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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: confrontation between art and technology

Burnham, Jack
[Editorial comment: systems and art],   pp. [194]-[204] PDF (12.9 MB)

Page 197

or it can be a separate function
with a hierarchical assembly such as the
human brain and the nervous system.
A different level of systems is concerned
with organisms and their information
and energy exchanges with the
environment. Man-machine relationships
presume such exchanges also, but are
structured differently. It was the purpose of
the course to change the student's
perceptual sense so that he would be able
to appreciate these frequently invisible
interactions between interlocking
and neighboring systems in higher and
lower relationships.
The reason for applying a systems context
to such an art synthesis may still be unclear.
It is necessary to realize that the trend
in research and industry to conceive of
machines, information processing equipment,
and personnel as a single totality
has a distinct affinity with some of the
more sophisticated happenings and art
environments of the past few years. The
best contemporary museums today
are less storage space for art objects and
more laboratories for mixed-media events.
The comprehensiveness of systems theory
covers very dissimilar physical
assemblies. Analysis includes changes
in time or the "states" of a system.
Such changes are defined by a system's
transforming functions. Both
the nature and duration of systems
may vary radically. For instance, systems
might include sports, means of
communication, transportation terminals,
plant life, star systems, motion picture
making, waste disposal - all very
dissimilar, but all classifiable within a
systems context. Quite possibly some of
these have similar characteristics in terms
of their behavior and structure as systems.
Such common characteristics provide
the basis for analysis and can also
establish revolutionary new criteria for
aesthetic concerns.
For hundreds of years we have dwelled
on those qualities which reveal
the beauty of a painting or piece of
pottery. Yet what makes one system
aesthetically superior to another? Are our
value judgements in this respect
connected to our own self interests? For
many, including the systems analyst, the
answer would be yes: we do tend to
judge systems in terms of their usefulness
and compatability to ourselves.
Yet for certain advantages humans tolerate
destructive and ugly systems.
Then how do we make adjoining and linked
systems compatible? How does
technology relate man-made to natural
systems so that they maintain a healthy
stability? Which man-made systems need
to be abandoned or revised because
of their harmful effects? Many of these
appear to be solely practical, and at times
utopian, considerations; actually they
are aesthetic concerns of the highest
A systems aesthetic presumes that
the patterns of advanced technology should
not be abandoned for simpler life
patterns. Machines and information systems
are not alien to human welfare, but
appear to be compatible extensions of
it. Within this context the place of the
artist becomes less precisely defined.
He is not so much an artisan forming
hand-crafted artifacts in the traditional
sense, but someone supremely sensitive
to the evolving environment. While
his role may still be to comment
upon this environment in the aloof fashion
of gallery art, he actually becomes
responsible for forming that environment.
Until the industrial revolution this task was
traditionally the artist's and any future
rapproachment between art and technology
demands recognition of this fact.
During the winter of 1966 these and
other concerns were projected in a series
of papers written by engineering students.
Dr. Rath, who guided these pilot studies,
was mainly concerned with defining
the objectives and methodology of an
effective systems course whose major focus
was the delineation of pertinent
aesthetic criteria. The first "Art and
Systems" course was offered in the
spring of 1967. It was held in the
Technological Institute because of needed
facilities, despite the fact that deans of
engineering are by inclination reluctant to
make such concessions. (A later
project in the course was that of designing
the ideal systems classroom.) We
discovered that an effective systems
classroom should provide extensive working
areas, a media storage area for keeping
records of systems, and most importantly
a portable "demonstration"
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