To Take a Computer as an Apprentice: A Look at When Art Met Technology at LACMA, in 1971

Installation view of "Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966)" at the Whitechapel Gallery. STEPHEN WHITE

Installation view of “Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966)” at the Whitechapel Gallery.


With so many shows about art and the Internet lately, it’s hard to remember a time when it was unexpected that artists would ever rely on machinery and electronics, but, in 1971, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened “Art and Technology,” critics were surprised. The show was the result of experiments engineered at a lab staged at the museum—artists were paired with technologists, who then helped artists realize technically complex projects. Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, R.B. Kitaj, and Robert Rauschenberg all participated in the program, and some of their projects were then exhibited at the museum. Many of the works were never completed for various reasons, causing the show to fail to live up to critics’ expectations. (The obvious precedents for “Art and Technology” was Robert Rauschenberg’s “9 Evenings” and Experiments in Art and Technology, both of which were received more favorably.) Below is David Antin’s essay on “Art and Technology,” which appeared in the September 1971 issue of ARTnews. Reprinted here in honor of a spate of shows about the Internet, most notable among them “Electronic Superhighway (2016–1966),” the Whitechapel Gallery’s ambitious survey of how the Internet has impacted art, Antin’s essay appears below in full. —Alex Greenberger

“Art and the Corporations”
By David Antin

Los Angeles’ matchmaking between artists and corporations into advanced technology yielded a much-heralded Art & Technology show; the image of technology, the image of art, the attitudes and capabilities of the corporations, are all elements of this analysis.

In the spring of 1971 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art finally opened the doors on its long awaited “Art and Technology” show. According to the museum’s curator Maurice Tuchman, the exhibition was conceived as far back as 1966, and it had certainly been in the works since 1968. It has been much publicized in the press and parts of it were displayed in the American Pavilion of the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970. As a consequence many of its works are familiar, perhaps overly familiar, to the art world. But perhaps precisely because of the familiarity of its objects, its long public and not so public, development—as a result of which it comes at the end of a long line of technology art exhibitions—and because of the scale and direction of its ambitions, it deserves serious treatment. The physical exhibition on the Museum’s grounds consisted of the work, or the documentation of the work, of a maximum of 15 artists. This uncountability of the participating artists is characteristic of the exhibition in general and part of the difficulty. Typically, a piece by Robert Irwin was exhibited during the show in the Museum; it had no connection with anything that he had done in the course of his project with Garrett Industries. Question: what was it doing on the premises? On the other hand, there were many projects that were realized and were not or could not be exhibited in or around the Museum during the course of the show. These are lengthily if peculiarly documented in A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 1967-1971, a 386 page piece of conceptual art released after Osaka and before the Los Angeles exhibition which records the efforts of 76 artists. This documentation ranges in length from the entry under “Participating Artist” Piotr Kowalski, which runs in full: “Primarily because of his successful participation in the International Sculpture Symposium in 1964 at Long Beach State College we invited Piotr Kowalski to submit a proposal for A&T. Kowalski indicated he would, but surprisingly he did not” … to some 29 pages replete with pixieish images of Oldenburg at work and play, which tell a mysterious story of how it came to pass that Claes did not collaborate with Disney but “The Ice Bag” was built. Inevitably to discuss the show is to discuss the physical exhibition, the catalogue, and what is not in either of them. Because the catalogue preceded the physical exhibition, I shall discuss the physical exhibition before discussing the catalogue.

