by Y Combinator10/18/2017
Michelle Kuo is Editor in Chief of Artforum.
Kat Mañalac is a Partner at YC.
Michelle came in to chat with us about art and technology and, in particular, a group called Experiments in Art and Technology.
Craig Cannon [00:00:00] – Hey this is Craig Cannon and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s guests are Michelle Kuo, Editor-In-Chief of Artforum, and Kat Mañalac, a partner at YC. Michelle came in to chat with us about art and technology, in particular a group called Experiments in Art and Technology. As always if you want to read the transcript or watch the video those are both at blog.ycombinator.com. Alright, here we go.
Michelle Kou [00:00:22] – I’ll just start by saying Experiments in Art and Technology was a group that was founded in 1966 by the artist Robert Rauschenberg, by an engineer named Billy Kluver, who was a research scientist at Bell Labs. At that time, basically it was the heyday of Bell Labs, which was the ground zero for sort of everything as we know it. None of what we’re doing right now would be possible without the invention of the transistor, for example. All of these breakthrough inventions happened at Bell Labs, and it was really the center of the telecommunications revolution. This engineer at Bell gets together with these artists, some of whom are really prominent at the time, and they’ve sort of met each other through some really almost chance social circles, but also through some art world friends in common, and you know, Jasper Johns wanted a neon light in the shape of a letter, the letter R, for one of his paintings, and he didn’t want a cord running from the painting to an electrical socket, so somehow he got hooked up with Kluver, this engineer from Bell and said, “Can you do this?” Well, it turns out it was kind of a complicated problem at the time. How do you make a battery-powered neon light that’s small enough to fit behind a painting, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera? Well, he did it. They had these various collaborations, but then Rauschenberg and Kluver, the artists and the engineers thought, “Why can’t we bring this to everyone? Why can’t every artist who’s curious about making something float, have access to an engineer
Michelle Kou [00:02:14] – who works on pneumatic technology?” How could you create these collaborations, and then, how could you even scale them or grow them so that this becomes a mass sort of phenomenon? They set about trying to basically start to get the word out to get artists and engineers together. The first real project they did, that they undertook was probably one of the largest endeavors at the time involved over 40 engineers and artists, and it was this performance series that took place in New York, at the Armory, which is a huge, cavernous space. And basically to get to make what became the performance pieces, they paired artists, choreographers, musicians, composers, with engineers, most of them from Bell, just because that’s…
Kat Mañalac [00:03:18] – What was that process of pairing them like?
Michelle Kou [00:03:20] – Well, it was very tumultuous. They had meetings, and again, it was very ad hoc. In other words, it was really a word of mouth thing. Kluver would bring in friends from Bell. Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman and other artists would bring in friends from their circle. This happened to include John Cage, David Tudor, Yvonne Rainer, really people that would become extremely well-known afterward, but were already prominent at the time. They had freewheeling meetings. They actually held them at a high school in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, which was near the Kluvers’ house. They would go up, there were people who lived sort of more upstate, so they would go there, and they were just really trying to literally brainstorm, to bounce ideas off one another, and of course the artists wanted things like, “I want a missile that floats. I want a light bulb that will explode. I want walkie talkies, I want remote control. I want sound that will respond to the viewer as they’re walking through space in real time.” And, like any tech person knows, non-tech people think technology can do everything all at once already, so they were really just pie-in-the-sky, and I think the engineers were really shocked, but also really enthusiastic because they hadn’t had experiences like that in large measure before. This really created a lot of excitement. It created a lot of tension. There were a lot of fights, a lot of conflict as well, just a lot of pressure because in the end, I think they signed up for creating, you know,
Michelle Kou [00:05:12] – a very, let’s say ambitious set of performances on a large scale in New York, and at the end of the day very little was tested or tried out, and there were long delays, but nearly 10,000 visitors over the course of these, essentially 20 nights.
Craig Cannon [00:05:36] – Just so I understand the time frame, they decide, like, there’s this one project with the neon behind the painting with a battery. They’re like, “Okay, this is cool. We should have more of this.” They then, like, book the Armory, like nine months in advance, and like…
Michelle Kou [00:05:49] – Well, I’m fast forwarding. But basically they were, they had proposed, they got together, let’s say maybe 10 of them, but really spearheaded by Rauschenberg and Kluver, and then it kind of built a bit. And again, this is just this really almost contingent aspect to it. Kluver is Swedish. There’s a Swedish performance festival in Stockholm, and they thought, “Well, let’s apply to do something for that.” That fell through. They, EAT claimed later that it was because the performance festival didn’t want to give, they didn’t like the idea that the artists would give so much agency to the engineers, and that they would kind of be this freewheeling thing. Regardless, that fell through, so then they just thought, “Okay, how can we produce these performances that we’d already started brainstorming about, and everyone’s really excited about?” Rauschenberg and some of these other artists were quite prominent at the time. The Armory was suggested as a venue because they wanted to test out literally physical scale, and in the Armory, there are echo times of up to five seconds, so people interested in sound, in remote control, in video, or basically in projection were interested in this very large physical scale already. They booked it, but I guess part of it is that some of these artists were already quite prominent, and so on opening night for this performance series, you have Senator Jacob Javits…
Craig Cannon [00:07:26] – That’s crazy.
Michelle Kou [00:07:27] – And his wife, who’s a prominent arts patron. You have the sort of who’s who of the New York art world but also of the avant garde Demimonde, and they’re all there unmasked, and they’re all really mad because they’re waiting.
Craig Cannon [00:07:39] – It’s breaking, right?
