What happens when you put artists and technologists together? Forty-nine years ago last month, Robert Rauschenberg and a Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer named Billy Kluver answered that question with a tennis match.
The game pitted the tennis pro Mimi Kanarek against Frank Stella, already one of America’s most radical and celebrated painters. Surrounded by some 1,200 viewers on bleachers, the two strode into the drill hall of the 69th Regiment Armory in New York and faced off across the net. Each time one of them hit the ball, a miniature radio transmitter inside the racket broadcast a loud “bong” and sent a signal extinguishing one of the hall’s 48 overhead lights. When the vast space had gone completely dark, the match was over. But the performance continued: Without a word, several hundred people walked in and went through a sequence of motions in total darkness, invisible to the audience except on giant television screens displaying a ghostly infrared projection. With Kluver’s help, Rauschenberg had transformed a familiar sport into something vaguely threatening and more than a little disturbing.
Rauschenberg’s “Open Score” was part of “9 Evenings: Theater & Engineering,” a landmark series of performance-art pieces presented at the armory in October 1966. By pairing artists like John Cage and Lucinda Childs with engineers from Bell Labs, Rauschenberg and Kluver hoped to meld the “two cultures” C.P. Snow had described in his 1959 book of that title. Today their efforts are at the center of“Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York,” an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society that charts the area’s rise as a technology hub from the 19th century to the 1980s.
“Silicon City,” opening Friday, Nov. 13, begins with Samuel Morse’s telegraph and the many wonders that sprang from Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratories. In contrast to Silicon Valley (which was still largely made up of fruit orchards as late as the 1960s), such early inventions did not lead to wave after wave of entrepreneurial innovation. Instead they gave rise to vast, monopolistic or quasimonopolistic enterprises that helped define 20th-century America — chief among them IBM and AT&T. But during the ’60s, improbably enough, this spawned a fusion of art and technology that could only have begun in New York.
IBM is represented in “Silicon City” by such artifacts as a System/360 computer, from a line of mainframes that revolutionized the industry in the ’60s, and the groundbreaking film “THINK” that Charles and Ray Eames produced for the IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. AT&T is represented by, among other things, its Picturephone, a product that epitomized everything wrongheaded about Ma Bell: At a time when the Pentagon was financing the development of the robust and open-ended system that would eventually become the Internet, AT&T was trying to figure out how much data could be squeezed out of an image so it could be transmitted on low-bandwidth copper wires.
But there was another side to AT&T, one represented by Bell Labs, the scientific and technological playground that produced the transistor, the laser — and information theory, the breakthrough idea that underlies much of the computer age. It was at Bell Labs that art and technology converged, setting a tone that reverberates today in the digitally inflected work of artists like Josh Kline and Ryan Trecartin.
In truth, the mid-’60s partnership between artists and engineers was less bizarre than it might seem. “Bell Labs was a very open place in those days,” Julie Martin, Kluver’s widow, recalled recently. “You almost had to chase down your boss in the hall and tell him what you were doing.”
Kluver was the catalyst for the art-technology collaboration. A Swedish engineer, he came to America because he liked the way it looked in the movies. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1957 and joined Bell Labs the following year to work on lasers, still an experimental technology. Pontus Hulten, a friend who had become director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, introduced him to Jean Tinguely, the Swiss sculptor, who needed help with a sculpture he planned to show at the Museum of Modern Art. Kluver scavenged bicycle wheels and other spare parts with him, then worked with his colleagues at Bell Labs to build timers and triggering mechanisms. The result was “Homage to New York,” a self-destructing assemblage that went on view in MoMA’s garden for a single evening in March 1960. In 27 minutes, it managed to set itself on fire, blow itself up and collapse into the pool.
More collaborations followed. When Jasper Johns wanted a neon letter for his “Field Painting” that wouldn’t have to be plugged into the wall, Kluver and his co-workers designed a battery-driven power supply. When Rauschenberg was trying to put together “Oracle,” an interactive sound assemblage that required cordless radios, Kluver helped make it work. When Andy Warhol asked for a light bulb that would float in space, Kluver and his team concluded it couldn’t be done. Instead he suggested a heat-sealable metallic plastic, 3M Scotchpak. Warhol used it to make “Silver Clouds,” a dreamy assemblage of floating pillows that playfully nudged gallerygoers in the spring of 1966.
