New York

Muriel Cooper, Self-portrait with Polaroid SX-70, ca. 1982, large-format Polaroid, 32 1/2 x 21 1/2".

Muriel Cooper, Self-portrait with Polaroid SX-70, ca. 1982, large-format Polaroid, 32 1/2 x 21 1/2".

Muriel Cooper

Muriel Cooper Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, Columbia University

Muriel Cooper, Self-portrait with Polaroid SX-70, ca. 1982, large-format Polaroid, 32 1/2 x 21 1/2".

“I have a profound disdain for answers,” Muriel Cooper once said. For her, there were only challenges—solutions were more like mistakes. A small gallery at Columbia University recently hosted an exhibition on Cooper’s influential life and work; the show will travel to the MIT Media Lab this fall, where it is not to be missed. Dubbed an unsung heroine, Cooper began her career as a graphic designer and ended it as a professor of interactive media design. Successes, and, as this show revealed, consistency marked her trajectory: She continually worked to collapse distinctions between design and production, thinking and making, whether in hard or soft copy. In 1967, Cooper was appointed the first design director at the MIT Press, where, notably, she designed Hans Wingler’s 1969 “Bauhaus bible.” She left in 1974 to found, with designer Ron MacNeil, the school’s legendary Visible Language Workshop (VLW), a Bauhausesque atelier that constituted an important part of MIT’s “techno-social moment” (a term proffered by A Second Modernism, a book published last year about the school’s architecture department). Later, at the MIT Media Lab, Cooper oversaw numerous groundbreaking projects in screen graphics and data visualization. In 1994, she died of a heart attack at age sixty-eight, leaving behind a wealth of materially rich work as well as a generation of students—David Small, John Maeda, and Lisa Strausfeld—who have themselves made significant contributions to the field.

Curated by David Reinfurt (of Dexter Sinister) and art historian Robert Wiesenberger, the exhibition gathered a wide array of Cooper’s output—posters, books, photographs, sketches, documents, and videos—and presented these materials chronologically, sandwiching them between long, floating Plexiglas panels or placing them on shelves to be handled. Among the objects, a 1974 poster for her always overenrolled Messages and Means course at the VLW stood out. It was made via an inventive rotation technique, in which a square sheet of paper was passed at least four times through an offset press, with each iteration printed at a different angle and with a different set of inks.

Nearby, a set of rare self-portraits by Cooper highlighted a key transition from the autonomous production of works on the printed page to the immateriality of networked systems and design processes that have a life and language of their own. The images in the portraits—a picture of Cooper herself snapping a photo with a Polaroid camera—were first captured in 1972 using a black-and-white Sony Portapak camera. Roughly a decade later, Cooper created the prints. First she broadcast the video stills through the VLW via a slow-scan television system (a technology used in the 1960s to transmit images from the moon as audio tones). Then she displayed the transmitted images on a monitor and photographed the screen with a large-format Polaroid camera.

Nestled in the gallery’s small alcove, a video of Cooper speaking at a 1994 TED conference featured some of the VLW’s best work: the Information Landscapes. Presented on a monitor, these virtual, 3-D environments of “intelligent” type let the viewer “fly,” as if in zero gravity, through fields of information that plunge forward and backward, rotating and swooping across the screen. Such interactivity emancipates the designer from the constraints of print, and embeds the viewer in virtual space with shifting and intersecting planes and volumes representing data; of this work, Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, noted that Cooper “has broken the flatland of overlapping opaque rectangles with the idea of a galactic universe.” And though astounding in their day, the Information Landscapes were counterfactual propositions in the end—plans largely left behind by Cooper’s students after her passing. Which is fitting, as she probably wouldn’t ever have wanted to resolve them.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler