Anna Sophia Schultz on
Douglas Davis

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Douglas Davis’s early video works of the 1970s, nine of which are in the Video Archive of the Ludwig Forum, some of them very rare, explicitly explore uses of the mass medium of television as a medium of genuine communication and the dissolving of the established sender-receiver construct. In the 1960s television had become the most influential mass medium worldwide. While Europe chose the model of public television stations with a cultural mandate guaranteed by the state, commercial stations financed by advertising revenue defined the television landscape in the United States from the outset. The program formats were accordingly geared to serving commercial interests and standardized. Although structurally possible, any viewer participation was not taken into consideration in this model. David Ross sees Davis’s work as an “attempt to entice viewers to abandon their role as passive receivers of one-way communication and to insist upon their right to write as well as read.”[1] Characteristic of Davis’s works is how they show up the existing structures with an astounding analytical clarity while simultaneously producing direct images of an alternative use of the medium that leave behind a lasting impression. Moreover, in numerous works Davis presents concrete possibilities of viewer participation (telephone calls) and an alternative use of television (cable television projects). Davis envisages the viewer as an active and intelligent partner, whom he addresses as an individual and not as part of an anonymous mass audience. Davis himself once described this in more fundamental terms: “I don’t believe in communication. I believe in the great adventure of TRYING to communicate, particularly across vast stretches of time, language, space, geography, and gender. It is thrilling to try. It almost never succeeds, except for a brief instant or two.”[2]

Douglas Matthew Davis (April 11, 1933 – January 16, 2014) began working[3] with video in 1969;[4] his first still surviving videotape is a documentation of the performance Look Out in 1970.[5] At the same time, he was active as a critic since 1960, specializing in architecture and photography, for the magazines Art in America, Art Forum, Village Voice, and Newsweek (1969–1988[6]), and is the author of numerous books. As David Ross put it, “this dual role (critic and artist) made him both widely envied and widely suspected of playing both sides.”[7] In 1969 he moved from Washington D.C.[8] to New York, where he was able to purchase a Portapak video camera, which cost around $2000, thanks to a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.[9] In New York he lived at 80 Wooster Street in SoHo, one of the “fluxhouses” of the Fluxus artist George Maciunas.[10] The influence of Fluxus in his work is evident in activating the viewer’s participation. In New York Davis collaborated informally with the video collectives “Videofreex” and “Raindance Corporation.”[11] The latter published the magazine Radical Software[12] (1970–1974), which propagated the introduction of the backward channel/feedback as the key to democratizing television.[13] Davis had his first solo exhibition at Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, which had already set up a video department in 1971 and with David Ross appointed the first curator for video art. Besides drawings, objects, documentations of his performances, and videotapes, the exhibition also included a three-and-a-half hour live television broadcast on WCNY-TV, Syracuse, which enabled viewer feedback.[14] Also in 1972, the magazine Art Forum published his essay “Video Obscura,” one of the first detailed considerations of the new (art) medium of video.[15]

In June 1971 Davis organized a participative collective television broadcast called Electronic Hokkadim, which drew on the “The Medium is the Medium,” a program produced in 1969 by WHGB-TV in Boston. The half-hour broadcast, to which Nam June Paik, Eric Siegel, Bruce Nauman, Peter Campus, and the artist collectives Videofreex, Raindance Corporation, Global Village, and People’s Video Theater contributed, enabled television viewers to feed in ideas, music, and sounds without preselection or censorship via a telephone call and thus actively intervene in the live broadcast. The event took place in the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. and was broadcast on WTOP-TV.[16]

In 1974, at the suggestion of John Hightower, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Douglas Davis organized together with Gerald O’Grady, professor at SUNY Buffalo, and Fred Barzyk, founder of the New Television Workshop at WGBH in Boston, the pioneering Open Circuit: An International Conference on the Future of Television, which led to the creating of a curator position for video art at MoMA. Amongst the guests who assembled from January 23 to 25, 1974, at MoMA to discuss developments in the field of video art were Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Gregory Battcock, Stephen Beck, Peter Campus, Ed Emshwiller, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Hollis Frampton, Frank Gillette, Wulf Herzogenrath, Wolfgang Becker, James Harithas, Joan Jonas, Allan Kaprow, Shigeko Kubota, Nam June Paik, Robert Pincus-Witten, David Ross, Richard Serra, Michael Snow, Gerd Stern, Stan Vanderbeek, and Steina and Woody Vasulka. The talks were collected in The New Television: A Private/Public Art, which was edited by Douglas Davis and Allison Simmons and published in 1977 by MIT Press under the auspices of the EAI.[17]

On October 21, 1978, the Neue Galerie in Aachen, the predecessor to the Ludwig Forum, opened an exhibition with works by Douglas Davis and Felix Man. Twelve videotapes by Davis were shown, including The Last 9 Minutes in the ballroom. The pane of glass positioned between performer and camera in this work, generating the illusion that the performer is knocking at a television screen from inside the set, was also shown in the exhibition. Besides the video works and a few prints, the video installation Images for the Present Tense from 1971 and the object The Last Videotape in the World Box from 1978, a charred videotape in a suitcase,[18] were featured.[19]

In 1994 (at a time when most museums had computers and an increasingly number of people had computers at home) Davis launched The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, a consequential continuation of his efforts to be one of the first artists to test out the possibilities of the World Wide Web as a communication and art medium. As part of the exhibition InterActions (1967–1981) at the Lehman College Art Gallery, Davis had produced a website consisting of a single endless sentence (the program does not permit a full stop), which without any guidelines or censorship is continued by all users. Davis saw the keyboard as the ultimate medium of direct and equal participation in communicative processes and “effectively predicted the social Web to come.”[20] The website was restored by the Whitney Museum, New York, in 2012 and continues to be active:


Studies in Myself II from 1973 is Davis’s attempt to turn the viewer into the witness of self-observation and self-investigation, using video as the medium for a personal, intimate, and direct involvement. The tape was produced on August 8, 1973, by the Video Department of the Everson Museum of Art at the Synapse Studio in Syracuse, New York.

