Shifting Gears and Changing Rooms

(Bloggy Note: I recently appeared on the radio show Science Friday. Host Ira Flatow and I spoke about the history of another collaborative artist/engineer effort. This was the Art and Technology Program that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ran from 1966-1971. After a 50 year hiatus, LACMA has recently rebooted the program. Although very different from the original incarnation, the new program brings artists, engineers, and corporate sponsorship together to jumpstart aesthetic experimentation. This seemed like a good coming out party for a new research project I’m starting…)

Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in collaborations between artists, engineers, and scientists from the 1960s onward. Regular readers of this blog will have noticed the recent posts about laser art in its various formsDNA origami, and so forth.

I’m planning on exploring the art-technology/artist-engineer nexus further for a new book project. It’s exciting as well as challenging/intimidating. There’s a huge amount of art history to get a handle on. But I think that every so often, it’s good to take one’s research in a brand new direction…and my timing is good. Starting in a few weeks, I have the good fortune to hold the Charles Lindbergh Chair at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. This will give me a good opportunity to jump start this project.

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Frank Malina , engineer of space and art.

While serving as the Lindbergh Chair, I want to examine the “art and technology movement” by focusing on the experiences and activities of engineers and scientists. One of the main topics I’ll be researching while in DC are the activities of the American rocket engineer turned artist Frank J. Malina.

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Malina (center) with Theodore von Kármán, 1941

Prior to the U.S. entry into World War Two, Malina helped develop and test nascent rocket technologies in the dry arroyos of Pasadena. After the war, Malina helped get the Jet Propulsion Laboratory off the ground. However, Malina became disenchanted displeased with the pursuit of advanced rocket technologies for military purposes. (M.G. Lord’s super book Astro-Turf highlights the historical hypocrisy of former Nazi Werner von Braun being seen all too often as the “father” of the U.S. space program while home-grown heroes like Malina are neglected.)

Malina left California for France where he joined the Division of Scientific Research for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Malina could not, however, escape Cold War allegations of Communist associations and he quit his UNESCO post in 1953. Long interested in art, it was at this point that Malina decided to pursue it as a full-time career.

It is Malina’s career path after this point that especially interests me. After first experimenting with more conventional media, Malina turned to more experimental tools and technologies. Malina’s experiments with kinetic, audio, and electronic art depicted the new landscapes that rapid advances in Cold War science and technology – exemplified by the Bomb, the rocket, the computer – revealed. The launch of the first satellites and then the first people into space profoundly influenced Malina and his art. “Because of man’s first steps in exploring extraterrestrial space,” he wrote in 1966, “we are more conscious of the universe, both intellectually and visually.”

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Malina at work in his Paris studio, c. 1965.

In 1968, with backing from controversial British publishing tycoon, Robert Maxwell, owner of Pergamon, Malina launched the journal Leonardo. It’s still published today.Malina imagined the journal as a forum in which humanists and scientists could communicate and collaborate. Malina made it a point to emphasize that Leonardo was neither about art criticism or aesthetics (he disparaged both often and Leonardo included no advertisements for dealers or galleries).

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Some space-themed covers of Leonardo

Instead, the focus was on the process of creating art. Under Malina’s editorial guidance, the early volumes of Leonardo provided a forum for artists, scientists, and engineers to interact and collaborate. Malina purposely adopted the format of scientific journals and published articles by artists and scientists that described their artistic experiments with digital computers, cybernetics, holography, and lasers.  Malina often approached the creation of art as an experiment that could be amenable to research, something which makes a perspective from a historian of science especially useful.

Looking more broadly, artist-engineer collaborations were seen as experiments in creativity that could benefit the art world as well as industry and university labs. For engineers, subject to vociferous attacks about their complicity in the arms race, environmental destruction, and other global ills, the art and technology movement presented them with an opportunity to humanize technology and re-define their profession, if only on a personal level.

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Artist Robert Whitman (left) with engineer John Forkner, c. 1969, as they collaborated on the Art and Technology Program that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ran.

I’m hoping this new project shifts the focus from the artists by giving more attention to their under-recognized partners in collaboration – engineers and scientists. Many of the artists these professionals worked with were big names in the modern art world. But art critics largely ignored the technologists who partnered with star artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Lucinda Childs, Robert Whitman, or John Cage. These accomplished engineers and scientists from elite institutions like Caltech, MIT, or Bell Labs were typically reduced to “invisible technicians” doing the artists’ bidding. I want to bring the engineers and scientists, who were central to the era’s artistic collaborations, to the foreground.

I’m super excited to be starting work on this new project. Malina’s papers are at archived at the Library of Congress so I’ll be parked there for many days, slowly making my way through the collection. Per aspera ad astra