The Edge Annual Question

[ Sat. Dec. 31. 2005 ]

The composer John Cage leaned across the table and handed me a copy of Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. The year was 1966. We were at a weekly dinner gathering of young artists at the townhouse of Fluxus pioneer Dick Higgins. Cage would cook a meal--a mushroom dish--and we would sit around discussing his latest ideas.

I had been invited to meet with Cage because of my work on The Expanded Cinema Festival at Film-maker's Cinematheque in New York, a month-long program in late 1965 of performances by artists, dancers, poets, film-makers, and “happenings” performers, the connecting thread being the incorporation of cinema into their work.

Painter Robert Rauschenberg mounted a kinetic collage, a living version of his famous art pieces of the 1960s. Sculptor Claes Oldenburg presented an oddly designed movie projector that looked like the sphinx, placed it on the stage and projected light onto the audience. Video artist Nam June Paik, standing on a step-ladder behind a large opaque screen, over a period of hours, slowly cut out an ever-widening square revealing more of himself to the audience. I was sitting next to the artist Joan Miró, who was in town for a dinner in his honor that evening at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite the curator’s pleadings, Miró refused to budge and sat through the entire performance.

It was during this period that I first became cognizant of science. The artists, unlike their literary counterparts, were avidly interested in, and reading, the scientists. I started reading books by physicists Jeans, Eddington, Einstein, and poets such as Wallace Stevens, who had deep insights into ideas in the sciences. I received an invitation to meet with Marshall McLuhan. I recall that we talked a lot about his theme that art can serve as a beacon — a distant early warning system that can tell the old culture what is beginning to happen, to interpret what scientists are doing. The value was not in explanation, or the popularizing of science; rather, it was in description, rendering visible the questions the scientists were asking.

Twenty-seven years later, in 1992, in an essay entitled "The Emerging Third Culture," I put forth the following argument: