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Michelle Kuo
Numéro 13, printemps 2009
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DOI : 10.7202/044039ar
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Michelle Kuo "Divinations." Intermédialités 13 (2009): 38–55.
DOI : 10.7202/044039ar
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Fig. 1 : Robert Rauschenberg, Oracle, 1962-1965, a sound environment composed of five pieces in galvanised sheet metal, mounted on castors and each including a battery, a transmitter and a loudspeaker.
Bath tub with shower (178 x 115 x 60 cm), staircase (149 x 140 cm), window-frame (158 x 236 x 47 cm),
car door (160 x 133 x 85 cm), pipe (143 x 116 x 73 cm) © Succession Robert Rauschenberg/SODRAC
(Montréal)/VAGA, New York (2010).
n January of 1962, Robert Rauschenberg began work with the Bell Laboratories
engineers Billy Klüver and Harold Hodges. The process would culminate in
Oracle, a multi-part sculpture completed and exhibited at the Castelli Gallery in
New York in May 1965. Having met Klüver in 1960 during the engineer’s collaboration with Jean Tinguely, Rauschenberg’s continuing relationship with Klüver
was to incur a major shift in the artist’s work in the mid-1960s. Indeed, it would
redefine Rauschenberg’s practice through the deployment of collaboration: in
Oracle, as we shall see, the contact between engineers and artists made possible
an investigation of densely hybrid configurations of media and subjective experience, a foray into what could be called the “cybernetic” conditions of forecasting
and prediction.1
When shown at Castelli in 1965 (as a photograph of the original installation
shows), Oracle consisted of five assembled scrap-metal elements, each comprised
of objects that Rauschenberg had found in the streets: a car door mounted on
a typewriter table; a curved, elephantine exhaust pipe sitting on two wheels; a
1. This onset of Rauschenberg’s so-called “technological” work has often been seen
as a caesura, a demise into works that promoted an infantilizing, switch-like response in
the viewer—thereby inscribing the very spectacularity and instrumentality in the aesthetic
experience that his earlier White Paintings (1951-1953) and Combines had worked so hard
to escape. Ironically, Rauschenberg’s “technological” work is simultaneously accused of
not being spectacular enough, of being technically simplistic and thus disappointing. But
the paradoxical double bind of these arguments does not account for the hybrid nature
and complex set of responses elicited by the work. On the infantilization of the participatory aesthetic and its increasing similarity to repressive administration, see Benjamin
H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: from the Aesthetics of Administration to the
Critique of Institutions,” October 55, Winter 1990, p. 105-143. For an assessment of Rauschenberg’s work in relation to regressive experience, see Branden W. Joseph, “Rauschenberg’s Refusal,” in Paul Schimmel (ed.), Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, Los Angeles
and London, Museum of Contemporary Art and Steidl, 2005, p. 274-275.
i n t e r m é di a l i t é s s no 13 p r i n t e m p s 2 0 0 9
cement-mixing tub with an air conditioning duct through which water gushed
noisily, attached by a chain to a wire basket; a constructed aluminum staircase
housing batteries and a control unit; and a window frame on casters with a smaller
ventilation duct protruding from one side.2 The disconnected parts were meticulously stripped of all paint and rested on the floor. A wireless control panel and
five radios and transmitters were housed in the staircase, sending signals to the
four other pieces—each of which contained a Comrex-brand receiver, a 10-watt
amplifier, and a speaker.3 This network converted Oracle’s sculptural components
into an acoustic environment through which the audience could freely move.
The audience could, in fact, alter the sounds themselves: through ten black dials
on the control unit in the staircase, they were able to manually vary the volume
and rate at which the AM band of each radio was being scanned. Yet one could
not directly control the system; it was impossible to stop and “tune in” to any
single station.4
Rauschenberg stipulated that no wires appear between the various parts
of Oracle. “I wanted to do something that was remote control, that could be
separate in the room,” he said in 1965.5 Klüver, too, understood that “the
presence of wires would destroy the idea that the five elements […] are completely independent units that can be moved to different positions and placed in
different configurations.”6 This attempt to construct elements that were variable
with each installation of Oracle seemed to stem from Rauschenberg’s desire,
throughout the 1960s, of realizing an all-encompassing environment that could
react flexibly to stimuli such as bodily movement. Broadcast, in 1959, is the first
overt manifestation of this desire: two knobs on the work’s surface allowed the
2. Curatorial file, Oracle, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Additional descriptions of the components appear in Billy Klüver with Julie
Martin, “Four Difficult Pieces,” Art in America, vol. 79, n° 7, July 1991, p. 82-99 and 138;
and Anon., “Technology and the Arts,” Bell Telephone Laboratories Reporter, vol. 15, n° 2,
March-April 1966, p. 16-19.
3. Klüver with Martin, 1991, p. 83; Billy Klüver with Julie Martin, “Working with
Rauschenberg,” in Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson (eds.), Robert Rauschenberg: a
Retrospective, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997, p. 312-313.
4. Billy Klüver, “Oracle,” in Cornelia Faist and Alfred Kren (eds.), Robert Rauschenberg, Haywire: Major Technological Works of the 1960s (exhibition catalogue), OstfildernRuit, Hatje, 1997, p. 62-64.
