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Nokia Bell Labs - Experiments in Art and Technology
Nokia Bell Labs
Foster Critical Thinking

Experiments in Art and Technology

Since its inception in the 1920s, Bell Laboratories has been an innovative force in technology. Some of its earliest discoveries benefitted the arts, like the first examples of synchronous-sound motion picture systems and long-distance transmission of television lines. Although they have long made contributions to the arts and tech, it was not until two years ago that the company saw a revival of one of its groundbreaking programs.


In 1966, engineers from Bell Labs partnered with artists in New York City for 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering. Under the leadership of Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, 10 artists and 30 engineers joined forces for collaborative performances. Artists included John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Oyvind Fahlstrom, Alex and Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, and Robert Whitman. This partnership generated the nonprofit, Experiments in Arts and Technology (E.A.T.), which promoted artist-engineer collaborations and acted as a matchmaker for artists and engineers across the nation. E.A.T. productions/pieces were exhibited at MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum throughout the 60s. While this project yielded many exciting and original integrations of technology in the arts, there was little strategy other than how to best bring artists and engineers together such that the artists could leverage technology. After a couple of decades of intense collaboration between the engineers and artistic community, the E.A.T. activities naturally dwindled.


Fast-forward to 2016, the 50th Anniversary of 9 Evenings. A special event organized by the Red Bull Music Academy in New York brought together artists and engineers once again. Representatives from Nokia Bell Labs, including Domhnaill Hernon —now the Head of Experiments in Arts and Technology— convened (informally), and their discussions of the philosophy of fusing the arts and technology led to reinventing old ideas. With so much potential between the physical and digital worlds, Nokia Bell Labs relaunched a modern day E.A.T. program with the two primary partners in the New York area being the New Museum’s NEW INC and Stevens Institute of Technology.


This new iteration of the program aims to create new modes of empathic communication – to use technology to augment the way we interact; to break down the barriers that exist between people; to provide an emotional overlay so we can more deeply understand each other as people. It may seem counter intuitive to have such a humanistic goal in mind with a technological medium, but with tech today, we’ve never been as connected to the world and yet, we’ve never been so disconnected from each other. As Hernon sees it, “It’s all counterintuitive, and yet makes so much sense .”


This is a partnership that we need.  


Domnhaill Hernon at Inspirefest, courtesy of Nokia Bell Labs


Nokia Bell Labs started to establish connections with the New York City arts community and chose artists whose work resonated with the theme of empathic communication. Based on their selections, they quickly saw an alignment with artists and alumni of New Museum’s NEW INC and embarked on a multi-year relationship. The result was a collaborative, long-term residency where artist had open access to the labs and research teams. Through exploring the artists’ visions and the engineers’ innovations, they were able to evaluate what tensions could come out of new technologies and how to solve them.


Final products of the residency that were exhibited at Mana Contemporary appeared in an article in WIRED. The exhibit, entitled “Only Human,” featured Lisa Park’s “Blooming,” a cherry tree that lit up when human emotional interaction was transformed into biometric data; Sougwen Chung’s performance art “Omnia per Omnia” that used surveillance footage and robots to collaboratively paint patterns; and Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman of Hammerstep’s “Indigo Grey: The Micha Grey Experiment” that used motion-tracking drones to create an immersive theatre spectacle.


Collage of artist collaborators, courtesty of Nokia Bell Labs


Engineers have responded with excitement to these collaborations. Many of whom were purists and fundamental researchers have said they have had the most unbelievable exchanges. It has opened new ideas of how to implement research and new ways to think about the human element of technology.


Together, the artists and engineers are able to help each other move forward with their work and create a research community that can be a driving force for humanity. With technology on the side of creating means for true emotional connection, Nokia Bell Labs and NEW INC are not only helping artists and engineers progress, but they are finding ways for us to all move forward in meaningful ways.


Title photo: Domnhaill Hernon speaking about wireless light paintings, courtesy of Nokia Bell Labs.


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