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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 196

flattering press. It has been pictured as
characterized by an icy Pentagon-esque logic
which largely subverts human values
in favor of such abstract expedients as
cost-effectiveness, systems balance, and
long-term usefulness. The systems approach
however, has many uses and seems
to be the one technique which can
embrace an understanding of the span of
present-day technology and its consequences.
New models of society are being devised
by sociologists with the aid of
computer-supported systems techniques,
and systems theory has also lately
invaded the fields of conservation,
pollution control, and human ecology.
Even demographers have attacked the
emotion-ridden dilemma of population
expansion with this technique.
It has become apparent that systems
are not only interrelated but that some
systems are stable and harmless to
surrounding systems, while others are
highly disruptive. In general, those systems
relating technology and human growth
have taken the latter course.
Until the present, rapport between art
and technology in school has come about
196    through the employment of the
Bauhaus pedagogical methods, which are
characterized by product design through the
use of the abstract motifs. This idea of
"making objects" - either for aesthetic
purposes or for use as industrial
prototypes - has too long dominated
design thinking. A systems grasp
of technology and its problems appears to
be much more relevant to our
contemporary classroom situation.
In the spring of 1965 a syllabus for an
"Art and Systems" course was
submitted to the deans of the
Technological Institute of Northwestern
University. This was accepted into
the liberal arts program and made an
elective for selected engineers in the
following year. The intention was not to
introduce engineers to art, or make art
students more familiar with the facilities of
the Institute, but to develop an aesthetic
encompassing the most advanced
engineering techniques for problem-solving
while making this comprehensible to the
undergraduate with no technical training.
The rationale was described as follows
in the preface of the syllabus:
In viewing the formative trends of the last
twenty-five years, the silhouette of
the future must be determined by the
following shifts: The understanding of
biological life not as mechanical structure
but as an electrochemical control system,
politics giving way to living priorities based
on stable ecology, system analysis instead
of machine design and plant layout
in the former sense, books and files replaced
by electron information storage and
retrieval, and the concept of architecture
challenged by atmospheric control.
While this list could be easily extended, in
each case a palpable object is being
substituted for the fluid consistency of a
system - one more compact, versatile and
adaptable than its static counterpart.
This environmental transition will be
accompanied by similar changes in our
scale of values. Instead of our present "thing
consciousness," more likely we
shall become "systems conscious."
This course outline called for making
"art systems" rather than art objects. These
were intended to have only a given
life duration; after their usefulness as
pedagogical devices had ended they were
to be destroyed. Only records of these
"art systems" were kept. These took the
form of reports, charts, films and slides.
By and large liberal arts students
with some background in the arts or
communication were recruited. Gustave
Rath, a professor in the industrial
engineering department and a systems
analyst, selected the student engineers.
Rath was instrumental in getting the first
facilities for the systems class and
he supplied much of the basic
literature on systems analysis. Before
the course commenced I attended some of
his lectures in other classes, and I came
to realize that if we were to treat systems
as potential art works, the class would
have to have rudimentary knowledge
concerning the nature and behavior
of systems.
Part of systems theory stems from
cybernetics with its emphasis on elements
of control in the relationships between
animals and machines. Most systems have
some means of control which determine
the goals of the system. Control can be
implicit in the structure of the system,

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