Michelle Kou [00:07:40] – And things aren’t working, and so eventually, when things did start to work, really extraordinary and interesting things happen. For example, in Rauschenberg’s performance piece, to make a long story short, one of the technologies they got and used was infrared. And at the time infrared was a classified military technology. They ended up getting infrared cameras from a Japanese supplier, and so one part of the performance was turning all the lights off, and in the dark then training these infrared cameras on hundreds of performers that assembled on the floor of the Armory, and so you got these very ghostly, spectral images of these people for the audience at large that was an extraordinary thing that happened. It’s like as if today, you would have an artist that had access to the Pentagon and was spending time toying around there. So that was really unprecedented, and from there they got momentum even more. They grew to a few hundred people and then anyone could really become a member. You just signed, you filled out a form, and you sent it in. And so at their peak, by around 1970, they had nearly 5,000 members.
Kat Mañalac [00:09:01] – What did it mean to be a member?
Michelle Kou [00:09:03] – Basically, to be a member, you could get access to this network. In other words, you could fill out what you’re interested in, in whatever field you’re in. If you’re an artist you could say, “I’m interested in new plastics and holograms and also cybernetics.” And then if you were an engineer, you could say, “Well, this is my disciplinary expertise. I’m also really fascinated by kinetic sculpture.” Or, “I really like dropping acid.”
Craig Cannon [00:09:37] – How are people discovering this? This is pre-internet, there’s okay, “I’m into acid,” I guess I know how that makes it to your town.
Michelle Kou [00:09:45] – Part of the whole thing was outreach. They made a concerted effort, obviously not only to reach out to artists but then to go to IEEE, which was the engineering society. Hans Haacke had a booth, was manning a booth there, and handing out flyers. It’s like, “Let’s take this to the trade fair, to conferences.” They gave talks. They did not really publicity, but let’s say tours of schools. The university was, of course, a whole other connector. And what you see as well is this network of what becomes or was a kind of academic military industrial complex. All these people are really in communication, and so the EAT is basically saying, “Well, how can we get the word out?”
Craig Cannon [00:10:41] – Can you explain the actual Rauschenberg piece at the Armory? Because I thought that was particularly cool.
Michelle Kou [00:10:48] – Yes, so Rauschenberg had decided to … He was very interested again in, first of all, remote control, what he kind of thought of as action at a distance. You know, how can you make something else happen but not be physically tethered to it? He’s also interested in sound effects, in sonic sort of, in noise as well as, experiments basically in acoustics, and the other part of it is really almost creating something, let’s say poetic, out of people’s movements. And he was also interested in games, and at the time, a number of artists were already exploring the sort of the structure of the game and it was also very much a conscious reference to game theory, even. All of these layers are definitely there. Rauschenberg’s piece basically set up in this huge, cavernous expanse of the Armory, a tennis match. But it wasn’t a regular tennis match. He set up a tennis court. He had the artist Frank Stella, who at the time was actually taking tennis lessons from a tennis instructor named Mimi Kanarek. The tennis instructor and Frank Stella are on the tennis court, and they play a game of tennis, but it so happens that the rackets, the tennis rackets are actually hot-wired. Each time you hit the ball, a microphone would pick up, and it amplified sound that would resonate throughout the Armory. And it triggered a huge bank of lights to be turned off. With every volley, a successive set of lights would be turned off. By the end of the game, which has no winner or loser, the Armory is in complete darkness. And then, that’s when these infrared cameras
Michelle Kou [00:12:56] – were turned on, and a mass of sort of, they’re not really performers. They were people that Rauschenberg sent out sort of vague instructions to, but they were just supposed to gather on the floor and do, maybe make a motion, like pull your ear, or touch the person next to you, just these sort of very vague instructions. That’s what they were doing, assembled on the floor, and the image of them via infrared is then projected above on these huge screens. And then, at the end of that, they turned one spotlight on, and the choreographer Simone Forti came out and was being carried and was singing a sort of Italian folk song. This is all not a regular narrative. It doesn’t really make any sense, but what it did was really push. It investigated some questions around performance, play, sound, imaging technology, and also the idea that you could have … A performance didn’t have to be about a climactic spectacle. It was about some other kind of experience, and a kind of experience that the artist hoped you wouldn’t have had before and that really that was the case. Of course, the first night, the rackets didn’t work. Or the trigger for the lights didn’t work, so they would actually manually turn off the lights.
Michelle Kou [00:14:33] – You know, it was sort of jerry-rigging or retroactively making the piece happen. Later, it did. Again, it was really a test, and an experiment in every sense of the word. And at the time people didn’t really, understand that that’s what it was.
Craig Cannon [00:14:52] – I’ve been wondering this the whole time, right? Because so much of this technology was so new, to the extent that you had never even seen an infrared camera. How were people talking about this art and technology overlap? I imagine how people talk about it now, but how were people talking about it at the time?
Michelle Kou [00:15:13] – Well, you have a couple different attitudes. One is wonder and astonishment. “This is amazing. Isn’t this so incredible and exciting?” And part of that is a very futurist strain of language, which is people basically trying to predict what’s going to happen and having fun doing so, just like the artists were in a way as well. But you have a lot of people theorizing about the future of communication, the future of images, the future of human perception. And so there’s a lot of literature around that from at every sort of end of the spectrum. And then there are people who are extremely critical and wary, and at the time this is the height of the anti-Vietnam protests. This is a moment when well 10 years or so after the military industrial complex is coined as a term, it is a concept that begins to really take root, and particularly among the avant garde, among the counterculture, among the very artists and some of the engineers that are part of the EAT. They actually came under a lot of flack. There are articles actually written in Artforum as well as elsewhere that essentially accused EAT of being complicit with the military, and taking that as far as you might even go. That was also part of why I think EAT had a very conflicted reception at the time and why maybe people haven’t heard so much about it since then as well. And it really crystallizes both the utopian and the dystopian attitudes toward technology at the time and what art’s role was,
Michelle Kou [00:17:08] – to either explore that or in fact, critique and negate that.
Craig Cannon [00:17:14] – Okay, and so this led to the Automation House? What was it exactly, did you see that part of the video?
