For over 50 years, Seattle has been a largely unrecognized international hub for artists of all genres working with “new technologies” who collaborate with engineers and other technical folks to create artworks that are often experimental, ephemeral, and interactive. Their complex creative process that brings the worlds of art, science, and engineering together is the “secret sauce” rarely acknowledged in mainstream media hype around the latest “new media” industries or technologies, such as virtual reality.
Seattle’s underground art and tech projects and organizations over the last half-century are not well-known, mostly because the artists and their collaborators usually operate on the fringes of the establishment art and technology worlds, and therefore get little mainstream media, art school, or art world attention. They also get little financial support from the tech community. It’s time to rediscover these projects, connect the dots, and tell this ongoing story of Seattle artists who experiment with the creative uses of technologies. The 1966 9 Evenings in New York City was a pivotal event that spawned Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), an international networking group that had chapters around the world, including Seattle and Portland, which is where we begin this story.
E.A.T. NW: 1968
On June 29, 1968, a group of 65 artists, scientists, and engineers gathered in Seattle’s Pacific Science Center to watch a short film about the 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering event that had recently happened in New York City in October, 1966. In the crowd were LaMar Harrington, director of the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus; William Fetter, a Boeing art director; Doris Chase, a local artist who lived in New York City; Bob Brown, a local filmmaker; several light show artists from Seattle and Portland; and many other creative types. The reason for the meeting called by Harrington and Fetter was to see if there was interest in starting a Northwest chapter of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), a newly formed international organization that helped artists gain access to engineering expertise and to expensive technologies such as infrared video. It was developed out of Bell Telephone Lab’s engineer Billy Kluver’s association with Robert Rauschenberg and other avant-garde Greenwich Village artists such as Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, Yvonne Rainer, and John Cage, who were creating new intermedia forms of art, music, and performance.
William Fetter was a computer graphics pioneer who was the first to draw the human figure using a computer while working at Boeing. He had been invited to attend a meeting in 1965 at the Murray Hill, N.J., offices of Bell Telephone Laboratories. As he remembers it, “This small group was about the entire population doing any form of computer graphics then and I was the only one with an art background and art degree. Surprisingly, I was still the only one of this group doing perspective images. Some present were Ken Knowlton and Ed Zajac of Bell Laboratories, George Michaels and Bob Crowley of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, myself from Boeing, and others. E.A.T. was first described to me during a meeting at a conference in New York and I felt the rich mix of art and technology interactions already in progress in the Northwest might benefit by tying in with that group. I contacted Dr. Kluver, obtained a film about their show at the Armory in New York, and called a meeting of like-minded people at the Pacific Science Center’s Eames Theatre, where we showed the film and explored the possibilities.”
LaMar Harrington first heard about E.A.T. from artists who presented a photo show about Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” at the gallery. After establishing the E.A.T. chapter, she presented individual and group art shows at the Henry Gallery and Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair that featured international artists such as Stan Vanderbeek, Claus Oldenburg, Philip Glass, and Michael Snow. The Art and Machines: Motion Light Sound show in August, 1969, borrowed machines from other UW departments and featured new works by Hans Haacke, Doris Chase, Larry Hansen, and others. She showed experimental films and exhibited technology-based multimedia artworks that included live music and outdoor happenings by artist Steve Soreff, who choreographed earth movers that were excavating UW’s Red Square and the underground parking garage near the gallery.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of intense questioning of accepted beliefs as the Vietnam War accelerated, the counterculture rose to mass media prominence, and the rights of minorities and women were advocated. Artists were demanding a total reassessment of the terms of art—its making, exhibition, politics, and economics. Seattle was a small but growing metropolis that experienced all the global waves of cultural, political, and economic change of the time, including race riots and antiwar protests. It produced a World’s Fair in 1962 that envisioned a utopian technological future and built a large cultural center with the Space Needle as its iconic landmark.
A burgeoning arts community in Seattle included poets, filmmakers, lightshow producers, and young, experimental artists of all types. Pop painter Don Paulson, after living in New York City and hanging out at Andy Warhol’s Factory, returned to Seattle to establish the Lux Sit and Dance light show in 1968. Filmmakers Robert Brown and Frank Olvey were inventing vibrant color-separation techniques at Seattle’s Alpha Cine film processing lab, creating multimedia projections for the Seattle Opera and collabo-rating with multimedia artist and filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek.
