The Choreography of the Console: The Design of Electronic Environments and their Operators in the Cold War

This talk was given in Zurich at ETH in autumn 2014.

In the late 1950 and 1960s a new kind of non-human actor appeared on the movie screens and televisions around the world. The console – an electronic panel or unit operated with dials, switches or buttons – appeared in numerous Cold War thrillers and science fiction movies, as well as news reports of the command and control centres managing traffic on the street, power stations and space flights. Elsewhere, television studios were equipped with vision mixers to allow different sources to be edited and combined in real time for live broadcast. For the film makers who recorded it, the console seems to have been a strangely magnetic, and enigmatic object. Immobile and performing seemingly inscrutable tasks in the service of authority, its flashing lights and illuminated dials, oscilloscopes and monitors, the console presented a novel site of man-machine interaction and a new conception of the ‘environment’ as a place for the management of information.

Some of these on-screen consoles were fantasies, while others were in operation. But perhaps the distinction between fact and fiction is not important in the technological imaginary of the post-war decades. What was important is the promise of the future that was being made by these electronic interfaces. The command and the control room of the military intelligence or the multimedia space of the gallery prefigured ordinary environments ‘enclosed by images’.[1] American artist and filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek prophesised the future in these terms when he said:

Holography, 3-d holographic television, environmentalisms – like images that will completely surround us which we can design by ourselves, for ourselves – homeostasis and the balancing of our whole mind and body. These are the futures which I think that artists should talk about and deal with.[2]

Teacher-aided Electronic Learning Links console, designed by Phillips Design Centre, c, 1970
Teacher-aided Electronic Learning Links console, designed by Phillips Design Centre, c, 1970

Vanderbeek was by no means not alone in imagining the future electronic environment. Designers working for Philips, the Dutch electronics company, for instance, conceived the future classroom as a bank of networked consoles. In the company’s 1971 TELL (Teacher-aiding Electronic Learning Links) project, the classroom was to be equipped with a computer, camera and multiple screens ‘so that the teacher can point at the picture on one of his screens and his finger can be seen on the pupil’s monitors’.[3] The TELL system envisaged communication as an action in a closed circuit.

To accentuate the promise of perfect communication and automation, such schemes were almost invariably located in smooth, frictionless environments in which every console was a cased object. Cables were hidden from sight, as if revealing their connection to the rest of the world would disturb their symbolic power. The rooms in which they were located were strikingly placeless too, in the sense that their location played little part in their operations. Through the console, the world could be known and controlled remotely. In fact, these consoles often appear in blind rooms; settings without windows in a conventional sense, because the screen or data panel was itself a kind of portal. They afforded remote viewing. And as Cold War defence arrangements seemed to demonstrate, one environment – even an entire hemisphere – could be controlled from another. In eschewing the existential qualities claimed for place, such settings were what John Harwood calls ‘counter-environments’ (a term he adopts from Marshall McLuhan). A counter environment is, he writes, ‘a designed space that is closed off from its surroundings and only linked to like spaces via specific media (e.g., real-time computing) and … the potential for the control of external environments via an independently conceived logical system..’[4] Harwood’s term perhaps best lends itself to sites of concentrated power. This was, after all, an age overshadowed by the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Radar stations on both sides of the Cold War divide and staffed with operators scanning the air for signs of military action, were always on; always ready to respond to the threat of attack.

The Domestic Information Machine, E Bogdanov, V Paperny, V Revzin, A Riabushin and A Sergeev, 1972 – image courtesy of Tom Cubbin
The Domestic Information Machine, E Bogdanov, V Paperny, V Revzin, A Riabushin and A Sergeev, 1972 – image courtesy of Tom Cubbin

But counter-environments could also promise liberty too. The house of the future – a cliché of the era in the East and in the West – invariably featured computerized domestic arrangements. Tom Cubbin, for instance, has drawn our attention to the Domestic Information Machine which was conceived and tested in Soviet Union at the end of the 1960s. Designers working for VNIITE (All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Industrial Design / Vsesoiuznyi nauchnoissledovatel’skii institut tekhnicheskoi estetiki) imagined the the home as a point in a vast communications network which would connect its users with information. A 1969 report issued by the scheme’s creators, stressed its benefits of information over the passive effects of television:

