back
straight up

By proposing that the Dynabook be a "meta-medium" that unifies all media within a single interactive interface, Alan Kay had glimpsed into the future. But he may not have realized that his proposal had roots in the theories of the19th century German opera composer, Richard Wagner.

In 1849, Wagner introduced the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or Total Artwork, in an essay called "The Artwork of the Future." It would be difficult to overstate the power of this idea, or its influence. WagnerŐs description of the Gesamtkunstwerk is one of the first attempts in modern art to establish a practical, theoretical system for the comprehensive integration of the arts. Wagner sought the idealized union of all the arts through the "totalizing," or synthesizing, effect of music drama Đ the unification of music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft. His drive to embrace the full range of human experience, and to reflect it in his operas, led him to give equal attention to every aspect of the final production. He was convinced that only through this integration could he attain the expressive powers he desired to transform music drama into a vehicle capable of affecting German culture.

Twentieth century artists have continued the effort to heighten the viewer's experience of art by integrating traditionally separate disciplines into single works. Modern experience, many of these artists believed, could only be evoked through an art that contained within itself the complete range of perception. "Old-fashioned" forms limited to words on a page, paint on a canvas, or music from an instrument, were considered inadequate for capturing the speed, energy and contradictions of contemporary life.

In their 1916 manifesto "The Futurist Cinema," F.T. Marinetti and his revolutionary cohorts declared film to be the supreme art because it embraced all other art forms through the use of (then) new media technology. Only cinema, they claimed, had a "totalizing" effect on human consciousness.

Less than a decade later, in his 1924 essay describing the theater of the Bauhaus, "Theater, Circus, Variety," L‡szl— Moholy-Nagy called for a theater of abstraction that shifted the emphasis away from the actor and the written text, and brought to the fore every other aspect of the theatrical experience. Moholy-Nagy declared that only the synthesis of the theater's essential formal components Đ space, composition, motion, sound, movement, and light Đ into an organic whole could give expression to the full range of human experience.

The performance work of John Cage was a significant catalyst in the continuing breakdown of traditional boundaries between artistic disciplines after World War II. In the late 1940s, during a residency at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Cage organized a series of events that combined his interest in collaborative performance with his use of indeterminacy and chance operations in musical composition. Together with choreographer Merce Cunningham and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Cage devised theatrical experiments that furthered the dissolution of borders between the arts. He was particularly attracted to aesthetic methods that opened the door to greater participation of the audience, especially if these methods encouraged a heightened awareness of subjective experience. CageŐs use of indeterminacy and chance-related technique shifted responsibility for the outcome of the work away from the artist, and weakened yet another traditional boundary, the divide between artwork and audience.

CageŐs work proved to be extremely influential on the generation of artists that came of age in the late 1950s. Allan Kaprow, Dick Higgins and Nam June Paik were among the most prominent of the artists who, inspired by Cage, developed non-traditional performance techniques that challenged accepted notions of form, categorization, and composition, leading to the emergence of genres such as the Happenings, electronic theater, performance art, and interactive installations.

Allan Kaprow, who coined the term "Happening," was particularly interested in blurring the distinction between artwork and audience. The ultimate integrated art, he reasoned, would be without an audience, because every participant would be an integral part of the work. As he wrote in his 1966 primer, "Untitled Guidelines for Happenings," "The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible." This approach led to a performance style that pioneered deliberate, aesthetically conceived group interactivity in a composed environment. Happenings artists devised formal elements that allowed participants the freedom to make personal choices and collective decisions that would affect the performance.

In this climate, artists became increasingly interested in integrating technology into their work. While technology clearly played a significant role in 20th century arts (such as photography, film, and video, as well as various fine arts genres), it was not until Bell Labs scientist Billy KlŸver placed the potential of advanced engineering into the hands of artists in New York that integrated works of art and technology began to flourish. KlŸver conceived the notion of equal collaboration between artist and engineer. He pioneered forms of art and technology that would have been unimaginable to the artist without the engineerŐs cooperation and creative involvement. With Robert Rauschenberg, KlŸver created several of the earliest artworks to integrate electronic media and to encourage a participatory role for the audience, including Oracle (1963-65) and Soundings (1968).

In 1966 KlŸver co-founded E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) to bring artists and engineers together to create new works. E.A.T.Ős most ambitious production was the Pepsi-Pavilion, designed for the Osaka Expo Ő70 in Japan Đ a tremendously ambitious collaborative, multimedia project that involved over 75 artists and engineers. As KlŸver explained, audience participation was at the heart of their interests: "The initial concern of the artists who designed the Pavilion was that the quality of the experience of the visitor should involve choice, responsibility, freedom, and participation. The Pavilion would not tell a story or guide the visitor through a didactic, authoritarian experience. The visitor would be encouraged as an individual to explore the environment and compose his own experience."

During this period, the British artist and theorist Roy Ascott began to explore the use of computers in artistic expression. One of the first theoretical attempts to integrate the emerging fields of human-computer interactivity and cybernetics with artistic practice is AscottŐs article, "Behavioral Art and the Cybernetic Vision," from 1966-67. Ascott noted that the computer was "the supreme tool that É technology has produced. Used in conjunction with synthetic materials it can be expected to open up paths of radical change in art." Ascott saw that human-computer interaction would profoundly affect aesthetics, leading artists to embrace collaborative and interactive modes of experience.

When Alan Kay arrived in Xerox PARC in 1970, the foundation was in place for a multimedia that synthesized all the existing art forms, and presented them in an environment that allowed for meaningful interactivity. With the Dynabook, the interactive Gesamkunstwerk was brought into the digital realm, and put on-line.