PRINT February 1967

1. Notes by a Participant

THE PROJECT, BEGUN IN JANUARY, was to be the American contribution to the Stockholm Festival for Art and Technology which took place in mid-September. But by October, after ten months of development, it emerged as a series of performances called 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York, the same building which housed the famous “Armory Show” of 1913. It was the showing of the work that had come out of a collaboration between ten artists and about thirty engineers.

Originally, the Swedish organization which had invited ten American artists was going to supply, in addition to artists’ fees and travel expenses, $10,000 for the making of equipment. The artists themselves raised $5,000 more from American sponsors.

The artists involved were John Cage, composer; Lucinda Childs, dancer and choreographer; Oyvind Fahlstrom, painter and author of theatre pieces; Alex Hay, painter and choreographer; Deborah Hay, dancer and choreographer; Steve Paxton, dancer and choreographer; Yvonne Rainer, dancer and choreographer; Robert Rauschenberg, painter and choreographer; David Tudor, musician and composer; R. Whitman, author of theatre pieces. The engineers, most of whom were from Bell Telephone Laboratories, worked on their own time. These people were brought together by Billy Kluver, a Bell Laboratories physicist, who has in the past worked with several artists including Tinguely, Jasper Johns, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg.

This article is based on a series of interviews with the artists and the engineers, on conversations and parts of meetings which were recorded in notes, and on a journal in which were recorded my impressions of how the project was progressing.

The first meeting was easy, stimulating, and had a sense of glamour about it. People indulged in pretending that there were going to be unlimited funds. The artists asked about buildings with walls made of warm air. Masses of materials that would decay before your eyes. They asked about being lifted on growing masses of Styrofoam. About television systems that could instantly turn live action into slow motion. Yes, most of these things were possible. Theoretically possible. But above all, these fantasies served as a first meeting ground for two groups of people who had sought each other out and who didn’t yet know how to work together. No artist felt that he absolutely had to have walls of warm air but everyone wanted to get the ball rolling.

Billy Kluver: The amazing thing is that it’s possible for artists and scientists to talk together at all. The first meeting I was scared. Then, the minute it came down to the hardware it was working. It’s like a triangle between the scientists and the artists and the hardware. The main thing is to establish a working relationship and the hardware is the basis for this.

All the artists were interested in participating in a situation which was too large for them to control as opposed to a studio situation in which the artist privately works as well as he can. Many were interested in shifting the center of where a piece is conceived, from themselves and their studios, to a new and unknown place somewhere between the engineers and themselves.

Whitman: It’s a genuinely vanguard situation and a lot more demanding than most situations. The most we can expect to do is to very tentatively approach it, finding out what it means, and step off the deep end maybe, but I don’t think anybody is really going to be able to do that. One thing that could happen is that our ideas of what an image is will change. We’re still dealing with images in a pretty conventional way, I think. That’s one of the things that interested me. What might happen to what one’s idea of what an image is. What new elements we can add to it. How can we describe an image? Or what’s the image that we can describe now? Where is that located? I mean what is it that we can find out and describe using a computer or any other modern tool that we can’t do otherwise?

Oyvind Fahlstrom: I’m interested in enlarging and renewing conventional theatre. In combining different aspects of one thing that is going on. Different angles. Closeups. I want to pick up and highlight details. In theatre it’s usually hard to convey anything but large clear goings on. I’ve been interested in details in the past. In Sweden I did a piece in which I used the image of pricking skin with a pin. Of course, few people in the audience could see it. Now you can pick things like this up (with closed circuit TV) and get a many-faceted impression.

Lucinda Childs: One of the first things that I thought of when I thought of movement was something like the movement of a turtle, say, in a tank, and the infinite possibilities of making it somehow more than it is. Like the movement of the water. What happens to the water. The displacement of space in terms of the water in motion, synchronization, the lack of synchronization. Anything that can be made for the brain somehow to take in. Made into that kind of information.

