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Frances Dyson, And then it was now

Enduring Rhetorics

John Cage, Variations VII, 1966 (video)
John Cage, Variations VII, 1966 (video)
Artists's Tangle

Conundrums abound in the “interface” between art and technology. First of all, there is the question of parity between them. What drives the artwork? To what extent do artists and engineers really collaborate? What is in it for both? And how does this collaboration affect their respective identities?

Second, linking “Art” and “technology” seems almost counterintuitive: the two domains represent such divergent philosophies, values, and modes of operation that their sporadic unions during the twentieth century have generally been met with pubic scepticism, private anguish and a degree of moral outrage that suggests some kind of cultural affront. In the late 60s and early 70s, Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) — largely through the public statements of Billy Klüver — provided the theoretical means, language and enthusiasm to negotiate collaborations and garner support.

Third, the identity of the artist was at stake in a unique way in the various transferences that occurred on the public stage — be these financial, cultural, personal, intellectual or political. Artists often found themselves caught within a technical and rhetorical apparatus that lay beyond their control. At the same time, their attitudes towards technology in general were both skewed and fortified by a degree of panic generated internally (the threat of deadlines and failing equipment) and externally (the fear of obsolescence and irrelevance).

Experiments In Art and Technology (E.A.T.) fulfilled a variety of both practical and symbolic functions, but for the individual artist the legitimacy the organization conferred was perhaps as important as the access to technology it facilitated. Robert Whitman, one of the main artists involved in both 9 Evenings and the Pepsi Pavilion, articulated a common view: “With E.A.T.,” he said, “artists have for the first time had access to professionals on their own level in other worlds. This is a funny thing. Any artist, whether or not he had anything to do wit E.A.T., has professional status and is suddenly more respectable.” (1)

These comments reveal the extent to which E.A.T. acted as a conduit between not just two worlds — art and technology — but between two very different cultural and economic spheres. But often it seemed that the flow was one way. As early as 1966, Billy Klüver had demonstrated a degree of pragmatism that seemed far removed from the rhetoric of the art world, the ideals of E.A.T. artists and the master narratives of “Art.”

Billy Klüver’s suggestion that artists’ involvement with technology would stimulate innovation (2) brought into relief what exactly constitutes an “artists approach.” It pried open an aspect of artistic identity that was fragile at best, raising the question of artists’ usefulness and value within a corporate context and, more importantly, in relation to the progress of “technology” per se. The sheer volume of projects with which E.A.T was involved, and the rationales for many of the grant proposals it submitted, testify to the sense of urgency that surrounded it in the late 60s, an urgency prompted by fears of being “left behind,” the technology juggernaut and the stress of juggling a variety of demands, rhetorics, visions and technical and economic realities.

Then, as now, the question of artists’ involvement with technology was impossible to fully articulate, bound up as it was with tacit, nascent and often contradictory ideologies of progress and technological determinism that lingered within the avant-garde. Thus Rauschenberg’s ambivalent comment: “It is no longer possible to by-pass the whole area of technology... We can't afford to wait. We must force a relationship on the technology in order to continue and we must move quickly. The most positive thing I can say is that technology does not lead us back into history but advances us into the unknown.” (3)

"The contemporary artist’s exploration of the world led him to the enormous fortified Castle called technology. The Castle is closed with a heavy iron door and the artist wants to get inside. How does he get in? By fraternizing with the soldiers on the walls. The contemporary artist sees the engineer as his collaborator, his material and his inspiration. [...] The artist needs access to the contemporary world and he wants to be part of the world of the future." (Billy Klüver) (4)

The medieval past and the unknown future come together through a mixed and perhaps duplicitous friendship — one in which the artist must use the engineer to gain access not just to technology but also to the present and the future. Otherwise, the artist is indeed in a wilderness, one from which the insight and innovation unique to artistic sensibility flows but which, ironically, is barred from the future.

Some fundamental yet unacknowledged incommensurability between art and technology constantly resurfaces amidst the trauma that, in this case, attends the impossibility of artists joining the “contemporary world” — let alone the future. Klüver’s fortified castle is a perfect metaphor for the economic and cultural barriers that E.A.T was trying to penetrate; but it is also a castle of his own design.

The perceived characteristics of the artist — indifferent to profit, working “outside” the system, highly individualistic, answering to nobody, brilliant, unkempt, in short, all those things that society both desires and despises — had to somehow meld with those of the engineer working for a profit-oriented corporation. One can imagine an urgent desire to mitigate the thorniness of this relationship by means of a higher cause that would offset the skewed power relationship between the artist who lacks technology and the engineer who has access to it, but who is also the frontline soldier guarding the “castle.” And one can also picture the ensuing border transaction — engineers get to feel a bit like artists, artists get their hands on technology, one speaks for the other, they become friends, their interests merge and, in that merging, the possibility of a non-antagonistic relationship between culture and technology is broached.

Frances Dyson © 2006 FDL

(1) Calvin Tomkins, “Outside art,” Pavilion, edited by Billy Klüver, Julie Martin and Barbara Rose (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972), p. 8, 127. With regard to artists as workers, Calvin Tomkins notes, for instance, the fury of local vendors near the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70, as they battled the marvellous but totally obscuring fog environment by Fujiko Nakaya. Thus, amid the turbulence of the Pepsi Pavilion’s first few days, Klüver was envisioning projects that would address the needs of developing countries. One such project (Anand project)involved developing educational cable television programming that would help the members of a large diary cooperative in India.

(2) “[The] Artists’ approach [is] likely to suggest and stimulate new technology for our environment [and] communication media” : [Letter to J.R. Pierce] / Billy Klüver (April 8, 1966), [1] p. The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, Collection of Documents Published by Experiments in Art and Technology. EAT C1-15; 15.

(3) Rauschenberg, cited in: Nilo Lindgren, “Art and technology II: a call for collaboration,” IEEE Spectrum (May 1969), p. 46-56. As the following artist submission reveals, these fears of being “left behind” may have been a dominant force within the group of artists behind the establishment of E.A.T.: “[…] I think it is obvious that we live in a technical society, where it is the technologist who plays the key role and the artist who remains isolated on the periphery. As such, the artist’s days are numbered unless we can adapt to the technical framework of his time […].” Sample of artist’s technical proposals / Experiments in Art and Technology, ([May 1967], projects descriptions), [9] p. The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, Collection of Documents Published by Experiments in Art and Technology. EAT C3-4; 47.

(4) Quoted from: Billy Klüver, “Interface: Artists/Engineers,” E.A.T. Proceedings, No. 1 (Apr. 21, 1967), p. [1-23]. The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, Collection of Documents Published by Experiments in Art and Technology.