Wearing a bright red T-shirt and illuminated by a spotlight, Davis sits in an otherwise dark room behind a desk. In front of him on the desk are a character writer/keyboard and two screens. The text appears on the left screen as Davis types it in, while the right screen, employing a closed-circuit method, shows the same image that we see: the camera image, over which the text feeds in and is (graphically) typeset by Davis. The text typed onto the screen begins: “THIS IS A VIDEOTAPE. I CALL IT STUDIES IN MYSELF II.” He types “Studies in Myself” several times and has it appear in different positions on the screen before then letting all the lines roll across the screen in repetition. This opening introduces some of the stylistic tools Davis uses to extend the text’s range of possible expression. Davis then explains his intention as follows: “I AM TYPING OUT THESE WORDS FROM MY MIND TO YOUR MIND WHILE I AM THINKING OF THEM. IT IS A STUDY IN MYSELF BECAUSE I AM TRYING TO FIND OUT ABOUT MYSELF AS I MAKE IT. TRYING TO GO INTO MY MIND AS DEEP AS I CAN AS FAST AS I CAN WHILE YOU ARE WATCHING IT THINK. STARTING ON THE SURFACE OF THE MIND TYPING OUT WORDS SPEAKING AS DIRECTLY AS I CAN ABOUT EVERYTHING THAT COMES INTO MY MIND WITHOUT PLAN WHETHER WORDS OR NON WORDS OR WHATEVER IS NEEDED TO SHOW WHAT IS THERE THIS MINUTE YOUR MINUTE BEGINNING NOW.” This declaration of intent is followed by an increasingly unfiltered stream of thought. Symptoms of the ever-increasing interruption of self-control are spelling mistakes, doubling of words and fragments of phrases, and a progressively discernible associative linking of words and sentences. The stream of consciousness touches on themes like death, time, and language, circles self-reflexively on sexual fantasies and the process of writing, integrates meaningless sequences of letters and numbers, and concludes with an END repeated several times over. Davis describes the intended loss of control and the ensuing openness of the situation as follows: “First of all, I was interested in what would happen when I placed myself in that situation and started typing for the first time on the character-generator. The camera was on and I was very conscious. There’s no hiding of anything there. I was also interested in what the content would be, what would come out of my mind.”[21] The camera angle switches frequently between close-ups of his face or hands and a distanced perspective from a variety of positions—some of them juxtaposed in split screens. Here the camera mirrors the continuous fluctuation between self-reflection and the stream of consciousness. The final camera setting is the same as the first. The only sound to be heard is the noise made by the typing. As for the context of the work, Davis told Peter Frank in an interview in 1977: “I was thinking a lot about the content of the mind when I made Studies in Myself. I must have been influenced by Chomsky’s idea that the content of all minds is roughly similar. There must be some kind of structural and symbolic similarity, else the fact of language would be different. That’s why I made that piece.”[22]


In 1974 and early 1975, Douglas Davis produced a series of tapes explicitly made for broadcast on television. Decisive here for Davis was that the viewers watched the tapes at home, alone in their own private space.[23] A fragment of the Florence Tapes is held in the Ludwig Forum’s Video Archive.

The Austrian Tapes were broadcast on Austrian public television (ORF) in conjunction with a video symposium and the exhibition Art as Living Ritual held at the Galerie P.O.O.L. in Graz.[24] They are comprised of three structurally identical sequences lasting around five minutes: Handing, Facing, and Backing. In Handing Davis places his hands and fingertips on the screen, seemingly from within the set (in fact against a pane of glass positioned in front of the camera) and repeatedly challenges the viewer to do the same (his voice, prerecorded, can be heard from off-stage). In Facing he repeats this with his cheeks and lips, asking the viewer: “Look into my eyes, while I look into yours. What do we both see?” Finally, in Backing he does the same with his chest and back, ending with the question: “Think what this means; how will it end?”[25] Particularly given the context of the works to follow, the Austrian Tapes have the character of gaining a physical assurance of the communication partner’s presence in the form of pictorial metaphors.

While staying in Italy in 1974, Davis produced the Florence Tapes, four five-minute sequences of which the Ludwig Forum only has the first in its archive.[26] In contrast to the Austrian Tapes, here Davis includes the whole room when he seemingly walks on the television set and lifts it into the air.[27] Entitled Clothing, the first sequence shows Davis in front of a white wall, his shadow cast on it. A voice from off-stage challenges the viewer in Italian to take off his/her clothes and throw them against the screen. During this Davis begins to strip, taking off his trousers and throwing them in the direction of the camera. The words from off-stage are repeated and Davis undresses, first his sweater, T-shirt, and socks, followed by his undershirt and briefs. Naked, he moves closer to the camera, which is focused at the height of his belly so that his head is no longer in view. Davis remains in this position and crosses his arms in front of his body. The invitation issued to the viewer is repeated several times and Davis returns to his starting position, whereby he obviously checks his actions using a control monitor. At the end of the sequence comes the question from off-stage: “Che cosa abbiamo fatto noi due?” (“What have we both done?”), prompting the viewer to reflect on the act. For the second sequence, entitled Walking, it appears that Davis has placed the set on its back to be able to walks on the screen. To achieve this effect, Davis presumably positioned a glass pane over the camera and positioned his toes so that they are visible at the edge of the screen, from where they slowly feel their way towards the middle. He invites the viewer to join him in walking across the television screen so that their toes then touch. The question as to who is now above and who is below, which takes up the perceptual shift triggered by the video broadcast, brings the sequence to an end. For the third sequence, Lifting, Davis first lies on the floor face down. The camera films him from a bird’s eye perspective. Slowly he gets onto his knees and extends his hands in the direction of the camera until they touch it (presumably a prepositioned glass pane). Now he invites the viewer to lift his/her television set and to press his/her fingers against his. To investigate the reality of the experience, the sequence is concluded with the question: “Do you feel the weight? Is this an illusion?” The final sequence, Leaving, shows Davis as he was in the final shot of Clothing. The viewer is invited to get dressed again and to leave the television set. Asking about the effects generated by the actions done together, the sequence ends with the question: “Where have we both gone?”[28] In contrast to Davis’s performances, where the television viewer is concretely involved and given the opportunity to help shape the program (e.g., by participating through a telephone call), there is no possibility for the viewer of the Austrian and Florence Tapes to influence Davis’s actions. Instead, Davis attempts to activate the viewer, making him/her aware of the hermetical nature of television and invoking the possibility of dialogical communication in television using a simulation. In a 1976 interview with David Ross, he formulates this approach as follows: “My attempt was and is to inject two-way metaphors—via live telecasts—into our thinking process. All the early two-way telecasts were structural invasions […].”[29]

In 1975, the Caracas Tapes then follow, where Davis invites the television viewer to join him in painting the screen.