As a general impression the show was dominated by dimly lit to dark environments, a strong esthetic condition that biased almost all the large-scale works inside the museum. This velvety darkness was most intrinsic to Rockne Krebs’ mirror-and-laser piece, Boyd Mefferd’s strobe color walls and Newton Harrison’s glow discharge columns, thought it is my understanding that Krebs would have preferred a daylight setting for his lasers. All three are likable and relatively workmanlike at setting up the opulent science-fiction atmosphere that has become a tradition in this type of luminist art. As one might have expected they drew the usual contingent stoned kids sitting about and saying OM. The Lichtenstein filmic paintings, their mild interest notwithstanding, were most damaged by darkness. Darkness is not a condition for looking at paintings. It does not allow for that singular neutrality which, from the nature of the images he chose, Lichtenstein appeared to want. As for the Tony Smith or the Whitman works, no amount of darkness or light could have made any possible difference. A cardboard sculpture made out of tetrahedral and octahedral structural blocks that had to be taped together and finally hung from the ceiling because it would not stand can hardly be harmed by inappropriate lighting. In the case of the Whitman his usually brainless imagery was this unaccompanied by focused dumbness or his customary glamor. The Warhol—is astonishing. It is the only fully attested fake Warhol in existence and it is extremely valuable in that it demonstrates, by its total distinction from all control of his other works (in its absolute inertness), the total personal control by whatever occult means that Warhol used to exercise over his works of art. Typically Warhol made this clear by having his stand-in photographed alongside the fake piece. Peripherally the inside of the Museum also contained Rauschenberg’s mud piece, jumping in tune to a canned sound track, Fahlstrom’s cutouts, a graphic display of Reichek “designs,” ostensibly generated by a computer, which I will discuss further on, Kitaj’s mock-up of the “History of the Industrial Revolution,” a series of questions generated by James Lee Byars as a consequence of his visit with Herman Kahn (the well-known member of MENSA), a nearly invisible prism by Irwin, unrelated to the show. Outside the museum were Oldenburg’s celebrated Icebag, two totally distinct pieces by Serra, one a more or less academic piece of stacked sculpture and the other a partially buried, semi-conceptual piece, and finally Newton Harrison’s post-Osaka piece, a shrimp ranch occupying a quadripartite saline pool. If this show, from three to four years in the making, were to be judged on the basis of these objects (read “environments” or “displays”) the way a painting show or sculpture included within it, the verdict would be disastrous. But it was not a painting show or sculpture show; it was an “Art and Technology” show and its intentions in the words of its curator were to “bring together the incredible resources and advanced technology of industry with equally incredible imagination and talent of the best artists at work today.”


Douglas Coupland, Deep Face, 2015.


Does it do this? The answer is that it is very difficult to tell the basis of the things that finally found their way into the Museum and onto its grounds. Thus the catalogue-book. It is not, for example, possible to tell what is meant by “the best artists at work today” or what these “incredible resources…of industry” are without reading it. Looking at the physical exhibition one might reach the conclusion that industry was rather impoverished and the “best artists” were primarily a small, though perfectly good enough, group of New York artists who had dominated the early ’60s in a kind of generalized Pop ambience—the Castelli-Janis axis—combined with a small number of other artists that the Museum happened to like. But even more importantly, without the book it is impossible even to imagine what conception of Art and Technology was at stake in this show and why this art required technology or appeared to stand to benefit from it. Behind this lies a still more fundamental question, not answered in the book: what art does need technology? And in order to deal with this exhibition it is necessary to take up the question as well.

There is a sense in which all art is technological. For ultimately no matter what refinements of definition we employ, technology is nothing more nor less than the ability to get something from here to there. So we have always had art-and-technology. Stonehenge was art-and-technology, vase painting was art-and-technology, even oil painting and bronze sculpture were art-and-technology, of a sort. The only difference here is that the last two employed a relatively archaic technology. But what is more important, the art of painting has not generally claimed that its basis lay in technology of pigment application, though certain recent discussions of acrylic staining techniques seem to verge on such a claim; and recent sculpture has most decisively attempted to divorce itself from “technique,” seeking, as it were, to approach either of two poles: pure conceptuality, on the one hand, or pure materiality on the other. Generally what we think of as technological art is an art that aspires to the condition of technology; and this condition has been seen somewhat differently over the last 80 years or so during which artists have considered the positive possibilities of technology, 80 years, because it is important to distinguish an art that aspires to the condition of science, in chase of which we would have to move further back into history. The distinction between science and technology is perhaps easier to make from the point of view of art than it is from the point of view of either science or technology, the boundaries between which have become irrecovably blurred. But from the easier viewpoint of art, science is concerned with understanding reality and technology with manipulating it. Thus it is possible to understand why Constable saw painting proceeding in the manner of science—to discover the laws of nature. But it fell to the architects like van de Velde, Sedding and Ashbee, to the fin-de-siècle reformers coming out of the blacklash of the Art Nouveau line, to proclaim for the first time need for a technological art. Thus Charles Robert Ashbee: “Modern civilization rests on machinery, and no system for the endowment, or the encouragement, or the teach of art can be sound that does not recognize this.”