Robert Rauschenberg: When you’re working with something that’s as physical as radio equipment, what’s absurd to do is very quickly determined. The machine has no tolerance for getting outside a particular radio wave or whatever it is you’re working with. The kind of equipment we’re inviting has its own integrity built into it. Whereas an artist has to somehow assume integrity or not. I think just that experience of dealing with these kinds of material that have this particular character is probably going to end up being an enormous influence on the work esthetically.

In many ways, setting up a working relationship was the biggest hurdle for some of the artists. Some didn’t accomplish this till the end of the summer. Some never really did. Perhaps there was a lot of shyness on the part of both the artists and the scientists. The business of getting to work started slowly. People sent out feelers.

Jim McGee (technician) 3/9: I called Steve (Paxton) a few times. There’s a lack of understanding by the scientists of what the artists want. They would accept a lot of things but it’s a question of what they would prefer. For example, Harold H. is building Fahlstrom’s antimissilemissile (a balloon which follows a performer around). He was working hard to make a rectangular balloon. I suggested he make it round. Harold called Fahlstrom who said that was even better. I can see the other side; it’s difficult to know what the finished product will look like.

R. Whitman, 3/24: I haven’t called the scientists, I hate to take up their time.

Larry Hellos (tech) 4/5: The artists shouldn’t feel restricted in their demands. We can tell them if what they want can be done now. Cage wants to get video through audio. People in industry would throw up their hands and say you can’t do it. We have to try it out. We may lose a few dollars worth of tape. The requests are not surprising. Many are on electronics. Many are challenging, such as Fahlstrom’s missile. I’m running down TV information. And I’ve been on the tail of a guy at Beva Electronics who says he can build infrared TV. The only thing to do is to tell the guys in industry from the very beginning what you have in mind. The cooperation has been great. I’ve talked with NBC on occasion and they’re very cooperative.

Jim McGee (tech): I think the artists are not thinking as vaguely as they are giving the impression of doing.

Alex Hay: My first ideas were fantasy, science-fiction type ideas. I had ideas about machines that were going to move me about. A whole environment just for the purpose of various ways to deal with the human body. Then I began to feel that this didn’t fit in with the technical things that were going to be available. For the most part, what they’ve been talking about, what seems to be more available are materials and processes and methods in communications.

Dick Wolff (tech) 4/1: The artist should suggest, then leave the technology to the scientist. Then he should return with enough flexibility to accept what the technician has solved. When you say remote control this and that, this means hours of work on our part. You have to limit yourself to what you’ve said, because we’re working on it.

Kluver: Ideas are interesting when they’re still on the abstract plane. But then it takes time to make them. It’s a problem because the engineer will lose interest if the artist isn’t there. The artist has to take a more active part in the duller aspects of it. The procedure of initial freedom, work, and then freedom again is not clear. There has to be an initial period of freedom where you sort of get familiar with things. Then there has to be a period where the artist decides with the engineer that this is it, let’s finish this. Let’s not do anything else or fool around any more. Then of course it’s up to the artist to use it or not. If he rejects it afterwards, that’s better, I think, than changing his mind or showing less interest during the period of work.

John Cage: We would use the sound system using the electric cells to trigger the sound sources. Simply make use of all the material and the modulation system we already have.

Kluver: How many do you want of . . .

Cage: I’m very easily satisfied. I like any number you mention.

Author’s journal, 6/17: There’s a lot of anxiety, and a lot of joking among the artists with whom I have the most contact. I get the image of Rauschenberg trying to back up into an idea. I took part in a conversation which amounted to: Art and Oceanography. And a discussion of that. Art and Criminology. And a discussion of that. Art and Travel. And so on through a long list and several drinks and laughter. Bob Whitman has referred to Billy Kluver as Fu Man Chu, the evil genius, mad scientist.

Whitman: I want to go back to ropes and pulleys and yelling for communication.

Rauschenberg: Isn’t there a kind of intimidation going on, like: technology, even if it isn’t functioning, is perfect?

