This article first appeared in the July 1998 issue of “IEEE Spectrum Magazine.” It was a real privilege to interview Billy and to see his passion for work and his delight that people were still interested in what he had done. He died in 2004.
Billy Klüver has a lot in common with the more accomplished electrical engineers of his generation. He has a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, is a veteran of Bell Laboratories, has been an IEEE member since 1943, and holds several patents. Unique to Klüver, however, is the almost surreal story of a quiet scientist, thrust from the serenity of the lab into the burgeoning art scene of New York City in the 1960s.
His knowledge of technology, coupled with a deep-rooted interest in art, launched him on a whirlwind tour of the tumultuous ’60s. The list of those with whom he has collaborated embraces some of the 20th century’s most notable visual and performing artists–Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and others. Were it not for his well-chronicled presence in the annals of art history, Klüver’s story would be difficult to believe.
Life magazine, though, fell short of the mark in a 1966 article that tagged him “The Mr. Fix-It of kinetic art.” He was and is far more than just a repair man. Most memorably, he was the lead engineer and co-organizer of “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” a defining event in late 20th century art.
“9 Evenings” resulted from a collaboration between 10 artists and more than 30 engineers and scientists who integrated fascinating new technologies into works of art. Held in 1966 at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City, the performances drew an audience of over 10 000.
Because of the enthusiasm generated by “9 Evenings,” Klüver, fellow Bell engineer Fred Waldhauer, and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman went on to form Experiments in Art & Technology (E.A.T.), the first organization dedicated to uniting artists eager to use technology with engineers equipped to provide it.
E.A.T.’s first task was to attract engineers who would collaborate with artists. Within two years, E.A.T. membership rolls grew to over 4000 and the organization subsequently became the catalyst for much striking technological art.
The ’60s were a productive period in the history of art and technology, and Klüver’s work was chronicled in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Life, Newsweek, Art Forum and elsewhere. Not to be outdone, IEEE Spectrum’s May 1969 issue examined E.A.T. and the young Art & Technology Movement.
In that report, staff writer Nilo Lindgren sought to persuade engineers to get involved with the organization. “You need not be a Renaissance Man to apply for a match with an artist. It won’t be all fun and games, although part of it will be, and you might even end up doing something so useless from an engineering point of view, and so right from another point of view, that you could begin wondering why engineering is practiced the way it is–i.e., you might get turned on.”
The “artist’s scientist,” as The New York Times called him in 1965, has himself become an object of renewed interest to artists and historians. In the past 12 months, Klüver has co-authored a well-received book of historic photographs (A Day with Picasso, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.), attended a festive homecoming at Berkeley’s engineering department, received an honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from New York City’s renowned Parson’s School of Design (now part of the New School for Social Research), has been interviewed for the BBC, and has been asked to appear on countless panels and give numerous lectures. Right now in his suburban home in Berkeley Heights, N.J., where he and two assistants maintain the mountain of archives that chronicle the 30-year history of the Art & Technology movement, Klüver wonders what all the fuss is about.
“I mean, can you imagine, a degree in fine arts,” he said in a recent interview with Spectrum. “I’m an engineer, not an artist.” Klüver, the technological guru of late 20th century art, made the statement with a great deal of pride in his profession. Though rejecting any claims of being an artist himself, this engineer is as responsible for shaping the face of technological art as any painter or sculptor of this era.
Hallowed ground to underground
For Klüver, science has always been paramount, whereas his interest in art was “just another form of intellectual activity,” he said. He was born in Monaco in 1927 and his family moved to Sweden immediately after. While an undergraduate at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stock-holm, he joined the Film Society across town at the humanities faculty of Stockholm University, an unprecedented act for an engineering student. His deep love of film eventually led to his election as president of the Film Society.
He desired to merge his two loves, film and science, by producing high-level educational films, something that had not yet been done. For his senior thesis, he received permission from his professor, Nobel prize winner in physics Hannes Alfvén, to produce a short animated film about the motion of electrons in electric and magnetic fields. Later he presented the concept of high-level, educational films to Encyclopedia Britannica, which did not know what to make of it, since no film geared to an audience with such knowledge had ever been made before.
After graduating, he first took a job with Compagnie Générale Thomson-Houston in Paris, where he worked on a cavity-type electron-beam device slated to join the radio transmitters atop the Eiffel Tower. He continued to pursue the merger of film and science by spending some time in Marseilles, working for famed oceanic scientist Jacques Cousteau. “I got to go on board Calypso [Cousteau’s ocean-going research vessel],” he said, his eyes brightening at the memory. “My group at Thomson had developed one of the first underwater television cameras. It was quite amazing back then. Cousteau used it to explore a cargo ship that had sunk 2000 years ago just outside Marseilles.”