Kat Mañalac [00:17:22] – No I didn’t.
Craig Cannon [00:17:22] – It’s crazy, okay. So what is it actually called?
Michelle Kou [00:17:26] – Oh, Automation House.
Craig Cannon [00:17:27] – It’s called Automation House. Okay, I wrote that down correctly. So this is like their, the collaboration between, I think I got this right, American Foundation on Automation and Employment. Basically this argument that they were having at the time, which is exactly, like, the same thing as today. Like, the robots are going to take your job. And so it’s Kluver and I forget the guy’s name who is the organizer of that.
Michelle Kou [00:17:52] – Oh, Theodore Kheel.
Craig Cannon [00:17:52] – Theodore Kheel.
Michelle Kou [00:17:55] – Yeah, the labor lawyer.
Craig Cannon [00:17:56] – They create this building together, right? Which is the Future of Life house? I don’t really understand what it’s supposed to be.
Michelle Kou [00:18:05] – Well, basically what, this is around in 1968, 1969, EAT had been moving around. They had a loft. They had various places to sort of meet, and they viewed the physical space as actually an important part of what they were doing. Because, as much as they were actually building what would become a real network that was sprawled globally, they also wanted what they called a place to try things out, a testing ground. And so they thought various physical spaces like a loft could be that place. Then they got into, again, through Rauschenberg in large part, talks with this group, the American Foundation on Automation and Employment. And Theodore Kheel, the guy who had started this, was the head of this organization, and he was a labor lawyer. He’d actually become well-known for mediating a massive, I think it was a newspaper workers strike in the early ’60s. Suddenly, all of these concerns about collective action, about technology and labor come to the fore, and everyone is really worried that automation is, robots will take our jobs. John F. Kennedy had said you know, “Automation is the greatest threat facing humanity today.” And so there was alarm. At the time, they didn’t even know about artificial intelligence. It was really a widespread fear. And so this group that the labor lawyer was sort of running was actually trying to literally mediate these concerns, and they thought that they could find solutions to not only accept but embrace technology and recognize that it was a reality, that it wasn’t going away,
Michelle Kou [00:20:07] – but also then somehow change the sphere of labor so that people could still be employed. It’s just that what they did would change. And again, this is obviously incredibly–
Kat Mañalac [00:20:20] – It’s a very positive, utopian view of–
Michelle Kou [00:20:22] – In some ways, yes. It’s almost very practical, and they really wanted to try and solve this problem. But then it dovetailed very nicely with what EAT was trying to do, which was to say how can we pragmatically understand the force of technology in a way that, I think people were really almost willfully blind to. In other words, you reject it, and you don’t even want to understand it, you can’t really understand it, and therefore you’re just going to condemn it. They really wanted to bring people from different knowledge domains, fields of expertise together, and try and solve some of these problems. They decided to build or renovate a townhouse in New York to create a center for job training, for workshops about automation and technology, for art exhibitions, for EAT to have their, kind of headquarters there as well, for classes. And they got two young architects to essentially retrofit the building with closed-circuit television cameras, video monitors. They had a video workstation there, where one of the projects they did was actually convert a bunch of really experimental film pieces to video and do the first cable broadcast of artists’ television programming, pretty much of all time, and this was in 1970, ’71.
Kat Mañalac [00:21:57] – Where was it broadcast?
Michelle Kou [00:21:58] – It was broadcast on local access, cable access in New York, on two channels.
Kat Mañalac [00:22:03] – That’s pretty cool.
Michelle Kou [00:22:04] – And they published the schedule in the Village Voice, and I think a few other newspapers.
Craig Cannon [00:22:09] – The old TV Guide.
Michelle Kou [00:22:10] – But you’ll see, it’s like Andy Warhol’s, dot-dot-dot is being screened at 8 p.m. on Tuesday. That was really quite amazing. And so they were trying to create some kind of studio/laboratory where all these things could happen. But it started to, it again really highlighted how, despite all of the tensions and conflict surrounding their relationship to technology, EAT really did have a social mission and was extremely political and wanted to change both social and political aspects of life, but it just, let’s say, from a different vantage point than maybe other artists did at the time.
Craig Cannon [00:22:57] – Yeah, because it seems very practical.
Michelle Kou [00:22:59] – It was.
Craig Cannon [00:22:59] – It was. Because, what ended up happening with the house, which was my concern the whole time?
Michelle Kou [00:23:06] – Well, then it was basically, it eventually became a gallery.
Craig Cannon [00:23:10] – Oh yeah, great.
Michelle Kou [00:23:11] – It was both practical and really impractical because many of their ideas or many of the plans, sort of petered out. And I would say one of the most amazing and fantastic, but then also cataclysmic events for them was when EAT was commissioned to construct and realize the Pepsi Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Osaka in 1970, and I think I talked about this–
Craig Cannon [00:23:42] – You did.
Michelle Kou [00:23:42] – Yeah. But basically, that was the biggest single collaborative project they took on, and it was truly global. I mean, they worked with Japanese artists, engineers, European artists, engineers, obviously American artists, engineers. They tested it in L.A. But they created a 180-degree hemispherical mirror dome that was inflated, made out of inflated Mylar, essentially, which is the same technology that was being used for the first telecommunication satellites. It’s like they would launch a reflective balloon into space, and you’re literally bouncing waves.
Craig Cannon [00:24:21] – Oh, cool.
Michelle Kou [00:24:22] – But instead, they use that technology, or essentially, through much trial and error, jerry-rigged it so that they could create an inflated mirror dome, and when you walked inside, there were all of these sound effects, different textures, different projections and performances, but the mirror dome itself created, essentially, three-dimensional, near-holographic, inverted reflections. And you could capture this in photographs, so there are incredible photographs of this as well. But basically, they took on this massive project, and it by all rights was actually really, created unprecedented experiences that were literally giving you both real and virtual images, as they called them. But Pepsi, to make a long story short, when the Pavilion opened to the public, they basically thought, “This is too weird.”
