In the late 1960s, the artist Juan Downey, known for his moving image work, produced a series of works by the name of Electronic Sculptures. Prescient, the now-defunct sculptures and their blueprints were powered by affect and memories, interacting with their public in an emotional feedback loop: an apparatus that talks back, transforming emotions into electromagnetic energy.
Juan Downey, "Do It Yourself: The Human Voice" (1968). Courtesy of the Juan Downey Foundation.
Society’s suspicion of machines was (and is) very real. In the groundbreaking book Beyond Modern Sculpture, critic and artist Jack Burnham (1931-2019), a contemporary of Downey, sums up his generation’s techno-skepticism as such: “While we look forward to the idea of machines providing our surroundings and sustenance, this violates a sense of equilibrium with the forces of nature which the human race has maintained for hundreds of thousands of years.”4 In writing about the increasing affinities and encounters between new technologies, science, and the arts, Burnham points to the deeply destabilizing entrance of machines in the ecological equilibrium. A contemporary essay by Downey, published in the journal Radical Software, further develops this intuitive repulsion so as to better critique it: “Misapplied technology generates apparent wealth, but, in the process, disharmonizes the interaction between humanity and nature.”5 The perception of disharmony stemmed from technology, perceived for centuries as a strange hybrid, “neither human nor natural,” with no clear category. Juan Downey’s work is a corrective to this discordance: simply put, he identified in machines what he saw as the most human of attributes, emotion and memory.
Downey’s Electronic Sculptures are perhaps the most overlooked in his practice, yet are most indicative of this. The series consists of a multi-year body of work including etchings and temporary sculptures. They were comprised of a particular series by the names of Do It Yourself: Nostalgic Item or Do It Yourself: The Human Voice (1967-1968) which were “blueprints”6 for the sculptures.7 Curator Julieta González, who has written extensively on the artist, remarks that this particular body of work was strongly influenced by art collectives operating internationally at the time: “While in Paris, Downey had been exposed, through the members of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), to one of the most singular movements to emerge out of the alliance between art and technology: Nove Tendencije (New Tendencies).” Paris-based collective GRAV, most singularly, pursued a perceptual-affective line, seeking to “provoke perceptual experiences instead of objects.”8 Art was no longer restricted to the visual realm.
Through a series of audio-kinetic mechanisms co-produced with an engineer, Downey’s electronic sculptures were physically reactive to their interlocutor's presence and actions, operating beyond the pure materiality of the technological object by aiming to study its affective potential. Nostalgic Item, for instance, was initially activated by the visitor through infrared sensors and was meant to be felt. Depending on which area of the sculpture was touched, one of three audio-visual records would be triggered, mimicking the multiple dimensions of human memory: Downey’s “most influential images,” his “favorite songs” or his “favorite poems in three languages” filled the gallery space. Beyond the immediate poetics of a machine as receptacle for music and literature, Nostalgic Item portrayed a technology infused with human warmth, an ability to preserve, remember, and reproduce human experience. The formally minimalist sculpture—what art historian Carla Macchiavello aptly calls a “surrogate body”9 — proceeds to keep a record of the artist’s best and favorite, quite literally initiating a conversation with us, decades before Siri and its cousins.
By the work's title “do it yourself,” the artist means to build a technology that is accessible and friendly to its human counterpart, taking it outside of the shroud of technical specificity in which machines are so often embroiled to this day. Item is a singing sculpture with an interactive personality, an object that is bound to human subjectivity, sensation and emotion; this object is defined and controlled by its human designer: Downey provides a simplified user’s manual in the form of an etching.10 While the rule-bound sculpture could betray an affinity with contemporary Fluxus and conceptual art practices,11 the inclusion of the strongly emotional yet indefinite memories of the artist insists on portraying an illogical machine without practical purpose or efficiency.
In his work Downey spoke of “invisible energies,” which spanned from the technologically-mediated—such as the infrared sensor—to the energy given out by a particular emotional sensation. In other words, the technological object was seen as responsive to emotional energy,12 placing it in affective conversation with us. Just as electromagnetic waves are present in both video and human thought, emotion is seen as a cross-technological energy. The artist Ismael Frigerio, a friend of Downey’s, describes his interest in this invisible, primordial force so often relegated to humans:
[…] you think about how he was able to work magic with lights and invisible energies like sensors, and then videos, which is another kind of energy. He often talked about connecting energies and how mankind was an overlapping body of energy, […] he was speaking rationally and at other times, emotionally.13
The emotional character of these electronic sculptures is paramount: it forms the main channel of communication between organic bodies and mechanical systems, a relationship Downey sees as potentially symbiotic, mutually beneficial. In other words, the (re)habilitation of technology within human sense-perception hinges upon these objects’ receptivity to the invisibility of feeling.
Another important characteristic of the electronic sculptures is their materiality. Made of fragile Formica and electronic components, they were perishable and made to disintegrate, acquiring the softness and temporality of organic bodies. As a matter of fact, none of the original sculptures still exist but are instead re-created for exhibitions, finding continuity in their representation as etchings where they are shown to both produce and be connected by multicolor rays, emitting emotional energy. The significance of this material fragility serves to highlight the often-forgotten fact that technology breaks down over time.