Such an information service would differ substantially from that which exists today. Currently, the media only transmit practically one type of information which fulfills the basic needs of cultural relaxation and recreation. Mental labour requires the individualisation of information. In the future this will become possible and will lead to a significant shift in the cultural and spiritual development of man.[5]

Underlying the thinking of the Domestic Information Machine’s creators was a cybernetic conception of information in which its users would be able to influence and contribute knowledge to the network. Similarly, the NER Group (New Element of the Urban Environment/Novye element rasseleniia) – also active in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1960s – conceived the future home not only as a networked one but also the engine for the production of a new kind of kind of Soviet citizen. In this setting, the householder would become something like an ‘operator’ and so the differences between work and leisure or the factory and home could be diminished (thereby bringing the nirvana of communism ever closer). NER wrote in 1965:

The working day can be reduced through the extraordinary growth in labor productivity, which in turn can be attributed to electrification, automation, and efficient production procedures. As this change takes place, the proportion of work time to free time changes radically. For the first time in the history of man, leisure time will exceed work time. The problem becomes ‘how to reduce to the minimum the time required for socially necessary work.’ If we consider the demands that are apt to be made in various fields through the recombination of various kinds of labor, we can estimate that an individual’s work time will tend to average approximately four hours per day.[6]

A promise to get rid of drudgery was folded into the smooth casing of the console whether it was located in the factory or the home .. or everywhere as Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ seems to suggest:

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.[7]

Echoing Marx’s pastoral impression of Communism,[8] Brautigan augured a future utopia in which all toil, all want and even all technology would eventually wither away.


The pushing of the button

Brautigan limned a vision found on both sides of the East/West divide during the 1960s; namely, that production in the future would involve progressively less human labour. Automation would, according to its champions, eliminate drudgery and error. The role of the human in future manufacturing, agricultural and transport systems would be one of an overseer. This image of the fallible human being replaced by the efficient machines was the subject of numerous fantasies in the 1960s, albeit ones which were often shot through with existential anxiety. One recurring trope in science fiction of the period was that of the operator asleep at the console. In Ikarie XB-1, a Czechoslovak sci-fi film directed by Jindřich Polak in 1963, for instance, the crew are rendered unconscious as an effect of passing through a radiation cloud. To ensure that the mission continues, the computer oversees an ‘unmanned shift’, before the crew revive. This minor drama might well be read as an allegory. Many writers including, famously, Norbert Wiener, Herbert Marcuse, Alvin Toffler and Stanisław Lem reflected on the twin threat and promise of automation. Each asked, in various ways, whether the console was the extension of humankind (‘the humanism of control’) or a step in the progressive marginalization of the human agent? In a 1960 essay ‘Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation’ Wiener, for instance, reflected on the threat to humanity posed by cybernetic machines: ‘It is quite in the cards that learning machines will be used to program the pushing of the button in a new pushbutton war’.[9] In this scenario, the thinking machine commands the console; in other words, it commands itself.

Similar questions were asked in Eastern Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s too, albeit with different emphases. After Stalin’s death, the matter of human control and agency was particularly pressing. Science was loudly proclaimed by post-Stalinist regimes as the harbinger of a new rationalism after the irrationalism and violence of Stalinism, as well as being the solution to its considerable economic failures of the command economy. As Slava Gerovitch outlines in his study of Soviet cybernetics, the computer was adopted as a ‘paragon of rationality’.[10] A new rationalism guided by the innate logic of science and technology would revive the socialist project. In his attempt to harness science, Khrushchev was obliged to accommodate a degree of debate and even dispute about the effects of thinking machines that would not have been countenanced during the Stalin years. For instance, Academician A. Kolmogorov writing in Izvestia in 1962 suggested that thinking and feeling machines would ‘surpass man in his development’ in the future. Evolution suggested that perfect machines would, one day, be able to build their own progeny without human aid. B Byalik responded in Literaturnaya Gazeta in May 1962 in an article with a title which asked ‘Comrades, Is This Serious?’ In turn, Academician Sobolev responded in the same journal: ‘Yes, it is very serious! … In my view the cybernetic machines are people of the future. These people will probably be much more accomplished than we, the present people.’[11]

