I’m gazing at a stage draped in white when a giant zipper suddenly appears, projected onto one wall. As it works its way noisily around, more projections — live-streamed or pre-recorded moving images of buildings, blurred pedestrians, discarded clothing and simmering water — judder on crumpled backdrops. An apparently random urban soundtrack lulls and roars in the background. In the foreground, performers skip rope and cut hair; one solemnly rips up, boils and eats her shirt. It’s quite an evening.
The artist behind this indeterminate, playful, technologically rich and vaguely disturbing piece, Side Effects (commissioned by Arts Catalyst) is Robert Whitman. The evening is an homage to 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering, a legendary series of performances that, 50 years ago, galvanised New York with an unprecedented mix of cutting-edge technologies and avant-garde art. Whitman was one of 10 artists — among them multi-media maverick Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage and choreographer Lucinda Childs — who collaborated one-to-one with 30 engineers, most from research powerhouse Bell Labs and including, notably, the visionary electrical engineer Billy Klüver. Klüver was adamant about involving technologists rather than scientists, feeling that technology is essentially about “the material and the physicality”. It was a moment that paved the way to crossover disciplines such as digital art.
There was a utopian edge to technology then, as America literally reached for the Moon. For artists seeking new media, high-tech expertise enabled fresh explorations in sound and vision. For the engineers, artists expanded what Klüver (already a veteran of collaborations with Jean Tinguely, Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg and Cage) saw as constrained horizons. Whitman, whom I caught up with after the performance of Side Effects, recalled that the 9 Evenings teams included a lot of “arranged marriages”, but worked if goals and enthusiasms chimed.
By that time (October 1966), Whitman had been creating immersive pieces for some years, combining film, performers and ‘shape-changing’ props such as plastic sheeting. His 1960 The American Moon, for instance, had a hallucinatory quality and a sense of “slow time”, according to fellow experimentalist Claes Oldenburg. 9 Evenings offered a chance to push the boundaries in a bold venue.
That was the 69th Regiment Armory, a hangar-like midtown Manhattan edifice where, over 50 years before, another exhibition had exploded America’s cultural complacency with artworks such as Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. For 9 Evenings, some 1,500 people a night filed into its reverberating spaces.
Signal splitters, Geiger counters
Whitman’s contribution Two Holes of Water – 3 featured input from a number of engineers, including cellular telephony researcher Robby Robinson. The piece involved 23 performers, seven plastic-wrapped cars equipped with film projectors, one of the first fibre-optic miniature video cameras, film shot using an optical device with parallel mirrors, and a signal splitter that allowed a performer’s front and back view to be superimposed. A projected live image of water being poured into a glass on the Armory floor and documentary footage of Alaskan flora and fauna also featured.
Equally bravura was Cage’s composition Variations VII (pictured above), which harnessed live feeds from numerous sound sources. As Cage ‘played’ several transistor radios, 10 telephone lines picked up ambient noises from locations round the city, including the 14th Street Con Edison electric power station and the press room of the New York Times. Signals from two Geiger counters were converted into sounds; six contact microphones amplified noises generated by performers handling devices such as juicers, while data from electrodes on the forehead of another were converted into sound waves.
Some critics tore into the event, as technology historian Patrick McCray has noted. Whitman, Rauschenberg, Klüver and fellow engineer Fred Waldhauer, however, had already forged ahead with another venture. The non-profit foundation Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) took the cross-fertilisation further. By 1969, E.A.T. comprised 2,000 artists and as many technologists, riding the wave of innovation in electronics and communications. Their Projects Outside Art series, for instance, featured Telex: Q&A, which linked public spaces in India, Japan, New York and Sweden to encourage citizens of each to question future possibilities.
Meanwhile, a programme with aims similar to E.A.T.’s had sprung up at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Art and Technology, the brainchild of curator Maurice Tuchman, boasted star physicist Richard Feynman as consultant. Whitman was also involved. So began his immensely fruitful teamwork with optical scientist John Forkner, then at Philco-Ford, the company that built the equipment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center mission control.
“This public-relations official introduced me to a guy with a long beard. I was lucky,” says Whitman. “John was a natural genius in optics and very interested in music and art. I remember that at one point I was sitting in a car with Feynman and he said, ‘Where’d you find him? He’s terrific.’”
Over 18 months, Whitman and Forkner created a spectacular installation for LACMA at the US Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. Tuchman described the work as an “optical tour de force” incorporating 1,000 corner-shaped mirrors reflecting the viewer’s multiplied image to them, as well as pulsating mylar mirrors and “eerily bright three-dimensional objects (a pear, drill, goldfish bowl with live fish, a knife, a clock, ferns, etc.).”
E.A.T. was equally busy at Expo ’70: the Pepsi Pavilion was a focus for several of its cutting-edge collaborations. A major element was a spherical mirror over 27 metres in diameter that created real images of visitors, hanging in space above their heads. Whitman contributed here too, along with physicist Elsa Garmire, while artist Fujiko Nakaya worked with physicist Tom Mee to create the evocative fog sculpture capping the structure. It was clear that by this time, as McCray puts it, artists and engineers between them had “rewired modern art”.
Whitman is now 81, and busy. Many other movers and shakers behind 9 Evenings and E.A.T. are gone. As for E.A.T. itself, it has effectively ended as an entity, but “exists as an idea,” notes its director Julie Martin (Klüver’s widow). Klüver himself, in a 1999 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, said, “once everybody understands the idea of artists and engineers working together, there is no reason for E.A.T. to exist”.
I asked Whitman what he thought about 9 Evenings now. “Looking back is what I call ‘dead guy stuff’. You need to get onto the next thing. As for the future, it’d be fun to be around.” There is something there of the unquenchably optimistic technophile, always looking for the next innovation. Yet just for a moment, he did look back. “I didn’t know it at the time, but for me it all started with Emmett Kelly,” he told me. On a childhood visit to the circus in the 1940s, Whitman had been galvanised by the iconic American clown, who had a routine where he swept up the spotlight with a broom. “I was staring at everyone around me, wondering why they weren’t seeing this miracle. It set me on my way.”
I thought of the spotlit zipper in Side Effects, and began too to see how an early bent towards flux and illumination led him to performance, advanced technology and the intensive mix of both that was 9 Evenings. And beyond.
Arts Catalyst’s 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering Revisited 1966/2016 continues to 29 October.
Archival information on 9 Evenings and E.A.T. can be accessed at the Daniel Langlois Foundation Collection. Maurice Tuchman’s report on LACMA can be accessed here. My thanks to Robert Whitman, Julie Martin and Patrick McCray for additional information. McCray is currently writing a book (tentatively entitled Art Rewired: Engineering a New Creative Culture) on the art-technology nexus in that era. His Leaping Robot blog meanwhile offers much fascinating detail on 9 Evenings, E.A.T. and more.