Permeable Laboratory

New art and technology festival aspires to change how people think.

New art and technology festival aspires to change how people think.

In October 1966, artists Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver put together an exhibition in New York City called 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering. It was an undertaking unlike anything that had preceded it, pairing the visionary, hare-brained ideas of 10 artists—including Rauschenberg, choreographer Yvonne Rainier and composer John Cage—with the know-how of some 30 engineers from Bell Labs, a research facility that boasts the development of products as world-shaping as the transistor, the laser, Unix and programming languages like C and C++. The results of 9 Evenings’ collaborations likewise produced a litany of firsts, including the use of video projection, Doppler sonar and infrared cameras in performance. The event gave birth to E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), an organization that for decades continued to facilitate collaborations between artists, researchers and engineers.

Fifty years later, John Boylan and a star-studded crew of Seattle curators and arts administrators are attempting a mammoth redux, leveraging Seattle’s tech muscle to realize the projects of local artists to an extent that’s never been done. Boylan wants to make history.

“When this is over, I want people to feel inspired, educated and completely exhausted,” he says.

Named “9E2” as an homage to the original festival, the list of 21st century technologies the festival’s artists are engaging is broad: biochemistry, genetics, brain research, social media, surveillance, oceanography, astronomy, data visualization, artificial intelligence, immersive environments using virtual reality and augmented reality and even old-fashioned video. Artists—many of whom typically do not work in or with such industries—are creating new pieces with help from researchers and engineers (both local and from across the globe) who are facilitating technical aspects of the work. From Oct. 21–29, this iteration of the art/tech collaboration will offer nightly performances, lectures and installations, as well as screenings of archival film selections from the original 9 Evenings.

9E2’s roster of roughly 50 artists includes video artist Gary Hill; Ginny Ruffner, known for her glass work and public art pieces; glass artist and artistic director at Pilchuck Glass School Tina Aufiero; choreographer/filmmaker Dayna Hanson; virtual reality and new media artist Reilly Donovan; a number of professors from UW’s DXArts program; and artists who typically work in more traditional media, such as painters Gala Bent, Romson Bustillo and Ellen Ziegler. Other artists are flying in from Boston, New  York, San Francisco, Dallas, Scotland and Sweden, and DJ Spooky will perform at Benaroya Hall. Local corporations participating include Goliaths like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Adobe.

Boylan—who worked at Microsoft for 15 years as a web publisher, then an arts coordinator with Microsoft Research—hatched the idea for 9E2 two years ago as he discovered references to the festival’s history. At the time, info on 9 Evenings was scarce, but as its 50th anniversary approached, documents and films have gradually surfaced, released online or on DVD. Since then, like-minded organizers inspired by the archives have planned 50th anniversary events in London, Leipzig and New York. However, Boylan suspects Seattle’s may be the most ambitious.

“There are unique moments in history where technology blooms,” says Boylan, “like the turn of the 20th century with the development of the telephone, radio, airplane. Are we in a moment like that right now? Do we have technologies that will be short-lived and tank, or will everyone be walking around in virtual reality in 20 years? Will we have an understanding of the world that will allow us to save the world, in ways we could not have conceived of 20 years ago? Technology changes the way people think.”
Boylan’s vision for 9E2 is to be the genesis of some of that change, at the hands of artists and engineers—a match made in PNW heaven.

“In Seattle we have an immense amount of imagination,” he says. “We’ve got it in our schools and corporations. Big companies are full of a lot of talented people. It’s worth exploring what some of those people can do, as well as the ones working out of their garages or backpacks—and there are a lot of people working out of their backpacks.”
One of the emphases of the festival is conversation and encounters that will continue into the future, well beyond the event itself. To keep the programming from becoming too static and voyeuristic, a number of the festival’s creators are planning “couch parties” leading up to the event, which will be scattered in homes across the city and invite artists and people from all fields to make connections—a vision as generous as it is ambitious.

“As for the breadth of the programming, my approach has been: If we can afford it and it makes sense, let’s try it,” Boylan says. “The more these crossovers happen, the stronger the culture.”