Rauschenberg - Open Score (1966)

When discussing the human-machine connection in sport from a media/communications perspective I have tended thus far to privilege the technical component. For example, I keep reiterating how the techniques of videogame production and consumption have to an extent subordinated the role of the human agent in sporting practice. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn this summer from European Graduate School artist-in-residence Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) about Robert Rauschenberg's 1966 performance piece titled "Open Score".

Courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg

As the Media Art Net site describes:

Open Score, Robert Rauschenberg's piece for 9 Evenings, began with a tennis game on the floor of the Armory. Bill Kaminski designed a miniature FM transmitter that fit in the handle of the tennis racquet, and a contact microphone was attached to the handle of the racquet with the antenna wound around the frame of the head. Each time Frank Stella and Mimi Kanarek hit the ball the vibrations of the racquet strings were transmitted to the speakers around the armory, and a loud BONG was heard. At each BONG, one of the 48 lights went out, and the game ended when the Armory was in complete darkness.

Thus we have a situation in which tennis provides the engine for this improvisational theatre art. I had an idea similar to this a few years ago in a post called Gymprov; in a hastily sketched outline I suggested the game would re-tell a classic tale of binary opposition, such as the temptation of Jesus by the Devil, through the engine of pickup basketball. Game play would inspire thematic dialogue, while lighting would have to intuitively follow the appropriate speakers.

Rauschenberg was clearly ahead of his time: in Open Score, by contrast, the "dialogue" is not between the athletes and offstage voices, but rather between the athletes and the technical infrastructure of sound and lighting itself, via the material sporting apparatus (tennis racquet) and immaterial channels of communication (FM radio waves). As Rauschenberg writes: "The unlikely use of the game to control the lights and to perform as an orchestra interest me. The conflict of not being able to see an event that is taking place right in front of one except through a reproduction is the sort of double exposure of action. A screen of light and a screen of darkness."

Courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg

(It is worth noting that Rauschenberg attended the experimental Black Mountain College in the late '40s and early '50s, where he met, among others, John Cage. The parallels between Black Mountain College and the European Graduate School have been suggested to me more than once.)

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