Leaping Robot is WRITING!

If you check on my blog from time to time, you’ll have noticed that I’ve slowed down with posting new entries. I’m currently writing a new book and that’s been getting the majority of my attention (in addition to all the other professor-y things I do like teach classes).

The new book is under contract with The MIT Press.  I’m currently calling it Art Rewired: Engineering a New Creative Culture. The focus of the book is the art-and-technology movement of the “long 1960s” (a time period bracketed by Sputnik on one end and Watergate on the other). During this time, several large-scale, formal collaborations between artists, engineers, and scientists emerged.

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Artist Rockne Krebs started using lasers to make sculptures in the late 1960s, sometimes collaborating with engineers.

Their creative efforts burst forth from corporate laboratories, artists’ lofts, publishing houses, museum galleries, and university campuses. These experiments – I use the word deliberately – in creativity, collaboration, and publishing would, they imagined, transcend aesthetics and art making, helping to reshape public perceptions of technology and engineering.

The new book will explain this sudden blossoming of interest and enthusiasm by drawing on ideas, scholarship, and research materials from art history and the histories of science and technology. The reasons for the sudden appearance (and subsequent receding) of the art and technology movement are complex. They are found neither solely in the art world nor in the expanding technological capabilities of Cold War engineers. Advocates for art and technology adopted diverse strategies – often complementary, sometimes at cross-purposes – to foster collaborations and secure resources and audiences.

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Members of the seminal NYC-based group Experiments in Art and Technology, 1966.

I have three main goals with the new project. First, while not ignoring the artists, this book restores the engineers and scientists, who were central to the era’s artistic collaborations, to the foreground. It recovers the history of the engineers who contributed time, technical expertise, and – most important – aesthetic input to their artist colleagues. Second, this book questions the verdict that the art and technology movement was a failure, either at the time or in retrospect. The ideals and ambitions of the art-technology movement, while challenged, never faded away and instead found a firm institutional footing. The effects of this are visible in today’s corporate world as companies like Apple are known for their design and aesthetic prowess, not just their engineering. Finally, I see this book as an experiment in writing history. It will bring perspectives and ideas from the histories of science and technology to a topic that has largely been the province of historians of art and new media.

Every so often, I’ll post something new, perhaps drawn from the new project. But, for now, I’m trying to get as much writing done as I can. Thanks for your interest.

“God Help American Science”: Engineering Theatre and Spectacle

When your event’s promotional poster promises that, for a mere $3 a ticket, “You will hear the body broadcast its sounds * You will see without light * You will see dancers float on air” and concludes with “It’s Important That You Attend,” there’s bound to be some disappointment.

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Advertising for 9 Evenings

The location for 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering only fed into audience and critics’ anticipation. Television host Hugh Downs introduced 9 Evenings to the Today Show’s audience as an event of potential historical import. “53 years ago,” he said, “an exhibition took place at the 69th Regiment Armory here in New York that stunned America. It came to be called the Armory Show. And it was a bombshell that introduced modern art to this country.” Before bringing on Billy Klüver, the Bell Labs engineer who was 9 Evenings’s ringmaster, Downs concluded, “Beginning tomorrow, that Armory is going to be the scene of something that might be equally interesting.”

Klüver’s appearance on Today was one just component of a weeks-long publicity campaign led by Ruder & Finn, the public relations firm hired to promote 9 Evenings. Press releases were sent to more than two dozen magazines and newspapers including those specializing in art as well as engineering.

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Guest list for 9 Evenings Press Briefing.

In August 1966, for example, Life told its millions of readers about the current vogue for kinetic art. This medium, Life’s writer noted, often required input from technical experts like Billy Klüver, the “Edison-Tesla-Steinmetz-Marconi-Leonardo da Vinci of the American avant-garde.”

Robert Rauschenberg, who had won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale two years earlier, was the most visible of the artists participating in 9 Evenings when it came to publicity. Finn and Ruder, for example, explored the possibility of the artist performing his 9 Evenings’ piece, titled Open Score, on the Ed Sullivan Show. A few weeks before 9 Evenings started, Rauschenberg hosted a late afternoon press briefing at his studio on Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village.

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Signed press briefing invite, Sept. 1966.

In addition to journalists from local and national publications, the guest list included prominent gallery owner Leo Castelli and Marian Javits, wife of Sen. Jacob Javits, who morally and financially helped support Klüver’s efforts to wed art and technology. In addition to comments from Klüver, artists John Cage, Öyvind Fahlstrom, and Deborah Hay described the pieces they were working on to the guests and journalists circulating through Rauschenberg’s airy studio.