In 1901 Frank Lloyd Wright welcomed technology in the form of the machine as “the forerunner of democracy” and “the normal tool of civilization.” The identification of technology with “the machine” and “the machine” with “democracy” was more or less typical of early reformatarian attitudes toward technological art; and the identification of technology with the machine was nearly inevitable. The machine was the concrete metaphor of technology—the physical embodiment of the ability to get something from here to there. The linkage between technology and “democracy” is not so inevitable. Nevertheless the theme of the democracy of technology has been a persistent one, cropping up not only in Art Nouveau theoretics, and logically, therefore, in the Bauhaus, but subsequently in The New Tendency work in Europe, in Billy Kluver and Robert Rauschenberg’s EAT, etc. It is therefore fitting that it should also show up in full ambiguity in the L.A. County Museum show, where it is extraordinarily well documented in the entry under “Participating Artist” Victor Vasarely. At the very outset of the exhibition Vasarely, who had been invited to discuss a project with the curator, proposed: “a large lumino-cybernetic screen that can send out millions of different color combinations…a metallic box…subdivided into 625 different compartments each measuring 12.5 by 12.5 centimeters and each containing a circle 10 centimeters in diameter” (each compartment being also being 10-20 centimeters deep). Containing appropriate electronic and rheostatic controls, each of these 625 compartments were to be able to put out 12 different tones of six basic colors—Red, Blue, Green, Mauve, Yellow and Grey—so that each compartment would have been required to generate 72 variations. According to Vasarely, “there are enormous possibilities.” This electronic Color-Aid set could be filmed to “compile a repertory of composition references which is inexhaustible.” “The artist chooses among the best of the compositions [my italics] the machine has proposed and then recreates the work in the form of a painting, a tapestry, a serigraph, a fresco, a stage setting, a setting for film or television.” The master, growing enthusiastic for his fantasied machine, cannot leave the matter. It is not long before it will find application in integrating the requirements for “Plastic beauty in future constructions” of “the urban or rural habitat” and: “Lastly, thanks to our machine, we will be able to conduct human experiments of the highest importance in the domain of Experimental Psychology. In offering this spectacle to the masses and in asking them to express their preferences, we will obtain statistic truth of esthetic values of an entire population. From this time on, art can freely enter the general circuit of production-consumption.”


Nam June Paik, Internet Dream, 1994.


The Museum, considering this an important project, offered it to IBM, which rather mysteriously decided that it would cost $2,000,000 and therefore politely declined to pursue it further. Aside from the inanity of the proposal, which the Museum makes no comment on, it is perfectly clear from what sort of position this artist has conceived the statistical quality of “the masses.” While this morally unpleasant idea of a “democratic” or, rather more precisely, “demotic” art whose parameters of choice are selected by an artist-despot is a little old-fashioned, it is with us still. Generally however the position has changed somewhat for the “democratic” artists of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Consider what “Participating Artist” Rauschenberg has to say in this context: “It is an existing fact that the world is interdependent. The idea of art often tends to illustrate some solitary independent concern recognized as isolation. It celebrated most often a kind of withdrawal or self-concern; and it’s unrealistic.”

This is also an advocacy of a kind of demotic art, but it does not carry with it the idea of the hieratic Artist-Experimenter. According to Rauschenberg, Mud-Muse was to be unmoral and non-didactic (“Pure waste, sensualism, utilizing a pretty sophisticated technology”), that is to say, it was to be immediate in its appeal, “primitive,” as he said, and thus his version of demotic. There is even a calculated demoticism in Rauschenberg’s quoted (probably tape-recorded) comments on his piece: “I think you immediately get involved with Mud-Muse on a really physical, basic, sensual level as opposed to its illustrating an interesting idea either successfully or unsuccessfully, because the level of the piece, on the grounds of an idea, is pretty low…There is no lesson there…It was to exhibit that technology is not for learning lessons but is to be experienced.”

That must have been why it was obvious immediately to Lewis Ellmore, Director of Special Programs at Teledyne, “that Bob was certainly not a typical artist,” and why Ellmore “grew increasingly enthusiastic; more about the prospect of working with Bob than about the project in general” for Ellmore modestly insists “it seemed to me that any contribution I could make would be insignificant compared to the artistic creativity injected by Bob,” this difference not withstanding the fact rather touchingly observed by Ellmore that “it also appeared that we could work together since we shared…a sincere belief that although life was pretty grim, it was possible to improve it.” Bob is a regular fellow, with genius. This is the Pop artist as seducer. Ellmore is a real mine of information and from him we also learn that: “Bob’s goal was to create a dynamic work, which not only would stimulate more than just the visual senses, but would in fact interact with the observer…Bob wanted to escape from the limitations of two dimensions and to couple the work, in a way yet to be defined, to the observer…At one time we looked into actually being able to sense the mental state of the observer, but while theoretically possible, it seemed to be a bit advanced in terms of actually implementing it.”

Frieder Nake, Walk-Through-Raster (Vancouver Version), 1972. ©FRIEDER NAKE AND VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON

Frieder Nake, Walk-Through-Raster Vancouver Version, 1972.


