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Environment designed by Robert Irwin for the First National Symposium on Habitability, Venice, CA, 1969. Photos: Malcolm Lubliner.

Robert Irwin

Environment designed by Robert Irwin for the First National Symposium on Habitability, Venice, CA, 1969. Photos: Malcolm Lubliner.

THE WHOLE “ART AND TECHNOLOGY” program was a red herring. But it was actually very successful for me, because I took a different tack. At that time, around 1968, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was organizing this project and exhibition, I had already gotten rid of my studio and had essentially put myself out in the middle of nowhere. It was as if the whole floor of my activity had fallen out. So I thought what was really interesting about the prospect of “A&T” was not just to go to some industrial firm and produce a one-off piece, as other artists in the program were doing, but rather to have a dialogue with people in different disciplines who had the same existential problem that I was encountering.

Fortunately for me, the physicist Richard Feynman took me around to various companies, and in the process I met Dr. Ed Wortz, who ran the open research facility for the Garrett Aerospace Corporation. When I walked into his office, he was wearing this funny outfit, doing a physiology study for walking on the moon—they were measuring how much energy it took to walk up a 20 percent slope in weightlessness, and so on. And he said, “I’ve never talked to an artist before—what do you guys do?” and we had a running dialogue for the next forty years.

The following summer, in 1969, Wortz was asked by NASA to host a major conference on space travel—the First National Symposium on Habitability. Their question was very simple: How do you send somebody out into space for twenty years and bring him or her back alive and sane? They invited people from all over the world and from at least fifteen different disciplines. He asked me to participate, and after thinking about it at length I decided that I would actually house it.

With the help of other artists Larry Bell, James Turrell, and Jack Brogan, I took a studio I had in Venice and essentially converted the whole thing. So instead of going to a Hilton conference room, the participants met in a virtual space capsule. I had them taken on a circuitous route to Venice and then dumped out in an alley. They entered through a blind door and found themselves in near-complete isolation, with no sense of the outside. It was a sound-dampened room, and all light was indirect. They were extremely unhappy, but they persevered. They gave their papers and had their respondents and the whole thing. That afternoon, they broke up into groups of fifteen, and each group was given a room that was just slightly off—one too large, one too reverberant, one too dark, one too light, etc.—so that they had to deal with the problems of the spaces.

When they arrived on the second day, the room had changed—now it was like being in a mosque. There were skylights opened above them, with walls of pure light; they were in a really uplifting environment. And as the meeting proceeded, certain participants began to break with their form and actually admitted that they did not really know where to go or what to do with their research, which was a very dangerous thing for them to acknowledge (many of them being employees of NASA). So that was a very interesting moment, when someone said: “Look, we don’t really know. We’re here to ask questions.” Then in the middle of the day, I cut open the screen and we had lunch together. They began to interact with each other more naturally.

On the third day, I had essentially removed the front of the building, so they were basically holding discussions in the street, and they were very comfortable doing it. On the whole, people stayed around because they thought something important had happened. But when we surveyed them afterward, only about 10 percent were able to identify that what had changed, in fact, was their environment—i.e., what they were there to discover or to talk about. Many had an experience in which they knew something was going on but couldn’t put their finger on it, which is why I chose to participate in a visceral way in the first place, instead of talking.

It was amazing for me to have the opportunity to do something like that—an exercise in qualities and how they affect our lives, how much the phenomenal aspect of our experience is at play at all times.

Most disciplines’ histories are homogeneous: That is, we have a basic concept in mind, axioms of sorts, laws of science or ideas about aesthetic quality, and we proceed based on that, like climbing rungs on a ladder. But once in a great while, there is a point when one discipline or another finds that you can’t get there from here, which is very daunting. When that doesn’t work, you have an existential dilemma—you have a necessity for what Edmund Husserl referred to as a “phenomenological reduction,” i.e., the need to begin again at the beginning . . . which is the essential history of modern art.