9 Evenings Reconsidered: Art, Theater and Engineering, 1966

Concordia University, Montreal / artpapers, Atlanta: 2008
with Anja Bock

The 1966 performance series 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering was conceived as an open-ended experiment. What would happen if artists collaborated with engineers in the early phases of a work’s production, thus giving them access to innovative technology as a new creative material? Billy Klüver, the series’ organizer, invited four dancers—Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, and Steve Paxton—as well as two musicians—John Cage and David Tudor—and four visual artists—Robert Rauschenberg, Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, and Robert Whitman—to collaborate with over thirty engineers from Bell Laboratories. They developed elaborate performances that were presented over nine evenings in New York’s Armory to audiences of up to a thousand five hundred people.

Curated by Catherine Morris for the MIT List Visual Art Center and adapted for Montreal’s Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery [March 9—April 21, 2007], 9 Evenings Reconsidered: Art, Theatre and Engineering, 1966, includes extensive documentation, artifacts, and a catalogue containing reprints of contemporaneous reviews by Lucy Lippard and Brian O’Doherty as well as new reappraisals. The exhibition allows us to reassess the historical significance of 9 Evenings. It also provokes questions about the restitution of past artistic events and the increasingly dominant role of technology in cultural discourse.

The wealth of documentary materials—color photographs, video footage, sound recordings, excerpts of interviews, and so on—included in 9 Evenings Reconsidered allows us to construct a fairly clear picture of the individual pieces. Taken together, these various sources create a detailed view of the event’s production, which no one sitting in the bleachers in 1966 would have been privy to. This privileging of production over both presentation and representation is questionable. In the “reconsidered” version, we can follow the artistic process and scrutinize some of the devices designed by the engineers, such as Robert Rauschenberg’s modified tennis racquets and archaic-looking relay boards replete with uncountable wires. As such, the exhibition offers up the formal residue of the works for exploration. This emphasis on authentic artifacts and schematic diagrams follows the art world’s auratic conventions. Yet, artwork always requires mediation. In this case, aura is brought to the work by the curatorial framework; it is not in the work in any essential way.

If the exhibition leaves the works’ contents relatively under-interpreted, the catalogue fills in some of the missing information: Lucy Lippard’s and Brian O’Doherty’s 1966 reviews perceptively question the viability of the art-technology nexus in the creation of a new theatrical form and the survival of the avant-garde. Lucy Lippard defines two basic conundrums in the convergence of art and technology that are still relevant today. First, technical errors and miscues often take center stage, in place of a real focus on the synthesis of aesthetic and technological inquiry. Second, the conception of work itself lacks radicality.

9 Evenings made use of technology in ways that are now quite ubiquitous: the amplification or rescaling of audio and visual material, the translation of one effect into another, such as sound into light, the wireless communication of instructions, and the use of sensors to transpose inaudible or invisible effects and data into the range of human perception. The first three are simple extensions of stagecraft, different only in technology from better-known theatrical machinery. The last, particularly in the work of John Cage and Alex Hay, creates the potential for a critical dialogue with technology. None of these projects succeed by virtue of impressive technology. They succeed when technology is critically framed in relationship to the viewer.

Lippard articulates stagecraft failures as a kind of elephant in the room, marring many pieces in 9 Evenings. By contrast, John Cage’s work reveals a different approach to failure and demonstrates a sophisticated and implicitly critical relationship to technology. Variations VII gathered sound signals from many sources: through the electronic “central control” used for the whole event and radios, fans, blenders, offsite microphones, and so on. These feeds were then manipulated and layered into a dense soundscape. As one participant put it, Cage wanted to make a piece using all the sound there is. Variations VII was predicated on a kind of failure. Not only would this utopian totality of sound simply cancel itself out if it could ever succeed, but the technical apparatus itself produced most of the signal, through interference, line hum, short circuits, and so on. Interference was the piece. This was Cage’s critical gesture, which, unlike much of the work in 9 Evenings, engaged the ideological baggage of technology.

Yvonne Rainer’s Carriage Discretions reveals that sometimes technology is only stage machinery. Here, performers moved apparently randomly, interacting with various objects while slapstick films were projected behind. Rainer used radios to communicate instructions to the performers, which were heard as part of the soundtrack. This work shows that, while we have to be attentive to the use of machinery, it need not necessarily be the focus of critical discussion. Many of the uses of technology in 9 Evenings prefigure their use in the following decades. They do not, however, represent shifts in meaning-making any more significant than when, for example, European opera houses began to engage marine engineers to invent the complex rigging of backstage machinery.

Ultimately, the exhibition does not venture past the facts of production, into the discourse generated by the individual pieces. While this may have made it conceptually and logistically unmanageable, this is neither a neutral choice nor a simple matter of institutional capacity: it is a curatorial decision. With every instance of mediation and dissemination, there is inevitably both a loss and a gain of meaning. Nevertheless, choice always figures in the equation. Which information is primary and which is secondary? This is a matter of debate. As such, the curator is always an interpreter. In the end, 9 Evenings Reconsidered implicitly delimits—and limits—the event under the rubric of today’s preoccupation with “new” media, thus continuing the very logic that Lippard criticized: the enhancement of technological effects at the expense of artistic content and a lack of “radical” ambitions.

Co-sponsored by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art and Science and Concordia University’s Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, the Montreal version of 9 Evenings Reconsidered reflects the lasting desire to frame the event as a precursor to a discipline of art and technology. By contrast, Cage’s foregrounding of interference as content and Rainer’s relegation of technology to a supporting role in the service of wider meaning reveal two rigorous approaches to the use of technology. The import of the original 9 Evenings was its interrogation of the neo-avant-garde’s oppositional tactics, which, as O’Doherty argues, had become conventional by 1966. Today, 9 Evenings Reconsidered shows us the distance traveled. It allows us to question the reinstatement of beaux-artsdisciplinary territoriality around a particular medium—even if it is “new.” Nevertheless, some of the work also reasserts the rich potential of these crossdisciplinary trajectories. This is the significance of 9 Evenings Reconsidered.

—Anja Bock and Andrew Forster