineers, scientists, computer programmers – to find ways to use technology to fulfill his ideas and visions.

In the early 1970s, Whitman produced his first telephone piece, NEWS, in which participants using pay phones around the city called in “reports” – verbal descriptions of the scenes around them – that were broadcast live over a radio station in the city. Whitman has continued to create variations on this communications work, always using contemporary technology to carry out his ideas. I worked with Whitman on Local Report 2005. For this work, he also collaborated with Shawn Van Every, a specialist in online and mobile media, who wrote programs for early video cell phones so that participants could create short video films and sound reports, and send them to a central viewing point via the internet. Again working with Van Every, Whitman produced Local Report 2012, in which specially designed apps for participants’ cell phones allowed approximately ninety people in cities around the world to make video clips and live voice reports and send them to Eyebeam, a nonprofit studio found in Industry City in Brooklyn. With live sound and video broadcast continuously on a five-screen installation, the performance composed, in real time, what Whitman called “a cultural map of the world.”

Local Report and Eyebeam
Left: Control center for Local Report, 2005, in an empty store in in Holmdel, NY. From left: Robert Whitman, Shawn Van Every, Kieran Sobel, Walter Smith. Photo courtesy Robert Whitman, used with permission. Right: Performance of Local Report, 2012 at Eyebeam in New York City; Images from participants all over the world appear are projected and move sequentially from screen to screen. Photo by Julie Martin, used with permission.

Swim, Whitman’s most recent work, was a proscenium theater piece for Peak Performances at Montclair State University designed for both blind and sighted audiences. While crafting this assembly of sound and visual images, Whitman had extended conversations with Emilie Gossiaux, a young artist who is blind, in which she shared insights and, as he remembers, “told me the things I didn’t have to do.” His collaboration with her also inspired his Soundies: a series of large scale photographs accompanied by sounds and descriptive labels, which allow blind visitors using cell phone apps to experience his art in a unique and multi-sensory fashion.

Emilie Gossiaux visits stage of Swim
Emilie Gossiaux and her guide dog, London, visit the stage of Swim during rehearsals. Photo by Anne Williams, used with permission.

Robert Whitman continues to use new technologies in his work, and the flow of sound and visual images that result as relevant and meaningful to today’s audiences as his landmark performances and collaborations were in the 1960s. I am delighted to write about Whitman’s work for Benezit, and to share this conversation about his ongoing work.

Featured image credit: Performance still from Swim, presented March 26-29, 2015. Performer Irene waters a white sheet on which the image changes from a view of a swimmer underwater to a glass of ice. Photo by Anne Williams, used with permission.

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