50 Years of Art & Engineering

50 years ago, accomplished professionals from two supposedly very different communities – high-tech research and avant-garde art – came together and fused at the 69th Regiment Armory building in New York City. More than three dozen engineers from nearby Bell Laboratories, arguably the world’s preeminent corporate research laboratory, joined with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Lucinda Childs to create ten distinct multi-media pieces for 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering. In October 1966, thousands of art enthusiasts, critics, and curiosity seekers trekked to midtown Manhattan to see and, in some cases, participate in performances that blended dance, music, and the visual arts with sophisticated electrical and communications engineering.

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Poster advertising 9 Evenings.

This fall marks the half-century mark of 9 Evenings. Because I’m writing a new book (called Art ReWired) about the intersection of engineers and artists, I thought a series of short blog posts about the seminal event would be both timely and brain-stimulating.

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Artists & engineers who created 9 Evenings, October 1966, in front of the 69th Regiment Armory in New York.

The backstory to 9 Evenings is complex but the central figure in it is Wilhelm “Billy” Klüver (1927-2004). Long interested in experimental film and modern art, in the early 1960s the Swedish-born and Berkeley-trained engineer worked at Bell Labs. He also spent evenings and weekends assisting with artists like Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol and helping organize major art shows. The symbolism of having 9 Evenings at the Armory was obvious. In 1913, it had hosted a famous and controversial exhibition which helped to publicly present modern art to American viewers.

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Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver with neon “R” he designed for Jasper Johns’ Field Painting .

In 1966, as 9 Evenings was coming together, Klüver also helped establish the New York-based group Experiments in Art and Technology. E.A.T., as it was better known, brought artists and engineers together, generating what were sociological, as well as artistic and technological experiments. From one-on-one collaborations to large-scale ambitions that mirrored Cold War-era Big Science projects, E.AT. was highly visible, sometimes successful, and always controversial.

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Recruiting engineers for E.A.T., 1967

9 Evenings stands out as the most visible opening salvo in what became the “art and technology” movement of the long 1960s. Bracketed by the launch of Sputnik on one end and the Watergate scandal at the other, the movement unfolded in the U.S. and Europe and was marked by scores of collaborations between artists and engineers. Sometimes these collaborations were between curious individuals; in other cases, they involved scores of people and multi-millions dollar budgets. For artists, it was partly a desire to work with new technology and a sense of crisis about the relevance of object-oriented art. For engineers, working with artists was an opportunity to bridge C.P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” divide and show technology and engineering as a positive force in society.

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Published version of Snow’s 1959 Rede Lectures.

Today, 9 Evenings appears as a model for how art and technology could combine into a new creative force. It’s nearly impossible to visit a display of contemporary art without seeing at least one piece deploying some digital or video technology. Meanwhile, artists like Eduardo Kac have blended bioengineering and art in ways that dissolve any boundaries between them.

The roots of this hybridization, of course, can be traced to many sources but a primary one is 9 Evenings. Science historian Arthur I. Miller opened his recent intriguing (but ultimately flawed) book Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Re-Defining Contemporary Art with a vignette drawn from 9 Evenings. More recently, Michelle Kuo, editor of Artforum, suggested that lessons from 9 Evenings seeped into and informed Silicon Valley’s culture of technological disruption. In addition to providing ample material for several doctoral dissertations, Seattle will see the commemoration of the “artistic traditions” 9 Evenings introduced and celebrate the power of collaboration and creativity via a multi-day art, technology, and science festival called 9E2.

The enthusiasm and interest shown by digital and New Media Art scholars – a diverse and multi-disciplinary community to be sure – in 9 Evenings as a critical origin point for their topic of study is ironic given its silent treatment in art history. If one picks up any recent survey of modern art, the art and technology movement, let alone 9 Evenings, isn’t likely to appear. One would be hard pressed to even find “technology” in the index of such books.

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9 Evenings in preparation – artists Rauschenberg and Lucinda Childs (2nd and 3rd from left) Bell Labs engineers Herb Schneider, L.J. Robertson, Per Biorn, and Klüver.