Let’s talk about the show. When we meet with the technicians, we talk about equipment. At our meetings we talk about equipment. What is everybody going to do? Let’s talk visually.

By June the project had divided into two general sections. One was the individual pieces of equipment that the artists had asked for, like Lucinda Child’s Doppler effect machine, which could detect movement that happened in front of it and indicate this movement by making a kind of swishing sound. The other section was the wireless system. In effect, the wireless eventually became a system of portable equipment which amounts to ten radio stations. It has about three hundred components which are little pocket sized aluminum boxes. These are portable electronic amplifiers, equalizers, transmitters, receivers, distant control equipment, delayed reaction equipment, .and proportional control equipment. As David Tudor used the equipment, the sounds of a bandoneon, a musical instrument similar to the concertina, were not directly heard by the audience. The sounds were transformed into oscillographs projected on screens or were made to activate many things which were seen and heard. Certain tones could directly trigger a light to go from off to on, or could pass through the proportional control equipment and cause the light to gradually become brighter, or could pass through the time-stepping device and cause the light to go on a minute after the occurrence of the tone. The wireless system can simultaneously remote control, by radio signals, multiple sounds, lights and movements of objects. Each of the components can work together with the special pieces of equipment required by the individual artists, or together with any of the other components in the system.

Kluver: We have this large system which has more or less grown and I think that we’re stuck with it now. Personally I think that it’s a great idea. We should have a couple of people who exactly follow it through till our first tests, which will be in early July. Really keep in touch. I don’t even have the feeling that people know what the system is yet. What it can do. And I’ve tried to talk but nobody has sort of shown an interest to say “Tell us what this thing is, what are the limitations of it,” and so on. A lot of the things that people say they want to do they will be able to do with this but I don’t think even they know that they can do that.

Meeting, 6/15, Steve Paxton: When can we have the wireless to play with?

Kluver: August first. The first week in July will be a time when we’ll show as many things as possible. There are a lot of decisions, like amplifiers and the choice of speakers. I have bought about eight or nine different speakers which have all kinds of criteria.

Alex Hay: We need baffles for speakers.

Kluver: You’ve got to start from the beginning; what the speakers are, then the baffles. The general situation is that we have people working on all the aspects of this wireless. (Billy gives a lot of technical description of the wireless system. The artists look blank.) It is just too difficult for me to act as an in-between and handle twenty engineers and ten artists. I can’t call people for every single screw. I tell artists to call scientists and scientists to call artists and no one calls. If there isn’t direct human contact between you and the person working with you, if I have to do it, then it isn’t contact. There are so many decisions going on now that you should be making along with the engineers. Like, should the boxes be square or flat.

Hay: As functional as possible.

Kluver: That’s not how things are made. You take what’s on the shelf and if something special is needed, you . . .

Author’s journal, 6/24: From my understanding of the system it seems to me that it will act as a reactionary force. A luxurious tool which will facilitate the doing of things which are usually done with light boards, tape machines, and a crew of people. I may be wrong. We shall see. But it seems to be aimed at making a demonstration for an audience. Well, that seems pretty basic. Why does it bother me? I have the feeling the engineers have jumped the gun on the artists. I must find out what requests of the artists were directly answered by the wireless system. How consciously did the artists ask for it?

Dick Wolff (tech) 11/17: Someone asked if we could turn lights on and off by remote control with no connections [this required a radio transmitter to send signals to a receiver connected to the lights]. From that we realized what we had and started describing it to other artists and they started asking more questions and having other ideas. Debbie’s request for remote control of eight platforms gave us the necessity for channels [because this required eight transmitters, each sending stop & go signals to a separate receiver]. So we went ahead and used the channels for other things too. Tudor and Cage used the channels extensively. Cage used them to turn speakers on and off as he walked in front of the lights. Tudor to turn on and off lights. We didn’t use all the equipment to its fullest but that’s for the future. After we had built that equipment, Rauschenberg’s idea of the rackets came along [a transmitter attached to a tennis racket to transmit the sound of the ball hitting the racket]. And that was a good idea. We tried it out here at the labs and in fifteen minutes we knew it worked. Billy came down the hall with tennis rackets and asked me if I had a transmitter and receiver and we hooked it up and stood in the hall hitting the ball back and forth and it sounded just like it did in the show. It just required some smoothing over, hiding the transmitter and making the sound better.