Even though discretion seemed called for here they went on: “to explore ways of stimulating the observer, not only visually, but with both audible and non-audible sounds, pressure differentials and so on. Finally, we looked into the means of seductively creating emotional responses in an observer and, in fact, of using these emotions to further modify the art.”

This is the interactive work of art conceived as the perfectly responsive lover. But what finally happened to these grand designs? Once more in the words of the catalogue, this time the Museum’s words, “according to the artist, he was lying on the beach when it occurred to him spontaneously to use mud and to reproduce the bubbling activity of the ‘paint pots’ at Yellowstone National Park.” So Teledyne arranged for a series of blowers to blow air in various ways through a tank of driller’s mud in response to acoustical activation. It was supposed that the sounds of spectators picked up by variously placed microphones would provide this activation and constitute the spectator interaction. Unfortunately in the first days of the Museum exhibition the spectators immediately got so “involved with Mud-Muse on a physical, basic, sensual level” that the tank, the walls, the floor and even the ceiling were spattered with not merely visible but tangible evidence of their involvement, to such an extent that the piece had to be shut down, cleaned, set on a non-interactive sound-track and protected by a guard. Apparently there had been too much involvement, or the wrong sort. Nobody in the art world to my knowledge has blamed Rauschenberg for being overly suggestive. I do not mean by this to imply that the idea of interactive art is either trivial or futile. It is a profound idea, that remains partially open and variable. It is not a question of democracy, but of seeking an appropriate ground for a human engagement. Certainly it will not be possible for a neutral or merely curious spectator to enter unpremeditatedly into a work that an artist has been thinking about for a long time on terms of anything like equality unless the terms are chosen in such a manner that equality is not an issue. The idea of using a human being as a power source and/or switch, which is about all that Rauschenberg is doing, is if considered seriously possibly humiliating. But the part of the art world from which Rauschenberg comes hardly considers anything seriously anymore. It is not possible to get away with using the ideas of Cage in a half-baked manner. The ideas are too potent and too equivocal in their consequences. In this context it is interesting to observe that interactive art is not inherently or necessarily technological. Yet with the exception of certain open-structured transient works they have almost always appeared in the context of technological art. For the art world it would seem that interaction with people is seen not as interaction at all but as manipulation, that is, technology. So it makes sense that the longest and most elaborate of the projects in the show, the Turrell, Irwin, Wortz collaboration, which lasted over a year and was totally unrepresented in the physical exhibition, consisted specifically of a series of interactive theatrical events called “Experiments” and conducted in the atmosphere of “Scientific Research.” Appropriately the scene was “Perceptual Psychology,” complete with sets and props—the anechoic chamber, the Ganzfield, the electroencephalograph; the cast were the “Doctors” and the “Subjects.” A scenario for one such performance conducted in the anechoic chamber at UCLA is recorded in some detail and is worth quoting:

Experiment 1

Introduction: The purpose of this investigation is to determine a person’s reaction to isolation in a completely dark anechoic chamber for a short period of time. The periods of isolation for three different groups of people will be 4 minutes, 7 minutes and 10 minutes.

Procedure: The person is told “We want you to come and sit in this room for a period of time and see what it’s like.” (This set of “looking for something” is not unlike coming into an art experience with a “looking sense.”) “The experience is yours alone. No one is observing you. Afterwards we will instruct you as to what to do next.”

The first part of the piece consisted of the person (the “subject,” i.e. “S”) being “taken into the anechoic chamber and seated. The light is turned off, and the door closed for the time duration…” At the end of the first scene the “Subject” is “casually asked: ‘How did it feel? ‘” In the final scene “S” is asked to “Please come out and be seated and fill out this questionnaire.”

How did the room feel?

Subject: Hard to put a shape to it…

What, if any, was the effect of entering the room?

S: Springy floor. Could be scary since it was dark.

What, if any, was the effect of leaving the room?

S: Waking up, bright, weird.

What did you see?

S: Grey on dark grey. Rod-shaped blue things and lights swelling in from the sides. Hallucinations (e.g. faces from weird angles—mainly looking up at them—focus on eyes and noses—mainly “Christ-like” and “blond-female” types and designs…and colored objects).

What did you hear?

S: Fast, vibrating mechanical sounds throughout…

What did you think while you were in the room?

S: Of falling asleep (felt guilty about this); of trying to think about these questions which I knew I would have to answer (i.e. concentrating on seeing and hearing mainly).

How long were you in the room?

S: Very long time—I don’t know—timeless.

Did you feel claustrophobic in any way?

S: Yes, when I tried to look around.

Were you relieved to get out?

S: In a sense, so that I would remember “my dream.”

