Syllabus - From Wagner to Virtual Reality

Notes: September 6, 13

Richard Wagner: "Outline of the Artwork of the Future"

Wagner"Whereas the public, that representation of daily life, forgets the confines of the auditorium, and lives and breathes now only in the artwork which seems to it as Life itself, and on the stage which seems the wide expanse of the whole World."

For Richard Wagner, the "Artwork of the Future" represented a rejection of lyric opera, which the German composer considered hopelessly superficial, a tired showcase for pompous divas. Yet the implications of this landmark publication go well beyond the transformation of opera. Wagner believed that the future of music, music theater, and all the arts, lay in an embrace of the "collective art-work," a fusion of the arts that had not been attempted since the classic Greeks. In this essay, we find the first comprehensive treatise arguing for the synthesis of the arts, or as Wagner defines it, the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork.

Wagner was convinced that the separate branches of art -- music, architecture, painting, poetry, and dance - would attain new poetic heights when put to the service of the drama, which he viewed as the ideal medium for achieving his vision. His totalizing approach to music theater also foreshadowed the experience of virtual reality. Scenic painting, lighting effects, and acoustical design were intended to render an entirely believable "virtual" world , in which the proscenium arch becomes the interface to the stage environment. In 1876, twenty-seven years after the "Artwork of the Future," Wagner took this approach even further when he opened the famous Festpielhaus Theater in Bayreuth, Germany, where his theatrical innovations included: darkening the house, surround-sound reverberance, the orchestra pit, and the revitalization of the Greek amphitheatical seating to focus audience attention on stage.

While Wagner's hyper-romantic rhetoric may seem archaic today, there is acumen and foresight in Wagner's approach to the integration of the arts, which illuminates contemporary notions of interdisciplinary media art.


Richard Wagner defined his vision of the artwork of the future as a new interdisciplinary form, the integration of all the arts into a single form of expression. This article divides Wagner's view of the arts into the following areas:

1. Drama - The idealized vehicle of Wagner's interdisciplinary vision. All the arts serve the purpose of articulating the drama as the highest level of human expression.

2. Architecture - The structure for staging the drama, the interface between the theatrical work and the audience.

3. Painting / Scenery - The frame of the painting is dissolved and spills out into the spatial configuration of the stage. The visual artist also turns to light to achieve his effects, thus painting with light.

4. Dramatic Action - This integration of the arts must ultimately serve the acting out of the story that takes place on stage. The live performance is at the center of the dramatic form.

5. Artistic Man - The performer is the vehicle for the unfolding of the narrative. The physical body is in its own sense an interdisciplinary entity, the integration of movement, speech, and singing.

6. Music - The highest form of expression, the emotive vehicle that transports the performer and in turn the audience. The orchestra is the "organ" of the drama, besides the voice, the primary instrument of expression.

FestpielhausWagner built his theater, the Festpielhuas (Festival House), in Bayreuth Germany, opening in 1876 with the first performance of The Ring cycle. The theater was constructed to immerse the audience visually and sonically in the experience of music-theater. Wagner was the first to turn the lights down in the theater, and the effect was a forerunner of virtual reality, a theater that enveloped its audience in the illusion of an imaginary world that unfolded on stage.

László Moholy-Nagy (1874 - 1947)

"The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction, and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras." -- László Moholy-Nagy

László Moholy-Nagy, "Theater, Circus, Variety," The Theater of the Bauhaus, 1929

"The Theater of Totality with its multifarious complexities of light, space, plane, form, motion, sound, man and with all the possibilities for varying and combining these elements must be an ORGANISM." -- László Moholy-Nagy

This treatise arose from the ferment of the Bauhaus School, founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919, where the very notion of art was being reconfigured according to its function and integration with architecture and technology. Although the Bauhaus is best known for its contribution to industrial design aesthetics, artists which included László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandisnky used the school as a laboratory to further examine principles of abstraction in such media as painting, photography and sculpture. This foray led Moholy-Nagy, along with the sculptor Oskar Schlemmer, to formulate a theater for the Bauhaus based on a reductive approach to the synthesis of its primary elements: "space, form, motion, sound and light."

