Gene Youngblood (1942–2021)
April 07, 2021
Visionary media arts theorist and critic Gene Youngblood, whose prescient 1970 book Expanded Cinema reshaped the fields of art and communications, predicted technological advances in filmmaking, and offered the first serious recognition of video and software-based works as cinematic art forms, died on April 6 in Santa Fe at the age of seventy-eight.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1942, Youngblood spent most of the 1960s in Los Angeles variously working as a reporter and film critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, as a reporter for KHJ-TV, and as an arts commentator for KPFK. In 1967, he was hired at $80 a week as associate editor at the Los Angeles Free Press, the first and most influential countercultural organ of its time.
He would remain at the publication until 1970, when he began co-teaching at California Institute of the Arts, with video artist Nam June Paik, one of the first college courses on the history of video. That summer, his “Call to Arms” was published in the inaugural issue of the crucial journal Radical Software. The piece manifested Youngblood’s unending drive to democratize the media, announcing, “The media must be liberated, must be removed from private ownership and commercial sponsorship, must be placed in the service of all humanity.”
A few months later, Youngblood published Expanded Cinema, much of which was based on his columns for the LA Free Press. Though the volume took as its title a term coined by Stan VanDerBeek, “it was Gene Youngblood who put it on the cover of a book, filled it with rocket fuel, and sent it buzzing through the late-1960s art world like a heat-seeking missile,” wrote Caroline A. Jones in Artforum in 2020, on the occasion of the book’s fiftieth anniversary. Expanded Cinema—in which Youngblood limned concepts ranging from the Paleocybernetic Age to the videosphere to “new nostalgia,” all in context of what he termed the “global intermedia network”—is considered a seminal work in the field of communications. “I thought maybe four hippies would read it,” Youngblood wrote decades later. The book sold nearly fifty thousand copies in seven years.
Youngblood lectured on media arts theory at more than four hundred higher-learning institutions. In 1988, he founded the moving image arts department at the College of Santa Fe, where he remained a professor for years (the institution, which in 2010 was rechristened the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, closed in 2018). Though the rise of the internet hardly led to the utopian mediascape Youngblood had hoped for—“The architecture of tyranny is in place,” he wrote in 2013; “truth-telling and dissent are criminalized”—he continued to advocate for a counterculture media characterized by radical democracy. “Anything less,” he wrote, “is a betrayal of us all.”