Day 145 @ ITP: Recurring Concepts in Art

Reading: Gyorgy Kepes, Billy Klüver, and American Art of the 1960s: Defining Attitudes Toward Science and Technology

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I will argue that the 1960s represented a cultural crossroads between philosophies of art-making developed in pre-World War II Europe – when scientific breakthroughs seemed to offer proof of the interrelatedness of all aspects of life and new modes of seeing, the understanding of which could avert future conflict – and those forged in the aftermath of World War II, when the exploitation of new technologies appeared the key to economic and political triumph.
After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. (McLuhan [1964] 1994, 7)
My own interest is in continuing that strain of the Bauhaus which attempted to find agreement across a wide spectrum of disciplines – science, engineering, art. ... Our interest at the Center is not only in new materials or technical implements, but in new knowledge. Today the possibilities suggested by new materials are much broader than they were in the days of the Bauhaus. Neither electronics nor the computer existed then.
(Davis 1968, 40)

Collaboration was central to the Center’s philosophy. Kepes envisioned that members of the Center, removed from the pressures of the art market, would work together on artistic “tasks” intended to benefit the community at large. Framing his proposal, Kepes explained that the group of artists should encompass many specialties, from painting and sculpture to film, light-work, and graphic design, and that the community should be “located in an academic institution with a strong scientific tradition” (Kepes 1965, 122). While Kepes’ suggestion that the Center be established in “an academic institution with a strong scientific tradition” indicated his affinity for MIT, it also coin-cided with his belief that artists must be schooled in the scientific and technical idioms of their own century in order to produce authentic and socially responsible work.

The name chosen for the facility, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, attested to Kepes’ interest in the nature of vision – and in visual language – the cornerstone, in his view, of collaborative engagement between artists and scientists. In his published proposal, Kepes reiterated views he had expounded in print since the early 1940s, “Vision is a fundamental factor in human insight. It is our most important resource for shaping our physical, spatial environment and grasping the new aspect of nature revealed by modern science. It is at its height in the experience of artists, who elevate our perception.” Echoing Moholy-Nagy, Kepes continued, “Artists are living seismographs, as it were, with a special and direct sensitivity to the human condition. Their immediate and direct response to the sensuous qualities of the world helps us to establish an entente with the living present” (Kepes 1965, 121; Moholy-Nagy [1947] 1965, 30).
He observed that, “[a]s an engineer, working with him, I was part of the machine. This new availability was largely responsible for the size and complexity of the machine” (ibid.). Witnessing the compatibility of viewpoints of artist and engineer proved an epiphany: “At that point, I realized I could do something technical for artists” (Kluver 1999).  
I am afraid of the consequences of a science which is built on concepts like symmetry, invariance, uniqueness, time and beauty. I would love it if the purpose of science was to create surprise, nonsense, humour, pleasure, and play. (Kaprow and Kluver 1962, 3) 
As Alex Hay told Simone Whitman, “Billy once mentioned that at Bell Labs any scientist who didn’t have a ninety percent failure record on his experiments was not considered a good scientist. I understood this to mean that a good scientist is working on the outer limits of his understanding. That if a scientist who experiments consistently turns out to be successful, it means that the scientist is wasting time [proving] matters which he already knows to be true.” A willingness to take risks and explore new ideas linked artists with their engineer partners.
In the words of Chuck Close: Things very much came out of the idea that the way to liberate yourself from the conventions and traditions of the past was to find a material that didn’t have historic usage and see what it would do. What does rubber do? What does lead do? You wouldn’t have wanted to use bronze, you wouldn’t have wanted to use any traditional art material when the idea was to find a process and go with it. (Storr 1998, 88)
‘Art and science’ has a feeling of fakery to me. ...Art cannot contribute anything to science as I see it” (Kluver 1999). Klüver continued to believe that the theoretical nature of science made it incompatible with the physical nature of art (Davis 1968, 42). Engineering, on the other hand, which engaged with manipulating technological materials, appeared to have a natural connection with artistic activity. Kluver reiterated his viewpoint in a 1968 interview with Douglas  Davis, “The engineer and the artist deal with the physical world and work for direct solutions of problems. The scientist is not trained to deal with and handle the physical world” (ibid.).
But if E.A.T. emulated the organization of industry, the agency did so with utopian ideals in mind. Soliciting the support of industry for the collaborations between artists and engineers promised nothing short of a social revolution.36 Just as Kepes felt that science and art could positively inform one another, so Kluver argued that art could  ̈redefine the goals of engineering, while technology could expand the possibilities of art. An early E.A.T. Newsletter declared: The collaboration between artists and engineers should produce far more than merely adding technology to art. The possibility of a work being created that was the preconception of neither the artist nor the engineer is the raison d’etre of the organization. The engineer must come out of the rigid world that makes his work the antithesis of
his life and the artist must be given the alternative of leaving the peculiar historic bubble known as the art world. The social implications of E.A.T. have less to do with bringing art and technology closer together than with exploring the possibilities of human interaction.
(E.A.T 1967a, 4)
Rauschenberg expressed his pride in the practical ramifications of E.A.T.’s collaborations in an interview conducted twenty years after the establishment of E.A.T.: “Something like nineteen brand-new patents that were direct results of Nine Evenings of Theater and Engineering went to the credit of the engineers of the respective companies. ...The technology that went into Soundings contributed to a cure for deafness that is almost perfect now” (Rose 1987, 70).
Despite Burnham’s disappointment, the affinity of these proposals with conceptual and environmental art, which permitted the creation of “thought projects” with no expectation of physical realization, cannot be overlooked, as Otto Piene has observed...
(Piene 1978).
Although Kepes and Klüver received significant recognition in the 1960s, in a climate of heightened awareness of the social impact of science and technology, their divergent outlooks reflect a coming of age at different moments, Kepes, in the 1920s, when popular interest in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was at its height, and Klüver, in the wake of  the Second World War, as many new materials and electronic technologies were under development. 47 The differences in their perspectives suggest the need for a careful distinction between the enterprises of science and technology as well as between
the conceptual versus material implications of partnerships between art, science, and technology.

At the same time, despite underlying differences in their goals, methods, and motivations, the organizers of these initiatives shared the conviction that art could help shape the development of science and technology, a belief capable of forging alliances between those who advocated revolution in contemporary art, and those who relished a sense of historic continuity.