Responsive Environment: The Infinite Possibilities and Impossibilities of Rauschenberg’s E.A.T.

Joo Yun Lee
Oct 12, 2014 11:59PM

A number of artists, engineers, and anonymous viewers who gathered at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York in October 1966 witnessed Open Score, a phenomenal performance noted as the foremost collaboration between artists and engineers. For this event, Robert Rauschenberg and engineers from the Bell Telephone laboratories changed the colossal Armory into an extraordinary tennis court equipped with cutting edge technologies. Also, they transformed tennis rackets―no more than ordinary ready-made rackets―into unique interfaces to connect man and machine or human and non-human systems in the performance. Rauschenberg’s unbounded imagination and creative force in Open Score, as part of 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering, a  series of performances produced by the Experiments in Art and Technology (or E.A.T.), culminated in this unprecedented convergence between art and technology. 

Without exaggeration, there is nowhere that Robert Rauschenberg’s influence does not reach in contemporary art crossing the boundaries of visual art, performance/theatre, dance, and even music. However, little research has been conducted on Rauschenberg’s incorporation of technology and the machine aesthetics of the time, considering his profound influence on artists in following generations who increasingly incorporate more complex media and techno-scientific research in their works. In this respect, this exhibition sheds light on Rauschenberg’s legacy as a founding member of E.A.T.―which was initiated to allow the public’s hands-on experience of the lab-based computer engineering and technology―and his enthusiastic involvement in E.A.T. during the second half of the 1960s. In particular, this exhibition puts its special focus on Rauschenberg’s responsive environment, well exemplified in Open Score, in which a new mode of spectatorship or a new relationship among spectator, performer and environment was achieved. Given his painstaking experimental approaches to techniques and materials to realize spatial-perception, this research discusses different aspects that make Rauschenberg’s responsive environment possible: the influence of the proliferation of cybernetics and system theory in the 60s, his active engagement with experimental communities in the art scene, and the exceptional chance allowing his exploitation of the latest technologies. 

The exhibition shows works of Rauschenberg and his colleagues artists who shared the idea of responsive environment and its significant impact on the relationship between art and spectator. It also includes more recent works created by the layers of audio-visual elements, spatial and architectural structures in which the sensuous experience of the community of viewers is intensified. Through the investigation of such works, this exhibition further aims to question how art history and art institutes should respond when new media become not only metaphors but also conceptual and practical methods through which artists discuss the new social, political, and technological realities. In this sense, the exhibition serves not only as a space for presenting the works and the archives of the listed artist but it also enacts the working space of E.A.T and the artists’ studio in which performance, casual presentation and screening take place.  

Joo Yun Lee