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