From the Video Vault: James Lee Byars’ Gifts to the Universe

From the Video Vault: James Lee Byars’ Gifts to the Universe

James Lee Byars, "UP?"

James Lee Byars, creator of the performance celebration "UP?", holding a spool that contained one mile of Japanese gold paper thread, the other end of which was attached to a 10-foot helium-filled weather balloon. Read more.

Footage of two of conceptual performance celebrations – found on a reel of 8mm film labeled otherwise – serves as documentation of innovative work by James Lee Byars for the Museum of Contemporary Crafts exhibition “Made With Paper” (November 18, 1967 – January 7, 1968). These short, behind-the-scenes segments of Byars' “The Giant Soluble Man” and “UP?” were captured by Lois Moran, who was then the editor of the ACC’s Outlook newsletter and later a longstanding editor of American Craft magazine.

The late 1960s were a time of change in Byars’ career. He began a nomadic lifestyle, choosing to live in multiple cities after living in Japan for a decade, and prominent themes of his mature career surfaced, such as his love of gold and his philosophy that the question is more important than the answer. The artist also started wearing his signature hat during this time.

The first part of the film captures a street-level view of the performative sculpture “The Giant Soluble Man” in honor of the opening of “Made with Paper,” one of the “Ten Great Moments in MCC History.”  Over several city blocks, participants rolled out an ephemeral human form made of more than 400 feet of dissolvable paper that was then sprayed with water and washed away by street sweepers.

The second segment documents what may be the only moving-image documentation of a smaller, seemingly more intimate celebratory event titled “UP?”, described by Byars as “a gift to the universe.” An essay within “Thin skin: the fickle nature of bubbles, spheres and inflatable structures” by Barbara Clausen and Carin Kuoni provides more details: 

Byar’s [sic] golden thread tied to a weather balloon was sent up at exactly noon on New Year’s Day 1968. The weather balloon, ten feet in diameter, acted as the intermediary between earth and sky. For a while, the golden fiber was in-between, neither lying on the ground nor completely floating through the air. Then it lifted off completely and disappeared in the icy morning. The balloon had been supplied by the Helium Centennial Committee, a conglomerate of more than fifty government agencies, private companies and institutions celebrating the anniversary of helium’s discovery on the sun in 1868. Local weather stations monitored the climatic conditions and predicted that the balloon should be able to "clear the skyscrapers of New York City." Byars was not oblivious to the organizational challenge this performance posed and in fact welcomed the complexity of what he called "circumstances." 

The invitations had been sent and announcements made, only to encounter a “circumstance” of locale: Just three days before the performance, CBS sent a letter to MCC staff denying access to CBS Square due to the possibility of liability.

Clearly the show went on, and thankfully Lois was there to catch it on film.

Heather Carroll is an art historian with an interest in museums and archives pursuing her MLIS degree from St. Catherine University. This summer she’s a 2016 Windgate museum intern working with ACC Library staff to digitize and edit audio, video, and film footage from the ACC archives.