“Expanding Systems Aesthetics” SLSA Conference, Houston, November 13, 2015

Expanding Systems Aesthetics: a three-session panel at the
Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Annual Conference


Francis Halsall, Lecturer in the History and Theory of Modern & Contemporary Art, National College of Art and Design, Dublin

Johanna Gosse, Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow and Lecturer, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Columbia University

29th Annual Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) Conference Theme: “After Biopolitics”
November 12–15, Houston, TX

View final conference program here.

Within art history, the idea of “systems” is typically coupled with experimental artistic practices that utilize electronic and telecommunication systems and make reference to cybernetic theory. As a result, the notion of systems-art is often equated with work in so-called “new media,” from contemporary digital art to its major 1960s precedents–including movements and organizations such as E.A.T., Art & Technology, and so forth. This panel builds from last year’s SLSA panel, “Art as Open System since the 1960s,” (co-chaired by Christine Filippone and Johanna Gosse) to explore how systems aesthetics is both historically and conceptually broader and more complex than these established approaches have allowed. Taking the notion of “systems aesthetics” seriously, we argue, has profound implications for understanding art, medium, and the systems of their distribution and display. It means rethinking aesthetic practices in terms of systemic interactions. This has three key, implications: (1) reconfiguring conceptions of inter-subjectivity, participation, and “the social” through ideas of systems; (2) considering how the relation between art and its publics evolved both during and after modernism; (3) applying these insights to contemporary understandings of art, aesthetic experience and subjectivity.

There is increasing evidence that Jack Burnham’s 1968 claim that, “a Systems Esthetic [sic] will become the dominant approach to a maze of socio-technical conditions rooted only in the present,” is gaining currency. A number of recently curated exhibitions, research projects, and publications have taken systems as their primary focus for discussing art practices emerging after modernism; for instance, Edward Shanken’s Systems anthology (Whitechapel/ MIT Press, 2015) and Christine Filippone’s Science, Technology and Utopias in the Work of Contemporary Women Artists (forthcoming Ashgate, 2016).

These discussions on systems and art have tended to employ a particular perspective with three specific points of focus: (1) artists’ and curators’ use of emerging forms of advanced telecommunications and computing in the postwar period; (2) the application of cybernetic theory (e.g. Weiner) and 2nd order cybernetics (e.g. von Foerster; Bateson) in art discourse and practice; (3) the role of systems thinking within strategies of conceptualism and challenges to medium specificity at the end of the 1960s, the period Lucy Lippard famously referred to as “Six-Years: the dematerialization of the art object, 1966-1972.”

Taking these studies and approaches as both a foundation and a point of departure, this panel aims to expand the field of systems aesthetics by moving beyond its narrow application to a particular set of art experiments in the 1960s and their relationship to certain forms of technology and artistic mediums. This expanded approach to systems aesthetics, we argue, offers new theoretical coordinates for thinking about art and its relation to subjectivity and social relations. First, systems provides a framework for a reconfigured art historical narrative of modernism conceived of in terms of the systemic intertwining of mediums, technologies, and modes of perception. Second, this “systemic-turn” has contemporary relevance. Thinking about contemporary mediums, technologies, and modes of perception through and as systems can also tell us something of how life is lived (and art’s role in it) right now.

Our panel will also address how an aesthetics of systems can provide a key conceptual resource for the conference theme of biopolitics. It does so by thinking about how forms of life and thought are positioned within larger systems (natural, cultural, historical, technological). In short, systems provides a theoretical, cultural, social, and political “underpinning of the biopolitical paradigm.”

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Cristina Albu (University of Missouri, Kansas City) on the rise of social complexity in contemporary art;
  • Kris Cohen (Reed College) on systems aesthetics and representing racial difference in the work of Charles Gaines;
  • Jaimey Hamilton Faris (University of Hawai’i, Mānoa.) on contemporary art’s engagement with containerization, global shipping, and transit systems;
  • Christine Filippone (Millersville University), scholar of systems theory and feminist art practices, serving as respondent to Panel II;
  • Erica Levin (Ohio State University) on Stan VanDerBeek’s Violence Sonata (1970), public television broadcasting, and systems of biopolitical control;
  • Mike Maizels (Wellesley College) on William Copley’s M.S. Portfolio (1968) and alternatives to the gallery system
  • Dawna Schuld (Texas A&M University) on the landmark California “Light and Space” exhibition at Tate in 1970 and the systems of institutional critique;
  • Tim Stott (Dublin Institute of Technology) on Jasia Reichardt’s 1969 exhibition Play Orbit and the cybernetics of participation;
  • John Alistair Tyson (National Gallery of Art) on Hans Haacke’s use of weather systems as a metaphor for radical political action;
  • Lane Relyea (Northwestern University) on the impact of localized systems of education, exhibition, and exchange in “everyday art worlds”;
  • Judith Rodenbeck (University of California, Riverside) on anthropological approaches to affect and gesture in contemporary practice.