The Boston Image was a live telecast on July 28, 1975, on the Screening Room, an unconventional talk show format featuring on WCVB-TV’s Channel 5 in Boston. The host Robert Gardner invited independent filmmakers and critics to discuss selected films. As in the Austrian, Florence, and Caracas Tapes, it is one of the works where Davis attempts to free television from the constraints of conventional formats by producing pictorial metaphors congenial for an alternative use. Moreover, The Boston Image demonstrates various possibilities of real viewer participation. The tape begins with the sound of several telephones ringing at once, evoking the simplest possible form of audience feedback. Douglas Davis appears and from off-stage comes the challenge to the viewer: “Please join with me in a performance. First we will paint the television out of your screen. Use a bottle of ink, a felt tip pen or watercolor. You can wash it off later. Paint out the television tower. Paint it out black. Paint out the source of this image you are seeing, now, with me.” At the bottom of the picture a digital clock shows the time elapsing and marks the moment of the suggested interaction between artist and television viewer. Davis begins to paint a pane of plexiglass black and it is placed in such a way between the artist and the camera that for the viewer it looks as if Davis is painting the television screen from inside the set. While doing so, Davis repeatedly looks past the camera to the side, presumably to a control monitor. Davis wipes out the image the viewer is presented with and calls on them to create and transmit their own: “Please leave the room now with me. Please leave the room and your television set, in your mind or in your body. Run to the street or to the window. Find and send your own image.” A street view appears on the blacked-out monitor. Davis reappears, picks up a lamp from the floor and with his arms stretched out above his head sends out light signals. Instead of the conventional television image, which Davis demonstratively extinguishes, there is now communication between two (human) transmitters (rather than the established sender-receiver construction). Davis accordingly writes: “In a sense I’ve been trying to destroy the medium, in the hope that by destroying it, it can be brought back to life. I know that sounds cryptic, but what I mean is that if you destroy the rigidities of TV as something that’s made in a studio just to make a picture to look at in a box, then you can begin to deal with the medium in a human way, directly.”[30]


The Last Videotape (in the World) from 1975 marks—according to Davis—the attempt to turn away from the video image.[31] The tape shows a Sony television set in close-up, filling up the whole visual field. What initially looks like a video still (on the TV screen) is obviously merely the reflection of the interior mirrored by the TV screen. With a character writer/keyboard, the title of the work is typed over the video image, moving upward line for line until it dominates the image. No development takes place on the visual level: the television image is extinguished, the video image as such is at a standstill. Both the television and video image are renounced on all levels. The only development that takes place is in the programmatic title, which formulates this very same rejection.


Douglas Davis: Video against Video is an annotated anthology (1971–1975), produced and broadcast in 1975 in the TV Laboratory at WNET/13, New York (VTR series). In the interview with Russell Connor, Davis speaks about central aspects of his work and comments on ten specific pieces, excerpts of which are then shown (music by Laurie Spiegel).[32] The videos featured are (in this order): Studies in Color Videotape II, 1972; Knocking (The Santa Clara Tapes), 1973; Numbers, A Videotape Event for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1972; Studies in Black and White Videotape I, 1971; Street Sentences, 1972; Studies in Color II, Talk-Out!, 1972; Studies in Myself, 1973; Reaching (The Santa Clara Tapes), 1973; The Austrian Tapes, 1974; The Florence Tapes, 1974; and The Caracas Tapes, 1974.[33]

Numbers, A Videotape Event for the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1972 is, as Davis himself describes it in an interview with Russell Connor, the result of his first cooperation with a television station and juxtaposes different types of images and the forms of image production. Since 1970 various models of cooperation between artists and stations had emerged, some of them thanks to artist-in-residency programs sponsored by the stations and resulting in experimental television formats. According to Davis, the tape marks a turning point in his approach to and work with video and his engagement with television. While Numbers is based on an understanding of the television screen as a window, the following Santa Clara Tapes from 1973 focus on the media-specific range of possible usages of video and the contac to the space of the viewer.[34] The first of the five sequences (Knocking) shows Davis hitting and scratching a television screen (in fact a plexiglass pane positioned in front of the camera) that entraps him in the medium and separates him from the viewer. In the second sequence, the camera circles at increasing speed around a naked woman lying on the floor. Reinforced by the sound of the aroused breathing of the invisible performer (behind the camera), the viewer is unwillingly turned into a voyeur. The third sequence shows Davis with a tripod video camera next to a monitor, on which we see, via closed-circuit, the video image recorded on the camera. The camera is aimed at a mirror, meaning that Davis is filming himself, whereas the viewer is initially confronted with the disconcerting impression that the camera is fixed on him/her. Now Davis moves the camera back and forth, banging into the mirror until it breaks. The trembling and breaking of the image reveals the self-referentiality of the medium and demonstrates the illusion that the television viewer is being directly addressed. The fifth sequence (Reaching) shows the view down to the ground from the fifth or sixth floor of a high-rise. Davis sways the camera slightly back and forth before finally covering the lens with his hand. The final shot shows Davis running around a large field at dusk carrying a torch, as if he were inspecting the space of the performance (camera: Bill Viola). Davis’s breathing is clearly audible. Darkness falls, Davis stands still, and the flame goes out.[35]