The press blitz appeared to pay off as positive articles about 9 Evenings and the larger art and technology endeavor appeared. John Gruen, a cultural critic writing for the short-lived New York World Journal Tribune, predicted 9 Evenings would be a “landmark of sorts” and a “means of expanding the sensibilities of everyone concerned – the artist, the engineer, and the audience.” When the New York Times Magazine profiled Rauschenberg the week before 9 Evenings debuted, he was dubbed a “playwright and engineer.” Rauschenberg claimed that artists were “surrounded by materials and technologies that are too refined to be commonly known.” But, thanks to Klüver and his Bell Labs colleagues, they could now hope to work with these “without letting technology be the theme itself.” 9 Evenings opened on October 13, 1966 with fresh breezes of favorable publicity wafting about the Armory space.

Much of this good will, however, evaporated soon after opening night, replaced by a blizzard of negative reviews – some sincere, some snarky – of the much touted event. Imaginably, for the 30 or so engineers who had contributed some 8500 hours of their time pro bono to 9 Evenings, the most cutting comments came from Clive Barnes, an influential British dance and theatre critic at The New York Times. Barnes had attended the first two evenings but walked out, frustrated with “an intermission that showed signs of enveloping the weekend” on the second night. Besides excoriating Rauschenberg’s Open Score (“such a sad failure, such a limp disaster…vilely done”) his October 15 review – written in the midst of the Space Race – opined that “if the American technologists participating in this performance were typical of their profession, the Russians are sure to be the first on the moon.” 9 Evenings was a “depressing spectacle” that audiences endured. “God bless American art,” Barnes wrote, “but God help American science.”

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Barnes’ devastating review of 9 Evenings.

Other reviews appeared throughout 9 Evenings’ run at the Armory that took a similar line. John Gruen, who had initially supported the ambitious alliance between artists and engineers, called the opening night “dismal, dismaying…a flop and farce” exacerbated by delays and technical difficulties. For Patrick O’Connor, a dance writer for The Jersey Journal, the whole affair had the air of a big rip-off. Could you believe, he asked readers, that 1,500 people (i.e. suckers) had paid good money to get into 9 Evenings while another 1,500 were turned away? O’Connor knew “the big guns were out” when a “beautiful lady in a maroon and gray reversible raincoat” marched up to poet Allen Ginsberg and said “You probably don’t remember me but I’m Susan Sontag…More chic than that you can’t get.” He advised his culture-seeking Jersey readers to instead visit Manhattan’s Latin Quarter club where “the girls don’t even wear pasties anymore.”

Not all reviews were knee-jerk negative or designed to discomfit. Brian O’Doherty’s lengthy post-mortem for the new magazine Art and Artists accurately judged 9 Evenings as being less about its two main ingredients, theatre and engineering. It was instead, he said, a “criss-cross of traditions, disciplines, time-streams, and audiences” which produced a “huge short-circuited tangle.” And, depending on which strand one followed – art, theatre, or technology i.e. the worlds of the artist or art critic versus that of the engineer – “you can end up with entirely different conclusions.” The message was that 9 Evenings should be judged more holistically and apart from critics’ reaction to individual performances.

John Brockman, in the pages of The Village Voice, expressed a similar judgment.One goal of 9 Evenings was to give artists access to new technologies and engineering expertise. On this score, the event succeeded.

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John Brockman’s Village Voice review.

However, a second hoped-for accomplishment was to generate a situation where artists could do something original and aesthetically pleasing with these new resources. Here, Brockman was less sanguine, laying blame with Klüver’s “rather worshipful attitude toward artists” which resulted in an “illusory collaboration.” This was, he observed, an ironic reversal of the usual situation where the artist is called upon to provide background images or sound for a production – say, a movie or television commercial – yet “has no basic say in the creative process.” If anything, Brockman argued for engineers to not just be technological enablers but instead step out of the background and become full creative partners.

Not surprisingly, the negative reactions to 9 Evenings wounded Billy Klüver and some of his engineer colleagues, people he had personally recruited for the project. As Robby Robinson noted to an artist involved with 9 Evenings, “You guys are emotionally prepared for this [negative criticism]. We aren’t.” This is not to say that the bad reviews didn’t affect the artists. But engineers from Bell Labs certainly weren’t used to seeing their work critiqued in such a public way.

