Remembering Hans Breder

Sunday, June 18th my major professor, Hans Breder, passed away. Hans was instrumental in the development of video and performance art, launching the first MFA in Intermedia/Multimedia at the University of Iowa after a career in New York, showing at the Richard L Feigen gallery and continuing through recent shows at the Dansiger Gallery.


Breder was considered a minimalist, creating combines of mirrors, reflective boxes and simple linear paintings as well as body sculptures, photos of women with mirrors. The paintings would be reflected by the boxes and mirrors, creating an interactive experience for the viewer. As the viewer moves around the art object, it changes composition. Static lines become moving shapes and the focal point changes within the composition. Breder explored ‘liminal‘ spaces. A limen is a doorway between spaces, and Breder explored the metaphysical components of this concept. What is the reality of the painting or the reflective object? When we look through a mirror into a transitory “space.” In academic terms, the Intermedia/Multimedia program was developed for the purpose to explore the indefinite spaces between art forms.

Breder also explored the history of his home country, Germany in a 1996 interactive CD ROM, The Nazi Loop. Growing up in a violent and chaotic post World War II working class town Breder began looking beyond his current condition at an early age. I asked him about that time and he had little to say beyond the uncertainty of that time and place. His experiences in the art world and New York where there was an openness to explore the new and to take the time to try were the experiences on which he wanted to ruminate.

I recall a day in class where he lamented artist’s unwillingness to take time the way the experimentalists of the 1960’s and 70’s would. He described a performance where by hour nine only he and the artist were left in the performance space. “Something else happens when you stay with a performance for that long,” he said. Our intermedia studio was four hours and we usually experienced between one and four performances each class.

Breder’s program has influenced the history of modern, postmodern and contemporary art, including noted alumni Anna Mendieta and Charles Ray. Graduates of the program have worked as studio assistants for the likes of Bill Viola, known for making high budget, boundary pushing video portraits and sculptural installations exploring, nature, beauty and the spiritual in art. Others, like myself, have gone on to teach art and design, bringing the Intermedia approach to process and interdisciplinary thinking to design and media classrooms. He brought numerous visiting artists, including collaborations with recently deceased poet, performance, installation and video artist, and architectural instigator Vito Acconci.

In my own experience, Breder’s teaching opened me up to a new way of looking and deconstructing the world, its messages, ideas and images. The summer after moving from Iowa to Portland Oregon I made a video piece to reflect on my own thinking about the works of Breder, Mendieta and Aconci.

Something I struggled with and doubted in the program was the social value of the reduction of boundaries. Over the years I’ve met numerous women who felt Breder came on too strong. At a gallery opening in Portland one artist told me, “one time he came into my studio while I was painting, pulled me toward him and began weeping while holding me in a bear hug.” Others indicated that they had to continually brush off or create barriers between themselves and Breder because of his constant presentation of sexualized tone and innuendo. The former students affirmed the value of the program and experience, yet expressed a component of boundary maintenance that was not required of male students. These expressions led me to perceive that the experience of the program was unlikely to be the same across gender lines, and that a rigorous respect for students and clear ethical boundaries regarding interpersonal relationships between instructors and students is an imperative in continuing the legacy of liminal and intermedia arts.

The value of the thinking produced by Breder’s program continues today. The program and Breder’s instruction were at the forefront of the transition from technique and product based arts education to process and innovation based training. Today as media and tools for creating and expressing continue to proliferate we see the emergence of balanced process and technique curriculum and programs

The Gutai Art Manifesto’s relationship to the Western Avant-Garde

laceration of paper

Laceration of Paper, Saburõ Murakami 1956

In 1956 Japanese painter and avant-garde artist YOSHIHARA JIRŌ wrote a manifesto that would drive the art making of a group of young, energetic, daring young artists in Japan following the end of the Second World War. In the opening to his manifesto Jirō wrote:

“To today’s consciousness, the art of the past, which on the whole presents an alluring appearance, seems fraudulent.”

The movement drew from other daring art movements of the 20th century – the Dadaists and the Futurists before them as well as their near contemporaries, the Abstract Expressionists. These movements doubted history and tradition as viable foundations upon which they could create meaningful work. Given the recent acknowledgements of the emperor of Japan, Hirohito, that he was not a living god, a tenet of faith pressed on the people before and throughout the war, it is not surprising that the youth would rebel against historical narratives and certain cultural traditions of their homeland.

“Let’s bid farewell to the hoaxes piled up on the altars and in the palaces, the drawing rooms and the antique shops.”

He set a daring new tone for modern art in Japan, echoing the sentiments of F. T. Marinetti in the Founding Manifesto of Futurism when he wrote, “Museums: cemeteries!… Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another. Museums: public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings. Museums: absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously slaughtering each other with color-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls!”

Jirō continued:

“They are monsters made of the matter called paint, of cloth, metals, earth, and marble, which through a meaningless act of signification by humans, through the magic of material, were made to fraudulently assume appearances other than their own. These types of matter [busshitsu], all slaughtered under the pretense of production by the mind, can now say nothing.

“Lock up these corpses in the graveyard.”

