PRINT March 2004


Branden W. Joseph on Billy Klüver

THE FIRST ART PROJECT to which Swedish engineer Billy Klüver—who passed away on January 11, 2004, at the age of seventy-six—lent his energy and expertise was Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, the machine that famously self-destructed in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art on March 17, 1960. “The Garden Party,” Klüver’s written account of the event, opens by noting that Tinguely built his suicidal contraption inside the Buckminster Fuller dome exhibited on the grounds. Although this detail is often overlooked, the two structures formed a telling dialectical pair. While Tinguely’s animate amalgam of detritus evoked neo-Dada’s spirit of anarchic, useless expenditure, Fuller’s Dymaxion construction exemplified a visionary dream of technology’s revolutionary potential. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Klüver’s career as a catalyst and facilitator of collaborations between engineers and artists would oscillate between these two utopian poles.

Klüver had been put in contact with Tinguely by his friend Pontus Hultén, then director of the Moderna Museet. Besides helping Tinguely scour garbage dumps and secondhand distributors for bicycle wheels and other materials, Klüver provided the Swiss sculptor with vials of synthetic smoke and odoriferous liquids to unleash on the audience and also lent a hand (and those of fellow engineer Harold Hodges) in devising various electrical components. During the chaotic performance, much of Tinguely’s Homage didn’t function: The odors weren’t discharged; banners failed to unroll; recalcitrant metal connections wouldn’t allow the scaffolding to completely tear itself apart. Although Klüver’s subsequent one-on-one interactions with artists—providing remote-controlled radios for Robert Rauschenberg’s Oracle, 1962–65; neon-powering battery systems for Jasper Johns’s Zone, 1962, and Field Painting, 1963–64; and heat-sealed Scotchpak for Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, 1966—helped produce some of their best-known pieces, something of Tinguely’s malfunctioning machine haunted Klüver’s most ambitious endeavors.

The first large-scale production to conjoin aesthetics with Klüver’s vision of advanced technology was 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, the series of multimedia performances held in the New York Armory from October 14 to 23, 1966. It involved thirty engineers and an array of prominent artists including Rauschenberg, John Cage, David Tudor, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Robert Whitman, and Öyvind Fahlström. With such an all-star cast from the New York art scene and the seemingly limitless potential of the most vanguard science, it was perhaps impossible for the results to have matched expectations. Nevertheless, the reviews were uncompromisingly harsh. New York Times reporter Clive Barnes stayed only for Rauschenberg’s Open Score, but his description of its delays and technical failings as a “depressing spectacle” was widely read. Simone Whitman, another participating artist, allowed more discreetly that “the first two nights started very late and were drastically rough.”

Momentarily frustrated, Klüver remained undeterred. Working with Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which he cofounded in 1966 with Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, and engineer Fred Waldhauer, Klüver continued to pursue the type of interactions that 9 Evenings instigated. Before the critical response to 9 Evenings, Klüver had embraced the “failures” that Tinguely courted in his Homage, remarking, “In the same way as a scientific experiment can never fail, this experiment in art could never fail.” He continued, “In a purely technocratic society the machine must always be a functional object. Failures of the machine can therefore never be allowed, because control is the necessary element of that society. It is when the machine must function at any cost that there can be no ‘Homage to New York.’” Among the artists close to Klüver, a similarly positive understanding of “failure” meshed with Cagean notions of a-teleological activity. The day before 9 Evenings’ debut, Rauschenberg cribbed from the composer’s lexicon, declaring that the audience “should understand that we’re involved in a process and not in presenting finished products.” When the critical response to the ambitious and expensive Pepsi Pavilion that E.A.T. produced for Osaka’s Expo ’70 under Klüver’s supervision proved similar to that of 9 Evenings, Klüver’s defenders (such as Barbara Rose) would imply that the project’s most important result was not the product—ultimately and reluctantly abandoned by Klüver and the artists after a contentious fallout with Pepsi over events programming—but the ongoing collaboration of artists and engineers.

Needless to say, artistic interactions with technology long predated Klüver’s efforts. Well-known examples from earlier in the century, such as László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator, 1921–30, and Marcel Duchamp’s Rotary Demisphere, 1925, manifestly employed to opposite ends technological components and, more important, ideas or ideologies of technological progress. In the 1960s, as Caroline Jones has argued in Machine in the Studio, the actual and imaginary interactions of technology and artistic production were tied up with issues of futurity, industrial fabrication, mechanization, and corporate power that resonated in different but not unrelated ways within Minimalism and Pop. To these examples could be added the inherent technological aspects of contemporary electronic music (pursued by Cage since the 1930s) and film, increasingly evident as the projector was explicitly referenced and incorporated in structural film, expanded cinema, and other types of performance. Rather than characterize Klüver’s contribution to the decade’s larger projects as technology per se, it would be more accurate to claim that he offered the institutional resources of “big science,” as exemplified by the research facilities of his employer, Bell Telephone Laboratories. It is from this perspective that one can understand the differences between Klüver and the artists with whom he associated.