One of the first community radio stations in the country, KRAB, was born in Seattle in 1962, and a multiracial community television channel formed in the early 1970s in the Central District. The Bellevue Film Festival, founded in 1967 by two housewives in a nearby suburb as part of their summer Arts and Crafts Fair, quickly became one of the best film festivals in the country because its $1000 first prize attracted high-caliber artists such as David Lynch, Bruce Conner, and Jordan Belson. Seattle, despite its isolated location, became part of an international network of media artists and activists who were eager to work with engineers and make creative use of the new technologies of the day.
The Northwest E.A.T. chapter lasted only a few years, but in 1974, Seattle arts worker Anne Focke (who worked for Harrington) and her friends started and/or in a former car-parts storefront in the cavernous Odd Fellows Building on Capitol Hill, one of Seattle’s early bohemian neighborhoods. As Focke explained in a local newspaper article, “One of the things that struck me…was that a lot of different artists were doing a lot of different things, but they didn’t know what each other were doing. So I decided to do something that would bring people together. That’s why I chose ‘and/or’ as a name—it was a conjunction.”
Focke was part of a community of young artists, many of them art students at the University of Washington who were interested in exploring new ways of making and presenting art. Ken Leback, Rolon Bert Garner, Jerry Jensen, and a few others were Focke’s core group, which initially came together soon after she helped establish the Artist Television Workshop in 1972 at KCTS, based on the model of the National Center for Experiments in Television in San Francisco. Video was the “new media” in the 1970s, and KCTS producer Ron Ciro and engineer Cliff Hillhouse worked with local artists to produce original programs that aired weekly on the channel, helping introduce video art in all its blurry black-and-white strange-ness to Seattle. Focke also bought a Sony Portapak ½-inch reel-to-reel video camera and deck that enabled her circle of artists to make tapes that weren’t bound to a television studio. This first generation of Seattle video artists included Karen Helmerson, Alan Lande, Paul Lenti, Buster Simpson, Norie Sato, Ken Leback, B. Parker Lindner, Mike Cady, and others.
And/or was founded two years later to present and encourage new and experimental arts, and it quickly became the center of the rapidly growing contemporary arts scene in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Ken Leback, a member of the founding group who produced early videotapes shown at and/or, explained that “for a short time, and/or broke the personal involvement we had with our own work down, and we started to work on joint activities.” There was an exuberant, pioneering spirit of collaborative exploration about and/or and its followers that attracted and inspired all types of eclectic creatives and that helped establish Seattle’s now long-standing international reputation for nurturing and presenting daring ideas and artworks that involved collaboration and technology.
And/or’s emphasis on video art emerged partly out of Focke’s early interest in TV and video, and partly from UW Art Professor Bill Ritchie, who began playing with the university’s closed-circuit (CCTV) black-and-white and color television cameras and switchers as part of his research into the relationship between video and printmaking. He introduced video into his print classes, where he talked about the historical and conceptual connections between making prints and making video images. The concepts of multiplicity and the mechanization of image-making and improvisation were introduced, and the implications for mass media were explored—a relevant topic since the print was developed originally to reproduce words and images, making it the first truly mass-communications device in-vented. His students, including Norie Sato, Dennis Evans, Sherry Markovitz, Kathleen Rabel, and others, all began incorporating video into their work under his tutelage.
Based on this experience, Norie Sato helped organize and/or‘s first group video-art show in 1975, Five Artists and Their Video Work, which brought William Wegman, Joan Jonas, Terry Fox, Shigeko Kubota, and Peter Campus to Seattle for a series of individual screenings, installations, discussions, and performances. Later, as and/or‘s director of video, she helped secure funding to purchase a ¾-inch video editing system that was installed in the appropriately named Philo T. Farnsworth Memorial editing room on the fourth floor of the Odd Fellows Hall. (Farnsworth was the precocious farm boy who conceived the basic principles of electronic television when he was only an adolescent.) She explains that John Reilly, co-founder of New York City’s Global Village, an early video documentary collective and production facility, came to Seattle and left a portable editing system at KCTS for a month for artists to use. Having access to that equipment convinced the and/or staff to acquire its own equipment with grants from the local King County Arts Commission and the NEA.
At the time the only regular showcase for video by artists in the region, and/or also presented new music, visual arts, performance, and the written and spoken arts, and maintained a print and video library and an electronic music studio. In May and June 1976, an and/or publication titled Hindsight documented a range of the organization’s exhibitions to date: Judy Chicago presenting early erotic china-painted porcelains, an exhibition presented under the rubric “The Space Needle Show,” and an and/or staff show that consisted of scores, books, installations, words, paintings, prints, and other forms. The plurality of programming was intended to allow for a crossing over of media and audiences, enabling video to be seen within the larger context of the newer art forms and ideas coming from the growing network of alternative spaces across the country. It reflected the boundary-blurring time of the early 1960s, when dancers were working with painters, poets made films with musicians, and sculptors created Happenings in barns and storefronts.
From 1974 to 1981, and/or presented the works and in-person appearances of an astoundingly long list of now internationally known artists who worked with video and other technologies, including Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Bill Viola, William Wegman, and many, many others. They also developed a strong friendship with the nearby Canadian media arts communities in Vancouver and Victoria, presenting early slow-scan video events with Hank Bull at Vancouver’s Western Front and Liza Bear at Avalanche magazine in New York, and at Open Space in Victoria. As an active participant in the emerging international network of art spaces created by circulating guest artists and artworks, and/or helped open the Seattle arts community to the wider world of contemporary art.
In 1981, only eight years after its founding, and/or shut down its exhibition program when, according to Focke, “the opportunities for exhibition of new work had expanded considerably in the Seattle area.” The significant exhibition programming gap left by and/or was partially resolved with the successful birth and growth of two new Seattle visual and performing arts organizations in the late 1970s: the Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA), which began as an and/or sponsored project, and On the Boards, now a world-renowned dance and performance venue.
And/or also reflects an expansive moment in the twentieth century when arts organizations welcomed and supported artists of all forms and genres in one place, where sculptors could meet poets, and painters could build sets and work with musicians or filmmakers on their productions. The NEA (and subsequent state and local arts agencies) had just begun funding individual artists and creating categories for all the major art forms (dance, theater, visual arts, media arts, etc.), a condition that later forced many artists and arts organizations to specialize and isolate themselves into single-genre communities. The media arts, unlike other funding categories, are defined more by their technologies or tools than by their content (which may, for example, incorporate literature, dance, theater, or music), and yet they legitimately encompass all the art forms. Today, artists of all genres use media technologies as part of their toolkit, but that wasn’t as true in late 20th century Seattle.
911 MEDIA ARTS CENTER: 1984
After and/or closed its doors in 1984, it spawned new arts groups that included Soundworks NW, CoCA, Focal Point, and 911 Contemporary Arts Center (which then merged with Focal Point to become 911 Media Arts Center). 911 continued to support Seattle’s growing independent media arts community as well as reach out to all the larger arts, film, education, community media, and “new media” technologies communities. I was the executive director of 911 from 1989 to 1995, a time when 911 moved from Capitol Hill to the Cascade neighborhood, which was then a sleepy no-man’s-land next to I-5, and next door to a home-less day center. I had just moved from Atlanta, where I ran another media arts center, IMAGE Film/Video Center, so I was aware of and connected with the international network of media arts and community media centers that had proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s as cable televi-sion came into the home and the Internet was first being touted as the “Information Superhighway” by the tele-communications industries.
During my tenure as Executive Director, 911 un-dertook a large number of projects that included a project for the Goodwill Games, hosting a national media literacy conference; researching and presenting the history of and/or; producing a CD-ROM about environ-mental justice with media artist Branda Miller called “Witness to the Future”; and other screenings and projects too numerous to mention (or remember). Key staffer Alan Pruzan was also part of a community of experimental artists and musicians, and, along with board chair Nick Licata and many others, we were able to survive and thrive due to our extensive outreach and collabora-tions with a long list of other local and national arts, education, media arts and tech communities.
