Artist In Residence Programs
A mutual attraction: creativity and innovation

There is a wonderful forty year history of artist in residence programs organized within American companies. A quick look at some of them shows that this confluence of creativity and innovation can be as rewarding for the innovators as it is for the artists.

Certain engineers intuitively understood this and developed a one-on-one professional relationship with artists. The relationship that Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, had with Ansel Adams is one example. Land’s reliance on Adams’ field tests of new Polaroid products went a long way to making early instant cameras more than a cool toy.

In the sixties, Bell Laboratories started an informal artist in residence program that evolved into the greatest art in technology programs in the country. It started with the beginnings of computer graphics, such as Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon’s Computer-generated “Nude” that processed a canned photograph by Max Mathews into a series of gray levels represented by mathematical and electronic symbols. Because of the incredible freedom at Bell Labs at the time, researchers were able to invite artists to collaborate and work with this new computerized imaging. Jerry Spivack, a pioneer in interactive graphics says, “We were in the privileged position back in the '60s of being considered a national resource and an untouched monopoly. We had a freedom that few places had.” In 1963 Knowlton developed the Beflix (Bell Flicks) animation system, which was used to produce dozens of animated films with artists like Stan VanDerBeek and Lillian Schwartz.

In the Carl Machover’s wonderful 1999 documentary “The Story of Computer Graphics”, Knowlton, the engineer, describes how VanDerBeek would show up describing phantasmagoric ideas that he wanted the computers to realize and that then Knowlton would patiently explain what the program was actually capable of. Between these poles of reality they produced some of the first computer animation ever. This was creativity and innovation at its best. The engineers constructed solutions to perceived problems. The artists expanded these solutions and made them stretch as far as they would go. Together they expanded the project beyond what either could envision separately.

One of the Bell Labs engineers was a Swedish electrical engineer, named Billy Kluver. Kluver became so excited by working with artists that in 1966 along with Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, and Fred Waldhauer he founded Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), a not-for-profit service organization for artists and engineers. Their first project was the famous “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering”. Thirty Bell Lab engineers participated in the project and in October 1966 more than 10,000 people attended the “9 Evenings” in the 69th Regiment Armory, the site of the famous 1913 Armory show that introduced modern art to America. Artists like Rauschenberg, David Tudor, Öyvind Fahlstrom, John Cage, Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs performed. E.A.T. later spawned a series of programs that placed artists within various American corporations, but because the benefits to the corporation’s innovation process was not well articulated many of these projects ended at best with a single art work by a single artist.

Not all of these artists in residence programs need to be high tech. One of the most successful in the country is the Arts/Industry project, a residency program at Kohler Co., the nation's leading manufacturer of plumbingware. The Arts/Industry residency program annually supports approximately fifteen artists, who may work in the Kohler’s pottery, foundry and enamel shops in a wide variety of sculptural forms. Kohler has an extensive research and development laboratory where artists are able to develop glazes. The company’s craftspeople and engineers provide technical information and advice to the artists. In return, the artists stretch the technical boundaries in directions that the companies normal R&D would never travel in.

Wonderful products of this residency program are the six unique artist’s public washrooms commissioned by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center for it’s newly expanded building. Using Kohler’s own bathroom fixtures, the artists designed hand painted and glazed tiles, mirrors, cast iron sculptural elements and other elements to fill their own installations.

One of the most successful residency programs was the Xerox PARC research and development program in Palo Alto, California. It is the subject of an excellent book, “Art and Innovation: the Xerox PARC Artist-in-Residence Program”, edited by Craig Harris (MIT Press, 1999). The late PARC researcher Rich Gold organized the program and maintained a wonderful web site where he discussed what he feels both the artists and the engineers achieved during the program.

The PARC Artists in Residence (PAIR) program was designed to benefit both parties. PARC is involved with the future of new media having designed the Graphic User Interface in computing that Apple Computer made popular. They also networked individual PC’s for the first time and helped design the laser printer.

The people at PARC thought that new media artists who regularly worked with the same cutting edge technologies as the scientists would have something to share. As Gold put it, “PAIR was specifically not about bringing creativity to the scientists, or for that matter formalism to artists. In some real sense, PAIR was about bringing remarkably similar professions together for a close look-see.” As a result the PAIR program integrate its artists into its research environment in long-term projects where they are treated like any other researcher.

Interactive story teller Judy Malloy worked with the Social Virtual Reality project, headed by Pavel Curtis, and used their MUD (Multi User Dungeon) environment technology to create a series of online text based virtual performances, including the first interactive detective novel in a multi-person MUD space.

Artists Stephan Wilson worked with World Wide Web research projects by Jock Mackinlay and Polle Zellweger, both of whose projects had been abandoned. But as Wilson says, “Here was a place where artists and researchers could perhaps collaborate. Artists and media workers could point out the potential value of research inquiries missed by researchers. If they could get appropriate access, artists could well build on the ideas and prototype work initiated by researchers.” In Gold’s words, Wilson “created, with the help of PARC interface scientists, one of the first alternative methods for surfing the web, in this case, the Road Not Taken, which showed the web sites you didn't click to, breaking open a flood of new browser possibilities and a kind of ennui as well.”

Rich Gold described PAIR as being “awake at a time when fascinating new genres of communication are forming; when the aesthetics of these genres are pushing against the sciences and technologies of various emerging media: a cusp when small activities can create large folds of culture in a not too distant future.”

Rich Gold also pointed out that, in a small way, “PAIR is a strange but effective way for PARC to connect with other parts of Xerox and with other companies around the world because an artistic bridge seems like an unthreatening bridge that even enemies may want to cross.”


George Fifield is the curator of new media at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park and founder and director of the Boston Cyberarts.