By 1960, Cage, for example, had begun to view electronic technologies in McLuhanesque terms as an environmental factor toward which music had to open in pursuit of both aesthetic and political indeterminacy. Somewhat differently, Rauschenberg sought to “collaborate” with technology as a material with unique possibilities and limitations, confronting and thereby pushing him and his audience beyond their subjective preconceptions. During an early E.A.T. meeting, he professed his desire for a “surprise package,” delivered by the engineers without his expressing an a priori objective. Klüver’s ideas were both more romantic and more practical. He regarded the artist as capable of taking on the mantle of the research scientist, setting experimental goals that the engineers would help realize. While it was to be a collaborative relationship, the artist would be in the lead. In cases of conflict or uncertainty, according to Klüver, “decisions were first considered from the artists’ point of view.” Neither an environmental factor nor a source of potential surprise, technology was to be directed in a preconceived and goal-oriented manner. The means of technological innovation, not easily altered, were to be given new ends, established according to an artistic vision that Klüver accorded an innate humanism, one that the most radical members of his artistic generation had so severely put into question. The model was less the avant-garde than the space program, which—when shed of its military-industrial, cold-war context—appeared a gloriously quixotic endeavor. As Klüver stated in the press release for 9 Evenings, “All the projects that I have worked on have at least one thing in common: from an engineer’s point of view they are ridiculous. That is their value.”

More explicit tensions could be found between the stated goals of E.A.T. and the period’s competing visions of “art and technology.” Despite agreeing with Marshall McLuhan on the artist’s move from “the ivory tower to the control tower of society,” Klüver’s conception of the artist’s role put him at odds with the well-known media theorist. Indeed, Klüver vehemently disagreed with what he rightly perceived as McLuhan’s skepticism toward the transformations that Understanding Media and other essays so breathlessly described. Similarly, he opposed McLuhan’s belief that the artist’s role was essentially reactive, “anticipating and avoiding the consequences of technological trauma” on the human perceptual apparatus rather than spearheading technological innovation. Klüver proved equally opposed to Gyorgy Kepes and his associates at MIT, who he felt subordinated technology’s potentials to an academic standard of beauty. For Klüver, the employee of a corporate lab, industry was better suited than the university to the “expansion and risk” of contemporary art.

Although Klüver initially espoused experimentation, process, and even failure, he became particularly inclined to cite statistics as a sign of success: 9 Evenings, seen by more than 10,000 people, resulted from some 8,500 (free) man-hours of engineering valued at an estimated $150,000; the Osaka pavilion, which was covered by 2,520 mist-spraying nozzles, counted approximately 3,000,000 visitors. And while Klüver’s stated justification for artistically developed technology was its inherently more humane scope and scale, the sometimes patented spin-offs he invariably listed as achievements—phosphors for infrared-laser research, miniaturized amplifiers, or pneumatic, mirrored spheres potentially useful as large antennae—proved no less functionally equivocal than many contemporary products of the military-industrial complex. (The artworks themselves, however, avoided any such potential usefulness.) Rose summarized the “hope” of Klüver and his associates: “That aesthetic needs can have practical consequences by introducing new variables into technology signifies that artists may be, potentially, the most useful personnel of future research and development laboratories.” It was this reception, perhaps, that turned Klüver and E.A.T. to more instrumental ventures like the Anand Project’s educational broadcasts for rural Indian farmers.

With the escalation of the Vietnam War and rising political activity directed at the companies profiting from it, “art and technology” ended as an identifiable trend or movement. Writers like David Antin, Amy Goldin, and Max Kozloff promptly diagnosed and critically dismantled the phenomenon for its sheen of ideology and its seemingly affirmative and ineffectual dependence on the sponsoring corporations (however reluctant). In attempting so direct a social intervention, E.A.T. and other art and technology projects also aimed for a broad, popular appeal: Just as there was no longer any distance between artist and engineer, nor would there be any between artwork and audience. As Goldin perceptively noted, “The idea of wedding art to technology is tremendously appealing. It seems to promise everybody just what he’s always wanted, a brave new world and no more alienation.”

For decades, involvement with “art and technology” was downplayed or conveniently omitted from artists’ monographs and exhibitions. Nearly everyone was silent except Klüver, who professed E.A.T’s achievements no longer as glorious failures but as unmitigated success. And he would live to see renewed interest in his artistic interactions. To judge from recent press, E.A.T. is now remembered chiefly as a forerunner of the current explosion of digital, projection, Internet, and sound art filling museums and festivals from San Francisco to New York to Linz to Karlsruhe. Which, undoubtedly, it is. Yet blanket acceptance does not do justice to the legacy of a man who operated at the volatile intersection of social, political, institutional, and artistic concerns any more than did blanket dismissal. The ultimate evaluation of all of Klüver’s artistic and technological endeavors, which continued until his death, will have to be negotiated between the techno-euphoric hype and critical dismissal in which it is lodged today. Carving out a place for himself in art history, Klüver bequeathed to us a set of questions and contradictions involving art, industry, technology, and corporate sponsorship that—amid the glitz of new technologies and the renewal of foreign wars—deserves a place at the forefront of our historical consciousness.

Branden W. Joseph is assistant professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Random Order (MIT Press, 2003).