In an interview with David Ross (1976), Davis describes the context in which Studies in Black and White Videotape I from 1971 was created: “When I first began to work in video I was surrounded for the most part by people who were very heavily into the equipment, the Portapak as a liberating tool, the techniques of the control room, and so on. I could never be part of that—I’m too easily bored by machinery. […] ‘I hate it,’ he [Nam June Paik] said. From that day on I felt a free man. The Black-White Studies came shortly thereafter. I determined beforehand to use the camera like a pencil, as naturally as I draw. It was a ‘soft’ approach to technology, using it as an extension of me, not working from inside the equipment, following where that led.”[36] Studies in Black and White Videotape I is based on the video installation Images for the Present Tense, which Davis produced in 1971. As for the latter, Wulf Herzogenrath has drawn a key comparison: “Similar to how Paik, tapping into the Fluxus spirit, staged gestures of refusal towards the technologically and ideologically overpowering television in his Wuppertal exhibition from 1963, shrinking the whole television image into a single line (Zen for TV) or simply placing the television face down on the ground, […] Davis has also demonstrated a stance of refusal: he turned a large darkened television set to the wall and, with the static noise fully audible, only ‘snow’ was shone onto the wall, a reflection of bright light. This work was purchased as early as 1972 by the Museum of Contemporary Art at Finch College in New York City, one of the first video works in a public collection.”[37] In Studies in Black and White Videotape I, Davis films himself entering a gallery in New York from the street, where the video installation Images for the Present Tense is on show in a darkened side room. In a slow tempo, Davis scans with the camera the street view and the gallery space before returning to the starting point.

The television set as an object is literally the focus in Studies in Color Videotape II from 1972 as well. In the brief except shown here, a Sony television set is given the prominent place, while standing behind it is a person (presumably Davis), only their legs visible. From this position, the person tunes in to the station “Channel 2 New York.” A few moments later two hands appear on the TV image, which—in clear distinction from the ongoing programs (advertising and a Western)—seemingly tap against the screen.

In Street Sentences from 1972, Davis invites passersby to spontaneously give a personal statement to the camera. The result is a collage of political, poetic, and personal messages that generate a diverse and remarkable portrait of the time. In the interview with Russell Connor, Davis comments on the motivation and momentousness of this experiment: “You gonna take a camera out into the streets and a microphone in order to do something that commercial television hasn’t done, public television in its best moments of journalism hasn’t done. […] The quality of immediacy does something to people I think on both sides of the camera. It’s a great virtue of television completely unlike any other medium I am aware of including the theatre which alas has been discarded by both commercial and public television. It lead me to think more about live television and using immediacy, risking immediacy on every occasion in live broadcast and in making of tapes.”

Talk-Out! is the video recording of a live television transmission on WCNY-TV, Syracuse, New York, on December 1, 1972, produced as part of Davis’s solo exhibition at the Everson Museum in Syracuse. The broadcast lasted three-and-a-half hours, from 11 2.30 a.m., and enabled the viewers to actively take part. Per telephone and printer they were able to ask questions and discuss with Davis live, for example about his decision to work with video and not film.[38] During the broadcast all of the video works by Davis were shown that were featured in the exhibition at the Everson Museum.


Structurally, Three Silent & Secret Acts corresponds extensively to the work that followed, Reading Brecht in ¾ Time:[39] the performance takes place at different times and at several locations, and is broadcast live on cable television. For the television broadcast, different sources (both recorded material and live), places, and times are woven together. The event was staged to mark the introduction of cable television in SoHo and was made possible financially by Mr. and Mrs. Eugene M. Schwartz. For Davis and many other artists of his generation, cable television represented a way out of the centralized structures of commercial and public television, where viewer involvement was not intended.

On February 21, 1976, Davis performed Three Acts without an audience at The Kitchen. A recording was made and it became an important impetus for two further, simultaneous performances, staged on February 22, 1976, at The Kitchen in New York City and in the studio of Manhattan Cable TV (public access live injection point), respectively.[40] The two performances at The Kitchen were undertaken by Davis, while two other performers were responsible for the performance in the television studio. Material from all three sources was shown live on February 22, 1976, at 9 p.m. on the open channels C and D of Manhattan Cable Television. Davis gave the following instructions for Three Acts, which was performed three times altogether: “Here are the three acts, done without speaking: find the screen from the street with a light. Knock on the screen and listen for an answer. Enter the screen.”[41]

For the performance on February 22, Davis stood on the side of the street across from The Kitchen and shone a light from there into the darkened interior. He then entered the room and stood in front of the wall opposite the camera (“Find the screen”). He approached a pane of plexiglass (representing the television screen) placed in front of the camera and started knocking on it. The noise of the knocking from the two other performances (recorded the evening before and the performance given simultaneously at the television station) take up the role of antagonist (“Knock on the screen and listen for an answer”). The performers in the television studio he reacted to the knocking sounds of the performance from the evening before, broadcast on Channel D. The performance in the television studio was broadcast live on Channel C.[42] In a second step, Davis worked on the pane with a cutter, before he then took a run-up and crashed against the pane, attempting to break through it (“Enter the screen”). The audience in The Kitchen was able to follow the performance from close quarters and simultaneously saw all three performances on two monitors (that in the television studio and what they were witnessing live) and a projection space (the recording from the previous evening). The illusion of leaping through the separating screen was only experienced by those in The Kitchen audience who looked at the monitor at just the right moment and the television viewers.[43] On Channel D the viewers saw at first only the recording from the previous evening but heard the audio of all three performances. Towards the end of the performance, as the screen shoved itself visibly between the performer and viewer due to the increasing number of scratch marks, the image of the two performers from the television studio was superimposed with that of the performing Davis: “Near the end of the half hour broadcast, live video from Channel C and audio from The Kitchen will be merged with the cablecast on Channel D. The result will be unprogrammed, unpredictable and will merge in Davis’s words in a perfect confusion. After the program, Channel D will remain open in an unusual way for a television conduit—it will become a verbal channel, sending only audio and printing out live or recorded information from The Kitchen audience.”[44] The broadcast was preceded by a two-hour presentation of Davis’s video works.