Elsewhere in the Bloc, others – some of whom had been vocal and brave critics of Stalinism during the turbulent period which followed Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ (1956) revelations about his predecessor’s brutality known as ‘the Thaw’ – were anxious that science and technology itself would deprive individuals of agency. These, for instance, are the words of Leszek Kołakowski, one of the moving forces of Thaw criticism in the People’s Republic of Poland: ‘We observe … the astonishing speed with which the new mythologies displace the old ones. In the intellectual life of a society in which the mechanism of traditional faith has become corroded, new myths proliferate with the greatest ease, even though they may originate in technical advances or scientific discoveries. Thousands of people fondly imagine that the friendly inhabitants of other planets will one day solve the problems from which humans cannot extricate themselves. For others the words ‘cybernetics’ embodies the hope of resolving all social conflicts.’[12]

Designing the operator

After this brief and ranging survey of the settings in which the console was imagined and occasionally employed in the 1960s, let’s look a little closer at the actions of its operator. How should the operator interact with the console? What was the script or notation for these kinds of interactions? It was clear to many commentators that the design of the console inferred the design of the operator: a new set of manual, metacarpal skills were required to operate it. As such, the console was the subject of considerable new research into man-machine interactions – not least that conducted within the sphere of ergonomics, then still a relatively young discipline which set out to measure the body and its capacities. This data could then be used to design more effective and efficient tools for the factory, the office, the kitchen or other sites of human action. Despite its peaceful applications, as a discipline, ergonomics owed much to military research. Henry Dreyfuss, the American industrial designer and pioneer of ergonomics, traced his engagement with the field back to a military commission:

Shortly after the war, our office was working on the interior of a heavy tank for the Army. We had tacked a huge, life-size drawing of the tank driver’s compartment on the wall. The driver’s figure had been indicated with a thick black pencil line and we had been jotting odds and ends of dimensional data on him as we dug the data out of our files. Surrounded by arcs and rectangles, he looked something like one of the famous dimensional studies of Leonardo. Suddenly, it dawned on us that the drawing on the wall was more than a study of the tank driver’s compartment; without being aware of it, we had been putting together a dimensional chart of the average adult American male.[13]

Henry Dreyfuss, The Measure of Man. Human Factors in Design, 1960
Henry Dreyfuss, The Measure of Man. Human Factors in Design, 1960

In his landmark text on ergonomics, The Measure of Man (1959), the American designer stressed the humanism of the endeavour: anthropometric data should be used to eliminate discomfort and mitigate against the fatigue of the operator. Nevertheless, in its attention to thresholds and limits, design was being used to contain and control behaviour. In the ergonomic imaginary, the machine had to become more orientated to the human and, conversely, the human had to become more machine-like. Italian designer Ettore Sottsass admitted as much, when reflecting on his design of the Elea 9003 mainframe computer for Olivetti; ‘one ends up conditioning the man who is working, not only his direct physical relationship with the instrument, but also his very much more penetrating relationship with the whole act of work’.[14]

Aiming to reduce distraction, error, friction, discomfort, noise, ergonomics was preoccupied with interfaces, the contact zone between man and machine, and above all, with the effectiveness of these interactions. This was not the efficiency of the fulcrum or the pulley converting muscle power into force, but that of speed and precision. Buttons, toggles, keys, switches, controls had to be designed to minimise human error; and screens, gauges, dials and signals should be transparent and easily read with a sweep of the eye. The ideal console should explain its operations by means of integrated design by employing simple text, pictograms, and symbols.

Tomas Maldonado / Gui Bonsieppe, data processing symbols for Olivetti, 1961
Tomas Maldonado / Gui Bonsieppe, data processing symbols for Olivetti, 1961

In the case of the ELEA 9003, the first computer produced by the Olivetti company from 1959, for instance, designer Tomás Maldonado developed an new symbol system for the console. Maldonado’s design did away with the Italian instructions which accompanied the design in favour of sign system that could be easily assimilated by operator, whatever his or her mother tongue. Here the ‘noise’ of linguistic difference was replaced by the smoothing effects of the pictogram. The operator learned this machine language in order to better integrate his or her actions with those of the machine. Keying in instructions in response to data processed by the computer, the operator of the ELEA 9003 provided an image of cybernetic harmony.