In the pursuit of a theater of abstraction, or Theater of Totality as Moholy-Nagy called it, he denounced, like the Futurists, the primacy of the "logical-intellectual " literary text. Here the written word, and by extension the physical presence of the actor, was given equal footing in the larger interplay and integration of lighting, music, and stage design. The influence of machine technology, so prominent in Moholy-Nagy's work in painting, photography and film, led to the concept of the "Mechanized Eccentric," in which the centrality of the human body in traditional theater was ultimately subsumed in a mechanical rendering and abstract play of stage action and movement.

Moholy-Nagy's writings on the Bauhaus theater established new formal groundrules for the synthesis, organic unity and syntax of theater art. His ideas also profoundly challenged the relationship between the viewer and the work. He proposed that the new dynamic means of mechanized light, stagecraft, film, electronic sound, and "an enhanced control over all formative media," be used to dissolve the sacred fourth wall between stage and spectator. He envisioned fantastic mechanical devices moving across the multi-planed stage, an architectonic reorganization of theatrical space that would literally immerse spectators in 3-dimensional action. At this point of interpenetration, The Theater of Totality called for an end to the passivity of the audience, a theater which will "let them take hold and participate actually allow them to fuse with the action on the stage at the peak of cathartic ecstasy."

László Moholy-Nagy is considered to be the first major artist born before 1900 to be called an "electronic artist." Moholy-Nagy taught at the Bauhaus during the 1920s where he developed his fascination for the integration of art and technology, the poetics of the machine, stating, "my belief is that mathematically harmonious shapes, executed precisely, are filled with emotion quality, and that they represent the perfect balance between feeling and intellect."

From this he infused his works with a refined, dynamic energy, in which his aim was to reveal movement through layering and spatial effects. Moholy-Nagy was influenced by Russian Constructivisim and Dadaism, combining the highly controlled geometric forms with a playful, improvised quality. Many of the motifs in his early paintings were drawn from mechnical shapes, gears, levers, and typographical characters, such as in this painting "Large Emotion Wheel" (1921). His quest to find the emotive qualities of lines and abstract shapes is revealed in the title of this painting as well in the remark, "the drawings became a rhythically articulated network of lines, showing not so much objects as my excitement about them."

To achieve the illusion of space, in such works as "Composition Z VIII" (1924), objects are foregrounded, backgrounded, transparent, opaque, light to dark. His interest in 3-dimensionality was influenced by the cubists, breaking away from the conventions of traditional perspective. Moholy-Nagy stated, "Tearing apart the old visual conception, the cubist painters originated a new means of rendering, as well as a space articulation. The cubists hoped to develop a method to penetrate reality more thoroughly than had been possible with perspective-illusion."

Not only a depth of space, but movement, floating without sense of gravity, though anchored structurally through shape.With "Construction" (1932), Moholy-Nagy had achieved what he referred to as 'vision in motion,' floating objects in space, no longer grounded, but achieving a new harmony in a state of equilibrium."

"This kind of picture is most probably the passage between easel painting and light display." Eventually Moholy-Nagy saw the limitation inherent in pigment on canvas and worked towards the use of light as a means of achieving new imagery and qualities of abstraction. Moholy-Nagy began working with light-sensitive technique, the photogram, in the early twenties. Exposing light to light sensitive paper, objects placed on paper were not exposed, thus revealing a transluscent shape: thus literally "painting with light."

He used the photogram in a non-represential way to achieve a sense of space and floating that he strove for in the paintings, and to create even more complex layered effects.

Infinite shades of light and transparency, a 3-dimensional virtual world made up of the shadows of reality. Moholy-Nagy felt that the composition of light was the future of painting, a prophesy come true with the advent of digital imaging.

"I became interested in painting with light, not on the surface of canvas, but directly in space. The advancement towards space, light, vision in motion was fully realized with the Light Space Modulator" (1930). Moholy-Nagy worked on this throughout his years at the Bauhaus, finally completed after he left his teaching position in the late 1920s.