At age 26, after one year in Paris, he emigrated to the United States. “I always knew I wanted to come here,” he said. “I saw the movies and wanted to see for myself.” He was certain he would get a job with the Radio Corporation of America or Bell Laboratories; but his arrival in 1954 coincided with the McCarthy hearings and the questioning of research centers about possibly Communist, “un-American” activities. Being a foreigner, he decided to avoid the risks and instead to stall for time by working for his Ph.D.
Under the supervision of professor of electrical engineering John Whinnery, Klüver finished up at Berkeley in just two years and seven months–a speed record for a Ph.D. back then. In 1958, he found employment in the Communication Sciences Division at Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, N.J. His days were spent researching backward-wave magnetron amplifiers, linear tubes, and small-signal power conservation theorems. At night, he hung out at artistic events. When Swiss kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely was inspired to build a large mechanical sculpture that would ultimately destroy itself (an embodiment of what he thought New York City was doing), he asked Klüver for assistance in finding discarded bicycle wheels. This strange request would forever change Klüver’s life.
‘I want to destroy it,’ said the artist.
Artist Tinguely actually met engineer Klüver in Paris in 1953, and came to New York City in 1960 for his first U.S. gallery show. Impressed by the success of that opening, the Museum of Modern Art invited him to build a sculpture in its outdoor garden, on West 54th Street. Klüver recalled, “They had no idea what they were getting into.”
Nor did he. Technological assistance was not at all what he expected to supply. Involvement by way of navigating the streets of New York City and helping with transportation seemed more likely. “I was the only one of Jean’s friends who had a regular job, so I was the only one with a car,” he said.
It started simply enough. Klüver recalled driving his huge Chevrolet convertible heaped with rusty bicycle wheels collected from the basement of a New Jersey bicycle shop. He and Tinguely pulled over near the museum’s garden, and threw the junk over the fence–which was lower then, he observed.
Little by little, things grew more complicated. Outside the train window, on the way to visit Klüver in New Jersey, Tinguely had seen vast suburban garbage dumps and asked to be driven there. “We went and walked around for hours, loading up all these things he wanted–baby carriages, etc.–all that stench sticking to your clothes. I can still smell it,” Klüver remembered.
“We took all that stuff to the museum, walked right through the front door, continued to the garden, and started building. Tinguely was an amazing structural engineer, no training at all. For him, building it was the easy part. The problem came in how to destroy it.”
The resulting work was entitled Homage to New York [Figure 1]. On 17 March 1960, after a 27-minute performance, it collapsed and burst into flames, just as it was designed to do.
Looking back, Klüver told Spectrum, “Some of the sculpture’s components didn’t work, of course. I wanted to run up and fix some things, but Jean said, ‘Don’t touch.’ He was happy with the result. He liked spectacle; it was his character. He liked to see how people reacted and what happened.”
From that collaboration he learned to listen to the artist and provide him with as many choices as possible. He also learned another important lesson, that is, when to let go. “I knew that I could solve the problems, if I took a day, but the curtain had to go up. Artists still complain that engineers never learn that the curtain must go up.”
As the firemen were dowsing the flames, reporters raced to get their stories to press. The next day’s New York Journal-American headline was “Art Goes Boom.” The media attention sparked by the event was enough to stir the interest of the other artists who had attended. For one, Robert Rauschenberg immediately asked the young engineer to collaborate with him on what would become what art historians now consider one of his most inventive works, Oracle [Figure 2].
The newspaper article also attracted the attention of John Pierce, Klüver’s supervisor in the Bell Labs Communication Sciences Division and now Visiting Professor of Music, Emeritus, at the Stanford University Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Said Klüver: “After Homage, Pierce came running in my office. He had no idea what I was doing–we were doing work on Bell Labs time, with Bell Labs equipment, even Bell Labs staff! I thought I was fired. So Pierce comes running in and says, ‘There’s only one thing wrong. Why wasn’t I invited?’ ”
This positive attitude led Klüver to extend his assistance to all the artists who came to him with requests after Homage. Jasper Johns, for one, wanted a neon letter in the middle of a painting with no wires [Figure 3], and Andy Warhol wanted light bulbs to float [Figure 4]. After six years of collaboration between the artists and Klüver, not to mention the growth of public interest, the time seemed ripe for a major exhibition. With the support of Bell Labs, Klüver and a team of over 40 engineers set the stage for “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” and the later launch of E.A.T.
8000 hours for ‘9 Evenings’
A music society in Stockholm wanted to present a Festival of Art and Technology in 1966 and asked Klüver to organize a U.S. contribution. Rauschenberg agreed to help, and the two invited their friends to participate. Many of these artists, choreographers, and composers had been developing and presenting avant-garde works, under the title, “Happenings,” in New York City’s Judson Memorial Church, in Washington Square. Klüver had begun to recruit fellow engineers from Bell Laboratories to assist the artists when the Swedish project folded in the summer of 1966. Undaunted, the group continued to develop their large-scale performance art pieces, and decided to present them in Manhattan instead. Incidentally, the facility chosen to host the performances was the 69th Regiment Armory, the same building that had housed the famous 1913 show that introduced modern European art to Americans.
