Experiments in Art & Technology

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To prepare for a "Book Sprint" I'm participating in at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie-Mellon University next week, I've been doing lots of research about notable historical interactions between art, science, and technology. In suit, Universe fringe benefits!

First, I'd like to tell you about "9 Evenings," organized in 1966 by a very interesting engineer named Billy Klüver with the help of the great American artist, Robert Rauschenberg.

Klüver is a fascinating character, a brilliant engineer who saw the potential in the integration of art and technology, and noticed an absence of people who might be competent enough to bridge the chasm between these disciplines. In part inspired by the Aristotelian idea of Techne -- systematic use of knowledge for intelligent human action -- Klüver dreamt of equal participation between artist and engineer in creating pieces of art. He saw artists as visionaries, and technology as an inseparable part of contemporary life; he famously sought out "new means of expressions for artists...and to find out where they stood in relation to the society that was sending men to the moon."

Anyway, Klüver and Rauschenberg, who'd already collaborated on several sculptures, organized 9 Evenings, an epic art salon, attended by over 10,000 people, at the 69th Regiment Armory building in New York. The event paired ten artists including Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, John Cage, Lucinda Childs, and Yvonne Rainier with over 30 engineers from Bell Laboratories. The engineers, headed by Klüver, helped the artists with complex technical components to their pieces ("miles of cable"), creating performances, installations, and dances that blended technology with fine art to somewhat legendary effect.

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For example, Rauschenberg produced a piece for 9 Evenings called "Open Score," in which the artist Frank Stella and his tennis partner played a game of "wired" tennis on a giant court in the Armory Building. As they played, tiny crystal-controlled FM transmitters embedded in their tennis rackets transmitted the vibrations of the racket strings to an FM radio receiver, which amplified the sound and also, one after the other, turned off the 39 lights in the Armory ceiling. By the end of the match, the giant room (and the audience) was in utter darkness.

As the darkness fell on the room, some 500 people shuffled in and were suddenly lit by infra-red sensitive cameras. This massive group was invisible to the audience save via projections of infrared television on large screens; Rauschenberg, in his notes for the piece, wrote "the conflict of not being able to see an event that is taking place right in front of one except through reproduction is the sort of double exposure of action." One could argue that the "conflict of not being able to see an event that is taking place right in front of one" is essentially the basis of what drives us to do science. The world is full of invisible actions that niggle us to the point of distraction and building mile-long particle accelerators underground.

Also for 9 Evenings, John Cage performed Variations VII, in which he used communications media (radio and telephone) to amplify phenomena already present in the Armory, as well as modulating the amplitude of his on-stage collaborators' brain waves. Stage lights placed next to photoelectric cells both lit the performance area and triggered sounds as passers-by and performers walked past them. As a visual component, the shadows produced were cast onto two large canvases.

On top of it all, Cage set up 10 telephone lines in various New York locations -- from the Bronx Zoo aviary, to the 14th Street Con-Edison electric power station and Merce Cunningham's dance studio -- which picked up ambient sound and were re-broadcast during the performance.

The end result was particularly unlistenable.

This kind of tech-driven performance is fairly common in the age of populist technologies like Arduino, Max/MSP, and Twitter (not to mention the Maker movement) but the large-scale, technically complex performances of 9 Evenings would have been impossible in 1966 without the involvement of engineers who knew their stuff. And the collaboration was fruitful in both directions, too: the transmitter in the "Open Score" rackets was designed by Bill Kaminski, who was working in wireless radio transmission at Bell Labs. Later, that technology was developed into the wireless microphone.

9 Evenings birthed a great many things, not least the wireless microphone; it launched the career of John Cage, and led Klüver to found "Experiments in Art & Technology," a kind of matchmaking service designed to connect artists with willing engineers, facilitating the creation of art unconstrained by technological limitations.

Additional Resources:

DVDs of 9 Evenings performances are available through Microcinema

Or through Amazon

Tons of 9 Evenings resources at the Fondation Henri Langlois

9 Evenings Reconsidered by Catherine Morris, Jane Farver, Clarisse Bardiot, and Michelle Kuo

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Unlistenable? It's beautiful!

Industrial pop music was never this cool!

Please keep us posted about the outcome of the "book-sprint". I read about it on stereogum in a rather decent article about YACHT, and I have to say it piqued my interest in the band and what you two are doing in general to say the least. I wish I couldve been there at CMU!