USCO - "Us Company" : collectif d'artistes et d'ingénieurs : Gerd Stem, Michael Callahan.

In 1962, the USCO formed as a radical collective of artists and engineers dedicated to collective action and anonymity. Some of the artists involved were Gerd Stern, Stan VanDerBeek, and Jud Yalkut. As Douglas Davis describes them:

"USCO's leaders were strongly influenced by McLuhan's ideas as expressed in his book Understanding Media. Their environments - performed in galleries, churches, schools, and museums across the United States - increased in complexity with time, culminating in multiscreen audiovisual "worlds" and strobe environments. They saw technology as a means of bringing people together in a new and sophisticated tribalism. In pursuit of that ideal, they lived, worked, and created together in virtual anonymity."

(Quoted by David Dunn: A History of Electronic Music Pioneers, 1992)

"The work (USCO) did together was anonymous," Yalkut says. "You did not know who did any particular, thing. We had a poet, a painter, an electronics engineer - and I was the filmmaker. We did shows in museums and we did shows with Marshall McLuhan and Timothy Leary. We toured all over; we were the entertainment at the LSD conference at the University of San Francisco; we did a show called “Us Down by the Riverside!” at the Riverside Museum in New York, which was the first time the term ”˜be in’ was ever used."
(Jud Yalkut, interviewed by Keith Pandolfi, April 2000, src(external link))

« Part of the real problem that we had at USCO was that everything we did was very heavy. We would travel with a Volkswagen bus and trailers and thousands of pounds of equipment. Schlepping. In fact, I once wrote a piece for one of the art magazines called "The Artist as Schlepper."» (Gerd Stern, interviewed (external link)by Victoria Morris Byerly, 1996)

First multimedia performance

Gerd Stern: I was really turned on to audio-visual, electronic use of words in media. I had made a lot of kind of excerpts out of the McLuhan thing which I took along. We didn't have copy machines in those days, at least available to us. But I had written it out by hand. Eventually, Understanding Media came out. I don't remember when that was in this context. (...)

I needed audio help. I got an introduction to Morton Subotnik who at the time was with Ramón Sender, the co-director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which later moved to Mills College, but at that time it was on Divisadero Street. There was a young guy there about sixteen years old named Michael Callahan. By this time, I decided, Poetry reading? Who wants to do a poetry reading? I mean, that was old stuff, right? I started working on plans for a multimedia experience - multimedia, mind you, wasn't a word that was known in those days - called "Who are You and What's Happening?" I got all my old friends involved - Ivan Majdrakoff and Allen and Michael McClure, and what we finally wound up with - and I needed audio help to set up this elaborate thing - and Michael Callahan was their technical director at sixteen. Morton and Ramón said, "Okay, Michael, this is for you." It was much too big a job for him at the time, but he was incredible. He borrowed a lot of equipment.

It was in the auditorium of the museum. We had transparent isolation booths onstage in which each of them - there were four people all together - you know, Herb Caen, et cetera, et cetera - we were able to broadcast and switch the signals from the various booths onto a series of speakers. In the meantime, we were projecting a series of slides which came from the Verbal American Landscape. Those had been chosen by me - I didn't do the photography; Ivan and Stewart Brand did the photography. We borrowed some closed-circuit television equipment, so there were television images. We were able to switch the whole thing. There were people in costume - it was a very elaborate affair.

Psychedelic Multimedia

The technology was not by any means perfect. We had telephones and microphones, and there was a lot of feedback. There was absolute chaos. In the meantime - a little antecedent to this - we had started getting into the psychedelic period, and I had had my first acid trip at Roger Somers' in kind of an orgiastic setting. (...) The acid had kind of given me an even more precise idea of the kind of mixture that I wanted to create. Mixed media. Between that and McLuhan and et cetera.

We did this for two nights. Alfred Frankenstein was at that time the San Francisco Chronicle arts and music critic, a nationally or even internationally known critic. I found out later on he had wanted to go to some [Béla] Bartók quartets that were playing that night, but his city editor had gotten the release of this thing at the museum, and it had really sparked his interest so he insisted that Alfred go to this affair. Well, the next day on the second page of the Chronicle there was the headline: "Landmark of a Flop." Some enormous eggs have been laid in the history of San Francisco art, but - "[laughter] he went on and on, and he slammed the hell out of this performance, which absolutely delighted me. (...)

