In the mid-1960s, the relationship between art and science reached an apex with Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). The models for collaboration then developed by the movement's trailblazers, Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, are still valid today. Following our last issue's article on cybernetics, this is the second in our series on art and science.
‘A ghost bouquet of promises’ is how Robert Rauschenberg described the technical innovations that were developing apace in the 1960s. He was handed that bouquet by Billy Klüver, a Swedish-raised engineer with whom Rauschenberg worked closely for several years, and who would eventually become the godfather of technological art. Rauschenberg approached Klüver in 1960, asking him if he could provide the five units that constituted his installation Oracle with remote-control radios, sound amplifiers, speakers and transmitters – all without wires, something that was not possible at the time. It took Klüver five years to achieve.
During the same period, Billy Klüver also helped Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Yvonne Rainer and John Cage, all of whom had technical ambitions of their own. We need to remember that this was before the Sony Portapak came onto the market. The Internet and all of the do-it-yourself software that we now take for granted only existed in the form of McLuhanesque mind spin. Unlike today's artists, artists then had no clue about what was technically even possible. They were not in a position to purchase new technology and had virtually no access to it, but they were extremely curious and keenly interested. Until the Vietnam War stopped their enthusiasm for the technology industry dead in its tracks, hundreds of American artists did succeed in integrating new technologies into their work, not least thanks to the mediation of Experiments in Art and Technology, better known as E.A.T.
Experiments in Art and Technology was founded in 1966 by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman and engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer. Both of the engineers worked for the then-famous Bell Telephone Laboratories. The foundation of the networking organization coincided with the experimental project 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, held at the 69th Regiment Armory, the same building that had hosted the infamous Armory Show in 1913. As Klüver described it, the purpose of E.A.T. was to break open ‘the enormous fortified castle called technology’, in order to give artists access to the materials, laboratories and knowledge of the technology industry through personal exchanges. From the very beginning, E.A.T. was a matchmaker. The organization wanted to connect artists with engineers and scientists. Both were meant to have equal input in the working relationships that resulted. What mattered was the creative process, not the end product.
Klüver, for years the undisputed force behind the organization, was convinced that both parties would profit from the relationship. While the engineers made partnerships with those whom society had marginalized (according to Klüver), the artists could in turn make the technological world more 'human', as the theorist Lewis Mumford had already described it in the 1950s. They could motivate engineers to discoveries that were not necessarily practical or profitable, and this is an idea that still reverberates today. Artists are ideally suited to looking at scientific projects from a different perspective and to tackling subject matter that researchers dismiss because it is not financially rewarding.
There was a certain pragmatism that was characteristic of E.A.T. Klüver gave countless lectures to convince engineers to take part, and arranged for E.A.T. to be present at technology conferences. In the first year alone, E.A.T. developed a technical services programme for artists, published newsletters, held a series of lecture/demonstrations with prominent scientists and organized a competition for engineers to come up with the most innovative contribution to a work of art, a project that resulted in the major exhibition Some More Beginnings (1968-1969) at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. Within two years, E.A.T. had more than 2500 artist members and an equal number of technical members. In that time, they had generated over 500 working relationships. By 1970, E.A.T. moreover had representatives in a number of American cities, and a sister organization in Japan.
Their initial project, 9 Evenings, was anything but well organized, or at least that was the opinion of the enormous numbers of people who attended. Amongst them were several prominent art critics, all of whom castigated the project. Critic Lucy Lippard, who did not have a kind word to say about how the project was handled (too amateurish, not radical enough), the space (too large, too laden), or the idea of the collaboration (too equal), most of all denounced the technical shortcomings and intermissions that sometimes lasted for hours. ‘Such mundane items as malfunctioning slide projectors, public address and closed-circuit television systems were apparently beneath the attention of advanced scientists.'