The movement set out to create a dynamic relationship between the art object and the actions of the artist creating the work. Jirō’s manifesto continued:

“Gutai Art does not alter matter. Gutai Art imparts life to matter. Gutai Art does not distort matter.”

In 1955 Kazuo Shiraga created a defining work titled “Challenge to the Mud” in which he flung himself into a mud pile made of clay, wrestling and fighting with it as he attempted to shape the clay into something new.

Jirō’s manfiesto stated that “In Gutai Art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other while keeping their distance. Matter never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates matter.”

Many people were influenced deeply by the Gutai movement. They were successful at gaining recognition internationally through their use of media, relationship building and public relations. The Fluxus artists of the 1960’s and 70’s in the United states were immediately and directly influenced by Gutai. While in college I read about the Gutai movement and drew influences from their work, most directly, Shiraga’s challenging mud.

Here are images from one of my performances, “rising from clay,” in which I coated my body in clay, laid out wood from the stack by our college’s wood fired kiln the length of my body, and continually attempted to rise from the floor, as though the clay were shaping me in a reversal of the traditional potter/clay relationship.

Rising from Clay

In another performance I would approach a wall touching and pressing on the wall reciting, “This is a wall. I accept the challenge of this wall.”

This is a wall

The intent was to address and heighten my and my audience’s awareness of simple things we put faith in such as stable engineering and the consistency of the world around us.

While many contemporary western artists look back to Fluxus, Dada and Futurism as well as movements like Surrealism and Suprematism as foundational concepts for modern art and performance, they may be missing a rich source of creative influence if they overlook Gutai.

To read the full manifesto of Gutai, follow this link to the full text at


Karrie Higgins’ Performances on Salt

Utah’s Salt Flats are a striking natural feature in the state’s West Desert. It is one of two places on the earth so attuned to the earth’s gravitational pull it is said you can see the curve of the earth on the horizon.

After living in Salt Lake City for four years Karrie and I had yet to go visit it.

I remembered seeing it as a kid on trips west to visit my grandparents and uncle on my Father’s side, but my last visit had probably been in the 4th grade.

We made the trip in spring 2013.

Photo at the Salt Flats 2013 by Alan Murdock

The ground was still wet from snowmelt which brings fresh salt and minerals down from the mountains each year, creating a fresh crust of salt when the flats have dried out by Fall.

That first trip it was little things that stood out: a dead sparrow partially preserved, salt incrusting its wings and beak. A plastic pirate sword, probably from a mixed drink or fruit skewers from a casino in the Nevada border town just twelve minutes away by car.

“It reminds me of Matthew Barney,” I said, remembering the Cremaster 2, the story of Mormon murderer Gary Gilmore, parts of which were filmed on the Salt Flats.

Opening to Cremaster 2 by Mathew Barney

The vastness, brightness and starkness of the environment were hypnotic. After only a few minutes it hurt to look without squinting. Taking photographs was a challenge as it was nearly impossible to check color or contrast on a camera display. We didn’t stay long, but the place created a draw.

“I think I want to come back here and do a performance,” Karrie said on the drive home.

She started imagining elements that could come together into a performance influenced by the story of Ezekiel. The starkness of the place suggested something of the apocalyptic messages of destruction and of the starkness, clarity and rigidity demanded of prophecy.

We went back in 2014 in late summer and shot “Valley of the Dry Bones,” Karrie’s video engaging with the apocalyptic messages in Mormon culture about “latter day” saints as the world prepares for end times.

“Valley of the Dry Bones” by Karrie Higgins video and post production by Alan Murdock

In March 2016 we went back on Memorial Day weekend to shoot more photography and more video footage. This time we produced a series of images with printed images on skirts, the prints designed by Karrie, and the skirts sewn by her as well. These images relate to literature Karrie has been writing and publishing that relate to truth in the face of victimization, medical trials by fire, and the writer Virginia Wolf, among other themes.

In one still photograph, Karrie stands by the sodden flats in a skirt with Virginia Wolf’s image on it, holding a cane similar to the one Virginia Wolf used, gazing out across the water wearing a modern jean jacket.

Karrie stands on shoreline of flooded salt flats. Wearing a skirt printed with the portrait of Virginia Wolf and holding a wooden kane, Karrie looks pensively towards the mountains on the horizon. Soft clouds float in the distance in the upper right of the photograph.
“Virginia Wolf” Karrie Higgins performance still 2016 photo by Alan Murdock

In a video Karrie holds her arms in the position required during a lie detector test with a stethoscope from her heart to her ears and a blood pressure cuff around her arm, the pump to increase pressure in her right hand and the gauge in her left. Exploring the possibility the epileptic mind is a superior mechanism for memory, Karrie flips assumptions and transforms her experience into disability poetics.

“Control Questions” by Karrie Higgins video by Alan Murdock (no sound)

So far no one is looking back, and no one is turning into a pillar, despite Karrie’s references to biblical texts. I suspect salt and the flats will continue to inform Karrie’s work, and these pieces have not yet reached their resolution. They will become components of essays, installations and other video. These are only a test. These are only control questions for work to come.

Essay and Images by Higgin’s artistic collaborator and husband Alan Murdock