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Artists and engineers joined forces in the 1960s, blurring the line between art and technology

Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture

W. Patrick McCray
MIT Press
384 pp.
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The acronym “STEAM,” which stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math, came into popularity in 2011, as scientists and educators pondered the question of how to get more students interested in pursuing careers in science. Part of the answer, they reasoned, would be to make science courses more holistic by incorporating the arts—but how might this be done? For inspiration, they need only have looked to the 1960s, when a cadre of artists and engineers worked together to create media that would blur the lines between individuals, art, and technology.

That historic movement is the subject of W. Patrick McCray’s excellent new book, Making Art Work, which provides a comprehensive history of postwar artistic and scientific collaborations in the United States. Over nine chapters, McCray’s meticulous research challenges C. P. Snow’s controversial “two-cultures” mode of thinking (1), which suggested that scientists and artists exist in different intellectual worlds. McCray’s research reveals 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 has built his career examining the intersections between scientists and nonscientists. Arguably the foremost scholar of interdisciplinary communities, his work illuminates the many contributions nonscientists have made to the creation of scientific culture. In Making Art Work, he carefully blends oral histories with insights derived from print archives
McCray tells the story of three venues where the arts and sciences mix: an art collective known as Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), 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 endeavors, revealing much about the ways that scientists and artists create their identities.

The 1960s, we learn, was 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 prioritized the provision of studio space where engineering students could dabble in the arts.

McCray introduces the reader to two central figures in the postwar 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 actualize their creative visions. But participants from both disciplines were often united by a shared interest in processes.

Many of the projects that resulted from this movement illuminated how art could be assembled and how technology could inspire audiences. In 1965, for example, Malina designed a stunning electrokinetic 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. Viewers watched as Hay sat motionless while the walls around them reverberated with noise.

McCray suggests that today’s STEAM initiatives often have a clear economic underpinning, with many proponents believing that collaborations between the arts and sciences will lead to more innovative (and profitable) designs. This is a marked shift from the overall intention of the collaborations of the 1960s, which were driven by more philosophical concerns. The arts-and-technology community has also grown larger and more global over the past 50 years. Much like 50 years ago, however, this new renaissance of art and culture has prompted many unusual alliances. And, once these artistic and scientific collaborations are in place, they will take on a life of their own. “The experiment,” notes McCray, has “been switched on.”

References and Notes
1. C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Oxford Univ. Press, 1959).

About the author

The reviewer is a historian of science based in Berkeley, CA, USA.