After the final performance and well-into the organizational stages for his fledgling group Experiments in Art and Technology, Klüver responded with an essay for Artforum. Alternating between explanation and defensiveness, he asked, “Have you ever met a normal healthy, and working engineer who gives a damn about contemporary art?” One could, of course, wonder whether Artforum’s readers knew any engineers, healthy or otherwise. Klüver continued, “Why should the contemporary artist want to use technology and engineering as material?” 9 Evenings was an attempt to see what happened – it was an experiment – when you put these communities together. The point was not to showcase or explain the technology to the audience. If the performers or engineers had to explain the technology, then they would also be obliged to explain the art and this, one of his colleagues noted “was too reprehensible to consider.”

Klüver’s managerial decision, of course, created a paradox. The people best positioned to explain the technical aspects of the performances were disinclined to do so. But when technical problems occurred – and Klüver insisted in Artforum that they were far less common than critics assumed – the engineers were held accountable. Added to this mix was “both an unfamiliarity with technology and a rather infantile expectation about technology as a ‘performer.’” Klüver ended his essay by needling Artforum’s readers with the mordant observation: “We had our best reviews in Electronic News and The Wall Street Journal.”

Moreover, Klüver’s view of 9 Evenings as an experiment might best to be considered in terms of how researchers in science or engineering view such things. Failure and success are relative, with a good deal of knowledge to be learned from the former. Moreover, experiment entails risk. Klüver told artists involved with 9 Evenings that “at Bell Labs any scientist who didn’t have a 90% failure record on his experiments was not considered a good scientist.” Consequently, one can imagine a certain incommensurability between the evaluative criteria that 9 Evenings participants had – artists as well as engineers – versus those of art critics. These differing markers of what counted as success or failure would vex many other art and technology initiatives.

As a collective reaction, critics’ responses to 9 Evenings fell into three general categories. One: artists’ efforts to integrate technology and engineering into their creations had failed. Two: the engineers’ technical malfunctions had failed the artists and, therefore, Art itself. Three: the whole experiment was a misguided effort. Even if the artists and engineers had been personally enriched by collaborating with one another, the audience didn’t get to share in the reward.

I’d like to offer a different assessment. Think of 9 Evenings less as art or theatre or even as the dying gasp of the “Happenings” scene that New York artists had created. Throughout the 1960s, the wonders of aerospace and computer technologies were made manifest by all sorts of sophisticated advertising campaigns, as several recent books makes clear (such as this and this). These messages and accompanying imagery spoke directly to Americans’ sense of technological prowess.

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Techno-advertising began early. This image made by Herbert Bayer for General Electric in 1942.

The most spectacular of these, the American space program, was an international techno-spectacle that blended engineering, marketing, and performance. Only in failure could it meet or exceed the hype generated for it.

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Throughout the 1960s, Americans were exposed to the “can-do” possibilities of technology.

Like the grandeur and gigantism of Apollo, the bigness of 9 Evenings fed into critics’ suspicion. In her diary notes about 9 Evenings, artist Simone Forti wrote that, “The artists decided to go big because it was more exciting and dangerous.” Their decision, she observed, was made “on an intuition that the work the artists will eventually want to have come out of this relationship will be big in scale, making full use of mass media and industrial resources.” This quest for scale and funding was redolent of 1960s-era Big Science projects, a style of activity artists were supposedly expected to steer clear of.

Just as the American space program was never about “science” or even “engineering,” 9 Evenings was never about art per se. The corporate funding, defense-derived technology, and market strategizing that enabled it made it less of an ensemble of artists’ performances and more of what historian Daniel Boorstin called a “pseudo-event”. Audience members who came to witness 9 Evenings arrived already enmeshed in 1960s spectacle culture shaped by mass advertising, marketing, and public relations firms.

While delays and technical problems diminished the impact of the performances at the Armory, it’s also reasonable to conclude that marketing of American technology in general, and 9 Evenings in particular, elevated audience and critics imaginings of what technology could do – Technology could win the war in Vietnam, cure Cancer, merge seamlessly with Art – to unrealizable heights. In the mid-1960s, the real marriage of art and engineering, as The New Yorker noted with the snide erudition one expects, was instead happening in the television studios where commercials were made. Like a primetime space shot, to its critics 9 Evenings was a media event that crashed and burned on the launch pad.

Ironically, despite the harsh and perhaps premature judgment from art critics, audience members did get to see what was promised to them. Alex Hay broadcasted his body’s sounds, Robert Rauschenberg’s Open Score showed audience members what images made via infrared cameras looked like, and Lucinda Child’s piece Vehicle created the impression of dancers moving about while suspended on air. God bless American science.