A similar body of work, The Human Voice, was first shown in the exhibition Some More Beginnings (1968) – organized by the now-famous group E.A.T. at the Brooklyn Museum– as The Human Voice, A Time and Space Situation for the Ears.14 Here, the apparatus acts as a transmitter and recorder for the voice, listening to or eavesdropping on the museum-goer’s conversations.15 Although the sculptures retain the technical complexity of most electronics – as illustrated by the many instructions for the sculpture’s use – they have a playful, welcoming and self-aware reaction to their confusing nature. As Downey notes in The Human Voice’s accompanying etching, the sculpture has the capacity to explain itself through voice, an embedded, spoken user guide: “1) you turn on this tape recorder which plays back an explanation/ 2) if you speak here/ 4) your voice comes out here.” By including instructions within the sculpture’s design, Downey signals both a willingness to make the object accessible, and an awareness of the limits of an inherently task-driven technology which always seems to necessitate explanation. The computational phrasing, “if…then” serves to remind us of the cultural primacy of efficacy in technology. In spite of its emotional capacities, the four-part sculpture typified the inherent attributes, design and aesthetics of technology to this day: neutral metallic colors and boxes hiding intricate electronics.
Art historically, Downey’s sculptural practice exemplifies Jack Burnham’s analysis of the intersection of art and technology in the 1960s, what the critic called the “thingification” of sculpture as it rapidly drifted away from an idealistic ‘art for art’s sake’ mindset. Sculpture, Burnham argued, experienced a shift from relative ideological autonomy to a materialist reliance on “life-stimulating systems through the use of technology,” somewhat hurriedly announcing the death of art as “a psychically-impregnated totemic object.”16
Where Downey’s Electronic Sculptures stand out is that their technological embodiment do not resist a psychic-emotional reading. Instead, emotional energy powers these machines, allowing them to gain tremendous autonomy and potential in the unlikely combination of feeling and materiality. This autonomy can be problematic: for Downey, the danger of technology resided in the illusion of control it imprints upon its “user.” Ultimately, he writes, his electronic sculptures only created the “impression that the public could participate in the artwork.”17 Enabled by an interactive personality, technology can then be a kind of trick.
2 Juan Downey, “Architecture, Video, Telepathy: A Communications Utopia (1977),” Video Writings by Artists (1970-1990), (Barcelona: LOOP Barcelona and Mousse Publishing, 2018), 187-188.
3 Hans Jonas. "A Critique of Cybernetics." Social Research 20, no. 2 (1953): 172-92. Accessed April 19, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40969483.
4 Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture, 370.
5 Juan Downey, “Technology and Beyond,” Radical Software Vol. 2, No. 5 (Winter 1973), n.p.
6 Julieta González, “Beyond Technology: Juan Downey’s Whole Earth,” Afterall 37 (Autumn/Winter 2014), 18.
7 add LACE images (dropbox)
8 Carla Macchiavello, “Vento Caldo,” Juan Downey. El Ojo Pensante (Santiago de Chile: Fundación Telefónica, 2010), 23. (my translation).
9 Carla Macchiavello, “Vento Caldo,” 27.
10 Carla Macchiavello describes the role of the etchings as such: “All of Downey’s electronic sculptures find their double in drawings and etchings, which are more than explicative illustrations of the apparatus’ operations, forming all at once a map, a topology, and another system of communication and mediation.” Carla Macchiavello, “Vento Caldo,” 21.
11 Theorist and curator Christiane Paul writes: “Instruction- and rule-based practice, as one of the historical lineages of digital art, features prominently in art movements such as Dada, Fluxus, and conceptual art, which all incorporated variations of formal instruction as well as a focus on concept, event, and audience participation as opposed to art as a unified object.” Christiane Paul, “Introduction,” A Companion to Digital Art (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 5.
12 As a point of comparison, Piero Manzoni and the Gruppo Zero’s interest in invisible energy flows echoes Downey’s. Architect Buckminster Fuller, too, developed an interest in how “much of science became invisible with the introduction of an era of electronics […]” Buckminster Fuller in collaboration with E.J. Applewhite, SYNERGETICS. Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (New York: McMillan Publishing, 1975), n.p.
13 Ismael Frigerio, interview with Valerie Smith, Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect (Cambridge and Bronx, MIT Visual Arts Center and Bronx Museum of Arts, 2011, exhibition catalogue), 126.
14 The exhibition catalogue describes the work, co-produced with engineer Fred Pitts, in the following way: “The Human Voice consists of 3 units each, containing a bistable switch, a radio intercom, a microphone, and either a tape recorder or a radio.” Billy Klüver, Julie Martin and Robert Rauschenberg, Some More Beginnings : an Exhibition of Submitted Works Involving Technical Materials and Processes, New York : E.A.T., 1968. Experiments in Art & Technology (E.A.T.) Collection, Center for Curatorial Studies and Archives, Bard College.
15 González: “The Human Voice brought together a group of people in a space where tape recorders registered conversations and played them back engaging the audience in a feedback dynamic as they would react and interact with the recordings of the conversations.” González, “Communications Utopia,” 23.
16 See Jack Burnham’s art historical analysis: “‘Thingification’ brings sculpture away from its traditional modes of existence; as it does several trends are detectable: “a. The transition of sculpture from craft methodology to a reflection of the modern production of goods. b. The sporadic passage of sculpture from idealism (as expressed through the traditional hieratic values of the sculpted object) to materialism. c. The evolution of sculpture from a psychically-impregnated totemic object toward a more literal adaptation of scientific reality via the model or technologically-inspired artifact. d. And the replacement of inanimate sculpture with life-stimulating systems through the use of technology.” Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture, 6-7.
17 Juan Downey, “Electronically Operated Audio-Kinetic Sculptures (1968),” Leonardo, Vol.2 (1969), 403-406.