“In the history of human thinking the most fruitful developments frequently take place at those points where two different lines of thought meet.”
– Werner Heisenberg
Back in 1970, an extraordinary collaboration between the arts, sciences and commerce resulted in a mind-altering mirrored dome that took the idea of the total work of art into a whole new dimension. Sebastian Schumacher investigates a barely remembered, ground-breaking building phenomenon and the organisation that created it.
World Fairs nowadays have a reputation for falling short of their promise and leaving the host nations and cities with little more than large holes in their pockets and swathes of land which they often struggle to find a follow-up use for. Retrospectively however they do provide an interesting insight into their times – not just in terms of the new technological gimmicks of the day, but also the bigger social and cultural themes of their respective eras. So there was the nineteenth century fad for cast iron and glass structures kicked off by the Great Exhibition, paralleled by the habit of European nations for displaying arrays of global booty garnered from their colonial empires; or later, the postwar craze for Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic domes reflecting the belief in a shiny happy utopian – and atomic – future.
A perfect example of the latter was the Expo ‘70 in Osaka with its theme of “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”. Bucky Fulleresque domes abounded here in a masterplan designed under the supervision of Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. A notable one of these was Fritz Bornemann’s West German Pavilion, which featured the first spherical concert hall based on a concept by Karlheinz Stockhausen. But perhaps the most fascinating building at the Expo was a small pavilion representing not a country – but a company: Pepsi Cola.
The Pepsi Pavilion also followed the sphere theme and was covered in structural ridges referring to origami folding techniques. It reflected the company’s desire to present itself through artistic display: through a public sculpture rather than a commercial showcase. By inviting a group calling itself Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) to design and produce the pavilion, Pepsi involved an organisation who perfectly reflected the zeitgeist. Deeply rooted in the contemporary art scene, E.A.T. were at the forefront of many developments that are now part of the art canon, most notably the then all-new field of Media Art.
The origins of E.A.T. went back around a decade. In 1959, the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow had articulated in his 1959 Rede Lecture: The Two Cultures, a long simmering divide in modern society between the sciences and the humanities:
“For constantly I felt I was moving among two groups […]who had almost ceased to communicate at all, who in intellectual, moral and psychological climate had so little in common that instead of going from Burlington House or South Kensington to Chelsea, one might have crossed an ocean. In fact, one had travelled much further than across an ocean because after a few thousand Atlantic miles, one found Greenwich Village talking precisely the same language as Chelsea, and both having about as much communication with MIT as though the scientists spoke nothing but Tibetan.”
However at about the same time a young Swedish electrical engineering professor, Billy Klüver, was already busy counteracting this idea. Klüver worked for Bell Laboratories, a company which had given rise to many of the technologies that made Silicon Valley possible, but that had also pioneered the idea of encouraging its employees’ creativity by giving them space and time to pursue their own interests. During one of these creative time-outs, Klüver visited the art scene in nearby New York, meeting many of its main protagonists. Like him they were also interested in the possibilities of technology. This led to early collaborations in which he used his expertise as an engineer to help artists like Andy Warhol, John Cage and Jasper Johns bring their ideas to life. Following the enthusiastic response of the New York art community, Klüver and fellow engineer Fred Waldhauer, together with the two artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman, founded the non-profit organisation Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) in 1966. Later in 1968 Klüver gave up his position at Bell Laboratories to become E.A.T.'s president.
For the Pepsi Pavilion, Klüver, together with the artistic director Robert Breer, set out to create a laboratory, not just for the over 75 artists and engineers involved but also the visitors, immersing them in an experience – an artwork – in which they would be active participants, not just passive observers, and exposing them and their senses to new kinds of working relationships and new stimuli. Many of the artists and scientists involved worked together from very early on in the project, and often were collaborating across continents.
On approach, a vale of fog shrouded the actual structure, reaching out to the visitors and turning the whole pavilion into a sculpture. Fujiko Nakaya, the artist in charge of this fog skin, exemplified E.A.T.’s potential for innovation. She was already known for her smaller cloud sculptures but her plan to immerse a whole building exceeded her previous experience. Artificial fog on this scale had never been produced before, nor was there a known technique for how to achieve it. After much research, she found a physicist in Pasadena who had invented a method capable of delivering the desired effect. He had so far only done small-scale experiments, but was happy to see his invention turned to good use.
To reach the pavilion’s main attraction, one had to follow a dark tunnel into the interior. Here the visitor was greeted by a 27-metre diameter, 210-degree spherical mirror made of aluminised mylar conceived by artist Robert Whitman. It was inspired by his earlier experiments in optics and was made possible partially by Bell Laboratories experiences with the Echo Satellite Project – a lightweight balloon satellite, which reflected signals rather then sending them.
In this case the reflecting surface was placed inside, created a mirror-dome. Standing below this mirror, a holographic image of the interior appeared above you, which as with the rotunda effect, where a sound is heard seemingly out of nowhere, was one that didn’t seem to fit with one’s experience. For one saw oneself hovering from the ceiling, head down.
The second essential part of the interior sensory experience, was the sound system devised by David Tudor. It consisted of 37 speakers in a rhombic grid mounted behind the mirror, with wireless headsets for the visitors. Together with the lighting system by artist Tony Martin, all this could be manipulated in real time via an elaborate control panel, which made point source sound effects possible and gave the electronic music a spatial feeling. Over the weeks and months following the opening, this stage was opened up for experimentation, and artists from Japan and America were invited to use the space.
The Pepsi Pavilion became the synthesis of E.A.T.’s years-long experience in establishing collaborations between artist and engineers, helping them put the ghost into the machine. In doing so they showed, that although there may be an initial “illiteracy” between the two cultures, as C.P. Snow phrased it, the different languages still express communicable interests and desires. Artists and scientists, it turned out, could not only effectively communicate, but could also work parallel on the same project, inspiring each other, long before the hype of today’s interdisciplinary collaborations.
– Sebastian Schumacher
(With special thanks to Julie Martin)