April 03, 2021

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Making Art Work by W. Patrick McCray

"Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture" by W. Patrick McCray (on Openlibrary) is an interesting history of the art and technology scene in the mid-20th Century. As a technologist-who's-also-been-an-artist, and someone who helps run an organisation that welcomes technologists and artists (among others) and provides a place for them to work and find each other there was lots of interest in the book.

As ever, lots of what we're doing has been done before, or at least something similar has. It's nice to think that someone might write a history of the DoES Liverpool scene sometime; we'll have to keep striving for doing epic shit.

Here are my "dog-eared pages" from reading it...

Page 15

Compared to artists and those who write about them, engineers often appear as relatively silent actors in the larger historical record. Moreover, compared with scientists, engineers are papyrophobic. That is to say, they are less inclined to record their recollections and activities on paper.


When British artist Dick Higgins coined the word "intermedia" in 1965, he was referring to art that "seems to fall between media." Intermedia art was understood as a hybrid thing, cross-fertilizing and blurring boundaries between traditional arts like painting, sculpture, and dance while adding film images, electronic sounds, and other technologies. Higgins term suggested a coming era when traditional borders between artistic media as well as academic disciplines and professional communities would shift and possibly be erased.

Page 37

Outside the studio, Malina (and other kinetic artists) realized that many galleries and museums were not set up to display electrical works. To help alleviate concerns of gallery owners, he might include a statement on the back of his pieces noting that, if malfunctioning, it could "be put in order by any electrician or radio repair man."

Page 49

In 1961, for example, in the Belgium city of Liège, Schöffer unveiled his Cybernetic Tower. Standing 170 feet tall, its suite of sensors registered ambient environmental changes such as wind, temperature, and humidity. The information collected went to a computer that, in conjunction with electric motors, varied the movement of large rectilinear metal blades and vanes. Sunlight was reflected and diffused off their polished metal surfaces while, at night, beams of multicolored light were projected onto the tower. Schöffer integrated his works into the local environment, using the glass windows of a nearby office building as well as the Meuse River itself as projection screens.

Page 63

One of the more notable efforts, based on extensive site visits and interviews, was carried out in the mid-1950s by the American Society for Engineering Education. It emphasized that producing young engineers who appreciated the liberal arts meant discarding stereotypes while also encouraging engineers to see the arts and humanities as valuable in their own right. Hoping to do more than just make engineers "acceptable in polite society," the humanities could enhance engineers' understanding that "every professional act has human and social consequences." Statements such as these acquired greater urgency toward the end of the 1960s, when student activists, opponents of the Vietnam War, and critics of large, impersonal, and destructive technological systems increasingly labeled engineers as amoral technocrats beholden to the corporations they served. Such charges insinuated themselves into the art-and-technology movements as we'll see later.

Page 76

What Sontag branded as the "one culture" possessed exceptional diversity. It included not only painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers and musicians but also "neurologists, TV technicians [and] electronic engineers." One of these new professional hybrids, someone Sontag was certainly aware of, was engineer Billy Klüver.

Page 87

Video artist Nam June Paik, who spent time at Bell Labs as an artist-in-residence, already had his answer: "If you are surprised with the result," he later told an interviewer, "then the machine has composed the piece."

Page 94

At first, Rauschenberg incorporated static objects like light bulbs or radiometers. But his plan for a new piece, eventually called Oracle, really started to come together after Klüver gave him a tour of Bell Labs in 1961. As the artist later told critic Barbara Rose, seeing all those new technologies was "like being handed a ghost bouquet of possibilities."

Page 101

"We need a house full of exotic technology." Billy Klüver, 1966

Page 104

Despite securing his employer's approval, Klüver soon abandoned the project. Instead, he decided it would be more efficient to directly engineer social situations that would bring different professional communities together. "Only by making new inventions which are not conditioned by ordinary attitudes," Klüver later said, "can we learn about technology."


Just as Klüver's colleagues were well acquainted with one another, the artists had worked together several times.


But this familiarity only went so far and Klüver was nervous as the two groups appraised one another. "The air was stiff," he recalled, and their conversations soon soared off into abstract musings. As he wrote in his diary, "What are we doing at 13,000 feet? It's a long walk to earth." Pierce brought their speculative dialogue back to terra firma. "Tell them what you have," he encouraged his engineers, "tell them about things."

Page 124

While logical in principle, the patch board system proved enormously troublesome in practice. Locating the necessary hardware was only the beginning. Eventually, engineers convinced Automotive Marine Products, a small company in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to loan them equipment. Then came what Schneider called the "saga of the tiny plugs"—thousands of feet of wire and coaxial cables with the proper connectors attached to their end had to be made by hand. With only a few days to go before 9 Evenings started, the artists, along with dozens of friends they had recruited, learned firsthand how to wire patch boards and strip cable ends. At one point, Simone Forti went looking for John Cage and found the famous avant-garde composer off by himself, patiently crimping wires.

Page 151

In stressing the need to collaboratively develop "alternate technologies" for "industrially deficient environments," Klüver's thinking reflected ideals of the "appropriate technology movement" promoted by social activist groups in the 1960s. And, in questioning the autonomous nature of technology, Klüver's ideas echoed those expressed by public intellectuals like Lewis Mumford, concepts which later coalesced under the academic banner of "science and technology studies."

