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Nov. 27, 2014

How a Bohemian Engineer Helped Blend Art and Science

by Arthur I. Miller

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The following is an excerpt from Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art, by Arthur I. Miller. Listen to SciFri on Friday, November 28, to hear Miller talk more about the book.
 
In early 1960, an unlikely-looking pair of men were to be seen driving a Chevrolet convertible around the New Jersey garbage dumps, scavenging. Both were in their mid-thirties and European. One was tall with a long face reminiscent of the existentialist Albert Camus, with a cigarette firmly fixed between his lips and a Swiss accent. The other was smaller and neater, with a distinct Swedish accent. They collected scraps of old metal, bicycle parts, baby carriages, and other garbage. Later the Chevrolet reappeared in Manhattan, where the two heaved their load of garbage over the fence (lower in those days) into the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art.
 
The result of their efforts was an explosive work that literally shook the New York art scene. It was called Homage to New York and, with a nod to that great and ever-changing city, was designed to self-destruct, which indeed it did in spectacular fashion. As for the two scavengers, one was the anarchic Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. His co-conspirator was an electrical engineer taking time off from his day job at Bell Labs: Billy Klüver. So who was this bohemian engineer?
 
Charismatic, with a high, domed forehead and receding hairline, Klüver was born on November 23, 1927, in Monaco, as Johan Wilhelm Klüver. Of Viking stock, the child of Swedish and Norwegian parents, he grew up in Stockholm where, in 1951, he graduated from the Royal Institute of Technology. He had two passions: electrical engineering and Swedish avant-garde cinema. In fact, he was president of the Stockholm University Film Society. In his senior thesis he combined the two by convincing his thesis supervisor, the Nobel laureate physicist Hannes Alfvén, to let him make an animated film showing how electrons move through electric and magnetic fields, a phenomenon on which Alfvén was an expert.
 
Klüver’s interest in film was fueled by two friends, Pontus Hultén and Claes Oldenburg, both of whom would go on to have distinguished careers. In 1953, Hultén joined the Moderna Museet, Stockholm’s museum of modern art. Seven years later, he became its director and began transforming it into one of the world’s leading museums. Oldenburg’s sculptures are known worldwide.
 
Shortly after graduating, Klüver moved to Paris where he worked for Thomson-Houston, a subsidiary of General Electric, as a nuts-and-bolts engineer. His projects included improving the antenna on the Eiffel Tower and designing underwater cameras for Jacques Cousteau. But America beckoned. His dream was to get a job at Bell Labs.
 
When American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) created Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1925, they envisaged it as a mecca for invention and also discovery. Early on in its existence, in 1927, the physicists Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer were working on a project exploring the structure of crystals using electrons when they noticed a peculiarity in the data. They had actually substantiated the schizoid nature of the electron as both wave and particle, for which Davisson won the Nobel Prize. Then in 1947, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley invented a powerful amplifying device using solid-state materials, thus avoiding cumbersome and fragile glass vacuum tubes. This was the transistor, for which all three won Nobel Prizes. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were puzzled by a noise in an antenna they were debugging.
 
The noise seemed to come from everywhere, and persisted after all defects had been eliminated, including pigeon droppings. What they had discovered, as astrophysicists at nearby Princeton University informed them, was the echo from the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago; they were listening to the creation of our universe. More Nobel Prizes came. Claude Shannon went on to discover information theory at Bell, where he did his best thinking while riding his monocycle down one of the lab’s long corridors and juggling three balls at the same time. Ken Knowlton, who also worked at Bell Labs, was one of  the pioneers of computer art. Except for the transistor and Shannon’s work, these discoveries had nothing to do with telephones.
 
As a place for making discoveries and inventions, fostering creativity at its highest level, it was inherent in the Bell Labs culture that great advances necessarily involved massive failures. Klüver, later, liked to point out that at Bell Labs, any scientist who didn’t have a 90 percent failure rate with his experiments was no good. This adventurous, go-for-broke, anything-goes outlook served him well.
 
In 1954 Klüver was eager to join Bell Labs, which was then one of the most innovative, exciting places for a scientist to work, and was certain he could get a position there. But the McCarthy hearings were going full steam, and foreigners at research centers were under scrutiny as security risks. So Klüver decided to lie low, and instead enrolled in the Ph.D. program for electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Extraordinarily, he completed his degree in just over two years on a research topic that included theory and experiment, although he always said he preferred the hands-on approach of engineering over the theoretical side.
 
Afterward, he spent a year teaching at Berkeley. By this time Joseph McCarthy had been thoroughly discredited and Klüver was able to obtain the position he coveted at Bell Labs, the proper place for someone of his restless mind-set. He started off by exploring sound amplification devices as well as the possible uses for lasers.
 
