Art, Science, Technology and 1960’s poetry are odd bed fellows in Martha Schwendener’s New York Times piece “‘All Watched Over’ Contemplates Art’s Relationship to Technology.” In this review Schwendener comments on the recent art exhibition “All Watched Over” at the James Cohen Gallery. The exhibition’s title is a fragment taken from Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.” The exhibition Ms. Schwendener notes “features art based on systems that generally support” Brautigan’s vision of “imagined mammals and computers living together in ‘mutually programming harmony,’” while calling for more alliances between art and technology that eschew business opportunities.
The interrelationship between art, science and technology has been a quiet but consistent one that can be traced back at least to Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, historian and a writer. He stands out for many as the quintessential Renaissance man, whose ideas and works spanned almost all categories of human achievement, and his life set a polymathic high tide mark, followed by a growing trend towards specialization. But still there has been a steady stream of those whose work was built on the deep innate relationship between the arts and sciences.
Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) who as a zoologist, philosopher, physician and professor made beautifully detailed paintings of animals and sea life that he published in “Art Forms of Nature.” Joseph Albers (1888-1976), an artist and educator, applied a scientific analysis to color and published his theory that color relationships are governed by logic in Interaction of Color. The instantly recognizable work of graphic artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972) explored the underlying mathematics of space and form, perhaps best seen in his tessellated woodcuts. Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010), the mathematician who explored the concept of self-similarity and the theory of roughness, gave rise to an entire field of computer generated art by showing how visual complexity can be created from simple rules to explore the region of mathematical space called the Mandelbrot Set.
The late 1960’s was seen as another Renaissance by some, with a resurgence of interest in the interaction of art, science and technology. In 1968 Frank Malina, an aeronautical engineer, painter and kinetic artist, founded Leonardo, a Paris based peer-reviewed research journal devoted to promoting art, science and technology. Leonardo is to this day one of the most highly respected journals, published The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology and MIT Press. Also, that same year Bell Telephone engineer Billy Klüver founded E.A.T. – Experiments in Art and Technology – a group that enabled artists to work with engineers to develop their technologically driven visions. Through E.A.T., Klüver collaborated with some of the 20th century’s great artists helping them realize their new ideas that had mechanical, engineering or electrical requirements. He aided Jean Tinguely in fabricating his famous Homage to New York, Robert Rauschenberg’s environmental sound sculpture Oracle, Yvonne Rainer’s dance House of My Body, Jasper Johns’ work that required inserting battery powered lights into a painting, Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds and John Cage to name just a few.
The era of the late 1960’s was also a time of social upheaval in the United States and the San Francisco Bay Area was the focus for many forms of social experiments with expression ranging from street theater to new forms of literature and performance. Poetry experienced a resurgence in popularity as the practitioners experimented with new forms and subjects for verse, and City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco was the place to go to find the latest books by new poets or to listen to them read.
City Lights was owned by the beat poet Laurence Ferlinghetti who published Alan Ginsberg’s watershed poem “Howl.” Ferlinghetti was also an early publisher of a number of Brautigan’s poems. Brautigan’s piece “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” was the poet’s exploration of the influences of technology of the time. Written while he was a poet-in-residency at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, California in 1967, he called for a “cybernetic ecology where we are free of our labors and joined back to nature”. And, as Herb Gold (author) put it when he commented on his time spent at City Lights, said “Richard Brautigan used to be (at City Lights) a lot…He would come … and sell to people who were presumably there to buy City Lights books. I used to see (Brautigan) curtsy. When people would ask him to sign a book, or when he met a young woman he liked, instead of bowing, he would curtsy.” Herb Gold (author) SF Gate.
One of the poems that Brautigan published that was most memorable to me was “The Ballet for Trout Fishing In America” (1967). I learned about his work from my friend the budding choreographer Wendy Rogers, who is now a Dance Professor at U.C. Riverside. At that time, Rogers was my high school friend and one of a new breed of choreographers. She was influenced by Ruth Hatfield’s dance method called “Creative Dance” which eschewed dogma and promoted individualism. Wendy’s style challenged the ideas of hierarchy, linearity and technique specific dance like classical ballet or Graham or any of the other forms that had evolved. Wendy had learned about Brautigan from her many trips to City Lights Bookstore. She became impassioned with his poem “The Ballet for Trout Fishing In America” when she realized “there’s a dance” there. It was in 1968 that Wendy decided to choreograph a piece to the poem. It was a natural that her sister Peggy and I became her dancers since we had already been dancing together for a couple of years under the direction of Hatfield. So she mustered her friend Alan Burn to read the poem while Maryanne Norris improvised on her flute and Peggy and I danced the piece. Later, in 1970 Wendy learned Brautigan was going to read his works at U. C. Santa Cruz so we went there to perform it for him. “That was the way it was then,” she said. “The atmosphere was such that even the line between audience and performer were challenged and as a result sometimes we found the audience participating and they became part of the performance. That was something that was found exciting and we encouraged…Life was very much about live events. You just found out about them and went to them. That was the way it was then.”
I am now a media artist and the founder of the Engine Institute, an organization that focuses on promoting the alliance of art, science and technology. I have not left the idea of naturally blending the arts with sciences or technology behind. This is a topic that easily goes together for me with my work and one that I feel still needs to have continued support not just in institutions but also in our communities. Today there is an emerging community of artists and DIYers who are experimenting with technology and finding new ways to make their works through the combination of hand crafted software, personally designed hardware and well-shaped sculpture. These are people who enjoy experimenting and fabricating things useful and not so useful. They learn from participating in forums and while working in their garages, communal spaces, any place that might welcome something new, whether driven by Arduinos, manufactured by 3D printers or coded into choreography for balletic robots.
While being welcomed into communal maker spaces, there is a long-standing lack of exhibition opportunities in galleries for this breed of artists. These are artists that are adept not only in the fabrication but also writing code and designing and soldering circuits for their works. They do not limit themselves to the accomplishment of technology but also find creative ways to use it. I think the public needs to see more of what they are doing with the new technologies and how these pioneers are adding to the path that artists in the exhibition Lee Mullican, Doug Ashford and Brenna Murphy have paved.
To respond to Martha Schwendener’s call for work that steers clear of a business focus we can look at Guang Zhu whose work is inspired by equations, Clint Fulkerson who creates his own algorithmic based paintings and Carol Salmonson who utilizes LEDs to create two-dimensional and three-dimensional sculptures. Jonathan Feldschuh is a physicist whose paintings of the universe are from translations of cosmic background radiation data and France Languerand’s coding and counting systems are the basis of her visually stunning data prints. Richard Humann makes personalized fractal language sculptures and David Opdyke uses a 3D printer to fabricate his haunting sculptures. Dr. Peter Snyder a Professor of Neurology impliments diverse materials to comment on the impact of Alzheimer’s on the brain and I, China Blue translate data into sound and light objects. These are some examples to consider that are poetic applications of “cybernetic meadows where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony” that Brautigan speaks of in “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.”