The fact that so much work went into communications was largely because of the influence of the engineers. You can accomplish a lot with two tin cans and a string but we’re not happy with that. It’s not sophisticated enough. The decoder that Robbie (Robinson) made did something that was never planned or asked for and the artists went and used it. That was the time-stepping that Cage and Tudor used [a delay mechanism by which, for instance, a light might go on a minute after receiving its “on” signal].

Kluver: The wireless is like the crown of the whole thing. There’s nothing like it that exists on the market. Actually what we’re doing is putting radio in the theatre. We asked the FCC for 15 frequencies for continuous performance between the 13th and the 23rd of October. This is really much more fantastic than anything else that has been done.

By late July, communications between the people in Sweden who had invited the American artists to take part in the Stockholm Festival and the people in the USA had broken down. As the American artists and engineers had already been working for several months, they decided to continue and to have their showing in New York. This meant that they were going to have to raise, from private sponsors, all of the money that they would need.

The question now was whether to show on a large scale or to do the performances in a modest place like, for instance, a roller rink on Staten Island. The artists decided to go big because that was more exciting and more dangerous.

In early August we started investigating the Armory. It was available. Billy asked me to run a radio test on it to see if our wireless system would work. I took my FM radio and, standing outside the Armory, I found a weak signal. I then brought the radio inside hoping that the signal would disappear. It didn’t. It came in louder and clearer. The building wasn’t going to shield us from interference. On the contrary, it was acting as a great antenna, bringing us all kinds of extraneous signals. I called Billy from the Armory phone booth. He said the engineers would deal with it somehow.

Next, the engineers ran an acoustics test on the building. They went in with speakers. The place was like an echo chamber. You couldn’t get a coherent sound. The decision was made to stick with the Armory anyway. The space itself was beautiful. I started calling chair rental companies for estimates for one thousand seats. Then for one thousand five hundred. Then for two thousand.

Author’s Journal, 9/29: Saturday September 10th was the first day that all the equipment was brought together in one room. It was called an equipment rehearsal and it took place in the gymnasium of the Berkeley Heights High School. This seemed to give a great boost to the general morale. The engineers saw the results of their work falling into some kind of shape, and the artists got a tangible view of what the wireless system was, what it looked like, what it could do. The gym was rented three weekends running and during these times there were constant conversations between individual artists and engineers and among the engineers themselves.

Robbie Robinson (tech) 9/14: When the decisions were made for an equipment rehearsal everyone got very excited, now that there were pieces to see and so forth. You see, up to this point there were a lot of little individual things. I think, were a venture like this to be repeated, I would want one central workshop where all the engineers and technicians came to work together. This would he one way to stimulate morale or interest right from the beginning.

Alex Hay, 9/17: I want to pick up faint body sounds like brain waves, cardiac sounds, muscle sounds, and to amplify activity, its changing tempo and value. But we’d underestimated the problems about the transmitters. And Schneider was only assigned to me three weeks ago, and the first tests were just made last Wednesday. Billy thought the amplifiers they had could be modified but they can’t. Now Cumminsky and Coker are working on it.

Author’s journal, 9/25: The second half of Rauschenberg’s piece will use, for sound, tapes that will have been made during the first half. That is, they will be recordings of the sounds made by the balls hitting the prepared rackets. Herb Schneider thought that the tape loops could be triggered electronically in a predetermined, programmed relationship. This would avoid having McGee have to run around and watch the machines and keep rewinding the tapes. Bob says, “I don’t want to figure out at what moment all the machines will be working. Making that kind of decision is the traditional art way. Of course, even programming might necessitate some practical considerations such as, for example, tape three and four can’t go at the same time because they’re on the same machine.” But what Bob wishes is to have McGee “work like crazy to get everything going and keep it going.”

