Friday, October 31, 2008

The Great Northeastern Power Failure (1966), Billy Kluver

Well, to begin with, the title of my talk is not going to be entirely unrelated to what I am going to say. What I will discuss is a new mode of interaction between science and technology on the one hand and art and life on the other. To use a scientific jargon that is currently in, I will try to define a new interface between these two areas.

Technology has always been closely tied in to the development of art. For Aristotle, Techne means both art and technology. As they became different subjects they still fed on each other. New technological discoveries were taken up and used by artists and you are all familiar with the contributions of artists to technology. The contemporary artist reads with ease the technical trade magazines. The new chemical material is hardly developed before it gets used by an artist. Today the artist tends to adopt the new material or the new industrial process as his insignia. We talk about artists in terms that he works in such and such a way or that he uses such and such materials. We hear about artists being poisoned and hurt in their work. In this century, artists have also embraced technology as subject matter: the enthusiasm of the Futurists, the experiments of Dada, the optimism of the Bauhaus movement and the Constructivists, all have looked at technology and science and found material for the artists. But for all this interest, art remains a passive viewer of technology. Art has only been interested in the fallout, so to speak, of science and technology. The effect of technology on art can apparently be even a negative one: the invention of the camera helped kill off representational painting, and we are now witnessing how the computer is about to take care of music and non-representational painting.

The new interface I will define is one in which the artist makes active use of the inventiveness and skills of an engineer to achieve his purpose. The artist could not complete his intentions without the help of an engineer. The artist incorporates the work of the engineer in the painting or the sculpture or the performance. A characteristic of this kind of interaction is that generally only one work of art results. In other words, the engineer is not just inventing a new and special process for the use of the artist. He does not just teach the artist a new skill which the artist can use to extract new aesthetic variations. Technology is well aware of its own beauty and does not need the artist to elaborate on this. I will argue that the use of the engineer by the artist is not only unavoidable but necessary.

Before I try to justify why I believe that this interface exists and why the interaction between artists and engineers will become stronger, let me give you a few simple examples of what I mean in terms of works that already exist. I shall be modest and limit myself to use examples from my own experience. But there exist several others.

You probably have heard about Jean Tinguely's self-destroying machine, "Homage to New York", which more or less destroyed itself on March 17, 1960, in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In retrospect I think my modest contribution to the machine was tot visit garbage dumps in New Jersey to pick up bicycle wheels and to truck them to 53rd Street. However,there were a few technical ideas hidden in Tinguely's machine which incidentally were mainly the contributions of my technical assistant at the time, Harold Hodges. there were about eight electrical circuits in the machine which closed successively as the machine progressed toward its ultimate fate. Motors would start, smoke would come out, smaller machines would leave the big one to escape. In order to make the main structure collapse, Harold had devised a scheme using supporting sections of Wood's metal which would melt from the heat of overheated resistors. At another point this method was used to light a candle. Contrary to what I hear frequently said, Tinguely's machine did not contain many of these technical links. It was mostly Tinguely's motors that did it.

A better example is two neon light power supplies that we made for two paintings by Jasper Johns. In one case, the light was the letter A, in the other the letter R. What was new was that Johns wanted no cords to the painting. To stack up batteries to 1200 volts would have been messy, dangerous and impractical. So we started out with 12 volts of rechargeable batteries and devised a multivibrator circuit which, together with a transformer, would give us 1200 volts. The technical equipment, all 400 dollars worth of it, was mounted behind John's painting.

My final example is Rauschenberg's large sculpture, "Oracle" which was shown in New York last year. It was the result of work carried out over three years during which time two complete technical systems were finished and junked. The final system enables the sound from five AM radios to be heard from each of the five sculptures in the group, but with each radio being controlled from a central control unit, in one of the sculptures. There are no connecting wires between the sculptures and they are all freely movable, on wheels.

All these examples have on thing in common: they are ridiculous from an engineers point of view. Why would anyone want to spend 9000 dollars to be able to control five AM radios simultaneously, in one room? I want to emphasize that the examples contain very simple engineering and should not be taken as very original. But each of the projects required an engineer or a technically skilled person to achieve what the artist wanted. And an important point is that the artist could not me quite sure about the outcome.

