An Essay on Decay

Design/Critique, Photography

This article appeared in the first issue of Disegno in 2011.

Earlier this year the mummified body of a Hollywood actress was found in a dilapidated Beverley Hills villa. Yvette Vickers had made a career in the movies by playing pneumatic blonds in b-movies like ‘Attack of the Giant Leaches’ and ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’ in the 1950s before becoming a Playboy centrefold. Believing that she was being stalked, Vickers had become a recluse late in life. She’d not been seen for a year and had probably been dead for as long. A (misplaced) sense of celebrity had overwhelmed her. She died with the lights on and surrounded by movie magazines, fan mail, wigs and her wardrobe. Her discoverers had to fight their way through piles of Hollywood junk to find the ‘compressed’ body and what the coroner’s office described as ‘dried skin, leathery’. It is perhaps not surprising that some commentators drew a poignant connection between the debris of celebrity and her mummified body. A product of an industry which trades on on-screen novelty, she’d become a kind of forgotten scrap, literally.

Decay ought to be a matter of interest to architects and designers as well as to forensic scientists and coroners. How things die – or, more precisely, how the materials from which they have been fashioned decompose – is one of the troubling questions of the age. We often talk about the ‘life cycle’ of products but some things just refuse to leave this world. The image of the rubbish dump strewn with indestructible products, belching invisible greenhouse gases is the visual symbol of our present anxieties, just as the mushroom cloud was for our parents and grandparents. Manufacturing high quality biodegradable plastics has, for instance, been a kind of twenty-first century grail. The challenge is to provide materials which look and behave like their everlasting counterparts but then disappear without a trace. When we have been encouraged to value the stable, smooth and infinitely malleable qualities of our synthetic materials, it is difficult to imagine an alternative language for plastic.

Studio Formafantasma, ‘Botanica’

When Studio Formafantasma, young Italian designers, set themselves this task, they turned to the early science of Botany to find prehistoric plastics. The ‘Botanica’ collection shown in Milan earlier this year exploits materials and techniques generated in early experiment with resins, polymers and natural rubber. Their simple vessels and lamps have irregular shapes and uneven surfaces, often bearing the rough texture of the aggregates used to stiffen the resins. Worked by hand with heat or pressed in moulds, these forms can be reshaped too. The forms seem as archaic as the techniques used to make them. But of course with the post-oil condition approaching rapidly, the future of plastic may be more like its past than we once imagined. Coloured in subdued tones and with their origins in plants, blood and even insect excrement, Studio Formafantasma’s experiments ask not only that reset our taste but also our expectations about the mutability of things. Undeniably beautiful and enigmatic these sketches for domestic products look impermanent, as if on the cusp of decay – a little too soft or too brittle, a little too damp or a little too dry.

There have, of course, been good reasons why designers and manufacturers have fought decay. ‘Durable’ is a good selling tag. Moreover, we are hardwired to avoid decay, an evolutionary response to the threat of polluted materials and rotting food. It accompanies a category of abject things which exist on the borders of the living and the dead. Yet, at the same time, we seem to be attracted by abjection, fascinated by the way in which dying things can change their appearance before our eyes. Mould can grow in miraculous sprays of colour and rotting matter can smell sickly-sweet.

Chalayan’s ‘The Tangent Flows’, 1993

Famously, in 1993 Hussein Chalayan caused a stir with his graduate collection – entitled ‘The Tangent Flows’ – featuring dresses he had buried with iron filings in the garden of the north London vicarage where he was living as a student. Clearly, the young designer had things to say about vanitas – the tradition in Renaissance art of using images of cut flowers, tables burgeoning with over-ripe food and snuffed-out candles to meditate on the provisional nature and ultimate emptiness of human existence. Chalayan was making a point about the dead-eyed world of fashion in which he was about to become a star. Yet the appeal of his decomposing dresses was not just a matter of lofty ideas: the rusty surface of the frayed lace and braised silk was strangely and unexpectedly beautiful.

           

The Aesthetics of Decay

Decay may have been brought to the catwalk by Chalayan but it was hardly a new aesthetic. Two hundred years ago, Romantics poets and painters drew melancholic pleasure from ruins. The image of an abandoned and cracked building yielding to weeds seemed to offer lessons about the inevitable fall of overblown civilizations and the ultimate power of nature. Decay and ruination has valued in the Romantic imagination because they can remind us of the age of things. In this view of the past, a cracked and broken monument is more resonant than a pristine one.

Neues Museum

This understanding shaped David Chipperfield Architects’ much celebrated restoration of the Neues Museum in Berlin. A ruin after the Second World War with its windows broken and roof missing, this nineteenth century neoclassical landmark had to wait until the end for Berlin to become the German capital again to be revived. Chipperfield eschewed imitation, trying to salvage what he could of the historic fabric whilst introducing unsentimental and avowedly new elements where the past could not be reclaimed. Like strata in an archaeological dig, fragments of nineteenth century decorative schemes float on rough plaster and new wall surfaces frame old brickwork. The result is not only ethereal but it makes the Neues Museum a chronometer of Berlin’s troubled history.

The poetics of decay should not, however be confused with decay itself. For the last few months Chalayan’s decomposing dress has been on display at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, almost twenty years since it was disinterred from the ground. A garment which once spoke about the ephemerality of fashion, has been preserved in the low light and temperature-controlled glass cases of the Museum. It looks like an artefact from a lost civilization (c. Britain in AD 1993). Similarly, the Neues Museum is beautifully arrested and stabilized. The building seems to be saying ‘History stops here’.

Francesc Torres, an image in the ‘Memory Remains’ series

The debris from the site of World Trade Centre in New York stored in a hangar at JFK Airport confronts the paradoxes of preserving decay. Produced in the course of terrible few hours, it has been kept there for a decade, awaiting its future deployment in the form of memorials across the USA and elsewhere. Recorded by Francesc Torres in photographs exhibited in London’s Imperial War Museum under the title ‘Memory Remains’, some of these relics – including a crushed yellow taxi-cab and a broken fire engine – are easily identified. Others are not. The vertical collapse of 110 stories pulverized metal, glass and concrete into strange, extra-terrestrial objects. Buckled and scorched, the things in the hanger have been subject to the careful attention of white-gloved conservators. Loose flakes of paint are glued back in place when they drop from the shattered objects in the hangar. Writing the London Review of Books, art critic Hal Foster has puzzled over this: ‘Is that the right response to a thing whose value is in part its index of time?’ This is a question about the differences between decay as a look and as a process.

One of Auger and Loizeau’s ‘Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots’ (2009)

We only have to look around us to understand decay as a natural and inevitable process. It plays a key role in the cycle of life. Cells which are not renewed, degenerate. And, once dead, life forms decompose into simpler forms, supporting micro-organisms and bacteria. The fertile soil from which we are sustained is, of course, the organic product of these cycles of growth and decay. The idea of the life-cycle is explored in James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau’s ‘Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots’ (2009), a series of experimental projects exploring the form and purpose of the future robot. A family of devices performing modest domestic tasks, the ‘Lampshade Robot’, the ‘Flypaper Robotic Clock’ and the ‘Mouse Trap Coffee-table Robot’ are each equipped with microbial fuel cells that can turn organic matter into electricity. When mice and insects – attracted by light or crumbs – are trapped and delivered to the cell, the chemical energy released as they decompose is converted into the electrical energy needed by the robots to function. In Auger and Loizeau’s designs, the cycle of life and death promises to revolve ad infinitum. And with the operation of the microbial fuel cell fully visible, the owner is a witness to a struggle of (artificial) life and death.

A New Nature

Image from the Wilsons’ ‘Atomgrad. Nature Abhors a Vacuum’ series

The strange beauty of decay is evident when looking at the eight large format photographic images produced by artists Jane and Louise Wilson in the town of Pripyat in the Ukraine. Close to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Pripyat was largely abandoned in 1986 when an explosion spewed large clouds of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The artists revisited the city to produce the ‘Atomgrad (Nature Abhors a Vacuum)’ series. Abandoned interiors – the original purpose of which seems no longer clear – have succumbed to nature. Mould grows on walls in dark ominous swirls; damp has caused the parquet to convulse, making the floor looks like a strange geometric landscape. It is a terrible beauty. Signs of occupation – like the ordinary possessions of the people who once lived in Pripyat – have already disappeared. Soon, all that will be left is the steel and concrete.

The Wilsons’ photographs tap into to a potent fantasy, namely the idea of the Earth without human life. It is expressed in Bible in the form of the Garden Eden, the blessed state from which mankind was banished. It has, in recent years, been a staple theme of science fiction films and futurology. The History Channel’s hit ‘documentary’ series, Life After People, for instance, bore the tagline ‘Welcome to Earth … Population: Zero.’

Still from ‘Life After People’

In the programme some unexplained and comprehensive disaster has befallen mankind and the planet returns rapidly to a natural condition. The programme’s CGI animators took evident pleasure in predicting the fate of a number of icons of modern architecture including Foster Associate’s Swiss Re HQ in the city of London, Pierre Koenig’s steel and glass Stahl House perched in the hills above Los Angeles and Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. Without maintenance, what Foster likes to call ‘London’s first ecological tall building’ will exist for three-hundred years as a vertical jungle – a truly green building – before its topples. With the reasons of the disaster unclear, the viewer is left to infer that the event which removed people from the planet is man-made.

Tuur van Balen’s ‘Pigeon D’Or’

Decay is a natural process but we live in an age when it is no longer clear what is ‘natural’, at least in traditional terms. Global warming, developments in biotechnology and genetics mean that we cannot maintain a neat divide between the natural and the man-made. Often, understanding of this fact is forced on us by events. The woods and fields around Chernobyl were, apparently, superabundant in the years after the disaster. In the light of the explosion in the nuclear reactor, reports of mammoth mushrooms and apples cannot be distinguished from other troubling accounts of mutant fish and birds. But for a young generation of designers who see a future for their skills in the applications of biotechnology, new nature is a world of opportunities. The processes of decay are not, for them, something to be eschewed but to be harnessed. Tuur van Balen – a graduate of the Design Interactions Programme at the Royal College of Art – has made interventions into the field of synthetic biology to speculate on our possible futures. His ‘Pigeon D’Or’ project – developed with biochemist James Chappell – speculates on how pigeons might be further ‘redesigned’ (after all, they have been bred for racing for years). If fed with a special harmless bacteria, the metabolism of these urban ‘pests’ could be modified. Pigeon droppings could become a detergent, cleaning the streets and car windows on which it lands. A ‘waste’ which harbours disease and damages stone and brickwork could become a useful substance. A speculative and much exhibited project, van Balen’s ‘Pigeon D’Or’ contains a truly provocative proposition. It is not that we need to change our attitudes to decay but that we can change decay itself.

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The Dark Side of the Modern Home

Architecture, Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

This is an extract of an essay published in Sparke, Massey, Keeble and Martin, eds., Designing the Modern Interior (Berg, 2009)

The modern home is, conventionally, bathed in the light of order. Adolf Loos’s vision of a ‘New Zion’ stripped of its nostalgic ornament; Le Corbusier’s ‘fenêtre en longeur’; and Pierre Koenig’s glass curtain walls and open plans constitute steady steps in the progress of the rational, improved home from its Enlightenment origins. But they do not represent the only kind of modern dwelling. In fact, such domestic utopias might be an inadequate measure of twentieth century modernity. The ‘most terrible century in Western history’ provides many images of broken homes.[1] Windowless bomb shelters, the maternity wards of Heinrich Himmler’s lebensborn programme, ghetto towns like Terezín and the ruins of war-torn cities like Beirut constitute an landmarks in an alternative and unwritten history of the modern home. How might these homes be understood not as ‘accidents’ of history but as its design? And, if viewed in this way, what are the aesthetics of these ruins of history?

Ruins have, of course, long been aestheticised by being seized as symbols through which to reflect on the irresistible passage of time. Their broken state invites comparison with the frailties of the body: while the weeds that thrive in their cracks testify to the triumph of nature over culture. Many eighteenth and nineteenth century aesthetes – famously Wordsworth, Piranesi, Diderot and Michelet – found a melancholic pleasure in contemplating the ruin as utopia in reverse.[2] This sensibility is by no means exhausted today. Recently, for instance, the depopulated centres of America’s rustbelt cities in a similar fashion.[3]

But it is important to stress that two new orders of ruin emerged in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which laid a claim on modernity. Linda Nochlin has observed that the French Revolution marked the first moment in history in which architectural fragments appeared ‘as a positive rather than a negative trope’. The ruin was drafted to symbolise the march of progress:

[T]he fragment, for the Revolution and its artists, rather than symbolizing nostalgia for the past, enacts the deliberate destruction of that past, or, at least, a pulverization of what were perceived to be its repressive traditions. Both outright vandalism and what one might think of as a recycling of the vandalized fragments of the past for allegorical purposes functioned as Revolutionary strategies.[4]

Mikhail Yampolsky has written ‘Destruction and construction can be understood, in certain contexts, as two equally valid features of immortalisation …’[5] The erection of a new monument on the site of an old one is an act of double commemoration or, as he puts it, immortalisation.That a Russian intellectual has allegorized destruction as progress should not come as a surprise. After all he was schooled in a society created by revolution.