Engineering a Body Electric

“Fantasy, dreams, superhuman, science fiction…” – this was how artist Alex Hay described his ideas when first meeting with Billy Klüver and other engineers from Bell Labs. The occasion was a series of planning meetings for 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a formative moment for the American art & technology movement. “I had ideas,” Hay told an interviewer 1966 about his interest in “machines that were going to move me about. A whole environment just for the purpose of the various ways to deal with the human body.”

By the time Hay’s performance Grass Field debuted on October 13, 1966 – he performed it again nine days later on the next-to-last night of 9 Evenings – his interpretation of how the artist’s body and the environment could interact had transformed. This change was catalyzed by Hay’s intense and collaborative interactions with Klüver’s engineer colleagues from Bell Labs. The final version of Grass Field took advantage of medical research done decades earlier coupled with the latest in electronics technology that Bell engineers had access to.

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Alex Hay, during Grass Field, with Robert Rauschenberg standing.

Alex Hay was born in east-central Florida in 1930. After graduating from Florida State University, Hay moved to New York City where he became part of the Judson Dance Theatre. This was a group of dancers, artists, and composers – all of them active in experimental and avant-garde art – active primarily between 1962 and 1964. Members included Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, Lucinda Child, Steve Paxton, and Hay’s partner Deborah, all of whom would participate with him in 9 Evenings at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory.1

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Alex Hay, early 1966, with Lucinda Child, during a planning meeting for 9 Evenings.

To understand the engineering that helped Alex Hay realize his artistic vision, we might work backwards, starting with the performance itself. Hay’s notes for Grass Field list its three main elements: “Internal sound potential of the body; External body color; A singular work activity.” He wanted his body’s sounds – “brain waves, muscle activity, eye movement” – to be picked up, amplified, and “transmitted to a central control station” and the audience at the Armory. So far as a work activity – Hay’s piece called for the placement of dozens of numbered six foot squares of duck cloth in a regular pattern. These would then be “retrieved in a correct arithmetic progression” and re-stacked.

Lucy Lippard, a young art critic who attended 9 Evenings described the scene. Hay appeared dressed in a “peach-flesh pyjama suit” wearing a backpack-sized amplifier. Methodically – too slowly for many in the audience – he laid out 100 squares of the same peach-colored cloth in a “modular pattern.” All the while, electrodes and amplifiers on Hay picked up and transmitted the sounds of his body, at work and then at rest.

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When finished, Hay say down in front of the audience and the lights dimmed. A giant screen behind him “projected a close-up image of his expressionless face” as he opened and closed his eyes. The projected image of his face created a link between Hay’s physical activity – opening and closing his eyes – and the sounds that were generated by his body. Then, while Hay remained seated, Robert Rauschenberg and Steve Paxton – un-amplified – came out to pick up the squares one by one. Grass Field ended with the cloth pieces stacked in front of Hay and Rauschenberg and Paxton standing to either side of him.

Hay’s piece, according to newspaper articles from the time, left most audience members and critics baffled, if not hostile. The piece unfolded over more than 90 minutes and, in keeping with Klüver’s injunction that the engineering details not intrude into or overshadow the art, audience members were unaware that the hisses, static, and booms they heard were coming from Hay’s body. Many walked out. Andy Warhol was overheard to say, “I think it’s just great.”

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Conclusion of Grass Field, October 1966.

Although Grass Field’s conceptualization was straightforward, its execution required very sophisticated engineering. Klüver, in a memo to his Bell colleagues, noted that the piece was “clear and simple” but “it looks as if there will be complicated technical problems.” L.J. (“Robby”) Robinson, an engineer at Bell who worked on wireless technology, recalled, “It was like preparing a man to go into space with the sensors attached to his body and the radio transmitters and amplifiers scattered over his body so they would not interfere with his movements.” A photo of Hay before his performance shows him chatting with composer David Tudor, wires running from his head and down his back.

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Alex Hay and David Tudor, gearing up for 9 Evenings.

Hay’s piece revolved around his desire to capture and amplify his body’s sounds and movements, essentially transforming his body into an instrument. “I want to pick up faint body sounds like brain waves, cardiac sounds, muscle sounds and amplify them,” he told an interviewer in September 1966. His activity would, meanwhile, alter their sound and tempo. The idea of monitoring the body’s electrical signals, especially those from the brain, was an old one. In 1924, German physiologist Hans Berger recorded the first human electroencephalograph and within a decade the EEG became a standard tool and laboratories and hospitals.

The name Hay chose for his piece – Grass Field – was a play on words that wove in some interesting history of science. His performance made use of his body’s electric fields, of course. “Grass” came from the name of the Grass Instrument Company, a Massachusetts-based company started in the 1930s that made EEG equipment.2

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The first human EEG recording obtained by Hans Berger in 1924. The upper tracing is the EEG, the lower a 10 Hz timing signal.

