A Mountain of Magical Thinking

At the beginning of The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s classic Bildungsroman, Hans Castorp visits a sanitarium high in the Swiss Alps. Originally intending a short visit, Castorp ends up spending seven years in the small town of Davos, transforming from a callow youth to a cosmopolitan man headed for the killing fields of World War One.

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The magic mountains of Davos

Last week, I too was in Davos, but as part of the academic contingent there to entertain and perhaps edify attendees at the 2016 World Economic Forum. While I had no personal epiphany as radical as Castorp’s,  I returned home with an unsettled sense of how “global thought leaders” and corporate captains perceive the technological future.1

The WEF invited me to Davos to participate in several panels related to the meeting’s theme – “Mastering the 4th Industrial Revolution.” What is that, you ask? Well…the First Industrial Revolution began, one could argue, in the 18th century, as coal-fueled steam engines began to replace human power. Late in the 19th century, a Second Industrial Revolution began to unfold as electricity and mass production complemented the rise of telegraphic communication, railroads, radio, automobility, and air travel. Then, around 1970, some might argue that a Third Industrial Revolution, marked by the growing importance of an information economy and digital computers emerged.

Which brings us to now. Sometime soon, WEF leader Klaus Schwab predicts, a suite of new technologies – robotics, artificial intelligence, biotech, nanotech – will mature and converge. These, the claim goes, will fuse “the physical, digital, and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies, and industries.” Some experts, of course, will recognize this as another version of “converging technologies” which, for example, people at the National Science Foundation started talking about 15 years ago. Given that all sorts of past technologies – nuclear power, in the 1950s, for example – have been seen as harbingers of a massive industrial shift, the concept of a 4th Industrial Revolution is problematic, at least to a historian.

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<“Yes!” cried the techno-optimists, “Can I get a hallelujah?”>

Historians can, of course, find much to critique in the WEF’s schema – from the question of periodization (historians’ favorite cocktail party game) to the fact that past industrial revolutions overlapped with one another in significant ways (we are still living in a world powered and imperiled by First Revolution energy sources as climate change makes obvious). One could even question how truly revolutionary recent technological changes were, as Robert Gordon’s new book does.

In accepting the WEF’s invitation to Davos, I tried to put aside some of my professional skepticism or at least channel it into more productive (i.e. less snarky) channels. In other words, I sought a line between stick-in-the-mud historian barking “It’s more complicated than that!” and being a starry-eyed Kool-Aid imbiber. I wanted to find a way to reach out to Davos Man in language he/she understood. Maybe I could even help pump the stomachs, idea-wise, of those that had consumed too much innovation Kool Aid.

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Not me…but you get the picture. And it’s a big picture.

On the WEF’s opening day, I addressed a large audience of business people, politicos, and tech gurus on the history of industrial revolutions. The format was what the WEF folks call a “Betazone.” Nobody knew the term’s origins – maybe “beta” for testing out new ideas? – but imagine it as a TED talk minus the giant TED-red circle where the speaker stands. I stood in front of an LED screen some 30 feet long and 10 feet high – which generates gorgeous images as well as obscene amounts of heat in a room that is already heated to Swiss-level comfort – and gave a talk that tried to find a balance between erudition and superficiality.

I called my Betazone talk “innovation’s shadow.” In the time I had, I wanted to gently question some of the concepts of a 4th Industrial Revolution. I also hoped, to pour some mild acid on the prevailing innovation-centric view of technology that gives far too much agency to entrepreneurs and other “creative disrupters.”

