Take the No Out of Now

Multi-media artist and poet Gerd Stern at the Kelly Writers House

Tuesday, September 26, 2000

"NO OW NOW," the electronic mantra, reproduced from the exhibit "from USCO through Intermedia, 1962-1979" at Thorpe Intermedia Gallery, which opened on September 9, 1979, assembled by Michael Callahan, Gerd Stern, Zalman Stern, Lind Von Helwig (Sparkill, New York)

Gerd Stern is a poet and multi-media artist. His book, First Poems and Others, was published in 1952. A second volume, Afterimage appeared in 1965. During the early 1960s Stern started using cut-out words to create visual collages, and soon after that started making kinetic pieces using flashing lights, and electro-magnetic components to construct poem sculptures. These were first shown at New York's Alan Stone Gallery and in Stern's first one-person show at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The next phase of Stern's work included multi-channel word visuals and sounds cut out of the real world, titled "the Verbal American Landscape." Influenced by Marshall McLuhan's written work, Stern appeared and was associated with McLuhan for a number of years.

Stern was one of the founders of "USCO," a group of artists, engineers and poets creating multi-media performances and environments which toured the U.S. museum and university venues during the sixties. Their work appeared at the Museum of Modern Art, Brandeis University, the University of California, the Walker Art Museum, the Riverside Museum and many others. USCO also designed one of the first multi-media discotheques, named "The World" (and featured on the cover of Life magazine).

Stern has been a visiting lecturer in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

The painters, engineers, poets and sculptors who formed USCO worked out of an old church in Garnerville, New York in the 1960s. Their work included images, sound, and technology executed by a community of participants, some living at the church, and others in various parts of the country and world. What they produced became the subject of a considerable body of journalism and critique. During the late sixties some members of USCO initiated the Lama Foundation in New Mexico. A number of others helped found the Intermedia Systems Corporation in Cambridge, Mass.

When the Thoepe Intermedia Gallery presented its exhibit "from USCO through Intermedia, 1962-1979" (1979), one of the pieces shown was "NO OW NOW," a contraction of an USCO mantra ("take the no out of now - then - take the ow out of now - then - take the then out of now - then -"). The work was an electro mechanical mantric device, with manual and automatic modes, utilizing the basic, Our Time Base Is Real USCO timing circuit. A limited editions of three pieces of NO OW NOW were on display, made of IBM surplus parts. Another piece of kinetic sculpture shown at the Thorpe Gallery in 1979 was "Monolog to Digital ("if you can't count don't blow"), a voice operated assemblage of first-generation solid-state counting modules, dated 1966.

A sampling of USCO productions:

  1. Psychadelic posters and other graphics
  2. Various kinds of machines and electronic devices, such as strobe lights and programming units
  3. Electronic audio-visual aids, such as a counting unit for the New York production of Norman Mailer's The Deer Park
  4. Kinetic artistic-informational displays, such as a much-appreciated media-mix about the Lower East Side for New York's Jewish Museum and the Smithsonian Institution
  5. Miscellaneous sound and light effects for all kinds of pacifist benefits
  6. An elegant kinetic meditational tabernacle for their own house
  7. Consultation in environment creation, including what one critic called "hyped-up rooms intended for psychiatric purposes"

During his Writers House visit, Stern may read from a set of eight Conch Tales with drawings (silk-screened) by David Weinrib.

Stern now lives in New Jersey and also spends time at his home, "Poetsreef," in Jamaica.

From an article by Richard Kostelanetz, "Scene and Not Herd," published in December 1967

USCO functions as a frame, as well as a signature, for individual artists who move in and out, contributing to the collective effort and yet preserving their personal identities. The quickest measure of USCO's impact is the relation between its age and achivement; for in less than four years, it has completed a multiplicity of projects and established an international reputation.... USCO has produced objects of all sorts--posters as well as machines--but their primary medium has been the theatrical event. Some have been conventional performances, where an audience arrived at a certain time, paid an admission price and then took their seats, but USCO prefers to work in what Gerd Stern calls "the environmental circumstance," where "you take a space and en open-ended piece of time, and you see what you can make it do to people."

The four-room environment USCO constructed at the Riverside Museum in May 1966 was probably their most elaborate and brilliant exhibition. USCO designed this "system" to be a "meditation room," full of basic symbols and materials--male and female, heartbeats, and above, seven spheres representing the seven planets....

Back in 1960 Gerd Stern read an early draft of Understanding Media (1964) in the form of a report McLuhan submitted to the National Association of Educational Broadcasters in 1959, and that experience persuaded Stern to consider the artistic potential of the new media. Soon after, his own poetic impulses took off from the problems of black words on while paper and were channeled into tape collage. McLuhan himself has joined USCO for two performances... USCO concurs with [McLuhan's] prophecy that today's cities will soon disintegrate into small communities, electronically interconnected; and from him, they also recognized how sensory overload in their home environment could recircuit their own sensibilities. "When you live in a twenty-four channel system, day in and day out--as we did when we were doing our things at home [at USCO], running them for twenty-four hours a day, almost," said [Steve] Durkee [a USCO painter in his late twenties], "you can become pretty much omniattentive.

From McLuhan, along with the Indian aesthetician Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, they took the theme that the contemporary artist should be as anonymous as the medieval artist; but interpretations of 'anonymity' create a constant argument within the USCO house. Their work is clearly anonymous in the sense that it contains neither an individual signature nor earmarks of personalized expression. However, to Stern, their impersonal result does not deny individual artistic contributions....

The young producer consultant John Brockman does so much work with USCO that he is an associate in all but name, and along with Gerd Stern and Michael Callahan [an electrical engineer specializing in the "languages of switches and circuits"], Brockman is co-authoring an introductory textbook on intermedia.... [B]y now USCO seems an example of what can be done--a recognized avant-garde revolutionary elite; and just as their innovations in the arts of media-mix have influenced scores of other artists and groups of artists, so USCO itself has become a model for other new American tribes in sync with the electronic age.