Sounding the Body Electric – art, cybernetics and electro-acoustic music in Eastern Europe in the 1960s

Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized



Neo-Constructivist, light and kinetic art, cybernetic design, concrete and electro-acoustic music were fields of high creativity and experiment in Eastern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. Seizing the opportunities presented by the relaxation of political control of the arts after Stalinism and exploiting the new official encouragement given to cybernetics, electronics and computing, avant-garde artists and composers began investigating the aesthetic possibilities of electronics and magnetic tape recording. At the same time, other artists seized the possibilities of the happening to produce intermedia artworks combining visual and audio elements.

The idea of experimentation was given considerable political encouragement in Eastern Europe. For the faithful in Moscow and elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, harnessing the potential of new technology was the way to make good on the broken promises of Communism. For others – often critical artists and composers – a reengagement with technology could restore the shattered ‘tradition’ of Modernism in Eastern Europe.

Electronic film and music studios and festivals – including the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio established in 1957 and the Béla Balázs Studio in Budapest in 1959 – were amongst the earliest signs of the changes occurring in cultural life in Eastern Europe after Stalin’s death. In the Soviet Union, VNIITE – All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics – a network of research centres established in 1962 – provided the intellectual and creative resources thought necessary to overcome the damage done to the Soviet project by Stalinism. It took as a guiding principle the ideal of unifying art and technology.

Artists across the Bloc (and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) created machines and temporary environments which generated electronic music or gathered radio waves. Others worked in close conjunction with electro-acoustic composers/musicians to produce actions and installations in public settings. Czechoslovak artists Synteza, for instance, showed their kinetic sound sculptures in Prague’s Karlovo náměstí in the mid 1960s, whilst Dvizhenie – associated with VNIITE – were commissioned to produce public artworks commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution.

 Sharing much in common with contemporary fashions in North America and Europe (cf Cage’s aleatory strategies or Gene Youngblood’s notion of the ‘Expanded Cinema’), many of these projects were also self-conscious revival of the interest of the avant-garde in the synaesthesic effects of son et lumière. Prometei (Prometheus), connected to the Kazan Aviation Institute in Tatarstan, explored the borderlands of non-figurative art, cinema and architecture in its public actions. Taking their name from a 1910 composition by Alexander Scriabin, the group self-consciously revived the tradition of ‘light-music art’ which had been a preoccupation of the Russian avant-garde before the First World War. Excited by horizons extending with the prospect of space travel in the 1960s, Eastern European artists – including Prometei in Kazan and Dvizhenie in Moscow – discovered ‘cosmic’ dimensions in the pulsing light and electronic music.

Experimental music and electronic art in Eastern Europe formed major bridgehead to the West in the 1960s. Concerts with Fluxus compositions were organized, for instance, by the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio in 1964. ‘New Tendencies’ exhibitions/conferences over the course of the 1960s brought Neo-Constructivist and, increasingly, computer artists from around the world to Zagreb. Differences between East and West were important, however: whilst ‘visual music’ in the West in the 1960s has often been seen in narrow terms of meditative withdrawal, the works by Eastern European artists envisaged new kinds of hard-wired human beings: ‘ … today musicians, physicists, actors, architects, psychologists, engineers, sociologists and poets – TOMORROW KINETICISTS” (Manifesto of the Russian Kineticists, 1966, Moscow). Their dizzying futurism creates interesting and, as yet, unexplored relationships with official fanfares for socialist ‘Progress’.

These veins of euphoric ‘Cybernetic Communism’ were accompanied by other more critical approaches to the sounding body. Some Eastern Bloc artists issued sharp critiques of the fusion of man and machine: ‘Dom’, a 1958 film by Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk – with composer Włodzimierz Kotoński – was a warning about the alienating effects of technology on the individual. Ten years later, at the time of the Prague Spring, Stanislav Filko turned to radio broadcasts in his ‘Cathedral of Humanism’ exhibited at the Danuvius ’68 exhibition. Other, more playful works – not least those by Alex Mlynárčyk – drew the audience into the production of new aural experiences and, by extension, new social relations.