A mechanically driven rotating kaleidoscope projecting ever-changing patterns of light, shadow and color in a darkened space or theater, the sculpture is not the constuction per se but rather the play of light in the space. After finishing the sculpture, Moholy-Nagy created the film "Light Display Machine: Black, White, Grey" (1932) to integrate film media achieving an even more complex, layered perspective."When the 'light-prop' was set in motion for the first time in a small mechanics shop in 1930, I felt like the sorcerer's apprentice. The mobile was so startling in its coordinated motions and space articulations of light and shadow sequences that I almost believed in magic."

The Great Northeastern Failure
by Billy Klüver

The new interface I will define is one in which the artist makes active use of the inventiveness and skills of an engineer to achieve his purpose The artist could not complete his intentions without the help of an engineer. The artist incorporates the work of the engineer in the painting or the sculpture or the performance."

In the late 1950s, the Swedish-born engineer Billy Klüver worked on laser systems for Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. His interest though was not satisfied by purely scientifc pursuit, rather, it lie in the exploding artistic milieu that gave rise to pop art, minimalism, and Happenings a short drive away in New York City. Klver quickly befriended the leading exponents of the "new arts," as Higgins described it, that grew into lifelong friendships and collaborations with such key figures as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Claus Oldbenberg, and John Cage. Klver became the self-proclaimed spokesman and chief catalyst for the art and technology movement that was launched most dramatically in the spring of 1960 at the Museum of Modern Art with Jean Tinguely's infamous self-destructing kinetic sculpture, "Hommage to New York." Klver's participation in this work, with its paint bombs, chemical stinks, noisemakers, and fragments of scrap metal, inspired a whole generation of artists to imagine the possibilities of technology, as the machine destroyed itself "in one glorious act of mechanical suicide."

Klver more than anyone foresaw the potential for the integration of art and technology. In this article written just six years after his collaboration with Tinguely, he cites Aristotle and his notion of Techne as belonging nostalgically to a time when there was no differentiation between the practice of art and science. As a result, Klver proposed for the first time in modern culture the active and equal participation of the artist and engineer. He also believed that the contemporary artist, in the spirit of Rauschenberg's famous credo "to close the gap between art and life," had an obligation to incorporate technological materials such that "the artist cant ignore technology because technology has become inseparable from our lives." Klüver also held the conviction that engineers required participation with the artist, who as a "visionary about life" and an active agent of social change, would free the engineer from enslavement in the corporate-economic machine, involving him in meaningful cultural dialog.

Shortly after this article was authored, Klüver and Rauschenberg founded the now legendary E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), encouraging the collaboration of artists and engineers across the country in interdisciplinary technology-based art projects. Klüver's work thus takes on greater significance when considering the extent to which this notion of collaboration and the synthesis of art and technology has been assimilated into the contemporary media arts. Over thirty years ago Klüver proclaimed that "technology has become part of our lives," suggesting that in order to bridge the divide between science and culture, artistic creation as in Aristotlian times must become reunited with scientic discovery.

Billy Klüver: Artists, Engineers, and Collaboration

Billy Kluver (1927 - ) Collaboration Between Artists and Engineers

Billy Klüver is a Swedish physicist and former researcher at Bell Labs who collaborated with such noted artists as Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol during the 1960s. Klüver was the prime catalyst for the art and technology movement that grew out of the New York art world during a period of disenchantment with traditional painting techniques. He would commute into NY every evening after finishing his work at Bell Labs in NJ and mingle with the arts comuunity.

Klüver was a strong proponent of interdisciplinary collaboration between artists and scientists, he felt that contemporary artists no longer had a need to create luxury objects but rather create art that had a greater involvement with society. He also felt that engineers, typically the "servants" of corporate America, could become social revolutionaries in their own right through their collaboration with artists. He found parallels between art and science, read Marhall McLuhan, Buckminister Fuller and felt that since the new electronic technology would come to touch everyones life, that artists needed to incorporate it.

