Breaching the Borders Between Art and Technology: In Conversation with Patrick McCray

Artwork as opposed to experiment? Engineer versus artist? We often see two different cultural realms separated by impervious walls. But some fifty years ago, the borders between technology and art began to be breached.

In Making Art WorkW. Patrick McCray shows how in the Cold War era, artists eagerly collaborated with engineers and scientists to explore new technologies and create visually and sonically compelling multimedia works. In the midst of a new surge of corporate and academic promotion of projects and programs combining art, technology, and science. Making Art Work reveals how artists and technologists have continually constructed new communities in which they exercise imagination, display creative expertise, and pursue commercial innovation. The following is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation the MIT Press had with McCray.

The MIT Press: You have significant background work in the history of technology and science, what brought you to this fascinating crossover between art and technology?

Patrick McCray: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about my new book, Making Art Work.  I first got interested in the intersection of art and technology back in 2012. I had a fellowship that took me to France. Some of the people who were there were historians like myself but there were also some artists present. Since I already knew how historians did their research, I became increasingly interested in the processes and practices that artists used. At that time, I still had a romanticized view of the artist as someone who worked alone often in their studios somewhere. What I observed was a real eye-opening experience. Once I got back to the United States, I started to do the research that became the basis for Making Art Work.

The MIT Press: In the introduction to Making Art Work, you mention that “the reasons why engineers and artists wanted to collaborate were complex, personal, and varied.” What would you say was the biggest push behind this creative collaboration?

Patrick McCray: I don’t think there was any single reason for why artists and engineers wanted to collaborate. I think for some people it was an opportunity to learn about how another community approached the creative process. I think a lot of artists were increasingly interested in all of the new technologies that were beginning to emerge and become commercialized at the time. Meanwhile some of the engineers were (for lack of a better word) “forced” to collaborate because these were projects that the managers wanted them to take on. Looking beyond these personal reasons, however, I think there were two broader forces at work. One was the fact that new technologies, especially those related to computers and electronics, were becoming increasingly prominent in the public eye. This was of course the era of the Apollo moon program. At the same time a lot of countries, especially the United States, experienced a period of unparalleled prosperity. This provided the economic means for companies and engineers to get involved and collaborate with artists.

The MIT Press: Frank J. Malina is a crucial subject in your book. Can you speak more to his dramatic shift from working as a rocket engineer to his career as a professional artist?

Patrick McCray: Frank Malina is a fascinating character. After years working on rocket technology, he turned his back on the military industrial complex. The reasons for this were personal and had to do with his previous ties to the Communist Party back in California in the 1930s. So, he set aside rocket engineering and decided to become a professional artist around 1953. His story is somewhat exceptional because the aerospace company that he helped start in the 1940s became very profitable during the Cold War. Frank had held onto his shares of stock and suddenly they were quite valuable. These financial resources provided security to allow him to become a professional artist and, later on, start the journal Leonardo.

The MIT Press: Chapter two of Making Art Work mentions the issues engineering leaders and educators faced in providing a well-rounded education within increasingly specialized topics; that they hoped integrating arts and the humanities could enhance engineers’ creativity. How was curricula reshaped with this in mind, does it need another reboot?

Patrick McCray: When one looks at the history of engineering education, one of the things that jumps out is the fact that roughly every 15 years or so, experts in engineering education go through a process of reevaluating the nature of their curriculum. One of the other things that I notice – I was an engineering student in the 1980s – is that the curriculum hasn’t really changed dramatically. There are core engineering courses that one has to take, which were interspersed with a sprinkling of humanities classes. I think in the 1960s, engineering educators were concerned that the education their students were receiving was too narrow. Training in the visual arts was seen as one way to help “humanize” engineering students. Today, perhaps we see something rather different as students in the humanities are encouraged to take courses in computer engineering and data science.

The MIT Press: What made the Cold War era the pivotal moment for the collaboration between engineers and artists?

Patrick McCray: Two things stand out. One is the fact that all sorts of new technologies derived from the electronics and aerospace industries were becoming available for artists to start experimenting with. However, as my book details, they often needed to collaborate with engineers to successfully exploit these technologies or simply to get access to them. Another important point is that companies in United States in the 1960s, generally speaking, were doing quite well in financial terms. This allowed business executives and middle managers the freedom to encourage and pursue collaborations between engineers and artists. 

The MIT Press: Major stars of the art world incorporated technology into their artwork, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Yvonne Rainer, however you note that the technologists who participated often went unrecognized. Who are some of these unsung creatives and what, in your opinion, is one of the most significant, overlooked contributions?

Patrick McCray: There certainly were some major artists in the 1960s and early 1970s who decided to integrate technology more directly into the artistic practice. However, there were also thousands of engineers and other technologists (many of whom we don’t know the names of) who got involved in these projects as well. One of my favorites is an engineer by the name of John Forkner. He trained as a physicist and then found himself working for an aerospace company in Southern California. He was very good at his job and worked on some well-known space and weapons projects. However, he remained intensely interested in things like modern art, music, and poetry. He joined the group Experiments in Arts and Technology – it had a very active chapter in Los Angeles – and participated in the Art and Technology Program that curator Maurice Tuchman started at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Forkner worked quite a lot, for example, with the artist Robert Whitman. They contributed a visually complex installation piece to the 1970 world exposition in Osaka, Japan. Their partnership was quite close and, as my book describes, at some point Whitman turned over key parts of the creative process to Forkner.  This collaboration had a huge impact on Forkner’s life, and he eventually gave up his 9-5 engineering job. The two men developed enormous respect for each other, and I think learned a great deal about how the other’s community approached the creative process.

