How the 62 Year Story of Art at MIT Shaped the Media Lab Ethos

Michael Naimark
Sep 18, 2019 · 11 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Gyorgy Kepes books during his MIT years, 1947–1974.

On the opposite end of the Media Lab complex from the Director’s office resides MIT’s Program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT), a long-unrelated program which spent 30 years on opposite side of campus, by choice. In 2010, after the Media Lab tripled its size with an expansion, MIT leadership decided to move ACT into the expanded complex, presumably for more interaction with the Media Lab. While the Media Lab is about “technologies that promise to transform,” ACT is about “critical studies and production.”

Since the move, as before, there’s been little interaction. But what if, challenging as it may be, the Media Lab folded in ACT (whose faculty and fellows are over 50% female) as part of the fabric of its community and everyday activities? Would a larger (pun intended) critical mass have existed inside? Could it have tipped the scale for the exiting faculty and the concerned women? It’s tempting to speculate that the Media Lab’s balance between enthusiasm and criticality may have been more centered and that its moral compass may have been more influential in its decision making.

Speculation aside, the sixty-two year history of art at MIT helped shape the ethos of the Media Lab. In the big scheme of this current, ugly, complicated episode, the story of the arts is a minor one but largely untold. It is hoped to offer some insights for moving forward. It is also hoped to offer insights to other creative technology centers — academic, corporate, government, and nonprofit “media labs” — for how to integrate enthusiasm and criticality.


I. 1947 — Agent Zero: Gyorgy Kepes

Image for post
Image for post
(Boston Public Library)

The story begins in 1947, when MIT appointed Gyorgy Kepes as its first arts professor. Kepes, a painter, designer, and budding filmmaker, had already emigrated to the US with fellow Hungarian and early Bauhaus member László Moholy-Nagy to start the “New Bauhaus” at the Illinois Institute of Design in Chicago.

In 1951, Kepes curated an exhibition at MIT called The New Landscape in Art and Science, which by all accounts, was absolutely extraordinary. Though there was no exhibition catalog, the 1956 book by the same name, part catalog and part essays, was released. “Works of art and science stood side by side, and matched.” “There was no sense of shock or contrast as one left the artists’ paintings to stand before the scientists’ photographs.” Such writing at the time was unique and radical.

During the period of 1965 and 1966, Kepes edited Vision + Values, an ambitious six volume book series “to stimulate the circulation of ideas, to find channels of communication that interconnect various disciplines and offer us a sense of structure in our 20th century world.” The 91 contributors included Jacob Bronowski, Buckminster Fuller, Katharine Kuh, John Cage, Marshall McLuhan, Abraham Maslow (and sadly, so few women).

Seven years passed and Kepes published a final edition, Arts of the Environment, which was more politicized, particularly around the critical role of the artist. His contributions were entitled “Art and Ecological Consciousness” and “The Artist’s Role in Environmental Self-Regulation.”

II. 1967 — The Dawn of MIT Arts and Media Centers

In 1967, Kepes founded MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, MIT’s art center where invited artists/fellows “pioneered collaborative works in light, kinetic, environmental and inflatable sculpture, laser, steam, video, electronic music, holography, dance, computer graphics and animation, among other media.”

Around the same time, young MIT faculty member Nicholas Negroponte, one of Kepes’ protégés, founded the Architecture Machine Group, based on his early writings on “soft architecture” and, later, “idiosyncratic systems.” “ArcMac’s” goal was to explore new approaches to human-computer interactions.

Kepes retired in 1972 and Otto Piene, a prominent German post-World War II artist activist and commercially successful gallery artist, became CAVS Director.

In 1977, MIT launched a new graduate program called Media Arts and Sciences, which included sections by Nicholas, Otto, pioneer cinéma vérité filmmaker Richard “Ricky” Leacock, and visionary designer Muriel Cooper. Ricky, a protégé of pioneer documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, attracted a new generation of budding filmmakers; and Muriel, longtime art director at the MIT Press, was a sage to many, including designer/entrepreneur John Maeda.

MIT in the late 1970s was a lively place for the arts. Otto was organizing “Sky Art” events over the Boston skyline, and CAVS produced “Centerbeam,” a 140 foot long multimedia sculpture for the Documenta arts festival in 1977 in Kassel, Germany. In 1978, ArcMac began filming the “Aspen Moviemap” in Colorado, the precursor to Google Streetview by three decades.