The recording held in the Ludwig Forum Archive opens with a challenge to the viewer typed onto the screen: “PLEASE JOIN ME IN THREE SILENT AND SECRET ACTS. JOIN ME IN YOUR MIND, YOUR IMAGINATION, OR YOUR BODY. AS YOU WATCH OR ACT, I WILL ACT WITH YOU, IN LIVE SOUND AND TAPED IMAGE. OTHERS WILL ACT WITH YOU, ALSO LIVE. THREE SOURCES PLUS YOU TOGETHER.” A weak beam of light wanders around a dark room, its source becomes static, and Davis appears as a dark silhouette against the light. The source behind him, he slowly approaches the camera and because of the pendulum movement of his walking the light shines alternately left and right of his head, the image constantly brighter or darker. Arriving at the plexiglass in front of the camera, Davis tentatively places both hands against the pane, one after the other. He tilts his head as if listening, then touches the pane with his cheek, remaining in this position (“Find the screen”). With his fist he knocks against the pane, waits and listens. From off-stage a knocking can be heard, a bit later another knocking sound (obviously the knocking from the two simultaneous performances given on February 22, in the television broadcast fed into the recording of the performance of February 21). This succession of the knocking sound is repeated. Davis knocks again and a simple and then a double knocking is heard from off-stage. Davis knocks twice and from off-stage a double knock comes twice. This succession is also repeated. Davis knocks twice and from off-stage a triple knock is heard twice. Davis knocks three times and from off-stage a triple knocking comes twice. This succession is repeated (“Knock on the screen and listen for an answer”). The hierarchy of the time levels is negated here, as is the relationship between cause and effect: the recording from February 21 dominates as a video image, while the performances from February 22 are given a subordinate place, present only as a soundtrack. While the recording from February 21 initially sets the impetus for the following performances—the knocking is “answered” from off-stage –, the recording later “reacts” supposedly to the temporally subsequent performances when the double (triple) knocking from off-stage is “answered” by a double (triple) knocking. The distance between the temporally and spatially distinct performances is annulled by the acoustic overlaying, Davis’s gesture of listening in, and the communication evoked by the knocking. With the last knock from off-stage Davis begins to knock on the pane with both hands. After a delay, a continuous quick knocking comes from off-stage. Davis stops and listens to the knocking, which falls silent shortly after. Davis turns his head right and left, as if looking for something, demonstratively cupping his ears with his hand. He then begins to scratch the pane with a cutter, first sideways then vertically. He taps both hands lightly against the pane, which yields a little bit, continues cutting, and again knocks the pane, checking the impact. All the sounds are doubled from off-stage. The color video image (Davis is wearing a bright red T-shirt) is superimposed by a black-and-white video image of a man and a woman (the performers from the television studio), who are supposedly standing behind Davis front on to the camera and scratching a pane with a cutter. Davis moves back slowly to the source of light while the other two performers pause. The man carefully lifts a hammer from the floor and forcefully smashes it against the pane, while Davis takes a run up and launches himself against it (“Enter the screen”).

The collage of different time layers created in Reading Brecht in ¾ Time and Three Silent & Secret Acts is also evident in Davis’s graphic works. Transferring them by hand, in the Ghost Drawings from 1977–78 for example, he connects photographs of a live performance to discarded book fragments from the fifteenth century and ancient documents with blemishes, time having inscribed itself on them in various ways, the changes caused by aging materials or handwritten remarks.[45]


The hybrid character and complex conception of the performance are already strikingly obvious in the opening titles to Reading Brecht in ¾ Time, which state that what follows is “a performance in and with cable television, CB radio, live audiences, taking place across two evenings at three sites.”[46] The performance begins on Thursday, September 30, 1976, with the video recording of Douglas Davis reading texts by Bertolt Brecht at the Franklin Furnace, New York, without an audience. This recording is then shown on Friday, October 1, 1976, at 8:30 p.m. on cable television (Manhattan Cable TV, Channel D), together with a live broadcast of the following performances given at two locations: At the Anthology Film Archive, Davis begins to recite Brecht texts, this time in front of an audience, at 8:30 p.m., while on a screen made by Advent[47] the recording of the performance from the previous evening (Franklin Furnace) is shown. Afterwards, Davis leaves the Anthology Film Archive before the eyes of the public and, equipped with a flashlight hanging around his neck and a CB radio, marches off to The Kitchen, where on a screen the video recording of his departure from the Anthology Archive is shown. In this new setting, at 9:15 p.m., Davis begins to recite texts by Brecht for a third time, this time though alternating with the audio and visual recordings of the first two readings (Franklin Furnace, Anthology Film Archive) and the extremely rustled noise of the radio messages emitted by the CB radio, whereby he follows his own performance on a control monitor. Davis deliberately speaks into the pauses created in the score fed by the three sources (Franklin Furnace, Anthology Film Archive, CB radio). The title, Reading Brecht in ¾ Time, refers to this feeding of a fourth audio source into the three existing ones, with three of the four soundtracks made up of Brecht recitations.[48] In the final part of the reading at the Anthology Film Archive, Davis reads the text so softly that the public cannot understand. However, for the television viewers tuned in to the reading via live broadcast on Channel D, the texts are clearly understandable.[49]

The tape in the Video Archive of the Ludwig Forum[50] is a compilation of excerpts (lasting a total of 30 minutes) of the performance. The first sequence, six minutes long, shows Davis in the darkened room of the Anthology Film Archive, his face lit up by the flashlight hanging around his neck. A digital display on the screen notes the local time at the start of the sequence, 8:36 (p.m.). After a few moments, the audio recording from the previous evening (Franklin Furnace) and the messages conveyed via the CB radio intermingle with Davis’s live recitation, whereby the three sound sources dominate alternately, so that sound and image are asynchronous in parts. The second sequence shows Davis’s performance at The Kitchen: Sitting at a low table, Davis reads in dialogue with the audio recordings of the first two recitations (Franklin Furnace, Anthology Film Archive), the video recording of the reading in the Anthology Film Archive (as projection in the background), and the messages transmitted on the CB radio. He then stands up, places himself in front of the screen, and stands still in silence. For a few minutes the only sound to be heard is the exchanges on CB radio. As it falls silent, Davis reads a final text, whispering it into the silent room.[51] While the CB radio continues to rustle, Davis approaches the camera and the closing credits roll.