Andrzej Pawlowski, ergonomic tests for switches and buttons, Poland, mid 1960s
Andrzej Pawlowski, ergonomic tests for switches and buttons, Poland, mid 1960s

Similarly, pioneer of ergonomics in the People’s Republic of Poland, Andrzej Pawłowski conceptualised his work less as the production of buttons and switches than as the design of gestures.[15] In his experiments conducted on Poland in the 1960s, he developed a language of man-machine encounters – a kind of notation system indicating direction of movement, the type of grip or depression and the force required. He too claimed the protection of the human operator as his purpose:

Through creativity in the industrial field, we come to understand the most rational conditions for the protection of the biological and psychological existence of the human being, as well as the development of culture in industrial civilizations, the dynamics of which have become the cause of a dangerous loss of balance between civilization and the culture of its exploitation.[16]

This kind of design humanism notwithstanding, underlying such schemes was a kind of design linguisticism extrapolated from communication theory; namely, that a universal language of operating gestures could be deduced and deployed in the service of progress. Perhaps this fantasy took (and still takes) its ultimate form in the illusion of direct manipulation of data. The light pen famously designed by Ivan Sutherland at MIT in 1966 was a precursor of the touch-screen developed in the mid 1970s. Its invention might well be taken as a kind of culmination of the ergonomic project, one in which the apparatus disappears and the body of operator engages as directly and completely with data as possible. The achievement of Sutherland and others was to suggest the means for a return to what had long been claimed as the origins of language in ‘natural’ gestures.[17] Nicolas Negroponte suggested something similar when he speculated on the democratic effects of the assimilation of the computer in the studios of architects:

With direct, fluid and natural man-machine discourse, two former barriers between architects and computing machines would be removed. First, the designers, using computer-aided design hardware, would not have to be specialists. With natural communication, the ‘this is what I want to do’ and ‘can you do it’ gap could be bridged. The design task would no longer be described to a ‘knobs and dials’ person to be executed in his secret vernacular. Instead, with simple negotiations, the job would be formulated and executed in the designer’s own idiom. As a result a vibrant stream of ideas could be directly channelled from the designer to the machine and back.[18]

Ergonomics also reproduced the modernist myth of the neutrality of technology. In such anthropometric schemes, the worker never resists, never withdraws his or her labour. And in concentrating on the gesture, another kind of radical decontextualisation occurred too. What, we might ask, were all these hands doing? What were the effects of these switches and buttons on the world?

William Allan Fetter, ‘Boeing Man’, 1966-67.
William Allan Fetter, ‘Boeing Man’, 1966-67.

Here one might consider the first three-dimensional figure of a man drawn by a computer, William Allan Fetter’s ‘Boeing Man’ (1966-67). Often claimed – not least by Fetter himself – as a landmark work in the history of computer art, he created wireframe drawings of a seated figure reaching and stretching.[19] Supervisor of Advanced Design Graphics at the Wichita branch of the Military Aircraft Systems Division of Boeing, Fetter produced the line-figure to simulate the range of upper-body movements of the pilot in the cockpit of the company’s civilian and military aeroplanes. The data was gathered to improve the layout of the instruments in the cockpit. Fetter’s images were widely reproduced – usually in versions which contained few or no impression of the cockpit or its instruments (a which perhaps this explains their easy adoption as ‘computer art’).[20]

The humanistic rhetoric espoused by Dreyfuss and other champions of ergonomics tended to obscure the science’s origins and present uses in military research, as well as its fundamentally alienating effects. Few paid much attention to these characteristics, as Maldonado and Gui Bonsiepe pointed out in 1964:

Without doubt the empirical data obtained from investigations of military equipment possess a prototype value for all fields, and even for such fields which are completely removed from military equipment. On the other hand, constant occupation with such issues has no doubt result in a certain one-sidedness in the ergonomist – that particular tendency towards a too abstract version of the human operator.[21]

Bone Generators

Lee Harrison III, operating the Bone Generator / ANIMAC, Denver 1962
Lee Harrison III, operating the Bone Generator / ANIMAC, Denver 1962