Craig Cannon [00:25:22] – Oh no, the PR people!
Kat Mañalac [00:25:22] – Oh no!
Michelle Kou [00:25:24] – And there were also huge budget cost overruns. There was also a fog sculpture surrounding the entire Pavilion. I can’t even get into all of these things. People thought the fog was a fire, so the first day they sent a firetruck screaming. Anyway, Pepsi kind of thought, “Well, actually, this is really weird.” And so there was a breakdown. Actually there was essentially a legal dispute, and at the end of the day, EAT sort of got kicked out of the Pavilion. They were literally smuggling their tapes, like their sort of eight-track tapes for programs out of the Pavilion. And the end result is that Pepsi replaced all of these experimental sort of, John Cage/David Tudor composed soundtracks with It’s a Small World.
Craig Cannon [00:26:22] – Oh!
Kat Mañalac [00:26:22] – Oh no.
Craig Cannon [00:26:25] – And that was effectively enough to burn everyone out?
Michelle Kou [00:26:29] – It was traumatic, I think for everyone, and I think the whole thing was traumatic. I mean, they still went on for a number of years, but after, let’s say, that really I think was tough. And yet again, I would say it really demonstrated how global they could be, actually, and how they could construct a global team that would create something of a very ambitious scale. It also just became an object lesson in all of the difficulties of course surrounding.
Craig Cannon [00:27:05] – Well because what I’d been wondering was that, the first thing that got me into this was I was reading the conversations with Robert Irwin book, which was amazing, I love that book, and it’s just like one sentence. It talks about him hanging out with Richard Feynman. Do you know much about this?
Michelle Kou [00:27:24] – Yes, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Craig Cannon [00:27:26] – I want to watch that movie. And it’s such little information online.
Michelle Kou [00:27:31] – I don’t know if there’s footage of it, but–
Craig Cannon [00:27:34] – There’s a photo of Robert Irwin and Richard Ser…, I always mispronounce the name, in like, an anechoic chamber, and they’re like, hanging out, but yeah, I don’t know.
Michelle Kou [00:27:44] – That’s a famous sort of interaction, where Robert Irwin was experimenting with, basically what shaped his work, where he’s really interested in shutting out all sensation, and then he goes on to create works that explore the ganzfeld, or this perceptual limit, in the same way that an anechoic chamber does. But yeah, Richard Feynman was a member of EAT. So was Robert Irwin. So were a lot of physicists. You know, it again was part of this kind of crazy network of people, and what was great was that there were a lot of, not a lot, but there were definitely a number of analogous collaboration programs that were like EAT, often modeled after it. One was this program where Irwin was sort of meeting a lot of these people through, it was for an exhibition at LACMA, the L.A. County Museum of Art, and it was called Art and Technology. It was all very confusing, but it was basically for an exhibition. So they were very much inspired by EAT, but this exhibition was sort of like the endpoint. So in other words, you would commission all these collaborations, they paired–
Craig Cannon [00:28:53] – But it was just a very corporate thing, right? There are all these companies?
Michelle Kou [00:28:57] – Yes, but EAT was also embroiled with all of these companies as well, like Lockheed Martin basically the aerospace industry in southern California, like the jet propulsion laboratory, that’s where Irwin went. So they did the same thing, they paired artists with engineers, but it was ultimately to end up back in the museum. That’s what I find really fascinating. And then, to me, the difference is that EAT, it was, it took the opposite trajectory. It tried to explode in scale, and it could not be confined by the museum. It did not fit into any of the traditional institutions–
Kat Mañalac [00:29:28] – Did everything they built, was it all site-specific?
Michelle Kou [00:29:32] – Not necessarily. I mean part of what they wanted to do, and what they did create was almost even a set of equipment. For example, you could go check out the weird, hybrid control panel that had been invented, essentially, or engineered for this other performance, now it just exists there. You can go take it, and it’s like a library. You can check it out and use it for something else. And yet, the other thing is that often what they created does not conform to traditional genres of sculpture or painting or drawings, and so a lot of what they made was either lost, or some of it’s sitting in disrepair in an engineer’s garage somewhere, or an artist’s studio, and so the paper trail, so to speak, well, they left a voluminous paper trail, but not a trail of, let’s say, traditional art objects. And that’s I think also part of why it’s been hard for people to wrap their heads around what this was, or what they did.
Craig Cannon [00:30:37] – But this is an ongoing issue in the art world, right? Maintaining all this stuff.
Michelle Kou [00:30:41] – Yes.
Craig Cannon [00:30:42] – I mean, even, I don’t know the history of it nearly like you do, but, like all of the Tang Li stuff, the things that break themselves, which are amazing, but they like, the museum kind of takes the fun out of it because there’ll be like a red button that you can hit, like, once an hour, and then all the thing will just dance, and so they fall apart.
Michelle Kou [00:30:58] – It’s funny, there are a lot of exhibitions nowadays where those things still aren’t working, or like the technicians, the conservators have to come and sort of, they’re always panicked. But Tang Li actually was really one of the first works that Kluver, the EAT engineer, they collaborated on a piece that was basically a kinetic sculpture that destroyed itself in the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden in 1960, and of course, it didn’t really, it just sort of short-circuited, so it was, again, supposed to be I think kind of spectacular, and in the end it kind of just fizzled out. But that was one of Kluver’s first collaborations with an artist, but yes. The idea of incorporating new technologies and new materials, or even unorthodox materials and unorthodox technologies, you know that is a really interesting problem for the production of art, especially starting around the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and even more so now of course with, God knows what an artist who’s using BitCoin. I have no idea what they’re going to do in the future.
