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Viva Paci

Images from the Future: Lost and Found in the Images du Futur collection

Art and Industry

Glen A Suokko, Andy Warhol, 1986
David Rokeby, Very Nervous System, 1986-present Mercier, Pierre-Alain ; Plassard, François ; Scardigli, Victor
In search of an art image

The years of the exhibition Images du Futur witnessed the emergence of a new and particular version of the relationship between culture and the economy. The exhibition participated fully in this movement by designing its environment in a way that integrated artists’ presentations and commercial offerings within the same space, provided that they subscribed to the theme of the future. (see also "Exhibiting").

It must not be forgotten that some of the accomplishments of the new technologies stem more specifically from research conducted by heavy industry and the defence establishment. In passing, let us say only that a connecting thread between military and artistic research is conceivable at a number of levels. During one of the first years of Images du Futur, Hervé Fischer, who was one its two directors, declared that 95% of research into hyper-technological artefacts was indeed in the hands of the defence industry.

The 1980s also saw specific relationships develop among high technology, advertising and artistic creation. For example, during the launch of Amiga 1000 at the Lincoln Center in New York in late 1985, Commodore-Amiga invited Andy Warhol along with Debbie Harry, the lead singer of Blondie, to illustrate and demonstrate some of its graphics capabilities.

A few months, Warhol took centre stage again in an issue of Amiga World, a trade magazine specializing in computer science. (1) In an interview that cast him in quite an amiable light, he expressed his enthusiasm for Amiga as a tool (an enthusiasm that was undoubtedly highlighted and exploited by the eponymous magazine’s editorial writers). The resulting statements pointed to the considerable flexibity that the Amiga 1000 system gave the artist, as well as its complete mastery of his imprimatur — indeed it was the artist who selected the print to be run from among thousands of online versions, and he or she was also free to disseminate the printed image as a simple sketch. Warhol, who worked during the interview on a portrait of Dolly Parton, which he solarized and coloured online, delighted both readers and editors by stating, "The thing that I like about doing this kind of art on the Amiga is that it looks like my work." (2)

The links between art and industry thus constitute a new and growing phenomenon. Another example that illustrates this trend comes to us from Axon, a manufacturer of telecommunications cords and cables. It helped to build the technological components that Gilles Roussi used to make some of his electronic sculptures and, in 1986, even allowed him to set up some of his works on the company’s premises.

In the same vein, when Christo wrapped the Pont-Neuf, a project that required some 40 000 square metres of tarpaulin, he spent seven months working alongside an engineer, three graphic artists and more than a third of the staff of the Dufour textile company in Armentières. (3)

Some technological products thus lost their original function through artistic intervention and were included in Images du Futur as artefacts and works of art. Diverted from their initial use, they took on a spectacular and out-of-the-ordinary dimension that no longer conformed strictly to industrial applications; but the impact of these transformations did result in some beneficial spin-offs for company reputations.

Artists and scientists seeking...

Certain examples of collaboration between scientists and artists attest to this circularity between the fields of science and industry. A precursor to the period with which we are concerned, and one constitutive of the cultural paradigm to which Images du Futur subscribed, was the series of performances entitled 9 Evenings of Theatre and Engineering, organized by the engineer Billy Klüver in New York in 1966 (Klüver also founded the sponsoring organization, Experiments for Art and Technology). This interdisciplinary project enabled engineers with the Bell Laboratories (Murray Hills, New Jersey, United States) to work together with New York visual artists, composers and choreographers like John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor and Robert Whitman. Each of the composers provided a new score while the engineers, in tandem with the artists, put together the technical components that the participants (dancers, actors, musicians) subsequently used in performances. Some of the discoveries that emerged from these collaborations between engineers and artistes later found their way into the world of science. For example, the use of phosphorus as a subtrate to project infrared images during the 9 Evenings would enable the engineers at Bell Laboratories to advance their studies of infrared lasers and to eventually find applications for them in industry. Contemporary with "Experiments in Art and Technology," the Centre for Visual Research of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded by Professor Gyorgy Kepes in 1968 and still operating today, was the site for a number of joint undertakings by artists and representatives the field of science. These collaborations facilitated profitable research in the industrial sector. Like the Centre for Visual Research, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, founded by the Xerox Corporation in 1970, has a residency program that fosters the exchange of expertise between specialists from industry and the arts.

Finally, since the 1990s this relationship among the fields of science, industry and the visual arts has grown substantially closer. Indeed artists are themselves designing software and technologicals components which, once they are done with them, end up in the new media market. For example, in 1984 the Canadian artist David Rokeby designed the protocole for the interactive content of his Very Nervous System, (4) which he considered a work in its own right and also marketed as a software product. (5) 

Industrial prototypes...

In the case of Very Nervous System, a work that was put on the market, it is possible to see how the prototype went from one phase of conception (in which the artefact was the work of the artist) to a commercially available product. However, the works in Images du Futur were rarely exploited by industry following the exhibition (see also "Flashforward").

