Artworks that cannot be distinctively classified into genre or media tend to frighten me. “9 Evenings” is no different.
The exhibit’s title proper, “9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering,” already ostensibly convey the multimedia aspect of the pieces, as does the curating organization of the exhibition, the aptly named Experiments in Arts and Technology, or E.A.T.
The 1966 exhibition of 9 Evenings caused a bit of uproar in its day; if I’m being completely honest, I would probably be amongst the crowd opposing it. In the world of art, it’s hard to stretch your mind to reconsider the schemata of what you consider to be classified under the term “art” to start to intermingle with your schemata of “technology,” or “performance,” or what have you. In this day and age, not much can surprise the viewer/audience, and for that reason, and, I have to admit might think would be that reason alone, I consider 9 Evenings to be a fantastic exploration of technology and art. In the context of the 60’s, however, I can sympathize with how jarring the exhibit could have been.
The diminishing borders between art and technology were not the only disconcerting aspect of the show. Not only did 9 Evenings stretch art and technology into a convoluted Venn diagram, but it included an aspect of corporate sponsorship that also challenged the nature of art making. The exhibit was done with with Bell Telephone Laboratories, whose namesake we recognize from the famous inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell, and while the relationship was described as a “collaboration,” it was also received as a sponsorship–a method of marketing the corporation. My argument against this perspective is that art has been a channel for promotion and self-advertising for centuries; commissioned paintings of the royal families from eons ago were methods of self-promotion, yet they were still revered for their craftsmanship and beauty. What complicates this analogy is the classical views of craftsmanship and beauty both can apply somewhat universally when referring to early portraiture paintings; art has evolved to state where it is no longer necessary to create aesthetically-pleasing art, nor art that necessitates years of apprenticeship and mastery devoted to a single piece.
The difficulty of 9 Evenings lies therein: the exhibition pushes the boundaries of definition, which is, in a very carnal and reactionary way, extremely unsettling. Yet I — or at least, the version of me that was born in this era of encouraging the stretching of definitions — find the pieces beautiful, especially the ethereal nature of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Open Score.” New media is simply that–it’s new, and however scary that may be, it excites me to see what may come next.