MIT Press

Copyright ©2020 W. Patrick McCray All rights reserved. The following excerpt is reprinted from Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture by W. Patrick McCray. Reprinted with permission of MIT Press.


Like many younger electrical engineers, particularly these with superior coaching from elite colleges, [Billy] Klüver had a wealth of alternatives accessible to him when he accomplished his diploma. Raytheon, RCA, and the Stanford Research Institute all supplied him high-paying jobs, however he determined to just accept a place within the Communications Research Department at Bell Lab’s facility in Murray Hill, New Jersey. One think about his resolution was the chance to work with extra senior researchers who shared his analysis pursuits. The indisputable fact that Bell Labs was arguably the most effective industrial analysis lab on the earth didn’t damage.

Long earlier than Klüver arrived at Bells Labs, the group had grow to be a fount of technological innovation. Of the some 14,000 individuals it employed, solely about 5 % have been formally engaged in fundamental analysis — a lot of the lab’s actions have been directed towards the incremental enchancment of current merchandise and techniques — however these have been among the most proficient researchers within the nation. The hierarchy among the many technicians, engineers, and scientists positioned staff with PhDs (sometimes designated as Members of the Technical Staff) on the high. One electrical engineer who labored at Bell Labs within the Nineteen Sixties recalled that the Murray Hill facility offered an attractive “palette of sounds, smells, and experiences.” Conversations spilled over to hallways and cafeteria tables whereas labs emitted odors of soldered circuits and the greenish glows from oscilloscopes lit up darkened areas. “Everyone,” he recalled, “appeared in a rush on their method to a brand new discovery.”

When Klüver began his new place in 1958, his supervisor was John R. Pierce, who was already legendary as an engineer and analysis supervisor. During World War II, Pierce had lobbied his firm to undertake a tool known as a “touring wave tube.” It enabled, with little distortion, the highly effective amplification of microwave indicators. Pierce’s dazzling analysis and efficient lobbying helped persuade American Telephone and Telegraph, Bell Labs’ guardian firm, to spend money on a brand new, continent-spanning communication system. During the Nineteen Fifties, AT&T dotted the panorama with microwave relay towers and Pierce, very a lot the visionary, wrote speculative items about future “orbital earth relays” that may additional facilitate international communication. Pierce’s advocacy culminated with the launch of a number of communications satellites and he supervised engineers at Bell Labs who helped construct and function them.

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Frank J Malina

Malina Family Archive

Like [Frank J.] Malina and Klüver, Pierce’s pursuits prolonged far past engineering. This included writing science fiction beneath the pseudonym J.J. Coupling and composing experimental music. Pierce proved remarkably tolerant of Klüver’s art-and-technology efforts, seeing these as actions that would profit engineers in addition to artists. One additionally senses Pierce’s conviction that supporting such interdisciplinary efforts was one thing an internationally famend group like Bell Labs ought to do. Throughout the Nineteen Sixties, buoyed by AT&T’s earnings, the lab supported a small coterie of artists-in-residence, resembling Nam June Paik, James Tenney, Lillian Schwartz, and Stan VanDerBeek.

Many of the instruments and units that Klüver and his engineering colleagues labored with each day have been later absorbed into the art-and- know-how motion. These included lasers—a fertile new space of analysis at Bell Labs that Klüver joined—in addition to microelectronics, tv and video techniques, computer-generated speech, wi-fi sign transmission, and even the manufacturing know-how used to make inflatable communication satellites. “I had colours on my palette,” Klüver recalled, “that no one else had in New York. I had Bell Laboratories at my disposal.”

Being a division of AT&T, most of Bell Labs’ analysis was essentially directed towards communication applied sciences. But the lab’s employees and managers interpreted this so expansively that it was conceivably simpler to checklist areas that Bell Labs’ researchers weren’t engaged in. Klüver discovered himself working amid an especially proficient cohort with backgrounds starting from psychology and acoustics to physics and laptop science.