In the performance, which cannot be experienced in its entirety at any of the individual sites, Davis uses video and audio recordings to confront, overlay, and merge several temporal and spatial levels. In the television broadcast in particular he deliberately generates irritation when he plays off the different possibilities of video against one another—when the video recording dominates the live broadcast, or sound and image are detached from one another. The hierarchy of the time levels is suspended here, as is the hermetic and narrative quality of television; within the performance Reading Brecht in ¾ Time the television broadcast is one site along with the others and is in direct interaction with them. In terms of the actual theme, this exemplary structural opening corresponds to the special importance Davis attaches to Brecht’s text The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication (1932) in the recitation. Brecht expresses the need to establish radio as a medium of genuine communication:

Radio would be conceivably the finest communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of channels, or more precisely, it could be if it was understood how to receive as well as transmit, and therefore to let the listener not only hear but also to speak, and how to bring him/her into a network instead of isolating them.[52]

This is an early precursor to Davis’s theoretically grounded attempts in his performances and video works to reveal the hermetic quality of conventional television and to demonstrate its potentials as a communications medium practically or metaphorically.[53]

Ann-Sargent Wooster has emphasized the importance of the exploration of time in Davis’s work, pointing out in this context the omnipresence of clocks in the videotapes: “The presence of clocks of all kinds in most of his works and the digital numbers on the side of the screen reinforce both the boundedness to the now of what is taking place (a recurring theme with Davis) as well as how, through the conspicuous changing of the numbers, time inexorably passes.”[54] While the different times of the communication partners in The Last 9 Minutes indicate the spatial distance to be bridged, the digital time display or the ticking of clocks in most of Davis’s works mark the present, which lends particular weight to the moment of contact. Davis comments: “It [the present] is the only temporal reality we know. Everything else is an illusion. The past is a memory, the future is a prophecy. The present tense is endless, even circular in a sense. I want to act consciously in this time.”[55] At the same time, Davis’s works sharpen our awareness of the nature of time, its layered qualities. The present of the performance in the Anthology Film Archive on October 1 experienced by the viewer is a prerecorded past in the performance at The Kitchen. This time boundedness is particularly relevant for the choice of this medium: “Video, even more so than film or photography, possesses the ability to appear objective in the moment, it shows how the present becomes the immediate past. A lively visual act of art, capable of competing with our view of the immediate present and/or of serving to complement the same.”[56]


Reading Marx is the recording of a performance Davis gave at the Bologna Art Fair in 1976. [57] Davis sits at a desk in front of an audience, only recognizable in shadowy outline, and reads excerpts from texts by Karl Marx. The overloud ticking of an alarm clock and the surrounding noises (voices, music in the background) make it impossible to understand the reading. Next to Davis is an unconnected microphone, in front of him on the desk are books, a tape, and a device that cannot be definitively identified due to the quality of the recording, but is presumably the alarm clock. The camera position changes constantly—it films Davis from far away and up close, the audience and four low round tables, positioned at some distance between the desk and audience. A tape recorder is on one of the tables, while a tape is on each of the other three, which are arranged in a row. An alarm-clock sound rings out, the ticking stops, Davis snaps the book shut, goes to the tape recorder, and changes the tape. The loud ticking begins again and it becomes clear that the sound comes from the tape. Davis sits down again, opens the other book, and continues to read. The camera now tracks in on him and the text being read becomes easier to understand. The camera changes position again: It focuses over Davis’s shoulder on the book he is reading from, pans into the audience, and then focuses on the case of the audiotape on the round table. Davis stands up, the alarm clock goes off, he takes the tape out of the recorder, and the ticking stops. He now inserts the tape that lies next to the two books on the desk and connects the microphone to the tape recorder. Davis sits down, moves the microphone closer, and now speaks the text excerpts into the microphone. The reading is for the most part incomprehensible, especially towards the end, when Davis seems to deliberately speak more softly. Davis takes the tape, presumably containing the comprehensible equivalent of his reading, from the recorder, shuts the book, steps in front of the desk, and the audience applauds. In an interview with Peter Frank (1977) Davis indicates that he intended the reading to be incomprehensible, its inaudibility not due to the recording quality but to Davis lowering his voice and the overloud ticking: “The whole issue of providing a text or a structure that’s removed from you at the same time wasn’t explicit in my mind until Reading Marx, the performance I did at the Bologna Art Fair in which I read certain selections of little-known texts by Marx—which by intention no one heard.”[58] Because the fourth tape is not used in the existing recording, it seems plausible to suppose that the beginning of the performance is missing on the tape held in the Ludwig Forum Archive.

This exposing while simultaneously concealing plays a role not only in the already discussed work Reading Brecht in ¾ Time (1976) but is also at the heart of the satellite-based Seven Thoughts, also from 1976. Supported by the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, Davis leased the Houston Astrodome, at the time the largest roofed stadium in the world, for 30 minutes on December 29, 1976. The performance began with Davis holding a small black box and walking in a circle. The box contained seven sheets of paper on which seven private thoughts were written. After 20 minutes, he reached the middle of the stadium playing field, to where a microphone was lowered, and he transmitted the seven thoughts per satellite to the world. He then locked the box for good and with it the seven thoughts. Only those directly involved in carrying out the performance were present in the Houston Astrodome.[59] The performance was recorded by cameras fixed to the stadium roof. The recording of the Electronic Arts Intermix by Andy Mann therefore only shows Davis’s lips moving. The messages sent could only be heard per receiver for the moment they were transmitted. In an interview with Peter Frank (1977) Davis offered the following comment: “In Seven Thoughts, in which I sent a world-wide message via satellite, I’m more concerned about the meaning of speaking to the existential mind on the other end than I am about the fact that it’s happening. To go to the empty Astrodome and make that piece is not a gesture, in the Duchampian sense. […] Since part of the meaning of the work is to engage the telecommunication system of the world, that objective would be destroyed if I exposed the Seven Thoughts. […] The Thoughts do not really exist independently of the gesture. The gesture is not the message but it is an important ingredient in the message. […] One of the factors is that I tried to speak as a free single man to free private ears all over the world using the satellite communication system in order to do it. I used the system because I wanted to expose it, to make it clear and visible.”[60]


The Last 9 Minutes is Davis’s contribution to the first live satellite broadcast on German television (Hessischer Rundfunk), which took place on June 24, 1977, to mark the opening of documenta 6 and was transmitted from the entrance hall of the Orangerie to 25 countries (Europe, the US, the USSR., and Venezuela). After a short introduction by Russell Connor and Peter Eden, there followed contributions by Nam June Paik with Charlotte Moorman, Joseph Beuys, and lastly Douglas Davis, all of them explicitly created for this media context. The exhibition space of the documenta was thus extended to include the space afforded by television.