At a time when commentators – in the East and in the West – were imagining human redundancy brought about by intelligent and self-replicating machines, it is striking that dance formed a particularly rich and animated zone for imagining new human-machine interactions. Let me give some examples: for instance, American programmer, Lee Harrison III, was interested in how to animate dance. In the early 1960s, he rigged up a body suit with potentiometers and created the first working motion capture rig animating movement in real-time on his CRT screen. He made several short films with this system, called ANIMAC (or sometimes the ‘Bone Generator and Skin Scanner’).[22] Harrison – whose work came to play an important role in computer animation – seemed to be investigating the ergonomics of dance. Similarly, A. Michael Noll, a computer programmer based at Bell Laboratories in the USA developed a programme to produced real-time notation for dance in 1967-8. Noll imagined that dancers could wear bright lights on their joints (much in the manner of the time and motion studies developed by figures like Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank Gilbreth in the USA before the First World War and Aleksei Gastev in Soviet Union in the 1920s). Images of the motion of the dancers could be captured and analysed by a computer, and then be translated into accurate dance notation: ‘At the completion of the ballet,’ he claimed, ‘all the movements of the dancers are stored within the computer in digital form. These movements could then be automatically translated by the computer into any desired form of dance notation.’[23] Noll also imagined that the choreographer could save the time and cost of working with a ballet company in preparation of a new performance, by composing directly with the stick figures in his programme. For Noll, ballet represented a set of programming challenges. The difficulties of being able to programme the movement of a number of interactive figures in space over time presented the kind of complex task that proved the power of computers.

Finnish pioneer of electronic and computer music (as well as robotics and artificial intelligence) Erkki Kurenniemi seemed to be interested in a more dynamic and ultimately more cybernetic conception of the body electric. In his DIMI Ballet (1971), he employed one of his own creations, the Dimi-0 optical video synthesiser (which Kurenniemi also called a ‘Video Organ’). The instrument – combining an electronic organ and a computer – generated musical sounds in which were rendered as graphic devices indicating pitch and duration on the monitor. As data, these graphics – and their audio effects – could be altered in real time by means of the computer. With the addition of a video camera, the device could react to whatever appeared on screen. Kurenniemi choose to present his device as a means for the production of a ‘ballet’ in which a dancer could alter the pitch and duration of the music by her movement. Kurenniemi DIMI Ballet’s suggests a kind of cybernetic conception of dance. Combined in a recursive relationship, the music was generated by the movement of the dancer and, conversely, her movement influenced the tonality and timbre of the electronic music.

Nicolas Schöffer was the author of perhaps the most ambitious cybernetic dance works of the period, ‘Kyldex 1’ (Kybernetic Lumino Experiment 1), a ballet that he created with composer Pierre Henry and choreographer Alwin Nikolai for the Hamburg State opera in 1973. Five cybernetic sculptures were prepared by Schöffer to ‘dance’ alongside and members of the company including the principal dancers, Carolyn Carlson and Emery Hermans. The sculptures featured sound sensors which reacted to Henry’s music, and the stage lighting. Revolving mirrors on the sculptures amplified the effect. The dancers were captured on close circuit cameras, appearing simultaneously on the theatre’s 200m2 screen at the back of the stage. This mirror effect turned the dancer and her image into echoes of one another. One member of the audience was rigged to a heart monitor so that his pulse could provide a kind of rhythmic beat for the dancers.

Announced as a ‘Simultankonzert’, the performance was an elaborate version of the kind of spectacular events in which Schöffer had orchestrated from the late 1950s in which dancers shared the stage with his cybernetic sculptures. Maurice Béjart choreographed dancers to perform with Schöffer’s ‘CYSP 1’ (Cybernetic Spatiodynamic 1), a mobile sculpture equipped with electric cells and a sound sensor which could respond to changing color, light intensity and sound, for the Festival D’Avant Garde in Marseille in 1956. In Hamburg, Schöffer updated his ideas, by drawing the audience into the act of co-creation (‘Create the Creation’ announced the poster). By raising coloured paddles, each viewer seated in the Staatsoper could vote whether the scene should continue or not; whether to speed up or slow down a dance; or even to end the piece. Red circles signalled stop; green wedges indicated faster and blue diamonds, slower; yellow arrows meant repeat; and white squares were a request for explanation. Schöffer would periodically take to the stage to lead the audience in discussion. Here the logic of feedback was given a democratic gloss. Unsurprisingly, some of the fifteen evenings were very short, others long: all were chaotic and noisy affairs, much to Schöffer’s apparent pleasure (he called it ‘eine gloriose Ungewißheit’[24]). In effect, the console from which all the electronic elements of the performance might have otherwise been controlled, had been abandoned in favour of an illusion of participation. Its traces remained in the coloured signs, with forms echoing the graphic systems employed as the interface of consoles. To maintain the illusion, Kyldex – with its voguish counter-cultural associations of participatory democracy – required that the controls for these electronic instruments remain backstage.

