Making Art Do Work
By Peter Sachs CollopyOctober 22, 2020
Making Art Work by W. Patrick McCray
An electrical engineer at Bell Labs, Klüver developed a side gig in the early 1960s helping artists incorporate technologies like radio, neon lights, and Scotchpak polyester film into their work. Some of those artists had names likes Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. He then went on to manage increasingly ambitious projects like the 1966 multimedia performances 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, the organization Experiments in Art and Technology, and the 1970 immersive environment Pepsi Pavilion.
His statement about the limited material benefits of his work aside, Klüver’s motivations were in fact pointedly political. Along with many of his collaborators, he was worried about where the technocratic world was headed and what it did to people. Art, he thought, could make technology more playful and participatory, encouraging people to become aware of the technological systems within which they were increasingly embedded. It could make them think. Had the blackout experienced by much of the Northeastern United States in 1965 been a work of art rather than accident, suggested Klüver, it would have been a powerful one, “an artist’s idea — to make us aware of something.”
In Making Art Work, W. Patrick McCray asks why and how American artists and engineers collaborated to produce this kind of technological art in the 1960s and 1970s. In our current moment, so obviously marked by the American government’s failure to deploy scientific expertise against a pandemic, and by demonstrations against white supremacy and police brutality larger than those of the 1960s, this book also provokes additional questions. Of what did technological art make people aware? Could it in fact contribute to solving social problems like hunger, homelessness, and war? How did patriarchy and white supremacy shape this art and the awareness it produced? What roles did women and people of color play in constructing and contesting it? Although none of these questions is at the center of McCray’s book, he points toward some of the answers.
Making Art Work grapples with the history of technological art primarily by focusing on the creation of institutions that structured certain kinds of collaborations between artists and engineers: EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and Media Lab, LACMA’s Art and Technology Program, and the journal Leonardo. McCray is drawn to these organizations, he writes, by their “signal strength,” the concentration of published and archival documentation around them.
As a result, McCray’s protagonists are institution builders. In addition to Klüver, McCray gives pride of place to Frank Malina, who started his career in the 1930s as a pioneer of American rocketry. Malina was the co-founder and director of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which later became part of NASA. After being investigated by the FBI for his membership in the Communist Party, he moved in 1947 to Paris, where he first became an administrator at the new United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and then a professional artist known for his kinetic sculptures incorporating electric lights and motors. One might imagine that Malina would express the socialist ideals for which he’d been exiled from engineering, but in fact, even as an artist, his political commitment was to scientific institutions. In 1968, he began publishing Leonardo and encouraging artists to publish their findings about techniques, technologies, and aesthetics in the same way scientists and engineers did.
The counterintuitive point here has to do with what McCray’s artists and engineers had in common: managerialism. They were managers who worked within bureaucratic hierarchies. “If the artist was in hell in 1946,” quipped conceptual artist Allan Kaprow in 1964, “now he is in business.” Artists, he continued, had become “indistinguishable from the middle-class from which they come.” Making Art Work can then be read as a history of how art became managerial, just as both science and engineering had a century earlier when they became professions.
Each institution was managerial in its own way. While EAT matched individual artists with engineers and regarded them as equal contributors, LACMA’s Art and Technology program, managed by curator Maurice Tuchman, matched artists with corporations like Disney and Hughes Aircraft. “Tuchman,” writes McCray, “tended to treat the technologists who participated in LACMA’s project more as functionaries following company orders — invisible technicians rather than equal partners.”