Electric Birdsong

Contemporary Art, New Media

The University of Brighton Gallery is currently hosting a retrospective exhibition of the work of German sound artist Peter Vogel. Spindly frames dressed with transistors and capped with speakers eschew monumentality or anything as straightforward as a message. They are like electronic pets which respond to the presence of people. When a viewer casts a shadow over a photocell or claps hands before the tiny microphones soldered onto the frame, she or he is rewarded with pulsing beats and musical notes. The tonality and modulation of these pieces hints at Steve Reich or the Aphex Twin in a quiet moment. There are no instructions. Is the challenge is to unlock the hidden melodic and rhythmic pattern in the object or, perhaps, to create one’s own electronic music?  It is never quite clear who is in command – you or the instrument?

One large piece – a ‘Shadow Orchestra’ – offers an elaborate interplay of shadows. The viewer sits before a control box with his or her hands hovering over light sensors: their actions stimulate a range of percussive fans, chimes and drums which are lit to create a large shadow on the wall.  When the instrument is played, it produces something like a shadow theatre in the gallery.

The history of sound art is full of these kinds of modest experiments with interaction. What makes Vogel’s work so charming is the close connection between form and effect. They look like three-dimensional diagrammes featuring actual transistors and speakers, whilst the linear frame suggests the transmission lines of sound or electricity. Transistors also have the unusual advantage in the world of electronics of being visually appealing things. They come in bright colours and sweet-like shapes.

The Brighton exhibition represents new wave of interest in Vogel’s work. With a background in physics in the 1960s, he was a cyberneticist interested in the operation of the brain. In the 1970s his art works were something like experiments exploring the potential of interaction using current technology: today they look like artefacts from another age. Transistors are, for instance, made today at the nanoscale beyond the powers of human sight.

Watch Vogel play his ‘Sound Wall’ in  documentary ‘The Sound of Shadows’ made by Jean Martin and Conall Gleeson in 2010.

Images from the University of Brighton website

A spectre haunts the world and it is the spectre of migration

Design Exhibition, Design/Critique, Modernism, Uncategorized

This review appears in Frieze, November 2011.

In recent years Studio Formafantasma – Italian designers, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin – have made a number of journeys into the past to excavate the meanings which traditional and even ‘lost’ materials and techniques can possess. Their ‘Botanica’ (2011) series of lamps and vessels, for instance, revisits early attempts to make ‘natural’ plastic from plant extracts, resins, blood and even insect excrement. They were led to these materials by early studies of Botany. ‘Botanica’ was not simply an exercise in technological antiquarianism. At the end of oil, another time without it might have things to offer.

Work from the ‘Botanica’ collection See

Studio Formafantasma’s show at Libby Sellers gallery – featuring two groups of works – brings a more explicitly critical perspective to this interest in the past. ‘Moulding Tradition’ (2009) is a series of ceramic vessels bearing photographic portraits of an unidentified black man and tagged with scraps of data about the migrant labourers who work illegally in Italy. The unglazed lidded bowls and flasks are strung with ‘framed’ photographs, inscribed loops and labels – additions which seem to reinforce their status as mobile objects. The wine flasks and bowls were made in Caltagirone in Sicily, a traditional centre of ceramic production. With their portraits, Studio Formafantasma’s vessels refer to ‘Teste di Moro’ (‘Moorish heads’), vases which have been made there for centuries. Often grotesque and sometimes comic, these three-dimensional portraits in clay are distant reminders of the fact that not only was Sicily once an Arab island but also that Majolica came to Europe from the Muslim world.

