Sculpture January/February 1999 Vol.18 No. 1
Sculpture at the end of the 20th Century
Systems Aesthetics + Cyborg Art:
The Legacy of Jack Burnham
by Simon Penny
James Seawright, "House Plants", 1984. Mixed media, dimensions variable.
In a flurry of activity in the late '60s, Jack Burnham wrote three substantial art-theoretical works: "Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century", "The Structure of Art", and "Great Western Saltworks: Essays on the Meaning of Post Formalist Art". My own career as an artist and sometime theorist began when Burnham was most influential. I was schooled in sculpture in the late '70s, the historical moment of Conceptualism, Minimalism, body art and earthworks, yet my teachers were all formalist sculptors. I developed a formalist sensibility, yet simultaneously sensed the poverty of formalism as an end in itself. In my college days I was preoccupied with integrating increasingly sophisticated technologies into my sculpture, performance, and installation, in which the involvement of the audience was implicit. It has only become clear in recent years that I was pursuing a form as then unnamed: interactive art.
I gravitated toward Burnham's work as a student, as well as that of John Berger. When I published my first essay on digital art in 1987, there existed none of the now common theoretical speculation on art and digital media. The writings of Burnham, in particular "Beyond Modern Sculpture" and the essay "Systems Aesthetics," were the starting point for some of my deliberations. Rereading "Great Western Saltworks" and "Beyond Modern Sculpture" today, it is clear that his critique was visionary and pioneering, and I see echoes of his writings in many of my subsequent papers. In this essay I will restrict myself to discussing the issues which appear to me to be his major foci: the crises of sculpture in the late '60s and predictions about future sculpture, especially its relation to science and technology. These issues have concerned me directly and continue to concern me as a maker and writer. Texts on these subjects are concentrated in the second half of "Beyond Modern Sculpture" and the first half of "Great Western Saltworks" and date from a rather brief period around 1967-68.
While the first half of "Beyond Modern Sculpture" is a historical analysis of Modernist sculpture and the ideas which influenced it, the second part launches into a speculative analysis of sculpture as system, in which he predicts the withering away of the significance of the sculptural object (and the object itself), and the development of a "systems aesthetic," influenced in large part by the then new discipline of cybernetics, often quoting thinkers from that field.
His first strong words are directed toward the institution of art history. In the introduction to "Beyond Modern Sculpture", written in mid-1967, Burnham identifies the shortcomings of traditional aesthetic analysis arising from the work of Riegl, Lipps, and Worringer. The passage is so resounding it demands to be quoted in full:
"The tools of scholarly criticism-stylistics, iconographical analysis, historical context, and formal analysis in the last 50 years-remain as trusted now as ever. Yet they explain with diminishing clarity what has happened after 1800, and almost nothing of what has happened in sculpture in the last 60 years. I am sure that my lack of success with the tools of art scholarship is in part responsible for the present book. Had the tools served their purpose, I might not have sought others less respected."
And search he did: through most of the progressive schools of thought of this time: from science, the social sciences, economics, and philosophy, through structuralism, semiotics, cybernetics, and systems theory to Cabalistic mysticism. His bibliography reads like a who's who of '60s influences and intelligentsia: Marx, Galbraith, Jung, Ellul, Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Saussure, Foucault, Kuhn, Mumford, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Bertalanffy, Pask, Feigenbaum, Weiner, Buckminster Fuller, and Marshall McLuhan. His interest in alchemy, semiotics, and cybernetics predates the fads for these things in the art world by as much as 20 years.
There is discernible in "Beyond Modern Sculpture" a certain fire of commitment behind the writing-his was not an idle quest or literary folly. From 1955-65 Burnham was an artist making light sculpture. One may posit that a crisis of justification for his own practice led to this inquiry. What is clear throughout is that here is a mind unsatisfied with conventional art historical explanations for the nature and progress of sculpture, and which seeks to integrate the practice of sculpture with the significant ideas of his time, in all disciplines.
