Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art






  • By the mid-1960s, Marshall McLuhan prophesied that electronic media were creating an increasingly interconnected global village. Such pronouncements popularized the idea that the era of machine-age technology was drawing to a close, ushering in a new era of information technology. Sensing this shift, art historian and curator K.G. Pontus Hulten organized a simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic exhibition on art and mechanical technology at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1968. The Machine: As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age included work ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci’s 16th-century drawings of flying machines to contemporary artist-engineer collaborations that won a competition organized by Experiments in Art and Technology, Inc. (EAT).¹

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  • Notes
    1. Because of the extraordinary response to the MOMA competition, the numerous other proposals resulted in a spin-off exhibition, Some More Beginnings, that EAT organized at the Brooklyn Arc Museum concurrently with The Machine. See K.G. Ponrus Hui ten, The Machine: As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968. See also, Experiments in Art and Technology, Some More Beginnings, New York: Experiments in Art and Technology, 1968.

    2. nine evenings was the culmination of collaborations between artists and dancers, like Rauschenberg, who were associated with the Judson Dance Theater, and engineers, like Kli.iver, from Bell Laboratories. If any single event could be identified as the spark that ignited American interest in the idea of joining art and technology in the 1960s, this was it.

    3. See Kluver, B., Marcin, J., and Rose, B., eds., Pavilion. New York: Dutton, 1972.

    4. See Tuchman, M., “A Report on the Art and technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” 1967-1971.

    5. Many of the artists who offered proposals to A&T wanted to use computers, but corporate sponsors were resistant to donate the use of their computers, except for Information International, Inc., which collaborated with Jackson MacLow, helping the artist to create computer-generated poems. See Tuchman, “A Report: 19,” 201- 23. With regard to telecommunications projects, on July, 1971, EAT organized Utopia Q&A, an international telex project that involved participants in New York, Tokyo, Ahmedabad, and Stockholm exchanging information about changes they anticipated in culture and society in 10 years. EAT archives: 67:1, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

    6. Reichardt, J., ed., Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts. London: Studio International, 1968.

    7. See Judith Benjamin Burnham, ed., Software, Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art. New York: The Jewish Museum, 1971. The exhibition featured a stellar cast of experimental artists, including Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Agnes Denes, Sonia Sheridan, Alan Kaprow, Vito Acconci, David Antin, John Giorno, John Baldessari, John Goodyear, Ted Victoria, and Donald Burgy.

    8. Like Burnham, Harrison was extremely close to the pulse of conceptual art, and his writings, like those of his American counterpart, warrant respect and response. Harrison first met the four founders of art and language in 1969, the same year he wrote a catalog essay (“Against Precedents”) for the London showing of the landmark conceptual art exhibition When Attitudes Became Form. He became an active member of Art & Language in 1971, merging his professional training as an art hiscorian with art practice. Formally trained as an artist, Burnham made his first light sculpture in 1954 and his first programmed kinetic sculpture in 1959. He received his MFA in sculpture from Yale in 1961 and later merged his insights as an artist working with technology with his self-taught vocation as an art critic and historian. A close frienOof Hans Haacke since 1962, he was also associated with the group of Conceptual artists represented by New York dealer Seth Sieglaub.

    9. As art historian Kristine Stiles has noted, many Conceptual Artists, especially Mel Bochner and Art & Language, recognized the contradiction of the so-called “dematerialization” of the art object theorized by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler in their inAuential article, “The Dematerialization of Art” Art International (February 1968) and reinscribed in Lippards Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, 1966-1972 (1973). Stiles points out that “dematerialization of art” can best be seen as a “strategy for repositioning art in relation to policies – not a shift from material per se, but a shift from an artworks value as an object of commercial exchange to its value as aesthetic and political interchange.” See Kristine Stiles, “Language and Concepts” in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists Writings, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996): 804-816; and Mel Bochner, “Book Review,” Artforum 11:10 (June, 1973), reprinted in Stiles and Selz, Theories and Documents: 828-32.

    10. Burnham, J., “The Aesthetics of Intelligent Systems” in Edward Fry, Intro., On the Future of Art, (New York: Viking, 1970): 119.

    11. Ibid.

    12. Burnham, J., “Notes on Art and Information Processing,” Software: JO 13. See my “The House That Jack Built: jack Burnhams Concept of Software as a Metaphor for Art,” Leonardo Electronic Almanac 6:10 (Nov 1998) online publication: ART! CLES/jack.html

    14. Burnham, J., Personal correspondence with the author, April 23, 1998. Electronic Art and Animation Catalog

    15. Burnham, J., “Alices Head,” Artforum 1970, reprinted in Jack Bumham, Great Western Salt Works, (New York: George Braziller): 47.