5. Rauschenberg, interview with Dorothy Gees Seckler, December 21, 1965, Tape 2,
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
6. Klüver with Martin, 1991, p. 83.
viewer to manipulate both volume and station selection of three radios behind
the panels. At the time, as Branden W. Joseph has argued, Rauschenberg saw
Broadcast as an attempt to bring together different media under their shared
qualities of duration and difference, so as to stave off the reification or stillness of
the work.7 Describing Broadcast in 1963, the artist stated, “Listening happened
in time. Looking also had to happen in time.”8 Yet in the production of Oracle,
Rauschenberg, Klüver, and Hodges were to fundamentally alter this quest for an
experience of lived duration and change.
In fact, Rauschenberg had expressed a certain dissatisfaction with Broadcast:
“I objected to the fact that one had to be standing so close to the picture that the
sound didn’t seem to be using the space and the way the images were reacting
to each other.”9 This frustration with the spatial characteristics of Broadcast
actually surfaced one year after the work’s realization, when, in March 1960,
Klüver encountered Rauschenberg at the Martha Jackson Gallery. Rauschenberg asked Klüver if it was possible to make an “interactive environment where
the temperature, sound, smell, lights, etc., could be affected by the person who
moved through it.”10 Over the next year and half, Klüver and his colleagues at
Bell Laboratories explored this possibility in their spare time, bringing Rauschenberg into Bell for periodic discussions on the project.11 “It proved impossible to
7. Joseph, 2005, p. 266. See also Branden W. Joseph, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT Press, 2003, p. 186-187.
Joseph insightfully places Broadcast and Ace (1962) at the beginning of a shift toward
Rauschenberg’s deconstruction of a televisual mode of apprehension, or scanning—what
Brian O’Doherty described as Rauschenberg’s “vernacular glance.” See Brian O’Doherty,
“Rauschenberg and the Vernacular Glance,” Art in America, vol. 61, n° 5, SeptemberOctober 1973, p. 85, and Brian O’Doherty, “Robert Rauschenberg I” (April 1963), in Brian
O’Doherty, Object and Idea: an Art Critic’s Journal 1961-1967, New York, Simon and
Schuster, 1967, p. 112.
8. Gene R. Swenson, “Rauschenberg Paints a Picture,” Art News, vol. 62, n° 2, April
1963, p. 45.
9. Rauschenberg, interview with Seckler, 1965, Tape 1.
10. Klüver with Martin, 1997, p. 312. See also Klüver, “Artists, Engineers, and Collaboration,” in Gretschen Bender and Timothy Druckrey (eds.), Culture on the Brink:
Ideologies of Technology, Seattle, Bay Press, 1994, p. 208; Klüver, 1997, p. 62.
11. As Klüver remembers, “I began thinking about some possibilities [in 1960], but
nothing really happened until 1961 after the ‘Art in Motion’ show. To make him more
familiar with what was going on, I brought Rauschenberg to Bell Laboratories.” Klüver,
1997, p. 62. Klüver’s characterization of the engineers’ “free time” for pursuing the external project with Rauschenberg is of particular interest in terms of the working patterns
achieve [Rauschenberg’s] original ideas for a multi-responsive environment,”
Klüver stated; having hit this dead end, Rauschenberg returned his focus to the
manipulation of sound and radio.12 Klüver and Hodges began work on designing
a sound environment with five radios for which the volume and tuning control
would be housed in a separate unit—thereby rupturing the audience’s intimate
interaction with Broadcast into a new relationship of remote control.
In January 1962, Rauschenberg, Klüver, and Hodges attempted to implant a
system of radio receivers, amplifiers, and speakers into five canvas panels, which
would be operated remotely from a central cabinet.13 These panels would actually
be diverted into use for the silent Ace (1962). But the notion of creating a sound
environment persisted—albeit in a different form. Rauschenberg related:
I had some canvases stretched, but it took so long I needed help with the radios. And
it took so long for me to find the help that I used the paintings for something else.
Then later I decided that was a good idea because once I started seeing what was
involved I saw that with the weight problem, and the depth the painting would have
to be to house the equipment, that painting was the wrong form for that to take. So I
started on a sculpture.14
Visiting Bell Labs was integral in the reconceptualization and realization
of this project. As the critic Gene Swenson recounted during a studio visit later
that January,
There had been several large metal objects in the corner of his studio the day he
returned from the electronics laboratory [at Bell]. They began to occupy more and
more of his interest, and over a period of time they were moved to his central working
area. There were five pieces and he planned to put a radio into each of them; he also
played with the idea of using running water, and eventually one of the pieces of the
“concert project” became a fountain.15
of Bell: “We would only work on it in our ‘free’ time, which really meant that we took
the time for it whenever we chose. Bell Laboratories, like any good research laboratory,
left us alone to carry on our own experimental or theoretical research. During this time,
I brought Rauschenberg to Bell Labs to see what my colleagues and I were working on.”
Klüver with Martin, 1997, p. 312.
