PRINT September 2012


Gerbils living in the computer-manipulated environment of the Architecture Machine Group’s Seek, 1969–70, Jewish Museum, New York, 1970. Photo: Shunk-Kender © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

HARDWARE, SOFTWARE: Do these terms still summon entities and concepts that can be evoked in art? Can they still be represented, in other words? And perhaps more to the point, does this figurative possibility seem useful, now that soft and hard technologies have become our half-human familiars, the tireless servants of our physical and mental lives? Good-bye to worry beads and knitting; hello to hands tightly gripping their talismanic devices and laps in which pet machines purr softly as the hours go by. Today’s genies arrive as a ceaseless deluge of downloads and leave their traces in the signature logos that so swiftly appear on our screens. If contemporary software looks like something, that something is a consumer possibility, an interface, an everyday application of technology’s extraordinary force. It’s all so easy, so frictionless, so self-contained.

All the more reason, then, to look back to the winter of 1969, when software was young, and the critic, sculptor, and professor Jack Burnham was trying to take its measure as a vehicle for the making of art. His effort to engage with this question—and with the larger idea of art’s diagnostic properties, its ability, as Marshall McLuhan put it, to specify how technology changes us—lies behind the invitation from Karl Katz, then director of the Jewish Museum in New York, to curate a major exhibition based on computer technology. The following September, “Software” got off to a hiccuping start. Computers misfired, expenses climbed, contributors squabbled, reviewers grumbled, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, pulled out of a second showing, and Katz lost his job. All that remained in the show’s choppy wake were an invaluable illustrated catalogue, some essays, and a few works of art. As for the hardware, much of it was on loan and duly made its way back to the labs and corporations from whence it had come.

A decade later, and Burnham viewed the whole art and technology flirtation, “Software” included, as “the panacea that failed.”¹ What a phrase! It splices McLuhan (again) into the title of a novel by Rudyard Kipling, The Light That Failed, so as to signal that the romance was off. By then, Burnham’s view of the multiple problems that dogged the exhibition had hardened into glassy clarity. The same is true of his grasp of its aims. The point of the show was not to include works whose legibly “artistic” forms simply reproduced familiar styles and motifs with the aid of computer technologies—sub-Mondrian geometries, for example, or wooden shapes turned on a preprogrammed lathe. Rather than presenting “art” that looked like preestablished forms and genres, the show’s goal was to generate objects and experiences that would work more or less in the way that what Burnham called “real time systems” do, in the here and now. “Software” not only espoused interactivity, but was also built on the premise that the experience of information could have both sensory immediacy and “educational” outcomes. Visitors could contribute their own input to the computer program controlling the synthesizer of Composer, 1970, installed by the Boston-based duo Allen Razdow and Paul Conly, or surf Labyrinth: An Interactive Catalogue, 1970, the electronic exhibition catalogue constructed by Ned Woodman and Theodor H. Nelson, which pioneered interactive hypertext as a museum tool. Weather permitting, visitors could pick up the sound of radio broadcasts thanks to solar batteries connected to the glass panes of the museum’s windows and doors in Theodosius Victoria’s Solar Audio Window Transmission, 1969–70. As Burnham put it in a statement written just before the exhibition opened, his aim was to produce a show that was “aniconic” in its forms and outlook, that had freed itself from any lingering dependency on the “iconic value of machines or machine products for its art definition.”² “Software” embraced dialogue, participation, and direct exchange over any pre-given style, form, or image. Its “real time” credo aimed to channel viewers’ absorption, to structure it, in ways that anticipate the present-day irruption into the museum of the smartphone app.

It is striking how long-lived Burnham’s mantras have been. His writing about real time systems in Artforum (see page 113) the year before “Software” opened already announced the idea that an artwork not only should be designed to operate in the present but, as a so-called real time system, should make that fact apparent in and as its form. Such a work should enact its interactivity; it should address, perhaps even accost, its audience by insisting on its immediate presence.

Yet real time messages need not lead to spectacular epiphanies, as became clear once the exhibits in “Software” got off the ground. Real time systems do not reach crescendos. Instead, they just keep going. Take, for example, the two pieces that Hans Haacke put on view, News and Visitors’ Profile, both 1969. The first used Teletype machines to print out the ceaseless flow of wire service bulletins announcing worldwide events, large and small. The second made use of the same principle, but instead collected information “locally,” so to speak, in the space and time of the show. The work’s basis was the personal information visitors entered into a computer programmed to turn their responses into statistical profiles of social identity. The duly tabulated results emerged from the machine, like the global news, in the form of a pile-up of paper that grew as language tumbled to the floor. Together, the tangled heaps not only materialized “information” as boundless chaos; they also demonstrated, with the clarity of a scientific experiment, that knowledge and information are different in kind.

Scott Bradner and Ned Woodman programming the PDP-8 computer for Ned Woodman and Theodor H. Nelson’s Labyrinth: An Interactive Catalogue, 1970, Jewish Museum, New York, 1970. Photo: Shunk-Kender © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

To speak of a scientific experiment in a discussion of “Software” is to raise the issue of the exhibition’s demonstrable—evidentiary—results. Further scrutiny of that residue would not come amiss. A proper archaeology of Burnham’s effort to link art and technology would look back to see what other forms of “data” could be gleaned from the show’s various survivals: In this process, the photographs taken at the time would loom large. My suspicion, as a sometime student of this imagistic remainder, is that the chaos so knowingly courted in Haacke’s scrutiny of software would emerge as the exhibition’s unacknowledged theme. Its entropic energies haunted the spaces of the show.

The pictures capture chaos lurking in the spaghetti of cords that snaked across the galleries, and in the crossed wires of the circuit boards. It was there in the antilogic of Labyrinth. It was there in Seek, 1969–70, a project by the Architecture Machine Group at MIT, featuring a prefab magnetic metal toy block city in which the mess created by nesting gerbils—a form of biological “feedback,” of course, that uses small mammals as stand-ins for our larger urban selves—was repaired by a bulky Interdata Model 3 computer. And it was there in the lurking form of Vito Acconci, who performed Proximity Piece, 1970, inside the exhibition galleries, standing so close to unwary viewers that his targets anxiously left the show. Another form of feedback, this, whose negative energy was able to locate the bodily and spatial boundaries of artistic display with masterly precision. At the “Software” show, Acconci pushed the possibility of social proximity—social networking—to the breaking point, and without a computer programmed to clean up the mess. But if unmediated bodies have their limits, we have yet to find the breaking point of our new encoded selves.

A contributing editor to Artforum and a professor emerita of modern and contemporary art at the University of California, Berkeley, Anne M. Wagner is a visiting distinguished professor at the University of York, UK.


1. Jack Burnham, “The Panacea That Failed,” in Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture, ed. Kathleen Woodward (Madison, WI: Coda, 1980), 200–215.

2. “Jack Burnham Comments on Mallary’s Note,” published in Leonardo 3, no. 2 (April 1970): 266.