Art Technology and Bay Area CounterCulture

Ken Goldberg


From pirates to prospectors to physicists and from poets to pranksters to programmers, the Bay Area has long been a magnet for mavericks impatient to reinvent the world. From Eadweard Muybridge’s 1860s experimental stop-motion cameras to the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo, the Bay Area has a rich history of “Art and Technology” counterculture: artists who use new technologies to explore and often critique the role of technology in culture.

Consider the Jewish brothers Oppenheimer who in the 1930s pursued research in physics at the University of California, Berkeley, by day and at night explored Bay Area bohemian nightclubs and coffee houses. Robert Oppenheimer was a professor there when he was recruited for the Manhattan Project. He later became highly critical of US policy on the bomb and Joseph McCarthy strenuously worked to discredit him. Although McCarthy despised the freedom of inquiry at Cal, his 1960 House Un-American Activities Committee meeting in San Francisco helped spark UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, which set the stage for the Anti-War Movement and the Summer of Love. McCarthy also undermined Robert’s younger brother and colleague at Cal, Frank Oppenheimer. 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.


The year Allen Ginsberg read "Howl" in San Francisco, a young electrical engineer named Billy Kluver started grad school at UC Berkeley. Kluver was later hired by Bell Labs in New York, where his Bay Area bohemian experiences led him to start in 1967 his legendary Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) with Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage.


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 Portapak video, created the video performance Media Burn, and built Cadillac Ranch.


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. In 1972, 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 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 New York and San Francisco.


Mark Pauline founded the guerilla tech-art collective Survival Research Labs (SRL) 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.


Trudy Myrrh Reagan founded YLEM, Artists Using Science and Technology, worked with Eleanor Kent, Beverly Reiser, and 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.


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 San Francisco State University (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. In 1992, Michael Naimark and other leading media artists started working at Interval Research in Palo Alto and Mark Petrakis started his long running series of monthly Anon Salons in San Francisco.


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 V. Vale's RE/Search.  In 1995, Will Linn opened the BlastHaus Gallery in SF.


Although the World Wide Web wasn’t invented here, when Jim Clark of Silicon Graphics founded Netscape in Palo Alto in 1995, thousands of artists and designers came to the Bay Area in the first wave of the Internet boom.


As Pamela and Richard Kramlich ramped up their collection of video art and Tiffany Shlain created the Webby Awards, at UC Berkeley I launched a monthly public lecture series, "Art, Technology, and Culture" (ATC) focusing on artists, thinkers, and writers who question assumptions and push the boundaries between these categories. The ATC series 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.


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, which has 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, Larry Lessig started Creative Commons to empower re-mix artists and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened a major exhibit: Art in Electronic Times followed by a series of exhibits curated by Rudolf Freiling 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.


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 TV. Literally hundreds of artists have come to the Bay Area to study art and technology at San Francisco Art Institute, SFSU, UC Berkeley, Stanford University, Mills College, California College of the Arts, and other Bay Area schools.


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 has evolved to explore, experiment, and to express ideas that could not be expressed before.

Thanks to

Catharine Clark, Erik Davis, Rudolf Frieling, Michael Grey, Connie Lewallen, Chip Lord, Tom Marioni, Marina McDougall, Susan Miller, JoAnne Northrup, David Pescovitz, Renny Pritikin, Rick Rinehart, Joel Slayton, Tiffany Shlain, R.U. Sirius, V. Vale, and Pam Winfrey, for advice and sincere apologies to those I have inadvertently left out due to limits on space and memory.

KEN GOLDBERG is an artist working in the field of robotics and automation, as well as a professor at University of California, Berkeley.