Leonardo Thinks


Historical Opinion by Frank Popper

Frank Popper proposes we develop a strategy to broaden public awareness of how art, science and technology projects differ from earlier forms of expression…
Technoscience Art: The Next Step

Following the inauguration of the Biennale of Venice at the end of June 1986, several artists and organizers approached me saying that the moment had come to define in precise terms a new art tendency that is developing in the area of art, science and technology and to elaborate a strategy that would make it more perceptible to the public.

Today we are witnessing the birth of a new society, one not built on old models. In addition we are seeing the three major areas of high technology-the fields of computers, telecommunications and audiovisuals-advancing on a common front, where previously they had been developing in large part independently of one another. These factors have contributed to the evolution of this new art trend and can be used to differentiate the new artworks from their forerunners. In fact, it has become clear to me that a complete renewal and strengthening of a trend in art that had existed under the names ‘kinetic art’ in the 1960s and ‘technological art’ in the 1970s has taken place and become more visible in the 1980s. At least, this has been the case in Europe, especially after such exhibitions as Electra (1983) and Les Immateriaux (1985) in Paris, a number of shows in Germany and Austria and, to some extent, the 42nd Venice Biennale. This trend can now be seen as a successful opponent of the neo-expressionist, historicizing tendency that has been coming to the fore since the end of the 1970s and which has given rise to a debate on the relationship between modernism and postmodernism and to general historical and aesthetic assessments.

These European exhibitions have contributed to this debate in the following ways.

The Electra exhibition focused principally on how the artistic imagination has coped with the introduction of electricity and electronics into the pattern of life in the twentieth century. Additionally, however, the exhibition attempted to go beyond this theme by trying to demonstrate that a scientifically based technology can help liberate an artist’s creative powers as well as the public’s faculties of appreciation and interactive involvement. Significantly, of the artworks exhibited, the most effective seemed to be those in which the purely visual and the participatory aspects of the works were effectively fused.

The Les Immateriaux exhibition tried to explain the complex relationship which exists between human beings and many scientific phenomena, in part as a function of the difficulties presently encountered in the distribution of information. Information and its support, code, referent, sender and receiver were closely examined in relation to the linguistic entity mât and five words in which this root occurs: matériau, matrice, matériel, matiere and maternité. These words were associated with five different aspects of information and were used through five corresponding channels as a backbone for the exhibition. However, a postmodernist bias dominated the exhibition as did a method of display in which no categorical distinctions were made between artistic and scientific images. Thus, two types of ambiguity were present: first, postmodernism was shown as a continuation of modernism while at the same time as a break with the ideas of Descartes and the philosophers of the Enlightenment with regard to progress, scientific truth and experimentation; second, a melding of scientific invention and artistic creation was deliberately practised.

The recent German and Austrian exhibitions, particularly the 1984 Kunst und Technologie in Bonn and ars electronica, which has been mounted five times in Linz since 1979, have focused on the consequences of the technological revolution in both creative and sociological areas. The latter exhibition has tried to cover the whole art/technology spectrum in architecture, the visual arts, the performing arts and music.

The 1986 Venice Biennale had as its general title “Art and Science”. This in itself can be taken as an indication of the importance presently accorded to the theme underlying the new trend, or rather to the renewed interest, since 1980, in this permanent feature of contemporary art. However, the Venice Biennale, in order to remain true to its own reputation and to that of Venice, had to emphasize traditional values and themes; in the final version of the principal exhibition, such sections as art and alchemy and the Wunderkammer overshadowed such sections as technology and information processing or those devoted to chromatic order systems and avant-garde colour. Nevertheless, the main thrust of this exhibition was to bring modern art and science closer together after the division that has taken place between the humanistic and scientific cultures. It was presumed that such a rapprochement would eventually reestablish the unity that supposedly existed in earlier eras and, in particular, at the time of Leonardo da Vinci.

What lessons can be learned from the issues raised by these exhibitions?

The one I find most important is that we need to maintain a distinction between artistic imagination, scientific invention and technological experimentation. The artists who have taken part in these exhibitions fall between two extremes: those who use or pretend to use ‘technoscience’ as a tool only and those who wish to show through their works the aesthetic properties of scientific or technological phenomena or achievements. Between these two extremes are many artists about whom the discussion is open as to how much, if at all, technology has influenced their artistic intentions and effectively altered the creative process. Whatever the case, if we wish to speak of a new art trend I would assert that artistic imagination must dominate over scientific inspiration and/or the utilization of technical and technological devices. In fact, in these exhibitions it was noticeable which of the works had been done by artists or by teams including artists and which had been done by scientists or technicians. It can be argued, however, that some of the latter also exhibited, to a point, artistic talent and artistic imagination.

Which artists can be said to belong to the new art trend? What do they have in common? What distinguishes them from other artists of the same generation and from artists who have worked previously in the same area?

It is, of course, impossible to answer these questions exhaustively within the scope of this editorial. But one could say that artists belonging to this trend must have a strong interest in up-to-date scientific methods and discoveries and/or their technological applications. Moreover, this interest must be combined with both an aesthetic imagination and a will to create and to communicate. A long list of names could be compiled from the catalogues of the aforementioned exhibitions [1] and from back issues of Leonardo. To give a small idea of the vast fields covered by these artists, one could cite as examples environmental underwater and solar works, cybernetic sculptures, video art, holography, laser projections in space and soundworks in space as well as the areas of electrophotography, computer graphics, digital images, multi-media performances, electronic environments, micro- computerized games, videotex, satellite and other types of communication works.

