An Institution at the Intersection: LACMA Art + Technology Lab Then, Now, and Next
Samantha Culp traces the origins of a singular program—and hints at what's to come.
ⓒ Tavares Strachan, photo ⓒ Museum Associates/LACMA
While Silicon Valley often grabs the spotlight, Los Angeles has long been California’s other capital of technology. From fast food to traffic jams to action movies, if you want to ...
While Silicon Valley often grabs the spotlight, Los Angeles has long been California’s other capital of technology. From fast food to traffic jams to action movies, if you want to understand how culture can influence technology, and vice versa, then you need to visit Los Angeles. Specifically, you need to visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the revolutionary Art + Technology Lab (formerly the Art & Technology program) is incubating cutting-edge artistic ideas, reflecting the unique place of the city as an interchange for the flux of creativity and tech.
“There’s still an inherent flexibility to what you can do here that enables a pathway for new thinking that isn’t as easy in Silicon Valley or the East Coast,” says Tomás Garcia, LACMA’s Assistant Vice President, Technology and Digital Media. As the museum announces their incoming class of Art + Technology Fellows, let’s take a look at the strange and unexpected history of contemporary art and advanced technology—as seen from Southern California.
We could begin this story at the turn of the 20th century, when an invention called the cinematograph created Hollywood. Or we could start around WWII, when Defense Department contracts began shaping a military industrial complex firmly rooted in Southern California, funding everything from airplane manufacturers in the South Bay, to computer-assisted Cold War strategy at a think tank in Santa Monica, to rocket design for the nascent space program at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena.
But, like so much else today, the story really begins in the ‘60s. By that point, the city was known for both scientific and cultural innovation, and was therefore the ideal landscape for a pioneering attempt to bridge the two: the Art & Technology program at LACMA. The initiative which ran from 1967-71 was the brainchild of curator Maurice Tuchman, who had arrived in L.A. in 1964 to become LACMA’s founding curator of modern art, and saw nothing more modern than the potential symbiosis between art and technology.
As he put it in the introduction to the now-classic catalog documenting the program, “I became intrigued by the thought of having artists brought into these industries to make works of art, moving about in them as they might in their own studios.” In parallel to—and maybe competition with?—developments on the East Coast, where artists were collaborating with engineers from Bell Labs under the auspices of the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) program, Tuchman began approaching corporations with the audacious pitch to place leading contemporary artists in three-month residencies in their offices, labs, and factories.
© Estate of William Crutchfield, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA
The rolling list of prospective and participating artists and firms reads like cut-up poetry from the collective unconscious of Sixties America: Andy Warhol / Disney / Richard Serra / NASA / Robert Rauschenberg / IBM / Roy Lichtenstein / the RAND Corporation / Donald Judd / Lockheed Martin…I could go on and on. And while this list is striking (and surreal), it’s also limited in ways that reflect its day, but were even protested at the time. The entire invited list was composed of white, male artists, save Frederick Eversley, an African-American sculptor with an engineering background, and Channa Davis, who was one of many female artists who submitted unsolicited proposals; her proposal was included in the catalog but never realized.
Some collaborations were easy wins, with projects emerging in accordance with the artists’ visions: Andy Warhol making holographic daisies with the magazine publisher Cowles Communication, Richard Serra crafting “Five Plates and Two Poles” with Kaiser Steel, Roy Lichtenstein completing the film installation “Three Landscapes” with advanced camera techniques from Universal Studio.
But the pairings of artist and company could be volatile, to say the least. Claes Oldenburg, originally paired with Disneyland Imagineers to realize his vision for a large kinetic “Ice Bag” sculpture, found their methods too bureaucratic and had to finish fabrication with a different company. John Chamberlain conducted his residency at the RAND Corporation as a form of trickster performance art, at one point circulating a famous memo to the baffled (and eventually hostile) think tank staff reading “I’m searching for ANSWERS. Not questions! If you have any, will you please fill in below, and send them to me in Room 1138.”
By the time of the culminating exhibition and catalog launch in 1971, the critical reception was mixed. Max Kozloff memorably excoriated it as the “Multimillion Dollar Art Boondoggle” in Artforum, not just for what he saw as unimpressive results, but for the structure of the project to begin with, calling the list of corporate patrons a “rogue’s gallery of the violence industries.” In light of the intensifying war in Vietnam, the direct connection of several of the A&T companies to the U.S. military could no longer just be the elephant in the room. And technology itself, invested with utopian promise in the late ’60s, had taken on a darker sheen as its role in systems of oppression at home and abroad had become clear (a sentiment today’s audiences will surely understand).
