Posted by on Dec 11, 2013 in Article | 0 comments


VIDA 15.0 has introduced among other new items the Telefónica R&D Initiative, which has been added to the Incentives for Productioncategory. As well as financial aid, the selected project will receive the support of the Telefónica R&D Research Centre in Barcelona. This year, the project MEMEMEME by Brazilian artists Radamés Ajna and Thiago Hersan will receive technical advice from Telefónica experts on research, development and innovation during its production. Ajna and Hersan intend to create an installation in which four mobile phones, linked to four independent robotic arms, can communicate “face to face”, identifying each other through image recognition software. To do this, on top of the financial incentive, they will have  the resources offered by the Telefónica laboratory at their disposal, where they will spend one month.

As Mónica Bello, the artistic director of VIDA said, “The aim of this contribution is to stimulate innovation by focusing on the latest technologies in artificial life and to expand research opportunities in the arts.” [1]. Certainly, the work of the artists will be made easier by the infrastructure and knowledge of the Telefónica R&D experts, but it is also possible that the creators’ ideas will bring new approaches to the research that is carried out in this laboratory. One of the features of the current relationship between art, science and technology is their increasing ability to influence each other. While a century ago the interest of painters and sculptors in scientific developments was manifested in an obviously intellectual manner, the last fifty years have produced a much more direct involvement in the creative use of technological innovations and the cooperation between engineers and artists. This meeting between professionals from two (initially) very different fields reminds us of the “two cultures” described in 1959 by the English scientist and novelist Charles Pierce Snow in his lecture entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Snow affirmed that the sciences and humanities were incapable of understanding each other: “Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists… Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension; sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding” [2]. Later, in 1963, Snow reconsidered some of his ideas and saw the potential of a “third culture”, which would mediate between the first two. This “third culture” is the one that we can identify in current artistic practices that are linked with scientific and technological research, especially in the specific area of programmes that incorporate artistic projects into R&D laboratories.


9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering, 1966, “Bandoneon! (a combine)”. Source: Scan Journal of Media Arts Culture/ Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.).

9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering, 1966, “Bandoneon! (a combine)”. Source: Scan Journal of Media Arts Culture/ Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.).


Something that an Engineer Would Consider Ridiculous

The relatively casual manner in which an artist can today become part of certain research laboratories is the result of a long series of meetings, disagreements and ongoing work on a variety of projects that have led to fruitful environments for interdisciplinary research. At the beginning of the 60s, cooperation between artists and engineers was practically unthinkable (as shown by Snow’s original statements), but this view began to change thanks to the work of pioneers like the Bell Laboratories engineer Billy Klüver, who helped bring about the famous self-destructing sculpture Homage to New York (1960) by Jean Tinguely, which was presented in a 27 minute long performance in the MoMA gardens. To design this piece, Klüver used the equipment and resources of the American company’s prestigious research and development laboratory, which did not lead to his being fired but to his earning CEO John Pierce’s support. This support enabled Klüver and the artist Robert Rauschenberg to involve a team of 40 engineers and 10 artists in the series of performances entitled 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering which took place in the New York 69th Regiment Armory between 13 and 23 October 1966. More than 10,000 people attended these artistic events, in which, for the first time, technical resources such as sonar, wireless transmitters, closed circuit television and video projections were used According to Klüver, the aim of these events was not so much to produce pieces of great artistic value but to find out if it was possible for artists and engineers to cooperate [3]. The attention aroused by 9 Evenings (which was originally considered a failure) inspired future collaborations between the two groups and the creation of the E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting such collaborations. E.A.T. was created with the intention of disappearing once its work had reached its goal: “if we were successful, there would be no need for the functions of E.A.T. in society,” stated Klüver, “It would be perfectly natural for an artist to be able to contact an engineer him or herself.” As it was, the collaborations between engineers and artists continued. They were sporadic, but notable in some cases, such as the variety of pieces included in the exhibition The Machine: As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (MoMA, New York, 1968) or the Pepsi pavilion at  EXPO ’72 in Osaka. The creations of art and technology are often the fruit of an artist gaining access to the teams of particular calculation and research centres, as is the case with Manfred Mohr, who, from 1970 on, was able to develop his algorithmic drawings using the Paris Institute of Meteorology’s machines. Another laboratory that developed collaborations with artists in those years was the Philips Corporation, in Eindhoven. CYSP I (1956), a kinetic sculpture controlled by an “electronic brain” was developed by Nicolas Schöffer with the help of Philips engineers, as was the robotic sculpture Senster (1970) by Edward Ihnatowicz, which was on show for four years in the company’ exhibition pavilion and then dismantled and forgotten. Cooperation between artists and engineers seemed to be going in only one direction: engineers were helping artists to develop their pieces but as a result they were also changing their processes and research. A statement attributed to Klüver illustrates this situation: “All of the art projects that I have worked on have at least one thing in common; from an engineer’s point of view they are ridiculous.” [4].