    16. The other two works were A.LR. (1968-70) and Wire Tap (1969-70). A.LR. (Artist In Residence) was conceived as a live, real-time video link to Levines studio, so that the museum audience could observe the minute-to-minute activities of the artist, which were displayed on a ring of television sets encompassing the viewer. Due to financial limitations, the actual implementation used prerecorded videotapes of the artist in his studio. Wire Tap was comprised of live telephone conversations between the artist and whoever happened to call him at the moment, played over an array of 12 12-inch x 12-inch speakers.

    17. Burnham, Software: 60.

    18. Levine, L., artists statement, Software: 61.

    19. This cycle of transformations does not stop here. The reproduction of imagery from Systems Burn-Off in the software catalog added another level to the cycle, creating information about art as information about information about art. And my discussion of it represents information about information about art as information about information about art.

    20. Levine quoted in Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema. (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc, 1970): 340.

    21. Ibid.

    22. Burnham, J., Haacke, H. “Wind and Water Sculpture,” Tri-Quarterly, 3 Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967.

    23. Haacke, H., Interview with the author, January 2, 1999.

    24. Ibid. Bertalanffy’s ideas were compiled in General Systems Theo,y: Foundations, Development, Application, New York: George Braziller, 1968. See also, Wiener’s Cybernetics: 01; Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948. Many artists were introduced to these concepts by Burn ham’s Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Centu,y, New York: George Braziller, 1968, which included references to Bertalanffy’s proto-cybernetic biological theories of the 1930s; the cybernetic theories of Wiener, Stafford Beer, Ross Ashby, and Gordon Pask; and Claude Shannon’s related principles of information theory. For more on Burnham’s inAuence on artists, see Simon Penny, “Systems Aesthetics+ Cyborg Art: The Legacy of Jack Burnham,” Sculpture Magazine, 18 (]), )anuaryFebuary 1999. Published online at

    25. Burnham, J., “Real Time Systems,” Artforum (Sept 1969): 49-55, reprinted in Great Westem Salt Works: 27-38.

    26. The questionnaire was almost identical to the version Haacke proposed for his solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971, which the museum cancelled. See Brian Wallis, ed., Hans Haacke: Unfinished BusineH, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986: 82-7; and also in chis volume, Rosalyn Deutsche, “Property Values: Hans Haacke, Real Estate, and the Museum”: 20-38.

    27. Haacke, H., artists statement in Software: 34.

    28. Haacke, H., artists statement in “Hans Haacke,” exhibition catalog, New York: Howard Wise Gallery, 1968, quoted in Jack Burnham, Systems Esthetics, 35.

    29. Kosuth recalls that much of the material for the software installation (loose-leaf folders filled with propositions, information, and documentation) was “borrowed” by an audience member for an extended period, though ultimately it was returned co the museum. Joseph Kosuth, interview with the author, April 5, 1999.

    30. See Kosuth, J., “Seventh Investigation (Art as Idea as Idea) Proposition One” illustrated in Software, 69.

    31. Kosuth, J., artists statement, Software, 68.

    32. The photographic reproduction of the billboard has come to signify the Seventh Investigation, reducing it, at least on a superficial level, to a recognizable icon for those who have not studied the work in sufficient depth or who continue to insist on seeing art in iconic terms. At the same time, like most conceptual artists, Kosuth needs “hardware” to convey the concepts of his “software,” hence the critique of a so-called “dematerialized” art.

    33. For more on Kosuth’s theorization of conceptual art, see Joseph Kosuth, Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-90, Gabriele Guercio, ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

    34. Burnham, “The Aesthetics of Intelligent Systems.”

    35. A further parallel may be drawn between the event scores of artists like George Brecht and Yoko Ono, and Kosuth’s propositions, which can be interpreted as functioning like event scores for the mind.

    36. Morgan, R. C.,Art into Ideas, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 2-3.

    37. The journal Leonardo, founded by artist/scientist Frank Malina in 1967, and excellent books like Jonathan Benthall’s Science and Technology in Art Today (1972) and especially Douglas Davis’s Art and the Future (1973), helped to keep interdisciplinary discourses among art, science, and technology alive. However, much of that research either became autonomous (like video art) merged with other movements, or retreated from the center stage of the contemporary art world to be undertaken in eclectic university departments at MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and The Ohio State University. Howard Wise closed his gallery in 1971 in order to create the Electronic Arts Intermix, a not-for-profit organization serving video artists, which is still in operation in New York.