Conference: Hybrid Practices in the Arts, Sciences, & Technology from the 1960s to Today


Experiments in Art and Technology, “Statement of Purpose,” 1967.
By Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg.

From March 10th through 13th, I will be in Lawrence, Kansas for the Hybrid Practices conference at the University of Kansas. The conference examines the intersection of art & technology since the 1960s, including landmark programs like Experiments in Art & Technology (E.A.T.), the Art & Technology program at LACMA, and the Artist Placement Group. According the conference website, panels “will explore three major aspects of hybrid artistic research including key hybrid projects from the past 50 years; shared vocabularies and the role of language in cross-disciplinary collaboration; and the impact of interdisciplinary work on the identity of the hybrid practitioner.” My interest in the conference stems from my current research on systems aesthetics in 1960s art, especially in the work of mail artist, Ray Johnson. I’m especially looking forward to presentations by my two dear friends and collaborators, Erica Levin and Christine Filippone, and to visiting the exhibition, The Story of E.A.T.: Experiments in Art & Technology, 1960-2001, at the Spencer Museum of Art.  The conference will be livestreamed on the conference website.


Symposium: Surveillance & Privacy: Art, Law, and Social Practice

Installation view of James Coupe and Juan Pampin, Sanctum (2012)
 Photo credit: R.J. Sánchez

Surveillance & Privacy: Art, Law, and Social Practice
 is a much-anticipated, multi-day symposium that has been in the works for over a year under the brilliant leadership of Rachael Faust, formerly of the Henry Art Gallery. The symposium will generate an innovative digital publication and online resource for artists, forthcoming in spring 2015, which I have been asked to conceptualize and edit. All events are open to the public, though tickets are required and some talks, such as Marc Rotenberg’s, are already sold out. All public participation will be recorded and included in the publication, so I encourage you to come and join the conversation.Event details:
Henry Art Gallery, in collaboration with the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS), will host Surveillance & Privacy: Art, Law, and Social Practice, a multi-day symposium focusing on the response of artists and cultural institutions to issues related to privacy and surveillance. Examining historical attitudes, contemporary perspectives, and prognostications about the future of privacy, the symposium will explore how changes in technology, law, and social practices intermingle and impact public perceptions and cultural behavior. Among the works featured for analysis during the symposium is the Henry’s interactive art installation Sanctum, created by UW professors and artists James Coupe and Juan Pampin and installed on the museum’s façade.
In addition to project-focused sessions and panel discussions (November 22, Henry Auditorium), the symposium will feature evening lectures by Marc Rotenberg (November 20, Kane Hall) and Edward A. Shanken (November 21, Henry Auditorium). There will also be a pre-conference lecture co-sponsored by the UW Tech Policy Lab with author and activist Cory Doctorow (October 25, Kane Hall).

Call for Papers: Art as Open System since the 1960s

We welcome your 1-2 page abstract for the session:

Art as Open System since the 1960s

Co-chairs: Christine Filippone and Johanna Gosse

Deadline: April 25, 2014

The Panel is proposed for the 28th Annual Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) October 9-12, 2014 in Dallas, Texas

Introduced into critical art discourse by Jack Burnham in 1968, systems theory was one of the most influential scientific theories for artists working in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Related to the fields of cybernetics, computer technology, automation and systems engineering, the concept of open systems served as a model for artists interested in making dynamic, fluid, and interactive art works. By definition, open systems, such as biological, ecological, or social systems, are characterized by a fluid exchange of matter, energy, and information. Open systems are associated with life, growth and change, qualities that took on special political and social resonance for artists seeking to resist the technocratic logic of Cold War America. An exemplary work of systems art, Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll (1970), consisted of an interactive polling station where visitors were asked to respond “Yes” or “No” by paper ballot to whether Museum of Modern Art trustee and New York gubernatorial candidate Nelson Rockefeller’s support of Nixon’s policies in Vietnam would influence their decision to vote for him. The poll’s outcome was utterly contingent on visitor participation, and prompted a reconsideration of the supposedly “neutral” politics of the museum institution and of modern art in general. This panel asks about the legacy of systems theory for art since the 1960s. How might we use the concept of “open systems” to understand art works that were not explicitly responding to systems theory? What kinds of problems does art-as-open-system pose to the art institution or market?  Does it retain its subversive potential?  How do contemporary critical paradigms such as “relational aesthetics” or affect theory reflect the inheritance of open systems? This session examines the concept of open systems in relation to a wide range of art practices, including mail art, video art, conceptual art, computer art, Fluxus, intermedia, performance art, expanded cinema, sculpture and installation, feminist art, art and technology, land art, new media, and exhibitions. We welcome presentations by scholars, scientists, artists, and curators working on or at the intersection of art and systems.

Please submit a 1-2 page, double-spaced abstract and CV to

cfilippone@millersville.edu and johannagosse@gmail.com by April 25th.