The events were scheduled for October 1966, and during the summer, over 40 engineers were at work on the technology that would bring the artists’ visions to life. As the artists’ desires were hampered by neither practicality nor reality, the engineers rose to their seemingly impossible requests by resorting to developmental technologies. The list of devices used reads like a chronology of engineering achievement.
In the 1969 Spectrum article, editor Lindgren summarized the artists’ unusual demands: “The engineers provided…infrared television for Rauschenberg, direct access to sounds [from] all over New York for Cage (he wanted sounds, too, from outer space), a sound [environment] for [choreographer Steve] Paxton, snowflakes that went upward for [Oyvind] Fahlström, and a proportional control system for [David] Tudor, with which it was possible to modify lights and sounds by the movement of a flashlight over a photocell control panel.”
Some engineers designed systems for use by more than one artist. Klüver and his colleagues contrived “a local-area FM transmitting system used to control lights, sound, and movement of objects at a distance.” Engineer Fred Waldhauer devised a proportional control system for “moving sound around the speakers mounted in the armory and for varying the level of sound in each speaker.” [Figure 5, Figure 6, and Figure 7 show three of these works.]
By the time the events were over, upward of 10 000 people had attended. Most had mixed reactions. Said Klüver, “We had a high-powered public relations team and they got imaginative stories into the press. People came down there expecting to see miracles. But, of course, we had no miracles to perform. They thought they would see people floating in the air and everything. When they got there and saw it, they were bored to death. They had no idea that this was what contemporary art was. But these days, people come up to me on the street and say ‘I was there,’ and tell me how important ‘9 Evenings’ was for them.”
While attendance far exceeded what Klüver had anticipated, so, too, did the time bestowed on the project by Bell engineers–over 8000 man-hours, in Klüver’s estimate. Nonetheless, Bell Labs management was still bent on encouraging him. “The number of midnight equipment requisitions was quite large,” he said with a grin. “Years later I asked John Pierce, ‘Why did you let me do all this, get away with it?’ Pierce replied, ‘There was too much energy there. To stop it would have been too destructive.’ ”
For those involved, “9 Evenings” was a launching pad to notoriety in the art world. So much enthusiasm was generated among the artists and engineers working on the project, that Rauschenberg and Klüver immediately scheduled a meeting for artists in December 1966 to announce the formation of E.A.T., and find out how much interest there was in the New York art community in an organization that would foster collaborative efforts between artists and engineers. More than 300 artists attended, and more than 80 of them had immediate requests for technical assistance. The main task facing Klüver and the fledgling organization was to find engineers willing to work with artists. Klüver’s strategy involved talks, lectures, visits to corporate laboratories, and in March 1967, a booth at the annual IEEE convention where artists made a pitch to involve engineers.
“I was scared,” Klüver said. “The amazing thing was that it’s possible for artists and scientists to talk together at all.” Yet talking together and working together dissipated the fear on both sides. Three years later, E.A.T. boasted 4000 members all over the country, including 2000 artists and 2000 engineers, and its Technical Services Matching System put artists with technical requests directly in touch with engineers who could work with them. The responsibilities placed on Klüver were so large that he left Bell Labs in 1968 to run E.A.T. full time.
Now, almost 30 years later, Klüver is delighted by the renewed interest in E.A.T. and “9 Evenings.” Efforts are under way on a $250 000 project to preserve the original 16-mm films of the event and to convert them into videotape (Billy’s love of film is still paying off). Through the use of a more recent medium, the San Jose Museum of Art, in California, is preparing an interactive CD ROM on the history of Art & Technology in the ’60s and ’70s. Projects of this nature have not only loaded Klüver with more responsibilities and commitments, they have compelled him to reexamine, through 71-year-old eyes, what he has learned.
The value is in the collaboration
Though responsible for the merging of such unlike fields, Klüver accepts the fact that this form of art does not appeal to everybody. In a 1966 Life magazine article, he was quoted as saying, “All of the art projects that I have worked on have at least one thing in common; from an engineer’s point of view they are ridiculous.”
But Klüver feels that while the technology needed by the artists might often be “trivial” from the engineers’ point of view, applying their technical knowledge in a new environment and in a new way provided the difficulty and challenge. He loved the excitement of working with the artists, some of whom have come to be known as Pop artists, although this was not the term that Klüver preferred. “I would’ve called them the factualists,” he said, “because that is what they did. They dealt in reality and fact. But factualist is a hard word to say.” Perhaps that is why engineering, the science of turning imagination into fact, played a more than transitory role.
