Skip to main content

Biographical Note | A Finding Aid to the Paul Ryan papers, 1931-2009

Paul Ryan papers, 1931-2009

Biographical Note

Paul Ryan was a pioneering video artist, writer, teacher, and theoretician based in New York City and the Hudson Valley of New York State. Born in 1943, Ryan spent his early adulthood as a seminarian and later a member of the Roman Catholic order of Passionist monks, which he left in 1965. He eventually received a B.A. from New York University. During the Vietnam War, Ryan received conscientious objector status and studied with Marshall McLuhan at Fordham University as alternative service. It was McLuhan's influence that led Ryan to begin to explore the possibilities of the medium of video.
In 1969, Ryan participated in the landmark exhibition "TV as a Creative Medium" curated by Howard Wise, which served to link the kinetic art movement of the 1960s with the emergent medium of video art. The first exhibition in the United States devoted to video, "TV as a Creative Medium" signaled radical changes and defined an emerging artistic movement. In 1969 Ryan co-founded the Raindance Corporation along with Ira Schneider, Michael Shamberg, David Cort, Beryl Korot, Phyllis Gershuny, and others. Raindance was an influential media collective that proposed radical theories and philosophies of video as an alternative form of cultural communication. Influenced by the communications theories of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, the collective produced tapes and writings that explored the relation of cybernetics, media, and ecology. From 1970-1974, Raindance published the seminal video journal
Radical Software
, which provided a network of communications for the fledgling alternative video movement. In 1971, Shamberg published
Guerrilla Television
, a summary of the group's principles and a blueprint for a decentralization of television through access to public and cable programming. The original Raindance collective dispersed in the mid-1970s; the nonprofit Raindance Foundation continued into the 1990s. Ryan's core writings from the Raindance era were gathered into his 1973 publication
Birth and Death and Cybernation
, republished in 1974 as
Cybernetics of the Sacred
.
Ryan's work to develop alternative uses of video technology continued long after his involvement with Raindance. He began to implement his theories about the use of video monitoring and feedback within dynamic systems with the work that came to be known as the Earthscore Notational System. With Steve Kolpan and Bob Schuler, he founded the Earthscore Foundation, through which he raised money for the exploration and development of this applied practice. Earthscore, based largely on the writings of philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce and Gregory Bateson's work on cybernetics, provided the theoretical and logical underpinnings of both the ecosystem documentation and interpretation process, and the triadic rituals of interpersonal behavior, that became the core of Ryan's work for much of his life. These ideas were implemented in a wide variety of projects such as eco-channel design, video scores specific to certain locations, threeing projects exploring interpersonal behavior with video and computer technology, and a curriculum for combining media production training with environmental education.
Ryan later worked with organizations such as Talking Wood, The Earth Environmental Group, and Environment '89, (re-named in later years Environment '90, '91, and '92) to implement Earthscore systems and prototypes. He co-founded The Gaia Institute, hosted at Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and co-directed it from 1985-1991. The Institute fostered dialogs between science, religion, and art through workshops, lectures, exhibitions and events. He was an artist-in-residence for Earth Environmental Group in 1988 via a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, and used the residency to carry out his video project "Nature in New York City," documenting city ecosystems and demonstrating how an eco-channel might work. Environment '89 organized a coordinated campaign for a cable channel devoted to the environment, the New York City Eco-channel for a Sustainable Tomorrow (NEST).
Ryan spent his later years as a professor of media production and theory at Savannah College of Art and Design, and then at the New School for Social Research. His work has been exhibited widely in the United States, including "The Primitivism Show" in The Museum of Modern Art (1984), "The American Century Show" at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1999-2000), and the Venice Biennale (2002). He died in 2013.