Hitting the Books: How Bell Labs jump-started the multimedia art movement

It was a Cold War collaboration between the worlds of art and engineering.

Bell Telephone Labs

The modern world would be a pale shade of itself if not for the myriad foundational technologies developed at the Bell Telephone Labs. Its engineers invented the transistor and photovoltaic cell, charge-coupled devices, frickin’ lasers — even Unix and the C++ programming language. Those same engineers also worked with some of the Cold War era’s most influential artists — including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Yvonne Rainer — to create a wholly new style of artistic expression.

In his new book, Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture, W. Patrick McCray follows the exploits of often-unsung technicians like rocket pioneer cum kinetic artist, Frank J. Malina and Bell Labs electrical engineer and Experiments in Art and Technology founder Billy Klüver, as they leveraged their technological prowess in the pursuit of creating compelling new works.

Making Art Work by W. Patrick McCray
MIT Press

Copyright ©2020 W. Patrick McCray All rights reserved. The following excerpt is reprinted from Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture by W. Patrick McCray. Reprinted with permission of MIT Press.

Like many young electrical engineers, especially those with advanced training from elite schools, [Billy] Klüver had a wealth of opportunities available to him when he completed his degree. Raytheon, RCA, and the Stanford Research Institute all offered him high-paying jobs, but he decided to accept a position in the Communications Research Department at Bell Lab’s facility in Murray Hill, New Jersey. One factor in his decision was the opportunity to work with more senior researchers who shared his research interests. The fact that Bell Labs was arguably the best industrial research lab in the world didn’t hurt.

Long before Klüver arrived at Bells Labs, the organization had become a fount of technological innovation. Of the some 14,000 people it employed, only about 5 percent were formally engaged in basic research — most of the lab’s activities were directed toward the incremental improvement of existing products and systems — but these were some of the most talented researchers in the country. The hierarchy among the technicians, engineers, and scientists placed employees with PhDs (typically designated as Members of the Technical Staff) at the top. One electrical engineer who worked at Bell Labs in the 1960s recalled that the Murray Hill facility presented an enticing “palette of sounds, smells, and experiences.” Conversations spilled over to hallways and cafeteria tables while labs emitted odors of soldered circuits and the greenish glows from oscilloscopes lit up darkened spaces. “Everyone,” he recalled, “seemed in a hurry on their way to a new discovery.”

When Klüver started his new position in 1958, his supervisor was John R. Pierce, who was already legendary as an engineer and research manager. During World War II, Pierce had lobbied his company to adopt a device called a “traveling wave tube.” It enabled, with little distortion, the powerful amplification of microwave signals. Pierce’s dazzling research and effective lobbying helped convince American Telephone and Telegraph, Bell Labs’ parent company, to invest in a new, continent-spanning communication system. During the 1950s, AT&T dotted the landscape with microwave relay towers and Pierce, very much the visionary, wrote speculative pieces about future “orbital earth relays” that would further facilitate global communication. Pierce’s advocacy culminated with the launch of several communications satellites and he supervised engineers at Bell Labs who helped build and operate them.

Frank J Malina
Malina Family Archive

Like [Frank J.] Malina and Klüver, Pierce’s interests extended far beyond engineering. This included writing science fiction under the pseudonym J.J. Coupling and composing experimental music. Pierce proved remarkably tolerant of Klüver’s art-and-technology efforts, seeing these as activities that could benefit engineers as well as artists. One also senses Pierce’s conviction that supporting such interdisciplinary efforts was something an internationally renowned organization like Bell Labs should do. Throughout the 1960s, buoyed by AT&T’s profits, the lab supported a small coterie of artists-in-residence, such as Nam June Paik, James Tenney, Lillian Schwartz, and Stan VanDerBeek.

Many of the tools and devices that Klüver and his engineering colleagues worked with daily were later absorbed into the art-and- technology movement. These included lasers—a fertile new area of research at Bell Labs that Klüver joined—as well as microelectronics, television and video systems, computer-generated speech, wireless signal transmission, and even the manufacturing technology used to make inflatable communication satellites. “I had colors on my palette,” Klüver recalled, “that nobody else had in New York. I had Bell Laboratories at my disposal.”

