On 17 March 1960, there was a fire at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was an act of artistic arson, perpetrated in the museum’s courtyard: the first and last performance of Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, a self-destructing Rube Goldberg machine. Flames shot up above spinning bicycle wheels and rusted steel rebar; smoke enveloped the assembled guests. As vicious as the city in which it was made, the sculpture was an homage to a culture that cannibalizes itself; a monument to its own obsolescence.
It was also a spectacular technological achievement, and would inspire many collaborations between artists and scientists to come. Tinguely had worked with Billy Klüver, an electrical engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories. In 1967, Klüver cofounded Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) with fellow engineer Fred Waldhauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. Fifty years ago, E.A.T. would introduce video transmission and wireless audio to fine art long before they were commercially available; and while few works survived, the organization sent a jolt to the heart of a country engaged in the great Space Race.
It’s hard to understand why the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology doesn’t share E.A.T.’s art historical reputation. Founded in 1985 – not long after Ronald Reagan redubbed the Space Race ‘Star Wars’ – the Media Lab has a far deeper brain pool and pockets. Perhaps it’s because the Media Lab’s most revolutionary developments have been primarily technological, and only secondarily aesthetic, from new programming languages to talking robots. Rather than supply artists with advanced technology to visualize their ideas, the Media Lab has reversed the equation, asking how the interests and processes of artists might inform scientists, leading to inventions more directly engaged with the social field. Research groups like ‘Affective Computing’, ‘Civic Media’ and (my personal favourite) ‘Opera of the Future’ search for technical improvements to human interaction and experience.
Last month I attended ‘Being Material’, a symposium sponsored by MIT’s Center for Art, Science and Technology. Many of the speakers were MIT professors, who, for the most part, struck an optimistic note about the current state of technology in society; Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte opened the conference by declaring triumphantly that ‘we can now be not just informed by nature, but in some cases do better than nature.’ That seems like a strange goal to set in the age of climate change, when the material costs of human conquest threaten all life on the planet. There may be nothing but extinction beyond nature’s limits.
In an interesting twist, architect and design theorist Benjamin Bratton employed Negroponte’s logic to reflect on human flaws, arguing that artificial intelligence is not exciting because it allows humans to teach machines to think, but rather because it enables machines to teach humans how to think better. Why privilege the mind of the maker? Many of the scientific discoveries discussed in subsequent presentations revealed that the natural world doesn’t always operate how we might expect, and its distortions can bend our sense of social and aesthetic possibility. In his Self-Assembly Lab, MIT Assistant Professor Skylar Tibbits has been producing self-sorting construction materials – blocks that can automatically assemble when given a certain charge. (‘Today we programme matter itself,’ Tibbits said.) We can even apparently programme computers with fluid: in his fascinating presentation, Stanford Bioengineering Professor Manu Prakash proposed that microfluidics – tiny, magnetized channels that can direct droplets of water – might one day replace the circuits in our phones. Prakash also uttered the day’s winning quote, when he explained that binary fluids composed of two liquid chemicals ‘have a sense of identity’. (Days later, I ran into artist Lynn Hershman Leeson at the opening of Anicka Yi’s Hugo Boss Prize exhibition ‘Life is Cheap’ at the Guggenheim Museum – itself a marvel of bioengineering – and told her about Prakash’s research; she drolly suggested that fluid-powered computers might transform into coffee when they overheat, for easy, supercharged ingestion.)
Science and maths have never been my strongest suits, so I left the conference impressed by the wizardry of MIT’s engineers. The artists present, though, were no less knowledgeable. For more than ten years, Lucy McRae has been producing artworks that amplify the senses and turn human by-products into commodities. Her Bubelle dress (2006) uses biometric sensors to register a wearer’s emotions through lights embedded in its surface, and she is currently developing a ‘Swallowable Parfum’ that releases its scent through sweat. McRae spoke with Christina Agapakis, a scientist who has made cheese from Olafur Eliasson’s tears and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s nose bacteria (cheddar-orange, streaked with veins of blue mold). Together, they emphasized that the artistic process should define the beginning stages of scientific inquiry, rather than its final representation.
The second day was carried by Trevor Paglen, who unveiled a new series in progress for an exhibition at New York’s Metro Pictures this autumn. Paglen has been working with computer programmers to better understand the way machines see the world. When one artificially intelligent computer system is asked to produce a picture of a shark, for instance, it composes an abstract colour field painting of grey, green and blue pixels – each an average colour of the corresponding pixel in every digital image of a shark that system has analysed. Some images Paglen displayed were more recognizable – candles, human faces – but others were totally inscrutable, no more figurative than a Rothko. Though he is still determining a way to present such images in a gallery, Paglen emphasized the importance in understanding the way artificial intelligence sees, because it always bears the prejudices of its programmer and the data it receives. One snapshot made that uncomfortably clear: Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), in which the photographer is breastfeeding her son, is identified by visual recognition software as a 35-year-old male. Who will AI serve, and what kinds of bodies will it fail to recognize?
Paglen proved a necessary and effective counterweight to some of the conference’s unremitting ‘technopositivism’. Nevertheless, the common chorus that science can learn from art felt like a welcome departure from the popular art world attitude that new technologies are the sign of a contemporary vanguard. The maligned trendiness of much so-called ‘Post-Internet’ art should undermine that latter position – on full display at Rhizome’s annual ‘Seven on Seven’ conference at the New Museum, incidentally held the same weekend as MIT’s. Rhizome paired seven artists and seven programmers or entrepreneurs and challenged them to ‘create something’. The format seemed to encourage artists to ‘get practical’, rather than turn their counterparts to Dada. Much of the best art is wildly impractical, even useless – and forcing it to change will only encourage artists to choose profit over creative independence. When tech firms brand themselves using the language of the artistic avant-garde (‘creatives’, ‘disruptors’), we should be wary of increasing proximity between artistic practices and corporate industry.
If Tinguely collaborated with an engineer for a major tech company to produce Homage to New York, it was as much to savage the field of science as that of art. His incendiary send-up of sculpture and mechanical engineering remains radical because it was more than just a marriage of the two: it was a portrait of a city in an era when technological progress had become an increasingly violent spectacle. That willingness to work with new technology, paired with a critical distance from its industry, would serve today’s artists well.
Main image: Trevor Paglen, Lake Tenaya (Maximally Stable External Regions; Hough Transform) (detail), 2016, dye sublimation print, 122 x 152 cm. Courtesy: the artist