E.A.T – STEAM & Experiential Explorations, Discoveries, and Insights

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Fujiko Nakaya, Fog Sculpture #94925 “Foggy Wake in a Desert: An Ecosphere,” Sculpture Garden, Australian National Gallery, Canberra. Photo by Bertie Mabootoo

Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) is a non-profit organization co-founded by contemporary artists and engineers from Bell Labs in order to push the boundaries of artistic expression through the use of modern technology. E.A.T began in 1966 under the leadership of artists Robert Whitman and Robert Rauschenberg and engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer. The founding members believed that technological innovations could expand contemporary artists’ repertoire and visual vocabulary, while the social and emotional expressionism realized through tech-based artworks would be inspirational for engineers to create more empathetic innovations that benefit society.  The creative and playful experimentation and collaboration inherent in E.A.T’s multidisciplinary approach has enormous benefits across the primary and secondary educational curriculum (see: Resnick, 2017) and within society at large.

When E.A.T was launched, it was immediately popular within the art and engineering communities. A diverse range of artists and engineers (over 4,000 members) were partnered to collaborate on proposed projects. The organization didn’t exclude any one artist’s proposal nor cast judgement over the perceived aesthetic value within the project. E.A.T diligently matched artists and engineers based on the uniqueness of each proposal. They wanted to make sure that the relationship between engineers and artists was mutually beneficial and relevant. The results were immersive avant-garde artistic innovations such as Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculptures, which were first realized through E.A.T’s participation at the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.

In addition to art related projects, E.A.T’s series called “Projects Outside of Art” focused on art and technology centered explorations in interdisciplinary areas such as communications/telecommunications, agriculture, and multiculturalism. For example, the Anand Project (1969), brought artists and engineers to the Anand Dairy Cooperative  in Delhi, India to create an educational television network for the rural community. The project was initiated by E.A.T’s Billy Klüver and Robert Whitman along with Vikram Sarabhai of the Nehru Foundation for Development (Delhi, India). The Anand Project developed an educational program for women dairy farmers via the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), which made educational programing accessible to Indians living outside of major cities. Over 50 years later, E.A.T has continued to support cross-disciplinary partnerships between artists, scientists, and engineers.

Collaborations between artists, scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are beneficial to each discipline, which is why STEAM based learning initiatives have been gaining steam (pun intended) in schools. Science, technology and math courses should look towards the arts for inspiration and empathetic responses to problem solving. Art classrooms should embrace contemporary digital and mechanical culture. Computers, digital media software, 3D printers, nuts, bolts, switches, and gears should be as readily available for students’ creative use as paintbrushes and paints. When art and technology are combined to creatively solve problems or symbolically express an issue, the results are technological innovations that are favorable to the social and emotional needs of the general public. Artists who learn how to communicate via technology open themselves up to a larger audience, which exists outside of museums and galleries. Scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who employ artistic studio habits of mind within their respective disciplines, make innovative breakthroughs that serve humanity and strengthen our social, emotional and cognitive wellbeing.

Technology is developing at a rapid pace. An unanticipated consequence of our digital culture is the depersonalization on human relationshipsThrough STEAM based learning and art-centered technological projects however, advancements in technology can be harnessed for humanitarian purposes such as environmentalism and social justice activism. When used in tandem with interpersonal relationships, technology can expand our range of communication and bridge the gap between diverse groups of people. Art is about pushing the limits of materials and ideas in order to re-present a portrait of the human condition. With the artful utilization of technology, we are able to boldly innovate and express ourselves through endless dimensions. 

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Resnick, Mitchel. 2017. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Battista, Kathy; Forti, Simone; Morris, Catherine; and others. 2016. E.A.T. Experiments in Arts and Technology. Cologne: Walther König, Köln.

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