Exhibiting New Media Art

Rhizome Digest
Date: 11.05.04
From: Gloria Sutton
Subject: Exhibiting New Media Art (Part 1 of 2)

Exhibiting new media art – Gloria Sutton

Rhizome and lists devoted to new media curating such as CRUMB have recently
spurred heated discussions about the practical and theoretical issues of
exhibiting new media art within a traditional museum context. As I sat
eavesdropping on these some of these debates, it became clear to me how much
of the critical syntax around exhibition display strategies and audience
interaction echoed the conversations of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

And more striking to me was the fact that at an earlier moment discussions
about contemporary art and new media used to take place in the same
conversation, be written about in the same publications and show in the same
venues. In the 1960s-1970s artists interested in issues of media,
computation, social networks, and communication theories used to be in
active dialogue with their contemporaries probing other issues under the
general guise of “conceptual art.” There was a moment when Stan Vanderbeek
would be exhibiting with Robert Whitman and Dan Graham (The Projected Image
show at ICA Boston, 1967) or Les Levine could be in the same show as Hans
Haacke, Douglas Huebler, and Lawrence Wiener (Software, 1970).

Of course back then the issue wasn¹t about NEW media art, but the
introduction of media art within established venues for contemporary art and
the exponentially increasing impact of media and computer technology on the
arts writ large. Questions commonly asked included: what exactly was the
role of the arts in a technologically driven society? Are computers,
consumer electronics and communication theory transforming art production or
simply obscuring it? What was technology¹s relevance to art, if any, and did
art operate under a technological imperative? Sound familiar? While these
questions could have come from any one of the many new media art discussion
lists, they were questions posed by Philip Leider, a founding editor of
Artforum, as well as by other critics and artists in the pages of art
journals and exhibition catalogs between 1962 and 1972. These lines of
inquiry would get rehashed at gallery openings from Howard Wise in New York
City to Phyllis Kind in Chicago and the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, which were
some of the first commercial venues for media art in the U.S. Queries
regarding the relationship between art and technology would find their way
into basically every other influential site producing the discourse on art
in the 1960s and 1970s. However, within the discordant conversation on art
and technology, clear divisions emerged at the end of the1960s. One
trajectory followed earlier modernist preoccupations with ³machine art² and
the other became more attuned to work based on what could be defined as
³systems and information² technology.

In line with recent efforts to look back at new media¹s now historical
status (think of Ars Electronica celebrating its 25th anniversary in
September 2004 and the upcoming Refresh conference on the history of new
media art), I thought it would be worth while to revisit the checklists and
arguments posed by three pivotal art exhibitions: The Museum of Modern Art¹s
³The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age² and the Institute of
Contemporary London¹s ³Cybernetic Serendipity,² both from 1968 and The
Jewish Museum¹s ³Software² exhibition from 1970. These exhibitions can be
seen as recorded conversations capturing the particular voices and
inflections of the two trajectories of media technology-influenced art
practices during this pivotal period in which the terms and conditions for
art production were becoming solidified through their institutionalization
in art schools and museums. Through published catalogs and reviews, these
exhibitions allow us to eavesdrop on the debates, and note the shifting
vocabulary and rhetorical strategies regarding media technology¹s
application to art, which had a resounding impact on multiple strains of not
just of media art, but other neo-avant garde practices including Fluxus,
Happenings, and Expanded Cinema and various strains of Conceptual art. This
week¹s installment will focus the ³machine art² trajectory established by
The Museum of Modern Art¹s historical survey entitled, ³The Machine as Seen
at the End of the Mechanical Age² and the Institute of Contemporary London¹s
³Cybernetic Serendipity,² which focused on ³cybernetic devices² and their
material output both from 1968.

