1960s Electric Arts: From Kinetic Sculpture to Media Environments

But what we have to consider essentially is the difference between the historical value and the contemporary value of a work of art in the electronic era. The former can be maintained by the reconstruction of the work from the preserved data while the actual original is lost sooner or later in the vicissitudes of a computer or otherwise. The latter remains in the creative minds of the future conceptors, whose memories are impregnated by these models or by other means - such as descriptions, analyses and reproductions in books - which allow the new creations to be adapted to contemporary issues and the state of the technology.
(Frank Popper, "Origins of Virtualism: An Interview with Frank Popper
conducted by Joseph Nechtaval", CAA Art Journal, Spring 2004)

At the beginning of the Twenty-first Century, the use of electricity-based technologies in art-making practices is as ubiquitous as the use of paintbrushes or a chisel. We live in an immersive, super-saturated media environment where electric current is as essential to our existence as oxygen or running water, and today's artists take electricity and the vast array of tools it powers for granted as a basic part of their creative toolbox. How has it happened that these electric media tools have become so accessible and acceptable in the artworld? And what can we learn from the artists who pioneered their usage in the last century?

Twentieth Century art history is filled with myriad stories of artists using electricity-based mechanical and communications technologies such as film (still and motion picture), audio, video, and computers. Starting with the inventions of photography, telephone, audio, and other communications-based technologies at the end of the 19th century, artists have always been early adopters and experimenters of the "new" technologies of their times, discovering and propagating creative, more humane uses for man-made machines. This document and accompanying screening will present a snapshot of key multimedia artists and artworks from the Big Bang collision of art and technology in the Twentieth Century - the 1960s - when all the key communications technologies first became accessible as art making tools. The selection of six archival films and videos presents an audiovisual spectrum of new ideas and technology-infused artworks created by a community of visionary artists who mostly lived and worked in New York City during that tumultuous and transformational decade.

Major early Twentieth Century art movements that first utilized electrical communications technologies include Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism, Futurism, and the Bauhaus. These revolutionary movements that focused on the complex relationships between art, technology and human consciousness were originated mostly by European artists, many of whom later came to America as political refugees of the two World Wars. Exiled artists and teachers Josef Albers, Hans Hofmann, Marcel Duchamp, Arnold Schoenberg and many others taught at schools that included the Chicago Art Institute, Yale University, and the seminal Black Mountain College in North Carolina. They passed their new ideas and artworks on to young, receptive American artists who had grown up in the postwar conformity of a prosperous middle-class consumer culture.

Many of these young artists started out as painters who rejected the narrow forms and precepts of the established art world. They rebelled against Abstract Expressionism, which emphasized the solitary, inner life of the artist. They chose not to work in isolation, but in a more collective and collaborative mode as they experimented with newly accessible multimedia art forms and technologies, including new postwar inventions like portable film cameras, carousel slide projectors, and lightweight audio recorders. They broke down the traditional artist stereotypes and boundaries between art forms and art and life, and began to question and explore the predominant mass media environment transmitted by the communications media technologies of radio, telephone, cinema, and television.

The early 60s were also an expansive time for science and technology when anything seemed possible, even going to the moon. With the Russian Sputnik-induced Space Race at full throttle, science and technology were valorized and seen as the epitome of American initiative and know-how. Critic Susan Sontag articulated a "new sensibility" of connecting technology to the arts in "Against Interpretation" written in 1961:

What gives literature its preeminence is its heavy burden of 'content.' Both reportage and moral judgment…But the model arts of our time are actually those with much less content, and a much cooler mode of moral judgment - like music, films, dance, architecture, painting, sculpture. The practice of these arts - all of which draw profusely, naturally, and without embarrassment, upon science and technology - are the locus of the new sensibility. In fact there can be no divorce between science and technology, on the one hand, and art, on the other, any more than there can be a divorce between art and the forms of social life. [1]