This presents a puzzle. Many of the artists – Rauschenberg, Warhol, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg as well as a host of lesser-known figures – who populate the art history canon were dabblers if not eager participants in the larger art and technology movement. Their experimentation with technology and collaboration with engineers is camouflaged in favor of their more familiar accomplishments. We might see discussion of Rauschenberg’s “combines”, for instance, but his years-long collaborations with Klüver or his participation in E.A.T. are absent.

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Klüver and Rauschenberg working on the environmental sound sculpture called Oracle, c. 1965.

Perhaps this isn’t so shocking when one considers that art, broadly speaking, is itself largely absent from histories of modern science and technology. Piling on more irony – both art history and the histories of science and technology are themselves small islets comprising the larger archipelago of mainstream history. They have their own departments, journals, professional societies, meetings and so on. One is unlikely to see much art or science or technology appear in mainstream journals like American Historical Review.

While finding a better seat at History’s Big Table for art or technology might is a long-term and probably unrealistic project, it’s not unreasonable to look for ways in which of Clio’s semi-orphans can better engage with one another. People who look at the histories of art and science/technology share some common interests. A few that jump to mind include: how experiments are created and executed; patronage and the situation of art (or engineering) within a large political economy; the pursuit and effects of publicity and publishing; and questions about creativity and moral responsibility. Moreover, we can interpret productions like 9 Evenings as an art world version of 1960s-era Big Science. Whether it was Big Science or Big Art c. 1966, Cold War engineers were central actors in both.

Despite its overuse, C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” diagnosis – despite decades of hand-wringing and curriculum re-jiggering by academic administrators – has never disappeared or been dispatched. Its echoes appear in today’s calls to introduce an “A for Art” into STEM education (Hey! You get STEAM!)

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One of the many STEM->STEAM logos out there. This one is from Ohio University.

In the next few blog posts, I’m going to look more closely at 9 Evenings. Fascinating in its own right as the earliest, biggest, and brightest art & tech collaboration from the long 1960s, a half-century later it offers a case study for how art and technology (and their histories) might talk to one another.

Next Time: Billy Klüver – the Engineer as Artwork

Buckminster Fuller’s Geometric Futures

Note: This blog post is adapted from a recent essay – a review of Jonathon Keats’s new book You Belong to the Universe – I wrote for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Enjoy…

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Fuller, 1964.

There are two possible views of Buckminster Fuller.  Consider: “Bucky” to friends and family – Fuller was a true American visionary, a solitary innovator who forged ahead as corporate research and development displaced the lone inventor. A kindly and bespectacled blend of Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, Fuller was so far ahead of his time that the future, let alone the present, has caught up to him. From his experimental Dymaxion cars to the geodesic domes that made him an international figure and unlikely counterculture guru, Fuller promoted environmentally conscious designs with the potential to benefit everyone on Spaceship Earth.

Or…a consummate bullshit artist, Bucky Fuller’s career was a failure, if not an outright fraud. With few ideas achieving any commercial success, Fuller was a hand-waving proponent of outlandish notions. An aggressive manager of his profile and patents, the authoritarian technocrat sought not students but compliant disciples who would spread Fuller’s muddled messages. Even the geodesic dome, Fuller’s greatest “success,” rested on a concept borrowed, if not stolen, from an aspiring sculptor and student. Even Spaceship Earth was a concept Fuller claimed as his own.

The reality is a smeared superposition these two representations, a blend of the visionary’s own mythologizing and the historical record. Peeling away the mythic layers that Fuller and his acolytes applied to his life like so many layers of fertilizer is no easy task. It’s not for a lack of historical sources. Fuller consciously, even obsessively, documented his existence. His “Chronofile” is perhaps the most comprehensive record of any individual’s life. Now owned by Stanford University, it challenges scholars with 1200 linear feet of boxes containing manuscripts, models, design drawings, and audio-visual recordings (as well as overdue library notices and grocery lists). Fuller’s was not a life unrecorded.

Peaking through that smokescreen of self-mythologizing is evidence that even when it came to basic, even pivotal, moments in Fuller’s life, the visionary designer was anything but a reliable narrator. Yet this interpretative flexibility with historical facts and professional accomplishments proved central to Fuller’s undeniable success.

Consider the accomplishment Fuller is most famed for – the geodesic dome. Geodesics – the domes themselves and their underlying geometry – made Buckminster Fuller into an international celebrity. When Time featured him on its cover in 1964, the now-familiar architecture dominated the picture as it did fifty years later when a U.S. postage stamp (pictured above) honored Fuller.

Fuller’s most prominent invention originated not in some military laboratory but in the avant-garde atmosphere of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College in 1948 where he was visiting as an architecture professor. The students tried, with Fuller’s supervision, to build a structure using Venetian blind slats as trusses held in place via tension.

It collapsed.

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Early design iteration for what became “Fuller’s” idea…

One of the students affected by Fuller’s Dymaxion ideas, however, was a young art student named Kenneth Snelson. Over the winter of 1948-49, he built a series of models in which the parts were held in place by taut wires, their balance of compression and tension providing structural stability. After returning to Black Mountain College, Snelson showed Fuller his model. By the end of the summer of 1949, the school’s art students, guided by Fuller, successfully built a geodesic dome using aluminum tubes.

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A year and another design iteration later…success.

Its basic principle is evident via its structure. Geodesic domes feature a superstructure of complex polyhedra based on interconnected triangles. Their advantage comes from their strength-to-weight ratio and relative ease of transport and assembly.

Fuller began to refer to the engineering principle Snelson had used as “tensegrity” – a clever portmanteau of “tension” and “integrity” – that he later patented just as he did with the geodesic dome. Snelson’s name was in neither patent application. The stage was set for a priority dispute between Snelson and Fuller that lasted decades. (Snelson’s version of the story is presented here…)

Fuller’s intellectual property claims notwithstanding, the artist went on to have a successful career as sculptor. Snelson’s “Needle Tower, a 60-foot tall “tensegrity” piece sits in front of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.

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In historical research, sorting out “who discovered it first” claims is a tricky and often unenlightening business. The past is littered with examples of simultaneous invention. In this case, the truth likely lies between Fuller’s opportunism and Snelson’s protestations. Developing and promoting the geodesic dome – inventing something isn’t the same as nurturing its diffusion – certainly required some synergy between teacher and student.

Promoting the geodesic dome’s potential was something Fuller, the consummate booster-cum-huckster, excelled at. Starting in 1949, Fuller the technocrat pushed geodesic domes as a key tool for American success on the Cold War battlefield both on the frontlines and at home. That same year, he oversaw a demonstration dome’s construction at the Pentagon and worked with MIT students to design another one that could shelter Air Force planes and their crews. The Marine Corps eventually had 300 of them built, envisioning their speedy deployment into combat hot zones.

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Fuller’s design was appreciated by the military for its strength and portability.

Fuller originally set up companies to make his domes but, starting in 1966, he licensed, for a 5% royalty, scores of other companies to make them. As they migrated from military bases to trade fairs, geodesic domes became not just a product of American capitalism but a symbol of it as well. At the 1967 World’s Fair, Fuller’s dome was the featured design for the U.S. pavilion.

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Montreal, Canada — Fuller in front of the geodesic dome which acts as the US pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The dome’s final, wonderfully ironic, transmutation occurred at the hands of America’s counterculture. At places like Drop City, a Colorado hippie commune started in 1965, geodesic domes popped up like so many mushrooms.

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The domes of Drop City, Colorado.

And, like so many aspects of that groovy era, geodesic domes – promoted by venues such as The Whole Earth Catalog – were marketed and sold. For example, Californian Lloyd Kahn converted to Fuller-ism after hearing him speak at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. “Enthralled by Fuller’s idea that waste could be eliminated by design,” Kahn produced books extolling domes as homes before renouncing them as a universal panacea for the world’s housing shortages and environmental problems.

Over three decade’s Fuller’s architectural icon had traveled from art project to Cold War instrument of power to countercultural icon to a fading symbol of utopian aspirations. What a long strange trip it had been.

From Laser Art to Laserium

The folks at Science Friday included me today in a story about the ways in which the laser migrated from scientists’ labs to art galleries and planetariums. If you liked the show, here’s more of the story…

This advertisement, published just a few years after the first optical lasers were demonstrated, asked the question: “Where does the laser go from here?”

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One of the places it went was the artist’s studio and the art gallery. For example, In Washington, DC, artist Rockne Krebs started experimenting in 1967 with lasers and produced several innovative installations.

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

Another part of this story was the career of physicist Elsa Garmire. Trained at Harvard and then MIT in the 1960s, Garmire was a pioneer in laser research.

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Garmire in her lab, c. 1970.

In the late 1960s, while doing a postdoc at Caltech, Garmire began to experiment with using lasers to make art. Initially, she created “lasergrams” – photographs made by shining laser beams through various diffraction media. Here’s one example from 1969.

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One of Garmire’s “Lasergrams”

Garmire also explored a variation on photographing manipulated laser images via live shows using a HeNe laser and rotating diffraction wheels and then filming the changing shapes and colors. This sowed the seeds for what eventually became Laserium.

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Filming a laser show in Garmire’s lab, likely 1970 or 1971.

Before she returned to a very successful full-time career in scientific research, Garmire’s experimental live laser shows caught the attention of Ivan Dryer, a Los Angeles-based film maker.

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Ivan Dryer, c. 1975.

Dryer soon realized that filming Garmire’s laser images was aesthetically inferior to seeing the intensity and purity of their colors in person. In the fall of 1970, he arranged for a live and – to his eyes – captivating demonstration of Garmire’s system, accompanied by classical music, for staff at the Griffith Observatory. The observatory management, however, was less enchanted with what they saw as entertainment, not education. Disappointed but still motivated, Dryer and Garmire co-founded a company in February 1971 called Laser Images Inc.. Riffing on the popularity of planetarium shows, they called their product “Laserium.”

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The idea eventually took off. Laserium finally debuted at Griffith Observatory in November 1973, running on four consecutive Mondays, three times a day.  Advertisements said “Be Prepared.” Despite later stereotypes of Laserium, the first shows had no music by Pink Floyd. The run was a success and shows at Griffith continued for 28 years.

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By 1977, Dryer’s growing team of live laser performers were putting on shows in more than 15 cities in the U.S. and abroad and Laserium was a registered trademark. Laserium was based around a standard system, using a low power krypton laser split by a prism into four colored beams.

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1973 test of krypton laser system in Garmire’s Caltech lab.

The details of the system are preserved in the patent application Dryer and two colleagues filed in July 1975 for a “laser light image generator” that can create a “plurality of light images in different colors from a single laser light.”

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Laserium had a broad appeal – stoners, geeks, and planetarium junkies all turned out to see shows. Its popularity was no doubt enhanced by the relative novelty of lasers for the general public in the mid-1970s. The 1977 film Star Wars added to people’s interest in all things laser-y.

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Laserium, in Marvel’s The Amazing Spider Man, 1977

Just as planetarium shows have helped popularize astronomy, Laserium can be seen as a public display of laser technology, its roots traceable back to 19th century displays of electricity and electrical effects by people like Michael Faraday and Nikola Tesla.

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Nikola Tesla giving an electrical demonstration; from Scientific American, 1892.

Laserium was not without its aesthetic admirers. One art writer, for example, referred to experiments with laser projection as the “seeds of what will become the high, universally acclaimed visual art of the future.” Given Laserium’s penchant for attracting attendees whose appreciation of choreographed laser light was chemically enhanced, “high” visual art takes on another meaning as well.

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After peaking in the late 1970s when some 70 people worked for the company, Laserium slowly faded in popularity. Often lampooned as the preferred entertainment of pot heads and LSD trippers, we can also see Laserium as the somewhat disreputable cousin of the venerable planetarium show. Nonetheless, by 2002, more than 20 million people around the world had seen a Laserium show – its run at Griffith lasted some 28 years – and its idiosyncratic blend of music and spectacle had become part of popular culture.

Laserium’s story tells us that we can no longer think of the late 1960s and early 1970s as an “anti-science” or “anti-technology” period. A more nuanced reading shows that engineers, artists, and the general public in general sought and found alternative forms of science and technology. Laserium was a colorful off-shoot of this search for a different, groovier, science.

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