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Opportunities: LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab and an Interview with LACMA’s Amy Heibel on the Art and Technology Program

Opportunities: LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab and an Interview with LACMA’s Amy Heibel on the Art and Technology Program

 “[A]ny technology gradually creates a totally new human environment. Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes.”- Marshall McLuhan

Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Photograph © Malcolm Lubliner

Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Photograph © Malcolm Lubliner

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) recently announced the revival of its seminal Art + Technology Program on the heels of the New Museum’s launch of an Incubator for Art, Technology, and Design. LACMA’s original Art and Technology (A&T) program ran from 1967 through 1971 under the direction of Maurice Tuchman, and paired major artists from the United States and Europe such as Claes Oldenberg, Robert Irwin, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg, with companies such as the Rand Corporation, Garrett Corporation, Disney Corporation, and Cowles Communication. The A&T program culminated in an exhibition of the artworks at the US Pavillion at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan, and finally in 1971 in the Art and Technology exhibition at LACMA.

The A&T program was one of many events, exhibitions, and artist-in-residence programs organized throughout the 1960s and 1970s with the aim of problematizing the distinction between art and technology. These infamous historic events include E.A.T.’s 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering at the 69th Regiment Armory (1966), Jasia Reichardt’s Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA London (1968), Pontus Hulton’s The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age at the Museum of Modern Art (1968), and Jack Burnham’s Software at the Jewish Museum (1970), as well as artist-in-residence programs at Bell Laboratories and Xerox PARC.

The particular set of socio-economic conditions that gave rise to these early initiatives in the United States and Europe, however, are no longer at play for these new programs. Current modes of authorship and communication, the level of sophistication of advanced technology, and changes within the economic landscape have acted to transform the fundamental parameters guiding what it means to bring artists, technologists, and scientists together in collaborative partnerships.

In its new iteration, LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab will collaborate with Google, SpaceX, NVIDIA, DAQRI, and Accenture, as well as an advisory board of artists and scholars such as Ken Goldberg, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at the University of California, Berkeley. The first open call for proposals announced grants of up to $50,000 and in-kind donations from technological partners. The deadline for the current open call is January 27, 2014.

I spoke with Amy Heibel, Associate VP for Technology and Digital Media at LACMA, on December 23, 2013 about some of the aims in reviving the program, the renewed interest in art and technology programs, and the challenges facing the current program.

Emily Zimmerman: Thank you so much for speaking with me about the Art + Technology Lab at LACMA. As a curator, I have focused on collaborations between art, science, and technology, so when I saw the announcement for LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab, I was particularly excited to find out more about why there is a resurgence of these types of programs that started in the mid to late Sixties. I wanted to start off by asking you a few practical questions about the nuts and bolts of the program. How will the Balch Research Library be used?

Amy Heibel: We have a portion of the library where we’ve got a dedicated space for the Lab. We’ll use that for public programming, artist demonstrations, and the presentation of prototypes. It’s adjacent to one of our outdoor spaces, so there’s a wall of glass and it opens up to a park where we have a Calder sculpture. We look forward to doing some programming that takes advantage of the outdoors. The Lab also includes a media presentation space where we plan to show artist projects.

The development of work will potentially be quite complex depending on the nature of the project. It’s not intended that the projects be developed literally in the Lab space, because that might not be possible. Projects may involve a lot of processing and engineering that happens behind-the-scenes. The program is not intended as a literal residence. What we’ve asked instead is that the project proposals include opportunities to present works in progress to the public. We’ll use the Lab space for those events.

EZ: Yes, that makes sense. Are there facilities that are given over to artists through the partnerships with companies such as Google and SpaceX?

AH: It’s up for grabs whether a given project requires facilities. It will certainly require in-kind support and the advisors participating in the project have committed to providing that support, whatever that might be, within the context of a particular project.

