Detached from HiStory: Jasia Reichardt and Cybernetic Serendipity

By Fernández, María | Art Journal, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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Detached from HiStory: Jasia Reichardt and Cybernetic Serendipity


Fernández, María, Art Journal


In 1965 Jasia Reichardt, then assistant director of the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London, embarked on one of the most technologically ambitious art exhibitions of its time. Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts, on view at the ICA from August 2 to October 20, 1968, explored the role of computers in the arts, broadly conceived to include music, poetry, theater, film, dance, graph- ics, robots, installations, and environments. At the time, the word "computer" designated a variety of devices, from IBM mainframes to indi- vidually improvised analogue machines. By linking the com- puter to creative practices, the exhibition challenged the separa- tion of art and creativity from science and technology. Because computers could produce work in diverse media, the exhibition also implicitly questioned distinctions between presumably discrete creative realms.

Recently, art historians, artists, and curators have given considerable attention to art exhibitions of the late 1960s and 1970s, decades during which exceptional curators adopted the dual roles of organizers and critics and conceived the exhibition itself as a medium with which to develop new ideas about art. Exhibitions such as When Attitudes Become Form: Works-Concepts-Processes-Situations, organized by Harald Szeemann in 1969 for the Kunsthalle Bern, and Information, curated by Kynaston McShine for the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, were not limited to providing contexts in which to teach art but became vehicles for redefining artistic and institutional practices and even to circumvent art institutions.1 Other initiatives such as the proposal for the exhibition Art by Telephone, organized by Jan van der Mark for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1969, have been lauded for their engagement with technologies and procedures then new to the art world.2

The recent scholarly interest in these historical exhibitions is not accidental, for during the last decade, increasing involvement of artists with digital and genetic technologies and tactical media practices has again presented challenges to traditional ideas about art, the institution of the museum, and the separation of art from other realms of knowledge and practice. Given the retrospection prompted by these contemporary concerns, current criticism focuses on shows that transgress disciplinary borders and endow the museum space with the potential to make new meanings.5 Yet scholars writing about curatorial work consistently exclude Cybernetic Serendipity.4

The omission of Cybernetic Serendipity from the canon of modern-art exhibitions is not entirely surprising, because from 1970 to the mid- 1990s computer art developed independently from modern art museums and was largely ignored by art historians.5 More puzzling is the scarcity of information on Reichardt within the field of digital art. Her show, organized at a time in which the use of computers in art institutions was rare and the involvement of women in scientific subjects even more so, was no small achievement. How did Reichardt engage in such a venture? How was the exhibition conceived, how was it received, and what did it achieve?

I posit that far from being perceived solely as entertainment, as some of the exhibition's critics have argued, the show's theoretical premises unsettled neat notions of human uniqueness by allowing machines to invade purportedly exclusive human domains. In contrast to criticism that has portrayed the exhibition as politically reactionary, I suggest that it was compatible with aspects of progressive posthumanism. In her important 1999 study How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles identifies two kinds of posthumanism, one that emphasizes virtualization and disembodiment, and another that recognizes the inseparability of consciousness from the specificities of embodiment.6 In her analysis, the first remains attached to liberal humanism in its adherence to notions of unified subjectivity and conscious agency as the bases for human identity, while the second understands subjectivity as emergent and contingent, and rather than perceiving technology as a threat to human control recognizes the historically long partnership between human and machine.

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