A Century of Art and Technology in the Bay Area

From pirates to prospectors to physicists and from poets to pranksters to programmers, the Bay Area is a magnet for mavericks impatient to reinvent the world.

Leo Villareal, Bay Lights art installation, 2014

From Edweard Muybridge’s experimental stop-motion cameras in the 1860s to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, the Bay Area has a rich history of counterculture at the intersection of Art and Technology: artists and innovators who develop and use new technologies to explore, expand, and critique the role of technology in culture.

Philo T. Farnsworth

In 1927, in his lab at the bottom of Telegraph Hill, 21-year-old Philo T. Farnsworth’s transmitted the first television image, inspiring generations of video and pirate broadcast artists including San Francisco’s Neighborhood Public Radio collective. Soon after, the brothers Oppenheimer came to UC Berkeley to pursue research in physics by day and explore Bay Area bohemian nightclubs and coffee houses by night. Robert Oppenheimer was then recruited for the Manhattan Project and later became highly critical of US policy on the bomb. Joseph McCarthy strenuously worked to discredit him.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Although McCarthy despised the freedom of inquiry at Cal, the 1960 House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) attempt to meet in San Francisco sparked Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, which set the stage for the Anti-War Movement and the Summer of Love. McCarthyism also undermined Robert’s younger brother.

The Exploratorium in the Exhibit Hall of the Palace of Fine Arts, 1969–2014

Unable to work as a physicist, Frank created the Exploratorium, which opened in 1969 at the Palace of Fine Arts with the legendary exhibition, “Cybernetic Serendipity,” brought by Jasia Reichardt from the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. The Exploratorium established the model for hands-on discovery that continues to inspire artists and scientists worldwide.

City Lights Beat Poets

In 1955, the year Alan Ginsberg read “Howl” in San Francisco, a young electrical engineer named Billy Kluver entered the PhD program in EE at Cal. Kluver was later hired by Bell Labs in New York, where his Bay Area bohemian experiences led him to start in 1965 the legendary Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) with Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage.

In 1966, Peter Selz curated “Directions in Kinetic Sculpture” at the Berkeley Art Museum, introducing the art world to sculptures driven by air, magnets, and electric motors. Two years later Doug Michels and Chip Lord founded Ant Farm, a collective that over the next decade explored the emerging technology of porta-pak video, created the video performance Media Burn, and built Cadillac Ranch.

In 1970, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center started its artist-in-residency program and Tom Marioni opened the Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA); both helped exhibit dozens of local artists, including SFAI’s Paul Kos who exhibited an audio installation “The Sound of Ice Melting” as the Residents moved to San Francisco and formed Ralph Records to germinate an audio technology counterculture including Meyer Sound, Dolby Labs, Naut Humon, Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT), Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), Mills Tape Center, and many others.

Lynn Hershman

In 1972, Lynn Hershman Leeson began her fictional persona performances and went on to pioneer a number of media art forms and by 1977 Sonya Rappaport had moved from painting to experimenting with electronic media and Sharon Grace developed a satellite communications system that allowed live interactive dance between NY and SF.

Survival Research Labs

In 1978, Mark Pauline founded the guerilla tech-art collective Survival Research Labs to create and present machine art performances around the world. SRL introduced welding and machining skills to a network of artists such as Kal Spelletich and Eric Paulos and led to institutions like the Crucible in the East Bay. Scavenging for “obtanium” was an integral action for accessing impossibly priced tech materials. Punk and Performance Art were influences on a movement described in “The Industrial Culture Handbook” published by V. Vale’s Re/Search.

Alan Rath

In 1981 Trudy Myrrh Reagan founded YLEM, Artists Using Science and Technology, worked with Eleanor Kent, Beverly Reiser, Stephen Wilson on newsletters and projects such as the 1983 exhibition that included Jaron Lanier’s art game for the Commodore 64, Scott Kim’s computer-manipulated calligraphy, and Lucia Grossberger-Morales’ video images manipulated on an Apple II. At the same time the San Francisco artist space New Langton Arts became the ongoing host of exhibitions by such artists as Alan Rath, Bill Bell, Milton Komisar and dozens of others. Antenna Theater introduced Walkman Theater with their piece Highschool in which the audience became an actor.

Burning Man in 1986

In 1984, Roger Malina, an astronomer at UC Berkeley, brought the Leonardo Foundation to the Bay Area where it’s monthly MIT Press journal was edited by Brian Rogers at SFSU. Two years later the first Burning Man event was launched by Larry Harvey and Jerry James on Baker Beach and a few miles away the Exploratorium exhibited work by multi-media artists Jim Pomeroy and Brian Eno. Pixar debuted “Luxo Junior” a short animation directed by John Lasseter, the first computer graphics film nominated for an Academy Award.

Also In 1992, Michael Naimark and other leading media artists started working at Interval Research in Palo Alto, George Coates Performance Works mixed live performance with real time computer generated 3D imagery, and Mark Petrakis started his long running series of monthly Anon Salons in San Francisco.

Chico MacMurtrie

In 1993, Jane Metcalfe and Louis Rossetto introduced WIRED magazine, building in part on the style of previous Bay Area publications like R.U. Sirius’ MONDO 2000 and Re/Search. WIRED hired Survival Research Labs to perform at their first anniversary party the following year and bOING bOING, then a print zine about technology, art, and high weirdness, had a shared office downstairs. In 1993 Chico MacMurtrie and Amorphic Robot Works presented Trigram: A Robotic Opera at Theater Artaud and in 1995, Will Linn opened the BlastHaus Gallery in SF.

Although the World Wide Web wasn’t invented here, when Jim Clark and Mark Andreeson founded Netscape in Palo Alto in 1995, thousands of artists and designers came to the Bay Area to launch the Internet industry which soon included Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and many others. In this midst of this paradigm shift, Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly created the Long Now Foundation.

In 1997, as the Kramlichs ramped up their collection of video art and Tiffany Shlain organized the first Webby Awards, colleagues and I at UC Berkeley launched a monthly public lecture series, “Art, Technology, and Culture” focusing on artists, thinkers, and writers who question assumptions and push the boundaries between these categories. The ATC series, now in its 20th year, has presented over 170 artists, writers, and critical thinkers including: Sophie Calle, Laurie Anderson, Bruno Latour, Maya Lin, Doug Aitken, Pierre Huyghe, Miranda July, David Byrne, Gary Hill, Charles Ray, Hubert Dreyfus, Julia Scher, Leo Villareal, Christopher Alexander, and Billy Kluver.

Zero1 Garage in San Jose

In 2000, BAM/PFA Matrix Curator Larry Rinder became curator of the Whitney Biennial and included Net Art for the first time. Andy Cunningham and Beau Takahara formed ZERO1: The Art and Technology Network, later led by Steve Dietz and Joel Slayton, who organized four Art and Technology Biennials in San Jose including works from sculptor Michael Joaquin Grey, creator of the ZOOB toys.

As the first Internet wave crested in 2001, Larry Lessig started Creative Commons to empower re-mix artists and SFMOMA opened 010101: Art in Technological Times later followed by a series of exhibits curated by Rudolf Frieling and Tanya Zimbardo. In 2002, Karen Marcelo started the SF Dorkbot monthly lecture series and JoAnne Northrup at the San Jose Museum of Art began curating retrospectives of media artists such as Jennifer Steinkamp and gallerists like Catharine Clark started representing media artists.

Jim Campbell Installation

In 2006 the first Maker Faire was held in San Mateo and Josette Melchor and Peter Hirshberg created the Gray Area Art Foundation. In 2008, Piero Scaruffi began organizing the monthly Leonardo Art Science Evenings (LASER) and BAM/PFA curator Rick Rinehart hosted a Funeral for Analog television. Literally hundreds of artists have come to the Bay Area to study art and technology at SFAI, SFSU, Berkeley, Stanford, Mills, CCA and other Bay Area schools.

In 2013, the Bay Area Art and Technology counterculture received international attention for the spectacular Bay Lights project initiated when Ben Davis, Timothy Childs, Amy Critchett, Dorka Keehn and others worked with Leo Villareal and recent advances in LED light technology to create the world’s largest light sculpture on the Bay Bridge.

Each wave of art and technology starts with a real or imagined discovery: land, gold, atomic elements, hallucinogens, circuits, algorithms. As Timothy Leary allegedly observed: “California is the end of the genetic runway.” The Northern California / Bay Area Art and Technology counterculture paves that runway with a true love of science and engineering, a deep resistance to authority, and an undaunted belief in Power to the People. The Bay Area is quick to forgive and embrace projects that don’t go the way they were intended. This ecosystem continues to explore and experiment with new ways to express ideas that could not be expressed before.


I wrote a preliminary version of this essay for the New Experiments in Art and Technology exhibit at the SF Contemporary Jewish Museum and expanded it for “100 Years of Robot Art and Science in the Bay Area”, a 20 November, 2015 discussion at the de Young Museum in San Francisco including Pieter Abbeel, Catharine Clark, Karen Marcelo, John Markoff, Josette Melchor, David Pescovitz, Zander Rose, Tim Roseborough, Dorothy Santos, Kal Spelletich, and Terry Winograd.

Thanks to Kevin Chen, Renny Pritikin, Natasha Boaz, Catharine Clark, Erik Davis, Rudolf Frieling, Michael Grey, Lynn Hershman, Connie Lewallen, Chip Lord, Tom Marioni, Marina McDougall, Susan Miller, JoAnne Northrup, David Pescovitz, Rick Rinehart, Alexander Rose, Joel Slayton, Tiffany Shlain, R.U. Sirius, V. Vale, and Pam Winfrey for advice, and apologies to all, especially professional historians, for omissions and errors.

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