Being a division of AT&T, most of Bell Labs’ research was necessarily directed toward communication technologies. But the lab’s staff and managers interpreted this so expansively that it was conceivably easier to list areas that Bell Labs’ researchers weren’t engaged in. Klüver found himself working amid an extremely talented cohort with backgrounds ranging from psychology and acoustics to physics and computer science.

AT&T’s Cold War-driven profitability provided its engineers with the security to pursue opportunities in esoteric areas that lacked an immediate commercial payoff or to things that, to an outsider, might seem to have little to do with engineering per se. For example, Bell Labs employed Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, two radio astronomers interested in microwave radiation. In 1964, they started experimenting with a specially designed antenna at Bell’s research facility in Holmdel, New Jersey. Originally built to pick up radio wave transmissions bouncing off passive communications satellites, the faint static Penzias and Wilson detected in 1964 was interpreted as the 13.7-billion-year-old background radiation from the Big Bang. Wilson and Penzias shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978 for their serendipitous finding, a discovery partially enabled by Bell Labs’ tolerance, even encouragement, of research activities which appeared to have little to do with telephones.

Cosmos - Malina 1965
Malina Family Archive

In 1965, Pierce wrote an article for Playboy that told the magazine’s readers about how researchers were using computers to do things other than solving equations or collating data. Focusing on his colleagues’ experimental forays into art and music, Pierce (with Klüver providing background information) presented a lively “portrait of the machine as a young artist.” Pierce himself had already been making computer-generated music for several years with fellow engineer Max Mathews. Mathews, who directed the lab’s Acoustical and Behavioral Research Center, had also helped program an IBM computer to sing the song “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” (this composition later appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey when HAL 9000, the homicidal computer, mournfully plays this tune as it is deactivated). Bell Labs tolerated, if not encouraged, this eclectic work because of its potential applications for electronic speech synthesis, a topic that would interest any communications company.

One of the more intriguing anecdotes Pierce shared with Playboy’s readership was an experiment that Bell researcher A. Michael Noll had recently conducted. Using a computer and microfilm plotter, Noll created an image very similar to Piet Mondrian’s 1917 painting Composition with Lines. Noll then asked Bell Labs’ staff to try and differentiate between the original and his version. Only 28 percent correctly identified the Mondrian and, when questioned further, almost 60 percent said they preferred Noll’s computer-generated image (it later won first prize in a contest sponsored by the journal Computer and Automation). Still, Pierce confessed he felt compelled to ask, “It’s fascinating but is it art?”

Video artist Nam June Paik, who spent time at Bell Labs as an artist-in-residence, already had his answer: “If you are surprised with the result,” he later told an interviewer, “then the machine has composed the piece.” Paik and Klüver were already acquainted with each other. The Korean-born artist had even prepared a Sonata quasi una fantasia for Billie Kluver, an essay of sorts in which he proposed “some utopian or less utopian ideas and phantasies.” Referencing Klüver’s own professional research, Paik asked, “Can the laser, so-said breakthrough in electronic [sic], become also the breakthrough in art?” After noting that “someday every high-brow will have a laser phone number” that “enables us to communicate with everyone everywhere wirelessly and simultaneously,” Paik advised his friend to “please, tele-fuck!”

Klüver, inspired by his conversations with Paik and other artists, advised Pierce that computers, lasers, and the like were akin to a “glorious new paint.” Judging what computers and their programmers produced would have to wait until “preconceived standards of what we think art is” had time to properly adjust. For the moment, Klüver suggested that “the best definition of what art is is implicit in Marcel Duchamp’s work: A person calls himself an artist. He makes an object which he calls art. Others come and look and agree that the object is art.” Klüver’s disinterest in delineating “art” from “technology” — or adjudicating good art from bad — would become central to E.A.T.’s strategy of ignoring aesthetic judgments in favor of supporting the collaborative process itself.

Klüver had continued thinking about the social life of technology and the purported cultural divide between artists and engineers after he started working at Bell Labs. Like many educated people, Klüver followed the debate Snow’s two cultures lecture provoked. “I reacted very strongly against it,” Klüver recalled, “I didn’t feel he had the right to divide society into two separate cultures.” Nonetheless, one important aspect of Snow’s diagnosis resonated strongly with the engineer: “It was his call for action to bridge the gap that I subconsciously agreed with.” For Klüver, this translated into getting directly involved with the contemporary art scene around him.