Mad Machines: Women in Art and Technology

In 1966, the new curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, keen to test his mettle, conceived of a massive collaborative art program to explore the tensions and resonances between industry and art. There are many heroic accounts of the trials Maurice Tuchman underwent to bring his project to fruition, perhaps none more heroic than his own reminiscences in the final published report on the project. Art and Technology (A&T), as the project would eventually be called, was designed to pair artists with California corporations in order to produce artworks and research. Tuchman expected that such collaborations might not only provide artists with access to new and unusual materials and processes, but that some important questions about the relationship between art and technology might be explored. The industries that participated in A&T were among the most high-tech companies in America including Lockheed, the RAND Corporation, RCA, IBM, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, all integral parts of the post-war military-industrial complex. More importantly, these corporations housed some of the largest and most important research facilities in the country. As Tuchman is careful to stress, A&T was about forming mutual understanding and productive relationships between artists and scientists, not simply the physical fabrication of artworks by hired companies.

The process by which artists were selected for the program is described in Tuchman’s introduction to the report, in which he explains that “we were also determined to discuss Art and Technology with as wide a range of artists as possible- Europeans and Americans, Japanese and South Americans…” because, according to the report, “we felt that only by exposing diverse types of artists to corporations could the value of the premises of Art and Technology be tested.” This vision of diversity turns out to be quite limited, and reflects the entrenched curatorial biases of many museums in this period, especially with regard to art works that engaged with technology. Tuchman notes that the organizing body received “seventy-eight unsolicited proposals from artists,” which came from women and “‘primitive’ or folk-traditional artists who wished to make mad machines through Art and Technology,” and that no such proposals were accepted. In a stunningly patronizing move, Tuchman did allow the proposals of two women, Channa Horwitz (then Davis) and Aleksandra Kasuba, to be reproduced in the A&T report, as they were “the most interesting.”

This rationalization for the lack of women and other artists whose work was deemed inappropriate for the project reveals common assumptions about science and technology in the postwar period. Technology was the preserve, first and foremost, of men, and even then only certain kinds of men who adhered to a vision of science and technology that was firmly oriented toward the future. The “primitive” artists who wished to make “mad machines” represented to LACMA uses of technology that were not in line with a conservative mainstream as represented by the corporations he chose for participation. These artists were presumably more aligned with beats, hippies, freaks, and other countercultural stereotypes that midcentury high technology actively avoided and often publicly derided. Lumping women in with these specters of dissent shows that LACMA, like other postwar institutions, subscribed to a vision of technology that was only for some people, which could and should be made unavailable to others. In addition, the fact that the rejected proposals were solicited reinforces the sense that Tuchman was committed to diversity only in the sense that he himself had preselected certain kinds of artists to participate. Indeed, the most high-profile collaborations, and those upon which Tuchman lavishes the most attention and praise, were carried out by some of the biggest stars of the art world at the time: Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Irwin, and Claes Oldenberg.

Aleksandra Kasuba’s proposal to A&T is a tiny fragment of what became a successful and prolific career. Alive today and working in New Mexico, Kasuba remains concerned with many of the essential theoretical and conceptual issues that preoccupied the selected A&T artists. In particular, with the advent of Minimalism in the early 1960s and the growing interest in the psychology of human perception, many artists were exploring the design and building of immersive environmental installations that would provoke particular sensations and experiences within the viewer. Kasuba’s proposal details two such projects: the first for a spectrum environment that would engulf the viewer in successive fields of colored light, and the second for a similar structure that presents the four elements inside hemispherical shell structures lit by moving lights. The A&T report reproduces two tidy architectural drawings of the proposed environment.

Kasuba’s project is not substantially different from other proposals for environmental works, most notably the elaborate plan hatched by Robert Irwin and James Turrell, working with Garrett Corporation, to build a multi-room sensory experience installation designed to provoke sensation and even hallucination in the viewer. Perhaps most galling is that  Irwin was able to work alongside engineers in developing habitability guidelines for American spacecraft as a result of his participation in A&T. Habitability remains one of Kasuba’s chief interests, on which she has conducted extensive research. Had Kasuba been given the opportunity to participate in A&T, she too might have gained entry to the powerful and influential world of aerospace and access to the technologies that were shaping her world.

I am not the first to offer a critique of A&T’s exclusion of women. In fact, I am offering almost the exact argument made by feminists at the time of the exhibition of works and research made in the program in 1971. In a scathing report issued by the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists, the discrimination against women in the art world, and at LACMA in particular, is laid out in no uncertain terms. In addition to the critiques I have outlined here, the remarkable report  includes a trenchant observation of the patriarchal nature of the corporation, the exclusionary nature of curator-directed shows that do more for the ego of the curator and the prestige of the museum than they do for artists, and a critique of the underlying assumptions about women as consumers that fuel discriminatory practices in the productive fields like art. The report also notes that because A&T was supposed to celebrate a vibrant and progressive future, it was especially unacceptable that there were no women in that future. A&T did forge important connections between art and technology, between the art world and the corporate sphere, but only for certain kinds of people who were committed to a certain kind of future. Women and “primitive” artists were excluded from the benefits of participating in a large, prestigious museum show, and they also found that LACMA reproduced many of the same barriers to women that science and technology had long maintained.

Further Reading

Aleksandra Kasuba, Kasubaworks (edited by Melissa Howard). Self-published, nd.

Michelle Kuo, “Industrial Revolution: The History of Fabrication,” Artforum (October, 2007).