From Neural Nets to Nervous Spectators: Cybernetics, Design & Securitization in the Cold War
The Institute for Public Knowledge (20 Cooper Sq., 7th Fl., Manhattan)

In the midst of the Cold War a new architecture of perception emerges; a vast cavern built by the famous American architect, cybernetician, and futurist, Buckminster Fuller, and filled with a multi-image installation created by the preeminent American designers Charles and Ray Eames. The installation was constructed in Sokolniki Park in Moscow as part of the first “cultural exchange” between the USA and the USSR.

Here, at this site, many new forms of presentation are paraded. As audiences were shown a novel form of information dense multi-screen presentation, Nikita Khrushev and Richard Nixon debate the variable merits of American and Soviet kitchen design and technology in front of the new television cameras. Beneath the multi-media spectacle was displayed Edward Steichen’s “the Family of Man”, a photographic essay demonstrating human biological diversity and equivalence through tropes of heterosexual reproduction and nuclear family.

A “totally new type of presentation”, in the words of Charles and Ray, the installation was envisioned as a “letter” between two cities in a world where writing would no longer suffice. In the face of this imagined textual collapse, the designers believed visual images might serve as a new mode of human interaction. 2200 images were shown on seven screens for 13 minutes. The piece was edited by a pioneer in digital cinema heavily influenced by cybernetics—John Whitney– and the theory behind its construction was based on communication theory, computing, and the feedback theories of psychiatrist Kenneth Craik. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people saw it. Rumor has it that even Nikita Khrushev upon seeing the movie may have wept. Everyone, according Buckminster Fuller, “had tears in their eyes as they came out” of the opening show. Ray Eames called it an “affective” experience.

This scene thus introduces three linked concepts as related to our current understandings of governmentality and securitization—new media formations, novel ideas about cognition, vision, and perception, and communications theories and cybernetics. But the scene also reveals older histories of nation and population upon which this architecture of affect and attention is layered. These information displays cannabalized an archive of older normative and disciplinary tropes of biology, sexuality, race, and gender while producing entirely new modes of attention and visuality.

It is Prof. Halpern’s intention to interrogate this historical relationship between communication science, neuro-science, and design to produce an account of transformations in techniques of governmentality. Starting with this scene in 1959, and linking theses designers to cybernetically influenced researchers in neuro-science, cognitive science, and the social sciences, she intends to develop an account of how racial, gendered, and national difference were reconfigured at this moment of history through new strategies of information design and multi-media spectacle; a politics of attention configured through an emergent discourse of information and encoded into new architectures of both knowledge and media.

By examining attitudes to the mind, machine, government, and eye together, Prof. Halpern aims to develop an account of how perception and power were logistically reconfigured in communication science with broad implications for how we will think about the political and the aesthetic in relationship to digital media and technology.