I focused my talk on three main points about technology that we might find if we venture out of the shadow that innovation casts over much of our thinking.2

“Technology ≠ Things”

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Image courtesy http://www.menzelphoto.com/

To make messy and complex technological systems – something like the phone system, for example – work properly demands order and regularity. In the past, this meant adopting technical standards. Largely ignored, often invisible, standards created stability in technological systems. Whether it’s screws or shipping containers, standards transformed the novel into mundane, and made the local into the global. But making standards then or now wasn’t about making new things per se…rather, it meant creating consensus about technology. These same sort of social processes, I suggested, would be critical for any future Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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“Technologies Stack”

Although technology is not just things, there’s no denying its material basis. But, over the course of time, technologies stack…their physical presence settles like sediment on top of one another. But, industrial revolutions were distributed unequally in place and time. The technological world wasn’t flat. Today, we are still living in this lumpy and bumpy world as technologies accumulate on top of each other. Historians’ prevailing emphasis on the shock of the new, I claimed, creates a smokescreen. In the shadow of innovation, history gets hidden.

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A book yet to be written.

“Maintainers, Not Innovators”

Speaking of hidden histories, Walter Isaacson’s bestselling book, The Innovators, tells a compelling story about geeky genius entrepreneurs, the collaborations they formed, and their revolutionary ideas for computer and electronics. But, I proposed, if we spend too much time thinking about innovation, we lose sight of what most scientists and engineers actually did – and still do. So – imagine a book like The Innovators…but let’s give it a different title – maybe call it The Maintainers. This hypothetical book would reveal activities essential for sustaining industrial revolutions. This book would shift our gaze from Manchester, Detroit and Silicon Valley to a wider global infrastructure. This book would be more about continuity than disruption. It would tell stories about repair, re-use, and sometimes the rejection of innovation.

Industrial revolutions, I concluded, were much more than just stories of innovation and progress. Rather, technology itself – the tangible and the ephemeral was a work in progress. Huzzah! Audience feedback was gratifyingly positive – Huzzah! – as people approached the stage to engage me in the WEF’s courtship ritual, the exchange of business cards. A few reporters were in the Betazone room so my ideas got some extra amplification.

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At Davos, I was a wanderer in a fog of techno-optimism

But no talk – certainly not one by a non-celebrity historian – could staunch the relentless flood of techno-enthusiasm that coursed through the entire WEF program. So, like once-naïve Hans Castorp, five days of talks and dinners – where the prevailing ideology of innovation, disruption, and entrepreneurship loomed like Jakobshorn Mountain over Davos – made me a little wiser to the workings of the WEF.

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KAIST engineers showing off HUBO, the first robot attendee at Davos.

A Google VP decried privacy regulations as blocking medical advances via (Google-made?) Big Data tools. A panel of defense industry executives and robotics scientists soberly pronounced the inevitability of autonomous military robots which could, if so programmed, execute a selective part – say, all males between 15 and 50 – of an enemy city. A Philips executive predicted the replacement of human truck drivers by a wave of automation. When asked if climate change could be solved in the next half-century, a group of business leaders enthusiastically said “Yes!” How could this happen? “The market will provide,” one said; another professed confidence in the power of scientific research to produce a solution. Magical thinking abounded.

On the train ride back to Zürich, I imagined myself for a moment as some sort of techno-Moses, coming down from the mountain bearing scribblings etched via molecular beams onto silicon tablets. But the messages, I realized, were familiar, even banal.

For those best positioned to reap the rewards of “disruption,” of course it seems that technological innovation offers the best solutions to the world’s problems. So it’s no surprise that those in the innovation business are unlikely to question its ideological underpinnings. Innovation-centric proclamations about a 4th Industrial Revolution are therefore inclined to ignore the perspective of workers and others who will be “disrupted” by it. Public discussions about technology at places like Davos reflect an intellectual monoculture that favors a corporate point of view. So, the result is a relentlessly enthusiastic and optimistic perspective about the technological future.  Q.E.D..

Unlike poor Hans Castorp, I didn’t need to spend much time in Davos to find my enlightenment. Such was my week of magical thinking.