In a marked contrast from these two exhibitions which prioritized art
practices that were invested in melding formalist ideals with motion, light,
and digital imaging into different sculptural or three-dimensional forms,
³systems and information² related projects applied a distinctly computing
vernacular to the art and technology conversation. In 1970 two exhibitions
opening within nine months of one another, presented a survey of
contemporary work that attempted to introduce the notion that art could be
conceived of, exchanged, transferred, and shared as information. More
prominent of the two exhibitions, ³Information² curated by MoMA¹s Kynaston
McShine was held between July 2 and September 20, 1970. Next week¹s digest
will focus on the show that appeared just north of MoMA, on the upper east
side of Manhattan at the Jewish Museum, then known as a supporter of
cutting-edge art. ³Software: Information Technology: Its New Meaning for
Art² was organized by art historian and artist, Jack Burnham who curated
twenty-six international contemporary artists into what would become a
sprawling display of Conceptual art and engineering experiments and ran from
September 16 to November 8 1970.

Under examined by art historians, the exhibition presented a decidedly
idiosyncratic object of study from the late 1960s. The show¹s unique premise
and intriguing mix of disparate artistic practices and media, combined with
the fact that the exhibition was organized under the auspices of both The
Jewish Theological Seminary and the American Motors Corporation, certainly
set it apart from other exhibitions from the same period. More importantly,
³Software² signaled not only a break from the conception of ³technology² as
a purely machine-based proposition, but demonstrated that Conceptual artists
during the late 1960s were in direct dialogue with artists that actively
engaged new technology discussed in the same room with its more analytic or linguistic based
counterparts, but was nevertheless invested in a meta-critical discourse.

Machine Art and Cybernetics

Historically, the term ³machine art² has tended to refer specifically to
works that have incorporated light and movement into sculpture¹s existing
vocabulary. The most prevalent result was kinetic sculptures that relied on
simple motor-driven devices and the inclusion of various light sources.
Early 1960s experiments in light and kinetics included a wide variety of
differing approaches to creating three-dimensional, dynamic works. Key
examples include Yves Klein¹s, Double Sided Wall of Fire (1961) in which
bursts of flames were contained within an evenly spaced geometric grid
mounted on a wall. Jean Tinguely¹s Radio Drawing (1962) was comprised of
stripped wires and exposed radio components, which were strapped and mounted
to a wall. Industrially produced, tube lighting would become the signature
material for Dan Flavin¹s fluorescent light sculptures. These iconic sixties
works all found a precedent in a variety of earlier modernist models and in
particular reference the interests of the Italian Futurists like Boccioni,
and Russian Constructivists as represented by Naum Gabo. Bauhaus pedagogy as
gleaned from Laszlo Moholy-Nagy became widely influential during this period
and in particular instruments such as his Light-Space Modulator (1922-1931)
became a reoccurring point of reference for artists experimenting with light
and motion in the 1960s.

The burgeoning interest in kinetic sculpture in United States is what led
René d¹Harnoncout, MoMA¹s Director during the early 1960s, to approach Karl
G. Pontus Hultén, then Director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm to curate
MoMA¹s first show dedicated to kinetic art. Plans for what would be called
³The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age² began in 1965 and
opened at MoMA on November 25, 1968 traveling to Houston and San Francisco
over the course of the next year. Although Hultén plainly stated that the
exhibition was not intended as an illustrated history of the machine, his
introductory essay rehearses the development of machines and devices. In
Hultén¹s account, major technological advancements directly correlate to a
strictly chronological survey of modern art movements, in which artists are
presented as responding to specific moments within this technological linear
progression. This method of linking the introduction of new consumer
electronics with new art forms becomes the reductive logic that historians
will rely on later when they suggest that the Sony Port-o-pac created video
art and the introduction of computers begets new media art. That the artists
engaged with video and new media were somehow never engaged with earlier
representational strategies.