Did you want to stay in?

S: No.

Do you meditate?

S: No.

Age: 25—Sex: F

As theater it is rather charming and filled with pathos. As for its view of technology, it is clear here technology is conceived as a capacity to gain vocabulary. This is even clearer in Turrell’s own “discussion” of an “experiment”: “S’s are isolated up to 72 hours with auditory, visual and tactile deprivation. Results: 1/2 S’s had progressions alpha, beta and delta rhythms, often experienced digressions of those rhythms—effects of deprivation ran both ways—maybe effects are dependent on the attitude of S…” And while the artists acquired a vocabulary of “S’s” and “alpha,” “beta,” “delta” and “progressions” and “digressions” in a truly interactive manner, the technologist and the “S’s” acquired a “meditational” vocabulary, words like “tantric,” “koan,” “OM.” Wortz demonstrated his vocabulary acquisitions in a set of instructions for Exercises in Meditation, which includes:

7. Koan
Strenuous effort to understand intellectually a purely intellectual question that has no intellectual resolution. (Who were you before you were born? What is the sound of one hand clapping? What’s in the meaning of the word Mu?—pick your own.)

9. Tantric
Meditate on a mystical phrase or word such as OM. The word is repeated over and over.

And since benevolent therapeutics are part of the vocabulary:

6. Group effort—Meditate in a group and try to help others—help them to do what? It’s for you to decide.

Installation view of "Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966)" at the Whitechapel Gallery.STEPHEN WHITE

Installation view of “Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966)” at the Whitechapel Gallery.


The result of the collaboration was what Irwin called “overlapping matrices of information,” which presumably translates into a syntactical rule for combining vocabularies. By such a rule “alpha states” combines with “meditational states.” This rule is quickly grasped by the “S’s,” as documented in the case of Maurice Tuchman, Jane Livingstone and Gail Scott (Museum curators). In Jane’s words; “One day in July MT, Jane Livinstone and Gail Scott visited Garett to meet with the artists and Dr. Wortz and specifically to undergo alpha conditioning. Each spent 30 to 45 minute periods in the “alpha chamber,” having been hooked up to the EEG and instructed briefly by Wortz. Although a single session of this kind of experimentation is not enough to enable one to enter at will a true meditative state, and thus sustain alpha production, all three were able to achieve relatively prolonged “alpha states.”

According to the account “all three of them experienced definite, inexplicable sensations of anxiety, or a sense of mental dislocation or dissociation.” This seems to have disturbed them somewhat—apparently because it is not appropriate for “meditational states” to have bad “side-effects”; but they explain: “This is apparently not an unusual phenomenon from one’s first exposure to alpha, but it is said that such “after-effects” disappear with increased expertise in this kind of meditation.”

The S’s have apparently learned the combining rule very well. Here it is probably necessary to point out that it is an inherent capacity of Indo-European languages, of which English is one, to nominalize nearly anything. It is a capacity upon which this sort of science has capitalized to multiply entities without number. What is an “alpha-wave”? It is the undulating printout from a pen with “crests” or “valleys” occurring between approximately 8 and 12 times a second; this printout is produced as a consequence of measuring minute differences of potential taken by electrodes stuck to the surface of the scalp and amplified by high-gain amplifiers. What has this minute cyclical rise and fall in the potentials measured on the surface of the skull to do with the activities of the brain? Or with the mind? We have had alpha waves since the 1930s and no mental state has been successfully connected with them. If the phenomenon of alpha waves is treated seriously, the syntax learned by the subjects becomes bizarre. The congenitally blind do not exhibit alpha. Does this mean they cannot “meditate.” (Here the learned doctors will interpose “When blind men meditate it will be marked by Rolandic rhythms.”) It appears that somehow in some manner the measurement of alpha rhythms is dependent upon differences in potential seeming to arise in connection with visual centers. The most recent and probable theory is that “alpha rhythms” arise essentially from a form of physiological tremor generated in the extraocular muscles. It is not especially novel to be able to condition oneself to a physical state. Any man can think himself into an erection. But we should recognize here that the issue involves something more than the “science” of artists; it involves the “esthetics” of scientists. Ever since the last quarter of the 19th century scientists have been fond of regarding the brain as an “electrical communication system”. This was understandable because electrical communication systems grew up at about the same time that the electronic potentials of the brain were first measured. But it is not uncommon even now to find perfectly respectable scientists writing: “Communication in the nervous system consists in the transmission of electric signals that are relayed from cell to cell.”


Addie Wagenknecht, Asymmetrical Love, 2013.


Yet it is at the same time usually obvious to the same scientist that this is a highly estheticized description of the fact that neural synapses consist of the messy transmission of fluids from little vesicles in the boutons of one nerve cells to the appropriate place on an adjoining nerve cell, and that among the things that can be measured when this happens is a physico-chemical change that registers on appropriate instruments as a difference in potential. What is more, it is also true that during periods of digestion there is a difference in the amount of acid secreted in the stomach. This will also register in the appropriate instrument as a difference in potential. Nobody has yet suggested that the gut is an electrical transmission system, even though emotional changes sharp enough to cause ulcerating twinges would register as such potential differences. There is an inescapable glamor in electrical transmission systems for most scientists, especially when they have to confront the pedestrian problem of trying to find out where one nerve begins and another ends. At the present time this electric (electronic, occasionally, or even computer) image of the brain is less of a working model for scientists than it is inspirational literature. When an artist acquires it, what he has acquired is a kind of poetry.

Perhaps one of the most amiable images of technology in the show emerges from Jesse Reichek’s computer project. According to the catalogue, Reichek was interested in having the computer make a study of his past work, determine his “style,” generate new works in that “style,” study the implications that this new work had for the consistency of the style, and then generate more new works, etc. In other words, Reichek had in mind to take a computer as apprentice. After meeting with a number of executives at IBM and a physicist-mathematician who had a strong feeling for music, he learned that there were inherent limitations to the present capacity of computers to do this. On the face of it, one might have suspected this, but there were aspects of Reichek’s work that might not have suggested it was not in his case entirely of out of the question. Reichek is a Hard-Edge painter who tends to use relatively few elements, which can be regarded as sets, and subjected uniformly to simple operations, made still simpler by the heavy reliance on symmetries and a grid-like analysis of his two-dimensional surface. Nevertheless, cheerfully titled articles in computer journals or in Scientific American notwithstanding, pattern analysis, the problem on which the whole program would hang, is not a strong point of computers. Decisions which for human beings are trivially simple, like what is the figure and what is the ground in even simple configurations, are not inherently appropriate for computer “mentality.” And there is no reason that they should be. Figure-ground analyses are specific to certain animal sensing and analyzing systems. We haven’t the vaguest idea on what they are based in practice in living animals. As a result, to make a computer arrive at correct figure-ground decisions, special kinds of ad hoc strategies have to be employed and then translated into computer terms. How do you tell a “chess playing” computer to make a particular move “to gain tempo”? But a programmer knows what “tempo” is, and a programmer can tell which is the figure and which is the ground in even complicated drawings. To “analyze” Reichek’s style is far beyond the capacity of any computer but not by any means difficult for a human being. What happened at IBM was that Reicheck took a physicist as an apprentice. The physicist learned the style and developed a code that enabled him to use a graphic computer as a kind of scratch pad on which to draw Reicheks. Reichek could look at the output and validate whether or not Jack Citron (the physicist) had in fact learned how to make Reicheks. Citron was then successfully apprenticed, and everybody was happy.

If fundamental technology can be described as a “rip-off” of the sun, then the only approach to anything like fundamental technology appears in Newton Harrison’s second piece. By the time the Museum got around to preparing its Los Angeles opening, Harrison had the good sense to be no longer interested in his pleasant but nearly two year old glow-discharge tubes. He had begun to work with a number of different approaches to what one might loosely call eco-systems. At the “Elements” show in Boston he had grown an Annual Hog Pasture Mix. During the installation at L.A. he simply set up a salt salvage system and a shrimp ranch in a quadripartite pool in front of the Museum. The pond contains sea water, an alga and brine shrimp. The brine shrimp live on the alga; the alga is nourished by the sun, which evaporates the water, which is shifted from one vat to another as the salinity increases. What is admirable about the piece, which is after all not much more than farming, is the casualness and simplicity with which it asserts the basic mechanism of the sun driving the machine. There are, however, as one might have imagined, hitches. Wilshire Boulevard is not ideally located for a fish-ranching operation. The sea water has to come from somewhere—impairing the efficiency of the system—and there is good reason to suppose that Los Angeles air pollution will contribute a number of extra nutrients to the probably well-salted shrimp salad one might expect. Like organic lead compounds. This should lead to curious documentation.

But in a sense, for this show,t he most important “Participating Artist” was the Curator Maurice Tuchman, and it is probably more significant to define his image of technology as well as his image of art, because it was in the context of his choices that the other “Participating Artists” were selected and access to the technology obtained. Tuchman is fairly clear about how he conceived the show: “In 1966, when ‘Art and Technology’ was first conceived, I had been living in Southern California for two years. A newcomer to this region is particularly sensitive to the futuristic character of Los Angeles, especially as it is manifested in advanced technology. I thought of the typical coastal industries as chiefly aerospace oriented (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lockheed Aircraft)…At a certain point I became intrigued by the thought of having artists brought into these industries to make works of art…”

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Surface Tension, 2007. MAXIME DUFOUR

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Surface Tension, 2007.