Craig Cannon [00:32:02] – You wouldn’t believe the questions you got on Twitter, by the way. People are sending in stuff, it’s very–
Kat Mañalac [00:32:07] – There’s definitely a blockchain-related question.
Michelle Kou [00:32:08] – Oh no! I’m going to have to frantically Wikipedia that again. But just to sort of finish that thought, I think what was really amazing, specifically about some of what EAT made, and this is present in, for example a number, a lot of Rauschenberg’s own collaborative artworks from the time that he made with Kluver under the auspices of EAT is that Rauschenberg said, “Look, I’m making this thing with a transistor radio right now,” and they’d done all these complex things to it to make sort of, the effects they want. At the time, in the ’60s, transistor radio was not a mass technology. It had just come onto the market. It was a very new thing. Fast forward to the ’90s. This piece, which is a sort of sculpture that has these radios embedded in it, is acquired by the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Well the Centre Pompidou is a very funny building. Again, to make a long story short, it’s a very weird piece of architecture, but it acts like a Faraday cage. So it was blocking all signal.
Craig Cannon [00:33:12] – No!
Michelle Kou [00:33:13] – Also at the time that they had constructed the piece, in the mid-’60s, AM was like FM, and FM was like AM, in terms of programming. So AM had more pop music, et cetera. FM had more sort of news, blah, blah, blah. Rauschenberg wanted to, I think at the time it was FM, and so they wanted to switch it to AM as well. Anyway, let’s just say that in the ’90s, they had to do this whole retrofitting and then successively update the radios and receivers in this piece, over time, to the point where now they’re digital radios and receivers in the sculpture, in this metal sculpture from 1965. And Rauschenberg said, “That’s great. Do whatever you want to do.” And in a way, he’s taking this idea of the ready-made, which is this revolutionary 20th century idea, and he’s saying, “The ready-made itself can be updated. It can sort of change and adapt to technological obsolescence,” and that is really fascinating and groundbreaking.
Craig Cannon [00:34:17] – Well it’s particular interesting when you take the modern eye and bring it into these exhibits where things that are supposed to represent the future now look like this kitsch retro. There’s the, I forget what it’s called, but it’s that big tower of TVs.
Michelle Kou [00:34:33] – Yes, the Nam June Paik, yeah.
Craig Cannon [00:34:35] – And you look at it, and you’re like, “Oh this is cool, very 1984-esque,” but don’t think it was intended that way.
Michelle Kou [00:34:45] – It wasn’t but some, so many artists, again, it’s a sliding scale. Many artists at the time are actually interested in obsolete technologies and in exploring those. At the same time, there are other artists who are interested in the the newest, latest thing, and that’s what they want. A question I often ask artists that are alive still is “If you could do it all over again, would you use a different technology to achieve the effect that you wanted back then?” And some say, “Yes.” I even heard an artist say, “Yes, I actually want to take back my works that are in the museum and change them and put them back,” which museums really don’t want. But again, it points up this crazy contradiction or this conundrum that people are facing. Some artists say, “No, I wouldn’t change a thing. I want it to reflect that medium, that sort of form of the time, and that’s something I want to preserve.” It just depends on what you were trying to do and what questions you were trying to ask.
Craig Cannon [00:35:51] – Okay, do have thoughts then, so Kat and I both went to Venice this year.
Michelle Kou [00:35:55] – Oh wow yeah, that’s a really, yeah, we’re all in.
Craig Cannon [00:35:58] – It’s very, I’ll be clear, it was the first one of those I had ever been to, and like–
Michelle Kou [00:36:03] – Yes, it’s a big, yeah, you know. It only happens every two years.
Craig Cannon [00:36:06] – And so you went, right, because you read a review.
Michelle Kou [00:36:10] – Yeah, we had a whole, yeah, series of pieces.
Craig Cannon [00:36:13] – And there’s a distinct lack of technology at this one, right?
Michelle Kou [00:36:18] – That’s an interesting question. You know that, again, I think points to what maybe has changed between let’s say the mid-’60s and now, which is that, of course consumer technology has expanded to the extent that everyone has a computer in their pocket. So it’s so ubiquitous that, in a way, I wouldn’t say that the Biennale for example was devoid of technology. I think it was everywhere in a lot of different ways, but this exhibition in particular was focusing on, let’s say an investigation of ideas about primitivism, about indigenous cultures, about nature, about spirituality, and those are definitely things that in a way that explains why you saw a lot of, let’s say more traditional craft or form in the show. So you’re totally right. It’s just that I would say, A, We often don’t notice it as much because it’s not foregrounded as the raison d’etre of an artwork. It’s just there, and on the flip side, yes, it might, I would say that people are interested right now in exploring the flip side of the acceleration of technology and its omnipresence. They’re interested in also slowing things down in other kinds of perception or in even countering some of the kinds of media saturation that we have.
Craig Cannon [00:37:51] – I did love sharpening a MacBook Air, like that guy’s amazing.
Michelle Kou [00:37:55] – I literally just thought of that, yeah, Shimabuku, yeah, that’s so great.
Craig Cannon [00:37:59] – What is it, do snow monkeys remember snow too? That guy’s the best.
Michelle Kou [00:38:00] – Exactly. I just was thinking that was actually one of my favorite pieces, or two pieces in the show, so, and yeah, exactly. Such a simple idea with the snow monkeys, but of course, that’s video, but then, with the sharpening the MacBook Air, again a very simple idea, but very, extremely sharp, no pun intended.
Kat Mañalac [00:38:19] – In thinking about the legacy of EAT, who do you think is doing some of the most interesting work in that intersection of art and technology?
