ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, b 1925, Port Arthur, Texas
ORACLE, 1965, Mixed media
photo: RUDOLPH BURKHART image taken from www.spectrum.ieee.org
Swedish engineer Billy Klüver is known for his important collaborations with some of the most influential artists in recent time. Eager to make new technology available to more artists, Klüver co-founded Experiments in Art and Technology in 1966. Here he talks to Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist about his work with artists and the activities of E.A.T.
by HANS ULRICH OBRIST Special thanks to Julie Martin
PART I (III)
HUO: Could you tell me about the beginning of your art and technology projects, the first dialogues with artists and how it all started.
BK: I will say it started by instinct. There was no dialogue. It's like LUCY three billion years ago. I don't think it had anything to do with dialogue between Art and Science. The artists were looking for new materials; they have always done that: the people who found marble in Italy, the guys who invented oil paint in Holland, stretching canvases, using silk-screens and Rauschenberg's following it up as part of painting... or Duchamp choosing the snow shovel. In terms of artists expanding their means, I don't see much difference between that and including technology in the work.
In the 60s the new technology expanded at a phenomenal rate, and at Bell Labs I was in the middle of it. At the same time there was an explosion in New York City in art. Abstract Expressionism had run its course, and what was needed was a new way of finding motifs and subject matter, and the American environment was the one that came closest at hand. The American environment was there: the pastry in the window, the stockings, the comic strips. They were close at hand, and the Americans didn't have this intellectual overlay of critics and others that decided in which direction artists should go. In the sixties in Paris, you had to belong to a movement or specific direction in art. I had artist friends who were agonizing if they should sign a manifesto drawn up by what was essentially intellectuals who had nothing to do with art, people who found it a great, fun thing to behave like little dictators over an art movement. And so for my friends in Europe the United States became the area of freedom, where you did not have to be concerned with any intellectual overlay. And for the New York artists too.
"It all began in 1960 when Jean Tinguely asked me if I would help him to build a machine that would destroy itself at the Museum of Modern Art."
HUO: Was that the reason you moved to America from Sweden?
BK: That had nothing to do with my moving to this country. I moved to this country because I had seen so many movies and I wanted to see what it looked like. I had to wait until I was twenty-six otherwise I would have to do another two years of military service. So I got here in 1954, in the middle of the atmosphere of fear and terror that Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations of supposed Communist infiltration were generating in the technical community. So I decided that I couldn't go and work for RCA or General Electric, which were prime targets for investigation. I found out that the best way to get around this problem was to get a Ph.D., which I did at U.C., Berkeley, and continued on to Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill,in New Jersey in 1957, where I did research on electron beam motion in crossed electric and magnetic fields and plasmas and later lasers.
At this time I began to work with artists in New York. and of course I had all the resources from Bell Laboratories behind me. I could use my assistants, I could use the guy who worked in the lab next door to ask a specific question. It all began in 1960 when Jean Tinguely asked me if I would help him to build a machine that would destroy itself at the Museum of Modern Art. He had been given the garden to build a sculpture but he didn't know what to do: he didn't know how big it should be or how to get parts. So I asked him "What do you want?" and he said, "Bicycle wheels". Well I walked down to the local bicycle shop and I asked, "Do you have old bicycle wheels?", and the guy said, "Yeah. I've got a lot of bicycle wheels," and he took me down to his basement and there were piles of old bicycles. I loaded them up in my Chevrolet convertible and carted them in to the museum. Jean Tinguely got enormously excited and after three weeks he had built this enormous construction. My colleagues at Bell Labs and I had devised timing and triggering devices and various ways for it to break apart; smoke, smells and fire would come out of it and others things would happened to it during the time it took to self- destruct. On the 17th of March, 1960, Homage to New York destroyed itself in front of all the invited people from the Upper East Side.
"In 1961 there was an exhibition at Moderna Museet in Stockholm entitled "Art in Motion" which was enormously important and Pontus asked me to organize the American contribution. I went to every artist I could think of in New York and asked, "Do you have a work that moves?"
While we were working on the machine, other artists in New York came around and looked at us. I thought at that time that I could contribute to artists in the sense of giving them more possibilities through technology. But what happened was that Robert Rauschenberg saw the whole operation as a collaboration between the artist and the engineer. And that was a new starting point, because I immediately understood that if an artist and an engineer collaborate on a project on an equal basis, then something interesting and unexpected might really come out of it.
HUO: And what was the first project you did with Rauschenberg?
BK: In 1961 there was an exhibition at Moderna Museet in Stockholm entitled "Art in Motion" which was enormously important and Pontus asked me to organize the American contribution. I went to every artist I could think of in New York and asked, "Do you have a work that moves?" Rauschenberg made a painting, Black Market, in which visitors were asked to move objects in and out of the work.
Meanwhile Bob had asked me if I wanted to collaborate with him on a project, and he had some ideas about an interactive environment, where the temperature, sound, smell, lights etc. would change as a person moved through it. Of course we coundn't do it with the technology available in the early 60's. And four or five years later after many discussions and a lot of work it ended up in Oracle, the five piece sound sculpture which is now on tour with the Rauschenberg retrospective. This piece took us several years to build. It was quite complicated. It doesn't look complicated, the electronics and the ideas are not very complicated, but when it came down to actually realizing it, it was. This was because of two restrictions, Bob didn't want any wires connecting the five pieces and he wanted all the controls in one of the pieces. So we had to build wireless transmitters from scratch and this produced interference and other problems.
