A Look Back at LACMA’s First Art and Technology Initiative

It was 1969 when artist John Chamberlain decided to screen his film The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez in the RAND Corporation’s cafeteria. The artist, middle-aged and best known for the smashed-metal monuments he had been sculpting out of discarded car parts, was having a Warholian moment. He had even cast regulars of Andy Warhol’s Factory—scrawny, always smirking Taylor Mead and wispy Ultra Violet—as stars of The Secret Life, which he filmed in Mexico in 1968. Mead plays Mexican conqueror Hernando Cortez and cavorts, making treaties and wreaking havoc. Ultra Violet, taller than Mead and far more conventionally attractive, plays his mistress, urging him to privilege sex and vanity over duties such as fighting for his people’s freedom. At one point, a mountain lion eats an antelope on-screen.

The film ran once a day for three days. Then all screenings were canceled. “Word must have gotten to Washington, D.C., that RAND was showing dirty flicks on lunch hour,” Chamberlain wrote in a memo to curators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, though it seems staff complaints, not politicians, were to blame.

Chamberlain, usually based in New York, had a sparsely furnished office at the Santa Monica–based defense consultancy through LACMA’s Art and Technology initiative. “[This] hair-raising idea,” as curator Jane Livingston would call it 43 years later, involved pairing, or attempting to pair, 67 artists with corporations so that the artists could collaborate with company scientists and engineers.1Maurice Tuchman, the first chief curator of modern art that LACMA ever had, instigated the plan soon after leaving his position as a research assistant at New York’s Guggenheim Museum and moving to Los Angeles in 1966.

To the 27-year-old curator, the city, home to aerospace and plastics, seemed intoxicatingly full of potential and he felt that “companies might benefit immeasurably, in both direct and subtle ways, merely from exposure to creative personalities.”

It was 1969 when artist John Chamberlain decided to screen his film The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez in the RAND Corporation’s cafeteria. The artist, middle-aged and best known for the smashed-metal monuments he had been sculpting out of discarded car parts, was having a Warholian moment. He had even cast regulars of Andy Warhol’s Factory—scrawny, always smirking Taylor Mead and wispy Ultra Violet—as stars of The Secret Life, which he filmed in Mexico in 1968. Mead plays Mexican conqueror Hernando Cortez and cavorts, making treaties and wreaking havoc. Ultra Violet, taller than Mead and far more conventionally attractive, plays his mistress, urging him to privilege sex and vanity over duties such as fighting for his people’s freedom. At one point, a mountain lion eats an antelope on-screen.

The film ran once a day for three days. Then all screenings were canceled. “Word must have gotten to Washington, D.C., that RAND was showing dirty flicks on lunch hour,” Chamberlain wrote in a memo to curators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, though it seems staff complaints, not politicians, were to blame.

Chamberlain, usually based in New York, had a sparsely furnished office at the Santa Monica–based defense consultancy through LACMA’s Art and Technology initiative. “[This] hair-raising idea,” as curator Jane Livingston would call it 43 years later, involved pairing, or attempting to pair, 67 artists with corporations so that the artists could collaborate with company scientists and engineers.1Maurice Tuchman, the first chief curator of modern art that LACMA ever had, instigated the plan soon after leaving his position as a research assistant at New York’s Guggenheim Museum and moving to Los Angeles in 1966.

To the 27-year-old curator, the city, home to aerospace and plastics, seemed intoxicatingly full of potential and he felt that “companies might benefit immeasurably, in both direct and subtle ways, merely from exposure to creative personalities.”

If you have spent any time with the 392-page report that resulted from the Art and Technology initiative, you know that it contains little evidence of completed artwork. It’s an unwieldy record of an art museum’s Tower of Babel, a project so ambitious and optimistic it absolutely had to fail. But at least in retrospect, the report is refreshingly candid. Tuchman discusses setbacks, including how sculptor Claes Oldenburg refused to sign the contract. “[Oldenburg] is possessed of a forensic acumen that makes attorneys—including his own—envious,” the curator writes in his 12-page introduction, before outlining the entire back and forth in which Oldenburg worries about compensation and about art being co-opted for corporate advertising purposes.

