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PRINT September 2015

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“Art and Technology”

Claes Oldenburg, Giant Ice Bag, 1969–70, polyvinyl, lacquered wood, mechanical and hydraulic components. Installation view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971. Photo: © Museum Associates/LACMA.

THE TREACHERY OF IMAGES, 1929, is among the most iconic pictures produced in the twentieth century, but most people don’t know that this metatextual painting by René Magritte, depicting a pipe above the phrase CECI N’EST PAS UNE PIPE, is in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s an ideal holding for the region’s largest and most comprehensive institution: The wit presages John Baldessari, the typography Ed Ruscha; the Foucauldian slippage between the real and the imaginary—well, that’s how SoCal rolls. The painting is also one of the last works you see before arriving at the gallery housing the show “From the Archives: Art and Technology at LACMA, 1967–1971,” which commemorates the pioneering exhibition launched by LACMA curator Maurice Tuchman to “bring together the incredible resources and advanced technology of industry with the equally incredible imagination and talent of the best artists at work today.” Like Magritte’s painting, “Art and Technology” (known as A&T) has had a resurgent afterlife, and it is fitting that the museum has given A&T a prominent part in the programming marking its golden jubilee this year.

Tuchman joined LACMA in 1964 as a transplant from New York, and he initiated A&T two years after his arrival to harness the future-forward, techno-positive ethos in his new town. The exhibition revolved around an elaborate program to embed blue-chip artists—including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra, Robert Irwin, and James Turrell—within corporations such as Lockheed, IBM, Teledyne, Ampex, and Kaiser Steel, as well as entertainment companies and research centers including Universal Studios and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Tuchman’s ambition extended to previewing the program’s resultant productions for an unprecedentedly broad audience: He arranged for eight of the projects—including Newton Harrison’s kinetic gas-plasma light works and Tony Smith’s corrugated-cardboard “cave”—to be previewed by more than ten million visitors at Expo ’70 in Osaka. The next year, a landmark catalogue meticulously charted the intricate relationship between participants, and the exhibition itself was granted pride of place in LACMA’s 1971 schedule.

The new miniretrospective at LACMA, curated by Jennifer King, delves deep into the archives to offer a fine-grained, behind-the-scenes look at the program as it unfolded. Materials on view include records of the sometimes antagonistic relationships between the artists and the corporations, such as the combative missives between the trickster John Chamberlain and an increasingly intolerant collection of RAND Corporation technocrats: “I’m searching for ANSWERS. Not questions!” “There is only one answer. You have a . . . warped, trashy idea of what beauty and talent is.” The show also includes extensive documentation—some of which the curator had to go to great lengths to hunt down—of the process behind several of A&T’s best-known projects, providing a reminder of the bubbling creative energy that propelled the program, as well as of the sheer eccentric originality of the work that it produced: Sketches and photos of Öyvind Fahlström’s Zap Comix–inspired coated-metal Meatball Curtain (for R. Crumb), 1969, are shown alongside newly remastered footage of Claes Oldenburg sketching blackboard drawings for his Giant Ice Bag, 1969–70, an oversize kinetic soft sculpture that continuously inflates and deflates.

What the retrospective does not have room to do, however, is explain how A&T—long considered by many as a failed experiment—achieved its now-paradigmatic position. One is left to wonder about the historical reception of the program and the broader context of the global boom in art-and-technology collaborations in the 1960s, from Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which famously paired hundreds of artists with engineers, to the technological experiments of Group Zero. A larger show might have been able to account for the very resurgence of interest that has made a reexamination of the initiative so relevant today. More specifically, understanding A&T’s long and seemingly unlikely rise to its current iconic status requires a closer examination of its relationship to Southern California’s economy and culture.

The fundamental problem facing Tuchman was that the nation’s attitudes toward technology transformed between 1966, when he first proposed A&T, and 1971, when it opened. Through the mid-’60s, technology carried the sheen of modernity, with such figures as R. Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and Nam June Paik expressing utopian aspirations for expanded modes of communicating and new ways of living. By the early ’70s, however, artists, audiences, and even museum patrons had turned against the war in Vietnam, and technology had become synonymous with the military-industrial complex: faceless think-tankers directing Lockheed bombers as they rained Dow Chemical napalm onto the bodies of Vietnamese villagers. In an October 1971 Artforum review, Max Kozloff expressed contempt for the artists who “did not hesitate to freeload at the trough of that techno-fascism that had inspired them.” If geopolitics confounded A&T, so, too, did identity politics. As many have noted, the cover of the 1971 catalogue is a grid of head shots of the participating artists and engineers: all white, all male. The artists are shaggy, the engineers buttoned down, but that’s it for diversity. A&T was so egregiously patriarchal that it prompted the formation of the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists, and so uniformly Anglo that it was one of the tipping points leading to the Chicano/a collective Asco’s famous intervention Spray Paint LACMA in 1972.

How is it possible, then, that a few decades later A&T has achieved something like cult status? And why is A&T not only being historicized with the current retrospective but also rebooted with a new Art + Technology Lab at the museum, this one supported by twenty-first-century companies including Google, Hyundai, and SpaceX? The answer is simply that the original A&T went viral long ago and still hasn’t left Southern California’s system.

