Where we begin opening the system, c.1970: Open Systems

Open systems is offered as a term that characterises this widespread preoccupation in art produced by a cross section of artists in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and South America. In the mid- and late 1960s, words such as ‘system’, ‘structure’, and ‘process’ had particular currency in art and in culture, a fact that is reflected in some of the exhibition titles of the period: Systems, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1972; Primary Structures, Jewish Museum, New York, 1966; Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1968; When Attitudes Become Form, Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information, Kunsthalle, Bern, 1969; The Machine as seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968; Information, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970. In addition, initiatives such as Experiments in Art & Technology united artists with engineers, and the RAND corporation established an artist in residence programme. Systems theory was being employed on numerous levels by corporations and governments, and President John F. Kennedy famously brought systems analysts into his administration.

Further proof of the currency of the term is indicated by the portrayal of the word ‘system’ as enemy by students united in protests during 1968. Every aspect of the conventions and structures by which society operated seemed to be under scrutiny, and the breakdown in trust of fixed meaning was also reflected in the art being produced at the time. 

If today some artists are uncomfortable with the word ‘system’, Valie Export’s (b. 1940) suggestion that artists make open systems has helped to inspire some of the thinking behind this investigation.1 Along the lines that Export puts forward, it is argued that the notion of system allowed each of the artists represented here to surpass the idea of the art object as something that has a purely metaphorical relationship to the world and to propose instead that the art object functioned as an analogue or equivalent for lived experience. Artist Cildo Meireles (b. 1948) recalls of the time:

I remember that in 1968, 1969 and 1970 … we were no longer working with metaphors (representations) of situations; we were working with the real situation itself … It was work that, really, no longer had that cult of the object, in isolation; things existed in terms of what they could spark off in the body of society. It was exactly what one had in one’s head: working with the idea of a public.2

Of the other artists featured, Lygia Clark (1920-88) fused aesthetics, psychoanalysis and optics, making eyewear that brought together, yet isolated, its participants; Richard Long (b. 1945) imposed orderly and transitory patterns on solitary hikes through wilderness areas; Adrian Piper (b. 1948) ventured alone through the streets of Manhattan in a series of planned movements in space; and Marcel Broodthaers (1924-76) inverted the language of art historical categorisation to create mythical ‘museums’. What they have in common is that each of these artists situates their work in real time and space, asking viewers to navigate a scenario in order to experience something that could be perceived as an aesthetic system. 

We attempt here to trace this progression from the cube - a construct that because of its apparent reductive structure was widely employed in the early 1960s - to the new forms artists conceived in greater response to the world around them, something suggesting a system.


  • 1. Conversation with the artist, September 2004.
  • 2. Quoted in Cildo Meireles, exh. cat., IVAM Centre Del Carme, Valencia 1995, p.174.