Renny Pritikin, CJM Chief Curator, with thanks to Paolo Salvagione
The Hebrew Bible seems to be elemental, like sky and sea, ancient and permanent, embodying the totality of the Jewish religion. In fact, Judaism is not at heart a biblical religion, but is often described as a rabbinic religion. That is, the Jewish Bible is not immutable in the same way that it is in Bible-based religions. Rather, for the Jews it is a starting point, from which flows centuries of scholarship among rabbis and other scholars, which leads to a permanently evolving understanding about the world. Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman has written, “Facts as presented in the Bible were appropriate for their time, and now new truths have been attained, and that is fine. Science is about creating hypotheses and testing data against these theories. Judaism is about how we act to improve this world, here and now. And these processes can easily go hand in hand.”1 In short then, for Judaism there is no essential conflict between religion and scientific innovation. The Contemporary Jewish Museum has organized an original exhibition, New Experiments in Art and Technology (NEAT), which celebrates this essential Jewish commitment to embracing new forms of knowledge.2
NEAT is a reimagining of a seminal series of projects, titled E.A.T., Experiments in Art and Technology, which ran from 1968 to 1981. E.A.T. was officially launched by the engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer and the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. These men had previously collaborated in 1966 when they organized 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a series of performance art presentations that united artists and engineers. Ten New York artists worked with thirty engineers and scientists from Bell Telephone Laboratories to create groundbreaking performances that incorporated new technology. Artists involved with 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering included: John Cage, Lucinda Childs,
"The act of computer programming is understood as a new tool or technology that many artists use routinely to create work, not essentially unlike a paintbrush or a pencil, and is no longer a mysterious and inaccessible scientific knowledge."
Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, and Robert Whitman.3 E.A.T. continued to support such collaborations well into the 1980s. An exhibition revisiting E.A.T. opened at the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Austria in July 2015, curated by Kathy Battista.
Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the roles of artist and engineer have merged. The act of computer programming is understood as a new tool or technology that many artists use routinely to create work, not essentially unlike a paintbrush or a pencil, and is no longer a mysterious and inaccessible scientific knowledge. Similarly, interdisciplinary thinking that combines electrical engineering and art making is inherent to many individual artists now, eliminating the necessity to combine the skills of two people with different training. (It is interesting to note that at the same time as E.A.T., a group of artists at Yale University organized a project called Pulsa, which celebrated the early appearance of artist engineers without corporate involvement.) NEAT takes a look at the state of artist-engineering aesthetics from the same number of artists as the initial E.A.T.; however all the artists are pointedly from the Bay Area, (rather than New York, as was the case in E.A.T.). The Bay Area, we argue, has been and continues to be the most vital center for such work in the world. It is important to note as well that NEAT is a celebration of the independent digital artist, to some considerable extent free from direct corporate control, as some critics have characterized both E.A.T. and the current climate of Silicon Valley relations with artists.
"The CJM is in part dedicated to fostering innovation at the intersection of contemporary art and Judaism; NEAT examines artists working at the crossroads of contemporary art and technology."
Is it odd to suggest an interesting three-way relationship among scientific innovation, contemporary art, and Judaism? As stated above, the Jewish tradition is open to, even feeds on, new scientific ideas. The CJM is in part dedicated to fostering innovation at the intersection of contemporary art and Judaism; NEAT examines artists working at the crossroads of contemporary art and technology. A coherent synthesis among all three traditions is not unlikely. Artists who have resided in San Francisco over three generations—three each roughly in their sixties, their forties, and their twenties—demonstrate that digital forms now encompass visual art, media art, sound art and other forms by sole practitioners. The CJM argues that its home, The Bay Area, has been the international hub for this activity since the 1970s, adding another reason that the exhibition should take place here.
The nine artists in NEAT have been commissioned to make new or updated work utilizing original digital and robotic sculpture. Paul DeMarinis has been making digital sound sculptures and other works since the mid-seventies. He has had an ongoing interest in nineteenth century technologies that have been largely lost or forgotten despite having been discovered simultaneously with others that achieved vast acceptance. In many instances these discoveries were more aesthetically provocative than the forms that gained wide application—like recordings heard through flames rather than loudspeakers. Between the lines is speculation about the nature of industrial relations with innovation. DeMarinis’ works often display a wit rare in experimental work, such as his umbrella that transforms the impact of rain on its surface into the pop tune, "Singin’ in the Rain." He also doesn’t mind having a touch of the wondrous—as when he deconstructed the early digital child’s toy, Speak and Spell, to be played on a guitar-like instrument. For this exhibition the artist offers a sound installation that refers back to the classic do-it-yourself days of the 1980s when low budgets and modest means were the rule. Simple aluminum pie plates in a gridded and suspended cloud generate staccato percussive sounds when struck by dancing metal shards reacting to interruptions in the flow of an electronic signal. The echoes of the sound, and the clicks of the breaking current in the associated loudspeakers, in addition to the otoacoustic (internal ear-originated) emissions, create a complex soundscape for the attentive listener: falling rain, or faint and faraway marches.
