October 1, 2020 | Arts and Culture
art in times of panic
Escapism demands more of me these days. It used to be enough to open Netflix. There’d be some decades-old program with just enough of a nostalgic ember burning for me to huddle around, warming me into gentle numbness. But the world has changed, my mind’s a bit jumpier, and I take my escapes as they come. That means endlessly wandering the internet as I do classwork, waiting for a fateful surprise—waiting for cybernetic serendipity.
That’s a phrase I encountered halfway down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. I was ostensibly there for some class-related research, but of course the inner mind knows better—Internet, take me away. Seeing the phrase cybernetic serendipity, then, was a bit like seeing your deepest subconscious desire printed on a billboard over the freeway. Wikipedia had gifted me a blue hyperlink that promised the exact thing I didn’t know I was looking for. The phrase “cybernetic serendipity” is not vivid; it’s got enough syllables to refer to just about anything (except our present moment—whatever cybernetic serendipity is, this is not it). Perfect—I closed all my other tabs and clicked through.
Things started off well. In 1965, a curator in London named Jasia Reichardt noticed that the ongoing revolution in computer technology had created a new frontier for art. She began reaching out to artists and engineers who were experimenting with recent innovations, and over the course of the next three years prepared an incredibly ambitious exhibition. She called it Cybernetic Serendipity, for the unique artistic results generated by processes of information flow—in other words, art created without human “genius.” The first section featured algorithmically generated images, films, music, and poetry. In most cases they were hardly recognizable as belonging to their purported medium, but that wasn’t the point: “Cybernetic Serendipity deals with possibilities rather than achievements, and in this sense it is prematurely optimistic,” Reichardt wrote. She dispensed with the rigid conventions of gallery art.
The contributions of historic artists like John Cage and Frieder Nake appeared alongside those of enterprising but unknown technicians from industrial engineering firms, who had manufactured intricate drawing machines and safety animations. The second section revolved around cybernetic devices: works which in some way responded to external stimuli. In this section were some of the earliest robotic sculptures: For instance, Edward Ihnatowicz’s Terminator-looking flower stalk that bent toward sound, or Wen-Ying Tsai’s entrancing matrix of steel spindles, each of which vibrated at various frequencies in response to light. The last section was a historical overview of computing, replete with an informal theater at the gallery’s rear for the display of relevant documentaries. In September of 1968, Reichardt’s show opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, where for a stretch of two months it drew crowds rarely seen in such a rarefied community.
I had struck gold. Cybernetic Serendipity was fascinating without a whiff of evil. The exuberant spirit of these early pioneers filled me with a wonder that was safe from reality. Anything I could learn about these techno-artists working in an antediluvian technological era would be charming—and by the looks of it, the vein was rich and deep. Before long I assembled all the materials I could find online about Cybernetic Serendipity—videos of the exhibit, the accompanying book, the album of cybernetic music, and a series of scholarly articles. It was enough to last for hours, and I couldn’t be accused of rotting my brain.
Here’s where the present starts to leak in.
1968 was a big year. Fifty years later, Smithsonian magazine labelled it “The Year that Shattered America.” Their timeline lists the pertinent events: On April 6, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The country had already been experiencing growing waves of mass protest and rioting over violence against African Americans—after King’s death they became outright tsunamis. A month later, Robert Kennedy won the California primary and was well on his way to securing the Democratic nomination when he was shot. His campaign had seemed to promise the return of that youthful optimism associated with his older brother’s “New Frontier.” Now both brothers were dead, and the DNC in Chicago devolved into a chaotic nightmare that fueled Nixon’s victory. Meanwhile, the number of Americans in Vietnam ballooned to over half a million, despite President Lyndon B. Johnson’s assurance that the war was at an end. The Tet Offensive dispatched this lie; Americans watched their television sets, horrified by looping footage of North Vietnamese troops in the streets of Saigon, bullet holes in the US embassy. Student anti-war protesters became the emblem of a national political discourse converging on irreconcilable differences.
It was a year of intense national crisis, anger, and loss with unpleasant parallels to our present: the needless deaths in the tens of thousands, the outpouring of grief and rage over racist violence, and the highly charged election bringing the country to the brink. It doesn’t help to learn that the term ‘silent majority’ first entered the American lexicon in the aftermath of Nixon’s narrow victory that November.
Recalling all of this places Cybernetic Serendipity, my enchanting retreat from current events, in a harsh new light. It’s not a pleasant one, but I’m too invested to back away. Art in the 1960s, as today, was often overtly political: Most leading artists felt a responsibility to challenge prevailing norms and institutions in response to the traumas of their era, and the perception of art as a tool of resistance became widespread, especially among young people. At the same time, computer technology was still in its commercial infancy. The weary ambivalence with which most of us regard “technology” in the age of Facebook, Amazon, and Apple had no place in this era, before the microprocessor and the Internet transformed society. The role digital technology could play in creating a just future was a fresh and open question.
Cybernetic Serendipity uniquely positioned itself to address this question––even to offer a radical speculative answer, by revealing the possible uses of technology as a weapon of agitprop, a powerful tool of resistance. The term “cybernetics” in fact comes from theorist Norbert Wiener, who saw information and messaging as the basic mechanism of control in society, as it is in machines. The intellectual framework for a thoroughgoing look at technology in the arts was in place. What did Cybernetic Serendipity have to say?
Basically, nothing. The exhibit never explicitly addressed any of these themes. Partly this can be explained by the fact that it first debuted in London (though it travelled to Washington D.C. and then San Francisco immediately afterwards). Part of this can be attributed to the diverse group of participating artists, many of whom were from outside the US, or were simply fascinated with technology for its own sake. But there’s probably also the fact that Bell Labs and Boeing, among other large corporations, were significant sponsors of the event. Their engineers and scientists contributed a number of devices to the exhibit, including scale models for a history of computer technology that ignored the military and Cold War motivations behind these advancements. The exhibition earned enthusiastic reviews from the press; they recommended an afternoon of entertaining delights to anyone interested, especially young children. In art journals, however, reviewers questioned whether the exhibit even qualified as art. It seemed designed to present an endearing technological wonderland to an audience eager to believe all was moving in the right direction. The pervasive issues they sought to forget are still with us in 2020, once more at the center of a national crisis. Cybernetic Serendipity gave way to the same impulse that led me to pursue Cybernetic Serendipity—a certain tacit agreeableness with unreality. The realization brings my joyride to an end, and a familiar sense of shame returns.
After the fact, scholars appear to regard the exhibition as important for the development of media art, but also as an innocuous endorsement of naive techno-utopian progress that aligned with the economic and political interests of its backers. Not everything on display at Cybernetic Serendipity, however, conformed to this narrative. Nam June Paik, a renowned pioneer of video art, made television sets his medium. His contribution consists of cathode-ray televisions to which he affixed magnets, causing the broadcast image to swirl, dissolve, or swim about on the screen as though through a psychedelic filter. On one set there appears to be a news broadcast, visible only in glimpses between the contortions of the changing magnetic field. The effect is remarkable. Another composition, titled “Video Tape Study No. 3,” plays reverberating audio from a number of politicians over tortured footage of the press events. In its most haunting moment, President Johnson responds to the question of whether he believes race is an incurable problem in America. He affirms the necessity of tackling so-called incurable problems and embraces the Sisyphean role of political change. But his face is utterly detached from the words, and its scarred image freezes and jumps about the frame like a specter. Finally, when the audio itself begins to char and repeat, Johnson’s eyes disappear for a few seconds, leaving glaring white cavities that beam out at the viewer and then subside. It’s painful to watch, but it’s utterly inescapable.