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Volume 4, Issue 2
February/March 2004



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Lab Notes, Research from the College of Engineering

1957: Billy Kluver, the father of electronic art, earns his PhD
by David Pescovitz

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Photo of Kluver

Billy Kluver with a battery-powered neon letter he created for Jasper Johns's Field Painting (1964).

At the intersection of art and technology lies one of the most fertile grounds for creative expression. And it was a UC Berkeley engineer who planted the early seeds that grew into the rich genre of electronic art. Billy Kluver (EE '57) died January 11 at the age of 76.

In the 1960s, Kluver collaborated with famed artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely, John Cage, and Andy Warhol on works that influenced the last three decades of tech-art. For example, Kluver designed an audio system for Rauschenberg's sculpture Oracle that enabled the viewer to "play the sculpture as an orchestra from the controls on one of the pieces."

Born Johan Wilhelm Kluver in Monaco on November 13, 1927, he grew up in Salen, Sweden, where his father built the first ski hotel in the country. After graduating in electrical engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, he worked on projects ranging from the television antenna atop to the Eiffel Tower to an underwater video camera for Jacques Cousteau. Kluver received his PhD in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley in 1957 and taught in the department the following year. From 1958 to 1968, he was on the technical staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and it was during his years at Bell Labs that he became immersed in New York's thriving avant-garde art scene.

Kluver’s informal collaborations with artists reached their pinnacle in 1966 when he and Rauschenberg organized "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering." The performance series incorporated new technology developed by 10 artists working with more than 30 Bell Labs engineers.

Photo of Kluver

Billy Kluver working on Oracle (1965), a collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg.

Encouraged by the success of "9 Evenings," Kluver and Rauschenberg then founded Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), a non-profit organization designed to match artists with engineers and scientists. In 1970, Kluver led the EAT team to design the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan, a tour-de-force of high-tech installation art.

Kluver went on to write and edit several books, most recently A Day With Picasso, published by MIT Press in 1997. Kluver discussed this work during his last visit to UC Berkeley in the fall of 1997, as a speaker in professor Ken Goldberg's Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium. Coincidentally, the presentation was scheduled on Kluver's 70th birthday. After his energized presentation, Kluver was surprised with a cake and a special gift--a bound copy of his dissertation, presented by his PhD advisor, EECS professor Emeritus John Whinnery.

"Billy Kluver was an inspiration to everyone in the art and technology community," says Goldberg, who is also an internationally recognized artist. "He showed that a serious engineer could make serious art."

Photo of Kluver

Billy Kluver (center) in 2003 at the New York City opening of Mori, an art installation directed by Ken Goldberg (second from left).

When Kluver died, he and his wife Julie Martin were working on a social history of international art communities from 1945 to 1965 in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. Kluver is survived by Martin; daughter Maja Kluver of Brooklyn, NY; son Kristian Patrik Klüver of Boulder, Colorado; half brothers Björn Tarras-Wahlberg and Lorentz Lyttkens; and half sister Ase Lyttkens all of Stockholm, Sweden.


Related Sites
In Depth: Billy Kluver

The Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium


Lab Notes is published online by the Public Affairs Office of the UC Berkeley College of Engineering. The Lab Notes mission is to illuminate groundbreaking research underway today at the College of Engineering that will dramatically change our lives tomorrow.

Media contact: Teresa Moore, Lab Notes editor, Director of Public Affairs
Writer, Researcher: David Pescovitz
Web Manager: Michele Foley

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