Well, the second night was even more chaotic than the first night, and I was on acid during the performance. At one point, some guy - there was a piano on stage which had just been left there from something else - some guy jumped up on the stage and started playing terrible chords. It was very disruptive. Michael McClure and I jumped up on stage - it was the period when he was doing his "Beast" poems, and we started roaring, "Ahrg, Grahrr!" at each other. It was really a very exciting piece of work. (...)

Taking the USCO Show on the Road

One of the people who had been there - it was part of the material that came out of McLuhan - was Alvin Balkind, the director of the University of Vancouver's art museum. He just happened to be in town. He called me up about a week later; he had gotten my number from the museum (...) He had also read McLuhan, and he noted the inclusion of the McLuhan ideas in the performance. Actually, there was a quote from McLuhan in the handout that we gave at the performance. He asked if we could repeat the performance at the university, and I said I thought that would be possible. He said he was going to invite McLuhan to speak. He wanted to know if I could bring up some of the smaller pieces that were in the show and show them in the gallery. So that was all arranged. (...)

It was really quite a great experience because originally the idea of doing this multimedia performance was simply to raise money to support the making of "Contact is the Only Love" because I still owed quite a bit of money for the parts and the electronics and so forth. Most of it was not exactly electronic; it was like electromechanical because we were using the kind of equipment that's made for display signs and neon and so forth and cam-operated switches. It was before the days of fully electronic switching capability. (...)

Anyway, the notion of "Who Are You and What's Happening?" - as it was titled - or "The Verbal American Landscape" as being portable was not something that I had anticipated. I was communicating back and forth with the East Coast; they were fascinated by what was happening - Steve Durkee and the rest of people I had been working with there.

Now we met Marshall, and we recorded him. He was somewhat taken aback by the performance because he was kind of a Victorian gentleman, despite his very forward ideas about media transforming twentieth-century consciousness. We got along well. I remember he said he was the kind of person who didn't even like pop-up toasters; he liked the kind of toaster where you have the two sides, and you open them up, and you turn them around, and you would close it again. That was his kind of technology, even though he was writing about the most forward kind of media experiences. His expertise came out of studying the Middle Ages and medieval manuscripts originally and then on to Gutenberg and forward. (...) He followed the presentation, the multimedia piece, and he spoke about it - not entirely appreciative, because it was a very noisy little piece. (...)

We kept on developing these multimedia performances, and Steve got incredibly involved in making super-eight millimeter movies and developing image banks with us. We did electronic music, mostly meditational in nature, and before long we stopped doing the performances as individuals. Without our names, we decided to call ourselves "USCO", the company of Us, because we were anonymous artists.

Now this actually came out of something I had learned from my time with Grace Clements. Grace had introduced me to the work of Ananda Coomeraswami, who was curator of fine arts at the Boston Museum, and who had written a lot of work on the artist in traditional society. The artist in traditional society was incorporated in the society; it wasn't a ego trip: he didn't sign his work. He made objects and images that were used by the community, and he was no different, supposedly, than the other craftsmen or the other people who produced food and clothing and shelter and whatever. It seemed to me at the time that that was a much saner and compatible role, at least for me personally. Steve, who has always had trouble in terms of his ego, was entranced by this idea, and now we became USCO, the company of Us.

We were always looking for more material and more people. By this time we had gathered another five or six people who were working together with us. (...) We all got involved in everything, and Dace had a friend named Jud Yalkut, who was working as a stockboy at a big record store in New York, Sam Goody's, but his ambition was to be a filmmaker.

In any case, there was a woman there whose son had died in an automobile accident, and she happened to have a movie camera that he had used, and she gave it to us. And I gave it to Jud. We had another friend, Jonathan Ayers, who had a remarkable motorcycle; it was called "The Ghost."

I was fascinated by the concept of real time and time as it was represented by the number of frames per second in film and how you can really manipulate time on film by simply - somehow, either mechanically or electrically or electronically slowing it down and speeding it up. We conceived this piece of film work, which we used in our performances - it was filmed simply by Judd sitting behind Jonathan on the motorcycle running down roads around Woodstock - fairly woody roads. What we did was we printed three of these film identical films - and we projected them on three screens right next to each other, and we would adjust the speeds so that they would go in different directions through each other. We also superimposed slides of words on the three images. Single words in black and white. The accompaniment through four channels of sound was the sound of this incredible motorcycle which was like - somehow it reminded us also of Tibetan chants. In a big auditorium with big speakers, it was definitely an overload experience. We kind of got into overload for a while. (...)