Michelle Kou [00:38:29] – I would say what’s exciting in a sense is that so many artists have so much more access to advanced technology simply because of the proliferation of these advanced technologies in everyday life. On the flip side I would say that the cloisters in which technology is actually being sort of produced or created now are still in many ways as walled-off to the guy on the street as they were before. Some of the artists that I think are really either, A, pushing the boundaries of what art and technology can do together, but also of really looking at technologies or making it a point to try and engage technologies that most ordinary people or artists wouldn’t really have access to, one of them is Trevor Paglen, who for example, well, he’s kind of a crazy guy. He has a series of incredible photographs that are basically taken from remote sites, and with very special camera technology of drone planes. They’re these beautiful photographs often of an incredibly brilliant night sky, and then there’s a tiny speck, and it’s a drone. He has to do all of these things to get that, sort of, picture, and what he’s doing, in many different ways, and in lots of other projects as well is to try and render visible or sensible to us things that are absolutely not visible to us normally, or even physically. For example, he is really interested in all of these automated technologies that are post-vision, so to speak. Literally things that we cannot visualize because they don’t take place in an optical realm.
Michelle Kou [00:40:34] – How do you start to even talk about it, or engage it, or make someone somehow perceive, get some sense of what those processes are? And he’s really someone who I think has done that.
Craig Cannon [00:40:49] – Yeah, I was just about to jump into some of these questions from Twitter.
Michelle Kou [00:40:53] – This is definitely a new experience for me, I will say.
Craig Cannon [00:40:55] – Yeah, this is a new experience for us too. I should retype some of these questions because it makes me sound like I can’t read, although I have like a fourth-grade reading level probably. Ana Sofia Almagro (@as2893), I also butcher everyone’s name, she asked a question about blockchain. I don’t mean to be patronizing, but what’s your level of in-the-know?
Michelle Kou [00:41:23] – We actually published a piece about Bitcoin and the blockchain. It was by a media studies person, and I will say I relied on a lot of help because, as I mentioned, literally just by coincidence, my partner is a technologist, and actually the rest of my family are all scientists and engineers as well, which explains something I guess. But we had to do a lot of research to make sure we were accurately characterizing the technology, and I learned a lot, obviously, when we worked on that piece.
Craig Cannon [00:42:00] – Okay, so you’re on board. Then I have a question for you.
Michelle Kou [00:42:03] – Although this was like a year and a half, two years ago, but you can test my recall.
Craig Cannon [00:42:09] – Well, Kat and I can jump in at any point. So is blockchain being used to track authenticity in art, meaning digital art?
Michelle Kou [00:42:19] – Wow, not to my knowledge yet, not to my knowledge yet.
Kat Mañalac [00:42:23] – I don’t think I’ve heard.
Michelle Kou [00:42:24] – I’ve heard of one. Really?
Kat Mañalac [00:42:25] – Really?
Craig Cannon [00:42:27] – One project, yeah because you get the idea, right? It’s tracking authenticity, in that my interpretation is that it’s incredibly difficult to create valuable digital art if it’s, A, falling apart because your browser’s no longer compatible, but also if you Photoshop paint something, you can just duplicate it infinitely. You have the signature on this, the original. Okay, so maybe, maybe not.
Michelle Kou [00:42:54] – Not to my knowledge yet, but I haven’t really looked into it in this way. And I guess, again, what I would say is that it’s an incredibly, well, it’s a very intuitive, but it’s also a perverse idea because I think a lot of artists right now who are exploring something like the blockchain are interested in disrupting, well that’s a terrible word to use, so scratch that, in going against, sort of orthodox valuation in the first place. But yeah, I mean–
Kat Mañalac [00:43:33] – They might not care as much about authenticity of the original piece.
Michelle Kou [00:43:37] – They actively want to subvert authenticity, and that’s been something that, again, actually you could say almost the entire history of modern art is about challenging authenticity and authorship, and so we’ve been through, in the art sort of realm, many different iterations of people trying to test this in different ways, and so, and technology is one of them, right? To use a technological system is often to remove you as a human, single individual, and your whatever in primitor that may be, on something, it’s to replace that with a system that’s determined in advance, or might use a chance operation. So these are all legacies in art that again are really informing people’s attitudes towards even the newest technology.
Craig Cannon [00:44:24] – Oh okay, so–
Michelle Kou [00:44:25] – But I’m sure people are everyone’s always interested in valuation outside of the artist themselves.
Craig Cannon [00:44:30] – Well, that’s tricky, right, but it’s all made up. Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. Damien Hirst, found objects, hot or not? Are you allowed to comment on this?
Michelle Kou [00:44:41] – I think I’m going to pass on that.
Craig Cannon [00:44:44] – Alright, next question. Is it still art if a machine creates it?
Michelle Kou [00:44:49] – Yes, and for the reasons that I just enumerated. I think that this becomes a philosophical question, but at the end of the day, in most cases up to now, at our point in history, someone, a human still has to trigger that process, like, say, “Go,” even if then everything else is determined by an algorithm or by a a program. And yet, artists were interested in challenging, they were interested in using machines precisely to challenge this traditional notion of authorship, which they associated with an outmoded model of being, basically, and to challenge systems really, not only of capitalism, but also of basically Western philosophy that is often privileging the author, and it’s the author as a white male. These are all things that get challenged at different periods in history, and people are using machines to do that. The weird thing now is and again I would point to the work of someone like Trevor Paglen or another artist, Harun Farocki, where, as Paglen himself has kind of characterized, these artists are confronting the both amazing and terrifying prospect of totally automated, completely automated systems that don’t need the human to set off that go button and are acting or using deep learning, or using all of these different processes that do not entail humans. And again I think artists and art viewers will still be interested in someone who somehow finds a way to investigate that as art.
Craig Cannon [00:46:52] – So we had Doug Eck.
Michelle Kou [00:46:52] – Oh yeah!
Craig Cannon [00:46:55] – Oh you do, you’re like way more into this than I, yeah.