By now Klüver’s old pal Pontus Hultén had become an eminent curator. With the help of his introductions, Klüver made inroads into the East Village art scene, with its almost famous artists and almost famous taverns and coffeehouses populated by theorists like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, who announced the onset of new movements and decided who the famous artists were. There was always an accompanying bevy of beautiful women. But Klüver wanted to do more than just hang around. He was interested in working with artists and bringing technology and art together—blurring boundaries. His passion for this quest had been fired some years earlier by C. P. Snow’s electrifying 1959 Rede Lecture, “Two Cultures.”
 
Trained as a chemist, Snow was also a novelist, gaining notoriety for his whodunits in university settings, and had held several senior civil service positions. After the war, he set himself the task of assessing Britain’s future. It lay, he concluded, with science and technology, which offered hope and progress, whereas he saw the humanities as mired in the tragic condition of humankind. But they seemed to be diametrically opposed: scientists and engineers were woefully misinformed about the arts, and humanists (which included artists) were even more poorly informed about science. This would not do, especially in a postwar world driven by science and technology.
 
Klüver’s utopian vision was to remove the boundary between science and the arts. As an engineer at Bell Labs, and using his connections in the art scene, he believed he could do it. He was a very unusual sort of engineer.
 
As a preliminary, he set up an art and science club at Bell Labs, telling his colleagues that it would make them better engineers. Sadly it “never went anywhere,” he recalled.
 
Klüver’s big break in his quest came when he met Tinguely, a well-established resident of the New York art scene. Tinguely’s specialty was mechanical contrivances, usually made up of parts he collected from junkyards, powered with engines. To him, paintings were mere petrified objects.
 
Tinguely was a neo-Dadaist to the core. In 1960 he was working on his latest project, Homage to New York, in which he wanted to express his disgust with consumerism, materialism, and what he saw as a world gone amok with possessions. It was to be a slap in the face of fastidious cuckoo-clock Swiss technology.
 
Klüver came along just when Tinguely had begun thinking about this work, which was to become his most famous act of destruction. Homage to New York was an extraordinary contraption, a weird assemblage of small machines that would self-destruct one by one at preset times, sparking and smoking to an accompanying musical sound track while it rolled around haphazardly until it completely blew up in, as Klüver put it, “one glorious act of mechanical suicide.”
 
Tinguely’s problem was how to include the timers that would initiate the contraption’s destruction. Klüver had the know-how. He also had a car, which put him in a privileged position among Tinguely’s entourage. He and Tinguely scrounged suburban garbage dumps: years later, Klüver recalled the “stench sticking to your clothes. I can still smell it.”
 
Tinguely also introduced Klüver to his friend Robert Rauschenberg. Klüver couldn’t believe his luck. Not only had the avant-garde art world of New York opened up to him, he was working with two internationally acclaimed artists. Rauschenberg, much of whose own work also emerged from parts found in the street and junkyards, decided to come in with Tinguely, and the three men worked together.
 
Everything was ready by March 17 when the contraption was to perform its act of self-destruction in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. Rauschenberg’s contribution, dwarfed by Tinguely’s, was entitled Money Thrower. It was a box filled with gunpowder and holding a dozen silver dollars. When the box exploded, the dollars would catapult into the crowd.
 
Everything was set. The performance, scheduled to last twenty-seven minutes, was witnessed by a chic invitation-only audience. As a reporter described it:
 
During its short life, this artful contraption, programmed for a symphony of suicide, sent out smoke flashes, rang bells, played a piano with mechanical arms made of bicycle parts, poured gasoline on itself, set itself on fire, crushed bottles filled with evil-smelling gas, turned on a radio, spilled cans of paint on rolling scrolls, threw out silver dollars, melted its supports, sagged and nearly collapsed. The machine was supposed to have crawled to the museum pool and thrown itself in, but it didn’t. . . . It was a direct and delightful assault on the belief that all art must be “lasting.”
 
In the end, nothing went according to plan. The various timers did not detonate the charges on schedule. Rauschenberg’s device, set to go off at a certain point in the program, exploded at an entirely different time.
 
“Art Goes Boom,” was the New York Journal-American headline. The fire department had to be called in to douse the flames. The crowd loved it.
 
Tinguely was unperturbed. Klüver was in his element. Making mistakes was the credo of Bell Labs. Mistakes—or, better, unpredictability—became a part of performances based on technology. Expect the unexpected, was the byword.
 

Excerpted from Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art by Arthur I. Miller. Copyright © 2014 by Arthur I. Miller. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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About Arthur I. Miller

Arthur I. Miller is a professor emeritus at University College London. He has published many critically acclaimed books, including Einstein, Picasso; Empire of the Stars; and 137. He lives in London. Photo by Kallas Elmer/Trebuchet

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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