PRINT February 1967

2. Notes by an Engineer

IT IS NOT A QUESTION OF what the artist should do, but what he will do with technology. Whether technology is good or bad, threatening or friendly, beautiful or ugly is irrelevant. The qualities and shapes of technology are not the proper concern of the artist.

Claes Oldenburg suggests an enormous teddy bear monument in Central Park while Gyorgy Kepes discusses the limited interest of the artists in the large scale environment.

We have to learn to listen to the artist.

If you ask what he wants he will not tell you. If you hang around long enough he will. Are you really there to listen?

Science and art are inevitably separated. Any attempt to “bring the two together” should be looked at with suspicion. Science deals with reality in rational, single-valued terms which are constantly related to a language that is uniquely understood. Art deals with the reality in irrational and poetic terms. Art allows for discontinuities that science cannot tolerate. History must have provided us with the separateness of art and science for a reason.

At the time of Aristotle, the Greeks cut the orange the other way. Agnos: mathematics, lawsuits, poetry and rhetoric. Techné: sculpture, painting, physics, medicine and crafts. Today the scientist and the artist share both Techné and Agnos.

A scientist could not work with an artist. What would they talk about? ESP? The beauty of the stars?

Would a scientist be able to work creatively if he had to live in the social situation of the artist? No other profession has as many guardians as that of the artist. If we tried to make the artist’s situation as secure and free as that of the scientist we would probably be doing something wrong. But food, space, and material help.

Have you ever met a normal, healthy and working engineer who gives a damn about contemporary art? Why should the contemporary artist want to use technology and engineering as material? Only when a working relationship has been established between artists and engineers can we give answers. The 9 Evenings was a deliberate attempt by ten artists to find out if it was possible to work with engineers. Their investment in terms of putting-yourself on a limb was considerable. For ten months they worked with thirty engineers and were able to make a series of beautiful performances out of the collaboration. I believe it was John Cage who remarked that the 9 Evenings “was like the early movies” where the camera, the stage, the literary content, and the acting were all separate and easily identifiable elements. An unmixed media. The horse-less carriage—the wireless microphone—theater and engineering.

All decisions concerning 9 Evenings were made by the artists and myself during innumerable meetings. Because of Bob Rauschenberg’s remarkably positive attitude and sensitivity, his contributions to these meetings were significant in terms of shaping the 9 Evenings. He reduced fear and limitation with a few words. He also took on a large part of the responsibility for raising the necessary money, a task which led him into many difficult and ungrateful situations. 9 Evenings was, however, above all, a cooperative effort where everyone took on the responsibility he could and wanted to handle. Whenever possible, decisions were first considered from the artists’ point of view.

The name of the performances at the Armory came out of long arguments about what we were doing. The day “Art and Technology” was left behind was a day of relief for everyone.

It was decided early that no special emphasis should be placed on the technical elements in each performance. The obvious reason for this decision was to prevent situations from becoming technically “interesting.” Engineers were given credit in their biographies, and not in the program notes. No excuses for technical failures were to be given. Each artist was given as much freedom to develop his work as possible. Restrictions in terms of props and stage equipment were eliminated.

We decided to reach for a large audience. It appeared logical to do this because of the large investment of the artists and of their commitment to technology as a material. But it seemed also necessary to make an attempt to break the Judson Church barrier of 500 faithful spectators and to confront a larger and unfamiliar audience with the works of contemporary artists. It was strongly felt that the presentation of the performances should be as conservative and as traditional as possible, to avoid the “fun” and “happening” atmosphere. Randomness, errors, and failure were never elements in the performances. Every effort was made to make everything run as smoothly as possible without compromising the artists’ wishes. From the technical side the artists were assured that everything would work until we knew otherwise.

Much has been said about the inadequacy of our sound system for speech reproduction. The acoustical problems of the Armory were well known before we moved in. A plan was set up for an alternate speaker system to handle speech. This plan was, however, rejected by the artists.

Over the nine day period every artist performed his work twice. Each evening was dealt with as a separate and independent event. By distributing the performances randomly it was hoped that at least some of the performances would be seen twice. The over emphasis on opening night by the audience proved, however, almost impossible to fight and the rough nature of our first two nights became the primary topic of most of the reviews. (I have since heard that almost every Broadway show has a rough beginning.)

The delays have interested the critics more than anything else. On the first night we started 40 minutes late due to difficulties with the general complexity of the situation at the Armory. The second night there was a 30-minute delay due to technical difficulties. From then on we decided to start on time no matter what the problems were. Our half-hour intermissions proved impossible to shorten.

