“Silicon City” Pays Tribute to Women in Tech—But Fails to Give Art Its Due

Artsy Editorial
Nov 16, 2015 10:51PM
Two Women Wiring the Right Side of the ENIAC with a New Program, 1946
"Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York" at New York Historical Society, New York (2015-2016)

“Art and technology partnerships are necessary for introducing and popularizing new forms of media,” said Stephen Edidin, chief curator at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, touring the institution’s exhibition “Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York.” Those words not only convey much of the exhibition’s thesis, they also point to the kind of tone that surrounds tech-sector hype. Underlying that statement and Edidin’s exhibition is the idea that cultural production of this ilk would be impossible without the influence of, collaboration with, and dependence on private sector research and funding (a reality predicated, in part, on the required knowledge and technical support provided by industry specialists). In other instances, the relationship looks more like patronage for the sake of advancing a tech company’s brand identity. There is, however, an undeniable relationship that tethers art and technology to one another.

“Silicon City” is not strictly attempting to mount an art exhibition—its goals lean more toward recognizing the long history of technological innovation that has emerged from the New York City metropolitan area. This legacy, stemming back from Edison’s light bulbs and vacuum tubes all the way up to the startups that pepper the five boroughs today, is deftly presented through historical objects, photographs, documents, and other ephemera. The comprehensive timeline is somewhat non-linear: audiences start with film documentation by the Eames Brothers of IBM’s “Egg” pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair and skip backwards to Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph, only to be launched forward to Paul Rand’s style guide for IBM in 1972. This approach structures the exhibition into broad technological themes like “Computers and Hardware” or “Identity, Branding, and Design,” groupings that highlight particular figures and/or companies at the forefront of their field, namely IBM, Bell Labs, and Thomas Watson, Jr. (The latter is featured in multiple sections.)

IBM 5150 Personal Computer, 1981
"Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York" at New York Historical Society, New York (2015-2016)
IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator Operator Console, 1948
"Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York" at New York Historical Society, New York (2015-2016)

The plethora of donated hardware, including a functional model of IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator Operator Console from 1948, is more than enough eye candy to lure in any fan of computer history. The allure becomes all the more compelling given the fact that “Silicon City” presents rather complex information in an accessible way. For example, when explaining the importance of COBOL and FORTRAN—the first two “high level” programming languages developed by the Department of Defense—the exhibition doesn’t get too granular with trying to explain procedural programming and the nuances of creating a compiler. Instead, “Silicon City” focuses on the outcomes of these innovations by highlighting how they influenced a larger timeline of programming and computing. 

Another strength is that rightful attention is paid to the importance of women programmers and leaders within technology. Though the boys club of the tech sector can be overwhelming at times (especially in the pamphlets comparing IBM Systems/360 to feminized secretarial work), the exhibition does more than politely recognize the contribution of women to the history of computing. Grace Hopper’s innovations—which include developing COBOL, and being one of the first programmers to work on the legendary Harvard “Mark I” computer—are given particular credit. The significant influence of Jean Jennings Bartik and Frances Bilas, who programmed the ENIAC—a massive room-sized machine often cited as the first electronic computer—is also prominently on display. Edidin himself stresses the need for women engineers, programmers, and technologists to not merely be present within this narrative, but to be lauded as central actors.

Grace Hopper Teaching Cobol, 1960s
"Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York" at New York Historical Society, New York (2015-2016)

Along with the attention “Silicon City” pays to developments in physical hardware and network infrastructure, the exhibition explores the relationship of technology to other cultural sectors within New York. In a section classified as “Art and Computing,” the exhibition ventures into statements that are simultaneously worrisome and pandering. In some instances, the bravado suggests new technologies enable creativity that otherwise would lie dormant or unrealized. Elsewhere, the repeated IBM mantra of “good design is good business” underscores the preference of celebrating the ways in which businessmen coopted creativity. Indeed, technology is a splendid resource for creative expression. But the content of the artworks shown here on curved projection screens hung within a haphazard geodesic dome goes far beyond merely “exploring the technological,” as the exhibition suggests. 

This is perhaps where “Silicon City” misses an opportunity to reinforce the point that artists have contributed to innovations in New York just as much as technologists have. For example, Lillian F. Schwartz’s computer-generated imagery not only challenged the conventions of animation but also showed the engineers of Bell Laboratories—where she held an artist residency for over 30 years—how their work could be radically reconfigured into forms of creative expression. This wasn’t a one-sided transaction. Instead, what can be seen in the collaborative artworks of Schwartz, Stan VanDerBeek, Yvonne Rainer, and a number of artists that participated in the Bell Labs Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) program is a working through of the implications that new technologies presented to contemporary culture.

Poemfield #2, 1966-1971
"Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York" at New York Historical Society, New York (2015-2016)

It’s not that “Silicon City” doesn’t acknowledge the importance of these types of collaborations. Rather, it leverages the industry side in such a way as to position the arts as being of secondary importance.

Nicholas O’Brien

Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York,” is on view at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, Nov. 13–Apr. 17, 2015.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019