Artists and engineers joined forces within the 1960s, blurring the road between artwork and know-how

Artists and engineers joined forces in the 1960s, blurring the line between art and technology

W. Patrick McCray
MIT Press
2020
384 pp.
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The acronym “STEAM,” which stands for science, know-how, engineering, artwork, and math, got here into reputation in 2011, as scientists and educators contemplated the query of find out how to get extra college students concerned with pursuing careers in science. A part of the reply, they reasoned, can be to make science programs extra holistic by incorporating the humanities—however how may this be performed? For inspiration, they want solely have appeared to the 1960s, when a cadre of artists and engineers labored collectively to create media that will blur the traces between people, artwork, and know-how.

That historic motion is the topic of W. Patrick McCray’s glorious new ebook, Making Artwork Work, which gives a complete historical past of postwar creative and scientific collaborations in the USA. Over 9 chapters, McCray’s meticulous analysis challenges C. P. Snow’s controversial “two-cultures” mode of considering (1), which recommended that scientists and artists exist in several mental worlds. McCray’s analysis reveals the methods through which experimental arts and sciences collaborations of the previous opened up alternatives for at the moment’s interdisciplinary relationships at universities and firms.

McCray has constructed his profession analyzing the intersections between scientists and nonscientists. Arguably the foremost scholar of interdisciplinary communities, his work illuminates the numerous contributions nonscientists have made to the creation of scientific tradition. In Making Artwork Work, he fastidiously blends oral histories with insights derived from print archives
McCray tells the story of three venues the place the humanities and sciences combine: an artwork collective generally known as Experiments in Artwork and Know-how (E.A.T.), the intersectional educational journal Leonardo, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork. However whereas these establishments type the ebook’s primary threads, the story transcends their particular endeavors, revealing a lot concerning the ways in which scientists and artists create their identities.

The 1960s, we study, was a interval of existential id disaster for engineers. Influenced by a barrage of standard articles and research claiming that they led uninteresting lives, engineers pushed again. Firms akin to Bell Laboratories established inventive areas for his or her workers and served as patrons for creative collaborations, whereas universities prioritized the availability of studio area the place engineering college students might dabble within the arts.

McCray introduces the reader to 2 central figures within the postwar motion that blurred the traces between artist and scientist: Frank Malina, an aeronautical engineer turned kinetic sculptor turned journal editor, and Billy Klüver, a Swedish engineer at Bell Laboratories. Particular person artists and engineers had their very own causes for pursuing collaboration. Lots of the engineers had been drawn to careers in artwork earlier than choosing extra sensible pursuits. The artists who sought out alliances, in the meantime, had been usually searching for engineers’ experience to assist actualize their inventive visions. However members from each disciplines had been usually united by a shared curiosity in processes.

Lots of the initiatives that resulted from this motion illuminated how artwork might be assembled and the way know-how might encourage audiences. In 1965, for instance, Malina designed a shocking electrokinetic sculpture, known as Cosmos, that captured an astronaut’s imaginative and prescient of the planets from area. In Grass Area, artist Alex Hay and engineer Herb Schneider designed a bodysuit embedded with digital sensors that will amplify the actions of Hay’s coronary heart, mind, and eye muscle groups and transmit them as sounds. Viewers watched as Hay sat immobile whereas the partitions round them reverberated with noise.

McCray means that at the moment’s STEAM initiatives usually have a transparent financial underpinning, with many proponents believing that collaborations between the humanities and sciences will result in extra progressive (and worthwhile) designs. It is a marked shift from the general intention of the collaborations of the 1960s, which had been pushed by extra philosophical considerations. The humanities-and-technology group has additionally grown bigger and extra international over the previous 50 years. Very like 50 years in the past, nevertheless, this new renaissance of artwork and tradition has prompted many uncommon alliances. And, as soon as these creative and scientific collaborations are in place, they are going to tackle a lifetime of their very own. “The experiment,” notes McCray, has “been switched on.”

References and Notes
1. C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Oxford Univ. Press, 1959).

In regards to the writer

The reviewer is a historian of science based mostly in Berkeley, CA, USA.

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