On October 13, 1966, the New York glitterati and all those who basked in their glow descended on the cavernous 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue to celebrate the opening night of 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, the first ever large-scale collaboration between artists, engineers, and scientists. Ten artists and thirty engineers took part and the technology they used was spectacularly new at the time.
Naturally Andy Warhol, in sunglasses and leather jacket, was there, surrounded by his entourage. He was heard to declare, “It’s just great.” The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was approached by a young woman who whispered in his ear, “You probably don’t remember me, but I’m Susan Sontag.” Marcel Duchamp, who had kick-started the entire modern movement in art, was there too, no doubt remembering the moment fifty years earlier at the 1913 Armory show when his Nude Descending a Staircase had scandalized New York. The up-and-coming artist Chuck Close sat next to Duchamp. The fashion designer Tiger Morse wore a bare midriff outfit of white vinyl with a portable lamp which bathed her in a violet glow.
Everyone involved agreed that Robert Rauschenberg was the inspiration but John Cage was undoubtedly the star. Cage, the composer famous for his 4’33”—four minutes and thirty-three seconds of intense silence—produced a collage of sounds randomly collected at that moment by telephones around the city and the Armory. As the performance went on, one by one members of the audience stepped onstage to add to the cacophony, playing with juicers and mixers installed there.
The following night, Rauschenberg, the celebrated iconoclast and artist, showed a piece called Open Score, basically a game of tennis with the rackets wired to transmit sound. Every time a racket hit a ball, an amplified “boing” resounded around the building and one of the forty-eight lights went out, until the audience was in total darkness.
The performances were by turns magical and chaotic. It was an Andy Warhol moment, although very much inspired by Duchamp. The two served, so to speak, as bookends, Warhol as the logical conclusion of Duchamp—from the ready-made to the Campbell’s soup can. Everyone was sure what they were seeing was a brand new art movement that was going to blow a hole right through the middle of the traditional art scene—and they wanted to make sure they were in at the beginning. The opening night was a sellout, with 1,727 tickets sold; 1,500 people had to be turned away. In all, 11,000 people attended, with sellouts on three of the nine evenings. Everybody who was anybody, or had dreams of being somebody, was there to bask in the glow of the already famous. A New York Times reporter wrote of a sold-out performance, “A bomb dropped here would turn off the whole New York art scene.”
In the nearly half century that has passed since that first explosion of excitement, art, science, and technology have rubbed up against one another in myriad ways. The resulting artworks have been sometimes beautiful, sometimes disturbing, sometimes subversive, sometimes downright crazy, but always interesting, new, and pushing the boundaries.
Colliding Worlds begins by taking the story back to the early days of the twentieth century, when inventions such as x-rays and photography transformed the way we see the world. Artists such as Picasso and Kandinsky took on board the latest scientific developments, while scientists found themselves driven by questions like the relevance of aesthetics to science and what makes a scientific theory beautiful. But it was not until the second half of the last century that the new movement, which has come to define the twenty-first century, really flowered, and it is this flowering that forms the bulk of my story. Its creators are artists and scientists working together to create images and objects of stunning beauty, along the way redefining the very concept of “aesthetic”—of what we mean by “art” and, eventually, by “science.”
I started to write about how art interacts with science and technology in the 1980s, when few people other than the artists and scientists themselves were taking note. Over the years I watched as more and more artists emerged, along with more and more art fairs and more and more conferences. I watched as the movement grew from something underground to something far more mainstream that impinges on our daily life, the realm of what we all take for granted.
Full of curiosity, I began to track down and talk to those involved. I learned who these artists are, why they decided to become artists, what it meant to collaborate with scientists, and what their notions of aesthetics and beauty were in this strange and constantly evolving terrain—the avant-garde of the twenty-first century—and began to put together these dispatches from the edge of art and science. I discovered that the artists I spoke to are all engaged in the same quest: to find a way to unite art, science, and technology.
I looked for leading artists working in all the different areas of the new movement. I’ve limited myself to artists whose works illuminate science and might even contribute to scientific advances. I am less interested in those who simply use science to illustrate their themes. Although the results can be dazzling, they don’t reflect back onto science or technology. Some of the artists I spoke to collaborate with scientists, others have learned at least some relevant scientific concepts, while others are both artists and scientists—artists who are also researchers.
To my surprise, collaboration between artists and scientists turned out to be a minefield. Is it always the artist who benefits, and not the scientist? Does a scientist’s everyday research benefit from such collaborations? These are topics that came up again and again in the course of my research.
Initially I sought out these new-wave artists via galleries and museums. But the avant-garde has never been welcome in the traditional art world. Instead, these artists have created support networks of their own. They meet at international biennales and regular gatherings devoted to celebrating and exhibiting the latest creations in science-influenced art. Foremost among these are Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechno-logie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe and Documenta in Kassel, both in Germany, the Science Gallery in Dublin, Le Laboratoire in Paris, CERN in Geneva, and the Wellcome Collection and GV Art in London. The School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York focuses on science-influenced art, as do the MIT and NYU media labs, and there are departments devoted to it at the Slade School of Fine Art and Central Saint Martins in London, among others.
The many interesting overviews of the subject make no attempt to convey the people behind the art: their creativity and what drives them, their dreams, their struggles, the drama of developing a new art movement and what it is up against. To look deeper into all these topics I’ve chosen to interview some of the artists, scientists, and engineers who are actually involved.
One last problem is what to call this art form that is influenced by science or technology. Terms such as “artsci,” “sciart,” and “art-sci” seem inadequate to convey its beauty and subtleties, though I’ve opted for the first. I have no doubt that in the future these works will become known simply as “art.”