a brief history of the center for advanced visual studies, mit

By Elizabeth Finch

mission of cavs. The Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) was established in 1967 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its founder, the artist and MIT professor György Kepes, conceived of CAVS as a fellowship program for artists. Its initial mission was twofold: to facilitate “cooperative projects aimed at the creation of monumental scale environmental forms” and to support participating fellows in the development of “individual creative pursuits.” To achieve these goals, fellows worked collaboratively with each other and with the wider MIT community. Kepes, who had taught at the New Bauhaus in Chicago prior to joining the faculty of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning in 1946, strongly believed in the social role of the artist. With the founding of CAVS he sought to bring about the “absorption of the new technology as an artistic medium; the interaction of artists, scientists, engineers, and industry; the raising of the scale of work to the scale of the urban setting; media geared to all sensory modalities; incorporation of natural processes, such as cloud play, water flow, and the cyclical variations of light and weather; [and] acceptance of the participation of ‘spectators’ in such a way that art becomes a confluence.”

the first fellows. In 1967 CAVS completed the renovation of Building W-11 at 40 Massachusetts Avenue, the former MIT Coop. The Center was now outfitted with studios, a darkroom, and workshops. The first fellows were the artists Otto Piene, Vassilakis Takis, and Harold Tovish. Soon they were joined by Jack Burnham, Ted Kraynik, Wen-Ying Tsai, and Stan VanDerBeek. Initially fellowships were intended solely for “mature artists of international stature.” This stipulation was gradually revised, allowing artists at various points in their careers to contribute to the Center’s activities. A partial list of the fellows includes those already cited as well as Maryanne Amacher, Joan Brigham, Lowry Burgess, Peter Campus, Harriet Casdin-Silver, Muriel Cooper, Douglas Davis, Juan Downey, Paul Earls, Luis Frangella, Elizabeth Goldring, Vin Grabill, Michio Ihara, Bernd Kracke, Piotr Kowalski, Shelley Lake, Charlotte Moorman, Muntadas, Juan Navarro-Baldewg, Keiko Prince, Yvonne Rainer, Friedrich St. Florian, Alejandro Sina, Alan Sonfist, and Aldo Tambellini. In addition, CAVS frequently attracted research affiliates and graduate students who were assigned to work with the fellows on collaborative ventures.

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cavs projects. Many of the projects developed by the fellows have been civic in nature, the first being the Boston Harbor Project of 1968-70, a series of site-specific proposals intended to “orient” city-dwellers, to provide them with opportunities for contemplation within the fast-paced whirl of urban experience. Other CAVS projects—such as the exhibition Explorations, which was presented in 1970 at the Hayden Gallery at MIT and the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., and Multiple Interaction Team, which began at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, in 1971, and traveled to numerous venues—sought to expand the boundaries of art by incorporating interactive components that transformed the passive viewer into an active participant.

When Otto Piene succeeded Prof. Kepes as director in 1974, he built upon the Center’s commitment to “art on a civic scale,” initiating exhibitions and public events that were often produced collectively. One of the Center’s most ambitious undertakings was Centerbeam, a massive multi-media structure that was commissioned in 1977 by Documenta 6, Kassel, Germany, and mounted for a second time on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. in 1978. The Center’s ongoing interest in exploring film, video, broadcast television, and new media (lasers, plasma sculptures, computer art, and holography) has been demonstrated in many of its projects and documented in such exhibitions as 5 Artists/5 Technologies, at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 1979, and Centervideo, at the American Center, Paris, in 1981.

arts education. CAVS has a long tradition of organizing public forums for the discussion of issues related to contemporary art and society. The first such event, a “Symposium on Science and Art,” was presented in March 1968 in conjunction with the joint dedication of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies and the Center for Theoretical Physics. Under the direction of Prof. Piene, these public programs included panel discussions as well as performances and environmental artworks. This hybrid and exploratory approach to the public event has been particularly true of the Center’s “Sky Art Conferences,” which began in 1981 and have been organized periodically since then. These events are devoted to a genre of environmental art that utilizes the sky as the artwork’s primary site of realization.

CAVS has always had an educational component and many of its fellows have contributed to MIT as both educators and artists. In 1976 the Center formalized and expanded its educational activities by founding, in collaboration with other sections of the Department of Architecture (Visual Arts Program; Film Section; and the Architecture Machine Group, the latter of which emerged as the Media Lab in 1980), the interdisciplinary Master of Science in Visual Studies. (This degree is now overseen by the Visual Arts Program in the Department of Architecture.) In addition, CAVS provided undergraduate courses on such subjects as “Art and the Environment” and “The Artists Speak: Aspects of Performance.” The Center’s contributions to education at MIT over the past several years have included the graduate seminars “Art, Science and Technology after the Cold War,” “Design, Technology and Ethics: Tactical Design Workshop,” and the freshman seminar “Ethical Media Art.” In graduate education CAVS currently collaborates with Visual Arts, the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, and the Media Lab.

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a new era. Following the retirement of Prof. Piene in 1994, Prof. Krzysztof Wodiczko became director of CAVS with the goal of emphasizing a critical engagement with the intellectual and ethical questions posed by the social construction of advanced technologies. In the late 1990s, the Center moved to Building N52. Prof. Stephen A. Benton, a professor of Media Arts and Sciences, was director of CAVS from 1996 until his death in 2003. Under Prof. Benton’s leadership, CAVS developed fewer collaborative projects and focused instead on the independent technologically focused work of fellows such as Elizabeth Goldring, Seth Riskin, and Tamiko Thiel. In 2004, Prof. Wodiczko returned as director and, with Associate Director Larissa Harris, embarked on an ambitious revitalization program. Visits by twelve artists including Marjetica Potrc, 16 Beaver Group, Seth Price, Miranda July, and Michael Smith doubled as site visits, “seeding” proposals for long-term residencies in the future. In 2005-2006, the visitor series continued, with Vito Acconci as its first participant, while the Center produced two major new interdisciplinary projects and built new positions into its working community of artists.



György Kepes, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Center
for Advanced Visual Studies, introductory brochure on the Center
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1968), n.p.
György Kepes, “The Lost Pageantry of Nature,” Artscanada 25
(December 1968): 30.
György Kepes, “Center for Advanced Visual Studies,” Report to
the President, 1967–68, p. 48.


Elizabeth Finch is a curator and the author of the dissertation “Languages of Vision: Gyorgy Kepes and the ‘New Landscape’ of Art and Science” (CUNY Graduate Center, 2005)

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