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Figure 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)

-> See the list of figures

In 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 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 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 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]

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 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 (κυβερνητηϚ), 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 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 others.

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] 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 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, interference 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 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]

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 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 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 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, person-to-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 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 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.

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.