Attempting to escape the 1950s conformist culture they grew up with, young artists such as Robert Rauschenberg (born in Port Arthur, Texas), Trisha Brown (Aberdeen, WA), Andy Warhol (Pittsburgh), Allan Kaprow (Atlantic City), Bob Dylan (Hibbing, MN), and many, many others migrated to the same small urban village in New York City - Greenwich Village - where they could work and live on very little money. Greenwich Village, with its notorious bohemian history of artistic and political fervor, became Ground Zero in the late 1950s and early 1960s for artists from such disparate places and disciplines as painting, sculpture, modern dance, film, poetry, and folk music to meet, socialize, exchange ideas, and work together collectively on large multi-media events and performances. Dancers Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Deborah Hay, and Lucinda Childs all studied and danced together, and began producing mixed-media dance pieces with other artists at the progressive Judson Church on Washington Square. They danced for Merce Cunningham and also took John Cage's composition class at the New School, where they met other artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Allan Kaprow, Dick Higgins, and Robert Whitman. Their performances were attended mostly by fellow artists and musicians such as Andy Warhol, Robert Morris, Nam June Paik and many others who often helped out or performed with them.

Dance historian Sally Banes describes this expansive time of the new American avant-garde in the early 1960s in her book about the Judson Dance Theater called "Democracy's Body":

…The country's postwar mood of pragmatism was reflected in the various arts, from the Happenings that made use of environments at hand, to the New Realism, or Pop Art depiction of figures and objects and making reference to industrial subjects and styles. The economy was expanding, and the new Kennedy administration stressed youth, art, and culture. There were few grants for individual dancers, but there was a spirit of willing participation and an interest in using inexpensive materials; one could live cheaply and make art cheaply. The Greenwich Village beatnik culture had catalyzed a renaissance of a 'bohemia' that had long been the reputation of the neighborhood. The area was an intensive center of theatrical, literary, and artistic activities and ideas that spread freely and flowed from one art form to another. The philosophical fascinations with Zen Buddhism, existentialism, and phenomenology fit well with certain aspects of American art in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The concreteness of existence, the interest in the everyday actions people practice, the questions of identity, both individual and collective, that were the topics of these philosophical systems - at least in their popular versions - were appropriate questions for modernist artists after the middle of the twentieth century. …Poetry, music, theater, and dance stressed performance more than the literary aspect of their forms, aspiring to more immediacy, more 'presentness,' more concrete experience. …If the Village was a place where artists and intellectuals gathered to partake of the diversity and community spirit that gathering created, and to pursue a new identity that could only be formed in such a community, it was also the place where they examined the identities of those arts, working at the edges of artistic conventions and analyzing the process of making that art. [2]

The late 1950s and early 60s was an optimistic, utopian time in the arts when artists questioned and often transcended traditional art forms like painting, dance, music and theater, exploring new ways of making art by incorporating the materials of the "new" technologies of the day. This is a technology-based art history rich in visionary ideas, artists and multiple art movements such as Happenings, Fluxus, Expanded Cinema, Underground Film, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, New Dance, and New Music that planted the conceptual and technological seeds for today's electronic-based multimedia processes and art forms. It is also a history mostly hidden and often ignored by traditional art historians and educators.

Underground, or experimental filmmaking, flourished after World War II with the invention of relatively inexpensive, portable cameras and sound recorders. Filmmakers such as Stan Vanderbeek, Jud Yalkut, Ronald Nameth, and Robert Breer used Happenings and other multimedia events and festivals occurring around them as subject matter for their own experimental films. Breer, who was initially a sculptor, had met Swiss machine artist Jean Tinguely when they were in a group show of postwar kinetic art called "Le Mouvement" in Paris in 1955. Tinguely was part of an earlier generation of European artists called "The New Realists" who included Yves Klein and Christo. He declared that "life is movement," and "everything transforms itself, everything modifies itself ceaselessly, and to try to check life in mid-flight and recapture it in the form of a work of art, a sculpture or a painting, seems to me a mockery of the intensity of life."[3] The New Realists preferred blatant commercial-industrial materials and imagery that was a prelude to the tide of technologically-oriented art that swept through Europe and the U.S. in the early 1960s.

When Tinguely came to New York City in 1960, he enlisted the help of Breer and Billy Kluver, a neighbor of Breer's who was a Swedish-born laser systems engineer working for Bell Laboratories. Kluver assisted Tinguely in building his infamous auto-destructive "Hommage to New York" kinetic, or movement-based, sculpture. "Hommage" was a massive assemblage of wheels, airplane parts and other junk that screeched, whirred, and otherwise was in constant motion. Breer filmed the assembling and the subsequent public performance of the artwork, including an unanticipated fire, in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art on March 17, 1960.