  1. If you’re curious about the overall Davos vibe, Nick Paumgarten’s 2012 New Yorker article is spot on. []
  2. As the proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child. I benefitted from many conversations over the past several weeks with colleagues in my scholarly community: Ann Johnson, Lee Vinsel, Nelson Lichtenstein, Ron Kline, Andy Russell, Cyrus Mody, Amy Slaton, Ben Gross, Nathan Ensmenger, Jonathan Coopersmith, Tom Lassman, Michael Gordin, Richard John, and some others who I have shamefully forgotten. If you’re really interested, here’s a draft of my talk. []

Astronomers and the Art of Reconciliation

Can artists help astronomers resolve this unpleasant truth? The places where scientists build telescopes often belonged to other people there before them. For example – before the Spanish arrived, the native Luiseño people occupied land around today’s Palomar Observatory. In 1958, American astronomers started building telescopes on Kitt Peak in Arizona, part of the tribal reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Today, in Hawai’i, native Hawaiians are challenging astronomers over construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. A recent court order has stopped the project for now.

Protesters block vehicles from getting to the Thirty Meter Telescope groundbreaking ceremony site at Mauna Kea, Hawaii on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014. Protesters halted a groundbreaking and Hawaiian blessing ceremony for the construction of one of the world's largest telescopes. (AP Photo/Hawaii Tribune-Herald, Hollyn Johnson)

Protesters block vehicles from getting to the Thirty Meter Telescope groundbreaking ceremony site at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, October 2014.  (AP Photo/Hawaii Tribune-Herald, Hollyn Johnson)

This tension between astronomers and indigenous people isn’t limited to the United States. From Capetown, it’s a long and dusty drive for scientists visiting the South African Astronomical Observatory. Its telescopes sit amidst the Roggeveld Mountains, more than a mile above sea level in a semi-desert region called the Karoo. The astronomers are not alone in the Karoo though. Below the plateau and its the observatory, is the small town of Sutherland. Founded in the 18th century, British soldiers used it as a fort during the Anglo-Boer War. After passage of the Native Land Act in 1913, over 3 million black residents of South Africa were forcibly removed from their land. Sutherland was no exception to this racial violence.

Today, about 4,000 people call Sutherland home. Almost 90% of them are either “Black African” or “Coloured” (an official term for people of mixed ethnicity from Europe, Asia, and different African tribes). As is the case on Native American reservations in the U.S., unemployment, poor education, and substance abuse are persistent problems.

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Sutherland in South Africa

After telescopes started being built on the plateau above Sutherland in the 1970s, local people’s access to the observatory’s land was restricted. A vast gulf of race, education, and privilege separated the locals from the South African, European, and American scientists who worked at the telescopes. The isolation of local people from the nearby telescopes and the scientists who used them was exacerbated by stunted economic development. There was a cruel irony to this. The success of the telescopes at Sutherland relied on the availability of dark night skies. The observatory’s management preferred the status quo and there was little incentive to encourage modern houses, paved roads, or shopping complexes. Already socially and economically disempowered, local history and politics were keeping the people in Sutherland – literally – in the dark. And, in a country with a long legacy of violence and high crime rates, the idea of “darkness” meant something quite different to the townspeople of Sutherland than it did to the scientists.

Starting in 2009 – as part of the International Year of Astronomy – South African artist-activist Marcus Neustetter and his partner/fellow artist Bronwyn Lace launched a series of interventions to re-connect the people of Sutherland with the landscape around them. Their first effort, called Sutherland Reflections, started with the organization of kite flying workshops. Local children flew them around Sutherland, creating a link between earth and sky.

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Photo by Marcus Neustetter and Bronwyn Lace   Source

At night, Neustetter and Lace gathered participants and, using hundreds of glow sticks, they made patterns resembling galaxies and star formations.

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Photo by Marcus Neustetter and Bronwyn Lace   Source

Over the next six years, Neustetter and Lace expanded their project which they described as “Art Meets Science in a Place of Darkness and Silence “  In 2013, their intervention took on a more concrete form. After two years of relationship building with observatory staff and management, Neustetter, Lace, and people from Sutherland claimed a small piece of land on the observatory grounds. There, they assembled a small circular structure – the Sutherland Dome – using local stones and traditional building methods.

