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  • Art in the Information Age:Technology and Conceptual Art
  • Edward A. Shanken (bio)

Art historians have generally drawn sharp distinctions between conceptual art and art-and-technology. This essay reexamines the interrelationship of these tendencies as they developed in the 1960s, focusing on the art criticism of Jack Burnham and the artists included in the Software exhibition that he curated. The historicization of these practices as distinct artistic categories is examined. By interpreting conceptual art and art-and-technology as reflections and constituents of broad cultural transformations during the information age, the author concludes that the two tendencies share important similarities, and that this common ground offers useful insights into late-20th-century art.

In the mid-1960s, Marshall McLuhan prophesied that electronic media were creating an increasingly interconnected global village. Such pronouncements popularized the idea that the era of machine-age technology was drawing to a close, ushering in a new era of information technology. Sensing this shift, Pontus Hultén organized a simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic exhibition on art and mechanical technology at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA) in 1968. The Machine: As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age included work ranging from Leonardo da Vinci's 16th-century drawings of flying machines to contemporary artist-engineer collaborations selected through a competition organized by Experiments in Art and Technology, Inc. (E.A.T.).

E.A.T. had emerged out of the enthusiasm generated by nine evenings: theatre and engineering, a festival of technologically enhanced performances that artist Robert Rauschenberg and engineer Billy Klüver organized in New York in October 1966. E.A.T. also lent its expertise to engineering a multimedia extravaganza designed for the Pepsi Pavilion at the Osaka World's Fair in 1970. Simultaneously, the American Pavilion at Osaka included an exhibition of collaborative projects between artists and industry that were produced under the aegis of the Art and Technology (A&T) Program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Ambitious as they were, few of the celebrated artist-engineer collaborations of this period focused on the artistic use of information technologies, such as computers and telecommunications. Taking an important step in that direction, Cybernetic Serendipity, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1968, was thematically centered on the relationship between computers and creativity. This show, however, remained focused on the materiality of technological apparatuses and their products, such as robotic devices and computer graphics.

Art critic Jack Burnham pushed the exploration of the relationship between art and information technology to an unprecedented point. In 1970, he curated the exhibition Software, Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, at the Jewish Museum in New York. This show was the first major U.S. art-and-technology exhibition that attempted to utilize computers in a museum context. Software's technological ambitions were matched by Burnham's conceptually sophisticated vision, for the show drew parallels between the ephemeral programs and protocols of computer software and the increasingly "dematerialized" forms of experimental art, which the critic interpreted, metaphorically, as functioning like information processing systems. Software included works by conceptual artists such as Les Levine, Hans Haacke and Joseph Kosuth, whose art was presented beside displays of technology including the first public exhibition of hypertext (Labyrinth, an electronic exhibition catalog designed by Ned Woodman and Ted Nelson) and a model of intelligent architecture (SEEK, a reconfigurable environment for gerbils designed by Nicholas Negro-ponte and the Architecture Machine Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) [1].

Regardless of these points of intersection and the fact that conceptual art emerged during a moment of intensive artistic experimentation with technology, few scholars have explored the relationship between technology and conceptual art. Indeed, art-historical literature traditionally has drawn rigid categorical distinctions between conceptual art and art-and-technology. The following reexamination, however, challenges the disciplinary boundaries that obscure significant parallels between these practices. The first part describes Burnham's curatorial premises for the Software exhibition and interprets works in the show by Levine, Haacke and Kosuth. The second part proposes several possible reasons why conceptual art and art-and-technology became fixed as distinct, if not antithetical, categories. The conclusion suggests...


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pp. 433-438
Launched on MUSE
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