During that event, Billy Kluver met Robert Rauschenberg, who later asked Kluver to help create a series of five sculptures called "Oracle" that made sounds when photocells were activated by observers in the gallery space. Rauschenberg, in turn, introduced Kluver to his circle of artist-friends who included Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Whitman, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, and Simone Forti Whitman, who was part of the collective of dancers known as the Judson Dance Theater mentioned above. Kluver began working with many of these artists to help them create Happenings and technology-based artworks, multi-media performances and theatrical pieces, giving him first-hand insight into the collaborative process that was possible between artists and engineers who came from different worlds.

Kluver and Rauschenberg produced a landmark series of technology-based performances in the 69th Regiment Armory in October, 1966 called "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering." This large-scale collaborative event, with Bell Labs engineers designing new uses for technologies such as infrared video and wireless radio transmitters for ten Greenwich Village-based artists (John Cage, Robert Whitman, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, David Tudor, Oyvind Fahlstrom, Lucinda Childs, Alex Hay and Rauschenberg), convinced Kluver and Rauschenberg to form an organization called Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) in 1967 to help other artists meet and work collaboratively with engineers.

"Variations V," a multi-media dance performance film recorded by German television in 1966, was a forerunner of the '9 Evenings' performances. It was choreographed by Merce Cunningham, with music by John Cage, films by Stan Vanderbeek, TV images by Nam June Paik, and engineering by Kluver and his Bell Labs colleagues. It is representative of the historic community created by the mixing of artforms and technologies, and the collaborative coming together of the rarefied worlds of art and engineering described above.

"'Variations V' is a multi-media work involving sound-sensitive electronic poles placed around the stage. The sound is triggered by the dancer's movements and then altered or delayed by the musicians. Filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek recorded rehearsals of the dancers and then overlayed this footage as well as other stock footage images in the final film. Composer Nam June Paik projected these images on television screens during the performance. Non-dance related activities were also performed. Merce Cunningham potted a large plant and Carolyn Brown repotted it. The plant had a microphone attached to it so that any movement would produce sound. At the end of the piece, Merce Cunningham rode a bicycle through the space." [4]

John Cage was the lead artist/composer of "Variations V," collaborating with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, media artists, and engineers. "He and David Tudor settled on two systems for the sound to be affected by movement. For the first, Billy Kluver and his colleagues set up a system of directional photocells aimed at the stage lights, so that the dancers triggered sounds as they cut the light beams with their movements. A second system used a series of antennas. When a dancer came within four feet of an antenna a sound would result. Ten photocells were wired to activate tape-recorders and short-wave radios. Cecil Coker designed a control circuit, which was built by assistant Witt Wittnebert. Film footage by Stan Vanderbeek and Nam June Paik's manipulated television images were projected on screens behind the dancers. The photocells were located at the base of the five-foot antennas placed around the stage. Cage, Tudor, and Gordon Mumma operated equipment to modify and determine the final sounds." [5]

In 1962, another group of artists and engineers formed a collective called the Us Company, or USCO, in an abandoned church just north of New York City. As Douglas Davis described them, "The 'US Company'…set up shop - plus a permanent environmental light display - in an abandoned Garnerville, New York, church. Including artists, engineers, poets, and filmmakers, USCO mixed film, tapes, slides, and light in its audiovisual performances, each in strong, unmodulated quantities…. USCO's leaders were strongly influenced by McLuhan's ideas as expressed in his book 'Understanding Media.' Their environments - performed in galleries, churches, schools, and museums across the United States - increased in complexity with time, culminating in multiscreen audiovisual 'worlds' and strobe environments. They saw technology as a means of bringing people together in a new and sophisticated tribalism. In pursuit of that ideal, they lived, worked, and created together in virtual anonymity. 'We are all one,' the group declared in a statement in the 'Kunst Licht Kunst' catalogue, 'beating the tribal drum of our new electronic environment.'" [6]

Gerd Stern, one of the three founders of USCO, was born in 1928 in Germany and came to America in 1936 with his family to escape Hitler. His diverse life experiences encapsulate some of the wide-ranging popular culture and art movements of the 1960s, which include writing Beat poetry in San Francisco, being a manager for micro-tonal composer Harry Partch, and writing about travel for Playboy magazine. Greatly influenced by the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, he and the other members of USCO defined the term "Intermedia" as being "the simultaneous use of various media to create a total environment experience for the audience. Meaning is communicated, not by coding ideas into abstract literary language, but by creating an emotionally real experience through the use of audio-visual technology. Originally conceived in the realm of art rather than in science or engineering, the principles on which intermedia is based are grounded in the fields of psychology, information theory, and communication engineering."[7]