One of the people who had been one of Timothy Leary's early subjects with LSD was a guy named Paul Lee, a professor of philosophy and religion at MIT and Paul Tillich's assistant. We became very friendly with Paul, and Paul invited us to do a performance first - well, I'm getting ahead of myself here. He was first [the protestant chaplain?] at Brandeis [University], and then he moved back to MIT. We did performances at both universities.

Expanded Cinema

By the time we got to MIT - there's an incredible auditorium there; it's kind of like a diaper shape, designed by Saarinen. We had started building strobes. Strobe lights. Among the audience when we did this - We had done a series of performances in New York City for - Jonas Mekas and his brother Adolphus were the leading figures in the avant-garde film movement on the East Coast. Jonas had decided that he was going to do a festival, "Expanded Cinema." I've got all the materials for this; my problem is I've got an attic full of stuff in dreadful chaos which needs to be organized, and a lot of the stuff you should have access to.

At the same time, Jonas had arranged to go to Europe. I believe he was Latvian, and he was going back home. So he turned over the Expanded Cinema festival to a guy named John Brockman. John contacted me, and we arranged to do performances - and we also put him in touch with a lot of the other people who were working in the media by that time - both using theatre media and performance pieces. We added at that time to our performance in New York an artist named Carolee Schneemann. Carolee is a dancer, a performance artist, and a filmmaker. She and her dancers would get up during one portion of the performance on stage where we had this white photographic background paper, very large, and as the slides and images were projected, they would take paintbrushes and paint portions of the images with dance motions. They were dressed up as painters in white overalls, which also of course caught the images, and each of them had a white ladder. Then when they finished painting those, they would rip down the pieces of paper, and there would be more paper behind it.

After a while, we were kind of getting out of overload, and we felt that we had freaked out too many people. We were changing the name of the performance, and we finally changed it to "We Are All One." Now what we did is we would build up to overload, then from overload we would come down to a meditational transformation and just [hums] "ommmmmmmmmm." There would be these hundreds of images just multiplying and overloading and sounds. Eventually the only image there would be on a big display - a CRT [cathode-ray tube] monitor - an oscilloscope sine wave which looks like the infinity sign or a Moebius loop just dancing for fifteen minutes just very low "ommmmmmmmmm." It would cool everybody out; it was our intention to excite people and to give them the multiplicity sensation and then to bring them back to unity. It worked beautifully; it was amazing.

With the strobes and the overload with the three motorcycles going, after our performance at MIT, we got a phone call from this professor who first developed the strobe and who worked with [Jacques] Cousteau and who was head of the department at MIT. His name was Harold Edgerton. He's an extremely famous and brilliant guy. You probably have seen some of his strobe photographs of the milk drop which looks like a corona. He wanted to talk to Michael and me. He said, "This strobe you have is puny. Next time you have a performance, I'll lend you a real strobe," and he took us into his laboratory, and he showed us these enormous strobes, and he gave Michael some circuitry. It was a very, very generous gesture. He said, "I didn't really enjoy the performance, but I understand what you're trying to do. If you want to use a strobe, at least get a powerful strobe." (...)

Psychedelic Showbizz - 1966

John decided that we were something that he wanted to represent, and he got involved with a guy named Michael Meyerberg. Michael Meyerberg was a theatrical producer; he had brought "Fantasia" to Walt Disney, and he was the first one to produce "Waiting for Godot," and he was by this time very old and very frail. He had leased the airplane hangar from which [Charles] Lindbergh had taken off at Roosevelt Field, and he wanted to put in a major kind of a nightclub, youth center, entertainment complex. His original concept had been to put a movie studio there, but he couldn't get somehow the use permissions, and there were things that stood in his way. He was looking for people to put this thing together. Somehow John met him - and John organized a bus, and all of us and Andy Warhol's group and a lot of arts people got on this bus and went out to the airplane hangar, and we were supposed to make proposals on how to turn it into this kind of avant-garde rock music palace.