Two main challenges for the Bell engineers working with Hay were portability and power. As Hay noted, equipment for making encephalographs usually isn’t moving about. In addition, he needed batteries that were small and lightweight enough to carry yet could also power his gear. As part of the engineering research needed to realize Grass Field, Herb Schneider, the “performance engineer” for the piece, consulted doctors and EEG technicians at Mount Sinai Hospital and local medical companies.

A key component for Hay was a series of differential amplifiers. Bell technicians Pete Cumminski and Marty Wazowicz designed and built several of these. These recorded Hay’s electrical signals from heart, brain, and eye muscles and amplified them. These signals were then sent to an FM wireless transmitter made by another Bell technician.

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Amplifier schematic for Hay’s piece.

This wasn’t the first time Bell staff had developed equipment that translated an artist’s movements into an electrical signal. In 1963, Billy Klüver and Harold Hodges helped dancer Yvonne Rainer realize a piece called At My Body’s House. They rigged a small wireless system – a microphone and transmitter – which could pick up the sounds of Rainer’s breathing as she danced.

While Hay’s piece extended this idea, the equipment involved in 1966 was more complicated. At least four engineers contributed to Grass Field’s technology and Hay estimated that Robinson spent $1000 of his own money to buy equipment for for the piece.

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Yvonne Rainer, At My Body’s House, 1963. Photo by Peter Moore © Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA, NY.

The technology for Alex Hay’s October 13 performance didn’t work properly until the evening of the show. Robinson recalled that in the days leading up to 9 Evenings, Hay was “at the point of no return…no real breakthroughs had occurred to indicate a chance of things working.” Less than two weeks before opening night, the Bell engineers decided to risk a new approach, using integrated circuits, a relatively new technology at the time.

About five days before 9 Evenings started, things started to come together, equipment-wise, but “that final bit of usable body noise just wouldn’t show up,” recalled Robinson. At this point, Herb Schneider and Bob Kieronski, a young Bell engineer who joined the effort, were working long hours, shuttling between the Armory and their day jobs at Bell’s laboratories in New Jersey.

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Systems diagram for Grass Field prepared by Herb Schneider.

The finished custom-made amplifiers didn’t arrive until the night before the show. The engineers attached them to Hay’s body but the signals “would not stabilize and produce those elusive sounds of the body.” The group disbanded for the night and the general consensus was that Hay’s contribution to 9 Evenings would probably have to be canceled. Robinson and the other Bell engineers continued to troubleshoot the equipment throughout the next day. When Hay showed up at the Armory that evening he found, to his surprise, that hadn’t been dropped from the show but, instead, he could generate “a beautiful set of sounds” for Grass Field.

Hay’s views toward the engineers who made his piece possible changed markedly over the course of making Grass Field. He described one engineer as “pretty casual and apathetic” at the start but, as 9 Evenings drew closer, he was working long hours for free at the Armory. Nonetheless, Hay didn’t have any illusions that the engineers he collaborated with would become converts to avant-garde art. “Chances are,” he said, “they have very conventional ideas about art.” 9 Evenings wasn’t about turning engineers into artists but rather giving artists access to engineers – their expertise and their hardware – as a new and flexible material with which to work.

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Bell engineers Per Biorn and Witt Wittnebert building equipment for 9 Evenings

What interested the engineers that Hay and other artists in 9 Evenings interacted with was less about the artistic quality of the final product but the process involved in seeing it realized. This demanded attentive interaction with the artists – listening to what they wanted and finding ways to technologically translate their visions into devices and electrical systems. “Take a person where a product is dependent on their full participation,” Hay said of his engineer collaborators, “When full participation produces the product, they’re interested.”

With Grass Field, Alex Hay’s electrified body became an instrument turned on by a group of people. With its focus on feedback – taking electric cues from Hay’s body and transforming them into sounds in real-time, Grass Field stands as an example of the systems-and-cybernetic art that critics like Jack Burnham saw as harbingers of a new generation of art. Finally, we can imagine Hay’s body and the collaborative processes it was enmeshed in as a site for communication between artists and engineers with the signals they generated radiating outward from the Armory to today.

  1. Biographical sketches of all participants are here. Art historian Clarisse Bardiot has a wonderful and carefully researched multi-media exploration of 9 Evenings which I’ve profited from greatly. []
  2. This information comes from Clarisse Bardiot’s thorough exploration of Grass Field. []