Schneider (tech) 11/1: What really appalled me was that on September 15th no one really knew what we were going to do on October 13th except in a very general way. Then we talked for six hours with each of the artists and then made up the drawings (diagrams of the different combinations of equipment that the different artists were going to require]. David Tudor was asking for functions I couldn’t visualize. Then I made the drawing. We talked back and forth making corrections till we finally beat it into shape. I couldn’t understand what he wanted until I could visualize it and he couldn’t communicate it to me in those terms because he’s not used to visualizing functions. When I began to get this collection of drawings, I began to realize that we’d better simplify the whole approach. That is, to program the connections, so that we could shift one artist’s piece to another’s without extensive replugging. (This would require something called AMP equipment which essentially is a kind of switchboard. All the non-portable audio and lighting equipment such as the power amplifiers and the power relays were to be permanently wired into this AMP equipment. Then, by inserting a different program-card or board for each performance, the appropriate connections would automatically be made. The right set-up of lights and speakers would be ready to roll.]

Author’s journal, 10/8: One of the engineers said, “What we need is a lot of unskilled labor.” And there were two dancers and a composer—Cindy, Yvonne, and Cage—stripping wires. It occurred to me after the second day of putting tiny plugs on wires, at a table at which there were two to three artists at all times doing the same, that the activity, the situation, was an engineer-directed one. Maybe it was that our eyes and fingers had been so concentrated on those little wires for so long that it seemed like a world of wires.

Cage said about stripping wires, “This is very mysterious because you can’t see what you’re doing. You can’t see what’s under it. It’s typical of this technology.”

Waldauer said that David Tudor was “up to his haunches in cable. He’s running into the limits of wiring. He’ll have to have all his equipment connected before he gets to the Armory. And then it’ll take a couple of days to connect it to the Armory. We’ll have to epoxy all his equipment and him to a board and bring the whole thing into the Armory in one piece.”

The schedule of rehearsals in the Armory had been carefully made out without any foreknowledge of the complications that were to arise with the wiring. The schedule was immediately abandoned. The ten artists rehearsed as best they could. None ever got a full dress rehearsal.

We soon found that another big handicap was that it’s not within the professional scope of either the artists or the engineers to set up equipment in the field, so to speak. In fact, the artist who has worked in a performance medium has more experience with setting up theatrical equipment than does the engineer. As it turned out, our lighting expert, our riggers, and our electricians were the only ones who were professionals with experience in large productions.

Author’s journal, 10/7: I talked to Yvonne last night. She’s had her first rehearsal of the movement or performance part of her piece. The props or technical devices are not all ready and she thinks she’ll have to do without several of those things. She says working is very different from what it usually is for her. She has to get things each day like tape, tubes, etc. And make a lot of calls. She says these jobs keep interrupting her work. She misses working. Says she’s never worked in such an abstract, distant, cerebral way. The piece is all in her head but she won’t know what it will be like, what it will look like, until the rehearsal a couple of days before the performance. That so much of the work is out of the artists’ hands. The actual getting the work done is so much in the hands of the engineers, the prop makers, the riggers, etc.

Author’s journal, 10/11: I talked to Cage today. He was again crimping wires. I asked him about his piece . . . was it ready? He said there was nothing he could do on it. He had already made the arrangements for getting the various materials such as the encephalographs live from the hospital, and the phones answered and left off the hook in the various places [such as Luchow’s and the Bronx aviary], and the various appliances.

The engineers still had work to do on equipment, which he doesn’t understand. And Tudor, who is figuring out the modulations for him, is too busy working on his own piece. He had told the engineers originally what he wanted and now he was glad to accept the results that they came up with.

The first two nights started very late and were drastically rough.