It is, perhaps, more difficult to limn the ruins produced by industrial warfare, although of course many have tried.[6] The products of this order of modernity – the results of mechanised violence – seem less innocent or optimistic. The ruins of Rotterdam, Leningrad, Dresden, Warsaw, Hiroshima, Mostar and even New York could and can not function as what Simmel called the ‘naturalised artefact’ because their origins lay in catastrophe.[7] Their status as symbols is overshadowed by their status as indices of events. As Andrew Hersher has argued of the modern ruin in another context:

Damage is a form of design, and the traces of damage inflicted by political violence – a facade stippled by the spray of bullets, a penumbra of smoke around a hole where a door or a window once was, or a pile of rubble no longer identifiable as architecture at all – are at least as significant as any of the elements from which buildings are constructed for living, for the living.[8]

In this sense, the ruins produced by violence are far more ‘legible’ than those produced by the effects of entropy. Comparing the kinds of objects which provoke nostalgic reverie such as the pressed flower in the scrapbook with souvenirs of death like relics, Susan Stewart has written: ‘they mark the horrible transformation of meaning into material more than they mark, as other souvenirs do, the transformation of materiality into meaning.’[9] This contrast also structures the differences between the entropic ruin and the debris of modern war.

It is not surprising that the image of the house in ruins, and its accompanying figure, the displaced person, was a persistent theme in Europe after 1945. It formed the mis-en-scène for novels by Heinrich Böll, Marek Hłasko and Graham Greene as well as films by Roberto Rossellini, Grigori Chukrai and Andrzej Wajda. The destruction of the home was a powerful allegorical form through which artists and writers could reflect not only on the difficult conditions of the present, but also on the problems of remembrance and forgetting. The condition of house in fragments – decayed and riddled with spatial and temporal uncertainties – seemed much like the condition of memory itself facing the recent horrors of war and, in the East, the pressure of an ideology which claimed to already know the past and the future. Equally, the utilitarian modern homes promised to Europe’s displaced peoples – in the new geography of East and West in the aftermath of war and mass destruction – were criticized as being inadequate precisely because they could not inspire memory work of dreams.[10]

Humankind seemed to be stripped of its humanity when displaced from home. In 1945, General Patton, for instance, expressed higher regard for the Germans in their bombed out ruins than the Jews who had survived the camps and were now searching for homes and families in Europe’s ruins: ‘[General] Craig … told me he had inspected another Jewish camp yesterday’ he wrote in his diary, ‘in which he found men and women using adjacent toilets which were not covered in any way although screens were available to make the toilets individually isolated, which the Jews were too lazy to put up. He said the conditions and filth were unspeakable. In one room he found ten people, six men and four women, occupying four double beds. Either these Displaced Persons never had any sense of decency or else they lost it all during their internment by the Germans’.[11] Housing not only provides shelter: it makes people orderly in the minds of others, tidying lives and bodies.

Whilst the image of the home in ruins may have been at it peak in the 1940s and 1950s, it has been a persistent theme in twentieth century culture. What should we make the image of the home in ruins at the end of the century? What perspective might be taken on the debris of domestic life in the twentieth century? In the remains of this short essay, I will turn to the work of two artists, Gregor Schneider and Ilya Kabakov, both of whom have created homes from and with the debris of modern life. Kabakov’s ‘Ten Characters’, an installation based on the form of the communal apartment, and Schneider’s Totes Haus u r (Dead House ur) are powerful commentaries on the catastrophes which shadow modernity in the ‘medium’ of the home.

It would surely be possible to read the domestic spaces exhibited by both artists as autobiographies or even psychological portraits. Kabakov has described his early installations in his Moscow studio as ‘an experiment of biography in the installation genre’ in which he ‘became a character of himself.’[12] And Schneider’s seemingly compulsive and secretive behaviour as well as the assault on his own home which is the basis of the Dead House has encouraged many to follow this line. Paul Schimmel has called the Dead House as ‘life’s echo.’[13] Such readings reproduce one of the principal myths of the century: that the home is a mirror of the individual and a container of private memory. As Ivan Illich puts it, ‘to dwell means to inhabit the traces left by one’s own living, by which one always retraces the lives of one’s ancestors.’[14] But Schneider and Kabakov’s artistic archaeologies drawn attention to a wider and perhaps more disturbing set of modern ambitions of the domestic ‘perfection’.

Undiscarded things

Ilya Kabakov, active in non-official art circles in the Soviet Union from the 1960s, emerged into the consciousness of the West in the late 1980s, his art drawing attention to the textures of life and the residual utopianism of the Soviet Union at the time when it was being dismantled. His first major installation exhibited in the West in 1988 was ‘Ten Characters’, an extension of the themes he had been exploring in albums and paintings made since the 1970s.[15] His installation – a series of cell-like rooms off a shabby corridor poorly lit with electric light bulbs – presents the possessions and living spaces of ten absent Soviet citizens. In their absence, their lives are described in a series of vivid extended texts (often in the heterogeneous voices of official reports, newspaper articles, diaries and ad hominem reflections) and, of course, their possessions. The viewer is invited to be both a psychologist and an archaeologist, extracting meaning from the debris of life and fragmentary reports. In this work, Kabakov recreated a communal apartment (komunalka), the most distinct space in the domestic landscape of the Soviet Union, domestic exotica for audiences in Washington, Paris and London.

The komunalka is a fascinating historical artefact: it remains both a symptom of the radical hopes and, in the event, the failure of the Soviet dreamworld. In the aftermath of the October Revolution, the ‘bourgeois’ conception of home as a private space – both socially and spatially – was rejected in a series of decrees issued from 1918 nationalising land and abolishing private ownership of property. Collective modes of housing were not only adopted as a matter of exigency, but also proclaimed as the democratisation of space.[16] Large pre-revolutionary apartments, once occupied by the wealthy and their servants, were sub-divided to provide homes for a number of working class and peasant families. In his Moscow diaries Walter Benjamin described, employing a characteristically surreal metaphor, how these private homes had become common property and were now over-populated by numerous families and their meagre possessions; ‘Through the hall door one steps into a little town’.[17]

The komunalka was an instrument with which to create the new collectivity. It was to be the first stage in a new domestic landscape which would be furnished with dom komunii (communal houses), glass and steel building-machines which would accommodate hundreds of adults and children meeting their basic needs with by collective facilities like public canteens and an on-site boarding schools. Minimal allowances of ‘private’ space were to be provided to foster the kind of communalism lauded by communist ideologues and inhibit the ‘private’ possession of things. In fact, the desire for such things was expected to disappear when all human needs were satisfied by the perfect environment.[18] Andrei Platonov in his novel, The Foundation Pit (1930) described the ‘All Proletarian Home’ as a step towards Communism itself. His hero, predictably an engineer who is – less predictably – riddled with doubt, designs a

single building that was to replace the old town where … people lived fenced off from one another on their private plots: in a year’s time the entire local proletariat would leave the old town and its petty properties and take possession of the monumental new home. And in another decade or two, some other engineer would construct a tower, in the very centre of the world, where the toiling masses of the whole earth would happily take up residence for the rest of time.[19]

Such new collective homes were never (or hardly ever[20]) built. And whilst the mass housing schemes promoted by Nikita Khrushchev and his successor Leonid Brezhnev dramatically altered the face of cities and the living patterns of society, they did little to break up the institution of the family (in fact, in the form of the single-family apartment they did much to reinforce it). Moreover, the komunalka – the first phase in the campaign against bourgeois domesticity – remained a lasting feature of domestic life in the Soviet Union. In 1989, for instance, one-quarter of the population lived in komunalkii, sharing a common kitchen, a common toilet and a common telephone in an apartment subdivided by flimsy partitions, sometimes little more than curtains.[21]

Conventionally art historians have turned to Kabakov’s ‘Ten Characters’ as a comment on the forms of horizontal surveillance which operated not in only in the communal apartment but throughout Soviet society. Constantly aware of one’s movements and opinions being detected by others, the individual modifies his or her behaviour. Life is reduced to one of vigilance and performance or as Boris Groys puts it elegantly ‘the communal turns everyone into an artist’[22] For the purposes of this essay, another feature of the installation calls for attention, the debris from which Kabakov fashions his art. One space – once occupied by a cosmonaut who seemingly has flown into space by means of a catapult – is a ‘spectacle of total devastation’.[23] A massive hole in the ceiling created by an explosion detonated at the moment of take off has left the room littered with plaster fragments whilst the former occupant’s possessions are strewn all around. The room itself, bathed in the red light of propaganda posters, is a temple for Soviet dreams of futurism, of transcendence.[24] After the departure of this anonymous Gagarin, all that remains however is junk.

Another room – occupied by ‘The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away’ – is far more orderly and retrospective in tone. Scraps of paper and film, slithers of packaging, rags, tins and jars are carefully arranged in vitrines and hung on the wall. Each has a label attached to it, in the style of a museum catalogue, with a number and an inscription. The room itself is short and narrow, like a corridor, and contains two doors, one of which is permanently locked. This is the living space of an individual, but no furniture is visible, except a small divan.

Svetlana Boym, in her brilliant study of the myths of everyday life in Russia, describes the komunalka as the place where ‘domestic trash’ triumphed.[25] Far from being a new commonwealth in which the frictions caused by attachment to possessions was eased by the benefits of collective life: things (and often the social divisions they represent) announced their presence loudly, if sometimes mysteriously, in the communal apartment. This is Kabakov’s own description of the corridor:

Despite regular cleaning …, there was always a heap of undiscarded things. No-one knew whom these things belonged to, what they were used for, nor was it known whether the owners of these things still lived in the apartment or if they had already left. These things were scattered in all the corners, hung on the walls, stood along the entire length of the hallway. Because of all this, the apartment took on the appearance of a mysterious cave, full of stalactites and stalagmites, with a narrow passageway between them leading the constantly open kitchen door … Near the large discarded things – big wardrobes, cast-iron stoves, couches and other household junk -, smaller things were piled up on all sides and on top of the other ones – pipes crates, boxes, old buckets, bottles, both broken and complete … [26]

Recycling and garbage were prominent in the ecology of late Soviet socialism: a greasy tide of filth seeped into public spaces such as common hallways, streets, parks and beaches; whilst shortage turned citizens into skilled fixers of broken things, adept at the everyday arts of bricolage. On when things were completely exhausted (itself never a certain state), could they be dumped. But Kabakov’s debris – collected by the pseudonymous figure of the ‘The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away’ – is neither a practical resource nor is it without value. It evidently operates within the memorial economy rather than the economic one.

But what is being memorialized in this collection of things? Might this room operate as what Mikhail Epshtein, writing at same time, described as a ‘lyrical museum’, a home for things cycling between the warehouse and the dump? The collection of the ordinary stuff of everyday life, he says, is a response to modernity: ‘Our ancestors would hardly have thought of trying intensely to understand surrounding Things or of creating a memorial for them because the homes they lived in were such “memorials.” The Thing was meaningful from the start when it was inherited … and meaningful at the end when it was passed on …[27] In the Soviet Union, the figure of the collector – an activity laced with pathos – is rendered poignant by the fact that he was a representative of a social system which made the greatest possible claim to free mankind from the weight of the past and from the alienating effects of things. But Kabakov’s collector does not preserve fragments of a pre-revolutionary world (say in the manner of Chatwin’s fictional Utz or Dombrovsky’s Keeper of Antiquities[28]): he collects the debris of Soviet socialism. Even before the end of the Soviet experiment in 1991, Kabakov sensed how this dreamworld could become a ruin; how the future could become the past; and how utopia could become trash.

Dead House u r

Much distinguishes Kabakov’s installation from Gregor Schneider’s project, the Dead House. The Russian artist’s prolixity and his interest in the structures of ideology, reason and progress are very distant from the obdurate preoccupations of the young German artist. Nevertheless, Robert Storr writing in Art Forum in 2001 saw in Schneider’s work at the Venice Biennale that year ‘evidence of the delayed but growing influence in the West of Ilya Kabakov’s gritty, dystopian fantasies’. [29]

In the mid 1980s, Schneider, then a young man, began remodelling his own three-storey family home in Rheydt, a district of Mönchengladbach. By removing and duplicating walls, he created twenty-two rooms as well as numerous passages and dead-ends. Massive structures – suggesting inverted houses – were built into existing rooms. Doors to bedrooms were hidden behind heavy, brick walls which Schneider could move, albeit with difficulty, like a sliding door, to welcome (or incarcerate) his guests. Entire rooms could rotate on their axes. Many of the spaces created by these radical modifications were cramped and oppressive, punctuated with holes which penetrated through floors and what Schneider calls ‘in-between rooms.’ Blind windows were built directly in front of actual windows facing the outside world. Cupboards functioned as doorways into secret rooms. Hidden lights and ventilators produced the illusion of daylight and fresh air. And, like Kabakov’s lyrical museums, the Dead House became a kind of exhausted kunstkammer filled with decaying photographs, rolled up carpets, stuffed animals and dingy antiques. In these ways, it became a kind of mutant home formed from the corpses of other homes nearby, many of which were abandoned when the authorities forced their occupants to move so that the coal-rich ground could be mined.

