Randall Packer on Thu, 14 Nov 2002 01:43:01 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] 75th Birthday Tribute to Billy Klüver

Title: 75th Birthday Tribute to Billy Klüver
November 13th is Billy Klüver's 75th Birthday. I gave the following tribute at an event organized by the Kitchen at Postmaster's Gallery in New York City. The date was March 15th, 2000, 30 years after the opening of the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka Japan.

- Randall Packer

Thirty years ago today, the Pepsi Pavilion opened at Expo 1970 in Osaka, Japan. This extraordinary work, the most ambitious undertaking of Billy Klüver and E.A.T., involved the collaboration of over 75 artists and engineers from the US and Japan. More than an artwork, it was, like the Pyramids, a cultural force in the sheer scope and audacity of its conception. Bob Whitman, one of the collaborating artists, claimed it was the largest art project of the second half of the 20th Century.

At a conference I attended recently, an art historian remarked that the Pepsi Pavilion hovers like a "ghost" over the contemporary art world. This is a work that in one form or another has "touched" every artist working today with technology, yet few ever experienced it first hand. Hardly anyone who has read about the Pavilion, referenced in numerous books on art and technology, has witnessed its fog sculpture designed by Fujiko Nakaya, carved from fine mist sprayed high above its geodesic structure; or the 800 pound kinetic sculptures by Robert Whitman that he affectionately called "Floats", slowly and mischievously roaming the terrace; or Lowell Cross and David Tudor's laser projections that engulfed viewers as they entered the lower level of the Pavilion, in a multi-colored electronic baptism; or the surround-sound system designed by Tudor and Gordon Mumma that immersed the listener in the Pavilion's dome, trajectories of electronic sounds and cries of whales moving across the space; or the giant spherical mirror conceived by Robert Whitman, larger than any other in the world - not even NASA has attempted this - which projected upside down, three dimensional holographic-like "real" images into the performance space for the mostly Japanese visitors who were mesmerized, delighted, terrified, intrigued, baffled, entranced and bewildered by this other-worldly creation.

The Pepsi Pavilion was the culmination of ten, incredible years of creative work by Billy Klüver and his collaborators during the decade of the 1960s, that forever altered the course of art history. It was the birth of a movement that united the sister disciplines of art and science, once and for all, into a unified medium - more decisively, perhaps, than any period in history since Aristotle and the ancient Greeks.

It all began in the spring of 1960 when Jean Tinguely asked Billy if he would assist him with the construction of an outdoor sculpture commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art for the Museum's sculpture garden. Billy, who was working on laser systems at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, couldn't resist the offer. Hardly satisfied by purely scientific pursuits, he was eager to become a part of the artistic milieu that was then giving birth to pop art, minimalism, and Happenings a short drive away in New York City. He was, as you can imagine, probably the only engineer on the planet even aware of this activity.
Jean Tinguely's infamous self-destructing kinetic sculpture was appropriately titled "Homage to New York." Klüver's participation in this work, with its paint bombs, chemical stinks, noisemakers, and fragments of scrap metal, inspired a generation of artists to imagine the possibilities of technology, as the machine destroyed itself, in Klüver's words, "in one glorious act of mechanical suicide." As Calvin Tomkins colorfully narrates in his book "Off the Wall:" "The great white machine rattles and shivers in all its members. Smoke pours from its interior, temporarily blanketing the audience. The piano catches fire and burns, accompanying its own demise with three mournful notes repeated over and over. Parts of the structure break loose and scuttle off to die elsewhere. Crossbeams sag as electric charges melt the previously weakened joints. A Rauschenberg "money-thrower" goes off with a blinding flash, scattering silver dollars... a fireman, summoned by Tinguely, comes out to extinguish the blaze in the piano; he is angrily booed by the spectators. After about twenty minutes it becomes clear that the machine will not perish unaided; firemen's axes finish the job, and 'Homage to New York' returns to the junk piles from which it was born. The nineteen sixties have begun."

After this blazing entrance into the New York art scene, Billy enthusiastically joined in the revelry that continued through the 1960s, participating in the myriad of performances, Happenings and uncategorizable events staged in lofts and storefronts by the likes of Claus Oldenburg, Bob Whitman, Jim Dine, and others. Clearly the performance art of the early 1960s made a strong impression on Billy, heightening his interest in exploring open forms, unconventional materials, and the process of interdisciplinary collaboration that was his trademark.
Chief among his many collaborators was Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg had been in the audience the fateful day the "Homage to New York" self-destructed, and asked Billy if he would work with him. This was the beginning of a close relationship - today they are still like brothers - a collaboration that produced some of the most groundbreaking art and technology works of the 20th Century. Such works as "Dry Cell" (1963), "Oracle" (1962-65), "Soundings" (1968) and "Solstice" (1968) were among the first artworks ever to explore the cybernetic exchange between the viewer and the machine. Rauschenberg was interested in using technology to engage the audience in an interactive relationship to the world around them, bringing about an intimacy with the technological interactions that have become ubiquitous in everyday life. This notion also underscored Billy's objective, which was to bring the artist closer to the concerns of the engineer and the materials of technology, and reciprocally, for the artist to engage the engineer, typically beholden to the corporate establishment, in meaningful cultural dialogue.