Tracing the etymology of the Greek word techné as meaning both art and
technics, Hultén situated the origin for ³mechanic art² in ancient Greek and
Roman ideas of scientific law and mechanical engineering. The narrative
follows mechanical and technical advances in the Western world up through
the middle ages, including steam engines, clocks and other precision
instruments. Arriving at the nineteenth century, Hultén pointed to the
mechanization of labor in England and the proliferation of industrial
factories as the precursor for what he described basically as the twentieth
century¹s machinist impulse not only within industry, but culture at large.
The exhibition solidified the clichéd model of the hybrid scientist/artist
by presenting sixteenth century drawings of Leonardo da Vinci¹s flying
machines, and ended with a contemporary version through the artist/engineer
collaborations, which were picked through a competition process organized by
Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT). Between these two bookends, the
exhibition was able to represent multiple perspectives from each designated
movement in modern art from the Italian Futurists, Cubist painting and
collaged works, to Dada and Surrealist experiments in psychic automatism
with the intention to present a comprehensive overview of modernist
interpretations of technology in various aesthetic forms. Included were also
influential pieces from Picabia, Man Ray, Tatlin, Schwitters, Ernst, and
Moholy-Nagy (Light Space Modulator, 1921-1930), which would have been
considered standard fare for the Museum of Modern Art. More surprising was
the inclusion of drawings by Rube Goldberg, Charlie Chaplin¹s films and a
proto-type for Buckminster Fuller¹s Dymaxion Car (1933).

When Hultén¹s narrative arrived at the late 1930s, he paused to interject
the effect of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ³were the
most terrible shock that the world has ever received. Fear and horror sapped
the faith in technology and the confidence in rational behavior that might
have been expected to follow a long period of destruction.² Hultén
continued by making the suggestion that from the mid-fifties onward, artists
³devoted themselves to an attempt to establish better relations with
technology² and that Pop artists in particular took ³a step toward finding a
way out of this alienation.² Curiously, he claims that Pop art was somehow
able to evade the alienating impulse of technology in the face of nuclear
annihilation by relating, ³mass products to human will.² Positioned in
sequence along with the Pop examples was Hans Haacke¹s Ice Stick (1964). A
slender metal rod covered in ice and mounted upright on a low podium, the
³stick² contained a motorized freezing coil inside causing the ice to form
in thick or thinner layers in relation to the local air temperature and
humidity. In the same section, works by Robert Rauschenberg were also
included along with Oracle (1965), a collaboration between Rauschenberg and
Billy Klüver. In addition, the inclusion of the E.A.T. competition for
engineers and artists, along with Kenneth Knowlton¹s computer processed
photographic prints and Nam June Paik¹s McLuhan caged (1967) would draw
parallel links between their inclusion in ³The Machine² show at MoMA and
their earlier incarnation as part of the Institute of Contemporary Art¹s
³Cybernetic Serendipity² exhibition where they were installed in London just
a month prior to being shipped to New York.

³Cybernetic Serendipity² was large-scale international exhibition curated by
the ICA¹s Associate Director, Jasia Reichardt and ran from August 2 to
October 20,1968. According to Reichardt, the exhibition was an attempt to
³explore and demonstrate some of the relationships between technology and
creativity.² The selected work could be divided into three distinct
sections. The largest was the first group comprised of computer-generated
graphics, animated films and musical compositions printed and framed for the
viewers. The second group could be described as ³cybernetic devices as
works of art² and included environments, remote-control robots and ³painting
machines.² The majority of these works were three-dimensional objects
presented as sculptural objects in vitrines or on podiums. The third
category of work demonstrated various computer functions and offered a
history of cybernetics as it related to Norbert Wiener¹s theories on the

Within the category of computer graphics, Kenneth Knowlton¹s computer
generated images of everyday objects and landscapes were situated among a
variety of other types of simple, black and white graphs and schematic
geometric forms which were some of the first attempts at computer animation
and computer generated imagery. Knowlton¹s crude images with their simple
pixilated shapes and rough shading, were made from an early technique of
³scanning² thirty-five millimeter transparencies, which were then digitized
into various digital characters and aligned in a particular coded sequence
manipulating their scale and color to register at different focal lengths
from the page on which they were printed. Nam June Paik¹s electromagnetic
manipulations of television sets such as McLuhan caged (1967) were referred
to as ³painting with magnetic fields² situating them in the second category
of the exhibition. By waving large horseshoe magnets over black and white
television sets, Paik was able to manipulate, warp and distort the images
that appeared on the screen. Based on Norman Bauman¹s published account of
encountering the piece, viewers could actually manipulate the magnets and
alter the magnetic fields themselves. Describing the process Bauman
extolled, ³The feeling of holding a magnet in your hand and seeing a
visible, striking result, must be experienced to be appreciated. This is not
chickenshit iron filings, but a real, living, breathing, MAGNETIC FIELD,
that you can really use to deflect real, live, glowing, electrons.²