AT&T’s Cold War-driven profitability supplied its engineers with the safety to pursue alternatives in esoteric areas that lacked a direct industrial payoff or to issues that, to an outsider, would possibly appear to have little to do with engineering per se. For instance, Bell Labs employed Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, two radio astronomers fascinated with microwave radiation. In 1964, they began experimenting with a specifically designed antenna at Bell’s analysis facility in Holmdel, New Jersey. Originally constructed to choose up radio wave transmissions bouncing off passive communications satellites, the faint static Penzias and Wilson detected in 1964 was interpreted because the 13.7-billion-year-old background radiation from the Big Bang. Wilson and Penzias shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978 for his or her serendipitous discovering, a discovery partially enabled by Bell Labs’ tolerance, even encouragement, of analysis actions which appeared to have little to do with telephones.

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Cosmos - Malina 1965

Malina Family Archive

In 1965, Pierce wrote an article for Playboy that informed the journal’s readers about how researchers have been utilizing computer systems to do issues apart from fixing equations or collating knowledge. Focusing on his colleagues’ experimental forays into artwork and music, Pierce (with Klüver offering background info) offered a energetic “portrait of the machine as a younger artist.” Pierce himself had already been making computer-generated music for a number of years with fellow engineer Max Mathews. Mathews, who directed the lab’s Acoustical and Behavioral Research Center, had additionally helped program an IBM laptop to sing the tune “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” (this composition later appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey when HAL 9000, the homicidal laptop, mournfully performs this tune as it’s deactivated). Bell Labs tolerated, if not inspired, this eclectic work due to its potential functions for digital speech synthesis, a subject that may curiosity any communications firm.

One of the extra intriguing anecdotes Pierce shared with Playboy’s readership was an experiment that Bell researcher A. Michael Noll had not too long ago carried out. Using a pc and microfilm plotter, Noll created a picture similar to Piet Mondrian’s 1917 portray Composition with Lines. Noll then requested Bell Labs’ employees to attempt to differentiate between the unique and his model. Only 28 % accurately recognized the Mondrian and, when questioned additional, virtually 60 % mentioned they most popular Noll’s computer-generated picture (it later received first prize in a contest sponsored by the journal Computer and Automation). Still, Pierce confessed he felt compelled to ask, “It’s fascinating however is it artwork?”

Video artist Nam June Paik, who hung out at Bell Labs as an artist-in-residence, already had his reply: “If you might be stunned with the outcome,” he later informed an interviewer, “then the machine has composed the piece.” Paik and Klüver have been already acquainted with one another. The Korean-born artist had even ready a Sonata quasi una fantasia for Billie Kluver, an essay of kinds by which he proposed “some utopian or much less utopian concepts and phantasies.” Referencing Klüver’s personal skilled analysis, Paik requested, “Can the laser, so-said breakthrough in digital [sic], grow to be additionally the breakthrough in artwork?” After noting that “sometime each high-brow could have a laser cellphone quantity” that “allows us to speak with everybody in all places wirelessly and concurrently,” Paik suggested his buddy to “please, tele-fuck!”

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Klüver, impressed by his conversations with Paik and different artists, suggested Pierce that computer systems, lasers, and the like have been akin to a “superb new paint.” Judging what computer systems and their programmers produced must wait till “preconceived requirements of what we predict artwork is” had time to correctly regulate. For the second, Klüver instructed that “the most effective definition of what artwork is is implicit in Marcel Duchamp’s work: An individual calls himself an artist. He makes an object which he calls artwork. Others come and look and agree that the article is artwork.” Klüver’s disinterest in delineating “artwork” from “know-how” — or adjudicating good artwork from unhealthy — would grow to be central to E.A.T.’s technique of ignoring aesthetic judgments in favor of supporting the collaborative course of itself.

Klüver had continued desirous about the social lifetime of know-how and the purported cultural divide between artists and engineers after he began working at Bell Labs. Like many educated individuals, Klüver adopted the controversy Snow’s two cultures lecture provoked. “I reacted very strongly in opposition to it,” Klüver recalled, “I didn’t really feel he had the proper to divide society into two separate cultures.” Nonetheless, one necessary facet of Snow’s prognosis resonated strongly with the engineer: “It was his name for motion to bridge the hole that I subconsciously agreed with.” For Klüver, this translated into getting instantly concerned with the modern artwork scene round him.