"…The fundamental assumptions behind this book…are what might be loosely categorized as 'instrumentalist': stemming from the theory that art is the fruit of various social contingencies…art as a clear reflection of the economic, technical and social relationships which form any society."
Here, in proclaiming the critical importance of social and cultural contextualization for any meaningful understanding of artistic practice, Burnham is defining an approach to the study of art similar to that which would come to be called cultural studies.
Notwithstanding this commitment to socio-historically oriented analysis, the first part of "Beyond Modern Sculpture" is suffused with a reverent glow for modern art and the artwork. Although I value deeply the artistic process and believe in the socially redeeming nature of art-making as an activity, his almost religious tone seems laughable in our era when the contrived ideological retrogression of conventional art history and the manipulation of the art market have been so well exposed that it is hard to imagine that anyone is not fully cynical. Burnham reveals himself here as one of his generation.
Burnham wrote in the heyday of post-object art and much of his concern in "Great Western Saltworks" is with the end-point of Modernist reductionism. According to his theoretical analysis the inevitable and complete disappearance of art, or at least sculpture, is imminent. He notes:
"body art is the last complete art."
He goes on the search for new theoretical grounding for the sculpture to come, locating cybernetics as a source of new ideas. While "Beyond Modern Sculpture" opens the door to speculations about the future of sculpture, "Great Western Saltworks" (containing essays from 1968-73) includes "Systems Aesthetics," a radical and under-acknowledged text offering a new approach to installation and event art, arguing for an aesthetic sensibility derived from and consistent with systems theory, the theoretical core of cybernetics, the interdisciplinary precursor of computer science. Originating prior to the transistor and the vacuum tube, cybernetics created electromechanical analogies to living systems and was central to the development of technological weaponry in World War II. The basic premises of cybernetics are well known: that the behavior of living things and machines could be discussed in the same terms, and that "feedback" was a critical control technique.
The proliferation of systems theory during the heyday of the Cold War, into the civilian world of corporate and governmental management and various academic fields, is truly remarkable. Yet Burnham is one of the few art theorists to have engaged systems theory. We must wonder how clearly he saw its origin as a technique in military experiments designed to take the human factor "out of the loop."
In the second half of "Beyond Modern Sculpture", he reveals himself as a visionary and a preemptor of postmodern and cybercultural positions. Burnham's reassessment of figurative sculpture with respect to 17th-century mechanical automata on the one hand and the anthropomorphic robotic sculpture (cyborg art) on the other fundamentally disrupts the conventional histories of Modernism. Burnham makes several predictions about sculpture which from a '90s perspective seem remarkably prescient, although some of the fields upon which he dwells as harbingers of the future seem now to be backwaters. He is absolutely clear about the significance of automated systems:
"Nothing more spectacular heralds the beginnings of the sculpture of the future than the slow emergence of what I have called 'Cyborg art' (the art of cybernetic organisms )."
And indeed they have been slow beginnings, but 30 years later robotic/cyborg art is a pervasive, though marginal, international practice. He continues:
"It is only a step from here to suppose that in time an aesthetics of artificial intelligence will evolve…[T]he logical outcome of technology's influence on art before the end of this century should be a series of art forms that manifest true intelligence, but perhaps more meaningfully, with a capacity for reciprocal relationships with human beings (in this case the word viewer seems quite antiquated)."
Entirely new forms have arisen, and an aesthetics of artificial intelligence has evolved; this however remains a minority interest, compared to the rapid flowering of computer-based multimedia forms, many of these being interactive-some housed in desktop computers, some resident on the Internet, and some fitting the designations of interactive installations and robotic art. And indeed, most practitioners in these fields refer to the "user" or "visitor" as opposed to "viewer"-the experience is no longer one of passive contemplation but of engagement and ongoing interaction with quasi-intelligent systems through time.
Burnham acknowledges that the addition of a machinic dimension to sculpture is disruptive of the established order:
"the contemporary merging of sculpture with automata is recognition that sculpture had to become deformed, mutilated, encased, and rendered sensually repellent before it could rightfully be called a machine."