Originally, Klüver believed the engineer should simply work for the artist. “Once I gave a talk,” Klüver remembered, “and made the point that an engineer should just be another tool for the artist. But Bob [Rauschenberg] very specifically said, ‘No! It has to be a collaboration.’ I immediately understood what Bob was saying. The one-to-one collaboration between two people from different fields always holds the possibility of producing something new and different that neither of them could have done alone.”
The sculpture Oracle, the first collaboration between Klüver and Rauschenberg, is considered by many art historians to be one of the late 20th century’s greatest works [again, Fig. 2]. Its permanent home is the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and its recent showing as part of a Rauschenberg retrospective in Houston made Klüver think about its history: “It took about three years to finish the first system. It seems like I spent most of my time in endless lines in electronics shops. Two complete systems were built and rejected as technically inadequate, before we finished it in 1965.”
He laughed, “When I would install it in museums over the years, I had to lie on the floor to get it going. You’re trying to solve borderline difficult problems alone, on the floor. You’re not in a lab, you don’t have the tools. And even today, when the value of a piece that started out a couple of hundred dollars is now worth millions, I still face the same situation.”
But Klüver has never hesitated to upgrade Oracle‘s technology so as to preserve the artist’s intentions. This year, he asked an engineer who has worked with E.A.T. since “9 Evenings,” Per Biorn, to design and build a new system for Oracle. “We’ve updated the technology several times. It will be updated to last forever…I hope.”
All things considered, it is probably the art world’s current interest in Oracle–and the historical interest in the early days of Art & Technology by up-and-coming artists–that has Billy Klüver thinking about his legacy, particularly as it relates to maintaining the technology inherent in this type of work. Of great concern to Klüver is what will happen years from now, when the art has outlived the life of the tubes and switches. Will the collaboration between artists and engineers evolve into a collaboration between curators and engineers?
Klüver hopes so. “The museums need to have special curators, engineers who work for the museum to take care of things 10 or 15 years from now. Curators will have to try and understand the technology, and engineers will have to learn how to handle fragile artworks.” The task will not be an easy one on either side.
‘If it works, we’re invisible,’ said the engineer.
The 1969 Spectrum article presented an optimistic view of the future of E.A.T., beginning with the “orchestrating of a large-scale international collaboration for Expo ’70,” the World Exposition in Osaka, Japan [Figure 8]. In the 1970s Klüver, working closely with artist Robert Whitman, oversaw E.A.T. branching out into projects in education and developing countries. More recently, and even with the “9 Evenings” film restoration project, the importance of the E.A.T. organization has waned somewhat.
Today, much of what was once cutting-edge technology is now within easy reach of the artists themselves. In effect, technology itself has lessened the need for collaboration, though not eliminated it entirely. This pleases Klüver immensely. “In the first E.A.T. newsletter,” he remembered, “we said that if we were successful, we would disappear. We would disappear because if we were successful, there would be no need for the functions of E.A.T. in society. It would be perfectly natural for an artist to be able to contact an engineer him or herself.”
E.A.T. (still a nonprofit organization, though with a much less formal structure than in its heyday) still receives some 300 calls per year, but Klüver connects only 25-30 of the artists to the engineers he knows will work with artists. When asked why, Klüver replied that many artists called before they had thought the project through. “If they have made some effort to solve the problem themselves,” he said, “and it gets down to a purely technical issue, where the answer is not available by other means, then I contact an engineer. Otherwise, I figure they’re a kook and I hang up the phone.”
Needless to say, he always answers calls from Rauschenberg, who recently asked if it were possible to paint with colored liquid crystals. It seems he had been commissioned to paint his interpretation of the Apocalypse on a window behind the main altar in a new pilgrimage church near Foggia, Italy, and he wanted the image to be invisible until it was turned on during services.
“I traced the liquid-crystal material to Samsung Korea,” Klüver said. “They kept sending me to the sales department. It was very difficult, even as an engineer, to get through to the engineering department. I did finally get to speak to members of their research group, who considered the idea and reported that the answer was no, liquid crystals are gray and not available in color. A high-ranking Samsung official in the United States called me back several days later, suspicious, saying, ‘What did you really want?’ As I explained the reason for my question, I realized that E.A.T. can still act as a useful intermediary for the artist.”
His role in the art world notwithstanding, Klüver rejects the title of artist, though he is viewed as one by many artists. To this day he expounds the theory first put forward by Rauschenberg: that the true nature of Art & Technology lies in collaboration, not consultation.
“Engineers are not artists, and artists can’t do their own engineering. Artists and engineers are separate individuals, and if they work together, something will come out of it that neither can expect. That’s the quote I want to die with.”