Michelle Kou [00:46:59] – I don’t know him personally, I just, I know about him, but actually again, this doesn’t have to be in the video, but my partner, because he’s in music technology, he again was like, “Oh, Doug Eck,” and I was like, so I was reading up about him as well, but yeah.
Craig Cannon [00:47:12] – He was on the podcast before.
Michelle Kou [00:47:14] – Yes, which is great.
Craig Cannon [00:47:16] – Okay yeah, so he’s awesome. And his whole thing is, right, this is just a tool, and he often, he cited a Brian Eno quote, which is basically saying, like, “The style is defined by the glitch of it,” like the electric guitar with Jimi Hendrix was the distortion. You know, like vinyl or tapes, or whatever. And he had been talking about how, when photography came out, people were criticizing. It was like, “This isn’t art. This is just a reproduction.” Do you think the same thing is just going to be happening with, as, like machine learning comes into art creation, or 3D printing, or basically my question is, is this a constant in the art world?
Michelle Kou [00:47:56] – Yes, I’ll probably never live to see the day when someone doesn’t say, “My kid could do that,” so that is a question. To me, the real question is, what does it mean to introduce a glitch into something? What does it mean to explore the perfection of a mechanical or a computational system? What does it mean to try and basically challenge the legacy of virtuosic skill? In other words, the reason photography created a crisis for art was that it said, you know, if one of the stated aims of painting was to somehow reproduce the world in the most wonderful way possible, now you have a machine that just does it automatically, and so how can you possibly try to understand a different way of creating that is not mimetic, that is not about reproduction? And how can you try and understand a mode of construction that might even challenge or critique those systems of reproduction? And that’s when you get into the 20th century and Steve Reich saying, “I have the simplest pattern,” but then in its realization, you get an incredibly singular amazing sonic experience. But people are playing precisely with pulling the subject out completely, the author out completely, but then also you know, the realization that you can never quite fully do that. There’s always this tension between sort of total chance, total system, and total control.
Michelle Kou [00:49:53] – Got you, okay. We just have a couple questions left. This has been great, it’s so cool. This is getting, I mean, it’s a big topic, but it’s … I would say, also the funny thing is, regardless of the tool, a lot of bad art has been made as well. Look that’s what I mean about it’s not just, of course about the tool. It’s about what you do with the tool, but also maybe you’re creating a new tool in the first place, and that’s when I think artists have really pushed the limits of what what sensation is, what perception is, what materials are.
Kat Mañalac [00:50:33] – Artistss will always adapt.
Michelle Kou [00:50:34] – Or even predict. I mean, they might be the forecasters in a way of what comes to pass as well.
Craig Cannon [00:50:42] – Seems like it.
Michelle Kou [00:50:42] – In some cases.
Craig Cannon [00:50:45] – Yeah, in some cases.
Michelle Kou [00:50:45] – To their great chagrin.
Craig Cannon [00:50:47] – Oh yeah, what happened in Automation House that didn’t come to life, or that did come to life, that they called?
Michelle Kou [00:50:54] – Well so, one project was, they had a series of projects they called Projects Outside Art, which again gives you some idea of what they were trying to do. And one of the things that’s really very funny is a project that was called Children and Communication. So the artist Robert Whitman kind of spearheaded this project, and again, part of this is about, with these new tools of communication, how can we explore democratizing communication and networks of communication? They had this idea to set up multiple stations around the city, where different schoolchildren of different socioeconomic brackets, like in different places, could go and have access to teletype machines, basically primitive fax and telex machines. And so they could then, there are sessions, just, like, go, and why don’t you communicate with these other children?
Craig Cannon [00:51:52] – Just like, AIM with each other?
Kat Mañalac [00:51:54] – Yes, I know, instant messaging.
Craig Cannon [00:51:59] – It went off the rails immediately.
Michelle Kou [00:52:01] – This led to AOL chat and Match.com.
Craig Cannon [00:52:04] – Yeah, and Chatroulette.
Kat Mañalac [00:52:06] – And Snapchat, it’s all the proto.
Michelle Kou [00:52:08] – Yeah, exactly but anyway. The children wrote to each other, and of course, there are all these like, funny jokes, then weirdly, it kind of went off the rails, and kids were using profanity to each other. It was just a very interesting, funny sort of experiment, and even, I would say, as a testament to how architectural and formal experience was still really important to these artists and engineers, that sites in which the children were playing with these machines were specifically devised as these kind of low-light tents that, for whatever reason they thought this would be an interesting environment, it’s an intimate environment, I don’t know. But it was really something where then they explored telex communication with, they set up telex stations for adults on the occasion of another project in Ahmedabad, India, in Stockholm, in Tokyo, in New York, in L.A., and they were having people ask questions about what they thought the future would be like. It’s this very, in a way, idealistic vision of how people might exchange information across a global network, but also with questions that were very much geared toward fear of what the future might bring as well.
Craig Cannon [00:53:34] – Will you make a future prediction? About how these art and technology communities can work together? Because I agree with you that both of them seem kind of, in the same way, accessible and completely inaccessible, if you’re not part of the club, or whatever. What’s your future prediction on their relationship?
Michelle Kou [00:53:55] – Well, they’re both highly specialized, and that’s part of why I think you see this isolation, and those were precisely the terms that EAT was using back in the ’60s as well. How can we bring these fields together that are developing in isolation in a potentially dangerous way? But again, I think part of it is, on the one hand, art actually has a track record of creating public institutions, or that there are public institutions that have been created for viewing and experiencing art. Theoretically, one wishes they were even more public or more accessible, but they’re there, and I think the same thing, I would hope might be created or really be augmented for technology, which is to say really creating a public institution or a public sphere for technological knowledge and experience, in the same way that a museum is, in an ideal scenario, a civic institution that’s really for an audience of anyone who wants to go. In reality of course we know that’s not always the case, but you know that’s the aim. And I guess I would say that the effort to make a public institution has to exist because everyone thought the internet was going to be that democratizing, final utopia, and instead, we’ve seen the flip side of that, which is the development of ever-specialized, ever-atomized, ever-more-esoteric and inward-looking conversations. Or even, I don’t know if you’d call it a conversation, but just nodes. How do we start to really invert that and instill a sense of what a public sphere could be
Michelle Kou [00:55:41] – for both art and technology, and only then I think would those I think domains really be able to talk to each other.