Tuchman does not say whether or not he conceived of this before or after E.A.T. put on its 1966 “9-Evenings” show at the Armory in New York, but this is largely irrelevant because there is a certain difference which, despite fundamental differences in attitude between Tuchman and the Judson dance sensibilities of the E.A.T. group, both Tuchman and E.A.T. were motivated out of what one must call in the broadest sense a Pop sensibility. The early ’60s in American art were distinguished by an intense if sometimes ambiguous desire to marry the culture. Pop Art (in the narrow sense), Minimal Art and Hard-Edge painting, Kineticism and Luminism of that period share this cultural rapprochement. And to a New York emigré, what could be more Pop than Los Angeles. Anyone who comes out here for the first time stares in a kind of stupified wonder, perhaps attributable to a sexy lethargy induced by the air pollution, as they watch Los Angeles leadAmerica over the cliff. For a while (from the early ’60s until about 1969) it was fashionable for anybody in the art scene coming back from California to tell you he liked Los Angeles better than San Francisco and feel a little hip and wicked. Foreigners like Rayner Banham, arriving late, still think it’s the city of the future, and I suppose that’s what Tuchman meant by “futuristic.” So it’s not at all surprising to read the catalogue and feel confirmed that Tuchman’s definition of both Art and Technology are Pop definitions. If you read the list of artists, distinguishing those who were seriously sought after and considered from those who are mere window dressing, you find almost all Pop artists (minus Wesselmann, whose sense of pornography should have qualified, one would suppose), most of the Minimal sculptors (including the Venice high-finish school), a few straightforward technological artists, and older generation dignitaries of various sorts, nearly all of these being “important” artists in a reputational sense; otherwise there are a few odder figures who straggle in from various directions. A perfectly suitable method of choice, given Tuchman’s definition of technology. It is rather elegant. Technology is corporations. This is a straightforward sociological definition of technology as enclaves of social and economic power, possessing the capacity to move men and material from anywhere to anywhere. Pop once again. This means that the show is inevitably a ’60s show, and this is borne out by the names of its celebrities, because that is in fact what they are. It is perfectly defensible, but the show appeared in 1970-71. It is all very well to imagine the great corporations as immense production machines turning out cars or computers or meat or movies; but it is not so. This is the age of the great conglomerate; for economic advantages, not always shared by their stockholders and even more rarely by their consumers, corporations buy and sell related and unrelated other companies at an alarming rate, so that it may be almost impossible to tell what a corporation like Litton Industries, say, might be producing at any given moment if you have been looking away for a couple of weeks. This gives a rather peculiar and discontinuous structure to the corporations themselves, thus perhaps making it possible for the Museum to send “Participating Artist” Peter Voulkos to the Vernon plant of Norris Industries and, finding him reluctant to work at the Vernon plant because of its involvement with contracts for casings for nuclear warheads, to suggest as an alternative that he work at Norris’ Thermador division in Walnut, which manufacture porcelain and ceramic coated steel products. The image of the corporation as a large machine should be considered very carefully in the light of the information we have been receiving throughout the late ’60s. Consider the American military machine. It is a very large corporation, but has not been notably effective in dealing with a specific small war in Southeast Asia. Consider the cities of America. They are also large corporations. And consider the pioneering evidence of Los Angeles, where the giant movies collapsed in the ’50s while small, virtually fly-by-night operations have sprung up and continue quite profitably in the teeth of television. When one normally thinks of grand concatenated and glamorous technological enterprises, one imagines NASA perhaps. It is a mistake to do so. The space program is not in its end-products typical of American industry. It specialized in vastly expensive disposable art. It’s like building a cathedral and treating it like kleenex. Moreover it is an especially old-fashioned kind of art form in that it produces unique objects, which cannot afford to fail because they fail in public. As Robert Morris commented to me while we were watching that not especially disturbing collapse in one of the “9 Evenings” back in 1966, “This is all about money.” But even in principle, consider a great and complex machine. The larger the machine the more likely it will be to have a great number of sequentially dependent parts. Each of these parts has some probability of failure. If you line up the operation 100 parts deep and each part has 1 chance in 100 of failing, what are the chances of the machine operating? The alternatives to this situation are: 1) to avoid deeply structured machines with large numbers of serially arranged parts; 2) to demand of each serially linked part so high a reliability (so low a probability of failure) that the final operation is highly reliable. The second alternative is enormously costly, the first is a form of decentralization.

