György Kepes in Conversation with Muntadas

1989-2013, 52:53 min, sound

"By understanding art as a form of research not only draws parallels between, but also links together two media artists of consecutive generations, the Spanish Antoni Muntadas and the Hungarian György Kepes. They were both trying to semantically approach the picture plane, scrutinizing the various contexts in which the language is articulating and defining our vision. By actively elaborating the hermeneutics of archiving and the symbolic nature of the juxtaposed images they shared the belief that our visual culture has a direct dialogue with any given political and/or educational institution. The power of the eye, which was essentially analogous to the power of the mind, proved to be on equal footing with their research. The meaning of images in the private and in the public life, the act of participation in an interconnected world with the help of the media, provided them a similar basis in articulating their ideas.

Kepes and Muntadas met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where in 1967 Kepes became the founding director of an interdisciplinary research program, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS). Kepes’s Center (which originally was intended to be called “laboratory of vision”) aimed to intersect the crossroads of art, science and technology with the purpose of inviting established artists to work on projects which could provide responses to an unresolved society. The building of a human community, based on the aesthetics of collaboration between choosen artists from all around the world, and between scientists from various fields and disciplines, resulted in a micro-society. Although Muntadas was appointed to be a Fellow in 1977 by Kepes’s successor, the German ZERO artist Otto Piene, he was following Kepes’s footsteps by choosing artistic interventions that are expressing an ethical, social and ecological language. In fact, it was at the CAVS where Muntadas coined the term ‘media landscape’ to define the ubiquitous presence of mass media in public space. Muntadas and Kepes equally believed in the synergetic forms of art making, which resulted in the hidden alliance between the artist and the visitor, producing works where (as Muntadas put it) 'perception requires involvement.'

From the frequent encounters and meetings Kepes and Muntadas had over the years, a comprehensive intellectual oral history interview came together. Visiting György Kepes in his summer cottage designed by Marcel Breuer in Cape Cod in June 1989, Muntadas (accompanied by the New York based Hungarian sculptor and performance artist András Böröcz) was focusing on the role of the new media in the 20th century in the practice of an artist who was associated with and persistently believed in the agency of the historical avant-garde(s).

Throughout his conversation with Muntadas we can be a witness of the animated life of a convicted man, who, with his own life represents a cut-through of the 20th century from the time of the tumultuous revolutions in Eastern Europe up until the end of the Cold War era in the United States. In the course of the interview there are several cases where Kepes is recollecting his struggles in applying his all-encompassing utopia to his endeavors to dystopic historical circumstances (e.g. the Vietnam War or the ’68 student movement) when his efforts to achieve an optimal existence, a complementary unity between art and life, dismally failed. One of his examples was the boycott and withdrawal of the American artists in the Kepes curated US Section of the X São Paulo Biennial). 2017, the year celabrating the 50th anniversary of the CAVS, seems to be a pertinent moment to reenact and remember Kepes’s legacy as a pioneering figure in media art. In fact, the CAVS was the first postgraduate research program dedicated to the study of the new media (focusing on various fields, ranging from light and kinetic art through laser, holography up to video and digital imagery) that has been established in an academic environment. But Kepes was advocating technology in an old romantic sense. He was first and foremost a painter and the use of any new medium was only a tool with which it was possible to establish a stimulating link between different sensory channels. When Muntadas once visited Kepes in his studio at the Fenway in Boston they were discussing the deepening gap between traditional media, like painting and new forms of expression. As the story goes, Kepes responded Muntadas bluntly: ‘You could always get a long brush to reach out to your painting. Being close to your medium is what really matters.’" -- Márton Orosz