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John Sanborn: Between Order and Entropy at ZKM

July 9–October 30, 2022

John Sanborn is a pioneer in the field of video art. His work served as a shining example of artistic achievement for many years and unlocked a world of fresh sounds, images, and ideas. His early voco-visual experiments served as a trailblazer at a period when the new medium of video spread like anarchist wildflowers, bringing the scent of boldness and the spirit of freedom to the mainstream and market place while eschewing modern commercial and politically acceptable adaptations. His work has always been marked by anti-establishment sentiments and a distinctive personal style.

With a generation of artists like Bill Viola, Dara Birnbaum, and the Vasulkas, Sanborn’s work spans from the early days of experimental video art to MTV music videos, video games, interactive art, and digital media art. He provided consulting services to Apple and Adobe, helped to shape the potential of new image technologies, and played a key role in California’s early 1990s digital image revolution. Complex media works that Sanborn has created in more recent years explore questions of cultural identity, memory, mythology, and the urge for humans to produce stories.

His work explored many institutional and production systems during the course of these career changes, tracing a network of linkages between American, European, and Asian institutions as well as festivals, emerging art centers, television networks, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley. It has also been characterized by the variety of collaborators he has sought out, including eminent dancers and choreographers like Twyla Tharp and Bill T. Jones, as well as composers like Philip Glass, John Zorn, and Terry Riley, as well as an ongoing collaboration with the musical and performance collective The Residents.

The artist was trained by Nam June Paik, the father of video art, and composer Robert Ashley, with whom he co-created the groundbreaking Perfect Lives opera for television in 1983. This exhibition is the largest one devoted to the artist’s work. It pulls together a variety of pieces from over four decades of investigation in sound, music, dance, interactive media, and video. The high-tech computer editing and post-production that he used to expand the possibilities of image production at the time is particularly evident in his early digital video works. After spending several years working in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, Sanborn created a range of new media installations. These have worked to raise awareness of inclusion and identity problems since 2015.

Sanborn produced media over 40 years, pausing occasionally to create autobiographical works, until more inquiry into what was not him revealed a plethora of options that have since been embraced by a number of contemporary works.

Dog Dreams (of God), a Virtual Reality adaptation of a recent work, The Friend, starring the actor and director John Cameron Mitchell, and other pieces were commissioned for the ZKM exhibition.

A comprehensive publication on John Sanborn’s work with about 250 pages in English will accompany the exhibition, with texts by Peter Weibel, Jean-Paul Fargier, Stephen Sarrazin, Mark Alizart, and contributions by Lynn Hershman Leeson, Kit Fitzgerald, Dean Winkler, Homer Flynn of the Cryptic Corporation, Lynn Breedlove, and Robert Cahen. The volume will close with a discussion between John Sanborn and Dara Birnbaum, and an interview with the artist that covers four decades video and media art.

Stephen SarrazinPhilipp Ziegler 

Curatorial assistance
Hanna Jurisch 

ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe

ZKM | Center for Art and Media
Lorenzstr. 19
76135 Karlsruhe
Hours: Wednesday–Friday 10am–6pm,
Saturday–Sunday 11am–6pm

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