12. Klüver, 1997, p. 62.
13. Gene R. Swenson described this arrangement during his studio visit in January
1961. See Swenson, 1963, p. 45-46.
14. Rauschenberg, interview with Seckler, 1965, Tape 1.
15. Swenson, 1963, p. 46. In autumn 1962, Rauschenberg used several of these sculptural elements (without radio) in the “Dylaby” (Dynamic Labyrinth) exhibition at the
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, occasioned by the museum’s outgoing director Willem
Rauschenberg began work with Klüver and Hodges on a design using five
AM transistor radios—the artist insisted on using the AM band, because at the
time FM only broadcasted “‘cultural programs’—classical music, etc.” as Klüver
put it.16 Rauschenberg’s request for a completely wireless system made the process
much more complex and difficult.17 After encountering a “nightmare of noise”
with homemade AM transmitters, which operated on too broad a frequency band,
Klüver and Hodges attempted to re-engineer a wireless radio transmitter they
purchased for $3.50.18 Hodges devised a unique drive mechanism, via a small,
variable-speed DC motor that continually rotated the tuner for the radios back
and forth across the frequency band.19 Varying the voltage on the motors would
alter the scanning speed—but any modulation of the speed would be continually
altered by feedback: the motor constantly self-adjusted so that one could never
directly control the scan or settle on one station.20
Further problems with interference and the transmitters stalled Klüver and
Hodges until the summer of 1964, when, as Klüver said, “technology caught up
with us.”21 They purchased one of the first fully transistorized wireless microphone systems, which included a much more powerful set of transmitters and
receivers, and connected it to Hodges’ motor system. (Transistorized, portable
equipment like radios and amplifiers had just barely come onto the market by
the early 1960s.) At this point, Klüver and Hodges were helping to shape crucial
Sandberg (who also presided over “Art in Motion”). Pontus Hultén had organized the
show, bringing Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle, Martial Raysse, Per Ultvedt, and
Daniel Spoerri to the museum, where each artist generated a site-specific installation. See
Rauschenberg, interview with Seckler, 1965, Tape 1.
16. Klüver with Martin, 1997, p. 312; Klüver with Martin, 1991, p. 83.
17. Klüver explained, “Of course, if he [Rauschenberg] had allowed us to use wires
to connect the control console with the other units, the solution would have been simple.”
18. Interestingly, the prefabricated parts obtained by Klüver and Hodges were devised
to create a kind of domestic ambient sound system: the “Cordover FM Wireless Phono
Transmitter” was originally marketed for the transmission of phonograph sound in the
home. As Klüver related, “according to the manufacturer, ‘[it] contains complete solid
state electronic circuitry ready for immediate use as an efficient means of wireless transmission of music from the tone arm magnetic cartridge of a phonograph into any FM
radio in the home.’” Ibid.
19. Ibid.
20. “Rauschenberg didn’t want the viewer to be able to ‘tune in’ one given station,
and Harold’s scanning system made this virtually impossible,” Klüver wrote. Ibid.
21. Klüver with Martin, 1997, p. 312; Klüver with Martin, 1991, p. 83.
features in the work—even formal aspects that were arbitrary from an engineering
standpoint. If Rauschenberg decided on the size and shape of the control knobs
and the size of speakers, Klüver and Hodges worked with the artist on where to
put the components and the layout of the receiving antennas. And when Klüver
could no longer make midnight requisitions of Bell Labs telephone batteries to
repurpose for Oracle’s radios, he bought the only substitute he could find—bright
red RCA batteries. The red batteries became the only instance of visible color
in the piece, until they, too, were discontinued by their manufacturer.22 These
components were not simply akin to found objects but were interchangeable parts
that could be replaced over time.
On the level of the network itself, Oracle made use of an actual control
mechanism, also known as a servomechanism. This is a type of device that uses
a feedback loop, acting continuously on the basis of incoming information, to
attain a specified goal in the face of changes.23 The system of motors that Hodges
devised was one such control mechanism: it constantly adjusted to dynamically
changing input from the audience’s manipulation of the dials on Oracle’s control
unit. If the speed of the motors increased or decreased beyond a certain point,
the system would self-correct toward an average speed—and thereby modulate
the rate at which the radios were changing frequencies.
Oracle’s motor system thus approximated a simple model of contemporary
cybernetics, the theory of control mechanisms developed over several decades
beginning in the 1920s and named by mathematician Norbert Wiener in the
mid-1940s. The growth of the field of cybernetics is popularly associated with
Wiener’s World War II research in anti-aircraft missile technology—how to aim
at a target whose velocity, acceleration, and direction is constantly changing by
making a dynamic series of statistical estimates about the future positions of
the target. (The term cybernetics stems from the Greek kubernétes (κυβερν−
ητης), an etymology shared by the words “steersman” and “governor”.) Wiener’s
famous book, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the
Machine, was published in 1948; it was followed by another version in 1950, The
Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, which was aimed at lay
22. Ibid., p. 84; Klüver with Martin, 1997, p. 313.
23. For one of the earliest and most comprehensive texts explicating the theory of
the servomechanism, from the MIT Radiation Laboratory, one of the centers of control
mechanism research, see: James Hubert Maxwell, Theory of Servomechanisms, MIT
Radiation Laboratory Series 25, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1947.
audiences and was a mainstream success.24 The text argued for the wide application of cybernetic theorems to the life sciences, sociology, and ecology, among
But it bears saying that this fixation on Wiener as the fount of cybernetics,
propagated by cultural historians over the last decade, is largely inaccurate (or
at least disproportionate). In fact, cybernetics was also and more specifically
rooted in a number of prewar engineering milieus, prior to Wiener’s innovations.