More than nine months had been spent preparing 9 Evenings. The number of working hours invested in it solely by the engineers was estimated at 8500. Each of the ten participating artists, John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor and Robert Whitman, in collaboration with 30 engineers from Bell Laboratories, developed an original performance that was presented once or twice. Rauschenberg 's impressive performance, Open Score, began with a live tennis match between Frank Stella and the professional tennis star Mimi Kanarek. Minuscule transmitters were built into their rackets so that the sound of the ball hitting the racket was captured and amplified. With each shot, you heard a loud ‘boing’ reverberate throughout the enormous Armory, and each time, a single light went out. The game ended in pitch dark. A group of about 500 volunteers then entered the stage. They could be seen only on three large screens, in real time, recorded by infrared cameras. This was an unprecedented premiere, because infrared was at that time still a state secret, available only for military objectives.
Lippard was not mistaken when she wrote that E.A.T.’s attention was not on such mundane issues as theatre equipment and audience comfort. As coordinator, Billy Klüver's emphasis had been on the process of collaboration, not the final performances. Moreover, almost all the preparations centred on bridging the gap between artists and engineers, on understanding each other's work, language and ambitions. Some of the engineers experienced growing frustrations about that process, which seemed to them undirected and noncommittal. Concrete objectives had to be established in order to keep them engaged.
Perhaps that was the reason why there were so many innovative firsts developed for 9 Evenings. The engineers, for example, thought up a unique switchboard system, to which the equipment for all ten performances (more than 350 amplifiers, switches, sound and volume controls, decoders, transmitters and microphones) could be connected. They built radio-guided carts for Deborah Hay, street-sound receivers throughout all of New York for John Cage and snowflakes that floated up instead of down for Öyvind Fahlström. For David Tudor, a proportional control system was created that made it possible to adjust the sound and light by moving a small flashlight over a square glass covering sixteen photocells (a big electronic eye). They also came up with a phosphorous material that Rauschenberg used to rub into his shoes, which would later result in a breakthrough in scientific infrared laser research.
It was clear that engineers were open to treading new paths, and most of all to making new discoveries. This was where the challenge lay. When the opportunity arose to equip and programme Pepsi-Cola's promotional pavilion at Expo ‘70, the world exhibition in Osaka, E.A.T. grabbed their chance. With sponsoring from Pepsi, they could work on a far larger scale and for an international audience. The first contact with Pepsi was through Robert Breer. With fellow artists Forrest Myers, David Tudor and Robert Whitman, he did a preliminary proposal for the pavilion, which would then be worked out by various teams of artists, engineers and scientists. In total, 20 artists and 50 engineers or scientists from both America and Japan committed to the long-term development of the project, a commitment that cost some of the engineers their jobs.
The pavilion itself, designed by the Japanese architect Tadashi Doi, had the shape of a geodetic, origami-like dome, about 25 metres high. It was situated near the entrance to Expo ‘70, in a large and open area. E.A.T. wanted to give visitors a total experience. At one of their very first meetings, at which the core team of Breer, Myers, Tudor, Whitman, Klüver, engineers Fred Waldhauer and John Pan, and architect John Pearce were joined by Robert Rauschenberg, they came up with the wildest plans, including mini-hovercrafts on which people could sit and float around, hot and cold zones, zones where your skin would change colour or your hair would stand on end, a gigantic ceiling mirror, a cloud of mist, fountains of things to taste and even a fountain of youth, which would catapult children into space, and it was often unclear whether the suggestions came from the artists or the engineers.
What was eventually completed may have been rather more modest, but it was no less innovative. The interior of the dome was completely covered with an immense spherical mirror, which had the bizarre optical effect of making the visitors, objects and performances seem to float in the space. Around the outside of the dome was a continuously changing cloud, framed by a light sculpture. A Sun Track Sculpture followed the sun and reflected it back into the cloud in the form of a triangle. Seven dome-shaped Floats (zooming, barely visible moving sculptures of which Robert Breer had previously exhibited smaller versions), the height of a man, moved around the entrance. The entrance was added to the pavilion by E.A.T., and it led to the Clam Room, a shell-shaped room with laser lights, from which people stepped into the dome. There were also advanced lighting and sound systems with remote controls for every visitor, as well as floor segments made of grass, stone, wood and lead, each with its own strange and disconcerting sounds. All of these elements, including the laser lights and the cloud, could be programmed by the invited artists during their live performances.