Schneider’s dead ends, blind windows and cells within rooms suggest spaces of burial and torture, extra-territorial zones where the ‘rules of life’ are suspended and violent forces unleashed (Some floors were lined with lead, whilst some walls were dressed with sound proofing materials). This is perhaps where the bloodshed or loss suggested by the project’s title, Totes Haus u r, occurs. But the project also pointed to birth. u r – ostensibly refers to the first and last letters of the street on which it stands, Unterheydener Strasse. But of course, ur also means origin. Homes are conventionally sites of social and biological reproduction. In its decomposed state, Schneider’s house combines the symmetry of womb and tomb (poles that Freud famously conjoined in his essay on the Uncanny[30]). In the mid 1990s Schneider said:

I dream of taking the whole house away with me and building it somewhere else. My father and mother would then live in it, older relatives would like dead in the cellar, my brothers would live upstairs, around and about there would be men and women who don’t quite know where else to go. Somewhere in a corner would the large lady who constantly makes children and throws them out into the world.[31]

Schneider figured aspects of this particular nightmare in the form of portrait photographs concealed within the layers of rooms: each generation sealed, invisibly, as layers between walls.

In the 1990s and the early years of the new century Schneider’s elements of the Dead House were carefully removed from its Rheydt site and reinstalled within the white walls of galleries throughout Europe and North America. The Dead House achieved its greatest exposure at the Venice Biennale in 2001 when the artist represented Germany. This setting brought one of the Dead House’s most potent themes to the fore: the German pavilion had been remodeled in 1938 by the Third Reich in order to conform to the neo-classical idiom. Architect Ernst Haiger replaced the iconic columns and a modest gable of the small classical temple with four massive flat pilasters carrying an austere architrave. It represented an unmistakable projection of fascist aesthetics onto the international stage.

In this particular setting, Schneider’s Dead House was unmistakably drawn into the orbit of German history (somewhat inevitably following Nam June Paik and Hans Haacke’s treatment of the historic space in 1993 in their installation ‘Germania’[32]). Schneider created a claustrophobic labyrinth within the Pavilion and set a common glass-paned door from Rheydt into its grand entrance, a gesture which perhaps points to the complicity of ordinary homes in the reproduction of Nazism and even as the site of the execution of its crimes. This has repeatedly been the accusation made of German society. But the idea that a house is somehow guilty of crimes seems illogical, a category error which confuses mind and matter. Yet, the places in which tremendous violence has occurred are often demolished in order to exorcise their ghosts (or to deny ghost-hunters). In 1946, for instance, the garden of the Reich’s Chancellery, the site of Hitler’s bunker, was razed and the area leveled by the communist authorities which now controlled the Eastern sectors of the city. The bunker was buried (again). Similarly, in 1952, the Bavarian government blew up the ruins of the Berghof, Hitler’s heimatschutzstil home on the Obersalzberg. In an effort to stop the site becoming a site for Nazi and neo-Nazi pilgrims, the building could not be allowed to remain (though this intention to suppress memory was somewhat undermined by the choosing to commit this domicide on the anniversary of Hitler’s death, 30th April).

But of course Schneider has not destroyed the Dead House, but expanded and mutated it. In a strange twist, his secret rooms and false floors seem to echo the desperate attempts by Europe’s Jews to fashion places in which to hide in Germany and the occupied countries of the Second World War. These were, as we know, too rarely safe homes. ‘Street by street, house by house, inch by inch, from attic to cellar’, wrote one survivor of a German ghetto-clearing in occupied Poland, ‘The Germans became expert at finding these hiding places. When they searched a house they went tapping the walls, listening for the hollow sound that indicated a double wall. They punched holes in ceilings and walls ….’. [33] Entering into the constricting passages and false rooms was an uncertain experience, particularly for those who visited the ‘original’ incarnation of the Dead House in Rheydt: it produced the uncanny double effect of hunting and being hunted.

The Dead House was, in this regard, a strange kind of countermonument, a celebrated genre of public artworks through which Germany was asked to confront the Holocaust in the 1980s. Far more typical were those schemes which – by means of disappearing columns or as street cobbles carrying the names of Jewish cemeteries on their underside – asked Germans to reflect on the absences in their midst.[34] This phenomenon sought to address the aesthetic problem of the monument, historically an object associated with triumphalism, by seeking to produce a sense of anguished reflection on the part of its viewers. Such counter monuments have attracted a good deal of controversy. As Richard Esbenshade put it in 1995 ‘The celebration of counter-memory or counter-history begs the question of who is doing the remembering and the rewriting of history.’[35] A far more disturbing (and tactically irresponsible) countermemorial is perhaps one which simulates the conditions in which people became prey.

Inconclusive material

Historian Eric Hobsbawm has represented the late twentieth century as an era of disconnect: ‘The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century.’[36] Living in a ‘sort of permanent present lacking any organic relations to the public past’ the ‘historical memory is no longer alive’ in modern societies. Hobsbawm’s observation made in 1994 was intended to reaffirm the role of the historian as a political and social conscience. What kind of connection with the past is made Kabakov and Schneider’s homes? After all the eerie is precisely the sensation generated by both installations.

Both Kabakov and Schneider explore the ways in which ordinary things might materialise memory, an inquiry which was all the more powerful for exploring the debris of the home. In environments in which homes were experiments for either the disavowal of domesticity (the Soviet Union) or its perversion (Nazi Germany), these artists produce spaces for an examination of the trash produced by modernity. The facticity and durability of material has long been claimed as its value. Hannah Arendt argued, for instance, that it was these qualities which ‘gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produced and use them … . From this viewpoint, the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.’[37] But in societies which have been forced through the mill of history, the ‘sameness’ of that chair or table might be the very cause of disturbance.


[1] Isaiah Berlin cited by Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London, 1995), p.1.

[2] Charles Merewether ‘Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed’ in Michael S. Roth, Claire Lyons and Charles Merewether, eds., Irresistible Decay (Los Angeles, 1997), pp.1-13. See also Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London, 2002).

[3] James Jeffrey Higgins, Images of the Rust Belt (Kent, OH, 1999)

[4] Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (New York, 1995),p.8.

[5] M Yampolsky, ‘In the Shadow of Monuments’ in N. Condee, ed., Soviet Hieroglyphics, (London, 1995), p.100.

[6] The damaged yet preserved state of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, for instance, represents a humanistic view of the ruin.

[7] Georg Simmel ‘The Ruin’ in Kurt H. Wolff, ed., Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics (New York, 1965), pp.259-66.

[8] Andrew Hersher, ‘The Language of Damage’ in Grey Room, 7 (Spring 2002),p.69.

[9] Susan Stewart, On Longing. Narrative of Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham and London, 1993),p.138.

[10] Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny, Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Boston, MA., 1994), p. 64.

[11] George S. Patton (September 21st, 1945) The Patton Papers, 1940-1945, edited by Martin Blumenson (Cambridge, MA., 1998) p.759

[12] Ilya Kabakov, Der Text als Grundlage des Visnellen / The Text as the Basis of Visual Expression, edited by Zdenek Felix (Köln, 2000) p.269.

[13] Paul Schimmel, ‘Life’s Echo’ in Gregor Schneider (Milan, 2003), pp.103-118.

[14] Ivan Illich H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness. Reflections on the History of ‘Stuff’ (Dallas, 1985),p.8

[15] It was first mounted at Ronald Feldman Fine Art in New York in 1988.

[16] Milka Bliznakov, ‘Soviet housing during the experimental years, 1918 to 1933’, in William Craft Brumfield and Blair A. Ruble (eds), Russian Housing in the Modern Age: Design and Social History (Cambridge 1993), pp.85–149.

[17] Walter Benjamin, ‘Moscow’ (1927) in One Way Street (London, 1979), pp. 187-88.

[18] On the early Soviet critique of the commodity see Christine Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge MA., 2005) particularly pp.1-88.

[19] Andrei Platonov, ‘The Foundation Pit’ (1930) in Catriona Kelly, ed., Utopias (Hardmondsworth, 1999) p.21.

[20] On attempts to produce new experimental collective whousing schemes in the 1960s see Monica Rüthers, Moskau bauen von Lenin bis Chruscev. Öffentliche Räume zwischen Utopie, Terror und Alltag (Cologne, 2007), pp.248–61.

[21] See K. Gerasmiova, ‘Public Privacy in the Soviet Communal Apartment’ in David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, ed., Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc (Oxford and London, 2003), p. 207-30.

[22] Borys Groys, David A. Rose and Iwona Blazwick, Ilya Kabakov (London, 1998), p.63

[23] Kabakov, Text als Grundlage des Visuellen p.332

[24] For a brilliant analysis of this space see Boris Groys, Ilya Kabakov. The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment (London, 2006).

[25] Svetlana Boym, Commonplaces. Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), p.123.

[26] Kabakov, Text als Grundlage des Visuellen, p. 300.

[27] Mikhail Epshtein, ‘Things and Words: Towards a Lyrical Museum’ in Efimova and Manovich, ed., Tekstura (Chicago, 1993), p. 164

[28] Bruce Chatwin, Utz (London, 1988); Yury Dombrovsky, The Keeper of Antiquities (London, 1968).

[29] Robert Storr ‘Harry’s Last Call’ in Art Forum (September 2001), p. 159.

[30] ‘To some people the idea of being buried alive by mistake is the most uncanny thing of all. And yet psychoanalysis has taught us that this terrifying fantasy is only a transformation of another fantasy which had originally nothing terrifying about it al all, but was qualified by a certain lasciviousness – the fantasy, I mean of intra-uterine existence.’ S. Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’ in Art and Literature (Collected Works) (Hardmondsworth, 1985) p. 366

[31] Gregor Schneider in an interview with Ulrich Loock in Gregor Schneider (Milan, 2003) pp.99-100.

[32] The marble floor of the pavilion interior was smashed into fragments at Haacke and Paik’s instruction. The visitor had to walk with great care over the uneven and unstable surface. As they moved, their steps were amplified and broadcast back into the echoing space. Here was a national pavilion – and, by extension, a nation – without solid foundations. See Dario Gamboni The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution (London, 1997) p.166.

[33] Henry Orenstein cited by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (London, 1997), p. 395

[34] see James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven and London, 1993) and James E. Young, At Memory’s Edge: After-images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven and London, 2007).

[35] Richard S. Esbenshade ‘Remembering to Forget: Memory, History, National Identity in Postwar East-Central Europe’, Representations, 49 (winter 1995), pp.72–96.

[36] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London, 1995), p.3.

[37] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1999) p.137. I am grateful to Paul Betts for alerting me to this passage in Arendt’s book.

Dan Perjovschi: The Power of the Margins

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

The international art world ‘discovered’ Dan Perjovschi in 1999 when his drawings were displayed in the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.[1] Under the title ‘rEST’, he covered the floor with cartoons and slogans in thick marker-pen reflecting on life in Eastern-Central Europe since the overthrow of communist rule 10 years earlier. Over time, his cartoons slowly disappeared under the traffic of visitors.

But just as Columbus could hardly discover a populated continent, the art world could not ‘discover’ this Romanian artist. In 1999 Dan Perjovschi had already been active for more than a decade in North America and throughout Europe. Moreover, the techniques of erasure and abjection that brought poignancy to his drawings in Venice were already key features of his practice. In ‘Anthroprogramming’ made in 1996 in New York, he had laid a loose grid on the walls of the Franklin Furnace artspace and then fill each box with a quick-fire portrait sketch. He then spent ten days systematically erasing the grid and its occupants. In ‘Live! From the Ground’, a 1988 performance in Chisinau in Moldova, he crawled prostrate along the city’s main street. Addressing the cracked tarmac, he called out ‘Ground to centre! Come in! Come in! I can’t hear you’ like some kind of desperate army telegraph operator. Dan Perjovschi saw this action as a metaphor for life in the communist and post-communist years when Romanian society moved at a crawl ‘unable to tear ourselves off the ground’.[2] Witty and sometimes sardonic, the Venice drawings also owed much to his work as a cartoonist for 22, a fiercely independent political magazine published in Bucharest to which he had contributed since the early 1990s. Dan Perjovschi’s work in Venice drew praise for pointing to the disappearance of ‘the East’ in the face of ‘Western’ values and the rise of the market conditions: it also signalled the rise of a new phenomenon, that of the Eastern European artist, a new exotic species in the fauna of art.