Tuchman also notes how French artist Jean Dubuffet, nearly seventy and an institution in his own right by then, resisted ceding control of any detail of his work with the American Cement Corporation and discusses the “ironical attitude” Andy Warhol took toward machines in general. It seems the rockier outcomes of his expensive, drawn-out project genuinely intrigued the curator.

Even though Tuchman failed to include a single female artist in the Art and Technology effort and conflated technology with the corporate fairly uncritically, there’s still something charming about his disinterest in polish and his lack of discretion. (At one point, he says company reps can be “lugubrious.”) The sponsor here is as much something to experiment with as art and the artist.

So when LACMA announced a revival of the Art + Technology Program in December 2013, the possibilities initially seemed thrilling: an artist who’s concerned with surveillance installed at Facebook? An artist with a DIY aesthetic installed somewhere futuristically slick, like SpaceX? But current museum director Michael Govan explained that the museum had “updated the program to encompass the entrepreneurial spirit redefining so many industries,” and this called to mind the kind of strategic creativity Wired likes to cover (e.g., augmented reality obelisks or strange storytelling apps). It also quickly became clear that there would be more careful management and planning from the start—none of those “give Chamberlain an office at RAND and see what happens” stunts.

Artists would neither be invited nor paired with corporations before any set plans were made, unlike the first time around. (Tuchman had preferred that artists and companies come to each other with blank slates.) They would apply by making proposals, and selected artists could choose which, if any, partner company might help them achieve their own goals. Instead of working in corporate offices, their base would be the Art + Technology Lab in the just-renovated Balch Art Research Library in the museum’s basement.

By January 27, 2014, 450 proposals had been received. By April 9, Amy Heibel, the museum’s vice president of technology, Web and digital media, had sifted through the proposals with the help of contemporary art curator Franklin Sirmans and Govan, narrowed down the list, consulted with corporate advisors, and announced their six grantees. None were from Los Angeles. Most had already done work in their area of tech-related interest.

Granted, this sounds much savvier than the wide-open Tuchman approach. But the nostalgia for Art and Technology has much to do with the way the report suggests a moment when institutions were less careful about protecting their sponsors, when conflicts of interest could be openly discussed, and when a curator could publish pages and pages detailing how various collaborators did and did not get along. All this is especially appealing at a moment like now, when it’s hard to tell where one group’s interests end and another’s begins. In autumn 2013, when artist Doug Aitken launched Station to Station, a Levi’s-sponsored cross-country art project on a train, the teams of assistants belonging to the artists and those belonging to the brand were often indistinguishable. During the Museum of Contemporary Art’s odd 2012 collaboration with Mercedes-Benz, an exhibition curated by Mike D from the Beastie Boys, it was hard know what was art and what was advertising gimmick—the new Mercedes in the back gallery, the one with the doors you could open under security guard supervision, had to be the latter, right? Would the revised Art + Technology Program edge toward a similar blurriness?

Chamberlain had been at RAND for about a month when Barbara Crutchfield photographed him there. In one image, the 47-year-old artist’s graying hair is almost long enough to touch his shoulders. He wears sunglasses and smokes a cigarette while reading the paper. According to a computer specialist at the corporation, this was a common scene. Chamberlain “installed himself in the office … or out on a patio with a tape recorder and let a few anointed come to him,” the specialist said. “Not many people came.”4

Chamberlain saw it differently. “I can’t get into any of their circuits,” he wrote in a memo to Livingston, then a young associate curator at LACMA.5 By “circuits,” he meant the attitudes and interests of the RAND employees. He felt that a certain uptightness kept them from engaging with him. “They’re very 1953,” he said in that same memo. “You know, like the girls wear too much underwear.”6

RAND had been among the first companies Tuchman thought of when planning for Art and Technology. When its executives agreed to participate in mid-1968, almost a year into the project, Brownlee Hayden, assistant to RAND’s president, wrote to Tuchman, “RAND has something special to offer the creative artist: an intellectual atmosphere and the stimulation of being amid creative individuals … the artist may find influences.”7 As other corporate partners would, Hayden seemed to assume artists needed “influence,” or inspiration, above all.