In those days I had to operate outside my normal work, outside my normal operating procedures, so it was basically a six to midnight job. I had the co- operation of the people in the laboratory, my assistants and the other people, and everybody helped. There was never any problem with all of this. They liked it and everybody helped solve the problems.
HUO: That lead us to the 9 Evenings you organized which are collaborations between artists and engineers from Bell Laboratories. What did trigger these evening which now are a milestone of performance history?
BK: Well, as I said, Oracle took several years, in 1965 it was first shown at Leo Castelli's gallery. Meanwhile I had worked with Merce Cunningham on a dance with John Cage's music where the dancers triggered the music; with Jasper Johns on two paintings with a neon letter where he wanted the neon to be driven by batteries. My working with the dancers and composers on these projects finally led to a large-scale collaboration with Rauschenberg and other artists and to something new in the history of art and technology. And like any history a lot of parallel things happened at the same time, like the performances by Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, everybody...at Judson Church which were going on full blast with the same two hundred people coming to see the performances there.
By 1966 two things came together which really had nothing to do with each other -- the frustration of having such a small audience and the huge interest in new technology -- that ended up in the "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering."
The sequence of events was that Knut Wiggen from Fylkingen, the music society in Stockholm, asked me to help organize the American participation in an Art and Technology Festival. I proposed the idea to Bob Rauschenberg, who liked the notion of the collaboration between artists and engineers. We invited a group of artists and I invited a group of colleagues from Bell Laboratories and the artists and engineers began to meet together, and after listening to the aritsts' ideas the engineers began to build equipment that the artists would use. During the summer the project with Sweden broke down, and we all decided to continue working together and to hold the performances in New York City. It was Simone Whitman who found the Armory on Lexington Avenue.
"More than thirty engineers from Bell Laboratories were working on this with us, and a huge number of artists in New York participated as performers or helpers in the ten pieces and it made an historic change in the whole business of art and technology."
In October 1966 we held a a series of nine evenings of ten artists' performances; each artist performed twice. This became a huge operation which 10,000 people attended. Now to go from 200 people to 10,000 in a few months was an enormous undertaking. More than thirty engineers from Bell Laboratories were working on this with us, and a huge number of artists in New York participated as performers or helpers in the ten pieces and it made an historic change in the whole business of art and technology.
The films from 9 EVENINGS, which I've been storing in my basement, are now being put together to document each artist's work as much as possible. There are two films completed already, Öyvind Fahlström's Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Rauschenberg's Open Score and the next one is John Cage's Variations VII. We hope that in about a year-and-a-half all ten of the films will be ready.
HUO: Could you tell me about the beginnings of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology)?
BK: During the 9 Evenings, there was an enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm and we had lots of meetings in the bar in the basement of the Armory and around Rauschenberg's kitchen table and out of these discussion, Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, Fred Waldhauer and I decided that we needed a foundation to continue the kinds of artist-engineer collaborations that 9 Evenings had developed. Because of the tax structure in the United States, we needed a non- profit, tax-exempt foundation, thus Experiments in Art and Technology was founded. The name was invented by our lawyer. None of us liked the name because the word "experiments" doesn't denote something that was a finished work. Artists don't experiment. But there it was.
Soon after 9 EVENINGS we called a meeting at the Central Plaza Hotel to see if artists in New York would be interested in something like E.A.T. Three hundred artists came to the meeting and we collected eighty immediate requests for technical help.
HUO: Could you describe how do you conceived the functions of this organization? In the text you talked about the organization of services. How exactly was Experiments Art and Technology defined as an organization.
BK: The principal activity on E.A.T. was to match artists who had technical problems or projects with engineers or scientists who could work with them. The basis of it is that you have one engineer and one artist and you set up a situation where they can work together. Now, the engineer works inside a company, so he has access to all the information and equipment he wants. So you don't need a place, a building, a laboratory or a space. From the very beginning we were against that. You only needed a space for the engineers and the artists to meet, and you needed a matching system for one to contact the other. But otherwise there was nothing else to it.
"Now the idea of matching artists and engineers and establishing artist- engineer collaboration is obvious. But in the early days of E.A.T. these ideas were completely new and different and you had to convince engineers to do it."
HUO: How did you build of a network of engineers? Was it easy to find engineers and to convince them to participate?
BK: We did all kinds of things to attract engineers. We held a competition where we put ads in the technical journals and in the New York Times for the best work of art from a collaboration where the prize went to the engineers.
We also went to engineering conventions, where we set up a booth with artists to talk to the engineers and sign them up. And then I gave talks at the engineering conventions; that way I got articles in technical journals like IEEE Spectrum. Within a few years, we had made contact with thousands of engineers, and we had two or three thousand engineer members who wanted to work with artists. Ultimately it was not a problem.
We established a system for finding an engineer to work with an artist with a specific technical problem: edge notch cards and knitting needles. We had one person in charge of the matchings. Now the idea of matching artists and engineers and establishing artist- engineer collaboration is obvious. But in the early days of E.A.T. these ideas were completely new and different and you had to convince engineers to do it.