There were over 8500 engineering hours of work that went into the 9 Evenings. This makes a total of more than four man-years of work for the 30 engineers involved. A low estimate of the value of the engineering time is 150,000 dollars. During the 16 days in the Armory 79 engineers worked more than 2500 hours and three of them worked more than 250 hours each. The audience was a little over 10,000.

The equipment that was built for 9 Evenings was in many respects remarkable. Each artist had his own specific project: Lucinda’s Doppler sonar and ground effect machine, Debbie’s remote control platforms, Steve’s loops, Rauschenberg’s IR TV and transmitters in the handles of the tennis rackets, Oyvind’s chemical reactions, antimissile-missile, snowflakes and transmission systems, Yvonne’s walkie-talkies and programmed events, Whitman’s TV and mixing panel facilities, Alex’s differential amplifiers, Cage’s photocells and telephone pickup of sounds, Tudor’s use of Kieronski’s vochrome and the rest, in particular the SCR circuits. In addition to these special projects we built an electronic system which we called TEEM. This included amplifiers, transmitters, receivers, tone decoders, tone encoders, SCR circuits, relays, etc. It also included a proportional control system which was used successfully by Cage, Tudor and Debbie. TEEM had the following general design criteria: each unit was to be as small as possible and battery-powered. A sufficient amount of units was to be available for quick replacement. All units were to be portable. TEEM was designed to fulfill the function of an on-stage environmental electronic system.

The growth of contact between the artists and the engineers was the most fascinating aspect of the 9 Evenings, one which I can only briefly touch on here. From the engineer’s point of view, 9 Evenings presented complex technical problems. The engineers had never seen any of the artists’ performances before moving into the Armory, and most of the artists had never spoken to the engineers. Most of the engineers, in fact, were without any previous contact with contemporary art. They worked hard in their spare time, and tried to communicate with the artists who lived in New York. It was not until the second night of the performances that the engineers, enclosed in the control booth, really understood the position of the artist and what he was trying to accomplish. The artist was on stage, completely exposed to a large audience, and demonstrating his faith in the engineers. After that second night, everything began to clear up. The vagueness about what the artist was up to had disappeared; the engineer could now evaluate his own contribution to the artists’ work and step some distance from his natural commitment to his gear.

It is inevitable that the engineer’s work has to precede that of the artist. This makes any collaboration highly imbalanced, but when all is fused together there are great possibilities for give and take. It was on the simple, practical level that the best results of the artist-engineer relationship were achieved; our best experiences came from the projects where the artists had worked with the same engineers from the first idea to its realization.

Critics and public had a field day at the engineers’ expense. Because of our decision not to discuss the technical aspects of the performances, the engineers found themselves in a paradoxical position. Anything that was assumed to have gone wrong (whether it actually did or not) was attributed to technical malfunctions. This reaction by the critics and the audience reveals both an unfamiliarity with technology and a rather infantile expectation about technology as “performer.” Much was said in the press about technical equipment that failed, but no one got very specific. Mr. Barnes, Miss Genauer, Miss Adler and others had a merry time declaring the engineers to be amateurs, incompetent, fooled by the artists, etc. Are they really serious?

The engineers, of course, have a very accurate record about what failed, where and why, and what we interpreted as wrong engineering decisions. From the technical point of view (one from which none of the critics seemed able to observe with competence) the engineers did a fantastic job—by any standards. Half of the performances were more or less completely successful; others suffered from a few failures which were by no means as catastrophic as the critics implied. The answer to the reaction of the critics must lie in the fact that they never considered what was going on. They had never thought about the relationship between an engineer and an artist,and confused the engineers’ contribution with the artists’, and vice versa. This, combined with the remarkable unfamiliarity with professional engineering (which achieved a high-point in Mr. Clive Barnes’s explanation, in the N.Y. Times, of Lucinda Childs’ ground-effect machine, and in his later comments on a TV program that the machine was held up by “high frequencies”) leads one to wonder about just what the function of the critic really is.

We had our best reviews in Electronic News and The Wall Street Journal.

If professional engineering is not made available to artists on a large scale, the technical elements that do appear in works of art run the risk of becoming precious, if not ridiculous. We have established a foundation called Experiments in Art and Technology which will attempt to provide a link between the engineering world and interested artists. It is apparent to us that ultimately the problems of the artists must be handled by industrial laboratories and that the development of the problems must be paid for by industry itself. It is the purpose of EAT to convince industry to accept problems posed by artists. Simultaneously, a file of interested consulting engineers will be established who can take care of simple problems directly. It is hoped that EAT will become an efficient service organization that will deal only with the technical aspects of the artists’ problems.

Billy Kluver