Indeed, conditions have long been just right for a techno-pandemic in Southern California. Local art fabricators like Jack Brogan and Peter Carlson were patient zero: From Brogan’s work with Light and Space and Finish Fetish artists in the ’60s and ’70s to Carlson’s partnering on contemporary sculpture with Charles Ray, Liz Larner, and Doug Aitken, the region’s fabricators have introduced everything from auto detailing to injection molding to surfboard glassing into fine-arts practice, extending the A&T model into a new role of fabricator as cocreative spirit (see, for example, the discussion of Brogan and Carlson’s impact in Artforum’s October 2007 special issue on “The Art of Production”). Local technology companies remain not just willing but eager to work with artists such as Jordan Wolfson, who relocated a portion of his studio to Southern California while producing his animatronic bachelor machine, Female figure, 2014 (recently acquired as a centerpiece for Eli and Edythe Broad’s new museum in downtown LA), with the help of Spectral Motion, a prosthetics, special-effects, and robotics studio in Glendale.

The A&T virus infects not just works but also spaces. While MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Study and the Exploratorium in San Francisco are also legacies of the ’60s art/tech boom, it was in Southern California that the innate hybridity of the A&T process mutated the art world enough to alter the very mechanics of viewing and display. While the original A&T was a hierarchical affair, its descendants are more feral, egalitarian, and hackerish. True to A&T, these venues often embrace an engineering sensibility as much as an artistic one, favoring the “kludge”—an engineer’s term for a quick and dirty workaround—over the fixed solution. They are also resolutely idiosyncratic outgrowths of their founders’ obsessions, which are themselves usually rooted more in science (or at least sci-fi) than in art history. There is the justly famous Museum of Jurassic Technology, and right next door, clui, Matthew Coolidge’s Center for Land Use Interpretation, which extends Land art to include, say, exhibitions of experimental-aircraft crash sites of the Mojave. The Crochet Coral Reef project may be the most seductive output of sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s Institute for Figuring, but the IFF also curates shows on fringe physics and alternative-logic alphabets.

Most directly channeling A&T is Echo Park’s Machine Project—which falls on a continuum spanning twenty-first-century maker spaces, self-sustaining relational-aesthetic experiments, and sui generis SoCal eccentricities. Founded and directed by Mark Allen, Machine Project hosts everything from hackathons that explore the programming of Arduino robotic controllers to workshops on DIY cat architecture. Allen acknowledges his debt to A&T, especially those projects where the artist came to master the technology him- or herself, rather than relying on help from technologists. Yet there is an evolution of the A&T legacy, too: The critic and painter Peter Plagens maintained that A&T was about “hardware,” where Machine Project tends toward software, if only because it is more easily distributable and encourages a DIY spirit. In 2008, the circle was squared when LACMA opened its Wilshire Boulevard campus for “A Machine Project’s Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” a daylong event that featured more than fifty participatory interventions organized by Machine Project’s founders and participants.

While Robert Irwin claimed that A&T was a red herring because it gave technology equal billing with art, Michael Govan, LACMA director and initiator of the new A+T Lab, maintains that the show opened the possibility of understanding technology poetically. But beyond the realm of art, A&T acted as both a reflection of and an agent of change on the culture of technology itself. A&T was part of a much broader transformation that is tied specifically to the intersection of West Coast counterculture with the new spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism that sprang up in Silicon Valley. Engineers in California don’t present as straitlaced company clones anymore. Today’s “creative industries” employ coders who look, and claim to think, like artists. Art, or at least artifice, has hybridized with technology; that mutant has come to dominate our culture and has taken over our workplaces, our home lives, and even our bacchanalias.

Take Coachella, which has tricked out A&T’s legacy in a throbbing pop-glitz festival idiom, less Burning Man than TechCrunch Disrupt. This year, the standout was the mesmerizing Hypercube projection that formed the four-dimensional stage for LA-based producer Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison), enshrouding the artist in a pulsating series of animated characters, colors, and graphics that pushed the boundaries of expanded cinema, augmented reality, and sheer spectacle to jaw- and bass-dropping limits: pulsating proof of William Gibson’s quip that “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

If Coachella’s reliance on corporate sponsors retreats from the contemporary DIY spirit back into the hierarchies of the original A&T, the festival also gives way to another kind of consumption. In addition to sound and light, Coachella features the gourmet-food trucks that have come to define Southern California’s culinary landscape. Chef Roy Choi’s Kogi truck has pride of place at the desert festival; it also regularly occasions a long line outside LACMA during lunch hours, where it offers ur-SoCal Korean-Mexican fusions like bulgogi tacos and kimchi quesadillas. But Choi’s business plan may be even more SoCal than his food: He single-handedly reinvented the food truck by using the newly launched Twitter platform to create a clientele of ravenous club kids, Silicon Beach engineers, and adventurous urban epicureans. In a sense, his kitchens on wheels are geolocative, streetscape-activating, mobile sites of production and consumption, rolling from the mountains to the valleys, from the desert to the sea. How very A&T.

“From the Archives: Art and Technology at LACMA, 1967–1971” is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through Oct. 25.

Peter Lunenfeld is a professor in the department of design media arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the 2015–2016 Dana and David Dornsife Fellow at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, where he will be working on his forthcoming book, City on the Edge of Forever: Los Angeles Beyond the Screen.