Image for post
Image for post
Centerbeam, Documenta 7, Kassel, 1977 (MIT) | Aspen Moviemap camera rig, Aspen, 1979 (MIT)

There was always a little friction between CAVS and ArcMac then. Around 1976, ArcMac lost an expected NSF renewal contract for its “Graphical Conversation Theory” proposal and turned toward DARPA funding (albeit non-classified). But Otto, Nicholas, Ricky, and Muriel were all close and in regular professional and social contact.

Around 1979, Nicholas convinced MIT President Jerome Wiesner to support a grand combined lab for ArcMac, CAVS, Ricky’s Film/Video Section, and Muriel’s Visible Language Workshop. With Wiesner’s deep and powerful connections — he was President JFK’s Chief Science Advisor (and lifelong friend of groundbreaking ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax) — the “Nick and Jerry Show,” as some called it, traveled the world raising money for the new “Arts and Media Technology” (AMT) Facility. The planets seemed aligned for a new New Bauhaus.

III. 1980 — Blow-Up!

Then in 1980, Otto held several “emergency” CAVS Fellows meetings. He had caught wind that AMT leadership commissioned non-MIT artists for the new building. He was livid. It opened an old wound that when MIT needed “real artists,” it went to New York. Everyone at the Fellow’s meeting was livid. The result was that CAVS abruptly pulled out of the AMT Facility.

This came as a complete surprise to Nicholas, Jerry, architect IM Pei, and others on the design team.

One result was a name change. “Art” became a little awkward in “AMT” without MIT’s art center, and a new name, proposed by Architecture Dean John de Monchaux, was the “Media Lab.” To many, at least in retrospect, this was a blessing. (Interesting side note: the founders of a major new arts center in Karlsruhe, Germany, at the time, catching wind of the MIT story, decided, with intention, to call their new center the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie. The ZKM today is a prominent media arts center and houses the world’s largest collection of media artworks.)

Another result was that CAVS remained its own independent entity on the other side of campus, for an astounding thirty years. MIT always had lively arts-related galleries, performances, grants, and undergraduate classes, but during this period, it was common knowledge that MIT had two art centers: an “art art” center that was small and, some would say, marginalized and maybe even angry; and a slicker arts presence inside the Media Lab that some would call “happy art.” Excellent and well-recognized work came out of both, but to largely different arts communities.

Both sides got better and better at what they did — criticality-based tech art and enthusiasm-based tech art — and increasingly bifurcated from each other, inadvertently allowing both permission to not do what the other did. There were noteworthy exceptions on both sides, but these exceptions proved the rule.

Soon after the Media Lab officially opened in 1985, Nicholas, tasked now with raising annual operating funds, announced “we don’t do art here” which lead to an ill-fated student petition drive. Meanwhile, when Otto retired as CAVS Director in 1994, he spearheaded the appointment of Krzysztof Wodiczko as his replacement, a celebrated and fiercely political Polish artist, but not exactly who the Media Lab would want at its corporate sponsors’ gatherings.

In 1996, Krzysztof stepped down as director to focus on his Interrogative Design Group. Dean William Mitchell assembled every relevant tenured professor and told them that he had no additional tenure lines but that he’d keep CAVS alive if one of them would take on directorship. Holographer Stephen Benton knew he was the only viable option and volunteered. Steve had invented the “rainbow” hologram in 1968 and, though he was stronger on enthusiasm than critical skills, he was already directing the Media Arts and Sciences academic side and running the Media Lab’s popular Spatial Imaging group. He died early of cancer in 2003 and the directorship went back to Krzysztof.

Meanwhile, Gyorgy Kepes, long retired, remained on the sidelines and was well aware of the rift. His message to anyone who would listen was to take the long view, always take the long view. Gyorgy died in 2001, shortly after the death of his wife Juliet, married for over sixty years.

IV. 2011 — The Expanded Complex, a Kepes Comeback, and Joi’s Arrival

In 2011, I went back to MIT to make sense of all this. I was there from 1976 first as a student, graduating in 1979 in the inaugural class of Media Arts and Sciences, then as a CAVS Fellow and a member of the AMT design team, simultaneously. I went to Kassel with CAVS for Centerbeam and to Aspen with ArcMac for the Moviemap, and was on a first-name basis with everyone mentioned. In 1980, I moved to San Francisco to follow my own calling but made regular visits to MIT and kept in touch. I also had near-annual personal meetings with Gyorgy Kepes at his home, with his wife Juliet, until the end. MIT kindly offered me a visiting faculty appointment and an office in the Media Lab compound.

