Gene Youngblood, a media theorist who prophesied the rise of video art, digital art, and computer art, has died at 78. His wife Jane Youngblood wrote in Facebook post that he died on Tuesday of complications resulting from a severe heart attack.
Youngblood is considered a giant within the fields of film studies and art history because of his 1970 book Expanded Cinema, which focused on an emergent kind of filmmaking in which digital technologies, television, and cybernetics were beginning to play a greater role. Often, the results were abstract, almost like science fiction, and they looked nothing like the commercial entertainment of the era, which presented straightforward narratives and resembled life as we know it. Youngblood proposed that these works put . In charting new terrain for cinema, the artists and filmmakers involved were creating work that helped open the human mind to new possibilities, Youngblood wrote, drawing on theories by Marshall McLuhan.
“Expanded cinema does not mean computer films, video phosphors, atomic light, or spherical projections,” Youngblood wrote in his book. “Expanded cinema isn’t a movie at all: like life it’s a process of becoming, man’s ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes. One no longer can specialize in a single discipline and hope truthfully to express a clear picture of its relationships in the environment.”
Among the works Youngblood discussed in Expanded Cinema were Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a Hollywood feature that made use of experimental techniques; Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967), a film partially composed of densely edited shots of the artist having sex with her lover; Jordan Belson’s films featuring abstractions resembling imagery from deep space; holographic moving pictures; and Nam June Paik’s early sculptures made by altering TV sets. Also explored in the book were works by Stan VanDerBeek, Robert Whitman, Wolf Vostell, Michael Snow, Aldo Tambellini, and more whose work has since been seen widely in art spaces around the world.
One of the book’s most influential chapters, “Television as a Creative Medium,” elucidated how televisual technology could be used toward artistic means. Written as video art was coming into its own, Expanded Cinema predicted that the medium would come to play an increasingly great role. “Television, like the computer, is a sleeping giant,” Youngblood wrote. “But those who are beginning to use it in revolutionary new ways are very much awake.”
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1942, Youngblood wrote portions of Expanded Cinema as reports for the Los Angeles Free Press, a widely circulated underground newspaper. After writing Expanded Cinema, he taught at the California Institute of Arts in Los Angeles and the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico.
Despite the fact that Expanded Cinema has been a touchstone for artists and scholars working with the moving image, the book had been out of print for decades before New York’s Fordham University reprinted it in 2020.
“He was creating a new canon of time-based media art—one that brought together people working with 16mm film, video, even holography,” Tina Rivers Ryan, a curator with a focus on media art at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, said in an interview. “At the same time, he provided a framework for understanding a lot of the artists who have become important to narratives of art of the ’60s. He helped us understand that media brought up not just a profound transformation in how artists make art, but also a profound transformation of the human condition, of the ways our bodies experience the world, and of our social relations.”