Welcome Lecture Report //// Jasia Reichardt : “In Anticipation of the Sixties”

Talk at the Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia of the National Academy of Sciences //// March 13, 2018 : Washington, D. C.

Hybrids are everywhere at the National Academy of Sciences this week. Artistic and scientific collaborations take center stage at this year’s Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia, entitled Creativity & Collaboration : Revisiting Cybernetic Serendipity. And it’s a good year to do such a revisiting. 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the seminal 1968 exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity, curated by art critic, curator, and writer Jasia Reichardt, and presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. This exhibition, which showed works at the collision of artistic, technological, and scientific practice by notable figures such as Nam June Paik, Jean Tinguely, Alison Knowles, and John Whitney was a groundbreaking display of the possibilities at the intersection of technology and creativity. The exhibition took place at a time of much political turmoil, with the echoes of WWII still present, the Vietnam War in full swing, and Civil and Women’s Rights movements intensifying.

Today, we find ourselves in another time of significant political uproar. And the role of technology in the global world, and our individual lives, has become monumental. What lessons can we take away from those early explorations of the creative potential of humans and machines?

Rather than answer that weighty (and lengthy) question right now, I’ll turn back to March 13th, 2018, in the auditorium at the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C. Jasia Reichardt, born in Warsaw in 1933, stands at the podium, giving a talk entitled “In Anticipation of the Sixties.” As she tells us, very few people talk about the impact of the 1950’s on technology and art, and that is a shame. She also reminds us that the 1950’s was a very grim decade, for clear reasons. However, innovations in science and technology were slowly gaining momentum — and the foundations for the connection between art and machines were forged by, as she describes it, three main scenes :

  1. The beginnings of Kinetic Art in Paris
  2. Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) in Tokyo
  3. The Gaberbocchus Common Room club for artists and scientists in London

The early Kinetic Art movement saw such innovations as Jean Tinguely’s Automatic Painting Machine, Takis’ explorations of the energy of magnetic fields, and the first cybernetic sculpture in 1956 by the Hungarian Nicolas Schöffer: a structure responsive to the changing light, color, and sound environment around it. Of particular interest to me, an artist and technologist currently collaborating with dancers to create virtual and mixed reality experiences, are the early works in interactive performance by Maurice Bejart and Schöffer, partnering cybernetic, kinetic sculptures with human ballet dancers.

Founded in Tokyo in 1951, Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) was an interdisciplinary group of autodidact artists, musicians, choreographers, and designers responding to the American and European Avant-Garde movements, against a backdrop of postwar Japan and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. They were a “Bauhaus without the building,” as the co-founder Katsuhiro Yamaguchi put it. As Reichardt explained, before Jikken Kobo, the disciplines of its members were seen as separate. But this group wanted to create a synthesis with the technology they had access to. This ethos can find echoes in Japan’s significant impact on technology development, and tech’s integration into the life of its citizens.

In London, The Common Room, which operated between 1957 and 1959 in the basement below Gaberbocchus Press, was one of the first clubs for people interested in art and science to hang out, listen to talks, read journals, play with mathematical models, engage with both artworks and a human or animal skeleton hanging on the walls, and of course eat and drink. The British education system at the time (and still today to some extent) kept the arts and sciences very separate — there was a real communication gap between them. However, The Common Room ignored this rift, and fostered an atmosphere of genial, collaborative, and inquisitive play and exploration at the intersection of art and science.

Today feels very distant from the 1950’s. Technology now, as Reichardt put it, is “life’s blood.” The line between ourselves and the technology we interact with is progressively blurry. What struck me was the revelation that “tech” itself is not significant in the context of New Media works today. Of course, it seems obvious to me now, but it took a moment to resonate that simply engaging with the technology at hand is not enough to make a significant statement about its relationship to art, humanity, or the world. Efforts to combine art (or creative output) with technology are everywhere — and are increasingly tied to a complex, powerful financial and corporate structure.

As artists, scientists, and researchers (or for many, and certainly those of us in attendance at the Sackler Colloquia at the NAS, hybrid combinations of all three), we have a responsibility to interrogate the given paradigm and inherent power structures within the escalating monolithic role of technology (and authority of tech companies). To affect change, we cannot simply use the tools in the sandbox they came with. But to move towards the future we want to live in, as Jasia Reichardt’s talk so eloquently made clear, we can find inspiration, lessons, and exemplars from the past. As she says, “There are very few things that are completely new.” The early art and science explorations of the 1950’s paved the way for the burgeoning cybernetic works in the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition. And, as was revealed by Reichardt during the question and answer after her talk, she couldn’t have created the exhibition if the ICA had given her a real budget. Because with money comes baggage — and so even though it took longer, Reichardt’s tireless efforts, keen insights, and sheer tenacity brought to life an exhibition that revealed a new world to its audience — one where bold collaborations, hybrid mindsets, and optimistic possibilities thrived. This new world certainly deserves a revisiting today.

March 14th, 2018