The prototype is the first stage of the model (of a mechanism, vehicle, etc.) to be built before going into mass production. But the prototype of a car that we may admire in an exhibition will not necessarily correspond to the vehicle that the parent company will eventually mass produce. For example, Peugeot’s Proxima, which came equipped with a radar system to maintain its distance from other vehicles on the road, did not end up in the car market. The purpose of the prototype is to generate enthusiasm for a technological innovation for which there is still no demand. (6) It is the best means that the high tech industries have at their disposal for providing an object that they can subsequently work on and improve. The resulting product will, of course, incorporate some of the original elements, but will be adjusted to models of preexisting products and to the real costs of industrial production — not of the unique specimen.

...and social uses

Technological innovation cannot change lifestyles all by itself. "The problem [...] becomes social and cultural, becomes one of new needs, content and uses that [...] will develop gradually in accordance with a specific dynamic very different from that of technical supply. (7) The authors of Société digitale: les nouvelles technologies au futur quotidien state therefore that:

"Entertaining projections about social change is, of course, always risky because the evolution of lifestyles can never be reduced to adaptive behaviours attuned to the economy or to the strategies of industrial groups or the State. Part of it is always an invention of novel behaviours that create uses, some of which are unforeseeable, for new objects. In 1879, when Lawson invented the bicycle chain, who could have said exactly or with any degree of precision what the social use of this means of transportation would be? The appearance of new techniques does not guarantee the emergence of social innovations, which may very well develop fortuitously." (8)

While one cannot predict the future of a given technology, one can, however, through sociological study, seek a concept of the future within the present by carefully observing developments surrounding new technologies and the potential interactions between technical change and social change. This is precisely what Images du Futur showed us, whether consciously or unconsciously. The ways in which new technologies are integrated into daily life may be interpreted as prognostications of the future — which tell us nothing about the future but constitue the messages that accompany the promotion of new technological products, and that praise them for their potential applications. The discourse operative within the sphere of such promotional efforts cannot really speak of the future, for in no way does it take into account the sociocultural environment into which the technical object is inserted, or that environment’s habits, aptitudes and aspirations.

Viva Paci © 2005 FDL

(1) This issue of the magazine, like most of the works cited and studied in this site, belongs to the collection of Images du Futur. This was one of the research and study materials gathered by the exhibition directors for the purpose of attuning their program to the range of reflections characteristic of that time.

(2) Amiga World, vol. 2, no. 1 (Jan./Feb. 1986): 16.

(3) On the connections that existed among corporate sponsorship, advertising and manufacturing during the 1980s, see the special issue that the magazine L’Atelier devoted to "Imaginaire and technologies," an exhibition designed by Roger Narboni that ran from March 18 to April 18, 1987, in Bagneux, France.

(4) Note that there are connections here to the world of experimental cinema, particularly in regard to Ken Jacobs’ Nervous System: “The Nervous System is an innovative projection technique that Jacobs has been developing since the mid-1970s. It creates a dynamic optical tug-of-war using two adapted 35mm filmstrip projectors. This is no impenetrable experimental film, but dazzling cine-magic to astound all ages. Assisted by his wife, Florence, Jacobs operates the Nervous System like a master musician, improvising wildly through intensely rehearsed visual riffs. Freeze frames, forward and reverse motion, inverse and mirrored images flicker through the projector as Jacobs creates fantastic relationships from within the frames of standard, often archival film. The thrill of motion overtakes the need for narrative as he unlocks the unknown possibilities hidden deep within cinema, revealing a depth of composition usually lost in the unretarded flurry of frames” (from the Web site of the British Film Institute).

(5) I owe this overview, as well as the following selection of bibliographic references, to Vincent Bonin (CR+D, FDL): Billy Klüver and Julie Martin, E.A.T. The Story of E.A.T.: Experiments in Art and Technology 1960-2001. (Tokyo: NTT InterCommunication Center, 2003). Jim McGee, Larry Heilos and Murray Hill. “Visual Display of Infrared Laser Output on Thermographic Phospher Screens,” in IEEE Journal of Quantum Electronics (1967): 31. Center for Advanced Visual Studies (Cambridge: Center for Advanced Visual Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1983). Art and Innovation: The Xerox PARC Artist-in-Residence Program, Craig Harris ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).

(6) Animating a mechanical prototype in 3D requires a sort of double prototype (this was precisely the process used in an animation of Peugeot’s Proxima that Sogitec made in 1986 and presented the following year at the International Computer Animation Competition, as part of Images du Futur. In one of these animations, the most novel motors could be designed and, more importantly, shown. What had previously been confined to the domain of the static model could henceforth, thanks to 3D, move and be studied in its possible interactions with the environment and the unexpected things it holds in store.

(7) Pierre-Alain Mercier, François Plassard and Victor Scardigli, Société digitale: les nouvelles technologies au futur quotidien (Paris: Seuil, 1984): 10.

(8) Ibid., p. 115.