Of course, one cannot close one’s eyes to the fact that artists working in these areas belong to at least three different schools of thought. Some have a constructivist background, some work in an ironical or critical vein and some have a more direct approach to science and technology. Nevertheless, I think that these artists all could sail together under the same flag since what distinguishes them from their fellow artists is their preoccupation with exploiting aesthetic aspects in their ‘technoscience’ investigations. At the same time, what separates them from the previous generation of artists in the same field (and from their own previous research) is their awareness of the extent of social and cultural change produced by the latest technological developments. In the 1960s, many artists were preoccupied with questions involving light and movement and they were concerned mainly with changes in the art area. In the 1970s interest shifted from objects to ideas and to problems regarding the environment. In the 1980s I see artists trying to bring about a significant relationship between basic human experiences-physical, psychological and mental-and the radical and global intrusion of the new technologies into all walks of life, with their beneficial effects, serious dangers and immense possibilities. In this way the artists participate consciously in the building of the cultural sphere of a new society that has to face new issues without much help from the past [2]. In fact, although a link can be established between their art and kinetic, technological and early cybernetic art, these artists have certainly brought us into a new era.

Would it be possible to find a name for this new art trend?

In spite of all the anecdotal, deprecatory or only partially valid names given to art trends in the past and the overabundance of often arbitrary and absurd appellations at present, it nevertheless seems necessary to give this important contemporary trend an adequate designation. Among possible names, ‘postmodernist’ art is too large and inaccurate; ‘electronic’, ‘computer’, ‘telecommunications’ and ‘chip’ art clearly too narrow. Even ‘post-kinetic’ and ‘neo-technological’ art are not especially satis- factory terms. I have tentatively used the term ‘technoscience art’ but welcome any better suggestions.

As to the final point-what strategy should be adopted for making the new art tendency more widely known-I would recommend exploring several avenues. First and foremost, we would need to work with existing art and science establishments to organize more exhibitions the parameters of which are extremely rigorously defined. But we should also try to create a specific ‘media’ museum as conceived by Jiirgen Claus and based on Alexander Dorner’s ideas for an Energy Centre rather than a museum [3]. This could be coordinated with educational institutions, such as Roy Ascott’s newly created School of Fine Arts, Gwent College of Higher Education, at Caerleon in South Wales [4], the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T. or the A.T.I. (Art et technologie de l’image) department at the University of Paris VIII. We could also consider the possibility of producing events either within mass-media systems or by using other means of modern communication based on the model of the telecommunications grid established between Vienna and Vancouver in 1979 [5]. Furthermore, discussions of the new trend could be developed in publications like Leonardo. With its 20 years of experience in the area of art, science and technology and its emphasis on self-expression by artists, this journal is certainly an excellent medium for a theoretical confrontation that could be advanced through artistically imaginative contributions to reach, both directly and indirectly, a wider public.

[1] Frank Popper, Electra: Electricity and electronics in the art of the XXth Century, exh. cat. (Paris: Musee d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 10 Dec. 1983-5 Feb. 1984); Jean-Francois Lyotard and Thierry Chaput, Les Immateriaux, exh. cat., 2 Vols.: Album et inventaire and Epreuves d’ecriture (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 28 March-15 July 1985); Jiirgen Claus, Kunst und Technologie: Aufbruch in neue Wirklichkeiten, exh.  cat. (Bonn: Bundesministerium fur Forschung und Technologie, 20 Sept.-5 Oct. 1984); ars electronica, Festivalfur Kunst, Technologie und Gesellschaft, exh.  cats. (Linz: Linzer Veranstaltungsgesellschaft, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986); Maurizio Calvesi, XLIIInternationalArt Exhibition, The Biennale of Venice: Art and Science, gen. cat. (Venice: The Biennale and Electa Editions, 29 June-28 Sept. 1986).

[2] See Jiirgen Claus interview with Frank Popper, “Kunst und sozialer Wandel” in Claus [1], 4-8; reprinted in Jiirgen Claus, ChippppKunst: Computer, Holographie, Kybernetik, Laser (Frankfurt am Main, Berlin: Ullstein, 1985), 116-120.

[3] Jiirgen Claus, “Das Medienmuseum-Was bleibt?” in Claus, ChippppKunst [2], 138-146.

[4] See Richard Weston, “The Art of the Future”, in The Architects’ Journal (London) 184, no.  31 (30 July 1986): 20-29.

[5] See Heidi Grundmann, ed., Art + Communication (Vienna: 1984; co-published in Vancouver)
Frank Popper is a historian of art and technology and Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the Science of Art at the University of Paris VIII. He is the author of the books: Origins and Development of Kinetic Art, Art, Action, and Participation, Art.  His website is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Popper.
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: Frank Popper, Honorary Editor, E-mail: fpopper@club-internet.fr
Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the Science of Art at the University of Paris VIII
Originally published in: Leonardo Vol. 20, No. 4, 20th Anniversary Special Issue: Art of the Future: The Future of Art (1987), pp. 301-303
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online: ISSN 1530-9282, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/pss/1578522.
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