In the years since, Dan Perjovschi has drawn commentaries on life in the era of globalisation directly on the walls of many galleries and museums around the world. His thick pen has marked the crisp white surfaces of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2007) and the crystalline walls of the extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (2009) designed by Daniel Libeskind. When invited to participate in biennales and other short-term art events, he often works in chalk on the exteriors of buildings or on the paving stones of the street. Increasingly Dan Perjovschi himself features as part of the visual spectacle, working while the public looks on. This is an aspect of his practice which causes Dan Perjovschi some disquiet: ‘We live in a cannibalistic period,’ he has said. ‘People simply want you’.[3] Never permanent additions to the collections of the institutions which commission him, his drawings are painted over a few weeks later or, when produced in an ephemeral medium like chalk, disappear naturally. At Tate Liverpool in 2008-9 this pattern was reversed: Dan Perjovschi’s blackboard drawings were slowly overwritten over the course of two months by chalk cartoons and graffiti by the city’s school children. A frenzy of buzzing lines and words slowly swallowed his work. At the end, the only way to leave a mark on this billowing surface of chalk dust was to draw with a wet fingertip.

Despite the enthusiastic embrace of his work in the high temples of the art world, Dan Perjovschi continues to occupy the margins, sometimes literally. He draws in corridors, around the doorways on ceilings and on floors, sometimes making a feature of the edges of the space. Occupying the dizzying atrium space in the monumental lobby of MOMA in New York in 2007, Dan Perjovschi’s drawings were ‘interrupted’ by the floor and folded around the corners of the wall. Edges are not necessarily marginal spaces. In fact, they offer up ideal positions for critical perspectives.

Here, an analogy can be drawn from the past. In the Middle Ages, artists illuminating books would sometimes add mocking glosses and grotesque figures to the borders of the page. The anxieties which lurked in the dark spaces of the human imagination were given material form as dog-headed men, one-footed beasts and ape-angels. An illuminator might supplement his portraits of venerable saints and wise philosophers with depictions of profane acts and erotic fantasies. Off-centre and often humorous, these devices provided a kind of imaginative escape for the illuminator and the reader wearied by the orderly and uplifting content of the missal or book of hours. Some marginalia went further, seeming to offer critique of the text itself. The British Library, for instance, possesses a late thirteenth century copy of Aristotle’s Physics, a controversial text when it prepared for scholars in Europe’s universities (to the extent that it was ordered to be burned in Paris as a text which might encourage heresy[4]). On a page discussing the Heavens, a scholar in his study stares into the space above the block of text. His vision of the starry firmament is, however, obscured by a scabrous fool being transported in a wheelbarrow over bumpy ground. In his analysis of this marginal image, Michael Camille suggests that it is a satirical commentary on the consequences of acquiring too much knowledge.[5] Had the body buckled under the weight of all the lofty ideas contained on the very same page? Irreverent and witty, illuminated marginalia was inevitably dependent on the centre. The fact that these unruly images appeared on the same page as the sacred Word or brilliant philosophical treatises is what gave them such potency (and, as Camille suggests, perhaps, as a result, the centre was made all the more secure and stable by the presence of fantastic images on the edge[6]).

What is the relation of Dan Perjovschi’s graphic marginalia to the institutions on which they are quite literally inscribed? In many of his cartoons and slogans, he reflects on the condition of the museum and gallery in the twentieth-first century, deprecating the commercialism and sponsorship of culture. Like many Eastern European intellectuals, Dan Perjovschi possesses a sharp sense of freedom and so ‘free’ – whether attached to humans or things – is a word which invariably raises suspicion.[7] The excess and profligacy of the international biennale, a seemingly unending cycle of bonanzas, is ridiculed too (‘DUE TO GLOBAL WARMING THE VENICE BIENNALE WILL BE LOCATED TO STOCKHOLM’). Curators are identified as minor dictators, in one drawing framing the eyes of a faceless artist. Dan Perjovschi does not exempt himself from his critical pen: the figure of the ‘international artist’ who lives his or her life from a suitcase appears regularly in his cartoon cast. In one image that featured in his 2010 Royal Ontario Museum show, two figures, hands in pockets, exchange small talk. ‘WHAT YOU DID AFTER THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL?’ asks one. ‘BASEL ART FAIR’ replies the other. Positioned next to the text panel describing Dan Perjovschi’s art, this cartoon points to the art world’s keen embrace of the Eastern European artist (as well the commodification of politics in the form of artworks with expensive price tags[8]). In fact, the curatorial statement on the wall nearby begins by describing Dan Perjovschi as ‘One of Eastern Europe’s most sought-after artists.’

Dan Perjovschi’s wall-drawings look unplanned, unfinished and even instinctive (and, as such, a suppression of all that he had learned at the conservative George Enescu University of Art in the 1980s). Occasionally, scratching out ‘errors’ in thick black marks, his lines are quick and bold. He writes in English in hasty capital letters, seemingly with little concern for penmanship. Figures, buildings and actions are reduced to a simple graphic lexicon of silhouettes and loose geometric shapes. National and political symbols are drafted in as graphic ready-mades. His wall drawings are not, however, always as spontaneous as they might seem. While some figures are conjured up on the spot, others are distilled from the sketchbook he always carries with him. Over the years Dan Perjovschi’s sketchbooks function as a kind of archive of ideas, always ready when needed. The same figures and motifs appear in his wall drawings, still resonant 10 years or more after their first appearance. They pass from one context to another. The phrase ‘I AM NOT EXOTIC I AM EXHAUSTED’ often resurfaces, most recently at his show at the Centre for Visual Introspection (CIV) in Bucharest in 2010. Each time it materialises on a wall, it gathers new poignancy.

When commissioned to draw in situ, Dan Perjovschi absorbs himself in the press. This is not just a matter of expediency. When he was commissioned by the Ludwig Museum in Köln in 2005 to fill the white cube of its DC-Room over several weeks, copies of Le Monde, The Guardian, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek were arranged on tables in the centre of the gallery. In effect, viewers were invited to reflect on the relation between the detailed reports in print and his telegraphic images. (The exhibition extended beyond the walls of the Ludwig when, each week during the exhibition, die tageszeitung printed a visual digest by Dan Perjovschi on current events). One conclusion to be drawn from the comparison is that he is a brilliant visual and textual editor. In English, his word plays are often as sharp as any newspaper headline and his drawings deliver their message in a few telegraphic lines. These are skills honed over many years. When he joined the team of 22, the first independent weekly in Romania after the 1989 Revolution, he was involved in all aspects of the press from layout to proofreading. Established by a group of dissidents and intellectuals called the Group of Social Dialogue, 22 continues to defend freedom of speech and democratic rights in Romania. Loyal to the cause, Dan Perjovschi, wherever he is in the world, still sends cartoons to the weekly today.

Resolutely anti-communist, Dan Perjovschi has, by an accident of history, fulfilled a communist vision of the radical newspaper. After the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the young Bolshevik state encouraged the production of wall-newspapers or what in Russian are called stengazety.[9] Workers and school children were encouraged to paste up news, cartoons, to ‘publish’ documentary photographs and commentaries on the transformation of their world. Soviet citizens were, as the Communist Party loudly trumpeted, living through the greatest social transformation in the history of mankind. Their reports, sketches and cartoons were displayed on the streets, in factories and hospitals as well as in schools and apartment blocks in Soviet Russia.

The wall-newspaper was not just a medium for the transmission of ideas: it was, according to its champions, a mechanism for the transformation of consciousness. In recording and reporting their world, not least on the walls of the stengazeta, the new Soviet man and woman would become conscious of their own progressive influence in the world. In other words, they would become real revolutionaries. The efflorescence of proletarian creativity was an illusion: in fact, considerable effort went into providing ‘advice’ about how and what to write for the stengazeta, all material required permission of communist authorities. Although the wall-newspaper was exported to the newly-formed Eastern bloc in the late 1940s including to Romania, regulation and control eventually did for the format. The wall newspaper became a moribund relic of revolutionary socialism. By the 1960s, state printers in East Germany were turning out wall-newspaper ‘cut and paste’ kits. Printed reports, logos and stencils turned the act of authorship into one of assemblage (not unlike writing for the official communist press). The events of 1989 in Eastern Europe put an end to the wall newspaper: in the years since, Dan Perjovschi has restored this low-tech medium reviving its critical, comic and unruly energy. Preparing ‘The Room Drawing’ at Tate Modern in London in 2006, he took the views of museum staff, Tate members and representatives from Tate Modern’s Council. The drawings which filled the Members’ Room – a clubish space for fee-paying affiliates, open to the public for Dan Perjovschi’s exhibition – incorporated their comments and views of local and international events and ‘personal issues’.

Offering a distinctly critical perspective on the interests at work in the world without the heavy hand of propaganda, Dan Perjovschi’s work is often described as ironic. Irony is a form of dissimulation: an ironist says one thing but means another. Dan Perjovschi’s images are irreverent but they feign little. They show the world exactly as he sees it, albeit often in its most incongruous forms. When his drawings are absurd, it is because life is absurd. Looking at his wall drawings and slogans we see what we already know: communities living on fault-lines (East-West/Christian-Muslim) fail to understand each other; politicians are ruled by their egos and their libidos; and advertising makes us unhappy. In an age infected with the plague of irony (sometimes glossed as ‘postmodern irony’) Dan Perjovschi’s direct humour seems to point to an earlier, though no less sophisticated, way of viewing the world which exposes the vanity of people and the irrationality of systems which organise life. In this regard, he seems closer to existential skepticism than the postmodern taste for irony. ‘No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute’ wrote playwright Eugène Ionescu 50 years ago. ‘It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.’[10] These words might be used to caption Dan Perjovschi’s drawings today.

Refusing to be anyone’s representative, Dan Perjovschi has repeatedly expressed his dislike of the label ‘Romanian artist’ or even ‘Eastern European artist’, viewing both terms as limitations. To judge from the tremendous popularity of his work around the world, his art has a universal appeal which transcends such narrow categories. Nevertheless, Dan Perjovschi’s relations to Romania – past and present – are complex and ultimately productive. In 1993, he staged his commitment to the country by having a tattoo of the word Romania on his shoulder as a public performance at Zone 1, a festival in Timişoara. An ambiguous gesture, the tattoo implied both choice (this I chose to do) and compulsion (‘my’ national identity is marked on me). In 2003 he had this tattoo removed in three public sessions at ‘In the Gorges of the Balkans’ exhibition in Kassel, Germany, a gesture which marked a break with the nation. Kristine Stiles, in her landmark study of Dan Perjovschi and Lia Perjovschi’s art, identifies this action with a renewal of their vows of dissent. Thereafter, they became increasingly critical of the activities of the political and cultural elites in Romania.[11]

There is reason to be critical. Despite the violence that it unleashed, the 1989 Revolution channelled tremendous hopes for democracy, freedom of speech and the dignity that comes from an improved quality of life. Those who took power in 1990 – and their successors – have been keen to hold on to it, sometimes with little regard for the actual workings of democracy. The bodies responsible for ‘decommunisation’ – the process by which those who supported or benefited from the Ceauşescu regime are denied power or influence – have been neutralised. Capital is concentrated in the hands of a small number of oligarchs, many closely connected to political cartels. The courts and the media seem to serve the interests of the elite. Meanwhile, Romania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe with broken roads, schools and hospitals.[12] Dan Perjovschi has been highly critical of the political culture in Romania, refusing to be swept up in the populist nationalism which stirs the country periodically. His 2010 CIV exhibition in Bucharest offered brilliantly incisive commentaries on the failures of the Revolution. One figure carries a national flag which has had its central motif excised. In 1989, revolutionaries cut out the coat of arms which signalled the Romanian Socialist Republic, producing an icon of erasure. In Dan Perjovschi’s 2010 image, the flag-carrying figure has placed his own face in the hole or, perhaps, the hole has become his face, a device which points to the arrogance and petty nationalism of the politicians who have led Romania in the last two decades.

Despite his strong criticisms of Romania today, Dan Perjovschi continues to make his home in Bucharest (and, as such, is unlike ten per cent of the adult labour force who have left the country to work abroad[13]). The country remains a productive place for his art and for reflecting on the processes of globalisation underway in Europe. When, in 1989, communism collapsed, bankrupt and exhausted, many in the West predicted a future for the countries of Eastern Europe in terms determined by neo-liberal capitalism. This was the ‘natural’ and incontestable face of the modern society. What Dan Perjovschi’s art exposes is the hubris and injustice in the ‘New Global Order’. One cannot help but think that his perspectives on the political, social and economic interests shaping the world are more sharply focused because of his Romanian vantage point. This view is all the more powerful because it is taken from the margins.


[1] This was a joint show with subREAL, a group formed by artists Cãlin Dan and Josif Király in 1990.

[2] Dan Perjovschi cited by Kristine Stiles, States of Mind. Dan and Lia Perjovschi (Durham, NC., 2007), 73.

