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

by W. Patrick McCray

This book picks up where C.P. Snow left off in his 1959 book The Two Cultures. Snow was a British chemist turned novelist who had scientist friends and literary friends, but he observed that these groups were two separate cultures who rarely communicated with each other. Patrick McCray is a history professor at UC Santa Barbara. In Making Art Work, he studies several endeavors to bridge this divide, primarily in the 1960s, but also more recently. Specifically the book is about collaborations between artists and engineers. 

Frank Malina was a rocket scientist with a PhD from Caltech. In 1942 he cofounded a jet engine company called Aerojet, which made him wealthy enough to support himself as an artist in Paris. His “lumidynes” were artworks with lights and motors that created an illusion of motion. “As an engineer, Malina had worked in a world where experimentation in the pursuit of novelty was expected.” Malina also launched an art-science journal called Leonardo in 1968, which still exists and is now published bimonthly by MIT Press. “He disliked the formal term ‘abstract art’—Malina insisted all art was an abstraction of something seen or imagined, and preferred the term ‘non-figurative’ instead.”

Billy Klüver was a Bell Labs engineer who started an organization called Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) in 1966 to pair (or “transduce”) engineers with artists. “Transducers, such as microphones, convert one form of energy into another.” Klüver himself collaborated with Robert Raushenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. “E.A.T. members consistently stressed that their organization was not concerned with what artists produced but rather how it was produced… By favoring collaborative processes over artistic products, E.A.T. was embarking on a sociological and political project as much as a cultural one.”

The book chronicles the story of E.A.T.’s role in organizing (or maybe disorganizing) a group of engineers and artists to produce clever features for the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. Project management and budgeting were not among Klüver’s strengths, which led to major tension in the relationship with Pepsi.

“A parallel project was launched by Maurice Tuchman, a young curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). LACMA’s effort—appropriately called the Art and Technology Program—catalyzed dozens of collaborations between artists, corporations, and engineers who worked with them. Some of the artworks they produced would be shown at Expo ’70, as part of the United States’ official program, and then a year later, at a major exhibition Tuchman organized at LACMA. “One of the intellects Tuchman tapped was physicist Richard Feynman… While Tuchman was undoubtedly impressed with Feynman, the physicist… reacted less positively to some of the artists he met. A few, he later complained, ‘had absolutely no idea about the world’… But a few artists, such as Light and Space artist Robert Irwin, expressed ideas that seemed incomprehensible at first but which Feynman eventually found ‘interesting and wonderful.’”

“After Expo ’70 ended, physicist Elsa Garmire continued experimenting with laser light as an artistic medium and as a component for live laser shows… Garmine was contacted by Ivan Dryer, a Los Angeles based filmmaker… Dryer, Pelton, and Garmire cofounded a company in 1971 called Laser Images. Riffing on the popularity of planetarium shows they decided to call their product ‘Laserium’… Dryer’s growing team was soon putting on shows in more than fifteen cities… The popularity of Star Wars released in 1977, with its big-screen spaceship battles and lightsaber duels helped as well.”

“When he cofounded E.A.T., Billy Klüver predicted that, in time, new institutions would eventually take over the role of brokering creative work at art-and-technology interfaces. By the early 1970s, new university  programs were starting to appear that did just that. For example, in 1972, Gerald O’Grady, an English professor influenced by Marshall McLuhan, founded the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York at Buffalo… Across the country, the University of California at San Diego started a Center for Music Experiment in 1973… Over time this morphed into the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts with a correspondingly broader focus. These and other university-based programs helped establish a more scholarly approach to both practice and theory around what came to be known as ‘new media.’

The book has occasional mentions of MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) founded in 1967 by Gyorgy Kepes. CAVS was “committed to making technologically inflicted art.”

In stark contrast, Nicholas Negroponte opened the MIT Media Lab in 1985. “Movie executives in Hollywood were naturally keen to be at the cutting edge of any new media technology. Likewise, profitable computing companies, especially those in Silicon Valley, were more than willing to donate money and hardware in exchange for insiders’ perspectives on what MIT’s researchers were doing. And, across the Pacific Rim, Negroponte courted executives from now-flush firms like Sony, NEC, and Toshiba… Negroponte’s sometimes unorthodox approach to fundraising had helped secure $45 million for the Media Lab’s new home and initial operating expenses.”

“The Media Lab’s outlook from the beginning was resolutely more entrepreneurial than either artistic or academic… The lab soon became to be known for its proof-of-concept technology demonstrations (e.g. a Media Lab motto was ‘demo or die’) for scores of businesspeople visiting MIT each year as part of its Industrial Liaison Program.”

“Starting around 2011 a growing interest in ‘STEM to STEAM’ emerged as a revised approach to education. John Maeda was one of the first prominent proponents of this initiative.” Maeda is an MIT graduate who became president of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2008 and then joined a Silicon Valley venture capital firm in 2013.

“One anecdote, however, suggests the challenges of uncritically integrating the arts and science. In 2018, I attended a symposium in Washington… The event’s opening speaker recalled how Abraham Lincoln—the only American president to hold a patent—approved Congress’ proposal and signed into being the National Academy of Sciences, whose Act of Incorporation states that the academy will ‘investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art’ at the behest of the government. This, the speaker (a computer scientist) claimed, was proof that twenty-first century plans to bring art together with science sustained an illustrious precedent. What made me squirm was the speaker’s unawareness that, in 1863, ‘art’ didn’t mean painting, dance, and sculpture. It meant mechanical arts, which is to say it meant technology.”

McCray, W. Patrick. Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2020. Buy from

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