RIP Billy Kluver

Billy Kluver, pioneering artist/engineer at Bell Labs and founder of Experiments in Art & Technology, died last Sunday at his home in New Jersey. Billy could rightly be called the godfather of contemporary media art. After training as an electrical engineer in Sweden, started working with artists, initially with Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, before becoming staff scientist at Bell Labs in 1958.

It was at Bell Labs that he combined his interests in Art, Film and Technology, fostering collaborations between the engineers at Bell and artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, John Cage and Frank Stella. These collaborations led to Kluver staging ‘Nine Evenings’, a series of interactive performances held in New York in 1966. Nine Evenings presented artists and engineers as equal partners, an attitude that characterised the work of EAT for the next 40 years.

Billy Kluver was invited over to Leeds in 2002 for the Evolution festival, and I had the great pleasure of chairing some of his sessions and spending a few days escorting him around the city. He was already quite frail, but his informal presentation of his projects – peppered with anecdotes about working with Warhol, Johns, Cage and other art-world luminaries – enraptured a packed audience, most of whom wouldn’t have been born when he was starting his pioneering career in New York.

In conversation over those few days, he seemed quite pessimistic about the historical significance of the work he’d done, and for the future of media art. He was quite critical of contemporary computer technology, feeling that it divorced artists from a real understanding of what technology actually contributes to an artwork. His collaborations were always informed by a real sense of the material logic of technology – how the bits and atoms worked together to create something sublime. I think he despaired of artists using off-the-shelf packages that emulate some of the ground-breaking combinations of media that he pioneered in the 60’s, without giving the artist an insight into what those combinations actually mean.

His pessimism about his historical significance was misplaced, however. He was received rapturously at the Evolution festival in Leeds, and introduced recently remastered documentary films of the ‘Nine Evenings’ performances, as well as a touring exhibition on the history of EAT. Hopefully this documentation will now be distributed more widely, and a new generation of media artists can learn from his work.

Most of all, I remember Billy for having a very European dry wit. He scarcastically cut through some of the more florid praise heaped upon him at the festival, and spent the evenings entertaining us over dinner with gossip and anecdotes about the famous artists he had worked with. As I walked him back to his hotel one night, he observed the traditional northern english female dress code (very short skirts, barely-there tops, even in the bitter cold and driving rain), and demanded “Take me where those girls are going!” The idea of taking Billy to one of Leeds’ less salubrious night clubs was very appealing, but his wife Julie managed to convince him otherwise. He probably would have spent the evening investigating the lighting rigs in any case, saying that he did far more spectacular stuff in the 60’s…

As media art grows up and enters the mainstream, and the technical innovations of previous generations become hidden under slick interfaces, it becomes more and more important that we recognise and learn from the pioneering work of people like Billy Kluver. Technological culture suffers from a fetishisation of the new, erasing recent history as its welcomes new innovation.

But the history of the last 30-40 years that Billy represented gives us a new way of looking at contemporary practise, a perspective that helps us realise that the new isn’t so new, and that people were asking the same questions about culture in the 60’s as we are now. It was this perspective that Billy urged the audience in Leeds to maintain, and his legacy of cultural innovation will now stand as a milestone in art and technology history, as well as an endless mine of inspiration for future artists.

Billy Kluver was a hero to a lot of people I knew, especially William Rose and Dennis Hopkins, whose visits to New York to meet Billy prior to inviting him to Leeds were almost an act of pilgrimage. I’m incredibly indebited to Dennis and William for the chance to meet a personal hero, and hope that their work will continue to celebrate Billy’s work, and give many other people the chance to be inspired by him.

One comment

  1. andrew wilson

    What a shame. You did get the feeling at those talks in Leeds, even, or especially, if you didn’t know much (or anything in my case) about him previously, that you were in the presence of someone who had made things happen differently.

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