The Godfather of Art and Technology: An Interview
with Billy Kluver of E.A.T.
As a rapidly changing
era, the twentieth century has witnessed a number of encounters between
technology and art. The mechanical age introduced many new alternatives
to the materials and concepts of art making.
history of technology and art took a significant turn in the 1960's. With
the chasm between the two growing, many artists saw the potential in bringing
the divergent fields into harmony. In an attempt to bring technologists
and artists together, Experiments in Art and Technology was formed in 1966.
as the group was called, existed to link artists and engineers in collaborative
projects. The apparently impossible gap of engineering and art was explicitly
spanned for the first time. At the forefront of this movement was the electrical
engineer Billy Kluver - a Ph.D. in electrical engineering who was equally
involved in the contemporary art scene.
To get to
the historical bottom of E.A.T. and the art and technology movement, I
tracked down Billy Kluver in New York. Still directing E.A.T. after thirty
years, he shared with me his memories, thoughts, and goals.
What were some of the original ideas and goals in the formation
The goal from the beginning was to provide new materials for artists
in the form of technology. A shift happened because, from my own experience,
I had worked in 1960 with Tinguely to do the machine that destroyed itself
in the Garden of MoMA. At that time I employed - or coerced - a lot of
my co-workers at Bell Labs to work on the project.
When I saw that, I realized that the engineers could help the
artists; the engineers themselves could be the materials for the artists.
After the event, I got besieged by a lot of artists in New York like Andy
Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns - all of them. Robert Whitman
and Rauschenberg put the notion together that it should be a collaboration
between artists and engineers, where they were equally represented. The
idea was that a one to one collaboration could produce something that neither
of the two could individually foresee. And that was the basis for the whole
thing, and the system developed from there.
We had to do a lot of "propaganda" because in the 60's the difference
between art and engineering was an enormous canyon. We understood that
we had to recruit engineers - that was the barrier we had to go through.
This whole thing spread within a year or two all over the United
States. So, when an artist phoned in and said: "I have this problem." we
had one person on the staff that would find an engineer to help them out
- and that was it.
The other thing that we did from the very beginning was organize
large projects. The first one of course was NINE EVENINGS in '66, out of
which E.A.T. actually came. The main breakthrough in NINE EVENINGS was
scale. Everybody in New York was there. Practically every artist in New
York helped make it a go, and about 10,000 spectators saw it. Since then
we have initiated forty to fifty projects, the last one happening last
summer in Northern Greenland.
So those are the two operations of E.A.T.: matching and making
I have a quote here... "Kluver saw many parallels between
contemporary art and science, both of which were concerned basically with
the investigation of life...a vision of American technological genius humanized
and made wiser by the imaginative perception of artists..." Does that accurately
describe your goal?
Well, it could be said better than that... The way I see it is
that artists provide non-artists - engineers or whomever - a certain number
of things which non-artists do not possess. The engineer expands his vision
and gets involved with problems which are not the kind of rational problems
that come up in his daily routine. And the engineer becomes committed because
it becomes a fascinating technological problem that nobody else would have
If the engineer gets involved with the kinds of questions that
an artist would raise, then the activities of the engineer goes closer
towards that of humanity... Now, this is all sort of philosophical - in
practice it has to do with doing it.
So, is technology a transparent medium that artists should
be able to use... there's not really a moral side to technology?
Well, no. The artists have shaped technology. They have helped
make technology more human. They automatically will because they're artists.
That's by definition. If they do something it automatically comes out human.
There's no way you can come out and say that if art is the driving force
in a technological situation that it will come out with destructive ideas.
That's not possible. But what happens, of course, is that the artist widens
the vision of the engineer.
And so artists can provide a conscience or humanizing element
to the technology?
Yes, that's what I mean... but that's saying it too much. There
might be other consciousness that come from other sources than art. I think
there is a huge consciousness inside technology that hasn't been tapped.