Davis’s performance, the title of which refers, among other things, to its position at the end of the broadcast, connects the documenta city of Kassel with the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Caracas, Venezuela, where a performer, across the enormous geographical distance, interacts with Davis. The first shot shows Davis in his characteristic red T-shirt, frontal to the camera, both hands up to his forehead as if he were scouting for someone who is beyond the television screen. From off-stage Davis’s recorded voice is heard: “Wherever you are in this room I will find you in 9 minutes, upper down, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Africa. Day or night, left or right, front or back, I will search all the angles, all the spaces, I will find you in this room, your room that is the world. Hold up your hands to the screen, put out your clock, let me see where you are, let me hear the ticking of your time. I will find you and when I do we will destroy this idea, this thing between us forever, in 9 minutes.” Following Davis’s challenge, the loud ticking of a clock rings out from off-stage. A few moments later and a similar text in Spanish appears on the screen. Davis places his hands on the screen (in fact a plane of plexiglass placed in front of the camera) and begins to survey tentatively the dark space (the media space). Two hands appear in the foreground, presumably those of the performer in Caracas and at the same time representing the hands of the viewer, whom Davis repeatedly invites to place his/her hands on the screen. The aforementioned text is now heard from off-stage in German. Davis stays where he is, but turns to the camera, pulls out from under his T-shirt a clock hung around his neck, holds it up in the air with an outstretched arm—towards a microphone hanging from the ceiling—and remains in this position. The hand (of the Venezuelan performer) in the foreground forcefully hits the screen (the plexiglass) several times. Davis looks quizzically, listens, and slowly approaches the screen (the camera). First somewhat tentatively, then with increasing force he hits the screen. He presses a cutter against the screen, first along its edges, before he begins to scratch the main field and then resumes hitting it with his hands. From off-stage comes a call in Spanish (from the performer in Caracas). Davis answers, “I can’t hear you,” and challenges all the viewers to break through the screen, the separating boundary, together with him on the count of one. The voice from off-stage begins a countdown from ten to one in Spanish. The recording in the Ludwig Forum Archive finishes in the middle of the countdown, before Davis breaks through the screen.

The integration of performers situated at other locations, a characteristic feature of Davis’s works, and the just as typical invitation issued to the viewer to join him and break through the screen as the symbolic hindrance of real communication and connection, are even further underscored here by the distance between the two continents and the global scale of the project.[61] Beyond the symbolic act, Davis indeed intervenes in the existing structures, first by sending an individual message to a global television audience, and second, through his appeal to the imagination of the individual viewer, by undermining the notion that a television audience is an anonymous mass. What Davis transports is the immediacy of an experience of the possible and impossible: “We don’t want to kid ourselves about simplicity and claim the world can be easily brought together on the television screen—which is what the broadcast of the Olympics or a live transmission of a football game simulates. It is arduous, complicated, and difficult to call one another from other ends of the earth, to reach one another; and it is factually impossible to touch one another. We are still separated, different, individual—the world is not a village.”[62]


[1] David Ross, “Douglas Davis (1933–2014),” in:, accessed June 20, 2014.

[2] “‘Ich glaube nicht an Kommunikation!’ Interview mit Douglas Davis, einem der Pioniere der Medienkunst,” Tilman Baumgärtel, May 7, 2000, Telepolis, (English translation:

[3] One possible source of inspiration is the path-breaking exhibition TV as a Creative Medium, shown by Howard Wise in 1969 and visited by Davis. Cf. Ben Portis, “Douglas Davis and Open Circuit,” August 2001,

[4] Usually 1970 is given as the year he started working with video. Davis himself however writes that he had already begun to work with video in Washington D.C., and he moved to New York in 1969. Cf. “OUTER SPACE: The Past, Present and Future of Telematic Art – 07,” interview with Douglas Davis about early telematic art before and during Open Space’s sat-tel-comp, conducted by Jeremy Turner via email, January & February 2004,

[5] Video-Skulptur retrospektiv und aktuell 1963–1989, eds. Wulf Herzogenrath and Edith Decker, DuMont, Cologne, 1989, 102.


[7] David Ross, “Douglas Davis (1933–2014)” (see note 1).

[8] In Washington, Davis had worked with the “New Group,” which put on performances and events as well as creating interactive media works. Cf. Tilman Baumgärtel interview (see note 2).

[9] Cf. Jeremy Turner interview (see note 4).

[10] David Ross, “Douglas Davis (1933–2014)” (see note 1).

[11] Cf. Tilman Baumgärtel interview (see note 2).

[12] Davis himself wrote for the magazine. Cf. David Ross, “Douglas Davis (1933–2014)” (see note 1).

[13] Cf. Inke Arns, “Soziale Technologien. Dekonstruktion, Subversion und die Utopie einer demokratischen Kommunikation,” in:

[14] Wulf Herzogenrath, “Video im Fernsehen,” in: Douglas Davis, Arbeiten/Works 1970–1977, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin, 1978, 7.

[15] Biography, in: Douglas Davis. Video, obiekty, grafika, exh. cat. Muzeum Sztuki w Lodzi, Lodz, 1982.

[16] Cf. Wulf Herzogenrath, “Video im Fernsehen” (see note 14), and Ben Portis, “Douglas Davis and Open Circuit,” August 2001,

[17] Cf. Ben Portis, “Douglas Davis and Open Circuit” (see note 16).

[18] Reproduction in Irving Sandler, “Douglas Davis: The Drawings,” in: Douglas Davis. Video, obiekty, grafika (see note 15).

[19] Cf. Petra Bosetti, “Video-Stücke mit Beckett-Charakter. Douglas Davis aus New York zeigt seine gesamte Video-Arbeit in der Neuen Galerie,” Aachener Nachrichten, October 20, 1978.