McCray’s account is influenced by Matthew Wisnioski’s article “Why MIT Institutionalized the Avant-Garde: Negotiating Aesthetic Virtue in the Postwar Defense Institute,” as he himself point out. Engineers were drawn to the art world, Wisnioski argues, by their pursuit of aesthetic virtue, a synthesis of the ideals of collaboration and creativity that promised to “rehabilitate the image of science and technology” in an era when many intellectuals and activists critiqued them for their contributions to capitalism, consumerism, and the Vietnam War. McCray adds that engineers and the companies for which they worked were themselves concerned about their own rigidity and conformity. The solution: An injection of “creativity.” Xerox advertised in 1965 that it was seeking to hire “the creative, responsible, non-conformist” — a triad of traits that, yoked together, surely speaks to managers’ discomfort with the unconventionality they were purportedly seeking. One obvious place to find creativity was in the art world. Collaborations ended up serving several purposes, and one of them was quite clearly to facilitate legitimacy exchange, to borrow a concept from Geoffrey Bowker: engineers refashioned themselves from boring “organization men” into imaginative creators, and artists shed their reputations as bohemian aesthetes to become experts in experiment and innovation.
This brings us back to questions of diversity and liberation. Like most American managers of their time, and like the scientists engaged in the grand collaborations of Big Science, the artists and engineers who built Big Art were nearly all white men. This included 74 of the 76 artists Tuchman featured in his report on LACMA’s Art and Technology Program. The remaining two were a Black male engineer-turned-artist, Frederick Eversley, and a white woman, Channa Davis, whose proposal was never realized because Tuchman chose not to match it with an industry partner. (According to Davis, Tuchman “did not feel it was appropriate for a woman to discuss an engineering project with the male industrial scientists involved with the show.”) The Los Angeles Council of Women Artists produced its own report on this “blatant discrimination,” finding that even beyond Art and Technology, only one percent of art on display in LACMA’s permanent galleries was made by women. “A lack of representation and diversity appeared as something, unfortunately, that both the art and engineering communities shared,” writes McCray. “If art-and-technology collaborations were indeed the ‘wave of the future,’ they were also part of a movement that excluded women and people of color.”
EAT was somewhat more diverse in terms of gender than LACMA’s program, partly because Klüver collaborated with women who had achieved prominence in dance and choreography. McCray devotes particular attention to a rare-at-the-time physicist and electrical engineer, Elsa Garmire, whose research with lasers at MIT and Caltech led her to make laser art that attracted the attention of EAT staff. Klüver soon introduced Garmire to Rauschenberg and other artists, and she began exhibiting “lasergrams” produced by photographing laser diffractions. Such playful use of technology, she wrote, was a “first step toward eliminating this divinity of technological wonders.” Garmire served as EAT’s technical director, then collaborated with filmmaker Ivan Dryer to produce laser planetarium shows, which they called Laserium. She later directed the University of Southern California’s Center for Laser Studies and served as dean of Dartmouth College’s engineering school.
While still at EAT, Garmire contributed to Pepsi Pavilion, which filled a mirrored dome at the Tokyo festival, Expo ’70, with laser sculpture and performance art. The Pavilion represents a culmination of the art-and-technology movement — and a crisis, as EAT’s partnership with sponsor PepsiCo broke down under the weight of budget overruns. McCray is attentive to the technique involved in the project, describing precisely how Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya and Southern California engineer Thomas R. Mee shrouded the dome in fog, and how artist Robert Whitman and Garmire, working with others at EAT, UCLA, and the G. T. Schjeldahl Company of Minnesota, created its mirror by filling the inside of the dome with a thin layer of reflective polymer film held in a perfect hemispherical shape. The resulting massive, curved mirror gave visitors the impression that their three-dimensional reflections were floating in space.
In an essay entitled “The Corporation and the Counterculture: Revisiting the Pepsi Pavilion and the Politics of Cold War Multimedia,” media historian Fred Turner describes the Pavilion as an experiment in cybernetic liberalism. Visitors, he suggests, were supposed to react to the information environment around them, “governing” themselves in order to manage their emotions and actions. “The Pavilion would not tell a story or guide the visitor through a didactic, authoritarian experience,” Klüver later said. “The visitor would be encouraged as an individual to explore the environment and compose his own experience.” But the environment was in fact controlled by artists surveilling visitors on closed-circuit television, operating sound and lighting using either a central console or programs stored on punched paper tape. There was thus a dialectical tension between autonomy and control. Insofar as that tension was resolved, it was through visitors moving independently through a world constructed and operated by others. “To free its visitors,” writes Turner, “the EAT designers built a world over which they could exert constant control.”