If the perception of A&T in its immediate aftermath was of a “failed experiment,” it was because it was so genuinely experimental—full of risk, uncertainty, and friction in the service of a provocative “what if.” But over the decades since, seen through the prism of immense changes in the realms of both art and technology, the A&T experiment now looks simply way ahead of its time.
By the early 2010s, the “intersection of art and technology” had become a teeming freeway interchange, with tech companies actively pursuing artist collaborations and vice versa. Against this backdrop, it was a welcome surprise when LACMA announced the launch of the “Art + Technology Lab” in 2013—not a reboot, but a true reinvention of the historic program.
Under the direction of program director Joel Ferree and Tomás Garcia, artists selected from a public call for proposals can engage with specialists from tech company partners (like presenting patron Hyundai, or other supporters like Snap Inc., SpaceX, YouTube Learning, Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and the MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative), though they are not required to produce a specific final outcome, or team up with a particular company. This lack of mandatory output is key to the program, which focuses mainly on each artist’s long-term R&D. It’s more of a think tank, to borrow another mid-century concept. Another difference is that, as Ferree points out, “artists coming into our program often have a higher degree of technological literacy” than they might have had in decades past; so when they choose to, “they are able to engage with our technology advisors at a higher level.”
This becomes apparent when reviewing the projects to date, which display artists’ deep engagement with not just a wide range of technical tools—from robotics to XR, autonomous vehicles to A.I.—but the conceptual and political questions surrounding them. Some artists realize discrete artworks, many that are almost in the realm of critical design, like Jonathan Keats who for over two years collaborated with Hyundai engineers to create “Roadable Synapse,” an unusual vision for a “concept car” that reshapes the driving experience to resist the typical passivity of an autonomous vehicle. Or Rashaad Newsome’s cloud-based A.I. humanoid “Being,” a digital assistant imbued with the agency to “go rogue” in a way Siri could only dream of.
Others develop more open-ended research projects, often taking a more global or even planetary view—venturing from L.A. to the cosmos. Take the collective project “Te Lapa” (Kyle McDonald, Daisy Mahaina, and Dr. Marianne George), which aims to document ancient Polynesian navigation techniques and use custom camera rigs to photograph a rare light event, to several projects looking beyond Earth itself.
Courtesy of LACMA.
Out of many artists’ works exploring space travel, the one that has journeyed the farthest to date is Tavares Strachan’s “ENOCH,” which was initiated in 2014 to create and launch a memorial for Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African American astronaut selected for any national space program, who tragically died in a 1967 supersonic jet crash before he could complete a space mission. Through discussions with SpaceX advisors and many years of research and fabrication, Strachan crafted a physical sculpture influenced by ancient Egyptian canopic jars and Shinto ritual to honor Lawrence’s forgotten story; it was successfully launched into space as part of a satellite launch in 2018, and will remain in orbit for seven years.
This summer, the Art + Technology Lab has announced its latest cohort of artists who will similarly explore the complex entanglements of our systems and selves. The proposals from selected artists Kelly Akashi, Nancy Baker Cahill, Lauren Lee McCarthy, and Daniel Small range widely across medium, tools, and approach, and may evolve dramatically from their incepting seed. But from Akashi’s micro-CT-influenced sculptures, to Baker Cahill’s multimedia investigation of mycelial networks, to McCarthy’s intimate AI performance series, to Small’s documentary series on the very overlap of artists’ and scientists’ roles, all demonstrate the spirit of experimentation that is the program’s greatest legacy.
Courtesy of LACMA
Back in 1971, co-curator of the original A&T program Jane Livingston reflected in the catalog on the reasons she worried artists wouldn’t want to collaborate with tech corporations, expressing that “the traditional privilege enjoyed by the artist to function independently, and to remain, in a sense, one of the last freelance agents in society, is not easily relinquished.” Today’s Art + Technology Lab is focused on allowing artists to maintain that very thing—the “free agent” role that is invaluable not just to making meaningful and surprising artwork, but to providing “a new stage for critical discourse” (in Garcia’s words) about technology’s impact on society.
Bringing diverse artists into dialogue with the platforms, tools, and companies that are shaping our reality may not be a panacea, but ideally, channel fresh perspectives—both inspirational and critical—into the spaces where decisions get made. As Ferree puts it: “in artists’ hands, new conversations around technology and its relationship to our culture and societies, emerge.”
Samantha Culp is a writer, filmmaker and strategist based in Los Angeles after a decade in greater China. Her writing has appeared in publications such as the Atlantic, New York Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and Art in America. From 2009-2019, she was a contributing editor of China’s leading bilingual art magazine, LEAP (艺术界). She’s currently writing a book about the history and global landscape of “futures thinking” in its many forms.