[20] Sarah Hromack, “Douglas Davis (1933–2014),” in:

[21] Douglas Davis and Peter Frank, “Interview, July 1977,” Art Contemporary, vol. 3, issue 9 (1), 1977, 50.

[22] Douglas Davis and Peter Frank, “Interview, July 1977,” Art Contemporary, vol. 3, issue 9 (1), 1977, 46.

[23] Cf. Douglas Davis interview with Russell Connor, in: Video against Video, 1975, television production of the TV Lab at WNET/Thirteen (VTR Series). Video against Video contains excerpts of all three works (The Austrian Tapes, The Florence Tapes, The Caracas Tapes).

[24] Cf. Wulf Herzogenrath, “Video im Fernsehen,” 8 (see note 14).

[25] Cf. Lilian Haberer, in:

[26] The work is on a tape together with Reading Marx. The opening titles read: © copyright art/tapes/22, VIDEO TAPES PRODUCTION, Douglas Davis, The Florence Tapes, 1974, 1. Clothing, 2. Walking, 3. Lifting, 4. Leaving.

[27] Cf. Lilian Haberer (see note 24).

[28] Cf. Lilian Haberer (see note 24).

[29] Interview with Douglas Davis by David Ross, in: “Video Art – An Anthology,” 1976 (first printed in FLASH ART, no. 54–55, May 1975), 33.

[30] Ingrid Wiegand, “Three Silent and Secret Acts,” SoHo Weekly News, February 19, 1976.

[31] Cf.

[32] Künstler-Videos. Entwicklung und Bedeutung. Die Sammlung der Videobänder des Kunsthauses Zürich, ed. Friedemann Malsch, Ostfildern-Ruit, Cantz, 1996, 93.

[33] Cf. Artists’ Video. An International Guide, ed. Electronic Arts Intermix, Cross River Press, New York, 1991, 68.

[34] Cf. Bilder in Bewegung. Künstler & Video/Film. 1958–2010, ed. Barbara Engelbach, exh. cat. Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Walther König, Cologne, 2010, 46.

[35] Cf. Lilian Haberer (see note 24).

[36] Interview with Douglas Davis by David Ross, 32 (see note 28).

[37] Wulf Herzogenrath, “Video in Fernsehen,” 8 (see note 14).

[38] Cf.

[39] Both works are on a tape and share the same title: Two Performance – Cablecasts for SoHo.

[40] Originally, Three Silent & Secret Acts was planned for January, but was delayed due to technical problems. Newspaper article without source details, Ludwig Forum Archive.

[41] From the opening titles of Three Silent & Secret Acts.

[42] Cf. Ingrid Wiegand, “Three Silent and Secret Acts,” SoHo Weekly News, February 19, 1976.

[43] Cf. Peter Frank, For DATA Magazine, text with handwritten annotations, Ludwig Form Archive.

[44] Ingrid Wiegand, “Three Silent and Secret Acts” (see note 41).

[45] Cf. Irving Sandler, “Douglas Davis: The Drawings,” in: Douglas Davis. Video, obiekty, grafika (see note 15).


[47] Davis was one of the first artists to employ the Advent video beam projector to display his tapes. See John G. Hanhardt, in: Douglas Davis. Video, obiekty, grafika (see note 15).

[48] The texts used are: “A Radio-Speech” (1927), “On Form and Subject-Matter” (1927), “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication” (1932), “Does Use of the Model Restrict the Artist’s Freedom?” (1949), and “Cultural Policy & Academy of Arts” (1953).

[49] Cf. Ann-Sargent Wooster, “Douglas Davis: Intussesception or Revolution,” in: The Soho Weekly News, October 7, 1976, 25.

[50] Davis drew on an image from Reading Brecht in 3/4 Time in his graphic series Keeping Time, using collotype and colored ink. Cf. Lilian Haberer (see note 30).

[51] Davis explains the reason behind the whispering in an interview with Peter Frank in 1977: “If I had proclaimed the Brecht text clearly, none would have listened. By hiding it, I sent the audience in effect into the libraries.” Douglas Davis and Peter Frank, “Interview, July 1977” (see note 21).

[52] Bertolt Brecht (1967): “Der Rundfunk als Kommunikationsapparat,” in: Bertolt Brecht: Gesammelte Werke, Schriften zur Literatur und Kunst, vol. 1, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main, 129.

[53] The use of a CB radio, a system enabling short-distance radio communications, also needs to be seen in this context.

[54] Ann Sargent Wooster, “Video und Performance Ende der 70er Jahre.” in: Douglas Davis, Arbeiten/Works 1970–1977, 10 (see note 14).

[55] Interview with Douglas Davis by David Ross, in: Video Art – An Anthology, 32 (see note 28).

[56] Ann Sargent Wooster, “Video und Performance Ende der 70er Jahre,” in: Douglas Davis, Arbeiten/Works 1970–1977, 9–10 (see note 14).

[57] The opening titles read: videotape del cavallino, douglas davis, reading marx, performance: bologna 76.

[58] Douglas Davis and Peter Frank, “Interview, July 1977,” 105 (see note 21).

[59] As Davis recalls, those present were: “James Harithas, director of the CAM, old and mad friend who wrote the most beautiful description of it ever written […], the late Andy Mann […], Chris Burke the photographer beside him on the roof […] and his late wife, Carmen Quesada who took those incredible photos on the field, and, finally, Giuseppe Panza, the Italian collector who gave me the money to rent the Astrodome […]: he got in return the 7 pieces of paper I read up to the satellite that night, ending the work, then dropped into a locked black box that he either still possesses or has given to the Guggenheim Museum […] And of course I cannot forget Jane Bell, my wife, and Paul Schimmel, the curator at that time for the CAM […]” See: “OUTER SPACE: The Past, Present and Future of Telematic Art – 07” (see note 4).

[60] Douglas Davis and Peter Frank, “Interview, July 1977,”48 (see note 21).

[61] Cf., accessed May 21, 2014.

[62] Documenta 6: Malerei, Plastik, Performance, vol. 1, Paul Dierichs Verlag, Kassel, 1977, 278.