Jim Campbell explores the limits of visual perception by widely separating individual pixels of moving images. The brain, we find, will synthesize these bits of light-information into coherent narrative, even when given the most minimal amounts of information. Campbell has done a series of curtain-like works that use individual pixels to project found home movies onto white walls. For NEAT he presents a new work that offers an innovation: the mural-scale pixelized projection is augmented by a number of strategically placed pixels that extends the moving image to adjoining walls. This creates a sense of almost three dimensional, inclusive space to the piece, as the visual ellipsis—the gap between pixels—is pushed even further apart and onto perpendicular walls. Alan Rath was among the very first artists to store images using ROM technology; he also has had a growing and long-term interest in robotics and kinetic sculpture. Rath prioritizes the perhaps old-fashioned notion of the artist’s hand—he fabricates almost all his parts himself. He also argues that the content of his work is the form it takes, how he solves design problems in the most elegant way he can. That is, the objects he makes should be understood as a whole, that the images presented are not the sole intended end of his work; rather, in some ways they are the least important part of his practice. He also parodies the utopian claims made for technological innovation and artificial intelligence fantasies while at the same time his kinetic robotic figures demonstrate the enormous potential of digitized machine behavior as sculpture. Camille Utterback makes interactive video projects that track the movement of viewers and transforms that information into abstract and evolving painting-like projections. Utterback adds that, “there are usually other behaviors happening that are less obvious, but that contribute to the complexity of the image that evolves—i.e. behaviors that connect different moments of time, behaviors that respond to "stillness," different movements that erase as well as add marks.” For NEAT, she works for the first time with evanescent, multi-layered scrims as projection material. The work is an attempt by the artist to have viewers not only interacting with the computer program, but also facing each other on the other side of the scrim, jointly creating a two sided, transparent image. Scott Snibbe was one of the first artists to move into the burgeoning field of applications for phones and tablets around 2005. His piece for NEAT, REWORK_, (with the key collaborator Lukas Girling), allows the viewer to interact with remixes of Philip Glass’ music using iPad responsive abstract animation to both visualize music and to create original musical compositions in Glass’ early style. The goal for many artists in the field has been to have a democratic relationship between makers and those engaged, where information is shared and responses become equal parts of the work, and monetary exchange is minimized or eliminated; Snibbe’s work reflects those values. Paolo Salvagione uses his engineering background to create complex sensory experiences for his viewers: vertigo and emotional transport by being suspended from a second floor window or overwhelming memory by inhaling deeply from concentrated essential aromas. For NEAT he has created a machine using electronics and 3D printing to create eerily alive line drawings in space. Ropes attached to the gizmo flail in space, ecstatically free yet also restrained by one foot, often forming symmetrical patterns like water ballet. Gabriel Dunne (with collaborator Vishal K. Dar), Mary Franck, and Micah Elizabeth Scott, the youngest cohort in NEAT, all work with innovative algorithmic research to create self-generating, evolving installations of light and sound. For NEAT, Dunne and Dar project abstract, mathematically generated patterns onto a large, wall-mounted, undulating form. Franck has made a video wall, which fills with layered, organic imagery that merges surface and image, and suggests an unidentified but organic, living colony. Scott presents an installation for a contained space in which a suspended globe emits powerful color. Scott works with algorithms that create environments combining linked light and sound effects.
Fifty years ago the eventual inventor of the diode (William Shockley) received a research contract and relocated from the East Coast to the peninsula south of San Francisco. Half a century later the presence of Silicon Valley has attracted hundreds of artists to the Bay Area to take advantage of the pool of accumulated expertise here, and for access to specialized materials widely available from surplus shops and fabricators. The nine artists in this exhibition have been working to reconcile solid-state electronic innovation with aesthetic practice. The exhibition was inspired by the irresistible opportunity to connect the dots of Jewish traditions, trends in contemporary art and scientific innovation, and the art history of the E.A.T. and Pulsa programs, all overlaid with a regional history of experimenting with new ways of conceiving and organizing social relations. Finally, Kevin Kelly (of Wired magazine) has been quoted as stating that he was drawn to “things that don’t quite work,” an idea that came to guide our curatorial choices. That is, that the most interesting technology is still in process, that the rough edges have not been worked out, and by implication, that when it dependably works, it is no longer as innovative, exciting, or fun.
1 Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, Huffington Post Blog, December 23, 2014
2 Over a quarter of all Nobel awards in physics have been given to Jews according to jinfo.org/Nobels_Physics.html on July 20, 2015. Julius Edgar Lilienfeld, a Jewish scientist, first patented the transistor in 1930. While industry did not pick up on this breakthrough until after WWII, Lilienfeld’s work did eventually contribute to the entire Silicon Valley phenomenon, and indirectly to the subject of this exhibition: art and digital programming.
3 Wikipedia, retrieved July 1, 2015 at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experiments_in_Art_and_Technology