[3] Dan Perjovschi, interviewed Ileana Pintilie (December 2006) www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/154-drawing-for-freedom-an-interview-with-dan-perjovschi – accessed July 2010.

[4] Haig A. Bosmajian, Burning books (Jefferson, NC, 2006), 49.

[5] Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London, 1998), 22-23.

[6] Camille, Image on the Edge, 26.

[7] See Svetlana Boym, Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (Chicago, 2010), particularly chapter five.

[8] Of course there is nothing new in this. See Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Boston, MA, 2008).

[9] Catriona Kelly, ‘”A Laboratory for the Manufacture of Proletarian Writers”: The Stengazeta (Wall Newspaper), Kul’turnost’ and the Language of Politics in the Early Soviet Period’ in Europe-Asia Studies (June 2002), 573-602.

[10] Eugène Ionescu (writing in The Observer, 29 June 1958) cited in Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Harmondsworth, 1968), 126.

[11] Stiles, States of Mind, 79

[12] See Tom Gallagher, Theft of a Nation: Romania since Communism (London, 2005).

[13] See Tom Gallagher, ‘Romania and Europe: An Entrapped Decade’ (March 2010) – www.opendemocracy.net/tom-gallagher/romania-and-europe-entrapped-decade – accessed July 2010.

Writing Design: The History of Design Criticism in the UK since the 1960s

Design Exhibition, Graphic Design

This essay appeared in the book published to accompany Communicate! British Independent Graphic Design since the 1960s, an exhibition curated by Rick Poynor at the Barbican Art Gallery in London in 2005.

The history of journalism about graphic design in Britain is, in large part, the history of specialist design journals. Unlike other spheres of contemporary art and design, graphic design rarely draws a mention in the culture or business pages of newspapers or on television arts programmes. Whilst the media regularly discusses new products as objects of desire and public architecture attracts both controversy and acclaim, only the publicity-seeking fringes of graphic design draw attention. In recent years shock advertising and earlier, in the late 1980s, the rebranding of privatised industries (‘BT Blows Millions on Trumpet’, The Sun) have been put under the spotlight. Like language itself, graphic design seems so deeply ingrained in the texture of daily life that it is taken for granted. Whilst this might be seen as graphic design’s achievement, it has been a cause of concern for those who wish to promote the pecuniary and professional interests of designers, as well as for those who want to put the social and moral effects of their work under close scrutiny.

Magazines are commodities and, with some notable exceptions, most are produced for profit. Since the 1950s the news-stands of Britain have had to grow to accommodate the new titles that have burgeoned year on year. Seizing the economic benefits produced by new printing technologies (not least the desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s), magazine publishing is increasingly characterised by specialist titles serving particular and often narrow interests. The fact that British readers today can purchase half a dozen home-grown graphic design titles when none existed a generation ago might seem to be a simple reflection of the same unerring commercial ‘logic’ that has produced a dozen different gossip magazines over the same period. As Blueprint (1983-) stressed in an early editorial: ‘once upon a time people started magazines because they believed that people would want to read what they had to say; today it is more likely that a magazine is launched because the advertisement sales manager can see a “gap in the market”’.[1] Blueprint was itself, however, initiated by volunteers prepared to write pro bono, ‘moonlighting’ from careers elsewhere. The motives behind the launch of this and, in fact, many other design titles cannot be reduced to commercial opportunism (even if some of these magazines have espoused an out-and-out commercial philosophy).

As this short essay reviewing the recent history of graphic design journalism in Britain sets out to show, in launching new graphic design magazines like Creative Review (1980-) or Dot.Dot.Dot (2000-), editors and publishers sought to change the world in which their readers lived and, more specifically, in which they worked. In great part, the readers of these titles have tended to be designers and others working in closely-aligned fields. Whilst few titles have been explicitly ideological or doctrinaire in the manner of the avant-garde in the 1920s, most have sought to create an imagined ‘community’ of readers; to raise the status of the professions they report; and to influence the quality of design. This is ideological work that extends beyond ‘mere’ commercialism (and sometimes pitches publisher against editor, and advertising against editorial). It has never been a surprise to designers that representation is ideological, even if this is a term which they might not use: to portray and frame one’s activities and those of others is to assert power and is, ultimately, an attempt to shape the world.

Graphic design and typography was framed in very particular and in some unexpected ways by Typographica, one of the two British journals discussing (if not strictly reporting) graphic design in the 1950s and 1960s. Founded by Herbert Spencer, designer and critic, in 1949, it appeared in two series of sixteen issues each and ceased publishing in 1967. Although its title suggested rather narrow interests, Typographica took a rather catholic view of modernist design introducing its readers to now well-known historical figures like Aleksander Rodchenko, Piet Zwart and Henryk Berlewi, surveyed ephemeral lettering traditions and contemporary avant-garde poetry and art

If Typographica was idiosyncratic and eclectic, Design magazine (1949-1999) the official mouthpiece of the Council of Industrial Design (CoID/re-designated as The Design Council in 1972) was much more self-consciously ideological. A monthly reporting the design of consumer and capital goods as well as some aspects of graphic design like packaging, Design proselytised for a ‘good design’, a concept never adequately defined and closely connected to a taste for modernism. An official and bureaucratic organisation funded by grant-in-aid from government, the CoID saw itself as both a servant and a critic of industry. If the design standards of manufacturers and the level of taste of consumers could be raised, Britain’s dire postwar economic situation and the quality of ordinary lives would be improved. Design expounded a technocratic view of progress: designers were technical experts who, working alongside engineers and other specialists, were best able to make rational judgements about the appropriate form of the material world. In the Manichean world of the CoID, design could be ‘good’ (modest, functional, transparent, rational and enduring) or ‘bad’ (gauche, ambiguous, emotional and ephemeral). The failures and successes of British industry – measured on technical, aesthetic and moral indices – were regularly called to task on the pages of its magazine.

Graphic design, a practice thoroughly implicated in the spectacle of the emerging consumer society, posed a ‘problem’ for Design. ‘The image’ – the aspect of design least susceptible to the CoID’s quasi-scientific and civic-minded approach – was increasingly the immaterial basis of marketing, advertising and Pop design (as well as politics and other ‘serious’ aspects of modern life[2]). Despite occasional forays into the record shops and boutiques of Carnaby Street to report the taste for Pop, Design’s writers were ill-equipped to deal with the ephemeral and fast-changing world they found there.[3] They returned to form which, in the case of graphic design, meant reports on the systematic techniques behind successful corporate images, road signage or the practical failings of public information campaigns.[4]

If Design was ideologically inhibited from embracing the ephemeral world of fashion and marketing, it was also unable to provide a platform for the ideas of the consumer society’s most vocal critics. The writings of philosophers like Herbert Marcuse provided the Counter Culture of the late 1960s with a pugnacious critique of the alienating effects of affluence. When the march of progress was measured by the launch of new ‘improved’ products performing old functions, humanity, it was argued, was reduced to ‘one-dimension’. Deprived of their imaginations by advertising, men and women were becoming unable to imagine other ways of living except as consumers. Feeling the pressure of the Counter Culture, Design’s editor responded by invoking the irresistible force of progress (‘the clock cannot be turned back’): designers had to reform rather than reject the world in which they worked.[5]

Design froze in the bright lights of consumerism. Unable to endorse the fast-changing image world or to sign up to the more radical utopianism of the Counter Culture, it withdrew into its ‘tried and tested’ world of engineering.[6] Graphic design, which had never been at the centre of Design’s interests, was treated as a peripheral phenomenon, of greatest interest when it corresponded to the magazine’s worldview. In fact, the only publication published in Britain exclusively covering graphic design during this period was Icographic (1971-1979). The official organ of ICOGRADA (International Council of Graphic Design Associations) and under the editorship of Peter Wallis Burke, this quarterly took a disciplined approach to communication, publishing long and often scholarly articles on the ‘efficiency’ of new alphabets, ‘rational’ classification systems in publishing or the need to ‘move [graphic design] from the applied arts to the applied sciences.’[7] Graphic design was discussed not in terms of events or products but as a project to improve the world through the exchange of knowledge.

Icographic was an unambiguously modernist publication which claimed roots in the design and social idealism of the 1920s. It was ideological in ways that virtually no graphic design writing has been since. The explicit internationalism of Otto Neurath’s ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Pictorial Education), a lingua franca of graphic symbols which aspired to transcend national and linguistic boundaries, was shared by Icographic, albeit in changed political circumstances. Neurath’s invention has been understood in terms of its opposition to the xenophobia and belligerent nationalism in inter-war Europe: Icographic rejected the long Cold War divisions which separated East and West, publishing the research findings of Polish and East German designers. Underdevelopment and global inequalities came under attack too. In ‘New Ways to View World Problems’, a co-authored article, an electronic engineer from India, a geographer and a graphic designer from the USA and a technologist from Iran argued for information systems that could display ‘only the stark reality of facts, concepts and the significance of global interdependencies.’[8]

Icographic’s writers turned their backs on the steady growth of business-minded graphic design consultancies in Britain and elsewhere in the 1970s. The reproduction of paintings on the paperback covers of Penguin’s ‘Classics’ series was, according to Germano Facetti, less a manipulation of desire than a cultural service: art on the jacket, he suggested, would find its way to those ‘without immediate access to art galleries or museums.’[9] Icographic could not, however, escape the gravitational pull of economics. From 1972 Letraset International Ltd. provided sponsorship in return for space to promote its new typeface designs, available under licence to typesetting system manufacturers, and its dry transfer lettering. Expressive faces like ‘Shatter’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ struck a colourful and discordant note, out of tune with the journal’s collective and earnest voice. By the same measure, Icographic’squasi-scientific rhetoric did little to support Letraset’s interest in fashion or the passage of its dry transfer letting into the hands of the non-professional designers.

Baseline magazine’s 1990 feature on the comics typography of Will Eisner.

In fact, in 1979 Letraset issued its own occasional magazine, Baseline, to showcase its products. Under the art direction of Mike Daines, prominent commercially-minded designers including Erik Spiekermann and Milton Glaser, were given space to experiment with the company’s products and to reflect on the impact of new technologies like laser printing.[10] Although Baseline was not firmly established as a magazine until 1995 (when it was bought by Daines and art director Hans Dieter Reichert), its appearance at the end of the 1970s anticipated a wave of new design titles that engaged directly, and often with enthusiasm, with promotion and marketing.

Creative Review, a monthly magazine launched by Marketing Week Communications in 1980, was the first onto the blocks. A sister publication to Marketing Week, it provided a glossy, colour pages in which the output of the ‘creative industries’ could be surveyed. Framed alongside unequivocally commercial products like pop music promos and television advertising, graphic design was presented as a tool which would give an edge to those businesses which made use of its most skilled practitioners. After early issues in which the great and the good lamented the state of creativity, Creative Review established a successful, up-beat formula (still followed today). Unlike its predecessors, it dedicated space to the portfolios of designers working in the commercial sector. Images of the output of individuals and consultancies would be accompanied by a glowing commentary that emphasised the ‘originality’, ‘innovation’ and ‘vision’ of the designer under the spotlight, as well at his or her ability to solve ‘problems’. Technique was discussed, although not necessarily in the familiar terms of materials and tools: readers were as likely to be presented with a discussion of ‘how to master the creative pitch’ as with an article on ‘the art of retouching a photograph.’[11] In an unconscious echo of post-modern rhetoric associated with thinkers like Jean Baudrillard, Creative Review’s journalists were happy to claim the all-conquering importance of the image ‘at a time’, in the words of one, ‘when style is everything’.[12] In promoting a picture of creativity in market conditions, Creative Review flattered designers and reassured those who commissioned them.

Representing those professions which usually operated in conditions of anonymity, the names of designers (alongside animators and illustrators) were carefully reinstated on the pages of Creative Review. And, as if to illustrate this point, Edward Booth-Clibborn, then chairman of D&AD, argued in an early issue that illustrators ought to enjoy the same kind of critical attention as painters.[13] This was not simply a way of generating commissions in the manner of a trade directory: it was a strategy that sought to raise the ‘cultural capital’ of the professional readers of the magazine. Graphic designers, illustrators and other image-makers were represented as masters of creativity rather than as servants to business. Blueprint (1983-present), a title reporting widely across the fields of design, took this trend to its logical conclusion by presenting a ‘star’ designer rather than his or her work on each of its covers in theatrically lit portraits. Although not strictly a ‘celebrity profile’ in the sense of exposing the private lives to public attention, the appearance of graphic designers like Neville Brody on the April 1988 cover with an extensive profile of the ‘tribal typographer’ (one of the least successful labels pinned on him at the time) inside, marked a new stage in the way that graphic design was reported.[14] Blueprint’s starry portraits had a unmistakable influence on other magazines of the day: the fortunes of young graphic designers, Why Not Associates, were given an unmistakable boost when they appeared on the March 1990 cover of Direction within months of graduating from the Royal College of Art).