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The Sutherland Dome. (Source)

On top of the structure, they placed a metal lattice. The dome’s framework provides a grid – analogous to the astronomer’s ancient tool, the mural quadrant – that people can use to track the motion of stars and planets. Or visitors can just sit there and watch the sky spin silently overhead.

Sutherland dome

The Sutherland project also involved archaeologists who explored the territory nearby. They found stone artifacts, dinosaur foot prints, petroglyphs, and the recent remains of local residences that had been forcibly destroyed. These explorations of “deep time” re-connected locals to the past, which for some, still held memories of traumatic events. Working with the group Africa Meets Africa, Neustetter and Lace also contributed to a book called My Room at the Center of the Universe. Its story – made into a documentary – follows a Sutherland-area teen as he works to understand his place in the community and the cosmos.1


Under a sheltering sky… (Source)

Compared to the massive domes visible nearby, the Sutherland Dome is scarcely noticeable. Its importance comes from something other than size. It connects the local people of Sutherland with land that was once theirs and the night sky they share with astronomers. More than giving a resolution to the problems facing people of Sutherland, Neustetter and Lace’s work offers reconciliation. At the root of this is encouraging the scientists to notice the people living around them. “If you’re looking up all the time,” Neustetter – who is a fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum with me – said, “you often don’t see what’s on the ground.”

In Hawai’i, the conflicts between astronomers and indigenous peoples are being resolved by legal channels against a backdrop of Twitter campaigns and public statements. With their interventionist art, Marcus Neustetter and Bronwyn Lace have taken steps down another path. Could something similar to the Sutherland project be experimented with in Hawai’i?  Astronomy, like art, is about asking questions – who you are, where you’ve come from, and where you will go. Both sides in today’s disputes have an interest in reconciling the answers they find to these questions.

  1. For another look at astronomy in Africa and its broader culture, see this. []

Remembering Lines of Light

Two years ago, the UN General Assembly declared 2015 as the International Year of Light. This “global initiative” is to highlight the “importance of light and optical technologies” in the lives of the world’s citizens. Which technologies?  Consider the laser. I’ll bet there’s one within 30 feet of you – in a CD player, a computer mouse, a checkout scanner. Maybe you’re using one to amuse your cat.

Invented – perhaps more than once – in the late 1950s, a decade later lasers were still a novelty. Many people, at least those who were not physicists, probably saw one for the first time when James Bond was almost bifurcated by a laser beam in Goldfinger (1964).

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“No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”

An advertisement in an industry journal a few years before Ian Fleming’s novel became a blockbuster film asked the question: “Where does the laser go from here?” One of the places it went was the artist’s studio and the art gallery.

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1962 advertisement

The laser’s light – pure, bright, and steady – captivated a small group of artists who began to explore its aesthetic potential. This wasn’t easy to do. In the mid-1960s, lasers were delicate pieces of equipment, often requiring one or even several experts to make them work properly. They were also expensive – a small commercial unit could cost as much as $700 (about $5500 in today’s money).

Given the cost and complexity, getting access to and then being able to work with a laser was not always easy for artists. Carl Frederik Reuterswärd, a Swedish artist, recalled learning about the laser just a few years after it was invented. But it wasn’t until 1965, when fellow Swede Billy Klüver, an engineer and co-founder of the seminal group Experiments in Art and Technology, brought him to Bell Labs to show him one in action. The artist recalled, “My mental perceptions changed. Here was the tool that broke with all traditions…It looked like the halo of Leonardo da Vinci, but straightened to infinity.”

Even more debatable than which scientist invented the laser – the story is complicated and, unless one has a commercial stake, it’s not a particularly interesting historical question – is which artist first used lasers for art’s sake. During the short-lived but remarkably fecund Art & Technology Movement of the mid-to-late 1960s, many such experiments were done. Some were done by physicists – like Caltech’s Elsa Garmire – who wanted to expand their careers in new directions. Other efforts were made by artists wanting to explore a new medium.