Stan Vanderbeek is another visionary artist who embraced the new technologies of film, video, and computers. "A pioneer in the development of experimental film and live-action animation technique, Vanderbeek achieved widespread recognition in the American avant-garde cinema. An advocate of the application of a utopian fusion of art and technology, he began making films in 1955. In the 1960s, he produced theatrical, multimedia pieces and computer animation, often working in collaboration with Bell Telephone Laboratories. In the 1970s, he constructed a 'Movie-Drome' in Stony Point, New York, which was an audiovisual laboratory for the projection of film, dance, magic theater, sound and other visual effects. His multimedia experiments included movie murals, projection systems, planetarium events and the exploration of early computer graphics and image-processing systems" [8] that were the precursors of Virtual Reality and other immersive digital environments. Gloria Sutton describes Vanderbeek's backyard Movie-Drome as a new type of experiential multi-image artwork in "Future Cinema:"

This experience exceeded the function of a standard theater or exhibition setting even in the eyes of an experimental-art audience accustomed to the staccato pacing of 'underground film,' to the dramatized spontaneity of Performance Art and Happenings, and to the spectacular effects of commercial media technology that was beginning to widen commercial film screens, multiply the reach of television, and accelerate the rate of telecommunication. Within this intimately scaled dome, the phenomenological experience of multiple image-projection itself became the subject of the work… Rather than developing out of an infatuation with emerging consumer electronic and portable video technology, it was his own personal frustrations working with theater, painting and sculpture that specifically provoked Vanderbeek's focus on multimedia art…Recognizing what he identified as 'the limitations of the four walls of theater,' and the 'visual boundaries' of painting and sculpture, Vanderbeek sought a medium that would move beyond optical representation and deal with motion and time 'while accommodating all of th[o]se other ideas of painting, sculpture and theater.' [9]

Vanderbeek, making art with the advanced media of his day, foresaw the coming of the Internet as he explored the teachings of McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller through his multimedia projections in his Movie-Drome. He envisioned a distribution network of similar domed structures that connected audiences around the world to a universal audio-visual language composed of sound, images, and movement through time and space. He conjectured that "in the future, a similar Movie-Drome could receive its images by satellite from a worldwide library source, store them and program a feedback presentation to the local community. Dialogues with other centers would be likely, and instant reference material via transmission television and telephone could be called for and received at 186,000 mile-per-second from anywhere in the world." [10]

VanDerBeek's prophetic description of the expansion of written and spoken language to include the use of still and moving images and sounds is still in a nascent development stage. He was able to see, over forty years ago, the coming of broadband Internet technologies that will soon transmit this universal "picture-language" all over the world. His manifesto entitled "Culture: Intercom and Expanded Cinema, a Proposal" published in 1965 urged:

That immediate research begin on the possibility of an international
Picture-language using fundamentally motion pictures.
That we research immediately existing audio-visual devices,
to combine these
Devices into an educational tool, that I shall call an 'experience machine'
Or a 'culture-intercom'…
The development of new image-making devices…
(the storage and transfer of image materials, motion pictures, television,
computers, video-tape, etc….)
In short, a complete examination of all audio-visual devices and procedures,
With the idea in mind to find the best combination of such machines for
Non-verbal inter-change.

As an artist-in-residence and instructor at MIT, Vanderbeek also created early computer art in an effort to get as close as possible to the functioning of the human nervous system. "For the artist, moving into the area of computers is extending his mind with a tool technically as responsive as himself," Vanderbeek said. "To think about his work is, for the artist, doing his work. An abstract notation system for making movies and image storage and retrieval systems open a door to a kind of mental attitude of movie-making…the artist is no longer restricted to the exact execution of the form; so long as he is clear in his mind as to what he wants, eventually he can realize his movie or work on a computer somewhere. Technology becomes the amplifier for the human imagination." [12]

Vanderbeek was also part of a first generation of artists who began to explore and gain access to television and the "new" portable video technology pioneered by Sony in the mid-sixties with the introduction of their ½" reel-to-reel Portapak video recorder. For the first time, artists were able to explore the new properties of video, with its ability to record and play back images in real time that was uniquely different from film. Up until the invention of the Portapak, artists could only examine TV from the outside, playing with the image on the TV screen or treating the TV console like a piece of sculpture. By the late sixties, artists were producing a wide range of video art tapes that included experimental single-channel tapes, social issues documentaries, multi-channel video installations, and video documents of live performances.

