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LACMA's Art and Technology Program Returns

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Robert Irwin and James Turrell in the anechoic chamber at UCLA. Their collaborative iteration of the ganzfeld project with Garrett Corporation failed, but 40 years later, LACMA is hosting a major retrospective for James Turrell, featuring the execution of the ideas that stemmed from the pairing. | Photo: © Malcom Lubliner.

In May of 1959, the chemist and novelist C.P. Snow mounted the podium in front of an audience at University of Cambridge and delivered the annual Rede Lecture about how the schism between science and the humanities was hindering humanity's progress. The reprimand and its subsequent essay, "The Two Cultures," sparked a debate that still hasn't been resolved. This year, through the revitalization of their Art + Technology Lab, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is trying to reignite the conversation Snow began by accepting proposals for artists to team up with technology corporations.

Wrote Snow: "A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?"

In 1966, seventeen years after Snow's speech, curators Maurice Tuchman and Jane Livingston of LACMA launched their initial Art and Technology, a program that lasted four years and paired some of the day's most important artists with an impressive list of technology companies.

But there was a reason the program only lasted into 1971: failure. "A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art" was published, documenting the various projects and the untimely ends that befell most of the projects. "It's a very unusual catalog," says Chris DeFay, who works in human linguistic analysis at Google in Santa Monica, and who wrote his thesis on the program. "It's unusualness actually drew me to it. Some of the things that fascinated me were failure. My dissertation looked at not just failure, but how a collaboration could be successful, how it could be very fruitful, how it could be successful for one party, or for both parties, and how it could also just be an utter and complete failure."

But what DeFay felt was the most important aspect of the project was the ability for artists to experiment, which led to great strides in their work. James Turrell and Robert Irwin spent time embedded in aerospace engineering and automobile turbocharger developer Garrett Corporation's factory, testing out perceptual phenomena. A glance at Turrell's retrospective at LACMA last year confirms the influence that work had on his career. Similarly, Richard Serra's early explorations into steel works were born from a A&T project with Kaiser Steel. "This was a chance to work with steel on a scale that he hadn't considered before. He hadn't really worked with steel [before A&T]," says DeFay, who sits on the 2014 Art + Technology advisory board.

Conversely, sculptor John Chamberlain, who was paired with the centrist think tank RAND Corporation, underscored the frustration between artists and scientists. His residency became fraught, with RAND employees bristling at Chamberlain's intrusion, and Chamberlain becoming frustrated with the RAND employees' intellectual pomposity in the face of his process.

It's that exact sort of gulf that remains, says professor Ken Goldberg, the craigslist Distinguished Professor of New Media at UC Berkeley. "I see the clashes," Goldberg tells me over the phone. "Every week, I hear [a science student] say something uncomprehending about the arts, and vice versa. They have a lot more in common than they think."

The updated Art + Technology Lab, which will be managed by LACMA's Amy Heibel, takes aim at the discrepancy between science and art by giving the power to the public. That is to say, anyone can submit a project to the Lab, a marked difference from the first go around in the late-1960s when LACMA chose the artists made the connections with the corporations. Though LACMA will play an advisory role in pairing up their winning proposals with a suitable company, they won't be selecting the artists, leaving the pool open to literally anyone with a great proposal, from artists to engineers to researchers.

But that just means the competition is going to be strong for the up-to-$50,000 grants that LACMA will be awarding to winning proposals, as well as in-kind support from the corporate co-sponsors, and the opportunity to work with and get advice from those sponsors: Google, SpaceX, Accenture, Daqri, and Nvidia. Goldberg hopes this will make for innovative proposals. "An idea that's common in humanities, science, and all of academia, is an appreciation for 'novelty,'" Goldberg explains. "If an artist does something that someone has already done, it almost is worthless. That same thing is true in engineering: if you re-invent something amazing, I'm sorry, but you're not going to get much credit for it. You have to be there first."

And, Goldberg points out, that despite the revivalist nature of the program, there are different factors at play--namely that the world has transitioned from the Industrial Age to the Information Age since the previous Art and Technology program. "This is a whole new range of technology," he says. "In the 1960s, the laser, steelmaking, basic radar electronics, plastics, holograms -- that was what was new at that time. But none of it was digital, or making use of networks, or robotics -- the complexity of computing capabilities we have today is radically different."

There are great examples of contemporary artists tackling technology. Trevor Paglen spent time in MIT's Visiting Artists program developing a work that he imprinted onto indestructible silicon and launched into space. Dan Goods has been Jet Propulsion Laboratory's artist-in-residence for a decade, peering into the cosmos with artistic intent. Olafur Eliasson regularly conducts experiments that toe a scientific line. The New Museum's Rhizome arm can be a vessel for blurring the boundaries between New Media art and technological advancement.

But these are the exceptions; the fact remains that LACMA's effort is necessary. The sciences and the humanities remain divided. In this age of exponential growth in technology -- self-driving cars, web-crawling information hoarding, pre-natal DNA sequencing -- there must be space for artists to register what's possible in 2014.

LACMA will be accepting proposals until January 27th, 2014.

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