While EAT¹s collaborative work was not directly represented in the
exhibition, the group must have felt that the audience and artists who would
be drawn to ³Cybernetic Serendipity² and the ICA in general were their
target audience. They tapped this audience to solicit submissions for their
competition to be exhibited at MoMA¹s ³Machine² show in the fall of 1968.
EAT took out a full-page ad in the ICA¹s January bulletin promoting the
competition for collaborative projects between engineers and artists. EAT
offered to facilitate contact between interested parties and would then
judge the entries along with a jury of ³scientists and engineers from the
technical community who are not necessarily familiar with contemporary art.²
While EAT would judge who was awarded the first and second place cash prizes
($3,000 and $1,000 respectively), the ad clearly stated that Hultén would
make the final selection of the works to be shown at MoMA.

Overall the majority of the work chosen to be included in ³Cybernetic
Serendipity² reinforced the focus on the technological apparatus and
peripheral devices such as computers, electronic robots, printers, and
monitors. A result was that most of these three-dimensional machines were
either photographed and the computer generated images printed and then
framed and hung on the wall along with explanatory labels. Computer
generated films were shown as projected films during the evenings, but then
represented in the exhibition and in the catalogue as black and white
stills. Through this process, the exhibition transferred the experience of
interacting with the machines into iconic images. Visitors were denied the
usual spectacles or frustrations that accompany trying to use any type of
electronic device in a public space, and the interaction remained confined
to a surface glance. However, due to the two dimensional format inherent in
the printed catalogue, organizers were able to foreground the discussion
regarding technology¹s relevancy to art production specifically in the
theories of Norbert Wiener by excerpting sections from his widely
influential book The Human Use of Human Beings, which they were not able to
do in the exhibition space.

– Gloria Sutton


1 – Based on Jack Burnham¹s definition of systems and information
technology as described in ³Art and Technology: The Panacea that Failed,² in
The Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture, edited by
Kathleen Woodward (Madison, Wisconsin: Coda Press, 1980), 213.

2 РKarl Hult̩n, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. exh.
cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art and New York Graphic Society, 1968),3;
Jasia Reichardt, ³Introduction,² Cybernetic Serendipity. exh. cat. (London:
Institute of Contemporary Art and W&J Mackay Press,1968), 5.

3 – Based on Jack Burnham¹s definition of systems and information technology
as described in ³Art and Technology: The Panacea that Failed,² in The Myths
of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture, edited by Kathleen
Woodward (Madison, Wisconsin: Coda Press, 1980), 213.

4 – According to the exhibition¹s catalog, The Jewish Museum in New York was
governed by The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. While the American
Motors Corporation was the show¹s main sponsor, the exhibition benefited
from in-kind donations from a variety of computer and consumer electronic
companies including Digital Equipment Corp., 3M, and Mohawk Data Systems.

5 – In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue for ³The Machine² Hultén
explains the origins of the exhibition as follows: ³Plans for this
exhibition were begun several years ago; the first letters discussing it
were exchanged in 1965. When René d¹Harnoncourt, the late Director of MoMA
asked me whether I should like to organize an exhibition on kinetic art for
his institution.² The exhibition traveled to two addition venues: The
University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas from March 25-May 18, 1969 and then
to the San Francisco¹s Museum of Art from June 23-August 24. 1969, Hultén,

6 РHult̩n, 13.

7 РHult̩n, 14.

8 – Description based on Anne Rorimer¹s account in New Art in the 60s and
70s: Redefining Reality (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001), 269.

9 – Reichardt, 5.

10 – Norman Bauman, ³Five-Year Guaranty² in Cybernetic Serendipity, exh.
cat. (London: Institute of Contemporary Art and W&J Mackay Press,1968), 42.

11 – Description of the competition is based on the instructions listed in
the ad EAT took out in the ICA¹s January 1968 Bulletin, a 5²x7² black and
white publication that was circulated among the ICA¹s membership and
visitors to the gallery.

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