Formafantasma, works in the ‘Moulding Tradition’ series, 2009

That people and things have always travelled between the Maghreb and Europe is, of course, a platitude for historians. But in light of Italy’s ambiguous and often hostile relationship with North Africa, Studio Formafantasma’s vessels clearly engage with a more recent past too. In 2008 Colonel Gaddafi signed a deal with Italian president Berlusconi to repatriate African immigrants caught trying to cross the Mediterranean in their overloaded and unseaworthy vessels. This was a controversial agreement. Denied opportunities to claim asylum, the human rights of migrants were threatened. In fact, the same deal, the Italians committed to invest in Libya. Gaddafi could represent Rome’s Euros as reparations for Italian colonialism in the 1930s and, at the same time, Berlusconi could look tough on immigration.

FIAT Tagliero building Asmara designed by Giuseppe Pettazzi photographed by 10b Travelling / Flickr reproduced under a creative commons license.

‘Colony’ (2011), a second series of works by Studio Formafantasma on show, addresses these themes in a direct fashion. Three mohair blankets identify Libya, Eritrea and Ethiopia, former imperial possession of Italy in the 1930 and 1940s. Italy’s expansion into North Africa was claimed by Mussolini as ‘the reappearance of the empire on the fateful hills of Rome after fifteen centuries’. The imperial adventure was an opportunity for artists and architects too. The new city of Asmara in Eritrea was taken by Italian modernists as an opportunity to fulfill all their rationalist preoccupations. Taking the form of monumental postcards, each blanket features an architectural drawing of a building over an Italian plan for an African city. Asmara is overlaid with a line drawing of Giuseppe Pettazzi’s famous FIAT Tagliero office in the city (1938), a building which came close realizing the futurist aeropittura fantasy of flying architecture. In another, Tripoli’s ‘Colonial Home’, a modernist villa from the early 1930s, is accompanied by ‘Accord 19’ of 2009 which commissioned Italian businesses ‘with the necessary technological skills’ to design a system of land border controls in Gaddafi’s Libya. Design – the field in which Trimarchi and Farresin were trained and with which they identify – is identified with repression.

Formafantasma, ‘Asmara’, a woven blanket in the ‘Colony’ series, 2011

Despite the poetry of the Studio’s name (which Trimarchi and Farresin translate as ‘ghost shape’), there is a strain of didactism in its ‘Italian’ projects. It is not heavy-handed or indifferent to aesthetics, but it is there. In their interest in migration, we might detect an echo of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s influential text, Empire (‘A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration’). This said, there is little of these writers’ euphoric view of the ways in which nomadism and méttisage can contest the containment of nation or of race.

Formafantasma were exhibiting at the Libby Sellers Gallery, London, 19 September – 8 October 2011

Any colour .. as long as it’s black

Design as Critique, Design Exhibition, Design/Critique, Uncategorized

Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art – in its temporary location of a socmodernist furniture store – is, appropriately enough, hosting an exhibition by German designer Konstantin Gricic. The works on display do not come from the drawing boards of his Munich studio: Grcic here takes on the role of curator.

Like his Serpentine Gallery show in London in 2009, Grcic’s Warsaw exhibition is an exploration of the forms of the modern world. Gathering a diverse range of objects for a long corridor-like gallery, he has adopted Henry Ford’s famous prohibition – ‘Any colour … as long as its black’. Entitled ‘Black2’ (‘Black Squared’), Grcic seems to be interested in how a motif (like a ‘black-letter’) or a phrase (such as ‘black box’) becomes a thing.

Most of the exhibits are mass produced objects – books, ashtrays, plastic pallets and electric guitars. Exhibited without captions or any other kind of textual support, Grcic’s black objects seem to have no history. They are also stripped of the cables which might animate them with electricity (no glowing stand-by lights here) or the handles which could be grasped by users. The viewer enters into the world that Rilke, another occasional Bavarian with an interest in dinglichkeit, called ‘indifferent things’:

Even for our grandparents, a ‘House’, a ‘Well’, a familiar tower, their very dress, their cloak, was infinitely more, infinitely more intimate: almost everything a vessel in which they found and stored humanity. Now there come crowding over from America empty, indifferent things, pseudo-things, DUMMY-LIFE … The animated, experienced things that SHARE OUR LIVES are coming to an end can cannot be replaced.
Rilke in a letter to von Hulewicz, November 1925.