The first of these was intimately related to Klüver: the electronic control systems
innovations of the engineer Harold Black, at none other than Bell Laboratories. In 1927, Black developed the negative feedback amplifier, one of the earliest uses of negative feedback and a defining moment in the field of modern
electronics. As historian David Mindell has demonstrated, feedback applications
and the major concepts of cybernetics were also developed in highly different
contexts and discourses throughout the 1920s and 1930s, not only at Bell, but
at Vannevar Bush’s laboratory at MIT (Shannon was Bush’s doctoral student at
MIT), the naval research laboratories, and the Sperry Gyroscope Company.25
24. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and
the Machine, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT Press, 1948; Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of
Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing
Company, 1950. For a detailed history of the broader development of cybernetics through
the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, 1946-1953, see Steve Joshua Heims, The Cybernetics Group, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT Press, 1991. The conference participants—Norbert
Wiener, Heinz von Foerster, John von Neumann, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson,
Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, Kurt Lewin, F. S. C. Northrop, Molly Harrower, and
Lawrence Kubie—met annually to discuss the interdisciplinary applications of cybernetics, game theory, information theory, and other fields.
25. David A. Mindell, Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, p. 105-137
and 276-306. See also Hendrik W. Bode, “Feedback: the History of an Idea” (1960), in
Richard E. Bellman and Robert Kalaba (eds.), Selected Papers on Mathematical Trends
in Control Theory, New York, Dover Publications, 1964; and Hendrik W. Bode, Synergy:
Technical Integration and Technological Innovation in the Bell System, Murray Hill, Bell
Laboratories, 1971; Stuart Bennett, A History of Control Engineering, 1930-1955, London,
Peter Peregrinus, 1993. Wiener’s own anti-aircraft missile work at the National Defense
Research Committee (founded by Vannevar Bush) was actually conducted under the
auspices of Warren Weaver, who would terminate Wiener’s contract after two years (and
who was simultaneously funding researchers at Bell and MIT), and subsequently penned
the introduction to Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication. After Wiener’s
termination, his main purpose seemed to be to convert cybernetics from a military to
a civilian field of inquiry. Doing so, however, entailed a denial of the military context
Moreover, cybernetics was closely related to Shannon’s research on communications theory at Bell. Both fall under a broad rubric of efforts to control dynamic
systems; the two were nearly simultaneously developed (Shannon’s paper on
information theory, we should recall, was published in 1948). Black’s work, for
example, was part of a nexus of research at Bell that was subsequently furthered
by Harry Nyquist, whose classical work on the stability of feedback amplifiers
yielded axioms pertaining to feedback control theory, bandwidth requirements,
and thermal noise, each of which was instrumental for Shannon’s information
theory and the understanding of feedback and dynamic systems.26 While the
broader implications of control engineering research are beyond the scope of this
article, I want to note here the way in which Oracle can be understood as both
firmly embedded within and yet keenly troubling this discourse of cybernetics
and servomechanisms—of violence, information, and control.
For, if cybernetics—and the devices whose properties it defined—was
predicated on the regulation and adjustment of dynamic systems, Oracle was
a system that also activated its own interruption or diversion. Indeed, the work
was an uncanny, heterogeneous mix of industrial detritus, re-engineered objects,
consumer devices, and a startling array of flows: actual currents of information,
radio waves, water, air, sound, electricity—and of course the ventilation streams
suggested by the use of air-conditioning ducts and exhaust pipes. Yet these flows
were not seamlessly integrated into some controlled, systematic circuit. On the
contrary, they interacted in a perpetual stutter of fissures and lags, interference
and dead air. Rauschenberg had chosen to use small speakers with poor sound
quality, which were installed differently in each piece and to extreme acoustic
that had spawned his own research: “For Norbert Wiener, in the midst of the technological war, cybernetics became a civilian enterprise. Most indicative of this alienation and
reconstruction is Wiener’s consistent failure to acknowledge the multiple traditions of
feedback engineering that preceded him. In all his writing on cybernetics he never cited
Elmer Sperry, Nicholas Minorsky, Harold Black, Harry Nyquist, Hendrik Bode, or Harold
Hazen. All had published on the theory of feedback before 1940; all were recognized
as important to the field; all had speculated on the human role in automatic control;
some had even written on the merger of communications and control or on philosophies
of feedback. […] The omissions are striking. […] Wiener gave cybernetics an intellectual, scientific trajectory, divorced from the traditions of technical practice from which it
sprang,” Mindell, 2002, p. 286.
26. David A. Mindell, “Opening Black’s Box: Rethinking Feedback’s Myth of Origin,”
Technology and Culture, vol. 41, n° 3, July 2000, p. 426-429; Bennett, 1993, p. 82-84;
E. Colin Cherry, “A History of the Theory of Information,” Proceedings of the Institution
of Electrical Engineers, n° 98, September 1951, p. 386.
effect: in the window, the speaker is in the metal duct which gives enormous
resonance to the radio’s sound and makes it nearly impossible to understand any
words; while the exhaust pipe’s speaker is attached inside the pipe, outside facing
in, so that the sound is projected through the pipe like a deeply pitched vibrating
horn.27 In the car door, the speaker is attached to the back of the door; in the tub
it is in the small wire basket. In the stairs, the sound comes directly from the radio
itself. Klüver described the experience “as if you were listening to someone else’s
radio receiver… bits of music, talk and noise—loud, soft, clear or full of static;”
the choice of station was not ultimately up to you, nor the actual qualities of the
sounds.28 Persistent background noise is audible from the motors, inter ference
from the radios is continual, and from certain vantage points the rushing sound
of the water drowns out the rest of the sounds—a phenomenon related in Klüver’s
and critics’ accounts and confirmed in my own observation of Oracle.29
This tense coupling of a wireless, networked environment and the inert,
industrial waste or castoffs of doors and pipes and windows confirmed the paradox of the post-World War II world in the mid-1960s—a moment that Jonathan
Crary has described as “a planetary data-communications network physically
implanted into the decaying digressive terrain of the automobile-based city…
[into] the rotting edifices of a previous theater of modernization.”30 For Crary,
drawing on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s periodization of a “cybernetic
phase of capitalism,” the development of cybernetics stood at the nexus of this
enforced conjugation.31 It was a shift motivated by the “obliteration of outdated
