I am at the gallery sitting in the front row for the panel on Lillian Schwartz and her artwork, Schwartz who is not present but is presently, simultaneously, at home on the Upper East Side. The three experts on the panel drink unflavored Seagram's seltzer from cold cans; the packed room wears hats and scarves and long coats because it is so cold outside.
It is strange to me how we are discussing Schwartz and her artwork but that she is not in the room, only the artwork. "She's alive," we are reminded, or to disenchant the embarrassment of anyone who did not do the research on the artist before seeing the artist's show.
Schwartz, commonly referred to as a pioneer of computer arts, was a professional mediator between the arts and sciences, testing the roles of artists and engineers working side by side on hypothesizing, building, seeing, and hearing the results of joint explorations. Programmers, physicists, chemists, composers, painters. She worked in labs now considered a research utopia, where the admitted were the facilitators of an open-door campus for creativity, intelligence, and zeal to experiment untethered. I think of how a school of witchcraft and wizardry is a place for pushing boundaries, for learning and crafting what there is to learn in the first place, where no idea is impossible to produce - is our mortal world really so different? Such coexistent communities, voluntarily reliable on each other as parts to further visions for the greater of the whole, exist today largely as artist collectives, or as companies. Where is the line between colleague and collaborator? How does one define who is the artist and who is the engineer? Must we stand ground in one role to best help another's, or are we able to overlap our skillsets, our intellectual identities?
Bell Labs is waxed poetically by the panel's expertise. The open-door policy where exemplary minds were given access to each other, to equipment, to budding technology unavailable as a common commodity at the time. The point was progress. The point was to ask, "What can we do?" The point was to answer the question no matter what.
Today one may think of a creative agency, designing technology in a hybrid of craftsmanship and function. Cooperative teamwork. I have been in one such environment, I collected pay and benefits from a place thought as such. So I thought when I joined. So was my joy. My excitement. A company is not a collective of artists and engineers. A company has carefully chosen and collected artists and engineers to do the work delegated, regardless of group brainstorms. The point is to ask, "What will make money?" The point is to answer the question no matter what.
Electronic composer Laurie Spiegel introduces herself to the panel from the row behind me; she is a surprise attendee, like me, or like the man in her row who I know but have not met yet but who will text me after I leave to ask, "Were you at the Lillian Schwartz panel tonight?" Laurie elaborates how the computers were the size of the gallery room, how the time was so valuable to be gifted to an artist, how a single print-out might cost over $3 which Bell Laboratories would have to find a way to justify having paid for. Schwartz herself was not paid by Bell Labs until 1984, decades after joining. But one does not query for extras when given utopia.
As a corporate telephone company at large, the advances in art and science generated by the Lab were still regulated when being publicly shown. When Schwartz was scoring her 1970 film "Pixillation," Bell Labs rejected her composition suggestions until they agreed on Gershon Kingsley's Moog score. I am told there are three soundtracks to the four-minute film, a collaboration with Ken Knowlton who is considered the creator of the pixel. To this, Knowlton acknowledges it may be "a bit of a reach" of a title, instead preferring to call the pixel an "independent discovery." The facts demand research demand overriding anecdotes demand sorting gossip from secrets demand independence versus plural founders. Who invented the web as wide as the world?
"Pixillation" is credited as: "Copyright 1970 AT&T. All rights reserved." I think of the word "intellectual" paired with "property" divided by "corporations." But multiplied by "funding" and "attention." I wonder if this conversation is exemplary of my skills to curate my own interests for myself or if it is bigger than my part can play in right now. The Serving Library has begun a series of talks called "Keywords for Dummies" to alleviate the misunderstanding of the common use from the intended use of important cultural phrases, the first talk focusing on "Intellectual Property." It was discussed last night before our discussion on Lillian Schwartz, and advertised in the listserv note, "All are welcome."
Nearly forty years after "Pixillation," in the twenty-first century, did Schwartz discover that the film appears in 3D when wearing appropriate viewing glasses. Did Schwartz invent 3D? At the time of the film, she was working with pure colors to compensate for her inability to perceive depth in her right eye, a degeneration from radiation exposure in Japan. She made research from resourcefulness, progress from play.
Perhaps in the current flood of start-ups and creative tech, the idea of a collaborative environment for "both" artists and engineers seems ideal, and wildly enough, attainable. But there are countless variables in a rapidly mutating society where rights and interests are constantly questioned, fought for, fought against, and tested: women in tech, women in the office, HR for small business, starting a startup, lateral and vertical goals, fostering loyalty, offering appropriate pay, offering chances to grow, keeping the family happy. A place of uninhibited curiosity, met with willingness and expertise from others, is a voluntary setting of its participants. There are roles and there are rules but there may be too much plasticity in the form to be standardized: molding is the only way to make it work. Breaking the system into its pixels may help us see the image but up close it's just another series of squares.