From 1960 to 1970, Howard Wise founded a gallery in New York City that presented the full spectrum of electricity-based art forms of that decade, ranging from kinetic art to multimedia works that explored the nexus of art and technology. According to Electronic Arts Intermix, a video distribution organization that Wise founded in 1971, "The gallery featured several groundbreaking exhibitions that included… the landmark 1969 'TV as a Creative Medium.' The first exhibition dedicated to video (or television) in the United States, 'TV as a Creative Medium' included artists such as Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, and Aldo Tambellini. In addition to defining an emerging artistic movement, this influential exhibition revealed the need for new paradigms to support artists working in video….Prescient in its diversity, the exhibition featured performance, objects, closed-circuit installations, with works as varied as Paik and Moorman's 'TV Bra for Living Sculpture,' Schneider's 'Wipe Cycle' and Thomas Tadlock's 'Archetron.' As with other revolutions, 'TV as a Creative Medium' was both the grand finale of an idea - the kinetic art movement of the 1960s - and an indication of the future - the impact of video and television in the hands of artists." [13]

By viewing a sampling of historic films and videos that represent a continuum of artists' uses of electricity-based machines and technologies in the 1960s, one can see the rapidly expanding exploration of media-based technologies by artists. Starting with Tinguely's auto-destructive kinetic sculptures made out of old machines and other man-made materials at the beginning of the decade, we move quickly to a multimedia dance and music performance in 1965 where artists and engineers worked together as collaborators to explore and integrate new uses for more sophisticated media technologies like television and wireless transmitters that were core elements of the artwork. USCO's uses of technologies such as strobes, slide and film projectors, and audiotapes attempted to create a more holistic, interactive environment designed to alter the audience's perceptions and consciousness. Stan Vanderbeek, with his prophetic call for the development of a universal picture language, experimented with the expansion of the media space itself in his Movie-Drome, combining film, video, slides, music and live performance in an immersive physical space. He also explored the new creative space of computer graphics. And when portable video became accessible in the late 60s, artists began to more fully explore the pervasive media landscape and its relationship to human consciousness through the use of video as communication, alternative television content, and as a transformer of awareness and physical spaces. Artists moved quickly from making objects to raising consciousness in the span of ten years, and electric media-based technologies were the tools that made the beginnings of this continuing mind-bending transformational artmaking process possible.

Robin Oppenheimer is a media arts historian, consultant and curator. This essay accompanies the film screening of 1960's Electric Arts that she has curated for People Doing Strange Things With Electricity II.

Seattle, Washington
January 2005

[1] Susan Sontag, "On Culture and the New Sensibility," Against Interpretation." New York: Dell Publishing, 1966, p. 299.

[2] Sally Banes, "Democracy's Body: Judson Dance Theater, 1962-1964." Duke University Press, 1993, pp. xv-xviii.

[3] Calvin Tompkins, "The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde." The Viking Press, 1962, p. 150.



[6] Douglas Davis, "Art and the Future: A History/Prophecy of the Collaboration Between Science, Technology and Art. New York." Praeger, 1973, p. 67.

[7] Gene Youngblood, "Expanded Cinema." E.P. Dutton and Co, 1974. p. 348.


[9] Gloria Sutton, "Stan Vanderbeek's Movie-Drome: Networking the Subject" in "Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film." Edited by Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel, MIT Press and ZKM/Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany, 2003. pp. 136-138.

[10] Janet Vrchote, "Stan Vanderbeek: Technology's Migrant Fruit Picker," in "Print," vol. 27, no. 2, March/April, 1973. p. 49.

[11] Stan Vanderbeek, "'Culture: Intercom' and Expanded Cinema, a Proposal'" in "The New American Cinema." Gregory Battock (ed.), Dutton, New York, 1976, p. 173.

[12] Johanna Vanderbeek, Re:Voir Video catalogue, 2000.