Thursday, May 6, 2021

Hitting the Books: How Bell Labs Started the Multimedia Art Movement

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MIT Press

Copyright © 2020 W. Patrick McCray All rights reserved. The following excerpt is reprinted from Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture by W. Patrick McCray. Reprinted with permission from MIT Press.


Like many young electrical engineers, especially those with advanced training in elite schools, [Billy] Klüver had a multitude of opportunities open to him when he graduated. Raytheon, RCA, and the Stanford Research Institute all offered him well-paying jobs, but he decided to take a position in the communications research department at the Bell Lab facility in Murray Hill, New Jersey. One of the factors in his decision was the opportunity to work with more experienced researchers who shared his research interests. It didn’t hurt that Bell Labs was arguably the best industrial research lab in the world.

Long before Klüver joined Bells Labs, the organization had become a source of technological innovation. Of the approximately 14,000 people he employed, only about 5% were formally engaged in basic research – most of the laboratory’s activities were geared towards the progressive improvement of existing products and systems – but only a few – some of the most talented researchers in the country. The hierarchy between technicians, engineers and scientists has placed employees with doctorates (usually referred to as technical staff) at the top. An electrical engineer who worked at Bell Labs in the 1960s recalled that the Murray Hill installation presented an attractive “palette of sounds, smells and experiences”. Conversation spilled over into the hallways and cafeteria tables as the labs smelled of soldered circuitry and the greenish gleams of oscilloscopes lit up dark spaces. “Everyone,” he recalls, “seemed in a hurry to move on to a new discovery.

When Klüver started his new post in 1958, his supervisor was John R. Pierce, who was already legendary as an engineer and research director. During World War II, Pierce pressured his company to adopt a device called a “traveling wave tube”. It allowed, with little distortion, the powerful amplification of microwave signals. Pierce’s dazzling research and effective lobbying helped convince American Telephone and Telegraph, the parent company of Bell Labs, to invest in a new communications system spanning the continent. During the 1950s, AT&T dotted the landscape with microwave relay towers, and the very visionary Pierce wrote speculative articles on future “orbital earth relays” that would further facilitate global communication. Pierce’s advocacy culminated with the launch of several communications satellites and he oversaw the engineers at Bell Labs who helped build and operate them.

Frank J Malina

Malina family archives

As [Frank J.] Raspberry and Klüver, Pierce’s interests extended far beyond engineering. This included writing science fiction under the pseudonym JJ Coupling and composing experimental music. Pierce was remarkably tolerant of Klüver’s artistic and technological endeavors, seeing them as activities that could benefit engineers as well as artists. One also feels Pierce’s conviction that supporting such interdisciplinary efforts was something that an internationally renowned organization like Bell Labs should do. Throughout the 1960s, supported by profits from AT&T, the lab supported a small coterie of artists in residence, such as Nam June Paik, James Tenney, Lillian Schwartz, and Stan VanDerBeek.

Many of the tools and devices that Klüver and his fellow engineers worked with on a daily basis were subsequently absorbed into the art and technology movement. These included lasers – a fertile new area of ​​research at Bell Labs that Klüver joined – as well as microelectronics, television and video systems, computer-generated speech, wireless signal transmission, and even wireless technology. manufacture used to manufacture inflatable communication satellites. “I had colors on my palette,” Klüver recalls, “that no one else had in New York. I had Bell Laboratories at my disposal. “

Being a division of AT&T, most of Bell Labs’ research was necessarily geared towards communications technology. But lab staff and officials interpreted this so broadly that it was in theory easier to list areas in which Bell Labs researchers were not engaged. Klüver found himself working in an extremely talented cohort with backgrounds ranging from psychology and acoustics to physics and computer science.

AT & T’s Cold War-driven profitability provided its engineers with the security to seize opportunities in esoteric fields that lacked immediate business payoff or for things that to an outsider might seem like little to do with it. with engineering itself. For example, Bell Labs employed Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, two radio astronomers interested in microwave radiation. In 1964, they began experimenting with a specially designed antenna at the Bell Research Center in Holmdel, New Jersey. Originally built to pick up radio wave transmissions bouncing off passive communications satellites, the weak static Penzias and Wilson detected in 1964 have been interpreted as the 13.7 billion year old background radiation of the Big Bang. Wilson and Penzias shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978 for their fortuitous discovery, a discovery made possible in part by the tolerance, if not encouragement, of Bell Labs, to research activities that seemed to have little to do with phones.

Cosmos - Malina 1965

Malina family archives

In 1965, Pierce wrote an article for Playboy that explained to readers of the magazine how researchers were using computers to do things other than solve equations or collect data. Focusing on his colleagues’ experimental forays into art and music, Pierce (with Klüver providing background information) presented a “vivid portrait of the machine as a young artist”. Pierce himself had been making computer-generated music for several years with his fellow engineer Max Mathews. Mathews, who headed the laboratory’s Acoustic and Behavioral Research Center, had also helped program an IBM computer to sing the song “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” (this composition later appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s film. . 2001: A space odyssey when HAL 9000, the homicidal computer, sadly plays this tune while it is disabled). Bell Labs tolerated, if not encouraged, this eclectic work because of its potential applications for electronic text-to-speech, a topic that would be of interest to any communications company.

One of the most intriguing anecdotes Pierce shared with Playboy readership was an experiment Bell researcher A. Michael Noll recently conducted. Using a computer and a microfilm plotter, Noll created an image very similar to Piet Mondrian’s 1917 painting, Composition with Lines. Noll then asked the staff at Bell Labs to try to tell the difference between the original and his version. Only 28% correctly identified the Mondrian and, when surveyed further, nearly 60% said they preferred the computer-generated image of Noll (he went on to win top prize in a contest sponsored by the journal. IT and automation). Still, Pierce confessed that he felt compelled to ask, “It’s fascinating but is it art? “

Videographer Nam June Paik, who spent time at Bell Labs as Artist in Residence, already had his answer: “If you’re surprised with the outcome,” he later told an interviewer, “then the machine composed the piece. “Paik and Klüver already knew each other. The Korean-born artist had even prepared a Sonata quasi una fantasia for Billie Kluver, an essay of sorts in which he proposed” utopian or less utopian ideas and fantasies. ” Looking for professional Klüver, Paik asked: “Can the laser, so-called breakthrough in electronics [sic], also become the breakthrough of art? After noting that “someday all high eyebrows will have a laser phone number” which “allows us to communicate with everyone anywhere wirelessly and simultaneously,” Paik advised his friend to “please , telefuck! “

Klüver, inspired by his conversations with Paik and other artists, informed Pierce that computers, lasers and the like look like a “glorious new painting.” Judging what computers and their programmers have produced should wait until the “preconceived standards of what we think art is” have time to adjust properly. For now, Klüver has suggested that “the best definition of what art is is implicit in Marcel Duchamp’s work: a person calls himself an artist. He makes an object that he calls art. Others come and watch and agree that the object is art. Klüver’s disinterest in demarcating “art” from “technology” – or judging good art from bad – would become central to EAT’s strategy of ignoring aesthetic judgments in favor of supporting the collaborative process itself. even.

Klüver had continued to reflect on the social life of technology and the alleged cultural divide between artists and engineers after he started working at Bell Labs. Like many educated people, Klüver followed the debate that Snow’s two cultures conference sparked. “I reacted very strongly against this,” Klüver recalls, “I didn’t think he had the right to divide society into two distinct cultures.” Nonetheless, an important aspect of Snow’s diagnosis resonated strongly with the engineer: “It was his call to action to bridge the gap that I subconsciously agreed with. For Klüver, this translated into direct involvement in the contemporary art scene around him.

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