Duchamp remains the mystic of industrialism-Dennis Oppenheim's later pseudo-industrial sculptures and installations are perhaps his clearest successors. Whereas Jean Tinguely reassured us by lampooning the machine and Takis demonstrated the quiet metaphysical beauty of electromagnetism, these artists and their ilk remain within the secure confines of the tangible-machines remain material objects after all. The crisis of sculpture was still to come. What place does sculpture have in a world of disembodied power? Sculpture belongs to the world of empires and conquest and territory and fortresses. The famous lines of Ozymandias "look upon my works, ye mighty and despair" define the domain of sculpture: tangible power. But when a lone investor-hacker at a computer in Singapore can destroy a major international bank on the other side of the planet, doing nothing more physical than what I am doing now, punching keys, sculpture is in crisis. The problematic discontinuity between the tangibility of sculpture and sculptural practice and the ephemeral temporality of informatics is a case study in the cultural phase-transition of our times.
Almost a decade ago, Australian video artist Peter Callas wrote an under-read essay in which he compared television to architecture. He noted that while architectural monuments persist over time, they are confined in space. Television spectacles, on the other hand, while confined tightly in time, are spatially ubiquitous: any TV anywhere will get it. The transition to the Internet and the web has added a new complexity: you can access any site anywhere, anytime, given adequate hardware and telecom connections, which these days can amount to a laptop, a satellite modem, and electrical power. The question is: where is sculpture, what can sculpture be, in this context?
As I have previously observed, the prodigious experimentation in the visual arts of the '60s and '70s can be interpreted, with hindsight, as conceptual research into the art of future media, at that time unspecified and unimaginable. The commonplaces of today's digital milieu (long-distance simultaneous interaction, virtual spaces, disembodied cultural information, storage forms that require complex decoding systems, the destabilization of the clear artist/artwork/viewer relation, interaction with quasi-intelligent spaces and quasi-intelligent machines) all are prefigured in various movements of the '60s and '70s, not just Happenings, body art, and performance, but Conceptualism, mail art, copy art, and of course video. When Lucy Lippard described the artistic experiments of that period as "the dematerialization of the art object," she was identifying the larger cultural ruction of the late 20th century: the datafication of everything.
Although he sensed the force of systems theory, Burnham, perhaps limited by his fixation on sculpture, was unable to foresee many dimensions of the integration of sculpture with electronic and digital media. The proliferation of both the desktop computer and the inexpensive microprocessor has completely changed the languages of the art world. When Burnham wrote, the pinnacle of computer art, those impoverished ASCII printouts, were no match for brush, pen, and stencil knife. Now Photoshop and its like allow rich, sensitive, subtle, and complex manipulation of images. Nor has sculpture remained unscathed. Not only has CAD revolutionized drawing and modeling, but the utilization of computer controlled milling, stereolithography, and so forth has changed the actual creation of conventional sculpture. More importantly, microprocessors have transformed the language of spatial art practice into a temporal and interactive practice. While Burnham wrote of body art and environmental and site-specific working styles, we now witness the disembodiment and deterritorialization of virtualized and Net-based practice. Whereas video remained primarily an image medium, albeit technologized, cyber art is concerned with simulated behavior and the building of virtual machines as artworks. "Code" is the ephemeral structuring system of the work. Code is an enigmatic and paradoxical phenomenon: a text that is simultaneously a (virtual) machine is a long step from the pragmatic materiality of sculpture.
In the '90s we have seen a flowering of quasi-intelligent sculpture and sentient installation work which combines the spatiality of sculpture and installation with the reactive, time-based nature of electronic media. Burnham can be forgiven for not foreseeing the numerous explorations into virtual sculpture, from high-end virtual reality work to VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language). Computer programming and the technological instantiation of imaginary or virtual space have turned sculpture on its head. Yet, curiously, the new media have not necessarily produced new aesthetics. Or perhaps such aesthetics are just invisible to minds used to understanding conventional practice. Take for instance the work of Jeffrey Shaw. Like many of his contemporaries, Shaw moved into digital media from a background in the '60s avant-garde. Curiously, especially with this background, Shaw is the quintessential cyber-formalist. His works are almost algebraically thorough in their explorations of the modalities of virtual media.
