Washington

Washington

Heralding the “marriage of art and science” as the possibility of “new ways in which the work of art and the public may come together,” Gyorgy Kepes, director of M.I.T.’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and organizer of “Explorations—Toward a Civic Art” (seen recently at the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts), conceived of the whole affair as an environmental community of objects, interdependent and interacting with each other, their makers, and the public. Roughly twenty artists and many scientists and technicians collaborated in this venture. I say “roughly,” since there were several last minute abstentions and malfunctions. More absences also resulted from an earlier attempt to install a different version of the show at the 10th Sao Paulo Biennial last year, which was cancelled because the majority of the artists objected to the prevailing political conditions in Brazil. The revised exhibition was designed especially for the National Collection’s galleries, but it ran into a good deal of trouble there too.

Professor Kepes surrounded himself with Fellows and former Fellows of the Center at M.I.T., as well as with more vaguely affiliated artists: participants included Jack Burnham, Charles Frazier, Ted Kraynik, Otto Piene, Takis, Wen-Ying Tsai, Stan VanDerBeek, Stephen Antonakos, Charles Ross, Lila Katzen, Les Levine, Newton Harrison, Jerry Erdman, James Seawright, Vera Simons, Preston McLanahan, and others. The show, like almost every art-and-technology exhibit mounted during the past few years, failed to end up looking as significant as its possibilities of cooperative design, vision, and communication suggested. More serious than the economic and organizational problems entailed during the production of this show are the ways that sophisticated technological means are merely put into the service of new forms of entertainment. Too many of the pieces simply dwell on the exotic effects of the new media—magnetism, fluorescent substances, electronics, stroboscopic or laser light, etc. It is granted that such a show is designed expressly for artists to involve themselves in a kind of visionary opportunism of tools. The purpose of the M.I.T. Center, where the exhibit originated, is expressed in such terms, which encourage the Fellows to explore the potentials for interdisciplinary experiences between artists, engineers, and scientists for the realizing of new environmental and civic art forms. But in spite of allowances for the experimental nature of the efforts, the gap here between aims and results is a wide one. Some mention must therefore be made of Professor Kepes’s introductory catalog essay, which does more to subvert and contradict “Explorations” ideologically, than it does to promote its disappointing results.

The basic premise is the widely accepted one that art is outgrowing the traditional limits of gallery space and museum exhibition situations, and that an exhibit such as this one tries to go beyond the normal organizational concept of an anthology of works by individuals. It doesn’t come near to accomplishing that goal. The lengthy and impassioned analogies of this art to current global problems of ecological survival are unconvincing rhetoric, although Kepes does relevantly remark that “. . . artists (are) like distant early warning systems of the human condition today”—that is, they play an important part in the evolution of self-consciousness. Artists are in a strategic position to forge important links between art’s vision and technology’s means, but few of those involved in this exhibit seemed to be more than nominally interested in the kind of civically oriented projects that Professor Kepes envisions. Nor did the participants express agreement, as their very individualized pieces cogently demonstrated, with the director’s communal intentions, defeating his statements with their independence. Nobody was prepared to submerge his artistic identity into some technological-esthetic commune, although of course most of the artists worked with specialists and engineers in producing their work. The Bauhaus notion of bringing art out of its position as an isolated cultural outcast, of incorporating its dreams and designs into modern industrial society is reflected in Kepes’s thinking. But we are already living in the middle of that Bauhaus ideal1, and the reiteration of this point—when technological and scientific materials are so available to artists—seems redundant.

That Charles Ross’s handsome, inclined plane of acrylic, oil-filled prisms served as a virtual barrier to the entrance to the exhibition space was a graphic illustration of the curatorial confusion and conceptual strain which undermined the effectiveness of “Explorations.” Ross, a late addition to the show, is not even interested in technology as such. His direct concerns are with the manipulation of light’s refractive and reflective properties; although his piece is modern in its exploration of our perceptions of color and light on such a large scale, Ross doesn’t give any evidence of a particular dedication to the “art-tech” marriage, and his work has little to do with the rest of the entries.

Charles Frazier’s very funny Tube Company was situated downstairs and apart from the rest of the show. He was a latecomer in the choice of available gallery space, which may have been just as well, since it probably would have surpassed any of its quieter neighbors in sheer aggressiveness, with its combination of snaking aluminum and inflated rubber tubes, bumping and grinding motors, bouncing air-cushion structures, and blurping sound sequences. The introductory area to the exhibit upstairs was faced with Charles Hurl-butt’s tri-screen random picture projections, activated by viewers with an old one-armed bandit, which refused to work correctly. To either side of Ross’s tilted prisms were works by film-maker Stan VanDerBeek, and by another M.I.T. Fellow, Ted Kraynik. VanDerBeek’s Panels for the Walls of the World was a mural of “computer graphics” transmitted by a Xerox telecopier unit situated at his M.I.T. studio that was programmed to send a stream of such pictures several times a week to a similar unit in Washington. These would be added to the mural’s changing overall design by someone at the receiving end. Little of this receptive activity could be observed during the time I viewed the show. Although the images (extensions or repetitions of the film-maker’s well-known collage method of cinema animation) were conceived as a form of “process art” suggesting an information transfer or feedback system between the artist and the public community, neither the graphics nor the notion of an “ever-expanding loop of ideas and inter-information . . . in effect ignoring the very walls which (the mural) now decorates”2 were achieved in anything but a tantalizingly fragmentary manner. Approaching the concept of a wide-ranging multiple channel form of communication through the technical means employed here, and certainly related to the visual bombardment provided by his more exciting and political films, VanDerBeek still makes us feel rather left out of the whole thing. Ted Kraynik’s Video-Luminar Light Mural was even more pointless to me. It was composed of sheets of translucent textured plastic diffusing flashing light patterns that were picked up by sensors from television picture tubes mounted on pedestals in front of the curtain of sheeting.