MIT Media Lab building. Source: YAIlabs.

MIT Media Lab building. Source: YAIlabs.


Media Labs and the Laboratory Culture

Billy Klüver had great respect for artists but did not consider himself one. Without belittling either of the two professions, he said: “Engineers are not artists, and artists can’t do their own engineering. Artists and engineers are separate individuals, and if they work together, something will come out of it that neither can expect” [5]. This clear separation occurred at a time when engineers were working with technology that was not normally found outside their laboratories and therefore did not have such an immediate contact with the society in which they lived. As this technology advanced, grew in popularity and invaded all aspects of daily life, it required a social and cultural framework, to which art had a lot to contribute. The so-called “digital revolution” and the transformation of the industrial society into the information and knowledge society have led to a new relationship with science and technology. At the same time, the rapid adoption of new forms of communication and data processing have given way to a sense of instability and uncertainty. Experimentation and innovation have come to have greater relevance, which has been translated into a proliferation of laboratories and experimental areas in institutions, cultural centres and museums. In industry too there is investment in research and development, and in some cases it is the laboratories created in cultural institutions and universities that are providing industry with innovative solutions. The Media Lab at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), founded by Nicholas Negroponte and Jerome Wiesner in 1985, serves as a model for an interdisciplinary research laboratory dedicated to the meeting of technology, multimedia and design. Focusing on “creating a better future” through technology, the Media Lab is financed by corporations that benefit from the research work done for their products in the laboratory. The Media Lab produces approximately twenty new patents every year. Another notable example is the Ars Electronica Futurelab. Created as the production centre for the Ars Electronica Center, the “museum of the future” in Linz, it started to take shape in 1996 based on the work of three engineers. One year later, because of the huge number of orders that it was receiving from industries in the region, it had grown to have a staff of 40 technicians [6]. Futurelab’s commitment to developing solutions with low cost technologies or widespread distribution, using GPS devices, mobile phones and augmented reality technologies very early on, has led it to create successful projects and obtain the supports of companies like VOEST Alpine and Siemens.

In addition to laboratories researching technology, the laboratory culture has also established itself in cultural areas and in the world of art. Numerous art centres and museums have adopted the model of the laboratory as a place for experimentation (at times, separate from the rooms solely devoted to their main exhibitions), in which they can house proposals from emerging artists and unusual formats. In addition, the resurgence of artist-in-residence programmes emphasises the importance of support for the production (and not only the exhibition) of artistic projects, as well as the value of a place for meetings and dialogue among creators. These programmes promote an open process that permits what Johan Pousette, director of the Baltic Art Center, calls “happy failure” [7], a concept that has a direct connection with the work ethos of an experimental laboratory. The dynamic of artist-in-residence programmes and laboratory work can be found in another outstanding initiative, the programme artists-in-labs, created in 2003 due to cooperation between Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK, the Institute for Cultural Studies in the Arts ICS and the Federal Office for Culture (FOC). Artists-in-labs invites artists to collaborate with scientific laboratories in Switzerland in order to promote communication between art and science and to facilitate an exchange that can benefit both the resident artists and the research centres. But it is not only artists who can go into a laboratory: there are also laboratories located in art centres, such as Biofilia, the only fully equipped biology laboratory managed by the Aalto University School of Art, Design and Architecture in Finland. These examples, together with the increasingly widespread laboratory culture, are making it more normal today for artists and engineers or scientists to meet and for there to be more bridges between the humanities and the sciences.