Author’s journal, 10/13: The audience was incensed. There was a feeling of disaster. Robbie (tech) said to me, “You guys are emotionally prepared for this. We aren’t.” I tried to tell him that we’re used to having audiences boo, hiss, and walk out. That the history books are full of accounts of performances at which the audiences were incensed and which later were recognized to be important achievements. Robbie kept saying, “You guys were emotionally prepared.”

Schneider (tech) 11/1: Those first two evenings of performances we were plugging in more wires at once than I ever knew I could handle. It was a mess. Tudor was operating on a fraction of what he should have had going for him. Rauschenberg’s piece started very late, when it was finally decided that the automatic control of his lights just wasn’t going to function [the sound from the tennis rackets was to activate the off switches on the lights]. After the second evening, and the decision to stay up all night and to get the wiring system in order, we were all right in the control room. And I still feel that if we hadn’t used that wiring system, we would have had the same struggle the rest of the nine days that we had the first two.

On the third day there was a meeting of the engineers at which the decision was made to go at 8:40, no matter what. Up to that time we were purists. Initially, all the artists had encouraged us in this. No artist said, “Let’s fake it, let’s do it by hand.”

Simone Whitman (to Kluver) 10/30: How could it have happened that after all this work, we went on without rehearsals?

Kluver: I know exactly how it happened. I didn’t have the presence of mind to put a stop to what I saw happening with the AMP equipment and start the engineers working on a simpler system. What they had set out to do was a three month job. And they would have had to do it in three days. So the week that should have gone into rehearsals was spent in wiring the patch board. All the equipment was to be checked out, rehearsed and adjusted. Instead, there was no time, and on opening night the interconnection system was still not working and we didn’t have any alternate back up system.

Clive Barnes, New York Times, October 15: The level of the technology was such that the performance started 40 minutes late, a 15-minute. intermission lasted 35 minutes and even a loudspeaker announcement was so indistinct on the apparently unsound sound equipment that it became unintelligible. God bless American art, but God help American science . . . Perhaps the other shows will he better—already they are sold out.

Rauschenberg, 10/13: We should make an announcement to the audience that they are welcome to watch the set-up from the chairs. They should understand that we’re involved in a process and not in presenting finished products.

Kluver: My vision of it was that the audience wouldn’t even know that technology was involved, but if an engineer came around he would say, “My God, what are they doing!”

A poet who came to the Armory remarked that working with technology is like a return to the prima donna. The equipment might do wonderful things or at the last minute it might decide not to work at all.

Schneider, 11/1: You should let the public in on what you’re doing. Why not tell them that some of the sounds they hear come from Hong Kong or a Geiger counter. We’re not trying to popularize science mechanics. But in broad terms just the functional idea that you can make use of certain devices to produce certain effects is of interest. We should have taken them into our confidence to establish a link there. To bring the experimental situation to the public. Of course then it would have been unfair to ask $3. And you wouldn’t have gotten so many people if you had asked 25¢. Of course they received their money’s worth but not as they had expected. But they should have participated more.

Cumminsky (tech.): I went to one of the evenings and I was bored.

Author: How do you feel about the things you see in galleries?

Cumminsky: That’s different. When you go to a gallery, you’re not constrained to linger at the pictures. I envied the reporters, who could wander around. Art’s more like window shopping. When you sit down you’re ready to get entertained.

Author’s journal, 11/12: 9 Evenings was presented on a large public scale, an experimental proposition. That was an exciting thing to do. Maybe that’s what Waldhauer meant when he said “The Festival wouldn’t have had the impact if it had worked better.”

Billy Kluver, 10/15: There are three elements fighting. The artists, the engineers and the audience. These three will have to come to some resolution. It seems to me that this will take several years. And I think that’s good. Because the situation is really new. And it’s better to leave problems unsolved until a solution develops through an organic process of experience with this new thing. After all the idea of having 2000 people present as an audience to some end product might have been an obsolete, habitual thing to do which didn’t really apply to what had been going on between the artists and the engineers. I don’t know. But I’m sure that many, many problems will not so much be solved as abandoned in favor of other problems more pertinent to what can come of this way of working.

Simone Whitman