Whilst Blueprint made stars amongst designers, DesignWeek, a weekly launched in 1986 by the publisher of Creative Review, sought to make their names better known to business. Presenting itself as a no-nonsense ‘newsmagazine written specifically for the British design industry’, it launched straight into the business of reporting design as news in September 1996. With very little editorialising in the early issues, DesignWeek made few attempts to judge design on ethical or aesthetic grounds. Significance was understood largely in terms shared by business: competitions, briefs and fees, stocks and shares, relocations, new appointments and redundancies determined the content of the news pages which opened each weekly issue. Fields that might seem to lack glamour from the perspective of Creative Review or Blueprint were its staples. During the late 1980s its pages filled with ‘aspirational’, corporate identity schemes and food packaging with ‘dynamic presence on supermarket shelves’. Whilst DesignWeek’s editorials regularly used the phrase ‘the design cause’, what this meant in practice was the ‘interests of design consultancies’. Whilst Brody might appear on its pages as a newsworthy designer in the 1980s, it was his art direction of Arena and Italian fashion advertising rather than his logos for socialist groups like Red Wedge and his covers of City Limits, a left-leaning London listings magazine, which made good copy.[15]

The appearance of new titles in the 1980s represents the growth and the hubris of British graphic design in this period. In retrospect, this boom seems to have been scripted by a number of authors including professional bodies like D&AD, new institutions like London’s Design Museum launched with great publicity in 1988 and, of course, the design press. The label, ‘the Design Decade’, was used without irony to brand the era even before it was over. Repackaging, rebranding and other forms of design sophistry were presented as a panacea for industry; public utilities were ‘remade’ into efficient private companies by new corporate identity schemes; graphic design, it was even claimed, could even win elections.[16] Firmly located within the sphere of what Andrew Wernick called at the time ‘promotional culture’,[17] graphic designers reaped the benefits of this neo-commercial rhetoric. Graphic design (and often design journalism too) had become almost indistinguishable from advertising.[18]

The speed at which DesignWeek insinuated itself with graphic, product, vehicle and interior designers and, of course, their clients, was a sign of incontrovertible success: it was and remains the mostly widely read design magazine in Britain. A self-consciously unglamorous title, it worked hard to give amorphous professions (each ultimately defined by competition rather than consensus) a shared sense of community. The response to the collapse of the Michael Peters Group in 1990 is a case in point. Peters, a specialist in packaging design, had developed an enormous and over-extended design business offering diverse services from management consultancy to letter headings by acquiring British and American design companies with funds generated on the stock market. When the Group went into receivership – an event widely interpreted as ‘the end of the goldrush’ in Britain – DesignWeek led the mourning with headlines like ‘Tributes Pour in From A Stunned Design Community’.[19] The newsmagazine also emphasised consensus by dampening down controversy. Speaking for this ‘community’ and reliant on the revenue brought in by the adverts placed on its pages, controversy risked opening up divisive differences. Whilst Creative Review invited disagreement in the form of stage-managed conversations between prominent figures holding different views and DesignWeek took a campaigning stance on the issue of ‘Green Design’ in the early 1990s,[20] any doubts about graphic design’s commercial ‘cause’ or concerns about its social effects remained unspoken.

Eye no. 2, vol. 1 – cover by Jake Tilson

Eye, a quarterly magazine launched under the editorship of Rick Poynor in 1990 by Wordsearch, the publisher of Blueprint, set itself against the grain of current graphic design journalism in Britain. Perfect-bound, beautifully-printed and expensive, it was launched at what seemed an inauspicious moment, one of economic recession. Eye established a wider platform for thinking about graphic design than its predecessors did. Whereas Europe and North America had featured in DesignWeek largely as territories for British design groups to ‘penetrate’, Eye made a self-conscious statement about internationalism by publishing in English, French and German (an undertaking which proved too costly and was abandoned after six issues) and by featuring profiles of prominent designers abroad including politically-uncompromising groups like Grapus in France and socially-minded designers and clients in Germany and the Netherlands. Eye’s self-conscious internationalism created a space for ‘unfashionable’ voices to question the social purposes and effects of design. In an early issue, for instance, explored Jan Van Toorn’s combative approach to graphic design, rooted in the politics of the Counter Culture of the 1960s and in Brechtian aesthetics.[21] The different varieties of design humanism and radicalism found on the continent needed, Eye seemed to argue, to ‘penetrate’ Thatcher-era Britain.

Whilst the format and high production values of Eye made it a desirable commodity in its own right, it has regularly featured opinion which expressed anxiety about the seductive powers of graphic design in the marketplace. In 1995 American critic and historian Steven Heller stressed that graphic design repressed its historical relations with advertising in order to emphasise its status as ‘an aesthetic and philosophical pursuit’.[22] Three years later Poynor compressed the point into three blunt words, ‘Design is Advertising’.[23] This had, of course, been implicit on virtually every page of Creative Review for almost two decades. But in a new political climate shaped by global protest, anti-consumerist movements and ‘culture jamming’, this assertion was now an accusation designed to shake graphic designers’s deeply held self-image as agents of culture and progress.

The growing critique of consumerism on the pages of Eye made the need for self-reflexivity all the more important (i.e., that contributors, including those on the magazine’s small staff, made their own critical positions explicit). With this in mind, Poynor wrote in 1995 ‘What we hope to achieve with Eye is not so much a “journalistic criticism” … as a “critical journalism” .. informed, thoughtful, sceptical, literate, prepared to take up a position and argue a case.’[24] This sometimes meant publishing polemical articles designed to generate controversy. When, for instance, Eye was absorbed with the fashionable question of the limits of typographic legibility, it published a forceful piece by Paul Stiff that argued that such designers, in ignoring the findings of cognitive psychology and ergonomics, misunderstood the embodied experience of reading.[25] Stiff, teaching at Reading University, represented an intellectual tradition (expressed in Icographic in the 1970s and Information Design Journal (1979-)) with a deep investment in the morality of clear delivery of information. At its best, Eye’s has acted as a clearing house for diverse and sometimes competing ideas about graphic design from different constituencies.

Eye has also regularly featured articles on the history of graphic design. Designers had engaged with the past in the 1980s, albeit only in the limited modes of pastiche and what was then called ‘retrostyling’ (lent an intellectual gloss by limp postmodernist theory). Many of the most prominent repackaging and branding exercises during the ‘boom’ years reworked sentimental and popular visual languages like Victorian ornament and Art Deco styling. Eye took a more whiggish line, arguing that knowledge of history would encourage designers to ‘recapture the sense of self-enquiry and rigour’ that had characterised the profession in its infancy and was, by implication, now lost.[26] This was, in effect, a modernist view that understood history as a set of ideas and ideological conflicts. The mode of these history lessons was predominately biographical, with Eye’s writers exploring a canon established by historians like Philip Meggs.[27] A second line of investigation of anonymous or vernacular design was also developed by the magazine, though not with the same consistency. For instance, investigations into the powerful appeal of mass market women’s magazines promised, at one time, to draw Eye closer to Cultural Studies’s critical interest in the consumption of popular culture.[28] Ultimately, Eye, as a commercial product, has remained wedded to its core readers, graphic designers. This fact continues to limit the extent to which their work can be explored as the anonymous texture of everyday life or tested by moral critique. To have one’s work appear on its pages is still regarded as an endorsement.

One of Eye’s major achievements (shared, it must be said, with other prominent titles abroad like Émigré) has been to gestate new writers, many of whom also practice as designers. Although graphic design has a long tradition of designer-writers, most members of this select group have been wedded to the book. In recent years, however, the design magazine has enjoyed a revival (stubbornly resisting the communicative advantages of the internet as a medium). Numerous graphic designers have seized this most ephemeral of products to demonstrate their creativity as designers and writers. A celebrated, early example of this phenomenon was Octavo (1986-1992), an occasional magazine (preceding Eye by four years). Produced in eight issues by 8vo, a London-based design group established by Simon Johnston, Mark Holt and Hamish Muir, the rigorously structured design of the magazine was striking (an effect all the more pronounced when viewed alongside ‘local’ whimsical and pastiche-ridden designs of the 1980s design boom). Style, on the pages of Octavo, was not ‘everything’: the designers used the magazine as a way of introducing continental design theory and history to its readers. Issue four, for instance, reproduced Wolfgang Weingart’s 1972 lecture “How can one make Swiss typography?” in which he argued that the seemingly objective typographic designs of the Swiss School were ultimately based on intuitive choices and could therefore be used expressively. If the logic of Weingart’s lecture seemed controversially radical in the context of late Swiss asceticism, it seemed remarkably principled in the laissez-faire design world of Britain.

Well versed in the history of modern typography (demonstrated not least by some of the powerfully argued articles on the subject that appeared on its pages) 8vo’s publishing venture invoked the tradition of the pamphlet and the small magazine that characterised avant-gardism in the 1920s. Designer-writers – largely from continental Europe – polemicised in order to communicate the failure of the societies in which they lived or to report the ‘discovery’ of principles with which to build a new world. It is, however, hard to contend that the recent wave of small magazine publishing by designers in Britain can be characterised as cultural and design activism in anything like these terms. Numerous occasional magazines – from Miles, Murray and Sorrell’s Fuel to Abake’s Sexymachinery (2001-) – are so closely defined by a set of ‘personal’ preoccupations with that they are much closer to self-promotion than reportage or cultural intervention. Whilst there has been much discussion of design authorship and ‘no brief’ work in the late 1990s as a way of breaking out of the service relationship which designers have with clients, such liberated publications often present their readers with little more than marginalia.[29] Now that designers have grasped the mantle of authorship, it seems as if they often have little to say. Magazines and journals ought to stimulate intellectual exchange. And this is how they should be judged. In this regard, Dot.Dot.Dot (2000-) is a welcome and provocative rival to Eye. Founded by Stuart Bailey, a British designer living in Amsterdam, and Peter Bil’ak, a Slovak based in The Hague, this biannual title channels the international ebb and flow of the more experimental and undisciplined currents of graphic design today. Positioning it alongside pop music, experimental film and conceptual art, Dot.Dot.Dot eschews the glossy ‘show and tell’ world of the portfolio or discussion of design as business. Readers are presented with an unpredictable range of articles from the organisation of arcane systems mapping London’s postal and telephone districts and ironic profiles of fictitious designers to more familiar discussions of graphic objects venerated by the cognoscenti. In this messy variety, Bailey and Bil’ak abstain from editorialising in favour of a more pluralist conception of design and design writing. Pluralism is, of course, ultimately a sign of confidence. What remains a limitation of this and, in fact, all of the other titles surveyed in this essay, is the limited character of their readership. Writing on graphic design continues to be a minority interest, even amongst graphic designers. The challenge of persuading those outside the profession of the significance of its intellectual questions and visual pleasures still remains.


[1] Editorial in Blueprint, no. 2, vol. 1, November 1983, p. 3.

[2] An assertion which formed the basis of Daniel Boorstein’s The Image. A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Harper, 1961

[3] See Corin Hughes-Stanton, ‘What comes after Carnaby Street?’ in Design, 230, February 1968, pp. 42-3; Christopher Cornford, ‘Cold rice pudding and revisionism’in Design, 231, March 1968 pp. 46-8.

[4] See Gillian Naylor, ‘The designer v. Jack the paintbrush’ in Design, June 1966, pp.40-49.

[5] Corin Hughes-Stanton ‘Leader: One-dimensional man?’ in Design, 240, December 1968, p. 21.

[6] Jonathan Woodham, Twentieth-Century Design, OUP, 1997, p. x

[7] Patrick Wallis Burke, ‘The Education of Graphic Designers’ in Icographic, 4, 1972, p. 1.

[8] Shyram S. Agrawal, Mei-Ling Hsu, Aaron Marcus, Yukio Ota and Ebrahim Rashidpour, ‘New Ways to See World Problems’, in Icographic, 14/15, 1979, p. 23

[9] Germano Facetti, ‘Penguin Paperbacks’ in Icographic, 3, 1972, p. 12.

[10] See Baseline, no. 6, 1985 and no. 7, 1986 (both edited and designed by Erik Spiekermann).

[11] Richard Addis, ‘Pitch Doctors’ in Creative Review, August 1984, pp. 36-7

[12] Simon Rocker, ‘Marketing by Design’ in Creative Review, October 1984, p. 46.

[13] Edward Booth-Clibborn in conversation with Marina Vaizey, ‘The Art of Illustration’ in Creative Review, April 1983, pp. 28-9.

[14] See Neville Brody in conversation with Simon Esterson and Rick Poynor in Blueprint, 46, April 1988, pp. 50-3.

[15] Cynthia Kent, ‘A Lively Arena for Brody’ in DesignWeek, 14 November 1986, p. 10.

[16] Reference to follow.

[17] Andrew Wernick, Promotional Culture. Advertising, ideology and symbolic exchange, Sage, 1991.

