Regarding the Calarts Design School 1970-75 . . .
Interview with Benjamin Tong, for Experimental Impulse exhibition at REDCAT (November 19, 2011 thru January 15, 2012).
BT: When did you first hear about the Design School program at CalArts?
SN: I worked for the architect that designed Calarts. I had been at CCA (California College of the Arts) back then and this was in the late 60s. I was very interested in new artistic languages, art and tech, and there wasn't any at CCA, it was a very traditional arts program. So I left CCA and came back to southern california and got a job with this architect and worked on this huge model of Calarts. I learnt about what Calarts was through this architects office. I went to the Design school because that was the best department to pursue my interest in art and tech, how art was to interface with science technology engineering and architecture. One of the co-directors as Peter Pearce, he did some very interesting work with Bucky fuller and Eames and had developed this whole philosophy about looking at nature for a strategies for design. And Craig Hodgetts was the other co-chair, there were very interesting people there, I was only there for 1 year because I had been to 3 and a half years of college before. And after 1 year Calarts gave me a degree.
What were the main ideas floating around and how were they implemented?
It was this whole new concept about design as being a product of the interface between art and science, it was all very influenced by the early 60s ecology movement: the Whole Earth Catalogue., Victor Papanuk was hanging out there, Design for the 3rd world mvt, the idea that design could think about world problems and social issues instead of just being pretty objects on shelves. That whole deeper more enlightened concept of design was very much a part of that school.
So it was very much informed by the ethos of era?
I think it was a way to sort of summarize the revolutionary thinking that was going on in the 60sd, it certainly did help usher in the e7-0s, I don't know what happened to that direction of thought, once that design school had become integrated with eh art school, but it was the first sort of institutionalized way of thinking about design that I can remember that is extremely relevant today. And it's taken much longer than what those early visionaries at Calarts would have imagined, but it seems that it's taken decades to become much more of a mainstream idea about design
What kind of challenges were there to these ideas becoming mainstream?
I think just institutions just change slowly. It starts with artists and designers and institutions, but those changes just go slowly. I don't know what the other reasons there are. The whole ecology movement, a systematic way of looking at nature just takes a while for it to infiltrate a culture. I think it has now become mainstream. You see its influence, all sorts of debates on the political level, I think that happened primarily because people from the design side and people from the science side got together and got this new way of looking at things and it was very much invested in the early program at Calarts. I don't know if it continued to exist at Calarts but it existed in other places in the world and now it's part of the culture. It was new then. Buckminster Fuller's whole sense of design was really radical. It's taken a few decades for it to become not so radical now.
What was so radical about this new notion of design? How was design being redefined in pedagogy?
Design as a by-product of deep objective analysis, and looking at design as a way of addressing all sorts of issues and less as a way of creating precious objects that are beautiful . . .It was a crazy time. I rebuilt the engine of my VW bus outside in the parking lot at villa Cabrini, I got a critical studies credit for it. Just hung out with these people and there were all these discussions, it was quite a crazy year. People were swimming naked in the pool, trustees were getting upset. It was slightly chaotic but I met a lot of people, made some lasting relationships. Most of all I met people who had a strong influence on me.
Who did you study with back then?
Mainly peter Pearce, who was a great influence on me, he had constructed this elaboration on the geodesic dome concept for arch structures and created this thing called the universal node were he did all sort of space frame structures and he had a business at the time called 'Synestructics' and built playground equipment based on soap bubble polygons. All this crazy organic biological manifestations of what had started out with Fuller as a geodesic. I was fascinated by his work.
I found this document in the archives that outlines the Design School's philosophy and courses. One of the things that was emphasized was these 'hands on' projects like the Aspen Design conference headed by Richard Farson.
Richard farson was the dean. Ben Lifson took his clothes off in a trustees meeting because they were upset about people swimming naked in the pool, so Ben Lifson stripped in the trustees meeting. All these Disney people got themselves into something that they didn't understand. Yeah the Aspen Design conference I remember was a big part of the consciousness of the place. Some of these names I'm remembering, Jivan, I remember him . . ..but I can't remember a single project except the rebuilding of the [VW] engine. It was the first year of a radical new year of an education concept. Calarts wasn't supposed to be what it ended up being. The architect was this very conservative guy named Thornton Lad this architect based in Pasadena. Through a purely political connection they got two of the most radical arts projects, Calarts, and the Pasadena Art Museum now the Norton Simon Museum. They were fairly unremarkable architects. In both cases the structures were almost counter intuitive to the institutions they built them for. And I ended up working for them when I came back from CCA and was working on that model and the building when I was at Calarts at Burbank, a former catholic girls school. They had to build up the facilities and after 12 months they had to abandon them so it was pretty chaotic that first year. I don't remember much traditional schooling going on.
