VanDerBeek, a pioneer of expanded cinema, studied art and architecture at Cooper Union and Black Mountain College, where he received an intermedial education at the hands of Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham.
VanDerBeek began making experimental films in the fifties, and, between 1964 and 1967, he collaborated with Bell Labs computer programmer and artist Ken Knowlton on a series of eight computer-generated films using Knowlton’s BELFLIX (“Bell Flicks”) programming language. BELFLIX was written in Fortran and produced punch cards that were then put into an IBM 7094 that was connected to an SC-4020 microfilm plotter. The resulting hybrid works were titled Poem Fields, made on computer and recorded with 16mm film. The films combined color flicker patterns, text fragments, computer graphics, live action shots, and VanDerBeek’s collage animation, which he had refined in earlier films such as Science Friction (1959) and Breathdeath (1963). As with John Whitney Sr.’s later films, the IBM mainframe computers produced monochrome dot and line patterns slowly: a frame of ten thousand dots over the course of several hours. These images were then captured on film in a manner similar to stop-motion animation. Colors were added to the film image via optical printing.
VanDerBeek described the Poem Fields as “samples of the art of the future” that in time would resemble illuminated manuscripts in comparison to the sophisticated and ever-accelerating moving images to come, “a step away from mental movies”–the cinema of instant thought James Whitney had been trying to realize.