territories, languages, filiations, of any boundaries or forms that impeded the
installation of cybernetics as the model for the remaking of the world as pure
27. Klüver with Martin, 1991, p. 85; Klüver, 1997, p. 65.
28. Klüver with Martin, 1991, p. 85.
29. One critic highlights “the very real sounds of the radios and the very unreal
appearance of his landscape. Interferences become static and the silences are overbearingly exclusive.” Neil A. Levine, “Robert Rauschenberg” Art News, vol. 64, September
1965, p. 11.
30. Jonathan Crary, “Eclipse of the Spectacle,” in Brian Wallis (ed.), Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New York and Boston, New Museum of Contemporary
Art and David R. Godine, 1984, p. 291.
31. Ibid., p. 286, note 9. Deleuze and Guattari, drawing on Lewis Mumford’s notion of
the “megamachine,” describe an expanding cybernetic phase of capitalism that threatens
to achieve a global “generalized enslavement” through digital and telecommunications
networks. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Paris, Les Éditions de
Minuit, 1980, p. 30.
instrumentality.”32 Indeed, cybernetics—the science of “control and communication,” as Wiener called it—had come to mythically stand for the totality and
instrumentality of late capitalism and the military-industrial complex. Cybernetics marked nothing less than the emergence of a “society of control,” to use
Deleuze’s well-known formulation.33 Yet Oracle forced this cybernetic system
into relation with the inert objects it had supposedly left in the past. Oracle was
not simply a way out of reification and congealment, the stasis of paintings or
aesthetic objects that Rauschenberg had so often spoken fearfully of. Rather, the
work disturbed the cybernetic system, a system already predicated on constant
change itself. If cybernetics was based on futurity, on predictions and their
regulation, Oracle seemed to foil this divinatory function.34
32. Crary, 1984, p. 292. “And it cannot be overemphasized,” Crary continues, “how
the development of cybernetics (‘a theory of messages and their control’) is intertwined
with the commodification of all information and with the hegemony of what [Thomas]
Pynchon calls the ‘meta-cartel.’” Ibid.
33. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59, Winter
1992, p. 3-7. According to Deleuze, the transition from a Foucauldian notion of disciplinary societies to “societies of control” is incarnated in the dissipation of architectural or
physical structures of discipline and enclosure into dematerialized networks of control.
Inherent to the control society is the rise of the computer, superseding those machines
“involving energy, with the passive danger of entropy and the active danger of sabotage.”
This shift mirrors the various types of cybernetic systems, mechanical and digital. What
Oracle underscores, I would argue, is the crisis entailed in the overlay of these two regimes, one supposedly fading and the other ascendant. On the role of cybernetics within
the emergence of so-called “control societies,” see also Gilles Deleuze, “Control and
Becoming” and “Postscript on Control Societies,” Negotiations: 1972-1990, trans. Martin
Joughin, New York, Columbia University Press, 1995, p. 169-182.
34. The sculptural components of Oracle directly cite the found objects (pipes, chains,
wheels) in a number of previous works dating approximately from 1961 and exhibited at
Castelli that year, such as Empire II and Trophy IV (For John Cage). I understand these
works as explorations in sculptural assemblage that presage Rauschenberg’s investigation
of the found object, “found” telecommunication networks, and acoustic space in Oracle.
On the Castelli exhibition, see Joan Young and Susan Davidson, “Chronology,” in Hopps
and Davidson (eds.), 1997, p. 560. In a related but differently oriented reading of this work
of 1961-1962, Joshua Shannon focuses on the contrast between the material specificity of
Rauschenberg’s discarded urban construction elements and “the abstraction of the built
environment” in New York City (through the advent of International Style architecture
and simulacral systems of advertising). Shannon, however, describes a definitive break in
Rauschenberg’s work in 1962, between an “end” of the artist’s Combines in that year and
his subsequent series of silkscreens—whereas Oracle and its production between 1962-1965
In this, Oracle might seem wholly allied with the investigation of telecommunications systems in the contemporaneous Ace. Joseph has demonstrated that
Ace induced a mode of spectatorship akin to televisual scanning.35 The work
rejected the sheer quantity and variety of pictorial incident (such as legible text)
in Broadcast and other previous Combines in favor of a more homogenous
visual field that could be taken in at a distance, inaugurating Rauschenberg’s
subsequent inquiry into the spatiotemporal manipulations of broadcast television,
its artificial compression of the anachronistic and remote. Yet, as we have seen,
Rauschenberg deliberately rejected using an actual remote control system in
Ace—choosing instead to deploy the remote control structure in the spatially
dispersed, three-dimensional ensemble of Oracle.
Why this switch? Why, exactly, did Rauschenberg declare that “painting was
the wrong form for [the radio system] to take”?36 The answer, I think, is that Ace
began one trajectory in Rauschenberg’s work, Oracle another: Oracle represented
an exploration of dynamic radio networks as opposed to the transmitted images
of television. Whereas Ace and Rauschenberg’s subsequent works in silkscreen
and paint effected a critique of televisual spectacle and the status of the screened
image (as Joseph has shown), Oracle mounted a systematic interrogation of the
kinetic, acoustic, and privatized space of the transistor radio. And to fully engage
this dynamism of radio demanded a sculptural investigation into how radio
continually shifted and organized the space of reception.