Steve and I and Michael got our heads together, and we wrote this proposal. I don't know if it was because we were cheap or whether it was because we were more adventurous and mind-blowing, but we got the contract to do it. We tried to negotiate a cooperation of collaboration with Andy because we really felt badly that he had been passed by for this fairly ambitious project, but he was involved in the Electric Circus, and he decided he didn't want to work together, which was also typical of Andy.

We went on with the project. We had, I think, around the whole hangar about thirty slide screens, and we also had one of the first video projectors. It was black and white, and it was an Idofor, a Swiss machine; it could deliver an image which was, I think, about twenty-five feet across, and we had three cameras that could take - for instance, the jiggling behind of a young girl on the dance floor, blow it up across that whole screen, or back off and take practically the whole dance floor. (...)

It was a great scene for us because, number one, it allowed us to work with some technologies and programming that we hadn't worked with before. Michael was able to build a very large-scale programmer for all of these thirty slide machines. They were in pairs because they dissolved, and we had to make them match with the music, so there were all kinds of little effects that we could do with them. We actually programmed the slides to go with certain tunes. I remember one of the popular tunes of that time was Nancy Sinatra's "Boots are Made for Walking"; we had these great boot shots all over the screens, and when they dissolved into each other it looked like they were walkin'.

There were fairly well-known groups that played there: The Rascals, the Isley Brothers, and so forth and so on. I mean, not the top level - not The Beatles, you know - but the levels just below that. The groups alternated with the recorded music, and the recorded music is what we had programmed the slides to, because we had decided ahead of time what music would be played.


Exhibition at Riverside Museum, New York - May 1966

Michael actually had the job as an employee to run the shows. I think it was three a nights a weekThursday, Friday, and Saturday. It made the cover of Life and the inside of Life. We had two Life stories within that year. The reason we were so excited about making the money from "The World", which was not something we were particularly intomaking money--was because we had been offered a very large space at the Riverside Museum in New York to do a show of our work, an installation of environmentally installed pieces.

It was somewhat ambitious for us; they didn't have any money. It was a very interesting museum. They had two sides: one was probably the best collection of Tibetan tonkas and other Tibetan objects in the country that had been collected by the founder, Nicholas Roerich--and the other side was devoted to contemporary work. At the time, we were living up in Woodstock, and there was this sculptor: a lady named Lily Ente who was very friendly to our work, and she was the one who recommended us to the museum, and Steve was in seventh heaven because Tibetan philosophy and Tibetan art was one of his passions. Somehow drugs and Eastern mysticism seem to go very well together.

This was a huge space. We had, I think, six rooms. By that time, we had a lot of associates of various kinds - members of USCO, including just about anybody who wanted to get involved, practically, as long as they were marginally compatible. We had a lot of conflicts because Steve was an irascible and difficult person. I mean, one time he went so far as to chop a hole in the wall to prove to us that he wasn't going to compromise. On the other hand, he was one of the most intensely creative and generous and hardworking artists I've ever met in my life. Brilliant insights into visual and conceptual possibilities. I think he still inhabits that kind of persona. Later on, he became a Sufi, a mosque designer, and a Muslim. (...)

The Riverside Museum was probably the peak experience of our USCO time. Paul Williams, whom I talked about when he constructed my ideas into visual poetry and didn't want his name mentioned, by this time was making works of his own and was using his own name and had left "The Land" and had moved to a studio in the city. He had severed his marital relationship and had gone off with Betsy Epstein, who was David Weinrib's sister and who had been married to Arnold Epstein. We were all living on or near "The Land." Paul contributed one whole room of a light garden--fabulous work. Dacey had a tie-dye meditation environment, and we had everything from the old "Contact is the Only Love", which had been shipped from San Francisco, to a what we called "The Tabernacle," which was later installed at the church. "The Tabernacle" was a series of paintings hung inside a hexagon, and in the middle of the hexagon was kind of a lingam made of metal with light internal to it and turning, and a fountain, and speakers on each side with multichannel capability. It was a big draw. We had oscilloscopes set up where people could do their own sine wave adjustments. Rooms full of exciting, kinetic, audiovisual artistic experiences.