We have been taught by Robert Rauschenberg that the painting is an object among other objects, subjected to the same psychological and physical influences as other objects. During a musical piece by John Cage, we are forced to accept the equality of all the sounds we hear as part of the composition. In his happenings, Claes Oldenburg lets the actors play themselves although in most instances the actors are unaware of this. He writes his happenings with a particular person in mind, allowing the specific shyness, nervousness, sensuality of the person to become part of the happening. The tradition in art can, therefore, not tell us anything else but that the technical elements involved in the works I have described are just as much a part of the work of art as the paint in the painting. It is impossible to treat the sound as part of "Oracle" and not the radios. Jasper Johns has already shown us the backside of the canvas and I am afraid he will have to accept the not-so-elegant backsides of "Field Painting" and "Zone" as well. But if the radios and the amplifiers are part of the work - what about the engineer who designs them? In the same way as Oldenburg works with the peculiarities of people in his happenings, the artist has to work with the peculiarities and the foreign mode of operation of the engineer. On the basis of this observation, I hereby declare myself to be a work of art - or rather an integral part of the works of art I have just described. I am definitely not a violin player who interprets and feels for the work of his master. I know nothing about art or the artists involved. I am an engineer and as such, only raw material for the artist.

But how can I claim that this new interface between art and technology does in fact exist? Maybe I wanted to become a work of art and devised this ingenious scheme for my own ends? Well, I think that we don't have to look too far. We all know how technology has become part of our lives. And now we can see absolutely no reason why it should not become more so. No sound has been heard from another culture to oppose Western technology. The faster the underdeveloped countries can have it, the faster they want it. On the other end of the spectrum, we now have systems where we don't know quite where the machine ends and the human being begins. I am thinking of the space program which has introduced the new and maybe inhuman objective: the system has to work, no failures are allowed, no personal emotions or mistake may interfere with the success of the project. The space program is developing a new managerial type which is totally responsible. I read recently that President Johnson has let the contract to solve the Appalachian problem to the electronics industry. We are now getting the fallout from cape Kennedy and can expect more.

The great initiator of all this technological soul-searching is the computer. Laboriously we are translating every aspect of human activity into computer language. In fact, I believe the computer will turn out to be the greatest psychoanalyst of all times. Now where does all this leave us? The engineers may be psychoanalysts but they are not visionaries. John Cage has recently written a wonderful article called "How to Improve the World". As a blind engineer, one of his observations gave me a real jolt. Cage points out that there exist systems of interaction between human beings which work without any police or power structure whatsoever. In fact, there are hundreds of agreements between the countries of the world that work perfectly well. In particular, technological questions are dealt with without any complications. It seems that technology breeds agreement. This is such a simple observation that it frightens you that you did not think of it. I believe that Cage's discovery fully justifies the statement that technology will force the solution of such problems as food distribution and housing. There is no other stable optimum but to give people food and housing. The Dadaists' suggestion of free food and Buckminster Fuller's suggestion of free housing for the people of the world will happen. But the alternatives that the engineer can imagine for the full use of the fantastic capacity of technology are even so few and limited. He is, as I said, no visionary about life. But the artist is a visionary about life. Only he can create disorder and still get away with it. Only he can use technology to its fullest capacity. John Cage has suggested: Let the engineer take care of order and art (in the traditional sense) and let the artists take care of disorder and life. And I am adding technology. This to sum up: First the artists have to create with technology because technology is becoming inseparable from our lives. "Technology is the extension of our nervous system," as McLuhan says. Second, the artists should use technology because technology needs the artists. Technology needs to be revealed and looked at - much like we undress a woman.

The artist's work is like that of a scientist. It is an investigation which may or may not yield meaningful results, in many cases we only know many years later. What I am suggesting is that the use of the engineer by the artist will stimulate new ways of looking at technology and dealing with life in the future.

What about power failure? I wish we knew more about what happened. We heard a lot about how people became friendly and helped each other out. The whole thing could have been an artist's idea - to make us aware of something. In the future there will exist technological systems as complicated and as large as the Northeastern power grid whose sole purpose will be to intensify our lives through increased awareness

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