John Brockman | Literary Agent, Cultural Impresario
Sunday with Alain Elkann 7.22.2012
"From disco to science—it's a short step."
I went to visit him in his office in New York City, in a penthouse with a terrace from which you can see the Central Park and some of the highest skyscrapers in the city. John Brockman, dressed in white and wearing a straw hat, is a literary agent, writer, producer and impresario, and his involvement in the arts and the sciences form the quintessence of his extraordinary business.
How would you describe it?
"I don't assign myself a specific role. I prefer to do new things, to make it strange, and not live within categories defined by others."
And you started with what job?
"After I got out of the army, I worked on Wall Street, but found that environment stifling. Due to a series of different circumstances, I entered the world of the underground theater. I directed a film program of 'underground movies' made by visual artists for whom film was their medium. Their work was mostly devoid of narrative elements."
And on that occasion you met Andy Warhol?
"Yes, and not just him. I organized the 'Expanded Cinema Festival,' which consisted of artists, sculptors, film-makers including Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, Paik, and Warhol. It was a great success, and it gave me the opportunity, in 1966, to help create the very first mixed-media discotheque, in an airplane hangar on Long Island. Andy Warhol was going to put his name on it but pulled back at the last minute. But I was lucky to recruit the most famous DJ at the time to replace him. It was just a few weeks before it really exploded. I was simple not into the nightlife scene, and I've never been on a disco dance floor, but we had great success in those years."
But how did science come into your past?
"I often spoke with Robert Rauschenberg. Also John Cage organized dinners each month in which we talked about new ideas. Cage, who was studying cybernetics, handed me to read a book that bridged the gap between hippie culture and technology. It was my key to enter that world."
And then what happened?
"I was reading a lot of poetry, and I had the realization that nature: was not 'created,' but 'said.' The words of the world were what mattered and those words were coming out of the mouths of scientists. I already knew who were the most innovative and scientists and I realized that it would be interesting to talk with them personally and that I could make a living by doing it. And at the time I focused on writing books which included a trilogy about the cybernetics that later, in 1972, became collected into a single volume, Afterwords."
But when did you become a literary agent?
"I was 33 years-old when I opened my agency. Because of my own writing, I was invited to a symposium where many of the participants were successful writers of bestselling science books. At that time I realized that while all kinds of writers had agents, no one was representing the scientists. I decided to do it and have been doing so since 1973 and I quickly realized that I had struck oil. Around 1980 I found that the kind of meetings I had attended in the 1960 under the auspices of John Cage, had become difficult to achieve, and so I created a discussion group, The Reality Club. To be part a member you had to present your ideas before the group with the understanding that you would be challenged. The participants found it interesting to present their work, their thoughts in front of a group of their peers who were equally famous but in different disciplines. Among them were actor Dennis Hopper and writer Isaac Asimov. After ten years, however, I realized that things like this get repetitious and we needed to change. In the early 90s, I published a printed newsletter sent to a small, select list. Then, in 1997, thanks to the Web, I created the non-profit Edge Foundation, Inc. as the umbrella organization to run the online publication Edge (www.edge.org)."
What is it about?
"It's based on this principle: people who have ideas define the world. Nobody voted for the birth control pill, the airplane, the Internet, antibiotics, the telegraph, the telephone, television: these are the inventions that have changed the world and they all happen prior to legislators getting involved."
What is the greatest invention?
"Talking. Or, rather, that moment of self-consciousness when humans said 'we're talking.' The Internet is that kind of redefining invention. Each time we create new tools, we recreate ourselves in their image."
What interests you most now?
"Without a doubt, synthetic genomics."
Can explain what you mean?
"Just consider the ways in which Craig Venter, at the forefront of genomic researchers, is redefining who and what we are and at the same time creating new ideas about what life is."
Is science optimistic about the future?
"Science is optimistic and works to make things better. The world today is very pessimistic, while scientists are optimistic. I've always said that the world of science and the world of the traditional humanities and they do not always agree. And the scientists of 'the third culture' have taken on the role of communicating important ideas to the public. Because the findings of science are not mere matters of opinion, they sweep past systems of thought based only on opinion. Scientist are asking the important questions."
Is science much more advanced in the U.S. than in Europe?
"The difference is that in Europe a scientist has to wait 40 years before being allowed to question the work of his or her professor. It's different in the U.S. You don't have to ask permission." ■
First published in Italian by La Stampa, July 22, 2012.