[18] By the end of the 1980s Britain spent the second highest proportion of GNP on advertising in the world. This figure was boosted by the sums spent on promotion by the then Conservative Government.

[19] DesignWeek, v. 5, no. 34, 31 August 1990, p. 3.

[20] See, for instance, ‘The Green Stuff’ in DesignWeek, 10 February 1989, pp. 14-15.

[21] Gerard Forde, ‘The Designer Unmasked’ in Eye, 2, 1991, pp. 57-68

[22] Steven Heller, ‘Advertising. Mother of Graphic Design, in Eye, 17, 1995, pp. 26-37

[23] Rick Poynor ‘Design is Advertising’ in Eye, 30, 1998, pp.

[24] Rick Poynor and Michael Rock, ‘What is this thing called design criticism?’ in Eye, 16, 1995, p. 57.

[25] Paul Stiff, ‘Stop Sitting Around and Start Reading’ in Eye, 11, 1993, pp.4-5.

[26] Rick Poynor, ‘An Eye on Graphic Design’ in Blueprint, October 1990, p. 36.

[27] Philip Meggs, A History of Graphic Design, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1983.

[28] Keith Robertson, ‘Spot the Difference’ in Eye, 15, Winter 1994, pp. 36-43.

[29] See Michael Rock, ‘The Designer as Author’ in Eye, 20, Spring 1996, pp. X.

Writing about Heroes

Graphic Design

This short piece was commissioned in 2011 but not published. It is a set of reflections on how and why the history of graphic design might be written differently.

1 Should a graphic design history be populated with people or with things? There is a growing library of synthesising accounts and a clutch of biographical studies which puts the work of graphic design heroes under the spotlight. This is a largely a nineteenth century model of history writing. Heroic lives were written in order to provide elevated models to which lesser beings could aspire. In this way, readers were addressed as potential supermen.

Turning the pages of a well informed biography of, say, Paul Rand or Saul Bass, this emulative model is still in operation. Such life stories tend to form a conventional narrative arc, usually from youthful iconoclast to venerable icon. And those biographies of figures that never existed (such as William Boyd’s Nat Tate or Christopher Wilson’s Ernst Bettler) reveal the preoccupations of the genre better than any ‘real’ historic subjects.[1]

2 We know the consequences of the heroic forms of history. Writing in is also a writing out. As Mike Featherstone has written ‘The heroic life is the sphere of danger, violence and the courting of risk whereas the everyday life is the sphere of women, reproduction and care.’[2]

3 It is striking that in his gender-inflected analysis of biography, Featherstone stresses reproduction. The preparation of words and images for reproduction is, of course, is one of the primary roles of graphic design. But how is graphic design itself reproduced? This is not an insignificant question, particularly if it is rephrased: How is it that graphic designers have long sustained a view of their purpose in social and even political terms? After all, graphic design – at least in large parts of the world – has become, as various commentators have told us, just another name for advertising dreck.

The answer to this question might be found in its ‘genes’ or, what a few years ago was called, ‘memes’. One can trace lines of inheritance – intellectual, technical and ethical – from the present to the past. I once heard the brilliant graphic designer and design historian, Richard Hollis, talk to a group of young designers about how his teacher at the Central School of Art and Design, Anthony Froshaug, worked at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, the school established by former-Bauhausler Max Bill to revive a Weimar vision. That is less than six degrees of separation.

4 Thinking designers are, it seems, attached to the histories of their field of practice for the lines of connection and association they may contain.

5 But could one write a design history without designers? Anonymous production is, of course, of the principle definitions of ephemera, a category often associated with print history. But the problem with ephemera is its marginal status. Ephemeral does not just mean short-lived: it also suggests unimportant. There are many ‘important’ graphic designs of which the matter of their authorship is one of the least interesting aspects of their history. In fact, this might be true of all graphic design. Words and images which appear in print or on screen are not, or not just, interesting for their style or the wit of their creators: their significance lies in what they do in and to the world.

6 History is conventionally organized in lines, curves, arrows and, sometimes, circles. Marx once said ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, 
so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second 
time as farce.’[3] (In these words, there is perhaps a warning about the instrumental view of graphic design history encompassed in the classroom injunction to ‘repeat after me’).

‘Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart’

If the history of graphic design is written with the aid of lines and curves, can be written graphically? What do Stefan Themerson’s ‘Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart’ (with its blanks for the reader to fill) or Bureau d’Etudes’ buzzing cartographies of power have to offer the graphic graphic design historian?[4]

7 Perhaps the line is not the answer: ‘We conceive of time as an irreversible line, whether interrupted or continuous, of acquisitions and inventions,’ Michel Serres once observed. ‘We go from generalizations to discoveries, leaving behind us a trail of errors finally corrected – like a cloud of ink from a squid. “Whew! We’ve finally arrived at the truth …”. But, irresistibly, I cannot help thinking that this idea is the equivalent of those ancient diagrams we laugh at today, which place the Earth at the center of everything, or our galaxy at the middle of the universe, to satisfy our narcissism.”[5]

8 So how might we decentre the present? Every work of graphic design made today is historical whether or not we take an interest in the history of its making. This is true in the most simple sense. The letter ‘T’ comes from the Phoenicians via Greek around 1000 BC. Its sans serif form appeared some 500 years later. It was converted into code in the late twentieth century. And its persistence is an example of what Kathleen Hayles, adopting a term from archaeology, calls seriation.[6] The past is folded into the present.

9 Eschewing heroes, the history of ‘t’ or any other graphic device would, perhaps, be an exploration of the longue durée, a prosopography of scribes or perhaps, even a branch of natural history. What is to be gained and lost in such uneventful histories?


[1] William Boyd, Nat Tate – An American Artist 1928-1960 (Cambridge, 1998); Christopher Wilson ‘”I’m Only a Designer”: The Double Life of Ernst Bettler’ in Dot.dot.dot (October 2001).

[2] Mike Featherstone, ‘The Heroic Life and Everyday Life’ in Theory, Culture & Society  (February 1992) 159-182,

[3] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) available at http://www.marxists.org

[4] ‘Kurt Schwitters on a Time Chart” in Typographica,16 (1967).

[5] Michel Serres in coversation in Bruno Latour in Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (Ann Arbor, MI; 1995) pp. 48-9.

[6] Kathleen Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago, 1999) p. 17

When Work Becomes Play

Design Exhibitions, Modernism, Uncategorized

This review of ‘Bauhaus – Art as Life’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London (3 May 2012 – 12 August 2012) appeared in Creative Review in June 2012.


Like all museums and galleries, the Barbican Art Gallery is keen to promote its latest show in superlative terms. ‘Bauhaus – Art as Life’ is – as its publicity tell us – the largest and most significant exhibition in Britain on the German design school since 1968 when the Royal Academy welcomed the straight edge heroes of modernism through its hallowed and ornate doors. Whilst this may be true, the Bauhaus has been put under the spotlight repeatedly in recent years. A few years ago, the V&A’s blockbuster, ‘Modernism: Designing a New World’, put many Bauhaus stars in the company of other less well known satellites of modernism. Tate Modern organised a twin-header featuring the art of Bauhaus masters Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy in the same year. Some of the exhibits from these shows have come back to London to the roughcast concrete galleries of the Barbican.

But all this Bauhauserie is no problem. As the large number of incontestably brilliant works on display testify, the Bauhaus was an extraordinarily prolific machine during its short life. It attracted some of Europe’s most intellectually ambitious and free-ranging artists, architects and designers – both as staff and students. And in this hothouse, they gave form to innovative designs – hovering tubular steel furniture, prefabricated architectural schemes, sans-serif machine-age alphabets and multi-media environments that they called ‘total theatre’. Much Bauhaus thinking and design is still with us today. But most readers of Creative Review will know this already. The Bauhaus story, from its origins as arts and crafts workshops established by Walter Gropius in 1919 to its closure at the beginning of the Third Reich, is a standard chapter in most design histories.

The challenge facing any curator or researcher is to tell a new Bauhaus story. In recent years, the story of women at the school has been written, reasserting the place of marginalised workshops like the textile studios. There have been attempts to champion the school’s many Hungarians (not just Marcel Breuer and Moholy-Nagy but forgotten figures like Stefan Sebök who died in Stalin’s Russia). Others have concentrated on the story of the Bauhaus exiles: Tel Aviv has branded itself as a ‘Bauhaus city’ to capture the role played by refugees from Nazism in shaping the dazzling cityscape of white-walls and flat-roof buildings in the sand.

So what new stories are being told at the Barbican? Well, somewhat surprisingly, the key Bauhaus message here is play. This is unexpected because the leading Bauhausler are often represented as rather austere characters. And they played up to the image. Moholy-Nagy used to dress like a engineer to emphasise his faith in function and industry. In fact, the Barbican displays one of his abstract paintings which was ordered over the phone from a sign factory. Moholy read out a set of coordinates and selected the colours from a chart. A few weeks later the enamel painting on a panel was delivered.

Image

Gerhard Marcks, Crib, 1919 on display at the Barbican

The Bauhaus’s Maschinenrausch  – a peculiarly German word which translates as ‘machine-intoxication’ – is confounded by large number of playful, funny and even absurd works in the Barbican gallery. In fact, the opening work in the gallery is not, as might be expected, Lyonel Feininger’s iconic woodcut image of an angular cathedral which was on the cover of the School’s inaugural programme. Instead, it is a little altar with a nativity scene by the expressionist artist Gerhard Marcks. A folksy crib, it looks like a child’s toy. By the mid 1920s whimsy was replaced by geometry but toys were still a mainstay of Bauhaus production. The core units of Bauhaus master Wassily Kandinsky’s colour theory – yellow triangles, red square and blue circles – were being turned out as children’s building blocks.

Amongst the most striking exhibits on display are a set of grotesque puppets which the painter Paul Klee made for his son Felix. Created with found materials and the childlike glee that Klee brought to his paintings, some are probably caricatures of Bauhaus luminaries. Klee himself features as a hand-puppet. The Swiss painter was at the heart of another Bauhaus festivity: to mark his fiftieth birthday students from the weaving workshop hired a Junkers airplane and dive-bombed the painter’s house dropping gifts including a Marianne Brandt metal teapot. Klee recalled that the presents crashed through the flat roof.

Gift-giving and play were not diversions from the hard work of making a new world. They served an ideological purpose. Johannes Itten, best known as a colour theorist, once said ‘Play becomes celebration: celebration becomes work: work becomes play’. This was an expression of a kind of utopian dream in which the man or woman of the future would not be a cog in some kind of enormous machine but a creative individual who would find equal satisfaction in work and play. In this way, the division between art and life would be dissolved. Improvised jewellery formed from bands of metal and ball bearings for a Bauhaus party or a costume shaped like a spinning top for Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet were encouragement for adults to play.

Of course, the world beyond the doors of the school, first in Weimar and then in the famous Gropius-designed building in Dessau, was far from happy. Over the course of the 1920s Germany lurched from hyper-inflation and unemployment to near civil war as the communists and fascists fought in the streets. Knowing this, makes a playful utopia seem like a decadent proposition. In fact, that seems to have been the view of the second director of the Bauhaus, the functionalist architect Hannes Meyer. Taking office in 1928, he set a new course. He put far more emphasis on social housing, industrial production and Marxist politics. When in 1930 he was given the sack by the city authorities in Dessau for his political activism, he wrote ‘As head of the Bauhaus, I fought the Bauhaus style.’

The Bauhaus style – if not the radical politics of many of its staff and students  – emerges strongly in this exhibition. But viewed as play, many of the familiar icons of the school look different. Erich Consemüller’s much-reproduced photo of a woman – perhaps Walter Gropius’s wife, Ise – sitting on a B3 club chair wearing a Schlemmer papier-maché mask does not look quite as menacing as perhaps it once did.

Sounding the Body Electric, Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź – June to August 2012

Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized

Agata Pyzik’s review of the show from the August edition of The Wire is here. Polish readers might find these on-line reviews interesting – Gazeta Wyborcza / culture.pl / Obieg / Canti Illuminati / Czas Kultury / Dwu Tygodnik / Ruch Muzyczny

There is a transcript of a discussion about the show here.

Teresa Gleadowe reviewed the show in Art Monthly in the September 2012 issue.

Here is a link to a film of CUNY conference where I talked about the show in November 2012.

Here is a link to a talk that Daniel Muzyczuk and I gave in Warsaw in autumn 2012 for Bec Zmiana.

There is also quite a lot of the exhibition’s content here – Strefa Kreatywna.

Also, a 2013 review appeared in Texte Zur Kunste – here.

Chance Operations – an extract from Dźwięki elektrycznego ciała

Eastern Europe, Modernism, Music, Uncategorized

This is an extract from Dźwięki elektrycznego ciała, an exhibition catalogue accompanying this show at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland. There is a review in Polish here and another from the August edition of The Wire here.