Page 167

In 1965, after submitting a proposal for [CAVS, the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies,] to MIT's administration, Kepes published his idea in the journal Daedalus. His essay described a "closely knit work community" of artists and designers who would be based in an "academic institution with a strong scientific tradition" such as MIT. Just as paleontologists envisioned human evolution advancing via interbreeding, Kepes proposed that "cultural evolution" would happen through "interthinking" between artists, engineers, and scientists. These collaborations would, Kepes argued, produce a "climate more conducive to the development of new ideas" than artists might achieve by working alone.

Page 169

[...] Billy Klüver described how E.A.T. emerged out of the spirit of 9 Evenings. By not focusing on aesthetics or artistic products, chance and randomness were encouraged as part of a larger creative process between artists and engineers. Likewise, Ivan Sutherland, an MIT-trained electrical engineer, described how computer algorithms could create art that varied with the observer's participation.

Page 183

"No one asks a scientist why he wants to use a laser beam," Klüver noted, and artists should be free to do likewise.

Page 192

In 1966, London-based artists Barbara Steveni and John Latham formed the Artist Placement Group (APG). Robert Adeane, who sat on the board of companies such as Shell, helped Latham and Steveni situate artists within corporate settings. But where Tuchman [with his similar programme in Los Angeles] saw these partnerships in largely instrumental terms, the APG brought a more theoretical and activist-inclined orientation to the table.

Page 220

"What are managers going to do with an artist?," Whitman recalled [of his residency]. "They introduced me to all the guys with beards. John Forkner had the longest beard. So we talked."

Page 230

When Fujiko Nakaya contacted him, Mee had just started his own company, a small operation run out of his Altadena garage, which planned to make instruments for weather monitoring. He had never heard of Billy Klüver or E.A.T., but Nakaya's knowledge of cloud science impressed him. Moreover, he had met her father at scientific conferences and was well aware of his pioneering research on snow.

Mee was initially skeptical about whether they could generate enough fog to obscure the entire 120-foot-diameter pavilion but he agreed to explore the problem with her. Mee respected Nakaya's aesthetic preference for producing an envrionmental sculpture of "dense, bubbling fog...to walk in, to feel and smell, and disappear in."

Page 231

When Fujiko Nakaya started working on the fog project, she made several sketches and drawings of the Pepsi Pavilion, surrounded by billowing clouds. But until she tested Mee's system in Osaka, the visual effects it would actually produce were speculative.

Page 244

Inside, Pepsi's public relations officer for Japan fretted that "common people don't understand art. I tell them it means nothing, right?"

Page 257

A closer look at the [LACMA "Art and Technology" exhibition]'s participants—this can be seen from the grid of men's faces on the cover of Tuchman's Report—reveals what became the show's main liability for many members of the art world. All of the artists included in the exhibition were white men. While this imbalance might have escaped public censure in 1967, when Tuchman was starting the Art and Technology Program, by mid-1971 such an omission seemed a serious lapse in judgement. In June, the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists (or, LACWA, a dig at their county's publicly funded museum [LACMA]) presented its own report to the Los Angeles Times. Between 1961 and 1971, it stated, some 713 artists exhibited their work at LACMA. Of these, only twenty-nine were women. And, of the fifty-three solo shows the museum presented, only one was devoted to a woman artist. Finally, an inspection of the museum's permanent galleries showed that only 1 percent of the art displayed was made by women artists and, to add insult to injury, plenty of the artwork featured depictions of nude women as seen through the male gaze.

Page 265

In 1965, around the time Bell Labs hosted him as an artist-in-residence, Paik had predicted that "artists will work with capacitors, resistors, and semiconductors as they work today with brushes, violins, and junk."


Although video art received the most attention and legitimacy from the art world, similar stories could be told for other "new" technologies that artists experimented with throughout the 1970s. Computer art (which eventually morphed into commercial and scientific applications like computer graphics and data visualization), holography, and art made using copy machines were similar to video art, if not in prominence, by virtue of their small-scale and relative accessibility. In each of these cases, artists&mash;an increasing number of whom were women—could explore the possibilities of electronic technologies without necessarily requiring a professional engineer's expertise. These new technologies offered women artists a way forward along fresh paths not blocked by men. For example, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, artist Sonia Sheridan, with support from the 3M Company, translated several years of experiments with photocopying machines into a new course of study called "generative systems."

Page 279

For years, CAVS had presented the visual arts as a humanizing influence on students, engineers, and scientists where people might interact on equal footing. Negroponte presented an alternate vision in which "being digital" would reshape society, economies, and, almost as an afterthought, benefit the fine arts as well.


[CAVS director Otto] Piene countered that Negroponte's "porous" proposals [for founding the MIT Media Lab] were full of "buzzwords" and "modish applications," promising future payoffs while abandoning the visual arts. "It is verbiage," CAVS supporters fumed, "the only defense for it is that it works to raise money."

Page 196

As an exercise in feminist social practice, [Annina] Rüst's artwork—she titled it A Piece of the Pie Chart—addressed the pervasive underrepresentation of women in the workforce. Using a robotic arm and a computer workstation, her assembly line-like installation imprinted pie charts on actual pastries that showed lopsided gender ratios at technology companies and art museums. The installation also produced mailing labels so one could mail a custom-made pie to the organization associated with its data.

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