We thought about making it a residency. But really if we want to engage emerging technology, we didn’t want the space or the residency to impose constraints. We didn’t want to make it inaccessible to artists who might not be in southern California or even in the United States.

EZ: So the realization of projects really depends on the partnerships with companies.

AH: Yes, absolutely. The museum plays a pretty critical role in the matchmaking. Via the original Art and Technology program that took place here in the Sixties, we learned that the role of the museum in matchmaking between the artist and the technologist is really important. The museum will recommend the proposals that we’d like to see developed in the Lab, and then we’ll help pair the right technologists with that project. We’ll continue to stay part of that relationship moving forward.

The needs that the artist has can change over the life of the project, and we want to remain responsive. We want to make sure that the artist is sufficiently protected and given creative freedom by contracts that deal with things like intellectual property and ownership of the work. We’re best placed to do that, so there’s a very strong role for the museum.

The in-kind support will come from the technologists, and more than one participating company might contribute to a project. For example, we might have a project that is supported in-kind by Google and SpaceX together. It may be that, at some point in the project, we find we need some input from an outside scientist or engineer. The advisors will help reach out to their networks as well.

EZ: In the open call, it says specifically, “to help artists explore new boundaries in art and science.” Because this phrase can mean many different things depending on the context, I was wondering what this means to LACMA, and can you give me an example of an exemplary artist project that fulfills this statement?

AH: The latter would be difficult, but I can easily answer the former. I think one thing that we’re keenly aware of, and one reason that we wanted to do this project, is that culture is being impacted by huge developments in the field of science and technology. The world is changing really fast. That technology is often developed for business purposes, essentially, or perhaps for areas like defense. Those applications may not express the full range of potential inherent in that technology. There are very smart people figuring out how to do all kinds of things that have all sorts of potential applications and forms of meaning.

We see now, when we look at the field of science and technology, a real opportunity to have artists pursue what I like to call “impractical applications” of that technology. What happens when we take a creative person—an artist—and pair them with another type of creative person—a developer?  You say, ‘I get what this technology can do for its intended business application, but let’s talk about what else we can imagine doing with this outside of that realm.’

That’s what we’re hoping will happen. We also hope that it will lead to some critical dialogue about the impact of science and technology on culture and the opportunities for considerations and questions about culture coming out of science and technology. I think technologists welcome that just as much as the artists do.

EZ: Why is there a resurgence now, as opposed to 15 years ago with the dot-com explosion? The New Museum just announced the Incubator for Art, Technology, and Design. I’m curious—what is it in particular about this moment that is leading people to revisit art and technology collaborations?

AH: I think it’s a moment when artists and technologists are much closer together than they have been in the past. I think a lot of what’s happening in technology is transformative and raises all kinds of questions that are usually addressed by the humanities.

There are a lot more artists now who grew up in the age of the internet, who are comfortable with technology, who are heavy users of consumer technology, themselves, and who use technology already in their work, or address questions about culture and technology in their work.

There are a lot more artists now who work with video, or who create participatory work that depends on crowdsourcing information, or who work with computer code or video games. I think it feels like the right moment to us because of that coming together of these two disciplines, and because our culture is aware of technology in a way that we haven’t been before. I also think that there’s a fascination around process. Technology developers and artists have some things in common around risk and experimentation and “failing forward” and all of that, and I think there’s a real interest in that because the culture in general is more aware of what’s going on with tech entrepreneurs and what it means to build something brand new and try to make it fly.

EZ: I’m interested to talk in detail about collaborations with technologists and scientists. I’ve found through experience that because the different fields are fueled by different economic systems and ways of using language, it is often a challenge for those two worlds to come together.

AH: I should also say that we fully expect that it will be a challenge. We don’t think it’s going to be a piece of cake to bring these various groups together. We know from the history of the project in the late Sixties that it can be very difficult, and it can also appear to fail on the face of it. There were a number of projects in the original Art and Technology program from 1967 to 1971 that failed to produce any finished work of art. The reason for that, for the most part, wasn’t because the artist couldn’t come up with a good idea or the potential wasn’t there. It was because of conflicts between the parties involved. Now in some cases, like with James Turrell, the experience of being in the program, one could argue, influenced the future trajectory of his work. There are a lot of art historians who’ve made that argument about that program.