As has been observed by Maria Fernandez and others, a curious characteristic of much high-end computer media work is a flowing away of ideological and political content. Why is this? Is the medium somehow resistant to content? Or is the actual content somewhere else in the practice? Often the call for content comes from theorists who have been trained in film theory and similar disciplines. I conjecture that the objection is related to that disciplinary association: film is a technological medium which contains narrative content. It is a technological vehicle. Many of the experiments in digital media are formal explorations in which the manipulation of media components are the work. In a manner analogous to Minimalist sculpture, the modalities of the technology become not a vehicle but a substance to be modeled, manipulated, and juxtaposed with the viewer in various ways. And if the technological combination is the work, then its ability to carry narrative content is a secondary issue and somewhat superfluous.
Edward Ihnatowicz, "The Senster", 1969-70. Mixed media, dimensions variable.
While Burnham chronicles the problematics for kinetic sculptors of the '60s needing to employ technicians and collaborate with engineers, the computer media of today are orders-of-magnitude more complex. It is fair to say that no one person could have mastery over even simple computer media. It takes hundreds of people decades to design an operating system like Windows, let alone the hardware it runs on and the applications which run on it. So collaboration becomes a necessity. Not only does this go against the grain of the traditional notion of the can-do rugged individualist sculptor, but it necessitates deep and sensitive engagement with people trained in disciplines so distant from the goals of art that conversation can, at times, seem impossible. In the process of realizing an artist's vision for a technological artwork, the task of solving technical problems and resolving communications issues among the collaborators is a labor in itself. The medium forces interdisciplinarity, and an artist with any sort of sensitivity cannot avoid considering the nature of the disciplines and technologies which he employs, which must in turn change the practice of art.
From my perspective, this is the frontier of sculpture and the threshold of a new art form: an art form which utilizes the sensibilities of sculpture (to spatiality, embodiment, and the complexities of the semiotics of materials and media) in a form which actively integrates the behavior of the visitor through time. Jack Burnham foresaw this transition 30 years ago.
Burnham does not shy away from the big philosophical issues. At the end of "Beyond Modern Sculpture", he leaves us with a great lingering question: What is art in the 20th century with respect to technology? In the introduction to "Beyond Modern Sculpture" he asserts:
"sculpture…in a technological society must be regarded as a tiny microcosm of the entire socio-technical-biological evolution."
As noted earlier, he did not seem to question the application of cybernetics, a discipline designed to "take the human factor 'out of the loop.'" In the final pages of "Beyond Modern Sculpture", he returns darkly to this theme, proposing a kind of technologically determinist teleology which many artists and humanists find distasteful, quoting a text co-written by the Chief of the Scientific Digital Branch of the U.S. Army Missile Command Computation Center. Only in the last lines does he pull himself back from a complete embrace of an apocalyptic sci-fi posthumanism. The doctrine that humans are preparing, in an intelligent machine life form, their evolutionary successors is alluded to throughout the latter part of "Beyond Modern Sculpture". It is the same doctrine for which figures such as Hans Moravec and Stelarc have been roundly criticized more recently, and which was the highly controversial theme for the Ars Electronica symposium of 1996. Again, history shows Burnham as a thinker ahead of his time.
Burnham's scientism, expressed in the subtitle of "Beyond Modern Sculpture", is the quandary of humanists of his generation. Science was true, reliable, and victorious. In relation to this reliability, there is the creeping doubt that art is somehow, at root, flaky. This is the end-point of the Enlightenment schism in which science parted company with art and hooked up with industry, creating industrial capitalism on the one hand and Romanticism on the other. In the last quarter century, the work of Feyerabend, Latour, Gould, Harraway, and others has helped us understand that science is, after all, part of culture, and is just as fallible and subject to ideological deflections as art is.
Simon Penny is an artist and writer who teaches at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.