The Metadesigner

John Cage Memorial Concert: Musicircus, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, 1992

“We need a new practitioner, who does what I call ‘metadesign.’ They create context rather than content.” – Gene Youngblood

When John Cage conceptualized the Musicircus in 1967, his performance instructions were the following: “For any number of performers willing to perform in the same place at the same time.” That means that when he wrote the piece, he didn’t call for specific instrumentation, let alone performers, he didn’t impose any specific number of performers, and even the duration was not ordered in the score. This doesn’t mean that in the Musicircus anything goes: each performance requires a “realization,” meaning the a system of chance operations and graphs are used to organize a specific performance for a specific set of musicians. In its inception, the composer is creating a structure, a procedural system that allows anyone to organize a rendering of Musicircus for any number of performers.

How does this change the role of the composer? Well, it means that the composer is no longer dictating notes and melodies, rhythms and patterns, or sounds and timbres. Rather the composer is designing a context for a performance, but not the specific content. In the words of Gene Youngblood, this transforms the role of the composer, or the really any artist of any discipline into a designer of context, or as he put it a metadesigner. Webster defines ‘meta’ as “an abstract, high-level analysis or commentary,” that is referential to itself at a higher order of meaning. ‘Meta’ is about something rather than embodying that something. So in fact ‘meta’ is about form rather than about content.

So here we are talking about a form that is separate from and independent of its content. The Musicircus is a formal structure that does not dictate its own content. It is not determinate in its content rather it is a precise structure that yields indeterminant actions according to the specifications of a given realization. This is a profound idea in art and performance. After the first Musicircus in 1967, and really even well before that, John Cage and other experimental artists were creating Happenings, which are more less indeterminate in regards to their content, depending on the artist’s approach. In fact you can go back as far as 1948 when Cage was creating his first Happening, along with Merce Cunningham, in a workshop they taught at Black Mountain College in Asheville, NC. The Happening constituted a clean break from theater due to its embrace of indeterminacy and the variety of situations it could enact. Throughout the 1960s, artists that included Allen Kaprow, Claus Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Robert Whitman, among others embrace the indeterminacy of actions and became, to various degrees, metadesigners in their own right.

Now what Gene Youngblood is referring to in his definition of the metadesigner is the work of Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, who began in the late 1970s to create performance/installation projects that embraced the Network as their medium. Such projects as Satellite Arts ’77, Hole in Space (1980), and the Electronic Café (1984) drew from the social structure of the Happening to create online contextual spaces where specific events could take place, often well beyond their control. It is this giving up of control to other artists, by defining a space of action, a space where live performers, and even the public can take command of content and interactions. Within this space, as Youngblood points out, there is a collaborative alliance of the metadesigner and the artist, along with the public “who make the new activity possible.”

This changing role of the artist as metadesigner is critical to our understanding of what has been more recently popularized as the genre of the ‘social practice’ and relational art. But that is another story to be taken up in future posts…