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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)
Sound's Pre-Mix

Sound, Art, Technology

It would be hard to imagine the Art and Technology movement without sound. All the values that the notion of dematerialization represents were enculturated through audio technologies — the telephone and, later, radio — and these technologies were themselves nuanced with the rhetorics of previous “art and technology” movements such as Futurism. The fact that a majority of the artists in 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering used sound is indicative of its “natural” fit with their objectives and the technologies available. More importantly, “guru” artists such as John Cage were instrumental in shaping 9 Evenings, and Cage had his own unique views on sound, technology and progress.

Technicians, as well as artists, tended to favour sound in 9 Evenings — in part because the technology was there, but also because aesthetic ideas already circulating among composers (like Cage) could be drawn upon for inspiration and prototypes. In a memo to Bell Laboratories, Fred Waldhauer — one of the Bell Labs engineers who invented the Proportional Control System, which allowed sound and light to be controlled remotely — stressed the sophistication of sound technology in relation to the visual: “The impact of technology has been increasing rapidly in music, and more slowly in the visual arts and dance. The new technologies offer the artist an extension of his range of exploration; more than that, technology exists and the artist who strives for relevance in his environment sees the need for coming to terms with it.” (1)

"Perhaps the central fact of Renaissance art was that the work of art sprang from a single individual’s imagination. Now we have another way of making art that is less individual and more social. [...] Art, instead of being an object made by one person, becomes a process set in motion by a group of people, in this case artists and engineers. It is not someone saying something, but people doing things that give everyone (including those involved) the opportunity to have experiences they would not otherwise have had." (Billy Klüver) (2)

Variations VII, Cage’s piece for 9 Evenings, was set within an extended series of performances that formed what was primarily a mix; its components were installation, performance, convergences, multiplicity and the “happening.” It was through this mix — and the philosophy of the mix — that borders were broken down. But with sonic dissolutions, as with all dissolutions, we have to ask: What happens when one becomes many? How do boundaries dissolve? And is multiplicity democratic?

Cage’s emphasis on the liberating and social aspects of artists working with science and technology was consistent with his project to liberate sound from the structures of music. For him, music was to the individual artwork (object) what sound was to the collaborative process. As his famous “silent” piece (4'33") demonstrated, all objects can become processes just as all sound can become music. Cage pushed this envelope to the extreme, expunging music of its structure by inserting—indeed scoring—the substrate of “nothingness” and by replacing, in his aleatory compositions, the author/composer with the proto-interactivity of chance operations.

While the statements of those involved in Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) were able to calm the nerves of anxious artists and troubled engineers alike, the rhetoric itself was highly problematic, a fact largely ignored at the time. Klüver, for instance, announced that “Experiments in Art and Technology is not organized for the benefit of the artist. Experiments in Art and Technology in a real sense is a revolutionary process to catalyze the individual’s responsibility for the shaping of the new technology.” (3) In this scenario, artists were not the focus of the project but rather the conduit, the “transducer” that, like E.A.T. itself, enabled a variety of connections to occur across a spectrum of ideas and practices.

This stance was due partly to E.A.T.’s pragmatic attitude towards collaboration, artists’ genuine desire to work with technology, the possibilities envisioned by corporations, and other utilitarian concerns. But is was due also to the ease with which “Art” could draw within its transcendent, all-encompassing orbit the hyperbolic claims, speculative rationales, and nationalist and utopian ideologies that surrounded technology itself. The combination of rhetorical machines like “Art” and “Technology” was so potent that, at least initially, virtually any rationale or contradiction could go unchallenged. Drawn into a re-fitted identity that was part instrument and part mystery, it is no wonder that artists felt a certain trauma and panic when it came to technology — a panic that the cultural and economic conditions of the time would have exacerbated.

Frances Dyson © 2006 FDL

(1) Quoted from a memorandum written by Fred Waldhauer in the file: Proportional Control System for the Festival of Art and Engineering (1966, 4 cm of textual and other documents. Includes a memorandum, schematics and handwritten notes by engineer Fred Waldhauer describing the operating modes of the Proportional Control System (PCS) and other electronic components used in the context of 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, The Armory (New York, N.Y., United States), October 13-23, 1966). The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering fonds. 9 EV B3-C6.

(2) 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering: Pressbriefing (sic): Remarks / Billy Klüver (September 29, 1966), [4] p. The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, Collection of Documents Published by Experiments in Art and Technology. EAT C1-27.

(3) Remarks / Billy Klüver (October 1967, speech given during the press conference for EAT, New York, N. Y., United States, October 10, 1967), [1] p. The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, Collection of Documents Published by Experiments in Art and Technology. EAT C3-12 / 6 DE 13 ELEMENTS; 55.