The Design program lasted about 5 years until it got dissolved into the Art program. Do you know what happened?
I was disconnected once I graduated, and headed here [Art Centre], I stayed in touch with peter Pearce but otherwise I lost contact. I know the whole early years were difficult but I don't know the decision to combine the two programs. In retrospect considering how the profession of design has evolved in the years it would have been better to have kept them apart because I think the Design school had a very unique vision of design that no other school had, maybe MIT Medialab was starting up, so some of those same influences were felt in other places, but that was the first place that institutionalized this way of looking at design.
If the Design school and its philosophy could exist in 2011 how do you think its curriculum would it adapt to the different design challenges and needs?
I think in product or industrial design. If you wanted to design a product you need to think of a whole lifecycle analysis on a product, thinking beyond what happened to a product after it has become obsolete. Can a product that's been designed for one purpose, can it be repurposed? Architecture was an integral part of the design school. How do you design responsible buildings, green buildings that don't suck up a lot of natural resources, and buildings that can evolve and change that aren't so rigid, that don't exist in opposition to the nature their set it. So designers have to think of design ethics and design responsibility, knowing audiences and respecting demographic and differences, not trying to homogenize World Culture into one. Designers who think of those things didn't before. My whole curatorial practice now is an expression of those sensibilities that were present at Calarts back then so I see myself as very much connected to it as to what I'm doing professionally now.
Did living in San Francisco, being physically close to these counter cultural movements in the late 60's influence your decision to go to Calarts?
Originally I was in Southern California and I went up there, living in Berkeley, it was a hotbed of lots of social stuff so it was an influential period. But CCA was very much rooted in traditional craft ideas. They had video cameras but they didn't let us use them. I'd seen Merce Cunningham and John Cage in San Fran. There was a lot of Eco awareness in the bay area. This 'post-hippie thing' was leading to a much different world. CCA was mired in the past and Calarts was this answer to my situation because I was so disillusioned to CCA and Calarts was exactly the right thing. I worked for the architect who worked on Calarts, then I worked at Caltech: a version of a program that was created by a Bell lab tech Kluver and Robert Rauschenberg, EAT ( experiments in art and tech). This was one of the first times when artists acknowledged there was something in the sciences that was interesting to combine. So EAT spread around the country. Caltech had it right then in 1969-70 so I went from this architects office to working in a lab at Caltech to be involved in their EAT program. A lot of work that I did in the EAT program I used in my Calarts application, so that's where I was coming from to calarts. It was from an early time I was interested in the intersection of art and science . . .
Did your classmates have similar interests?
I couldn't name a single classmate from Calarts, it was such a weird thing, you weren't in class much together. That first year was so chaotic because it was a temporary building, there wasn't a place where everyone hung out, so I don't remember any of my classmates. It was almost like grad school. Richard Farson was non-traditional, he was into psychology. I remember asking him during the holidays: "was school going to break ," and he said "You know we don't have that here. You come if you need to be here, you don't have to be here . . ." it was so loose.
I read somewhere that he was the first to do these televised group psycholanalysis sessions.
Yeah he was this meditation-esque kind of guy. I remember Nam June Paik was there, though he might have been in the Art school working with TV video imagery. Another guy who influenced me a lot, a filmmaker named john Whitney, one of the first digital computer graphics filmmakers after World War 2.
He made that film with the gun controllers?
He built these analog machines that would make film graphics, he was a real interesting pioneer. He was around that time. I continued to have a relationship with him until he passed away in 1995. Larry Cuba who was a grad in the program also worked with John Whitney. Larry did the graphics for the final trench seen in star wars.
He was a real pioneer who created this optical printer he had setup in his garage at home. When we were at Caltech, he was trying to make films. At Caltech they had a computer film lab, John had a film camera pointed at these picture tube monitors and so you could create fairly complex geometric figures using their computers but they were all black and white stick figure geometries. And so he had rigged it up so that the computer would show one geometric shape that was part of the film then it would send a signal to the camera, the camera would open its shutter, then the camera would send the signal back to the computer and compute the next frame which would take 30-40 seconds, then it would show the next one, then the camera would open. This was an innovation, this was speed compared to what he was doing before. In fact I did a film with him, I still have all the computer programming that I had to do to do the film, a 3 min film, called nnon. I believe I have it on 35 and 16mm. I've been thinking lately that I have to get it transferred. It's funny, I was thinking about that recently, that I have to resurrect that because it's like this little piece of at least my history.
- March 2011