“9 Evenings Reconsidered”

Museum of Design

9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering took place at the New York Armory in 1966. This intensely ambitious—almost monumental—series of events was presented over nine evenings under the aegis of Billy Klüver, then still working as an electrical engineer at Bell Laboratories. The performances, which involved complex technologies, were conceived by ten well-known artists of the postwar avant-garde (Steve Paxton, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, Yvonne Rainer, John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Robert Whitman, and Öyvind Fahlström) in close collaboration with a team of over thirty engineers. In retrospect, the project seems like a last gasp for the decade’s efforts to break down boundaries between the arts and between art and life, art and science, individual and public, subject and object. New connections between process, collapse, simultaneity, synesthesia, coincidence, and audience participation were also brought into the limelight.

The remaining documentation and artifacts from this event have been compellingly reworked into the traveling exhibition “9 Evenings Reconsidered,” curated by Catherine Morris, which originated at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. The exhibition’s documentary material was presented in a strictly ordered display, which did nothing to hide the intrinsic limits of an exhibition about ephemeral events. Ten half-open modular structures were lined up in rows and could be entered as stations. Displayed on their exteriors were technical drawings and conceptual outlines for each piece—thus turning the individual performances, viewed on monitors in the interiors, into tangible records, alternately acoustic and nonvisual and visual and soundless. The rigidity of the exhibition’s installation was justified by the complexity of the materials at hand and the immense diversity of the events themselves; the clearly assembled order of the archival material made it easier to take in this diversity as distinctive and intelligible. Rauschenberg’s Open Score was particularly impressive. In it, Frank Stella and the professional tennis player Mimi Kanarek rally on a tennis court using acoustically wired rackets. With every amplified hit, the arena gets darker, until it is pitch black. Meanwhile, five hundred volunteer attendees positioned themselves around a stage, their simple choreography only visible to the public via infrared camera footage projected onto screens. Not only did tennis become a stage dance, but the public had to reflect on issues like fragmentary and mediated vision. Hay posed questions about expanded physical identity in Grass Field, in which the choreographer manually distributed sixty-four pieces of cloth around the stage, creating movements transposed into sound by means of an amplifier mounted on his body. At the end of the piece, Hay sat on the floor motionless, his filmed countenance hypnotically towering above the public in close-up projection. This kinesthetic techno-body speaks to the science fiction–like idea of being able to transform individual sensations into information. In Paxton’s Physical Things, the visitor moved through an enormous translucent landscape of polyethylene tunnels in which performances took place. Outside the construction, visitors could listen to different sounds through receivers hanging from above. In this participatory and haptic performance, visitors acted on the sculptural set as if in a dance piece.

Notwithstanding the debatable criticisms voiced at the time (most regarding the numerous and wearying technical breakdowns), the retrospective presentation and catalogue managed to convey a vivid idea of the original events. 9 Evenings comes across as one of the last great utopian undertakings of the twentieth century. The current exhibition’s historical view points to the continued relevance of the intrinsic mutual curiosity between the arts and technology.

Valérie Knoll

Translated from German by Emily Speers Mears.