The point is to make us think less about the role that these products of industrial culture play in our lives and more about the black skins in which they are sheathed. The exhibition opens with a set of heavy tomes in a vitrine which discuss the Kaaba at Mecca, Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ (1915) and Kubrick’s Black Monolith in ‘2001AD: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). These are the eternal blacks of the deep cosmos. One could easily extend this monochromatic range: ‘Black dirties’ says Wittgenstein; ‘black is the death of colour by colour’ according to Briony Fer writing on Ewa Hesse; and the black tulip is the historic symbol of hubris .. But let’s not leave the exhibition too far behind. Grcic’s exhibits are rather more mundane. A pair of black boxing gloves rest close to a black Amex card in another vitrine to tell us something uncertain about power. A uncertain black object – probably an ashtray – sits on a shelf next to a copy of The Bible. Ashes to ashes, perhaps. Often funny and sometimes poignant, Grcic’s products seem to be a modest gathering of things in light of the deep reserves of meaning that can be dressed in black.

‘Black2’ opened at Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej on October 2nd 2011.

Boiling the City

Design Exhibition, Design Exhibitions, Design/Critique, Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

At the Łódź Design Festival last weekend, I saw this exercise in data visualisation and sonification. Culling data pulled from one of the major Hungarian news sites –, Kitchen Budapest’s animation tells you something you already know, that the capital dominates the country. One in four Hungarians live in the Budapest metropolitan area. At 30 frames per second, each frame represents a single day. One month flashes by in a second. And the animation covers the period from December 1998 until October 2010. Every time a Hungarian town or city is mentioned on the pages of, this digital map of the country pulses. The country bulges to accommodate the waves of news. At the same time the sound – a buzzing harmonic drone – echoes the visual effects.

Undeniably mesmerising, like so many of these attempts to animate data, one is left wondering what it all means. This visualisation boils in two ways – the line flickers in the manner that animators call boiling and the surface of the country bubbles with geothermal energy. There is another,  far less appealing association too: Budapest seems to be constantly erupting like some kind of malignant ulcer. It would be easy to read or misread this project as a kind of objection to the megalopolis. Surely this is not Kitchen Budapest’s intention?

Machines Should Work, People Should Think

Graphic Design, Uncategorized

IBM commissioned Jim Henson, later the hand behind the Muppets, to make a film promoting the MT/ST, an early word processor. Like other IBM promotional films including Charles and Ray Eames’ ‘The Information Machine’ ten years earlier, ‘The Paperwork Explosion’ promised that these labour-saving devices in the office would liberate their users to engage in more productive and creative activities. If paperwork could be given over to self-regulating and self-operating machines, people would be free to ‘think’. ‘Think’ was of course the one-word slogan coined by the company’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, in the 1920s. Like an injunction, it was inset into buildings and publications as a kind of order from above. The question of what to think was never expressed. ‘Thinking’ was enough.

Henson’s 1967 film is a strange object. Office workers express the IBM mantra in a montage of quick cut images. Staring directly to camera and speaking with deadpan voices, they start and finish each other’s sentences like the brand-washed drones in some kind of sci-fi movie. The same sentences are repeated over and over. (Donald Pleasance’s disturbingly calm character in ‘THX 1138’ (1971) comes to mind). This sinister effect is amplified by Raymond Scott’s electronic sound track. These ad hominem passages are interrupted by explosions which fill the air with clouds of paper.

One character stands out. Dressed neither in the office uniform nor framed by workers, an elderly man in a garden or farm talks ‘naturally’ to camera. The message is IBM’s but the words are his own. He seems to be the only free human in this corporate universe.