- Technocrats of the Imagination: Art, Technology, and the Military-Industrial Avant-Garde by John Beck and Ryan Bishop
By John Beck and Ryan Bishop. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. Pp. 240.
Fifty years ago, the art world experienced an invigorating wave of projects, programs, and exhibitions connecting engineers, artists, and corporate patrons. Since then, many researchers, mostly art historians and “new media” scholars, but also historians of technology, have explored this diverse array of creative collaborations. John Beck and Ryan Bishop’s Technocrats of the Imagination (they are professors of modern literature and [End Page 986] global arts, respectively) gives a new perspective on this union of art and technology and its implications for similar initiatives underway today.
Few of the artists, curators, and engineers I have encountered in archival collections or in-person interviews would categorize themselves as “technocrats” in the traditional use of the term. Instead, they adopted new artistic media partly to humanize technology that many saw as increasingly alienating, autonomous, and even malevolent.
Beck and Bishop center their account around several large-scale art-and-technology initiatives in the United States in the mid-1960s. These include the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, which artist Gyorgy Kepes launched, the Art and Technology Program curator Maurice Tuchman started at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as the influential group Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which operated out of New York City.
Many charismatic individuals championed the art-and-technology movement. What is fascinating is the plurality of strategies they adopted to advance the merger of fine art and technology within the “broader cultural climate of mid-century corporate liberalism” (p. 2). Beck and Bishop focus part of their book on Billy Klüver, the co-founder of E.A.T., who was also an accomplished electrical engineer. Unfortunately, their goal of making broad appraisals about “the military-industrial state” and “neo-liberal orthodoxy” tends to flatten such fascinating historical actors. We don’t encounter Klüver until he’s already a thirty-year-old engineer at Bell Labs. This misses how he cultivated a deep interest in the arts, his fascination with experimental cinema while a student in Stockholm, or his early friendships with future curator Pontus Hultén and artists Jean Tinguely or Öyvind Fahlström. As Klüver wrote in his personal papers, his mental template for how to link artists and engineers was already well in place before he started at Bell Labs. I found it hard to accept the claim, moreover, that Klüver’s strategy “remained an individualistic one” (p. 105). For two years, E.A.T. collaborated with PepsiCo to build a pavilion for Expo ’70 in Osaka. This enterprise required scores of engineers, technicians, and artists (as well as $1.2 million from Pepsi), making it the art world’s analog of Big Science.
Any book that covers such a wide swath of territory might be excused for a few errors. Some are minor: John R. Pierce did not supervise the transistor’s invention and Jerome Wiesner did not create MIT’s Radiation Laboratory, for example. Others, however, trip up the authors’ argument. MIT’s Media Lab did not open its doors in 1980 (the claim appears twice on p. 74) but was dedicated five years later. This becomes an issue as the authors situate the Media Lab’s compromised academic mission with the increased commercialization of university research vis-à-vis the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980.
This latter example suggests ways that historical narrative is sometimes sublimated to support authors’ social critiques of market-driven ideologies. [End Page 987] And one can ask how these apply outside the United States. The art-and-technology movement was decidedly international, with activity across Europe as well as parts of Asia and South America. Moreover, artists like Gustav Metzger, Hans Haacke, and Carolee Schneemann challenged militarism and corporatism.
For all this book’s references to markets and neoliberalism, the authors do not detail the art-and-technology movement’s finances. This seems...