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Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art

Software: information technology: its new meaning for art. — New York: Jewish Museum, 1970. — 71 p.

Catalogue published for the exhibition Software, Jewish Museum, New York, N.Y., U.S., September 16 to November 8, 1970 [itinerary: Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., U.S., December 16, 1970, to February 14, 1971]. — Curated by Jack Burnham.

Participating artists: Vito Acconci, David Antin, Architecture Group Machine M.I.T., John Baldessari, Robert Barry, Linda Berris, Donald Burgy, Paul Conly, Agnes Denes, Robert Duncan Enzmann, Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim, John Godyear, Hans Haacke, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Nam June Paik, Alex Razdow, Sonia Sheridan, Evander D. Schley, Theodosius Victoria, Laurence Weiner.

As a follow-up to The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age (1968), an exhibition presented at the Museum of Modern Art (New York, U.S.) and organized by Pontus Hulten, Software took place in the interval between the decline of the industrial machine and the emergence of information technologies (computer, networks). To explore this epistemological rupture, curator Jack Burnham presented the results of scientific experiments, conducted by research teams and scientists, alongside projects born out of the conceptual art movement. The exhibition’s title is related to the true sense of the word software, designating the flexibility of certain logical procedures and not exclusively the interaction of data with the machine to produce commands for executing specific functions. By shifting the concept of program toward an artistic field, Burnham tried to draw parallels between projects relying on devices for transmitting information (fax machines, teleprinters, audiovisual systems), and those that used language as material without resorting to technology. Fostering collaboration and dialogue between scientists and artists, this exhibition was also the product of an early exchange between the art museum and industry (American Motors Corporation sponsored the technical production and, at the request of the artists, several companies lent technological components to produce the works).

The publication of the catalogue followed the presentation of the exhibition at the Jewish Museum. In "Notes on Art and Information Processing," Burnham defines the theoretical premises underlying his exhibition. By evoking the discipline of cybernetics, he first underlines the consequences of integrating technology into daily life, which resulted in aligning the worker with industrial machinery without bringing about the desired process of adaptation between man and his new media environment. Burnham goes on to distinguish the concept of program (software) from hardware. He says software can also embrace other phenomenon such as social conditioning, systems for self-regulating the human body, and the management of public transit. Burnham then shifts this notion toward an artistic context so as to define the project modes of conceptual works. Detached from the heightened optimism toward media at the time, he criticizes Marshall McLuhan’s theories and says that man-machine interaction encourages invention and creativity while also alienating the worker. Software therefore does not praise technological art at the dawn of a new decade but comments on the emergence of a media environment overdetermining henceforth all areas of knowledge, including the field of art. More focused on the testing of concepts, computer scientist Ted Nelson, in The Crafting of Media, distinguishes the notion of the computer as a black box (programmed to execute predetermined functions) from the universal machine (adapted to several contexts). He conceives of using technology in such a way that varied functions can co-exist and operate on the same platform. His tool for reading the catalogue through computerized files is a good example of semantic flexibility. Titled Labyrinth, this multiform device, a precursor of hypertext, allowed users to consult artist files and other computerized documents while sidestepping the linear path imposed by the pagination of the book. This unique trail was then stored in the computer’s memory and printed out at the user’s request to reveal his or her journey through the files (and the exhibition).

Following conceptual art’s way, the print catalogue spotlights artist projects through short written statements. The content of the project files varies depending on the strategies employed by the artist. Often these files are instructions to be carried out either by the artist or the viewer (Douglas Huebler’s Variable Pieces, performance "programs," statements by Lawrence Weiner in which the artist speaks of the option of not completing his projects). Other files describe technological trials merging artistic procedures and scientific experimentation. The projects by engineers and computer scientists centre on the functions of technological components (the Bolean Image-Conceptual Typewriter by Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim, a device producing early digital images, as well as the project Seek by the Architecture Media Group M.I.T., a sort of ecosystem disrupted by the actions of a robotic arm). Finally, other projects invite viewers to interact with displays and thereby criticize the museum’s so-called neutrality (David Antin’s The Conversationalist in which the viewer tells a story inspired by a word taken from another participant’s story, thus creating a discursive chain; and Hans Haacke’s Visitor’s Profile, a compiler of data producing statistics based on the answers given by museum visitors to a series of questions posed by the artists). The catalogue pages devoted to the project files feature a section that includes statements in bold resembling newspaper headlines and proposing an (ironic?) interpretation of the works based on stereotypes about technology and art conveyed by the mass media ("Life in a Computer World," "You’re the Art," "Visual Images Make a Real Impression," "The Message Behind the Media," "Artist Exposes Himself Electronically"). Finally, images are not relegated to the background by the artist statements. Indeed, several photographs reproduced in the catalogue present projects at different stages of their completion. Also contained are shots taken during the mounting of the exhibition and at the opening.

Vincent Bonin © 2004 FDL