Indeed, it was not simply the physical stasis of works such as Broadcast and
Ace that perturbed Rauschenberg (as he told Klüver in 1991, “I was envious of
the current and endless changes of information [in radio] as opposed to fixed
images”).37 It was also the relative immobility of the spectator standing in front
of a flat, two-dimensional, screen-like image. Rauschenberg therefore worked
to insure a dislocation of sensation and movement in Oracle’s audience. He
told Seckler, “You had a sense of distance that as often as not was distorted.
You had the feeling possibly of knowing where you were but where you were
was lost.”38 This disorientation of individual space in Oracle drew attention to
would seem to acutely complicate any binary division between the Combines and silkscreens. See Joshua A. Shannon, Black Market: Materiality, Abstraction and Built Environment in the New York Avant-Garde, 1958-1962, doctoral thesis, Berkeley, University of
California, 2005, p. 201-206.
35. Joseph, 2003, p. 186-187.
36. Rauschenberg, interview with Seckler, 1965, Tape 1.
37. Rauschenberg, interview with Klüver, March 1, 1991, cited in Klüver, 1997, p. 62.
38. Rauschenberg, interview with Seckler, 1965, Tape 2.
the experience of radio as both public and intensely private. With the advent
of the portable transistor radio, the public, intersubjective space of broadcast
networks (the saturation of radio wave signals throughout lived space) necessarily coexisted with the privatized and mobile aural space of the individual
(the sole listener, whom the transistor radio device isolates in an intimate and
delimited sonic field).
It is precisely this frisson that characterized the bifurcation between the
two major discourses on radio concurrent with Oracle: Cage’s view of radio as
an omnipresent ether, versus Marshall McLuhan’s understanding of radio as
engendering a privatized auditory space. On the one hand, Oracle closely resembled Cage’s first piece to incorporate radio, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951).
Cage wrote the work for twelve radio receivers, each of which had a dial for
volume control and a dial for tuning. Two performers were to vary the volume
and frequency through these dials.39 But Oracle extends the active role of the
“performer” to any passerby; it impedes the direct relationship between the body,
mechanical controls, and tuning/volume output; and it embeds the radio system
in resolutely heavy, lumbering, and dispersed sculptural form.
In 1966, one year after Oracle made its debut, Cage told Morton Feldman
in a “radio happening” on New York’s WBAI, “But all that radio is, Morty, is
making available to your ears what was already in the air and available to your
ears, but you couldn’t hear it… all it is is making audible something which you’re
already in. You are bathed in radio waves.” 40 Cage’s aim was to induce a perceptual revelation of this (ordinarily imperceptible) permeation of radio.41 Radio
39. First performed publicly near midnight in January 1952 at Columbia University’s
McMillin Theater, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 lasted four minutes and thirteen seconds.
Few sounds were actually heard, because the majority of the local radio stations had signed
off the air by that time of the evening.
40. John Cage, cited in “Radio Happenings: Recorded at WBAI, NYC 7/9/66-1/16/67,”
in Peter Gizzi (ed.), Exact Change Yearbook No. 1, Boston, Exact Change, 1995, p. 256.
On the exchange between Cage and Feldman, see Joe Milutis, “Radiophonic Ontologies
and the Avantgarde,” in Allen S. Weiss (ed.), Experimental Sound and Radio, Cambridge
(Mass.), MIT Press, 2001, p. 57-72.
41. Cage believed that exposure to and perceptual awareness of radio’s overriding
network held liberatory promise, but this is not to say that his view of technology was
simplistically utopian—far from it; it is rather to argue that Rauschenberg built on the
implications of Cage’s investigation of radio in order to take it into an overtly spatial direction. In this, I would differ from numerous critics’ characterization of Cage’s conception
of technology as overly naïve or romantic. For such a perspective, see Kathleen N. Woodward, “Art and Technics: John Cage, Electronics, and World Improvement,” in Kathleen
thus functioned as an increasingly important element of Cagean silence. It represented a new permutation of Cage’s aspiration toward a radically multiplicitous
experience of the world and, with it, a liberating evasion of the administered
sameness of technocratic rationality. Yet Cage’s embrace of radio did not fully
recognize the degree to which commodity production was transforming from
the logic of standardization toward that of asymptotic differentiation. Building on
Cage’s work and yet surpassing certain of its limitations, Oracle confronted the
ways in which radio’s plenary diversity was also a sophisticated realization of the
customization of capital and the privatization of networks and spaces.
Oracle realized seminal aspects of what McLuhan termed radio’s “acoustic
space”—a realm that did not posit geometrical spatial relations, that possessed
neither center or periphery, since hearing occurs from all directions simultaneously.42 With radio, however, acoustic space was experienced not simply as an
abstract morass (as reductive readings of McLuhan tend to portray the concept).
Rather, it was a materially concrete and molecularized phenomenon. The media
theorist argued that radio now possessed unprecedented power to “involve people
in depth,” especially with those “who carry transistor sets in order to provide a
private world for themselves amidst crowds.” 43 As Oracle enabled its audience to
N. Woodward (ed.), The Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture,
Madison, Coda Press, 1980, p. 171-192.