Dion Wright had done a painting of the evolution of life --a huge, huge painting. He had come to Woodstock sometime previously; it was an incredible piece of work later printed as a poster. We filled all the rooms, and it was the far-out art event of that year. They had to extend the weeks of time that it was supposed to be shown, and there were crowds, I mean, there were lines standing in the streets. Life magazine came out, and we were interviewed on television. It was a big deal. Too big a deal, really, for us. It put us in the limelight, and it exposed us to a lot of publicity and scrutiny, and we attracted hundreds of young students and hippie wannabes, and wannabeats who then congregated around the church and made life a little difficult for us.

At that time we also incorporated the church as a free church under the laws of the state of New Yorkthe Church of the Living God, believe it or not. After the Riverside we had set up "The Tabernacle," and we opened it to the public every weekend. The town of Garnerville was overrunthis was after the show closedby people whothe local blue-collar citizens really didn't think we're what the town was all about. We had a lot of police action. We cooled it all out, but it was difficult. It caused a lot of strain inside the community, inside USCO, and it was a great idea to put "The Tabernacle" there but it destroyed a large part of our workspace. We were all living there; by this time, there were quite a lot of people living in this church.

The Psychedelic Theater and the Timothy Leary Lecture

Millbrook - at that time it was called the Castalia Foundation, after something in one of Hermann Hesse's novels. I had met the people up in Boston sometime before, but I didn't really know them. My psychedelic experiences and their psychedelic experiences had not been connected to this time, but we were invited to come up to Millbrook.

Millbrook was an incredible estate which was owned by the two Hitchcock brothers and their sister. They were very wealthy socialites who became patrons of Timothy's, and of the psychedelic movement. There was a house which probably had forty or fifty bedrooms which they turned over. They lived also on the property but in other houses; it was quite an estate. (...)

We did a multimedia show which we had programmed particularly for this theater event, and Timothy lectured about psychedelics. Timothy, you know, had been a brilliant psychologist at Kaiser. He developed various instruments for analyzing personalities. Nobody doubted his professional ability. (...)

The "Psychedelic Theater" showed up a lot of schisms between our group and their group. Timothy started lecturing, and he wasn't Richard Alpert; Timothy was kind of a dry, boring lecturer in those days. He got more lively as time went on. But we were appalled; it was the middle of this really turned-on show, and here was this professor standing up in the front going on and on. We happened to have a tape of Artaud screaming on a radio program while--he was incarcerated in an asylum, but he had been allowed to do this radio program. Michael McClure had given me a copy of the tape, which I don't know how he got. In the middle of Timothy's lecture, we played Artaud screaming. It stopped everything; people didn't know what was going on. Then we stopped, and Timothy went on as if nothing had happened, you know? Then about eight minutes later he was still going, and we played another little gob of Artaud screaming. Ralph Metzner came running up to where our media control booth was and said to us, "You've broken your contract!" [Laughter] We just thought that was so terribly amusing. (...)

Anyway, the "Psychedelic Theater" went on very well, and Timothy came to me at the end and says, "Gerd, this was incredible. It's a little chaotic, though. The next thing I want to do with you is the life of the Buddha. And we're gonna start at the time he was born, and we're going to wind up at the end. We're going to have logical progression." I used that famous Lone Ranger line of "What do you do mean 'we', Kemosabe?" [Laughter] I wasn't about to do the life of the Buddha starting from the beginning. But he found some other media artists to do it.

The other thing at the "Psychedelic Theater" is we had left openings, and we had invited any other media artists or any kind of artists who wanted to participate, and they came out of the woodwork. There were some incredible people who had projection things and various instruments and very much in the psychedelic main - Richard Aldcroft, Jackie Cassen, Rudy Stern, Isaac Abrams. It opened up a lot of new relationships. Part of our interest was not to just do it ourselves but to include others. (...)

One of the events that Richard Alpert put together was calledI can't remember nowthe LSD Conference. It was a conference with speakers, and we were the featured show. This was at the campus of UC Extension in San Francisco--a big gymnasium. By this time, we had started projecting on weather balloons. Huge eighteen-foot balloons. We would float them above the audience, and the audience would push them, and we would follow them by hand-manipulated projectors. That was just one part of the performance; we were always adding new things. We put on an enormous, enormous performance. (...)

Gerd Stern, "From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist in San Francisco and Beyond, 1948-1978," an oral history conducted in 1996 by Victoria Morris Byerly, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2001. link(external link)

Contributors to this page: 1.0 .
Page last modified on Sunday 30 of December, 2007 17:11:02 CET by 1.0.