Billy not only introduced new ways of incorporating technology to Jean Tinguely and Robert Rauschenberg, but countless other artists and performers including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer and Robert Whitman. The list goes on. In 1966, Klüver and Rauschenberg organized one of the defining events of the decade. It was the "9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering" held at the cavernous 69th Regiment Armory in New York, in which ten artists created new performance works, each working with one or more engineers recruited by Billy Klüver from Bell Laboratories. It is important to note for the record books, that these projects were not funded by Bell Labs, and that the engineers who worked on them did so under their own initiative and on more or less their own time.

Although "9 Evenings" was never an overwhelming "critical" success, criticism has never slowed Billy down. These performances proved above all that the artist imagination and his understanding of the social condition, united with the engineer's practical instincts and knowledge of technology, would yield works of "art and technology" that opened up new opportunities for artistic expression. Furthermore, the embrace of technology promised a new central role for the artist in an increasingly technological society.

And so, following "9 Evenings," Billy Klüver, together with Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman and engineer Fred Waldhauer, formalized the idea of uniting artists and engineers by founding the now legendary E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) - designed in their words, "to catalyze the inevitable active involvement of industry, technology and the arts." At their first meeting, held at the Central Plaza Hotel in the fall of 1966, over 300 artists showed up, eighty of whom made requests for engineers and technical support. E.A.T. recruited engineers, published a newsletter, and held open house wherever artists and engineers could meet informally. The momentum that resulted from this effort led to the formation of chapters all over the country with thousands of members. E.A.T. has since become a model for countless organizations and institutions worldwide, including museums, universities, research laboratories, non-profit groups, even such corporate think tanks as Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, California, where the personal computer was born.

In the first edition of their newsletter Techne, E.A.T's mission statement was published. The visionary nature of this "call to action" addressed critical issues foreshadowing current efforts to galvanize collaboration between artists and engineers, promote the importance of technology in the contemporary arts and society at large, and to funnel corporate support into new media efforts. It reads: "Maintain a constructive climate for the recognition of the new technology and the arts by a civilized collaboration between groups unrealistically developing in isolation. Eliminate the separation of the individual from technological change and expand and enrich technology to give the individual variety, pleasure, and avenues for exploration and involvement in contemporary life. Encourage industrial initiative in generating original forethought, instead of a compromise in aftermath, and precipitate a mutual agreement in order to avoid the waste of a cultural revolution."
But it was not until 1968 that E.A.T. and the emerging art and technology movement was embraced and legitimized by the mainstream art world. That was when curator Pontus Hulten organized the "Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hulten boldly articulated the importance of new forms of technology-based art by staging a sweeping historical overview that began with Leonardo da Vinci and continued into the 20th Century. Hulten asked his old friend Billy Klüver to organize an exhibition of contemporary art and technology works in order to bring the exhibition up to the present. Klüver put out a call for participation under the auspices of E.A.T., and presented the show "Some More Beginnings" at the Brooklyn Museum. The judges were, appropriately, all engineers.
The impact of Billy Klüver's work, born from his desire to engage with the artist, to be a resource for artists, has resulted in a lifelong dedication to artists and their art, including their relentless need to break new ground. This effort has been a primary catalyst leading to the widespread assimilation of technology into the mainstream contemporary arts, not just in New York, but around the world. Billy's role has always been to give, and despite this total, uncompromising dedication, his approach as an engineer was never to be servile, but rather to "serve" the artist as an active and equal partner in the creation of the artwork. This simple, but powerful idea is, I believe, his most important contribution, and its effect can be felt as more than a ghostly presence in our increasingly interdisciplinary times.  For as Marshall McLuhan said, "the artist tends now to move from the ivory to the control tower of society." And Nam June Paik added, "cybernated art is very important, but art for cybernated life is more important." Or in Billy's own words, "...the artist is a visionary about life. Only he can create disorder and still get away with it. Only he can use technology to its fullest capacity... the artists have to use technology because technology is becoming inseparable from our lives."

Billy Klüver has revealed to us how the artist might be a force of renewal in a cybernated society, not by withdrawing from the terrifying speed of social and technological change, but by closing the gap between art and life, joining forces with the scientist to re-engineer the cultural condition.

I would like to close with these words of Billy Klüver describing the Pepsi Pavilion, words that were written thirty years ago but still resonate today, words that should be remembered as computers, the Internet, and the variety of interactive media permeate and begin to dominate our contemporary life:

"The initial concern of the artists who designed the Pavilion was that the quality of the experience of the visitor should involve choice, responsibility, freedom, and participation. The Pavilion would not tell a story or guide the visitor through a didactic, authoritarian experience. The visitor would be encouraged as an individual to explore the environment and compose his own experience."
Thank you, Billy.