The culminating project of my time there, Beyond Fast Forward: A Creative Convergence of Art and Technology, was 2 years in the making and is another ex-ample of Seattle’s art and tech projects that left a lasting, if largely hidden, legacy. In 1992, Seattle was emerging (again?) as a technology hub where Microsoft was growing and helping spawn other digital communications companies such as Aldus (now Adobe), Starwave (a Paul Allen company), Visio, Photodisc, and many others. Like its weather, Seattle was a convergence zone of art and technology as the computer, telephone, and television also began to converge into a new digital culture.
Technology futurist George Gilder was predict-ing that “computer networks give every hacker the creative potential of a factory tycoon of the industrial era and the communications power of a TV magnate of the broadcasting era…Just as the 1980s saw the demolition of the vertical structure of the computer industry, so the 1990s will see the demolition of the vertical structure of the communications industry…As the PC gains communica-tion powers and evolves into a teleputer, its social, cultural, and political impacts change completely. As it ushers in a life beyond TV, it becomes a powerful force for democracy, individuality, community, and high culture.” Major media cov-ered Seattle’s transformation into a “Cybercity” and 911 was a key player, featured in national magazines and speaking up for artists and cultural issues at gatherings of “new media” tech companies such as the Washington Software Alliance.
In September 1994, collaborating with a Seattle art and tech collective called the Northwest Cyber Artists, 911 produced a large-scale event at the Seattle Center with the objective to “demonstrate to the public and its leaders the size, strength, variety, and vitality of the Northwest’s New Media community. Through this meeting of artists, technologists, community leaders, and general public, we will raise the awareness of universal access, education, and support for creative media making. Equally important is our intention to connect an expanding network of hard-ware, software, artists, content providers, and others who are players in this region’s New Media cultural industry”
(from the promotional flier).
Beyond Fast Forward was an amazing weekend of interactive multimedia installations by local and national artists, and workshops featuring intermedia artists and leaders from the region’s high tech industry, including Microsoft and early CD-ROM interactive game companies like Hyperbole. Artists and engineers from the UW Human Interface Technology (HIT) lab that was doing early VR re-search created immersive interactive artworks. Some of the artists who participated have since become world- famous, including Trimpin, Igor Vamos (The Yes Men), and Eduardo Kac, who produced his first Internet-based art-work where people in Seattle controlled a robot in Chicago through the phone line long before cellphones were ubiq-uitous. 911 was also involved with setting up an Electronic Café node at the Speakeasy Café coffeehouse in Belltown that connected to the original EC in Santa Monica created by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, who were pioneers in telematic arts that used satellite technologies to con-nect people in different places via telephone lines, satellites, and video cameras.
The seminal Beyond Fast Forward event that happened over 20 years ago (and two stock market busts later) is similar in many ways to two large art and tech events that happened in 2016. SIFFX, a festival that focused on virtual reality, augmented reality, and other related immersive interactive technologies, took place at Seattle Center in June. Produced by media artists Sandy Cioffi and Gretchen Burger collaboratively with many other partners, including SIFF, it brought diverse artists, scientists, educators, and technologists together to experience the newest works of artists and journalists who were creating 360-degree immersive media experiences that often required specialized headsets and cameras that were just becoming accessible to the general public. Fittingly, the opening night event was also held in the same Pacific Science Center as the E.A.T. gathering almost 50 years ago. It succeeded in connecting Seattle and international emerging immersive technologies companies (some now owned by the New York Times and Huffington Post), filmmakers, VR researchers, journalists, and artists to begin conversations and partnerships that will go on long after this event is forgotten. Once again, Seattle was being written about as an emerging VR hub in mainstream media, but this event was barely mentioned in local or international press.
The other event that year was 9e2Seattle, which took place October 21–30 at many venues around the city and was based at the King Street Station attic space, soon to be occupied by the City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. Like all its predecessors described above, its goals were to acknowledge its historical artistic, technological, and scientific roots; encourage and explore the creative collaborations of artists and engineers; and showcase all the talent and collective knowledge that comes together when art and technology meet in a city that has unwittingly supported the ongoing research and development of artists and other technology-based creatives.