Every corporation that participated in the original program would be a sponsor in some respect, providing funds or certain services and getting its name and logo on LACMA’s publicity and exhibition materials. Straightforward sponsors such as RAND would host an artist and fund his (there was no “her”) efforts but would make no additional donation to the museum. Patron sponsors would donate at least $7,000 to the museum, in addition to taking an artist in residence, and would potentially receive an artwork in exchange for their support. Three companies—Pan Am, Times Mirror, and North American Rockwell Corporation—would underwrite the program as benefactor sponsors, donating money or resources to the museum in lieu of hosting an artist.

“In reviewing modern art history,” Tuchman reflected in 1970, “one is easily convinced of the gathering aesthetic urge to realize such an enterprise as I was envisioning.” He cited Italian futurists, Russian constructivists, and Bauhaus artists who wanted to unify art and manufacturing, though he failed to mention Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which Billy Klüver, Robert Rauschenberg, and others had launched just before his own program did. “A need to reform commercial industrial products, to create public monuments for a new society, to express fresh artistic ideas with the materials that only industry could provide—such were the concerns of these schools of artists, and they were announced in words and in works.” But, he continued, “no intensive effort was made directly to approach industrial firms in order to harness corporate machinery or technology.”

Certainly, before Art and Technology, no museum had tried to harness the technology of so many firms at once. Two hundred and fifty firms would be contacted; 37 ultimately participated. Tuchman said he imagined artists moving around those corporations as if in their own studios.

n May of last year, when all six of the new Art + Technology grant recipients gathered in LA for an orientation, they visited the headquarters of five corporate sponsors: Google, SpaceX, Accenture, Daqri, and Nvidia. A representative from each of these companies, which will offer in-kind support to the grantees, sits on the program’s advisory board. The grantees also visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab at the California Institute of Technology, where artist Dan Goods, one of the two nonsponsoring advisors on the advisory board, works as a visual strategist.

At SpaceX, artist Tavares Strachan, who initially proposed to launch glass rockets, posed in front of a Mars-bound capsule with the space transportation company’s chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell. Shotwell also came up to the LACMA lab to meet one-on-one with the artists, as did Sheri Wenker, managing director of communications at Accenture, the tech consulting company that took over administration of HealthCare.gov early last year. Specifically, Wenker has been speaking to New York–based Annina Rüst about data and sourcing.

About two years ago, Rüst debuted a robotics installation, similar to the one she proposed for this project, in Switzerland. A user would use a computer monitor to select a certain pie chart from a database, then place a premade pie on a conveyor belt so that a robot could put the selected pie chart onto it. Her revised version will do the same, though the new pie charts will specifically address the dearth of women in the original Art and Technology Program and in art and tech fields in years since. She has written a blog post about her thinking for LACMA.org, updated her website regularly, and hosted a few public pie-making sessions because pulling the public into the process is one goal of the new Art + Technology Lab. Neither the blog post nor Rüst’s website mentions interactions with Wenker or any other corporate advisors, but both suggest that the project has progressed nicely.

nly fifteen or so of the original corporation-artist Art and Technology pairings would result in something tangible enough to exhibit. The RAND-Chamberlain pairing was not one of them. Maybe because of this, Chamberlain’s biographies and monographs barely mention his episode with the corporation.11Why dwell on an anomaly?

