How the 62 Year Story of Art at MIT Shaped the Media Lab Ethos

Michael Naimark
11 min readSep 18, 2019
Gyorgy Kepes books during his MIT years, 1947–1974.

On the opposite end of the Media Lab complex from the Director’s office resides MIT’s Program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT), a long-unrelated program which spent 30 years on opposite side of campus, by choice. In 2010, after the Media Lab tripled its size with an expansion, MIT leadership decided to move ACT into the expanded complex, presumably for more interaction with the Media Lab. While the Media Lab is about “technologies that promise to transform,” ACT is about “critical studies and production.”

Since the move, as before, there’s been little interaction. But what if, challenging as it may be, the Media Lab folded in ACT (whose faculty and fellows are over 50% female) as part of the fabric of its community and everyday activities? Would a larger (pun intended) critical mass have existed inside? Could it have tipped the scale for the exiting faculty and the concerned women? It’s tempting to speculate that the Media Lab’s balance between enthusiasm and criticality may have been more centered and that its moral compass may have been more influential in its decision making.

Speculation aside, the sixty-two year history of art at MIT helped shape the ethos of the Media Lab. In the big scheme of this current, ugly, complicated episode, the story of the arts is a minor one but largely untold. It is hoped to offer some insights for moving forward. It is also hoped to offer insights to other creative technology centers — academic, corporate, government, and nonprofit “media labs” — for how to integrate enthusiasm and criticality.

I. 1947 — Agent Zero: Gyorgy Kepes

(Boston Public Library)

The story begins in 1947, when MIT appointed Gyorgy Kepes as its first arts professor. Kepes, a painter, designer, and budding filmmaker, had already emigrated to the US with fellow Hungarian and early Bauhaus member László Moholy-Nagy to start the “New Bauhaus” at the Illinois Institute of Design in Chicago.

In 1951, Kepes curated an exhibition at MIT called The New Landscape in Art and Science, which by all accounts, was absolutely extraordinary. Though there…

Michael Naimark

Michael Naimark has worked in immersive and interactive media for over four decades.