Ars Electronica Futurelab. Source: Ars Electronica Archive.

Ars Electronica Futurelab. Source: Ars Electronica Archive.


Rules of Transdisciplinarity

As the historian Edward Shanken remembers, the meeting between artists and engineers in 9 Evenings was not idyllic: on the one hand, the artists complained that the engineers did not understand their needs and could not solve the technical problems in time; on the other hand, the engineers complained that they were not being recognised and that the artists did not understand the complexity of the technical problems that their works presented [8]. This lack of comprehension is logical as these are two groups whose training, goals and methods for doing things are totally different. Every discipline develops a series of rules, convictions, models, methods and, in the end, a culture that defines it and sets out what it must do and how. The meeting between different disciplines creates an uncomfortable “no man’s land” in which, as Klüver has pointed out, no one knows exactly what can happen. Transdisciplinarity, as the artist Simon Penny notes, is not simply a question of “importing” the methodology of another discipline into one’s own, but of having to clarify the structures and objectives of the disciplines involved, as well as the relationships between them, in order to identify new areas of research and development [9]. Penny proposes a series of skills needed for interdisciplinary work, which range from humility (so as to accept the validity of the principles of other disciplines and admit to what one does not know) to intellectual rigour (so as to manage the epistemological challenges) and finally courage (so as to accept that one’s own convictions can be shaken and to take on the challenge of transdisciplinary research in rigid academic structures).

The artists who join laboratories must therefore face the difficulties and take advantage of the opportunities offered by a foray into a new environment, in which they must set up avenues for dialogue with engineers and scientists. The laboratories themselves, or the institutions to which they belong, must in turn understand that this type of research does not necessarily produce extraordinary or original products in all cases, and that it is necessary to maintain a margin of “happy failure”. Finally, it is possible that in the future not only artists will join scientific laboratories but that, as the astrophysicist Roger Malina proposes, there will be “scientist in residence” programmes in artistic laboratories, so that a “better science” is created that responds to the needs of society [10].




[1] See the interview with Mónica Bello on this blog.

[2] C. P. Snow, Las dos culturas y un segundo enfoque [The Two Cultures: And a Second Look: An Expanded Version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution], Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 1987, p. 14, 24.

[3] Paul Miller, “The Engineer as Catalyst: Billy Klüver on Working with Artists”

[4] Paul Miller, ibid.

[5] Paul Miller, ibid.

[6] Horst Hörtner, “The Ars Electronica Futurelab: A Know-How Cluster”, in: H. Leopoldseder, C. Schöpf, G. Stocker (eds.) 1979-2004. Ars Electronica. The Network for Art, Technology and Society: The First 25 Years. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2004, 166.

[7] Johan Pousette, “Artists in Flux”, in: Anna Ptak (ed.), E-tooling RESIDENCIES: A Closer Look at the Mobility of Art Professionals. Warsaw: Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, 2011, 47.

[8] Edward Shanken, “The History

and Future of the Lab: Collaborative Research at the Intersections of

Art, Science, and

Technology”, in: The Future of the Lab. Eindhoven: Baltan Laboratories, 2010, 22.

[9] Simon Penny, “Rigorous Interdisciplinary Pedagogy:five years at ACE”

[10] Roger F. Malina, “Leonardo Timeshift 1959, 1969, 2004, 2029″. Ars Electronica Archive.