Hitting the Books: How Bell Labs Started the Media Art Movement

The modern world would be a wane of itself without the myriad fundamental technologies developed in Bell Telephone Labs. Its engineers invented the transistor and the photovoltaic cell, charge-coupled devices, goddamn lasers — even Unix and the C++ programming language. These same engineers also worked with some of the most influential artists of the Cold War era, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Yvonne Rainer, to create an entirely new style of artistic expression.

In his new book, Making a Work of Art: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture, W. Patrick McCray follows the exploits of often overlooked technicians like rocketry pioneer and 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 creation. fascinating new works.

MIT Press

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


Like many young electrical engineers, especially those who have had advanced training at elite schools, [Billy] Klüver had a multitude of opportunities available to him when he graduated. Raytheon, RCA, and the Stanford Research Institute all offered him well-paying jobs, but he decided to accept a position in the communications research department at Bell Lab’s Murray Hill, New Jersey facility. One of the factors in his decision was the opportunity to work with more experienced researchers who shared his research interests. It didn’t hurt that Bell Labs was arguably the best industrial research lab in the world.

Long before Klüver joined Bells Labs, the organization had become a source of technological innovation. Of the roughly 14,000 people it employed, only about 5% were formally engaged in basic research – most of the lab’s activities were directed towards the incremental improvement of existing products and systems – but these were some of the the most talented researchers in the country. The hierarchy between technicians, engineers, and scientists placed employees with doctorates (usually referred to as technical staff) at the top. An electrical engineer who worked at Bell Labs in the 1960s recalled that the Murray Hill facility presented an appealing “pallet of sounds, smells and experiences”. Conversation spilled out into the hallways and tables of the cafeteria as the labs smelled of soldered circuits and the greenish glow of oscilloscopes lit up the dark spaces. “Everyone,” he recalls, “seemed in a hurry to head for 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 director. During World War II, Pierce had pressured his company to adopt a device called a “traveling wave tube”. It allowed, with little distortion, the powerful amplification of microwave signals. Pierce’s dazzling research and effective lobbying helped convince American Telephone and Telegraph, the parent company of Bell Labs, to invest in a new continent-wide communications system. During the 1950s, AT&T dotted the landscape with microwave relay towers, and the visionary Pierce wrote speculative articles about future “orbital earth relays” that would further facilitate global communication. Pierce’s advocacy culminated in the launch of several communications satellites, and he oversaw the Bell Labs engineers who helped build and operate them.

Frank J Malina

Malina Family Archive

Like [Frank J.] Malina and Klüver, Pierce’s interests went far beyond engineering. This included writing science fiction under the pseudonym JJ Coupling and composing experimental music. Pierce was remarkably tolerant of Klüver’s artistic and technological endeavors, viewing them as activities that could benefit engineers as well as artists. One also senses Pierce’s belief that supporting such cross-disciplinary endeavors was something an internationally renowned organization like Bell Labs should be doing. Throughout the 1960s, supported by profits from AT&T, 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 fellow engineers worked with on a daily basis were later absorbed into the art and technology movement. These included lasers – a fertile new area of ​​research at Bell Labs which 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 recalls, “that no one 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 communications technology. But lab staff and officials interpreted this so broadly that it was conceivably easier to list the areas in which Bell Labs researchers were not engaged. .

AT&T’s Cold War-related profitability provided its engineers with the security to pursue opportunities in esoteric fields that lacked immediate commercial gain or 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 began 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 weak Penzias and Wilson static detected in 1964 was interpreted as the 13.7 billion-year-old background radiation from the Big Bang. . Wilson and Penzias shared the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for their chance discovery, a discovery made possible in part by Bell Laboratories’ tolerance, if not encouragement, of research activities that seemed to have little to do with the phones.

Cosmos - Malina 1965

Malina Family Archive

In 1965, Pierce wrote an article for Playboy that told readers of the magazine how researchers used computers to do more than solve equations or gather data. Focusing on his colleagues’ experimental forays into art and music, Pierce (with Klüver providing background information) presented an “animated 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 ran the laboratory’s Acoustic 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 the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey when HAL 9000, the homicidal computer, sadly plays this tune because it is disabled). Bell Labs tolerated, if not encouraged, this eclectic work because of its potential applications for electronic speech synthesis, a topic any communications company would be interested in.

One of the most intriguing anecdotes Pierce shared with Playboy readers was an experiment that Bell researcher A. Michael Noll had recently conducted. Using a computer and a 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 to make the difference between the original and its version. Only 28% correctly identified the Mondrian, and when questioned further, nearly 60% said they preferred Noll’s computer-generated image (it later won first prize in a contest sponsored by the newspaper IT 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’re surprised at the result,” he later told an interviewer, “Then the machine composed the piece. “Paik and Klüver already knew each other. The Korean-born artist had even prepared a Sonata quasi una fantasia for Billie Kluver, a kind of essay in which he proposed “utopian or less utopian ideas and fantasies”. Referring to Klüver’s own professional research, Paik asked: “Laser, the so-called breakthrough in electronics [sic], also become the breakthrough in art? After noting that “one day all intellectuals will have a laser phone number” that “will allow 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, informed Pierce that computers, lasers and the like were akin to a “glorious new paint”. To judge what computers and their programmers produced, one would have to wait until “the preconceived standards of what we think of as art” had had time to adapt properly. For the moment, Klüver has suggested that “the best definition of what art is is implicit in the work of Marcel Duchamp: A person calls himself an artist. He makes an object he calls art. Others come to look and agree that the object is art. Klüver’s disinterest in delineating “art” from “technology” – or distinguishing good art from bad – would become central to EAT’s strategy of ignoring aesthetic judgments in favor of supporting the collaborative process itself. .

Klüver had continued to ponder the social life of technology and the alleged cultural divide between artists and engineers after he began working at Bell Labs. Like many educated people, Klüver followed the debate sparked by Snow’s two-culture lecture. “I reacted very strongly against that,” Klüver recalls, “I didn’t think he had the right to divide society into two separate cultures.” Nonetheless, an important aspect of Snow’s diagnosis resonated strongly with the engineer: “It was his call to action to close the gap that I subconsciously agreed with.” For Klüver, this translates into direct involvement in the contemporary art scene that surrounds him.

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Christopher S. Washington