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Archives Month: Art by Telephone

by Mary Richardson

Close-up of an MCA fourth-floor-gallery model with miniature artworks

Interior of the scale model featuring replicas of works by Claes Oldenburg, Davi Det Hompson, Richard Hamilton, and Dennis Oppenheim

All photos courtesy of Sam Stewart-Halevy


This summer Samuel Stewart-Halevy, a visiting artist in the department of architecture, interior architecture, and designed objects at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, visited the Library and Archives to research the MCA's 1969 exhibition Art by Telephone. For Art by Telephone, artists phoned in instructions for artworks, which the MCA staff and local students used to realize the works in the galleries. Sam used archival materials from the exhibition as a springboard for a project in Long Distance Architecture, a graduate architecture studio he is currently teaching at the School of the Art Institute. Sam invited me to visit the class to discuss the exhibition with his students and to see their works-in-progress. The project is an interesting and rich example of how archival materials can be used to inspire and challenge students. Below he describes his students' process of interpretation.

Five people wearing hard hats work on a model of the MCA's galleries.

Students work on the scale model of the galleries. Pictured from left to right: Wiley Roberts, Michael Soldani, Chaim Emanuel, Seychelle Reed, and Ronel Constantin. Not pictured: Michael Remien, Sarah Aziz, and Matthew Hamaker


Art by Telephone is an important precedent for our architecture studio at SAIC and so we spent the first weeks of the semester looking closely at the remote instructions that were delivered to the MCA in 1969\. By cross-referencing electrical plans with installation photographs and a film made by David Katzive (the MCA curator at the time), the students reconstructed a scaled model of the original gallery space on Ontario Street.

Rather than attempting to re-present the exhibition in its entirety, each student took on a set of artists and tried to find out what they had in common before making alternative versions of the work. The techniques of administration, delegation, and correspondence that these artists employed have always been natural to architectural practice, even if they are mostly absent in the hands on context of the design studio. By studying these experimental phone calls, the students have developed their own proposals for long distance work that they are carrying out at the moment through contemporary channels of communication.

Black drawing on a white background of a square half filled with two columns, each handwritten with the names of nine major international cities

Chaim Emanuel's take on Joesph Kosuth work. Kosuth's project description from the Art by Telephone catalogue states: Kosuth's "proposal is part of an exhibition to be held in 15 cities around the world in the fall of this year. In each city a museum or gallery will place an ad in a local newspaper. The Chicago exhibition consists of an ad in the Panorama section of the Chicago Daily News on November 1\. In the exhibition 15 labels are lined up, indicating the cities in which Kosuth ads appeared. Says Kosuth, 'My work is not connected with a precious object. It is non-decorative, having nothing to do with architecture; it can be brought into the home or museum, but wasn't made with either in mind. My current work, which consist of categories from the thesaurus, deals with the multiple aspects of an idea of something'"

Sarah Aziz's version of Jan Dibbets work. Dibbet's project description from the Art by Telephone catalogue explained that Dibberts “has ordered an audio-visual reportage of a strip of Route 41 between Gary and Indianapolis. The museum's curator drove a car with a camera mounted above the dashboard stopping every half-mile for five miles to photograph the scene directly ahead. A tape record was running during the entire operation. Says Dibbets, 'The visual thing is the photos, but they are connected by a time process: you can hear the connection, but you can't see anything. When the car stops, you can't hear anything but you can see the photographs'”

Smeared swirls of bright red, yellow, and blue layered with a diagonal swarm of small grey circles

Wiley Roberts's interpretation of Frank Viner's work. Viner's project description from the Art by Telephone catalogue explained: "He has instructed the museum to scatter vinyl squares—10, 20, 40, and 80 inches, red, yellow, blue, and transparent across the gallery floors, walls, and ceiling. The squares are stiffened by diagonal stripes of tape in corresponding colors and folded into various configurations"