Klüver's first major collaboration, "Homage to New York" (1960), a kinetic sculpture by Jean Tinguely, self-destructed in the sculpture garden at the New York Museum of Modern Art in March in 1960. Art critic Calvin Tomkins wrote, "There, in the freezing slush, the Swiss kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely is still hard at work on his magnum opus, a huge construction whose sole purpose is to destroy itself in one glorious act of mechanical suicide. the piece is composed of scrap metal, bicycle parts, a washing machine drum, an upright piano, a radio, several electric fans, an old Addressograph, a baby's bassinet, three dozen bicycle and baby carriage wheels, uncounted small motors and fan belts, two Tinguely "meta-matics" (motor-driven devices that produce instant abstract paintings by the yard), several bottles of chemical stinks, an apparatus to make smoke, bells and Klaxons and other noisemakers, and yards and yards of metal tubing, the entire apparatus painted white and topped by an inflated orange meteorological balloon. It is call Homage to New York."

In the early 1960s, after his collaboration with Jean Tinguely, Klüver began a long association with Roberg Rauschenberg. Their first collaboration was a work entitled, Dry Cell (1963). Dry Cell combined silkscreens, ink, and paint on plexiglass, as well as metal, string, sound transmitter, wire, circuit board, motor and batteries. An interactive work, Dry Cell engaged the audience in an exchange, a dialog between human and machine, in which the viewers are invited to talk or make other sounds into a microphone on the face of the work. In response, a small propellerlike piece of metal begins to rotate.

The next collaboration with Rauschenberg resulted in the 1965 work, "Oracle" (1965). In Klver's words, "Oracle was shown at Leo Castelli Gallery on 77th Street in May 1965.A sound environment using 5 AM radios from a central control unit, the audience varies the volume and the rate at which AM band is scanned. Sound was retransmitted on FM to receivers and speakers. The radios were then placed in five sculptures made up of found objects taken from the streets of NY and the viewer could freely walk among them. Oracle becomes an animated cityscape. The sound too can be "rearranged" in ever changing bits of music, talk, and noise, loud, soft, clear or full of static. The sound from the five radios comes to you as it would on the streets of a city neighborhood. The work is now in the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou with updated technology, electronic scanning and infrared transmission. After thirty years the technology has caught up with the artist, and Oracle is performed as it was conceived."

The next year, KlüverKlüver collaborated with Andy Warhol on the work, "Silver Clouds" (1966), and described the process of developing the piece in the following way, "another colleague found a material called Scotchpak...which the United States Army used to vacuum-pack sandwiches. Andy wanted to use the material to make clouds. While we were experimenting with how to heat-seal curves, Andy took the material, folded it over, and made his Silver Clouds.

In the same year, a number of artists expressed an interest in staging large scale performance works, and thus the infamous Nine Evenings was born. Nine evenings was performed at the 169th St. Regiment Armory in New New York that launched E.A.T (Experiments in Art and Technology).

Artists including John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Robert Rauschenberg, and others participated in these collaborative works with more than 30 engineers. One of the works included "Open Score" by Robert Rauschenberg, in which two tennis players hit electronically modified racquets that triggered a bong sound and gradually turned the lights out in the auditorium. The piece concluded when the audience was in complete darkness. More than 10,000 people attended the performances.

In November of 1966, after the enormous excitement surround Nine Evenings, a meeting was held in which hundreds of artists showed up to request technical help for projects. Thus E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) was born. E.A.T. spread like wildfire across the country, spawning chapters that not even its founder Billy Klver knew about. E.A.T. solicited members from both the engineering and art sectors and began publishing a newsletter, E.A.T. News, whose second issue reported that over three hundred artists had expressed interest in the program. The newsletter also included a coauthored statement by Kluver and Rauschenberg announcing their goal "to catalyze the invenitable active involvement of industry, technology, and the arts."