    38. For more on the ideological context for art and technology in the 1960s, see Edward A. Shanken, “Gemini Rising, Moon in Apollo: Attitudes Towards Art and Technology in the US, 1966-1971” in ISEA97 (Proceedings of International Society for Electronic Art), Chicago: ISEA97, 1998; reprinted online in Leonardo Electronic Almanac 6:12 (January, 1999): gemini.html

    39. Public interest in conceptual art had steadily increased since the mid-1960s, when artists, curators, and critics began the process of historicizing a broad range of international artistic tendencies under the rubric of “conceptual art.” Nineteen sixty-nine was a watershed year, marked by an extraordinary number of international exhibitions. Its increasing reputation led to the publication in 1972 of Ursula Meyers’ Conceptual Art, a compilation of statements, essays, artworks, and interviews by conceptual artists; and in 1973, Gregory Battcock’s Idea Art: A Critical Anthology.

    40. Jasia Reichardt, interview with the author, July 30, 1998, London.

    41. Moreover, since Ascott’s diagram entitled “Thesaurus” was largely textual, he expressly put in writing his intention to use text in and as art.

    42. Sol Lewitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Stiles and Selz, Theories and Documents: 825.

    43. Ursula Meyer, Conceptual Art, New York: Dutton, 1972, xvi.

    44. Jack Burnham, “Steps in the Formulation of Real-Time Political Art” in Kaspar Koenig, ed., Hans Haacke: Framing and Being Framed, 7 Works 1970-75, (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975): 128-9.

    45. Charles Harrison, “A Kind of Context,” in Essays on Art & Language (London: Basil Blackwell, 1991): 17.

    46. Ibid: 260, fn 25.

    47. Ibid: 261, fn 30

    48. Harrison, C., “The Late Sixties in London and Elsewhere” Hillary Gresty, ed., 1965-1972, When Attitudes Became Form, (Cambridge: Kettles Yard Gallery, 1984): 10-11.

    49. This spurious computer program for interactively generating color refused to allow the user to interact beyond the rigid banality of binary input. If the user entered a number other than O or I, the program proffered the message: “YOU HAVE NOTHING, OBEY INSTRUCT IONS!” If the user entered a non-number, The Cybernetic Art Work That Nobody Broke responded that there was an “ERROR AT STEP 3.2.” Ibid: 58.

    50. This work juxtaposed a “sculptural morphology and an electromagnetic morphology.” The perceptual experience of interacting with the sculptural aspect of the system was intended to result in knowledge about the electromagnetic aspect of the system, which, in turn, would create knowledge about the sculptural aspects. See, Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, and Harold Hurrell, “Lecher System” Studio International 180:924 (July/Aug 1970), reprinted in Ursula Meyer, Conceptual Art: 22-25.

    51. In this work, Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin offered a key to abbreviations for the French Army (FAA), the Collection of Men and Machines (CMM), and the Group of Regiments (GR), then described the inter-relationships among them: The FA is regarded as the same CMM as the GR, and the GR is the same CMM as (for example) a new order FA (for example, morphologically a member of another class of objects): by transitivity, the FA is the same CMM as the New Shape/Order one. This ironic passage reduces to absurdity the systematic relationships among individuals, groups, and institutions characteristic of cybernetics and the military. See, Harrison, Essays on Art & Language:

    52 Ibid: 56.

    53. Index had a variety of rnanifestions, including a component of Index 4, which consisted of a computer printout. Several instances of the work can be likened to hypertext, an electronic text system in which a non-linear narrative is navigated by participants through a process of making associational links. Ibid: 72.

    54. Some of the distinctions Harrison has made between art and language and “the normal work of … Conceptual Art,” such as the idea that “it was the supposed end product of the [Conceptual] artists activity that claimed primary attention,” contradict the stated goals of so-called “normal … Conceptual art[ists]” like Robert Barry and Douglas Huebler, whom Burnham discussed in “Alices Head.” See, Harrison, Essays: 5 l

    55. See for example, Popper, F., Origins and Development of Kinetic Art. Trans. Stephen Bann. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1969; Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture; Douglas Davis, Art and the Future: A Hist01y!Prophecy of the Collaboration between Science, Technology and Art. New York: Praeger, 1973.

    56. See, for example, the prominence of Haacke in many issues of October Magazine. See also, Wheeler, Art Since Mid-Centwy; Meyer, Conceptual Art; and Morgan, Art into Ideas.

    57. When computer-telecommunications became accessible to civilians, Ascott was one of the first artists to use them for aesthetic purposes and developed a distinguished reputation as a pioneering theorist and practicioner of telematic art, which achieves a state of technologically mediated dematerialization that Ascott has referred to in Derridean terms as “pure electronic difference.” See Roy Ascott, “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace” Art journal 49:3 (Fall, 1990): 241-7. While deeply ensconced in theoretical concerns regarding process, systems, and linguistic strllctures of communication, Ascott’s work is in the process of being canonized in the domain of media art, the apparent successor to art and technology.

    58. Burnham, “Notes on Art and Information Processing” Software: I 1 (16).