While many people experimented with the aesthetic possibilities of lasers, far fewer persisted with it as their preferred medium. One possible reason might be the ways in which lasers were incorporated into light shows and rock concerts – high art of a very different nature. Remember Laserium?

One artist who started experimenting early with lasers and maintained this focus for many years to follow was Rockne Krebs. Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1938, Krebs got a B.A. in sculpture from the University of Kansas in 1961. After a stint in the Navy, Krebs settled in Washington, DC and started his art career in earnest. Photos of him early in his career show him with his hair still cut in near-Navy fashion.

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Krebs, 1968 (Photo: ©Joe Cameron)

By the end of the 1960s, Krebs looked less like a Navy officer and more like a slightly heftier Robert Redford. As carefully planned and executed as his art works were, the ruggedly handsome Krebs – ubiquitous cigarette in hand – cut a path in his personal life somewhat less straight than a laser beam.

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Krebs, in his studio, 1977, with his daughter Heather (Photo: © Ray Lustig, 1977 for The Washington Star)

Krebs started making his early works from more traditional materials – a show in January 1967 at the Jefferson Place Gallery in Washington, DC featured pieces of Plexiglas, aluminum and steel that the Washington Post called “starkly courageous.”

By spring of 1967, though, Krebs had begun to shift to the ephemeral medium of laser light. At first he experimented at home with a laser he had “panhandled.” Then, at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Paul Haldemann, a technician from the University of Maryland’s electrical engineering department, assisted Krebs in combining red laser beams with artificial fog and mirrors. As he later said, Krebs was prompted by “the possibility of reversing the proposition by which we normally view sculpture.” The result was best explained by the show’s name – Sculpture Minus Object.

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Krebs in Sculpture Minus Object (1968). (© Estate of Rockne Krebs/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

Along with Sam Gilliam, his longtime friend with whom he shared a studio, Krebs secured a growing reputation for his works which used lasers and other light sources in innovative if dematerialized ways.

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Krebs, with his friend and fellow DC artist Sam Gilliam, 1984 (Photo: Carol Harrison)

This was enhanced considerably when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) selected Krebs as part of its controversial Art and Technology Program. Conceived in 1966 by LACMA curator Maurice Tuchman, the idea of A&T was to pair artists with various companies, primarily based in southern California. Working in collaboration with company engineers and supported by modest stipends from the corporate pay chest, artists would create pieces for an eventual show at LACMA.

Most of the participating artists were big names in the New York avant-garde art world – Warhol, Oldenburg, Serra, Rauschenberg. Krebs, barely 30 years old and from Washington, DC (hardly seen at the vanguard of the 1960s art scene) was a relative outsider. Nonetheless, in March 1969, prodded by “gonzo curator” Walter Hopps, a recent transplant from Los Angeles to DC, Krebs wrote LACMA to express interest in the A&T effort. He proposed making two works of art, one to be set up outdoors and shown at night and another to be installed indoors.

One of the companies Tuchman had approached about being partners in the A&T Program was Hewlett-Packard, a long-established Bay Area firm. Krebs flew out to California and met with Hewlett-Packard engineers and managers. Krebs was especially interested in H-P because, after “several years of ideation and attempts to visualize pieces that were beyond my resources,” H-P could offer both technical skills and the money for him to pursue more ambitious works.

Krebs began to collaborate with Larry Hubby, a physicist at H-P, who helped him resolve issues with the power output of lasers, light scattering, and how to focus the laser light. (Authorial aside: If any readers have contact information for Mr. Hubby, please write me!) Hewlett-Packard featured the artist-engineer collaboration in its magazine, highlighting technical input the company was providing. Here, we can still see shades of the famous “two cultures” divide. According to the H-P writer, Krebs, although “attired…in the informal style conventional to artists” still managed to impress H-P employees as “serious, talented, and pleasant to work with.” One of the engineers’ main contributions was developing a complex beam-switching sequence as Krebs wanted to use green and blue light from an argon laser as well as red light from a helium-neon laser.