It seemed like the whole art and technology movement of
the late 60's seemed to lose some of its initial momentum in the 70's -
at least that's the impression that the postmodern texts give...
The texts are horrible - one of the amusing things is that they
tell us we've done things we never did. But - the question of the momentum
already in the first newsletter we said that if we were successful we would
disappear. We would disappear because there is really no function like
E.A.T. that needs to exist in society if we were successful. It would be
perfectly natural for an artist to be able to contact an engineer him or
herself. If it was natural, why should we be involved? And that's what
we have stated from the beginning - and of course that is what has happened.
The universities, the computer graphic societies, artist societies, and
organizations like your own - it was inevitable.
People in New York wanted us to move in, to set up labs with all
of the equipment, but we constantly refused. It was not a matter of institutionalizing.
I'm very pleased that the initial attitude was like that because it meant
that we could still exist.
To institutionalize anything in this area is dangerous and self-destructive.
It's just a matter of solving problems, and you can do that forever.
It makes sense that people critical of E.A.T. have misinterpreted
it as being very institutionalized - when in reality it is quite the opposite.
The main thing is that we never anticipated in the growth in the
late sixties - and you had to take care of it - so you needed a staff.
Everybody then immediately thought "Oh my God, they're making a lot of
money". Actually, you can't believe all of the debts that we had. I saved
E.A.T. by selling every artwork I had, not by making money. I sold things
that would have made me a billionaire if I would have held on to them.
How do you "match" artsists through E.A.T.?
Almost anybody who calls us, we help. I never ask to see people's
paintings or anything that they do. Usually the conversation starts off
with "I have a problem..." After that, I always ask the same three questions
when somebody calls me about something: (1) How big is it, (2) How many
people are going to see it, and (3) Is it inside or outside? If there is
no answer to any one of these three questions - like "It could be as big
as you want", or "It could be inside or outside" - you know that he or
she has no idea of what they're doing. They haven't taken into account
the reality of the project. If you can get down to the reality of the problem,
you can usually solve it in a few minutes. It's amazing how simple it is
to find the answer.
While matching, I always have the artist call the engineer directly.
There is a lot of intimidation there in the first place. E.A.T.'s most
important role is to eliminate the initial intimidation. Once the engineer
and the artist get to talk together - if there is anything there - it will
happen. If there isn't, it will die in ten seconds. It's happened that
way for over thirty years.
So there's no mission of E.A.T. overtaking the art scene...
Overtake? It's already been overtaken. Namely that people can
talk about it without being terrified. This has been what I've said since
the early sixties. Nobody then could believe that an artist could talk
to an engineer...
For example, do you know the group called S.R.L.?
Yeah, Survival Research Laboratories with Mark Pauline...
We talk now and then. I see them as being brilliant - just totally
brilliant. He is of the next generation and he understands how the business
of "getting things done". And that's what it's all about - GETTING IT DONE
- that's the key to all of it. Artists will often be intimidated by "Oh,
it's a problem" - they think a power plug is an enemy.
So, what if somebody were to call you the "Godfather of
Technology and Art"?
Well, I guess in a way it's probably true. However, Tatlin is to me
the real Godfather - the constructivist artist. That group embraced technology,
and embraced it in terms of art.
Many people wanted E.A.T. to be about art and science, but I insisted
it be art and technology. Art and science have really nothing to do with
each other. Science is science and art is art. Technology is the material
and the physicality.
However, as far as that goes - other people would have to agree
with you, but I think that's probably true - that I would be the
Godfather of Art and Technology.
[Interview date: April 19th, 1995]
Experiments in Art and Technology can be reached at:
Hulten, Pontus. THE MACHINE. MoMA, NY; 1968.
Lovejoy, Margot. POSTMODERN CURRENTS. UMI, Ann Arbor; 1989.
Popper, Frank. ART - ACTION AND PARTICIPATION. NYU, NY;