In part, these partnerships were encouraged by proximity: As the epicenter of the art world, New York was well-positioned to take advantage of technology that otherwise might have remained locked up in corporate labs. Idealism was a factor as well. “He thought the artist could be a revolutionary factor that could inspire the engineers,” Ms. Martin said of her husband.
But most of all, the moment was right. When the ’60s began, young artists like Rauschenberg were in rebellion against abstract expressionism, with its insistence on art as a vehicle for personal feeling and existential angst. They countered with a raw, anything-goes sensibility that brought in not only engineers but also dancers, choreographers and poets, not to mention bits of scrap metal. Rauschenberg’s “9 Evenings” was the culmination of years of raucous “happenings” in tiny downtown storefronts and the basement of Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square. As they set about redefining art (or “de-defining” it, as the critic Harold Rosenberg maintained), avant-garde artists needed people who could not just wield a screwdriver but design a Doppler sonar system, set up directional photocells to generate sound from movement or make artificial snowflakes fall up rather than down.
“9 Evenings” turned out to be an inflection point. Viewers and critics were alternately irritated, bewildered or infuriated by the goings-on. Only later did it become clear that what they were viewing was not an artwork but an art system, a process of feedback and control that techies knew as cybernetics. The event was made up of people following a set of instructions — an algorithm.
Even as they were staging “9 Evenings,” Rauschenberg and Kluver formed Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), an outfit devoted to pairing engineers with artists. “If you don’t accept technology, you better go to another place, because no place here is safe,” Rauschenberg declared at a 1967 news conference. “Nobody wants to paint rotten oranges any more.”
The idea spread. In 1968, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art started Art & Technology, a program that paired artists including Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, John Chamberlain, Robert Irwin and James Turrell with locally based groups like Lockheed Martin, Walt Disney and the RAND Corporation. Some RAND employees thought Chamberlain was there to redecorate their offices, but Mr. Turrell and Mr. Irwin were paired with a psychologist who worked on NASA missions. Ultimately Mr. Turrell walked out, but the relationship still provided the genesis for his signature works — his “Ganzfelds,” disorienting environments that suggest the experience of flying blind into a snowstorm.
By the end of the ’70s, however, artists’ fascination with technology was fading with the rise of neo-expressionism, which signaled an ebbing of interest in performance art, conceptualism and anything that smacked of cybernetics. “I’m painting again!” David Byrne squawked in the Talking Heads song “Artists Only” — and that’s exactly what people were doing.
Coincidentally — or perhaps not — the center of gravity in the tech world was shifting from Armonk, N.Y., and Murray Hill, N.J., where IBM and Bell Labs had headquarters, to Silicon Valley, home of Intel and Apple. But just as New York has re-emerged as a tech hotbed in the Internet era — a development documented at the end of the “Silicon City” show — tech has re-emerged as a major theme in art.
“What was gestured to in the ’60s is now coming to fruition in really interesting ways,” said Zachary Kaplan, the executive director of Rhizome, an organization set up in 1996 to support digital and Internet-related art. Now affiliated with the New Museum, Rhizome hosts an annual conference, Seven on Seven, that pairs artists with technologists and challenges them to create something new together. “E.A.T. is a foundational reference for something like that,” Mr. Kaplan added.
Similarly, “9 Evenings” can be seen as the progenitor for the fixation on digital culture that’s characteristic of the work of so many young artists today — people like Mr. Trecartin, the video and installation artist who, as noted in The New Yorker, “is being hailed as the magus of the Internet century,” and Cory Arcangel, who arrived on the scene in 2002 with “Super Mario Clouds,” a version of the popular Nintendo video games that he had hacked to delete everything but the blue sky and clouds.
Still, Lauren Cornell, Rhizome’s former director, now a curator and associate director of technology initiatives at the New Museum, noted, “the moments are really different. With ‘9 Evenings,’ technologists worked in service to the artists.”
In contrast, in the current wave of shows — like the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, which Ms. Cornell and Mr. Trecartin organized — technology has become so ubiquitous that the technologist and the artist are often the same person. “Artists are coders, and coders are artists,” she said — which suggests that in some sense at least, Rauschenberg and Kluver were more successful than they’d ever dreamed.
Credited – the New York Times