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Celebrating the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, a pioneer in melding art, science, and tech

Fifty years after its founding, the vision of CAVS and founder György Kepes lives on in the Program in Art, Culture and Technology.

In March 1968, on the same weekend that MIT dedicated its Center for Theoretical Physics, the Institute also inaugurated the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS). The juxtaposition was no coincidence. Founded by artist and MIT Professor György Kepes in 1967, CAVS was created as a fellowship program that brought cutting-edge visual artists into contact with scientists and engineers in the MIT community. The joint dedications were a declaration of MIT’s commitment to the arts, and its conviction that art and science are complementary and indispensable mission partners.

“Kepes and his colleagues, the people who founded CAVS, had lived through one or even two world wars,” says Gediminas Urbonas, director of the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT), which was created when CAVS merged with MIT’s Visual Arts Program in 2009. “They had witnessed how a certain segment of mankind had used technology to cause destruction on an almost unimaginable scale. They believed in the arts, and in their potential to humanize those technologies so they might be used to help the human species thrive.”

This May, with the opening of an exhibition of artworks by renowned MIT alumni titled “In Our Present Condition,” the School of Architecture and Planning launched a yearlong celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of CAVS. “We adhere to the idea that art has its place alongside science and technology,” says Laura Knott, a CAVS alumna who co-curated the “In Our Present Condition” show, which is on view at the Dean’s Office Gallery through April 2018. “CAVS was the first program of its kind. And while it has since sparked similar programs around the world, MIT’s leadership in the field remains unsurpassed.”

Scheduled through spring 2018, the 50th anniversary celebration will include exhibitions on campus — including at the MIT Museum — a symposium, several publications, site-specific art installations, a fall lecture series, and the Oct. 25 launch of a "Virtual Museum" that will make CAVS archival materials available to researchers and the public.

“Fifty years ago, the founders of this initiative showed remarkable conviction and foresight in its creation,” says Urbonas, an internationally-recognized artist who came to MIT in 2009. “But what is even more remarkable is how the work and ideas that their initiative produced are still relevant to our present world. We are living in the future that they imagined. And that work, which was so avant-garde that it is only now being assessed by art historians, can help us address many of the crises that have and will emerge.”

CAVS owed much of its early prominence and character to Kepes, the Hungarian-born and educated painter, designer, photographer, and educator who founded the initiative in 1967. Kepes came to MIT in 1946 after a stint as head of the Light and Color Department at the Institute of Design in Chicago, which was then known as the New Bauhaus. He served as director at CAVS until 1974. He passed away in 2001.

“György Kepes was the greatest pioneer in the marriage of art and technology in America,” playwright Alan Brody, then the associate provost for Arts at MIT, said at the time of Kepes’s death. “He was a visionary, a towering intellect, and a breathtaking artist. He single-handedly created the Center for Advanced Visual Studies and turned it into an internationally acclaimed program for the development of the finest in late 20th century art.”

To honor Kepes and his legacy, the MIT Museum will host two exhibitions of his photographs. The first, “György Kepes Photographs: From Berlin to Chicago, 1930-1946,” opens on Sept. 21 and will feature work from the artist’s time in Europe and Chicago. The second show, “The MIT Years, 1946-1974,” which will run from March 16 through Aug. 31 of 2018, concentrating on the body of work he created while at MIT. Many of the works that will be on display in both shows have never been shown in public.

A third exhibition on view at the MIT Museum, beginning in February, will present a historical overview of CAVS through selected works by research fellows, students, and faculty. Installations will be located throughout the museum and draw from a range of media and methods.   

Another anniversary project — one of the most ambitious and intriguing — is “Futurity Island,” a large-scale land-based outdoor art installation. Two years in the making and the recent recipient of an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Futurity Island project will address vital questions about how artists function under changing climatic conditions, how cities imagine new possibilities for waterfronts, and how the making and teaching of art will adjust to the new realities of rising sea and water levels. The installation will be presented to the public in 2018.

In addition to promoting collaborations between visual artists, scientists, and engineers at MIT, CAVS encouraged its visiting fellows to experiment with emerging technologies such as laser, video, and holography, and to devise novel applications of existing technologies like steam power. Early CAVS fellows included composer Maryanne Amacher, avant-garde filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek, artist and educator Lowry Burgess, video artist Peter Campus, performance artist Charlotte Moorman, artist Nam June Paik, and Otto Piene, the artist who directed CAVS from 1974 to 1994.

During its first two decades, many CAVS projects examined humanity’s relationship with the planet, and its environment. The center also pursued a mandate in civic art. In 1977, the “documenta 6” exhibition in Kassel, Germany, commissioned CAVS to create Centerbeam, a massive multimedia structure that was later mounted on the National Mall in Washington.

Later, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the work shifted toward questions of geopolitics, identity, and environmental citizenship. Artists used film, sculptural and digital interventions, and installations to explore the conditions of humans living in repressive or totalitarian societies, or recovering from natural disasters. Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, the last director of CAVS, was instrumental in this shift.

Today, the heirs to CAVS broaden their legacy by engaging and testing the limits of the technologies of communication. “Art can hack and subvert technologies,” says Urbonas. “But what art ultimately does is try to understand technology, to propose new spaces in our collective imagination so we can come up with better answers and uses for it. We are pleased to be able to celebrate CAVS and its glorious past. But we are even more determined to apply what these artists have created and will create to the urgencies of our time.”

Story originally published September 27, 2017 by Ken Shulman, MIT School of Architecture and Planning for MIT News.