In this analysis, political elites, embodied in the Pavilion by collaborating artists and engineers, surveilled and programmed the environment in much the same way that the US military was electronically surveilling the Ho Chi Minh trail in order to bomb North Vietnamese soldiers traveling to South Vietnam. “In the world of the pavilion,” Turner writes, “the artist and the social engineer were one.” Individuals were expected to manage their own reactions to that environment, in a pantomime of the neoliberal governance which would soon reshape both the United States and Japan. The Pavilion’s dome, writes Turner, “presided over a world managed by engineers, a world in which citizens managed themselves in terms set by information systems and in which they gazed, Narcissus-like, at their own reflections.”
If the social world of the Pavilion was different from that outside, it was only in that it was a few years ahead of schedule, recalling Ezra Pound’s observation that “artists are the antennae of the race” and William Gibson’s that “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Surprisingly, visions of the future actually play only a minor role in Making Art Work. Many artists and engineers predicted that artists of the future would work more with electronic media. But they mostly saw their role as creating art in the present about the present, not imagining where it would take them.
The scarcity of prognostications about the future in Making Art Work is also the scarcity of the intellectuals of the time who professionally discussed it. Of those, perhaps the closest to the art world was media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who often quoted Pound’s aphorism and may have inspired Gibson’s. McLuhan’s attitude toward technology was fundamentally critical and even negative, but many artists found his vision of electronics binding humanity into a “global village” inspirational. Although McLuhanites were prominent in the art-and-technology movement, they do not appear much in McCray’s account — with the occasional exception of video artist Nam June Paik. McCray’s protagonists apparently had little patience for their theorizing. McLuhan himself appears only in a passing reference to his influence on new university programs on art and technology and through Klüver’s distaste for “conservative McLuhanites” who believed that “technology-the-big-terror-has-to-be-put-to-service.”
In place of Turner’s ideological analysis, McCray’s more technical reading turns to the Pavilion’s political context. The mirror’s engineering employed expertise the Schjeldahl Company had developed to build missile components and high-altitude balloons. “Many of the technologies that EAT deployed in the pavilion — indeed those underpinning the entire art-and-technology movement — were derived in some way from Cold War-era defense research,” writes McCray. “The mirror dome was no exception.”
While many participants in the movement saw their art as inviting the public to understand and question technology, critics at the time saw it instead as a spectacular celebration not only of technology but of the capitalism and imperialism it served. “[T]he participating corporations manufacturing for the War Machine” should not shape art, wrote painter Guy Williams about LACMA’s program. “Technology,” sculptor Richard Serra told Tuchman, “is what we do to the Black Panthers and the Vietnamese under the guise of advancement in a materialistic theology.”
The largest, most well-funded projects had the tightest relationships to the military-industrial complex. At a smaller scale, Black Panther Party members were themselves embracing the same technologies as artists: Eldridge Cleaver, the Party’s minister of information and a fugitive in Algeria, enthusiastically used a portable videotape recorder, a novel piece of technology with somewhat more remote military origins. In another kind of collaboration, he called white New York artists for technical support when his equipment broke. As McCray notes, new technologies became media of choice for a more diverse array of artists once they could be used independently, without artists having to collaborate with a professional engineer: video, computer art, holography, and Xerox art each “offered women artists a way forward along fresh paths not blocked by men.”
Rather than exploring these paths, however, Making Art Work maps the art-and-technology movement’s largest highways. The story is ultimately something of a tragedy, and not only because the movement rapidly disintegrated in the early 1970s. Through the process of making technological art, one could indeed better understand technology, imagine how it could be different, and, as Garmire suggested, eliminate its divinity. But this was not necessarily the experience of audiences, who experienced product rather than process. And that product was usually a hipper configuration of the technologies of the War Machine, not a critique of them or a proposal for an alternative and more just technological order. In our current moment of intersecting crises, we, too, should ask, following Klüver, what art makes us aware of.
Peter Sachs Collopy is a historian, archivist, and curator of science, technology, and media. He is university archivist at Caltech.
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