The most decisive and complex segments were the semi-spherical mirror and the Fog Sculpture, as the cloud was called. All of this demanded the utmost of the participants, but they were certainly world premieres. The concept of the cloud was an early idea conceived as a means of partially concealing the pavilion, which no one considered attractive. The Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya, daughter of a world-famous scientist in the field of snow and clouds, was asked to create the work. She was introduced to the American physicist Thomas Mee, to whom she made two demands: the cloud had to be as realistic as possible and be comprised purely of water.
Mee saw added value in the undertaking. Clouds had in fact already been produced, but only for research purposes, not for civil applications, and it had never been done without the use of chemicals. The collaboration between Mee and Nakaya proved highly successful. With the help of extremely precise water sprayers and a completely new guidance mechanism, they succeeded in generating the largest ‘natural’ cloud ever created. The technique would later find its way to the agricultural industry (as irrigation systems and for protecting crops from frost) and be applied as outdoor air-conditioning. In 1974, Mee patented the invention. Nakaya, in turn, has been creating fog sculptures ever since, using the technology that she developed together with Mee. One of her clouds floats permanently above the water surrounding the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
After 1970, it would be the so-called ‘Projects Outside Art’ that would command the greatest attention from E.A.T. With educational projects in such countries as India, El Salvador and Guatemala, Billy Klüver strove to achieve ‘a new aesthetic that would go beyond any previous conception of art or technology’. He felt that E.A.T. should be primarily active in developing countries, so that the combination of the power of the imagination (the artist) and technical know-how (the engineer or scientist) could offer solutions where politicians failed. This undertaking seemed to be a direct response to the dilemma of the ‘two cultures’ formulated by the British scientist and writer C.P. Snow back in 1959, which had generated widespread debate. Snow drew attention to a growing divide between the two cultures of the exact sciences on the one hand and the literary, artistic world on the other. The gaping lack of understanding and interest in one another's professional domains meant a terrible impediment to resolving such global problems as hunger and war.
By the 1970s, artists proved to have become less sensitive to the two cultures argument. But it was still a presence, in a kind of post-ideological variation, certainly in the growing field of Art & Science. Today, we still see collaboration between artists and scientists or technologists as having the potential to build bridges, solve problems and make discoveries that can make our world a better place.
The fact that this can be the principle argument behind continuing attempts to bring these two groups together, even in the upper echelons of the art world, has been demonstrated by the Seven on Seven project, hosted annually by the New Museum in New York and loosely based on 9 Evenings. For a period of 24 hours, seven artists are paired with seven technologists/scientists, in order to develop ‘something new’. Video artist Ryan Trecartin and software programmer David Karp developed the entertaining video platform Riverthe.net, and artist Monica Narula, together with former Google programmer Joshua Schachter, made a video application that people can use to redeem their sins.
One can certainly dispute the degree of improving the world here, but in any case, the 9 Evenings of today begins with a ‘problem’ for which a functional solution is sought. The collaboration has to lead to something usable. There can, therefore, be no doubt that this is not exactly what Billy Klüver had had in mind back in the early days of Experiments in Art and Technology.
Saskia van der Kroef is editor of Metropolis M
- Barbara Rose, An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Vintage Books/Elizabeth Avedon Editions, 1987), 67
- Billy Klüver, ‘Interface: Artist/Engineer’, transcript of a lecture given at MIT, published in E.A.T. Proceedings, no. 1, 21 April 1967.
- Lucy R. Lippard, ‘Total Theatre?’, in Art International, 20 January, 1967
- Calvin Tomkins, ‘Outside Art’, in Billy Klüver, Julie Martin and Barbara Rose, ed., Pavilion (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., York 1972), 127