ESSAYS Mousse 61

Christina Mackie on “Les Levine: Bio-Tech Rehearsals 1965-1975”

This beautiful show covered Les Levine’s early practice from 1965 to 1975. Levine’s systems or information art was generated against a background of ideas that now form the basis of our culture. At the time of this work, the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, the basics of information technology were being formulated, for instance the Unix operating system, which runs many computers, including Apple. Xerox Parc was developing the metaphors we use on our screen-based instruments: the desktop paradigm, the mouse, Ethernet. Logistics were being developed, and a general awareness of how to develop abstract systems for running and moving money around, like financial engineering and credit cards. Dealing with consumers in bulk as sites of information. They even went to the Moon.

Levine’s work exploited and exposed the weaknesses of informational systems. In Red Tape (1970) he planned “to engage the university in a useless task which will allow it to expose a working model of its system.”1 Profit Systems One (1969) was “a work about process. The process is a result of an open continuing system called ‘the stock market.’”2 The profit or loss of a stock market transaction became the work of art. In 18-carat Solid Gold Chewing Gum (1972), he enacted the following: a six pack of gum, each piece chewed for two minutes, is then cast in gold and mounted on marble located in vitrines. Each gum embodies information, and the action of “teeth making it relates it to the process of printing. It’s an impression on a material that gives you information the way type does on paper.”3 In Systems Burn-off X Residual Software (1969), thirty-three photographs were taken by Levine at the press preview of Cornell University’s Earth Works exhibition in March 1969.

These were duplicated and thirty-one thousand photographs were strewn on the floor and covered in Jell-O, or stuck on the wall with chewing gum. In all these works Levine was exploring the boundary between the individual and the field of information systems. He applied the new systems theory to the work of the artist. In his notes for Systems Burn-off X Residual Software he tried to formulate an image of software:

“Software in ‘real’ terms is the mental intelligence required for any experience… the knowledge required for the performance of any task or transmission of communication. All activities which have no connection with object or material mass are the result of software… The software is an open continuing system.”4

We are now living in an informational environment which he previewed fifty years ago:

 The experience of seeing something first hand is no longer of value in a software controlled society, as anything seen through the media carries just as much energy as first hand experience. We do not question whether the things that happen on radio or television have actually occurred. The fact that we can confront them mentally through electronics is sufficient for us to know that they exist… In the same way, most of the art that is produced today ends up as information about art.5

 He also said:

We are not consciously controlling our lives: the technological environment, the structural environment and the information environment are controlling us.



[1] Les Levine, Red Tape, A New Work by Les Levine, 1970: To Engage the University in a Useless Task Which Will Allow It to Expose a Working Model of Its System (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016). Red Tape is being published on the occasion of the exhibition Les Levine: Bio-Tech Rehearsals 1965-1975, curated by Felicity D. Scott and Mark Wasiuta,
at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery
[2] Les Levine, Profit Systems One, March 27, 1969, press release. Reproduced at the Canadian Art: The Canadian Art Database website.
[3] John Giorno, January 1972, press release, 18-carat Gold Chewing Gum, Fischbach Gallery. Reproduced at the Canadian Art: The Canadian Art Database website.
[4] Systems Burn-off X Residual Software (1969), Les Levine, in the catalogue of SOFTWARE, an exhibition The Jewish Museum September 1970 and the Smithsonian Institution, 60–61
[5] Ivi.
[6] Les Levine, “The information fall-out,” Studio International, June 1971, 266

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