Technocrats of the Imagination

Technocrats of the Imagination by John Beck and Ryan Bishop. Duke University Press, 2020.
ACT at MIT

Technocrats of the Imagination, a new book by John Beck and Ryan Bishop, was just published by Duke University Press.

Among other things explored, this work discusses the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS); CAVS founder and director, György Kepes; CAVS Fellow and director Otto Piene; and CAVS Fellows Jack Burnham and Stan VanDerBeek.

Technocrats of the Imagination explores the collaborations between the American avant-garde art world and the military-industrial complex during the 1960s, in which artists worked with scientists and engineers in universities, private labs, and museums. For artists, designers, and educators working with the likes of Bell Labs, the RAND Corporation, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, experiments in art and technology presaged not only a new aesthetic but a new utopian social order based on collective experimentation. In examining these projects’ promises and pitfalls and how they have inspired a new generation of collaborative labs populated by artists, engineers, and scientists, Beck and Bishop reveal the connections between the contemporary art world and the militarized lab model of research that has dominated the sciences since the 1950s.

György Kepes was a Hungarian-born, New Bauhaus artist who came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1940s to teach visual design with the Department of Architecture. Gradually, he developed the concept for the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, proposing its existence in the mid-1960s and founding the CAVS in 1967. He retired in 1974 and was succeeded by CAVS Fellow Otto Piene.

Otto Piene was a painter, printmaker, environmental artist, and co-founder of the ZERO group. In 1968 he became one of the first generation of Fellows at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies and took over from György Kepes as director of CAVS in 1974. During his tenure as director, Piene instituted MIT’s first graduate degree program in the arts, the Masters of Science in Visual Studies (SMVisS or MSVisS). Piene retired in 1994. His practice included light art, kinetic sculpture, sky art (particularly inflatables), and environmental art.

Jack Burnham was a Fellow at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, among the first generation of CAVS Fellows. His areas of practice included light sculpture, curation, criticism and theory.

Stan Vanderbeek was a fellow at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His practice included video.

John Beck is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Westminster and author of Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature.

Ryan Bishop is Professor of Global Arts and Politics at the University of Southampton and author of Comedy and Cultural Critique in American Film.