So the fact that it didn’t product a finished work of art isn’t necessarily a failure in the full sense. We fully expect that some of the projects coming out of the Lab will ‘fail,’ at least insofar as producing a finished work of art in the first 12 months or so. We’ll try to nurture them and make sure that they do, but even more so, we want to make sure that we really are working with interesting, challenging proposals and emerging technology—not a sure thing.

EZ: The key component in this seems to be the companies providing support in a way that allows scientists and technologists freedom from their research agendas in order to collaborate.

AH: That’s super astute. When we were fundraising and trying to assemble the advisory board, we knew that the technology companies have these super smart people working for them and some of them have a real active interest in art, as well. There’s a talent retention issue in tech. One of the things we can offer is: if you have a super gifted developer who is most of the time working on an e-commerce application for you, you want to make sure that you’re rewarding that person in ways that are meaningful to them. They can be part of a project like this one.

Through this project perhaps they can contribute to a pilot that we roll out at a museum that has a million plus visitors a year and see user data that they’re not going to get at a shopping mall. Because people come to a museum for a different kind of experience, they behave in a different way than they do in a shopping mall.

We want these projects to be very accessible to the public and to have them out in the open and to be adventurous. The advisors really were drawn to this idea of collaboration and the application of their expertise that isn’t what they get to do nine to five.

EZ: How were the technology partners selected?

AH: We went to people who we knew might be interested and talked to them about the program and tried to look for a good mix of companies. The door is still open; there may well be additional participants, and we would welcome that. Presently, we have a mix of sponsor companies and independent participants, including artists and academics.

One is a professor at UC Berkeley, and one is an artist-in-residence at Jet Propulsion Labs. He’s participating as an independent artist, not as a representative of Jet Propulsion Labs. We tried to make sure they have a balance of interests, and a balance in terms of their perspective on technology and what they might be able to offer.

We definitely wanted people doing work in space exploration to be part of it. We wanted people who could represent big data and data processing and the industrial internet. We wanted people to represent imaging and next generation computer graphics and that kind of thing.

That was how we went about approaching companies. Then, in some cases, they recommended other companies. It’s kind of an informal network, in a way.

EZ: Who will own the work of these collaborations?

AH: We tried to make it clear that we anticipate that the artist will retain ownership of the work; the companies are not participating with any expectation that they’re going to help develop a revenue-generating project.

We’ll make sure that intellectual property is protected. The museum may choose to acquire a work of art, but that would be something that would be handled as a separate negotiation. Once we select the projects to be funded, we anticipate a series of conversations with the artists based on the nature of each project about what the appropriate contractual language would be to make sure that they’re protected around intellectual property and ownership.

EZ: Having the museum broker those relationships is really key in terms of protecting the artist.

AH: I totally agree.

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Emily Zimmerman is a curator and writer based in Seattle, WA. Her research interests bring together embodied learning, media theory, and existential philosophy. Emily is the Associate Curator of Programs at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. Previously she was the Associate Curator at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) where she commissioned new work from artists such as Melvin Moti, Gordon Hall, Marie Sester and curated the exhibitions Uncertain Spectator (2010) and Slow Wave: Seeing Sleep (2009). She received the 2011-2012 Loris Ledis Curatorial Fellowship at BRIC Contemporary Art, served as a 2013 curator-in-residence at Residency Unlimited, and was awarded funding by the New Foundation Seattle in 2016. Her writings have appeared in BOMB, Big, Red & Shiny and Contemporary Performance. She has served on a number of review panels including the New York State Council on the Arts and the Herb Alpert Awards. She is a board member for the Wave Farm. Emily received her MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and her BA from New York University.

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