As an added bonus, the Lab was in the midst of its new director search. Three candidates had made the short list and were flown in but none were selected. Nicholas made it clear that he was in no hurry and felt no pressure, as things were running well enough on their own. (I was not on the search committee and played no official role.)

When I arrived in February 2011, the new expansion, designed by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, had just opened and Media Labbers were spreading out from the original IM Pei building section. And the “art art” people — CAVS had merged with the teaching-based Visual Arts Program and renamed the Program for Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) — were also making the move across campus.

Over the ensuing months, my first observation was, after all these years, nothing had changed, and the incentive to integrate appeared low. There were long-termers on both sides who had rarely talked with each other, and both groups had different ideologies, different professional expectations, and different supplemental income strategies. Both groups had arts-related faculty openings and weren’t comparing notes with each other. When the official ACT Inauguration took place in the freshly finished top floor on the Media Lab side, with art heavyweights Hans Haacke and Okwui Enwezor in attendance and a performance by ACT professor Joan Jonas (who four years later would represent the US at the Venice Biennale), only one Media Lab faculty member attended.

Meanwhile, Kepes was making a comeback of sorts. A recent article in the New York Times then entitled A Master of Image and Information quoted prominent art world curator and intellectual Hans Ulrich Obrist:

“Kepes is a great inspiration.” “He had a holistic approach to knowledge, and the links he made between art, design and other disciplines, especially science, are so important now.”

I tried my best to listen and to integrate. Otto, then 83 and sharp as a tack, simply said “no comment” when asked about the 1980 blowup, but now with warmth and a smile. Nicholas had also warmed up to art, and had sent an email to the Dean entitled “Humpty Dumpty” offering to personally help put the pieces back together. The students and young faculty on both sides were the saving grace. They drank coffee and cooked meals together, and generously invited me in. They got it, but to some extent, they were confused.

Meanwhile, Joichi Ito had been selected as the new Media Lab Director. Known largely as an entrepreneur and internet guy, Joi was also an art guy. He was a popular speaker at the annual Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, and Joi and I had served as founding board members on Zero1, the Art and Technology Network in Silicon Valley in the 1990s.

By the end of 2011, things were looking stubborn but promising.

V. The Practice of Change

Shortly after Joi’s arrival, he declared that one of his principals was to “work on practice instead of theory.” This riled many in the theory-heavy critical arts community. Influential media theorist and computer scientist Lev Manovich replied in a Tweet “Can’t it be both?” (I may have successfully convinced Joi then that the distinction between “theory-driven practice” and “practice-driven theory” was more interesting.)

In 2014, Joi famously morphed Nicholas’ famous morph of “Demo or Die” (from the traditional “Publish or Perish”) into “Deploy or Die,” thus signaling a more entrepreneurial change in the Lab’s direction.

In 2015, I was back at the Media Lab to host a VR panel, after which the panelists and I were given a tour of the compound. We ended the tour in the ACT “Cube,” a three-story internal space surrounded with catwalks and offices to meet with several ACT students. After our Media Lab host left, the ACT students expressed their frustration to me how they felt unwelcomed down the hallways in the Media Lab. (Though they didn’t know it and I didn’t tell them, I was the original designer of that space for the original IM Pei plan 35 years earlier.)

In 2018, Joi completed and published his PhD Dissertation for Keio University. Entitled The Practice of Change and weighing in at 324 pages, he writes that we have “created a set of new, interconnected, and more complex problems. Our new problems require new approaches: new understanding, solution design and intervention.” The document is specific and comprehensive, and whether one agrees with him or not, Joi put his intellectual cards on the table for discussion and debate. And his ethicals cards? The words “ethics” or “ethical” appears 60 times, baselines for accountability.


In 2003, at a reception at the Media Lab, after a couple glasses of wine, I approached then Dean William Mitchell, and asked “Bill, why are the arts so fucked up at MIT?” His immediate response, as if by reflex, was: “They’re worse at Harvard.”

I have no pretense that integrating the arts will solve the mess that MIT currently faces. But it’s a piece, and opening channels and encouraging debate and discussion is a start. It will invariably contribute to MIT’s overall health, stability, and dare I suggest, vision and value. And yes, it will take effort.

Will it be worth it? Well, how much has the lack of integration cost MIT so far?


Michael Naimark is currently Visiting Associate Arts Professor, Interactive Media Arts, NYU Shanghai. https://shanghai.nyu.edu/academics/faculty/directory/michael-naimark

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store