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Krebs, 1969, working with engineers Bruce Ruff (left) and Larry Hubby (right) at Hewlett-Packard (from A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971)

Meanwhile, LACMA’s Tuchman negotiated with Jack Masey the United States Information Agency to put a selection of works by artists involved with the A&T Program in the official pavilion the U.S. would have at the Osaka ’70 Expo. Krebs was one of eight American artists invited to bring their collaborative art work to Japan where it would be displayed alongside sports memorabilia, and moon rocks brought back by Apollo 12 astronauts.

In January 1970, Krebs flew to Osaka for a 6-week stay. Working mostly alone at night, he installed the delicate and complex electro-optical system that would generate his light sculpture.

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Krebs in Osaka, 1970, installing his artwork. (from A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971)

It included three argon beams that would flash off and on, changing color at times throughout a seven minute cycle. In addition, red laser light formed a “static beam network” providing a sculptural armature.

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1969 drawing by Krebs showing layout of his Osaka piece (© Estate of Rockne Krebs/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

The technical help that H-P engineers provided was critical to success of the piece. As Krebs told The Washington Post, “They’d build the things I dreamed.” His artistic vision was to “weaken the psychological persistence with which laser beams are perceived as apparently real matter. He wanted to do this by having the beams appear and disappear in different configurations to “convey both the transiency and relativeness” of the piece the Los Angeles Times called “Infinity Reflection System”.

Still photos can’t convey the visual effect of seeing Krebs’ piece in person. Remember that for many visitors to Expo ’70, this was the first time they had ever seen a laser in person. Unlike Krebs’ earlier static works, his Osaka creation changed over time. One reviewer wrote that the viewer “is confronted with a red wall of light above the floor which forms a nonphysical curtain through which he passes.”

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Still image of Krebs’ Osaka piece ( © Estate of Rockne Krebs/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

As one entered the “periphery of the large mirrors used in this experiment, the walls appear to open as the mirrors reflect a laser beam structure that can be seen in real space.”1 The effect was to generate structures and walls of light which changed color – “green…and then without warning, nose or movement…the brightest sort of blue” –  and winked into existence and then away. Krebs designed the piece so that pace would gradually increase, creating a “kind of silent visual crescendo.”

Critics’ reaction to the high-tech art on display in Osaka – it was a big theme that year with the Pepsi Pavilion built by Experiments in Art and Technology standing out as the most ambitious attempt to marry art and engineering – was mixed. Krebs’ work received a positive response. Perhaps not surprisingly, a critic from Krebs’ hometown was especially positive, calling him the “most important innovative sculptor” that Washington DC had ever produced.

The Osaka Expo and, a year later, LACMA’s Art and Technology (which featured another ambitious laser installation) brought Krebs national attention and prestigious commissions. Before his death in 2011, Krebs designed and built more than 30 large-scale public art works which all involved light, optical effects, and, often, lasers. In addition, he exhibited in dozens of solo and group shows.

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Krebs’ Day Passage; made for 1971 LACMA show ( © Estate of Rockne Krebs/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

Krebs’ public works were generally without overt political messages. However, in 1988, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, responding to political pressure, canceled an exhibition of artworks by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who had recently died of AIDS.  Krebs – implementing an idea curator Andrea Pollan proposed – sent a light-based “fuck you” to censors and prudes by projecting haunting images of Mapplethorpe and his works on the building’s façade.

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From 9 October 1989 issue of Newsweek (photo by Frank P. Herrera)

Although millions of people saw Krebs’ work during his lifetime, the realizations of his artistic vision were  necessarily ephemeral. When the electricity is turned off and the laser light disappears, what – besides an impressive volume of sketches, drawings, and diagrams – is left? Memories and impressions.

  1. Harry J. Seldis, “The Art of Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1970 []