Entrance to the dark chamber of the main exhibition space was gained by passing over Kepes’s and William Wainwright’s Photo-Elastic Floor, which everyone was hesitant to walk on. Its fluorescent colors changed contour and hue whenever pressure was put on the plastic sheets sandwiched between polarized screens. A lot of very silly stuff made many of the finer, more serious works look like part of a messy carnival fun-house. I couldn’t see much reason for the presence of things like Preston McLanahan’s plastic sprayed Cobweb (it looked like bad horror-movie scenery), nor could I sustain attention to Takis’s Anti-Gravity piece, where the viewers were asked to toss nails at a metal surface that attracted them with powerful hidden magnets. Some technologically derived and often very attractive works were fine examples in themselves, but had little to do with models for futuristic esthetic/scientific/cultural interdependence. These included Jerry Erdman’s and Richard Venezky’s Yahara, a viewer-responsive system of vinyl tubes glowing (across a long stretch of wall) from phosphor powders suspended inside the tubes; Vera Simons’ string of helium-filled tetrahedrons: Wen-Ying Tsai’s Cybernetic Sculpture System, stroboscopic lights interacting with oscillating steel rods which respond to sound stimulation by viewers; or Lila Katzen’s Liquid Environment, a thirty-five foot long tunnel lined with rows of vinyl pouches filled with fluorescent liquids and lit by ultra-violet tubes. The works by Piene, Tsai, Seawright, Levine, and a few others suffered from their juxtaposition to the more frivolous pieces. By virtue of its isolation from the rest of the show, Levine’s project came off better than most. His White Sight was an empty corridor illuminated by intense monochromatic sodium lights that dissolved color into stark black and white contrasts, shocking normal levels of visibility to an extraordinary threshold of perceptual clarity.

Perhaps the best way I can describe what the failure of an exhibition like “Explorations” amounts to, without having to judge the individual works any further by irrelevant standards of formal conclusiveness, is to describe an art-and-technology project which seems to have been a largely successful collaborative achievement, according to the reports and photographic documents that I had access to. The large budget afforded to the Experiments in Art and Technology Group by the Pepsi-Cola Company pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair no doubt helped immensely. But the result also indicates that the initial concepts were unified—if not at first, then at least at some point in the process of the planning by artists, engineers and architects who participated in the impressive project.3 Outside the polyhedral dome pavilion where visitors must often wait before entering it, ample esthetic and architectural diversions are provided. The exterior appearance of the dome is altered by a cloud of foggy vapor ejected from nozzles hidden around its edges, which react to shifting weather conditions in the immediate environment. Robert Breer’s five foot high, anonymous looking white “creepies” are dome-shaped sculptures which respond to the people and objects with which they come in contact on the outdoor plaza; they move inchingly and elusively, sometimes emitting sounds from tape recorders encased in them. Coating the interior surface of the two-storied dome building is a spherical mylar-fabric mirror, the largest of its kind ever to be constructed. Its perceptual and visual effects could not be fully calculated or altogether predicted, and the surprises of reflection and spatial illusion are a continual discovery for the designers, viewers, and guides. One of the floors is covered with reflections from a krypton laser beam broken down into four colors and controlled by sound. Another floor is sectioned into a variety of textured areas (grass, wood, concrete, etc.) which register different responses to walking and pressure through “floor loops” that transmit sounds through hand-sets carried by visitors. More general sound also comes through speakers installed within the mirrored dome, and controlled by a computer console. These sounds range from electronic patterns to the cries of bats, whales singing underwater, or other unusual auditory experiences which reinforce the unsettling beauty of the cross-reflections in the spherical mirror. Here it appears that an original, exploratory and revelatory approach to changing our overall perception of ourselves and to the world of people, space, and objects around us is not sacrificed to the trivializing (and compartmentalizing) of effects so patently illustrated by parts of the Smithsonian exhibition.

For the sake of the artists who took part in “Explorations,” the billing might not have been so emphatically “communal,” a directorial misconception which obviously overrode the evidence of the individual works. There is no question that the efforts and experiments of the Fellows from M.I.T.’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, as well as those of the other artists, are in many ways pertinent to contemporary esthetic, scientific, and community-cultural concerns. It is clearly recognized that much of this work represents potential, and that it cannot always be evaluated on the basis of its expertise or apparent sophistication of means. But perhaps it is still not the time yet to produce such ambitious exhibitions, when the individual artists find themselves at cross-purposes with idealistic aims which are imposed upon them, or which coordinate neither accurately nor adequately with the realistic and visionary implications of their own work and thinking.

Emily Wasserman

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NOTES

1. Lawrence Alloway points this out in his review of the show. The Nation, April 20, 1970.

2. Stan VanDerBeek, quoted from his wall label for the exhibition.

3. A partial listing of the artists, engineers, musicians and architects who collaborated with E.A.T. in Japan includes: Billy Kluver, Robert Breer, Robert Whitman, David Tudor, Frosty Myers, Gordon Mumma, Lowell Cross, Carson Jeffries, Eric Saarinen, Bell Laboratories engineers Fred Waldhauer and Larry Owens, architect John Pierce, and many others.