John Cage’s advocacy of indeterminacy and Fluxus’s interests in events were matched by new conceptualizations of modernist aesthetics that emerged in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of Stalinism. In Poland for instance architect and artist, Oskar Hansen was the author of the Open Form (Forma Otwarta) theory published in 1957.[i] In this short manifesto, he argued for spatial forms which were incomplete and, by their incompleteness, required the creativity or participation of viewers or users. Space, according to Hansen, should be considered in terms of movement, whether in terms of a synchronic potential to be reorganised by those who occupy it, or in its diachronic capacity to change over time. In engaging their audiences/users, open forms had the potential to remind audiences of the fact of their own embodied being. They would also make the individual more attuned to the ordinary: ‘As Dadaism in painting broke the barrier of traditional aesthetics, so the Open Form in architecture will also bring us closer to the “ordinary, mundane, things found, broken, accidental”.’[ii] This was fundamentally a social and decentred conception of space and creativity. Hansen’s theory also offered new ways to conceptualise modern architecture. Buildings designed as ‘open forms’ would be positively ‘incomplete’, leaving opportunities for occupants to shape their environment in meaningful ways. Promising universal application, Hansen saw it as a way of rethinking public memorials, housing estates and works of art.

Hansen had close contacts and professional relations with composers and musicians, not least Patkowski, the founder of the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. He conceived the My Place, My Music (Moje Miejsce, Moja Muzyka) pavilion for the Warsaw Autumn festival in 1958, the most important international forum for experimental composers in Eastern Europe. (figure 13) Working with Patkowski, Hansen experimented with the ‘spatiality of music’ – what he called an ‘audiovisual space-time’. A large fabric structure was to be suspended in a park – like a shirt with sleeves, each equipped with a speaker at its end. Viewers were to be encouraged to move through the space. In Hansen’s words ‘each could walk their chosen path in relation to the music – almost as if they owned it … the spatial relativity of the music’s reception brought the listener closer to an intimate experience of it … integrating sound with the listeners’ movements as well as with the trees and clouds’.[iii] Hansen’s aim was not the stimulation of sensation but of the imagination.

Whilst the 1958 pavilion was not realized, other ‘open forms’ were. In September 1966 the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw hosted an ‘audio-visual performance’ created by composer Zygmunt Krauze and artists Henryk Morel, Cezary Szubartowski and Grzegorz Kowalski (recently one of Hansen’s students). After entering into the gallery through a narrow slit and along a bright canvas ‘sleeve’, the public – in groups of ten – found themselves in the darkened and indefinite space of the gallery. Below their feet, the floor was lined with a bed of broken glass under sheet metal whilst the space itself was filled with metal objects gathered from a scrap-yard including massive springs, bent panels and broken barrels. The final space before the exit was filled with nets ‘trapping’ the visitor. Entitled 5x, the installation was the setting for five happenings organized over five consecutive evenings. The first night featured a 45-minute performance by Cornelius Cardew, David Bedford and John Tilbury of a La Monte Young composition featuring long sustained tones. Other ‘instruments’ were introduced on different nights including a microphone, a transistor radio and an amplified music box. The key role was not given to these British musicians who were in the city for the Warsaw Autumn festival. Each performance depended on the interaction of the visitor with these instruments or the objects and lights in the space (to make this clear the invitation carried the words ‘this entrance card authorizes participation and co-creation’). The organizers of the event wrote:

From start to end, each performance was different for each participant. The start began at the moment of entry when the installation was set in motion and the moment of departure was dependent on the decision of the individual. Irregular exchanges between participants took place throughout the performance. Their actions caused situations of variable intensities.[iv]

This emphasis on the agency of the individual was not simply a compositional technique for the generation of new art. It was the expression of a philosophy which rejected the determining role of the expert or the authority. (This was paralleled in Cardew’s thinking behind the Scratch Orchestra which the British composer formed in London with both professional and untrained musicians in spring 1969).

This emphasis on interpretation and free expression was also evident in the way in which artists and composers approached musical notation. Composers in pursuit of new sounds needed new notation systems. The score for Penderecki’s Polymorphia (1961) – a sonoristic piece for forty-eight strings – contains numerous symbols of the composer’s own invention. As a composition written to achieve particular timbral effects, Penderecki instructed the musicians to play the highest note of the instrument with a black triangle above the staff (the precise pitch of the note not being critical). This was one of 21 idiosyncratic signs published in the 1963 score issued by Moeck Verlag. Another mark directs each performer to tap his or her bow, or to strike the chair with his or her heels with the effect of producing disturbing rattling effects through the auditorium. The most striking feature of the score is the arrangement of distinct instrument lines, featuring jagged peaks and troughs, to signify a sound mass of unbroken sliding pitches. Some are thicker than others to indicate a tone cluster (a chord composed from adjacent tones). These graphic oscillations originate in electroencephalograms of patients at a Krakow medical center where Penderecki was working as a volunteer. He arranged for their brain waves to be measured whilst they listened to a recording of his earlier and best-known composition, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (Tren ofiarom Hiroszimy, 1960). Polymorphia offers its audiences a truly chilling experience; some passages sound as if the instruments are being dismantled, stripped back to their raw materials, whilst in others the violins swarm like an unhappy spirit.

Innovative graphic notation systems were not simply created to provide better, more ‘accurate’ interpretive tools; some used the score to reassess the relationship between the composer and the performer. Cage, for instance, developed unconventional techniques for generating ‘his’ music: the score for Variations I of 1958 takes the form of six transparent squares, one with points of various sizes and the rest with five intersecting lines. The performer combines the squares in any fashion; the points are signs for sounds and the lines function as axes for various characteristics of these sounds such as lowest frequency and simplest overtone structure. Any number of performers on any kind and number of instruments can play the piece. Composition, in such works, was no longer just the business of the ‘composer’ alone.

In the context of the technocratic ideologies of Eastern Europe, this attack on authority had clear appeal. And, like Hansen’s Open Form theory, it also served the dream of restoring agency to the individual (an imperative which was widely expressed during the destalinising Thaw of the late 1950s and was revived in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring). ‘The function of an interpreter is not to reproduce,’ announced Slovak musicologist and cellist Milan Adamčiak in 1969, ‘but to take a productive, creative approach to composition. A composition is only a suggestion, a program, a guide for the greater self-realization of the interpreter. […] The interpreter should not reproduce the work or ideas of the author, but to continue to develop them or even form them from scratch.’[v] Adamčiak was good to his word. In the same year, he organised The First Evening of New Music (Prvy Večer Novej hudby) with Robert Cyprich and Jaroslav Vodák in Ružomberok. Adamčiak played a ‘three-dimensional score’ (‘trojzmerná partitura’) which was thrown like a dice during the performance.

Adamčiak had a kindred spirit in Milan Grygar, an artist based in Prague. From the mid 1960s he began producing what he called ‘mechanical acoustic drawings’. Laying out a sheet of paper horizontally, he would conscript a range of ordinary objects as drawing tools. Combs, springs, cog wheels, spinning tops and wind-up toys would be dipped in ink and then spun or dragged across the surface of the paper. A degree of chance was involved, as the mechanical toys knocked into one another. To create another type of drawing Grygar inserted lit matches into the beaks of pecking toy birds. These instruments were not selected just for their mark-making potential: they also made noises as they moved the surface of the paper. Grygar would record the process of making the drawing on magnetic tape, thereby producing a sonic record of each acoustic drawing. When exhibited together today, the viewer is asked to reconstruct the drawing as an event or even a performance. At the end of the 1960s Grygar brought some of his preoccupations with chance procedures to the production of drawn scores for performance. His colour scores from 1969–70 feature clusters of coloured dots organized in grids on a page loosely suggesting – but not prescribing – music. His Finger Score of 1972 was generated by tapping inky fingers on 26 pages which had been prepared with staff lines. In 1981 it was given to percussionist Alan Vitouš who freely interpreted these liquid blotches on ringing cymbals.

Not all interpretations of graphic scores were as liberating, even when interpreted by their own composers. Katalin Ladik, a poet member of the Bosch + Bosch group in Novi Sad in Yugoslavia, created collage graphic scores for what she called Phonopoetics in the early 1970s. Slicing up material from glossy West German women’s magazines like Burda as well as other graphic materials including sewing patterns and stamps, Ladik produced powerful images for use in public performances, interpreting them in situ. Whilst occasional traces of traditional music notation were deployed in her collages, their purpose was largely associative, as was the reference to traditional song forms in their titles Pastorale (1971), Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1972), Aria in F Major (1978) or Sonata for the Woman DDR Leipzig (1978).

O-pus, a 1972 film made by Attila Csernik and Imre Póth was used – like her collage scores – in her live performances. Ladik first improvised a live soundtrack for this film featuring numerous graphic expressions of the letter ‘o’ at a chapel in Balatonboglár, Hungary where György Galántai organized a series of actions and performances by artists in the early 1970s. Later, a version was recorded in the studio. With a dizzying range of vocal effects and tones, the sound of this vowel surges from hysterical screeches to orgasmic moans. As if employing the kinds of editing, pitch-stretching and duplicating techniques available in the studio, Ladik’s ‘natural’ voice seems strangely involuntary. In breaking language down to phonemes (as in the case of O-pus) or to curses (as in Milko Kelemen’s Yebell which she performed in 1972), Ladik accentuated the involuntary and even instinctual qualities of language.

Some composers turned to pre-existing texts and structures to generate new compositions. Like structuralist theories of language then being debated in the academy, these works broke with romantic ideas of originality and creativity. As we’ve seen, Penderecki created his composition Polymorphia by ‘reading’ the electroencephalograms made of psychiatric patients listening to his music. In the 1970s Hungarian composer Zoltán Jeney turned to different kind of systems found in games, texts, meteorological data and even telex messages to provide non-musical materials for his compositions. Impho 102/6 (1978), a minimalist piece played on shimmering antique cymbals, is, for instance, derived from the Telex address of a Tokyo hotel. In perhaps the most successful work of this kind, artist Dóra Maurer worked with Jeney to make a film, Kalah (1980). The structure of both sound and images was provided by this traditional Arabic game played with 72 stones. Maurer prepared coloured panels – which corresponded to the volume and pitch of notes on a chromatic scale – which she shot on film in the Pannonia film Studios in Budapest over three days. She then spent a further three weeks carefully editing the celluloid to correspond accurately with the rapid pulses of Jeney’s electronic music. The result is unsettling as the viewer struggles – and fails – to make sense of the rapid combinations of sounds and notes. Kalah captures Maurer’s preoccupation with the effects of the shift – the marginal movement or dislocation of a filmic image – on cognition. Kalah was not made to be seen but to be experienced and in fact, Maurer and Jeney imagined its viewers lying under a curved projection screen.

Other forms of creative coding had rather more critical inferences. In 1974 and 1975 Soviet artists Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid created cryptographic artworks under the common title of Codes. Using state documents like the passage outlining the rights to ‘Freedom of Speech’ in the Constitution of the Soviet Union, they produced geometric, seemingly-abstract paintings in which letters were replaced by blocks of colour. Organized as words and sentences, these ‘ideological abstractions’ evidently contained messages. The viewer had to act like a cryptographer to read them. These and other works attracted international attention and the duo were invited to exhibit at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. Denied the opportunity to travel to the USA by the Soviet authorities, Komar & Melamid rendered the contents of a Soviet internal passport as a music score (each letter corresponding to a note). Komar & Melamid then arranged for this notorious document – a symptom of the distrust of the communist authorities in the people – to be played simultaneously in February 1976 by musicians around the world whilst they remained in Moscow, denied the opportunity to travel. In the Feldman Gallery in New York, Fluxus artist Charlotte Moorman played this composition on the cello. (figure 24) A reporter in Art News charted the echoes of this performance on both sides of the divided world:

A Moscow, Idaho, audience consisting mainly of famers heard it over the radio, and called the station for hours afterwards to ask what it was. In Moscow, USSR, Feldman was told in a telephone conversation with the artists later in the day, a tape was played in an apartment. Also participating in the event were the Soviet police, who photographed members of the audience as they entered from the street.[vi]

The piece not only drew attention to Komar & Melamid’s plight but also to the techniques of allegory and what was sometimes called ‘Aesopian language’ used by artists and writers to evade censorship in the Soviet Union.


[i]            Oskar Hansen, ‘Otwarta Form’ in Przegląd Kulturalny no. 5, (1957) 5.

[ii]            Oskar Hansen in Oscar Newman, Ciam ’59 in Otterlo. Documents of Modern Architecture (Hilversum, 1961) 191.

[iii]           Oskar Hansen, Towards Open Form (Frankfurt/ Warsaw, 2005) 136.

[iv]            5x, a leaflet published by the Foksal Gallery (Warsaw, 1966), unpaginated.

[v]            Milan Adamčiak, Mladá tvorba, nr 10, v. 14 (1969) 27

[vi]           Amy Newman, ‘The celebrated artists of the end of the second Millenium A.D.’ in Art News, 75 (April 1976) 44.