The MIT Press: Billy Klüver, the co-founder of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T), pushed enthusiastically for the integration of art and technology. Where did he derive this passion and how do we see his initiative at work today?

Patrick McCray: Billy Klüver cofounded the Experiments in Art and Technology with artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman as well as Bell Labs engineer Fred Waldhauer in the fall of 1966. However, he already had a long track record of working collaboratively with individual artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. Back when he was an undergraduate student studying engineering in Sweden, Klüver cultivated an intense interest in cinema. He also developed personal relations with artists and curators (people like Pontus Hultén and Oyvind Fahlstrom) that he continued to interact with once he came to the United States. This “Swedish connection” served him quite well, in fact. Once he became an engineer at Bell Labs, he maintained these relations, and even while he was doing his technical research had a side “business” as a curator and art writer. E.A.T. was the formal instantiation of Klüver’s long standing interest in art, film, and music. In many ways it was the continuation of ideas and activities which interested him since he was a teenager.

The MIT Press: Chapter 6 of Making Art Work sets the stage with the year 1968, a divisive, significant year in American and global history. What made this a critical year for the art-and-technology movement in the midst of social and political upheaval?

Patrick McCray: 1968 was a traumatic year all around the world. Assassinations, the ongoing war in Vietnam, and social unrest on college campuses and cities were just some of the tumultuous events.  But, in many ways, 1968 also marked an apogee in the art and technology movement. In London, for example, the show Cybernetics Serendipity premiered while at MIT, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies was formally dedicated. The Museum of Modern Art featured a lavish art-and-technology show too. This was also the same year that Frank Malina launched his art and science journal, Leonardo.  Based on the volume of articles in newspapers and magazines, popular interest in art and technology peaked this year.

The MIT Press: By the end of 1970, Klüver pronounced that E.A.T’s efforts to meld art, technology, and industry were dead. Malina too wondered if “perhaps interest in art, science, and technology has passed its little peak.” What brought the project to a standstill and what, if anything, revitalized it?

Patrick McCray: It’s difficult to point to one single cause. Obviously, the conflict in Vietnam and the nuclear arms race brought a lot of unwanted attention to engineers and the technologies they helped develop. I think there was also a reaction from the art world which saw these large art-and-technology projects, which were very glitzy and well-funded, as taking attention away from more traditional forms of art making. However, not to be a vulgar materialist, but I think the economic recession of the early 1970s was the real culprit. The companies which supported art-and-technology initiatives all of a sudden faced difficult financial times. There were pretty severe layoffs in the electronics and aerospace industries.  I think those engineers who were able to keep their jobs found themselves in precarious positions and were less likely to work with “weird” artists.  And, of course, there was the technology itself. A lot of the complex technologies from a decade ago –like lasers and video cameras – had become more “domesticated” and artists no longer needed to partner up with engineers in quite the same way.

The MIT Press: While the collaborations of the 1960s was a significant breach between the two cultures, the melding of art and technology is still at work today. Where do you see these creative, innovative moments happening currently and what does this mean for the future of the two?

Patrick McCray: One of the things that I observed in writing and researching my book was that enthusiasm for arts and technology collaborations comes in waves.  There was the one that unfolded in the 1960s, another which started in the mid 1980s (MIT’s Media Lab opened its doors in 1985) and ran through the 1990s, and then another which started to gain strength around 2010.  What I find really interesting is that the reason and rationale for these art-and-technology initiatives has changed over time. Starting in the mid 1980s, a focus on innovation and commercialization became more important. What I see happening around 2010, especially in various STEM to STEAM initiatives, is something quite different. Previously, enthusiasm for melding arts and technology was made possible via economic prosperity: the golden years of the 1960s or the boom of the 1990s. After the Great Recession of 2009, at least from the arts and humanities side, interest in art and technology has been driven to a large degree by economic precariousness and insecurity. I especially sense this with programs that are based at universities and which place a focus on “fostering innovation” in all its forms.

At the end of the first art and technology wave, engineers are often scorned as lackeys of the capitalist establishment. Today however the situation has reversed. Artisan humanists are the ones most often claiming to be marginalized and pressured to succeed in a competitive marketplace. I think it’s important to recognize that part as well as technology reflects an air in prevailing sensibilities. Arts and technology both reflect our hopes, fears, and ambitions. In their intermingling histories, as I write about, we see artists acting as inventors, engineers becoming artists, all of them working towards personal fulfillment and professional success, sometimes even commercial innovation. Understanding how these communities collaborate and lightens our understanding of the broader histories of both art and technology and what we see in the past or as new communities of engineers and artists continue to come together to make artwork today.

W. Patrick McCray, Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of four other books, including the prize-winning The Visioneers.

Learn more about Making Art Work