New Books in Science
W. Patrick McCray, Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture (MIT Press, 2020)
An interview with W. Patrick McCray
An excerpt from the podcast.
Mathew Jordan: …was actually very sophisticated and creative, and a lot of the things you profile I encourage the listener to actively Google names and pieces as we bring them up because using digital tools in novel ways and using lasers and new audio techniques, this was really really sophisticated stuff. And it was far more than the stereotype example that maybe some people have in their heads walking through museums of just like, I don’t know someone plugged in a TV backwards and somehow that’s art. Well, it’s very easy to caricature in that way.
W. Patrick McCray: Well, just think of one example you mentioned, the laser. I mean, today you can go online and buy a laser for $5, have it delivered to your house the next day, and playing with your cat within ten minutes. But the laser was invented in the early 1960s, buying one cost several tens of thousands of dollars; these were large complex really sophisticated sort of things to do. So if you were a sculptor for example, one of the artists I write about in the book is a Washington, DC based artist named Rockne Krebs, who is interested in using laser light to make sculptures. The idea being that the laser beams would delineate the three-dimensional outline of a sculpture. This is something he began to do in the late 1960s working with engineers and technicians to help him realize this vision.
If you would go into an art gallery and see one of his laser light sculptures in say 1969, for most people this probably was the very first time they ever saw a laser. This is before Star Wars, light sabers, all sorts of the popularization of this particular technology, so for some people this was a chance to literally see this new electronic medium that was being presented to them, coupled with the fact that these often times were very ephemeral works of art. I mean if you make a sculpture using laser light, and you turn off the power source, what is left? You’ve got some drawings and memories, and that’s really about it. Which also then posed the challenge for museum directors, gallery owners, and curators. I mean how do you collect, how do you curate, these ephemeral works of art? Which I know is something that curators and museum people who work with new media art today are still grappling with, sort of the ephemerality, if you will, of these objects.