Craig Cannon [00:55:48] – You got to take down your pay wall.
Michelle Kou [00:55:51] – Then I wouldn’t have a job, but I agree, if someone would pay me, I would take down the pay wall, pay us all to make this great content, I would definitely take down the pay wall.
Craig Cannon [00:56:01] – I agree with you, no I’m just–
Michelle Kou [00:56:02] – You know, that’s the conundrum of creating content today, and I would say that it is again, the conundrum of copyright copyleft, all of these things which is I firmly believe that information wants to be free, to quote another utopian guy. But right now, there wouldn’t be any information in many ways if the people weren’t there who could have a livelihood to create it. And that’s the tough, sort of, paradox of our situation now.
Craig Cannon [00:56:42] – Yes, I get it. My last question, do you have any more questions?
Kat Mañalac [00:56:48] – I might, I’ll see what you …
Craig Cannon [00:56:50] – Yeah, well, I always like to recommended reading, I gave that to you as like, a pre-question, so I didn’t want to waste it.
Michelle Kou [00:56:58] – Well one book that is, I think a very great and general sort of argument about some of the historical shifts we’ve been talking about from the 1960s to the present is a book by Fred Turner called From Counterculture to Cyberculture, and he really traces the transformation of the ideals of the counterculture which were to fight the system, bring it down, into the system of Silicon Valley, and how those aspirations and even styles really got incorporated into you know, the most successful, sort of, wing of capitalism today. I think that’s a really strong book for anyone who wants to understand some of these dynamics. Another book I’ll say is more esoteric, but again, I think it’s good to just plug this because that’s part of my own perverse desire to do this, but the book by this art historian named Maria Gough, and it’s called The Artist as Producer, and that’s actually about Russian revolutionary art, and it’s about a moment in time when, one of the instance that it covers is what’s called productivism, and it’s when artists, as part of wanting to create a new society, which again, failed for all different kinds of reasons, but they wanted to, and they successfully actually went into, infiltrated the factory, the laboratory. They basically became organizers. Artists were devising new ways of organizing labor, and sort of subverting the whole conventional wisdom about Fordist assembly line production, and so it became a social experiment, and a technological one, and an organizational one.
Michelle Kou [00:58:58] – And the artists were literally driving that. It’s a weird, crazy moment in history, but I think it’s also really interesting.
Kat Mañalac [00:59:06] – It’s sort of applicable today too.
Michelle Kou [00:59:08] – It’s absolutely applicable. And I think it’s part of what this is is a history of things that people thought of but never came to pass, and I think in our culture, we’re often taught, if it wasn’t successful, then you shouldn’t pay attention to it. But actually, I think the opposite is true. Because then you’ll never know what still might be possible in the future, and so you have to explore all of these, basically paths not taken, and this was one of them which I happened to find, you know, really, really fascinating. I would also put in a plug for trying to read A, for going to see art, which still exists IRL, and–
Craig Cannon [00:59:54] – Well, that’s why you’re here. We should plug it. No, seriously, plug the show.
Michelle Kou [01:00:02] – Oh sorry, yes. Well, there are a number of really interesting shows on right now. There’s a show at CCA Wattis here in San Francisco that’s exploring art and technology. There’s a lot of shows that are going up in the near future. One show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was the Rauschenberg exhibition, and that covered some of this material. I would also put in a plea, or not a plea, but just, I think it would be exciting for people to try and read art criticism as well, writing about art now. And as I said, I think the best art criticism can really speak to multiple audiences, and that people from really different backgrounds or people who aren’t specialists can take something away from good writing about art. Someone else might take something else away from it, but at its best, it can offer that.
Craig Cannon [01:01:00] – Where would you start?
Michelle Kou [01:01:02] – Well, with Artforum.
Craig Cannon [01:01:04] – Obviously, I knew that was coming, but yeah.
Michelle Kou [01:01:06] – I strive to we strive to create the best art criticism.
Craig Cannon [01:01:11] – Okay so, do you know who Gay Talese is, like the guy who does all these profiles?
Michelle Kou [01:01:16] – Yes, yeah.
Craig Cannon [01:01:17] – Is there someone who could go into the past, like just pick a writer who’s like, oh man, this is like iconic art criticism?
Kat Mañalac [01:01:25] – I think you can start here.
Michelle Kou [01:01:26] – Oh yeah, definitely. I would say Clement Greenberg. He was wrong about a lot of things, but A. he’s an amazing writer, and B. reading that criticism will tell you a lot about the entire edifice of what art is today, all the battles that were being fought, the kinds of art that were being made, that basically are still the kind of, let’s say, foundation against which artists are responding, in some degree, or trying to obviously push beyond still. The other thing is he was often writing for journals, even newspapers, and it’s very clear, and it’s very much a polemic. It’s very much an argument, and that was from a time when the stakes seemed really high in a way that almost seems ridiculous or impossible today. At the time, critics in the ’50s and then in the ’60s were battling it out, and as one critic put it, they were literally fighting for the soul of Western civilization. Then you get a sense of what people held, what they were holding art accountable for and culture accountable for. And I think that’s really important.
Craig Cannon [01:02:48] – Alright, thanks for listening. If you have some time, please leave us a rating and review. If you want to watch the video or read the transcript those are both at blog.ycombinator.com. See you next time.
ICYMI: Watch 40+ founders pitch at YC's Work at a Startup Expo
December 11, 2020 by Ryan Choi
Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon