“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.

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

Fog & Physics

Every day, hundreds of visitors to the recently relocated Exploratorium in San Francisco cross a pedestrian bridge between Piers 15 and 17. Here, if the timing is right, they can encounter and play within an immersive fog sculpture. “Fog Bridge” was conceived and designed by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya. Its existence as interplay between art, aesthetics, and physics can be traced back more than four decades.

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Fog bridge at the Exploratorium; photograph by Gayle Laird © Exploratorium

Nakaya’s work began in the 1960s during the brief but potent flowering of formal collaborations between artists and engineers. A signature piece of this “art & tech” movement was the Pavilion. Initiated and sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, the multi-media experience that was the Pavilion opened in the spring of 1970 as part of Expo ’70 in Osaka. In an era marked by Big Science – typified by expensive large-scale research collaborations – we can see the Pavilion as the aesthetic analog: Big Art.

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The Pavilion at night; Osaka, 1970.

Organized by Experiments in Art and Technology (or E.A.T.), a group co-founded in 1966 by Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver, scores of artists, engineers, and staff worked to bring the Pavilion into existence. Meanwhile, Pepsi poured over some $1.2 million into funding their work.1

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Part of the team that made the Pavilion possible.

The Pavilion was the apogee of the “art & tech” movement of the 1960s and, as Klüver often pointed out, one of the grandest art projects of the 20th century. Visually, the most striking thing about the Pavilion, at least from the outside, was how much of it you couldn’t see. This is because the designers of Pavilion decided early on to shroud (perhaps hide?) the Pavilion’s crumpled geodesic-style dome – what one E.A.T. member lampooned as a “Buckled Fuller dome” – with fog.2 This was no natural fog however, but an artificially generated veil of atomized water droplets crafted by Nakaya and engineered by a small California company.

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Fujiko Nakaya, c. 2005.

Born in Sapporo in 1933, Fujiko Nakaya was the daughter of Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya. He became well-known in mid-20th century for his path-breaking research on the science of snow.

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Ukichiro Nakaya, c. 1940

For decades, Nakaya – recently featured in a Google doodle – worked to perfect lab techniques for making artificial snow crystals. He then rigorously studied their structure and developed a classification system for them.3

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Nakaya in the lab, c. 1940.

The culmination of Ukichiro Nakaya’s work was a 1954 book published by Harvard University Press called Snow Crystals: Natural and Artificial. Snow flakes, he wrote, were “hieroglyphs sent from the sky.”

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Ukichiro Nakaya’s 1954 book

His daughter, Fujiko, took her father’s empirical approach to understanding a specific meteorological phenomenon and applied it to art. After graduating from college in 1959 at Northwestern University, she spent two years at the Sorbonne in Paris where she studied painting. Around 1966, she met Klüver and participated in the (in)famous 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering show at the 69th Street Armory in New York City. When Klüver and E.A.T. got the nod from Pepsi to do the Pavilion, Nakaya became a central person in the project. Besides handling logistics and smoothing over Japanese-American interactions, in Osaka, she designed the fog sculpture that would surround the building.

Producing fog from pure water isn’t easy however. In nature, fog is often produced when the air temperature drops until the air is saturated and water droplets condense. One way to generate artificial fog would be to boil water which, when surrounded by cooler air, condenses. Another would be to dramatically cool the Pavilion’s roof. Both of these approaches would require huge amounts of energy. But there was a third method, the one that Nakaya wanted to do. Fog can also be made by atomizing water i.e. basically spraying tiny droplets of water into the atmosphere.

To realize her aesthetic goal, Nakaya struck up a collaboration with a physicist based in Southern California. Thomas R. Mee moved to the Pasadena area after working on a variety of weather modification projects for Cornell University in the early 1960s. After working a few years for Meteorological Research Inc..4  In 1969, he started his own company. Initially, Mee Industries Inc. made niche instrumentation for weather and pollution studies.

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Tom Mee, shown in 1985.

In June 1969, Nakaya contacted Mee who had never heard of E.A.T. and was unaware of plans to combine art and engineering at the Osaka fair. But he was “impressed by her knowledge of cloud physics” – Mee had met Nakaya’s father and was well-aware of snow research – and her probing questions about how one might go about making fog.

Mee w agreed to meet with Nakaya and experiment with a method in which water was sprayed under high pressure through a very narrow nozzle to produce a dense cloud of tiny water droplets. More experiments and hardware development followed. A few months later, on a hot, dry August day in California, Nakaya and Mee met in his Altadena backyard, set up the equipment – 60 pin-jet nozzles connected to piping in which water was pumped at 500 psi – and successfully tested a prototype system. The result was a large cloud of artificial fog that partially obscured Mee’s house.

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Testing Mee’s fog system, August 1969.

The nest step was to scale up the system in Osaka for the Pavilion. Ultimately, 2,520 of Mee’s specially-crafted nozzles and 11,000 gallons of water an hour would enshroud the Pavilion in an ever-changing fog sculpture some 150 feet in diameter. The humid Osaka air cooled the air around the Pavilion so that the pure white fog that Mee’s system generated poured down over the structure in patterns that Nakaya wanted. To pull this off, Nakaya and a team of specialists carried out detailed monitoring of the environment around the Pavilion site to account for wind speed, humidity, and temperature.

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Fog-shrouded Pavilion, Osaka Expo ’70.

After Expo ’70 ended,  Mee’s company eventually began to sell fog-making systems. A patent application he submitted in 1970 cites the possibility of using his system for agricultural purposes, either for cooling areas or frost control, as well as producing a “visible cloud” which can have a “highly decorative and entertaining effect.” By 1985, company sales were approaching $2 million. After some rough financial times as a public company, the company rebounded as Mee’s children – Tom Mee passed away in 1998 – took over the business and a controlling interest in the firm. The company saw a major expansion in 1997 when the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to install fog systems on its four dozen gas turbines to improve their efficiency. Similar orders followed and the company expanded into other areas such as providing cooling for data server installations for companies like Facebook. As of 2014, some 80 people work for the company.

Fujiko Nakaya and Tom Mee maintained a working relationship, with his company providing hardware for her art installations. Since Expo ’70, she has created a variety of fog works – gardens, geysers, falls – at sites around the world including the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. Besides the “Fog Bridge” at the Exploratorium, she recently crafted an immersive environmental piece called “Veil” for the Glass House, a work of modern architecture by Philip Johnson from 1949. At the Glass House, Nakaya’s fog appears every 15 minutes or so, obscuring the house (as it did with Pavilion) and making it appear to vanish.

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Nakaya’s fog sculpture at the Glass House, 2014.

As a young artist, Nakaya painted clouds. But, as she told The New York Timesthe activism of the 1960s made her want to interact more directly with the environment and society. Where the elder Nakaya wanted to control and classify the creation of ice crystals, his daughter’s approach is orthogonal – change, chance, and contingency dominate. Both are united, however, in combining physics with an aesthetic sensibility.

  1. Over $7 million in today’s currency. []
  2. This choice stemmed, in part, from the fact that Klüver and the other E.A.T. members disliked the Pavilion’s architecture, which Pepsi selected and a Japanese firm produced. Nakaya’s fog offered a way to obscure it. []
  3. I find Nakaya’s snow research just fascinating;there’s a good graduate student project here… []
  4. This company was started in 1951 by Paul MacCready (1925-2007), a Caltech graduate who later became famous for designing and building the Gossamer Condor, a human-powered aircraft. MacCready later started another southern California company, AeroVironment, which today is one of the largest manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”). []