From this point of view consider the corporations again. Case in point, Tony Smith and the Container Corporation of America. According to Smith he wanted to make a “cave-like” sculpture, enclosing and yet sculptural rather than architectural or environmental. The idea of working in cardboard appealed to him also. The parts would all be glued together and he would for once have a soft work that was very close in materiality and appearance to the maquettes that he was used to working in: “My intention was to use the complete component and simply glue it—glue the surfaces in the way that I had been in the habit of doing with my [maquette] units. This actually is a different type of structure than a structure which is based on lineal elements or struts which are fastened like joints. In other words, there isn’t any structure except the components from which the form has been made.”

Installation view of "Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966)" at the Whitechapel Gallery.STEPHEN WHITE

Installation view of “Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966)” at the Whitechapel Gallery.


A Container Corporation executive and Jane Livingston went to Hawaii to confer with Smith and they essentially agreed to the idea. Smith had polaroid pictures taken of his model and sent to the museum. He visited the Container Corporation’s corrugate plant in Los Angeles. The company made two full-size mockups of single units and promised to make several hundred reduced scale modules; These never appeared. When the final modules did appear en masse they had lock joints. Result: wipe out. Container Corporation has no idea how this could have happened.

Failures of this gross sort were not typical of all the projects, most of which died a death of attrition. Philco-Ford would finally back to completion of Robert Whitman’s optical environment because of the amount of money involved. Part of it had to be farmed out to a professional display company, which could not maintain the degree of precision required for the images to be visible. The only way that the environment got built at all was that John Forkner (the scientist of the project) managed to enlist his church group, the Laguna Beach Unitarian Fellowship, to undertake the construction. Working with complete amateurs and for a trivial amount of money they managed to complete satisfactorily, at least from a technical point of view. Oldenburg’s participation in the exhibition was based on his intended collaboration with WED Enterprises. The idea was that there was some natural linkage between Oldenburg’s imagery and Disney’s capacities. This may have been so, though Oldenburg seems to have been aware that conflicting ideologies would have been involved. The Museum desperately wanted an Oldenburg, regardless of the fact that once Disney was out of the question, the whole logic, such as it was, had disappeared. Finally, Oldenburg got his Icebag produced by the Gemini atelier, with an endless succession of subcontractors. In the process of bailing out each individual piece in this way, the ideas upon which the work were based all eroded until finally nothing was left. Can anyone really defend the ghastly Icebag, except as a print? Yet everyone who worked on these projects was an honest man, more or less (with the possible exception of Claes, who must have known it was a disaster). The problem was that the Museum, too, was in the position of corporate enterprise, caught up in an interminable succession of necessities from which it felt unable to extricate itself at any point.

The idea of abandoning a work as pointless seems not really to have occurred to anyone, probably because if they abandoned one, others would have been swiftly lost. One thinks of that massive corporation Lockheed, where Kitaj found his way, logically enough into a mock-up department filled with refugees from the film industry. there he was able to accomplish the fragment of his idea that could be realized under these difficult circumstances, namely that Lockheed, like the rest of the corporations, fundamentally was uninterested. I remember a conversation I had with an industrial designer who worked out there. We sat in the room in front of a large mock-up fuselage of a new passenger plane that Lockheed was seemingly in the course of building. As we sat there surrounded by the peculiar uriniferous odor of one of the plastics inhabiting the room, the designer explained to me the principles of design of this corporation. The plane must be sold to owners of airlines, not to passengers. Therefore, the designer might have allowed for a very comfortable amount of leg-room or provided hangers for the coats of the passengers, say; but then the prospective buyer (airline owner) must not receive the impression that any space that could be put to economic use had been wasted. Thus, the impression of a bearable amount of discomfort might be necessary to relieve the airline’s anxiety. Not long before, one airline president noticed that the hangers were provided for the passengers; he stole them and waved them angrily under the designer’s nose as evidence that his passengers would certainly steal them from him. Now Lockheed is a very large corporation, and as recent events show it has not been especially successful at getting something from here to there, except perhaps money—from the taxpayer’s pocket to theirs. The definition of technology as corporations is a Pop definition and fundamentally false. What it boils down to is the idea that technology is money, which has very little basis in fact, though it is true that the corporations cannot produce even the shoddy results that they do without chewing up vast quantities of money. But since they were unwilling to contribute more than trivial amounts of it to this show, even these pathetic expectations were unwarranted.

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