Book review: ‘Making Art Work' by W Patrick McCray
Image credit: Malina Family Archive
Engineering and art may seem like two separate entities on the surface, but the past fifty years have shown there’s a lot more to their relationship than meets the eye.
In the 2010s, scientists and educators pondered the question of how to get more students interested in pursuing careers in STEM subjects. Part of the answer, they reasoned, would be to make STEM-related courses more holistic by incorporating the arts. But how might this be done? In fact, they need only have looked to the 1960s for inspiration – an era in which a cadre of artists and engineers worked together to create media that would blur the lines between individuals, art and technology.
In ‘Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture’ (MIT Press, £40.00, ISBN 9780262044257), W Patrick McCray explores the ways in which artists and engineers engaged in “hybrid practices” that wired the realms of art, technology, and science together to explore new technologies and create visually and sonically compelling multimedia works – generating a new creative culture.
The reasons why engineers and artists wanted to collaborate were complex, personal, and varied, McCray explains. For many artists, it was partly a desire to work with new and often unavailable technologies, along with a “sense of crisis about the relevance of commodifiable, object-orientated art made using traditional media in a rapidly changing world”. He writes: “Electrifying the work of art meant experimenting with lasers, digital computers, video devices... all developed during a tumultuous time that saw both the Apollo moon landings and the Vietnam wars escalation.”
Meanwhile, engineers, McCray explains, were facing criticism about their complicity in the nuclear arms race between the US and the then Soviet Union, environmental destruction, and other global ills. So the art-and-tech movement from the 1960s presented an opportunity for technologists and engineers to humanise tech and redefine their profession, if only on a personal level.
It was also a period of existential identity crisis for engineers. Influenced by a barrage of popular articles and studies claiming that they led dull lives, engineers pushed back. Corporations such as Bell Laboratories established creative spaces for their employees and served as patrons for artistic collaborations, while universities prioritised the provision of studio space where engineering students could dabble in the arts.
Throughout ‘Making Art Work’, McCray provides a comprehensive history of post-war artistic and scientific collaborations in the US. Over nine chapters, McCray’s meticulous research challenges C P Snow’s controversial 'two cultures' mode of thinking, which suggested that scientists and artists exist in different intellectual worlds. His research also explores the ways in which experimental arts and sciences collaborations of the past opened up opportunities for today’s interdisciplinary relationships at universities and corporations.
McCray tells the story of three venues where the arts and sciences mix: an art collective known as Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), the intersectional academic journal Leonardo, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But while these institutions form the book’s main threads, the story transcends their specific endeavours, revealing much about the ways that scientists and artists create their identities. He delves into the world of two central figures in the post-war movement that blurred the lines between artist and scientist: Frank Malina, an aeronautical engineer turned kinetic sculptor turned journal editor, and Billy Klüver, a Swedish engineer at Bell Laboratories.
Individual artists and engineers had their own reasons for pursuing collaboration. Many of the engineers had been drawn to careers in art before opting for more practical pursuits. The artists who sought out alliances, meanwhile, were often looking for engineers’ expertise to help their creative visions become a reality. “Engaging with engineers opened new creative possibilities for artists,” he writes.
Many of the projects that resulted from this movement illuminated how art could be assembled and how technology could inspire audiences. For example, in 1965, Malina designed a stunning electro kinetic sculpture, called Cosmos, that captured an astronaut’s vision of the planets from space. In Grass Field, artist Alex Hay and engineer Herb Schneider designed a bodysuit embedded with electronic sensors that would amplify the movements of Hay’s heart, brain, and eye muscles and transmit them as sounds.
‘Making Art Work’ is a thoughtful and engaging study that provides a good introduction to the surge of art and technology from the Cold War to the counterculture of the 1960s, offering new insights into the artists of the period that took advantage of the skillset and knowledge of engineers. McCray also sets aside cultural polemics to focus on how collaborations between artists and engineers exercised imagination and displayed creativity, emphasising the labour required to do so.
Over the past 50 years, the arts-and-technology community has grown larger and more global. But unlike 50 years ago, this new era of art and culture prompted many unusual alliances. McCray writes: “Six decades ago, the professional boundaries between engineers and artists – their communities, activities, institutions, skills, and shared interests – seem much more unyielding than they are today.”
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