Chamberlain’s name had come up in staff meetings at LACMA a few months before April 1969, when Livingston, visiting the East Coast, stopped by his New York studio. Though he had been making stand-alone sculptures of scrapped metal for at least a decade by that point, Chamberlain had gotten caught up in a performance-friendly 1960s moment. He wanted to make environments of sculpted objects and shoot a slow-moving, steamy art film in New Mexico. When Livingston invited him to propose some ideas for Art and Technology, he initially wanted to film in all fourteen towns on the US’s 42nd parallel and to play the resulting footage simultaneously on multiple screens. This is what he discussed when he came to Los Angeles in May to meet with researcher Dr. Charles Spitzer at the Ampex Corporation, a company that developed radio equipment. Bing Crosby, who disliked live broadcasting, was an early adopter of its prerecording gear.

Ampex had already had complicated meetings with other artists, including Hans Haacke, who had spent two days with Spitzer the month before. Haacke, still mostly known as a sculptor (and not yet for exposing museums’ problematic financial allegiances) spoke to the scientist about a project tentatively called Environment Transplant. Haacke wanted to attach a camera to the top of a van that would be on a rotating disc of some sort. The camera would turn, recording everything around it as the van drove around the city. The footage would then air live at the museum, where, in a cylinder-shaped gallery that would have to be specially built, a projector would spin on top of another turntable.

The idea excited Spitzer, but there would be FCC permits to procure and a van to rent for the whole four months of the exhibition, among other complications. In the end, as Livingston wrote, “Ampex did not want to assume responsibility for solving any of these problems.”13

Ampex reps would also meet with Michael Asher, Jules Olitski, Robert Morris, Francois Dallegret, Les Levine, Otto Piene, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Fred Eversley between 1968 and 1970 and determine most were simply asking too much. They felt Asher, who wanted to create a light that floated in space and had an “elusive” or “happened upon” quality, was asking them to implement unknown phenomena and was thus being unreasonable. In Chamberlain’s case, it was he who rejected them. “[He] was left with a feeling of ambivalence, if not indifference about seeing through a project there,” Livingston explained in a memo after the artist’s meeting with Spitzer.

Next, curators took Chamberlain to tour the San Fernando Valley laboratories of the drug company Dart Industries, where employees made inhalable medicines. On the drive from LACMA to the labs, Chamberlain imagined packaging odors that museum visitors could inhale. When he arrived, he discussed the feasibility of this with an inorganic chemist, Francis Petracek, who thought this could indeed be done and that Chamberlain could even package the scent of a location like Tokyo. But Livingston and Tuchman worried that traveling with a technician to capture the scents of foreign cities would be beyond the scope of Dart’s financial commitment and capabilities, so were unsurprised when the company’s interest fizzled.

The artist then left for a month to shoot his film in New Mexico—which became a series of vignettes called Thumbsuck, starring the striking artist and occultist [Marjorie] Cameron—while Livingston worked on setting up a meeting between him and the Irvine-based International Chemical and Nuclear Corporation.14While on location, Chamberlain compiled a list of potential scents (the ozone, downtown Las Vegas, the American flag at Camp Pendleton, Max’s Kansas City) for the odor-packaging project he had begun calling SniFFter.

International Chemical showed little interest in his ideas, but the RAND Corporation had expressed interest in taking on a new artist.15 Its previous artist in residence, Larry Bell, known for his colored-glass boxes, had not worked out. (Later, Bell said he felt RAND’s attitude toward him had been “let’s all pitch in and make something for the patio.”)16 In Livingston’s words, “a great deal of mutual bafflement prevailed” during Chamberlain’s initial meeting with RAND administrator Robert Specht. But this did not stop RAND from offering the artist an office “to use as he saw fit.” Chamberlain set himself up there, proposing projects such as group portraits on the patio. Months of further bafflement ensued. “I’m not pretending to be some sort of psychiatrist at RAND,” the artist wrote. “But I’m there, and I’d like to deal with them.”

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