Grey Room

A Feedback Situation: Dennis Oppenheim’s Cybernetics of the Family

Anna Lovatt

Dennis Oppenheim. A Feed-Back Situation, 1971. “Aspen, Colorado. July, 1971 Dennis and Erik Oppenheim. I originate the movement which Erik translates and returns to me. What I get in return is my movement fed through his sensory system.” Color photo, text. Photo: Dennis Oppenheim Estate.


Within a set of debates and practices concerning the transformation, observation, and mediation of kinship by audiovisual technologies in the 1970s, I locate a series of works by Dennis Oppenheim. From 1970 to 1976, Oppenheim produced almost thirty works and proposals incorporating or referencing family members, including his three children, his wife, his father, and his maternal grandmother. In several of these works, the new technology of video is aligned with familial relationships via the shared mechanism of feedback, in which the outputs of a system are routed back as inputs in a chain of cause and effect.

I argue that Oppenheim’s works with family members cannot be understood as a countercultural critique of the family structure, nor as a hackneyed conflation of artistic production and procreativity. Instead, they draw on cybernetic theory and new recording technologies such as video and audiotape to envisage the family as a system of interactions. The importance of systems theory and cybernetics for early television and video art has been thoroughly explored in recent years, but Oppenheim is unusual in his application of these posthumanist methodologies to the emotionally freighted subject of his own family. His works of the early 1970s choreograph patterns of communication analyzed by family systems theorists in the postwar period—even those associated with familial breakdown and subjective distress.