42. McLuhan based his well-known concept of “acoustic space” on the work of the
behavioral psychologist E. A. Bott, his peer at the University of Toronto. Against the linear,
fragmented order of vision and the printed word, McLuhan proposed that acoustic space
defined the nodal, relational, and decentered network of electronic communications. See
Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: the Making of Typographic Man, Toronto,
University of Toronto Press, 1962. The notion of an aural (and non-visual) ordering of
space also developed in the discourse on film sound, most notably by Christian Metz in
his seminal essay “Aural Objects.” As Metz wrote, the “spatial anchoring of aural events is
much more vague and uncertain than that of visual events. The two sensory orders don’t
have the same relationship to space, sound’s relationship being much less precise, restrictive, even when it indicates a general direction (but it rarely indicates a really precise site,
which on the contrary is the rule for the visible).” Christian Metz, “Aural Objects” [1975],
trans. Georgia Gurrieri, Yale French Studies, n° 60, 1980, p. 29-30.
43. Marshall McLuhan, “Radio: The Tribal Drum,” in Understanding Media: the
Extensions of Man [1964], Cambridge (Mass.), MIT Press, 1994, p. 298. Here, McLuhan
cites Bertolt Brecht’s “Radio Poem,” n. d., in this regard; Brecht was, of course, one of the
most acute observers of the empathic intensity of radio and its potentially revolutionary
effects: “There is a little poem by the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht: ‘You little box,
held to me when escaping/So that your valves should not break,/Carried from house to
adjust the work’s transistor radios (albeit not as handheld transistors, a technology that would be utilized the next year in the performance series 9 Evenings:
Theatre and Engineering as well as in the Pepsi Pavilion, constructed by Experiments in Art and Technology for Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan) and choose their own
listening position among both diffuse and focused channels of sound, the work
bore out McLuhan’s assertion that “Radio affects most people intimately, personto-person, offering a world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker
and the listener. That is the immediate aspect of radio. A private experience.”44
After the mainstreaming of television, according to McLuhan, radio had diversified into an unprecedented medium for regional and local service, becoming
specialized in both “content” and physical location with “the multiplicity of
receiving sets in bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, cars, and now in pockets.”45
Oracle reproduced this monadic particularization of reception. At the same time,
however, the work also staged the inevitable connections between such intimate
and discrete points of listening.
Oracle thus dislocated the supposed fixity and determinedness of broadcast
radio networks. And it did so not only on the level of reception. If radio has
preoccupied the modernist imagination, from Marinetti to Khlebnikov, Brecht
to Artaud, it is the apparatus of radio itself—the parceling of its mechanisms,
the slicing and selling of radio airwaves—that has haunted otherwise triumphal
declamations of the medium’s political potential as a participatory communication system, most notably in the critiques proffered by Theodor Adorno,
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Jacques Attali.46 It makes sense, then, to view
ship from ship to train,/So that my enemies might go on talking to me/Near my bed, to
my pain/The last thing at night, the first thing in the morning,/Of their victories and of my
cares,/Promise me not to go silent all of a sudden.’”
44. McLuhan, 1994, p. 299. It was in this sense that, for McLuhan, radio was a “hot”
medium, whereas television was “cool;” moreover, the private auditory space of radio
aroused an unmatched intensity of individual (and primordial) affect: “The subliminal
depths of radio are charged with the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums.
This is inherent in the very nature of this medium, with its power to turn the psyche and
society into a single echo chamber.” Ibid.
45. McLuhan continues, “Different programs are provided for those engaged
in diverse activities. Radio, once a form of group listening that emptied churches, has
reverted to private and individual uses since TV. The teenager withdraws from the TV
group to his private radio.” Ibid., p. 306.
46. See Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Constituents of a Theory of the Media,” New
Left Review, vol. 1, n° 64, November-December 1970, p. 13-36; Jacques Attali, Noise: the
Political Economy of Music, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Oracle in terms of these historically specific conditions of radio production and
broadcasting—in contrast, again, to the artist’s engagement with television or
film.47 Oracle directly engaged the recent development of the portable transistor
radio and its privatization (both physical, à la McLuhan, and commercial), only
to operate in its gaps, its lacunae. Indeed, in 1962, Rauschenberg and Klüver
were confronting severe signal interference in their configuration of radios and
transmitters. So they decided to use the “empty spots” in the existing broadcast
frequencies: as Klüver remembered, “The solution to the problem of interference
was to retransmit the AM signal in a different frequency band. We decided to
use the empty spots in the FM band (in the early 1960s there were very few FM
stations).”48 As they continued to grapple with interference problems, the project
began to resemble a kind of pirate radio, taking over spaces in the spectrum that
were leftover, unoccupied.
Oracle, in other words, was a kind of pirate radio. And it was precisely this
mode of illicit “ham” operation that Adorno, writing in 1941 during his research
for the Princeton Radio Project, saw as literally interfering with commercially
standardized radio and its characteristics of unity, reification, quotation, and
“atomization.”49 For Adorno, radio exhibited a major tendency toward standardization that paralleled monopolistic economic structures (what he termed
“Ubiquity-Standardization”), but also countertendencies. This made for a
continual push and pull between an illusion of “hereness,” specialization, and
authenticity in the radio experience, and a uniformity that pervaded the production of radio—a tension that could equally well describe the dynamics of Oracle.
Adorno noted, “As the power of radio stations, and especially the large networks
increases, they try more and more to maintain a diversity of programs at the same
47. For analyses of Rauschenberg’s work of this time in terms of television and film,
see Joseph, 2003, p. 275.
48. Klüver with Martin, 1991, p. 83.
49. Theodor W. Adorno, Current of Music: Elements of a Radio Theory, trans. Robert
Hullot-Kentor, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2006. As Adorno elaborates, “In other words,
through radio, the individual elements of symphony acquire the character of quotation.
Radio symphony appears as a medley or potpourri in so far as the musical atoms it offers
up acquire the touch of having been picked up somewhere else and put together in a
kind of montage.” All too often, this montage gave rise to sonic simplicity and uniformity:
“[I]n the symphonic field those works surrender themselves to radio most readily which
are conglomerates of tunes of both sensual richness and structural poverty—tunes making
unnecessary the process of thinking which is anyhow restrained by the way the phenomenon comes out of the radio set.” Ibid., p. 263, 268.
time.”50 By operating in the empty spots of existing frequency channels, Oracle
matched the localized, concrete, bodily apprehension of noise in radio with the
interstices of commercial radio’s broad sweep. Indeed, Oracle called attention to
the aural deficits of radio as well—foregrounding the compression of sound waves
in radio, the resolutely monophonic result of the device: radio broadcasting could
not produce stereo sound and, as such, fundamentally differed from normal
listening experience. Despite radio’s affinity to “live sound,” an approximation
far closer than television’s similitude to “live action” (as McLuhan and others
observed), radio was still marked by a distortion of sound. Moreover, Adorno
noted that all radio sound was pervaded through a unifying electric current of
noise, or what he called a “hear-stripe”—akin to the screen upon which filmic
images were projected. By abdicating control of the tuning dials to the spectator, who could turn these controls at will, Oracle uncannily enacted the one
possibility of unsettling this mediation that Adorno allowed: “Perhaps if it were
possible to play ‘upon the electric current’ of radio, in the sense that one can play
on a piano or violin, the hear-stripe would disappear. Under present conditions,
however, we know that such a suggestion sounds utopian.”51
In fact, one could argue that the divinations of the cybernetic system were
seemingly mirrored in the determined, standardized broadcast radio networks.
And it becomes clear that Oracle seemed to adopt and disrupt each facet of
this system, upending its smooth transmissions, its bandwidths of transmission, its acoustic plenitude, its “hear-stripe.” Oracle begins to appear as nothing
less than a double deterritorialization of the cybernetic phase of capitalism (so
harrowingly outlined by Deleuze)—and thus of the field of technological innovation and control.52 Radio itself has been a medium continually on the verge of
being outmoded, superseded first by television and now adaptively resurrected
via digital technologies (“internet radio”)—a perpetual condition of displacement incarnated in the evolution of Oracle itself.
50. Ibid., p. 150.
51. Ibid., p. 178.
52. As Deleuze argued, music effects a kind of sonic dematerialization of the body, a
form of “becoming molecular,” an entity that is never fixed into a pattern of organization
or regulation: music incurs a “deterritorialization of the refrain,” an open structure that
disrupts the refrain or rhythmic motif that often structures “an organism’s milieu, territory,
or social field.” See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Becoming-Music,” in A Thousand
Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1980], trans. Brian Massumi, London, Continuum, 2003, p. 299-309. On Deleuze’s reading of music, see Ronald Bogue, Deleuze on
Music, Painting, and the Arts, London, Routledge, 2003, p. 3.
For even as Oracle converted bodily and phenomenological experience of
sculpture into a mediated “broadcast,” it became a measure of obsolescence:
the work has necessarily been updated several times with new technology as
it migrated into different collections. In 1976, the collector São Schlumberger
acquired Oracle; she then donated it to the Musée National d’Art Moderne.
The work was to be shown in the inaugural presentation of the collection when
the muse relocated in the new Centre Georges Pompidou in 1977. Klüver and
Hodges redesigned the equipment so that the AM radios and DC motors could be
moved out of the control console in the staircase and into each piece, eliminating
the need to retransmit the control signals from the console.53 They installed a
“digital proportional remote radio control system” otherwise designed for use in
remote-controlled hobby airplanes. Digital control signals for the volume and
scanning rate were thus transmitted to servomotors (which could, in turn, transfer signals to the individual radios) in the other four pieces.54 Upon arrival at
the Pompidou, however, Oracle was forced to switch from the AM to the FM
band, since the museum’s metal structure acted as a “Faraday cage,” blocking the
interior from the AM range of frequencies.
The work has since required recurrent maintenance and renovation, including regular recharging of the batteries and repair of mechanical breakdowns.55
In 1992, the Centre Georges Pompidou asked Klüver to repair Oracle for the
museum’s fifteenth anniversary. Working with Bruno Seeman, a physicist at the
oilfield technologies company Schlumberger (the collector’s family corporation),
Klüver updated the work for the fourth time—using electronic (as opposed to
motor-powered) scanning and wireless infrared transmitters.56 Built into the very
core of the work’s structure, then, was the ultimate arbitrariness of obsolescence
and technological change. Oracle’s future lay precisely in its degradation.
53. Klüver with Martin, 1991, p. 85-86.
54. Ibid.
55. Klüver, 1997, p. 69.
56. The electro-mechanical, motor-driven scanning had been the main source of
power drainage. The new infrared transmitter system was of a type normally used for
wireless earphones and advantageous because not subject to interference. Billy Klüver,
1994, p. 209. See also Rauschenberg, interview with Dorothy Gees Seckler, December 21,
1965, Tape 1.
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