Perhaps more importantly though, as a result of Klüver's influence on artist Robert Rauschenberg, one of the key figures in 20th Century art, together they conspired to bring about a new interactive relationship between the viewer, the artist, and the art object. In Rauschenberg's installation "Soundings," (1968), a 36-foot long mirror-sculpture is responsive to the voice of the viewer, as well as other extraneous sounds including weather and traffic noise. The mirror's imagery is revealed by means of sound-activated rear lighting, exposing its luminous mural of rotating chairs. Rauschenberg's goal was "to make the viewer responsible for the artwork that he or she sees Earlier I was the artist. Now the viewer will make the image, not I."

In 1968, the Museum of Modern Art, along with the curator Pontus Hulten, embarked on one of the most important exhibitions of art and technology in this century, "The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age." At MOMA, Hulten put together a historical chronology of works that embodied the relationship between artist and technology since the time of Leonardo, including Futurist paintings and the Light Space Modulator of Lszl Moholy-Nagy. In conjunction with the MOMA exhibition, E.A.T. also collaborated by staging an exhibition at the Brooklyn Art Museum of works by contemporary artists.

Later in 1968, Pepsi Cola approached E.A.T. with the idea of creating a pavilion for the Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan. Sixty-three artists, including Robert Breer, Robert Whitman, Frosty Myers, and David Tudor participated in the ambitious event. Built of plastics and lined with the reflective material mylar, the dome constituted an early form of virtual reality in which holographic reflections of the visitors were reflected.

According to Klüver, "the visitor entered the pavilion through a tunnel and descended into a dark clam-shaped room, lit only by moving patterns of laser light from a sound-activiated laser display system display. The path continued upstairs into the main space of the pavilion, a ninety-foot diameter, 210-degree spherical mirror made of aluminized mylar. The floor and the people moving on it were all reflected upside down as "real" images in the mirror. A "real" image produced in a spherical mirror resembles a hologram." The sound component was also 3D, "sounds could be moved from speaker to speaker at varying speeds linearly across the dome and in circles around the dome." Way ahead of its time, this was one of the first immersive installations created with electronic and high-tech materials.

Outside the Pavillion, perpetual fog banks crept over the dome and a krypton laser rainbow light showered the World Expo. Robert Breer's Kinetic sculptures, mysterious domed objects emitting sound, floated around the dome in random trajectories. Three million people visited the pavilion during the summer of 1970.


Pavilion at Night

Pavilion at Night

The outside of the Pavilion's geodesic dome, with floats on left side and the entrance tube on the right. Light towers illuminate the fog.

Lasers in Clam Room

Once entering the Pavilion, the visitor is showered in rapidly moving laser beams in the Clam Room, directly beneath the Dome Room.

Girl with Flag

Inside Dome Room

A girl with flag stands in the dome room, where the mirror is situated, in a performance work by Remy Charlip. Her reflected "real" image hangs upside down above her, the "virtual" image is in the background where the spherical mirror is located.


Draped Ballon

Balloon draped with cloth reflects "real" image in mirror. Note the "winch" light hanging from the center of the dome.


Blossoming Reflected Images

Additional images of the work by Remy Charlip, in which cloth material blossoms in the mirror, due to the "winch" light which projects from below the center of the dome.


Artist Expertise

The "expertise" that artists bring to the collaboration comes directly from their experience in making art. the artist deals with materials and physical situations in a straightforward manner with the limits of generally accepted functions of an object or situation, and without assigning a value hierarchy to any material. The artist makes the most efficient use of materials, and achieves the maximum effect with minimum means. The artists is sensitive to scale and how it affects the human being.

Engineer Expertise

The engineer, of course, brought to these collaborations technical expertise and an interest in problem solving. While the technology needed by the artists might often be "trivial" from the engineer's point of view, its application in a new environment for a new use provided difficulty and challenge.


Those of us in the technical community in the early sixties who were worried about the direction of technological change believed that artist' ideas, approaches, and concerns could influence the way engineers approach technological or day-today social problems. Our collaborations, we hoped, could lead technological development in directions more beneficial to the needs, desires, and pleasures of the individual.