In this regard, parallels can be drawn to the environments created by the well known Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) group, the alliance of artist and engineers formed by a research scientist at the Bell Labs, Billy Klüver, engineer Fred Waldhauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman and in 1966. Founded to provide artists with access to new technology and engineering expertise, by 1968 EAT had over six thousand members and chapters in many major American cities. (Fetter, the author of the Boeing Man wireframes, was one of the founders of the NorthWest chapter).

Interior of the Pepsi Pavilion at the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970
Interior of the Pepsi Pavilion at the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970

The highpoint was its contribution to the Osaka World’s Fair in 1970. EAT artists and engineers were commissioned by the Pepsi company to create a pavilion which was full of immersive environments which allowed ostensibly for a kind of playful engagement with new, interactive artworks. Eschewing any kind of message (commercial or otherwise), the pavilion promised each visitor an unique individual experience: each person would direct himself or herself toward sounds, lights or what ever else might draw their attention. The pavilion was an environment in the sense used by artist Allan Kaprow a decade earlier, a space which entangled spectators in multisensory experiences.[25] Klüver recalled:

The initial concern of the artists who designed the Pavilion was that the quality of the experience of the visitor should involve choice, responsibility, freedom and participation. The Pavilion would not tell a story or guide the visitor through a didactic, authoritarian experience. The visitor would be encouraged as an individual to explore the environment and compose his own experience. As a work of art, the Pavilion and its operation would be an open-ended situation, an experiment in the scientific sense of the word.[26]

Accordingly, artist Robert Whitman – working in conjunction with engineer John Forkner – using mirrors and reflectors to produce three-dimensional ‘real’ reflections for instance. Visitors could play with their own image; a ludic form of feedback. Similarly, the floor was covered with different materials such as grass (like Brautigan’s cybernetic meadow) and gravel, yet the sounds in the headphones worn by visitors confounded the sensations underfoot.

Klüver’s emphasis on the freedom of the individual to explore an open-ended artwork was sincere but somewhat exaggerated. The EAT artists and engineers sat behind a console in the pavilion monitoring and managing the experience of the visitor. In the basement, banks of tape decks supplying the underfoot sounds were controlled by programs on punched-paper tape. The team had built an environment over which they could exert extensive control. The console was rarely recorded in the streams of publicity produced for the Pepsi Pavilion. It was, of course, far less spectacular than any other part of the pavilion but it also disturbed the group’s self-image as anti-authoritarian force. EAT was accused of naivety by its politically-minded critics. Max Kozloff writing in ArtForum in 1971 accused the group of making a fetish of technological progress and for being in ‘service’ to service to the ‘violence industries’ which were profiting from the manufacture of weapons being sold to the US military to prosecute the war in Vietnam.[27] His purpose was to stress the politics of actions and technologies which EAT artists liked to imagine as being neutral.

Dark Consoles

ARGO Group, Sound and Color installation at Chemistry '70, Sokoniki Park in Moscow in 1970.
ARGO Group, Sound and Color installation at Chemistry ’70, Sokoniki Park in Moscow in 1970.

So where might we find a self-conscious politics of the console?[28] I’d like to suggest that we might look to Eastern Europe at around the same time. Just as in the West, there were a number of close alliances between art and science in the Eastern Bloc from the mid 1960s. Abstract artists and experimental film-makers could enjoy relative freedom and access to technology if they characterized their work as design or research. In the Soviet Union, for instance, the ARGO group (Russian abbreviation for Author Working Group) formed in 1970 by Nonna Goriunova, Valerii Osipov, and Francisco Infante to create artificial immersive environments. It set out to realise the kinds of multimedia gesamtkunstwerken which appealed to EAT’s members. Infante recalled ‘The combined forces of ARGO’s engineers and artists were also utilized for the Sound and Color installation which I designed for the Chemistry ’70 International Exhibition held at Sokoniki Park in Moscow in 1970. The group joined forces with the electronic music studio attached to the Skriabin Museum …. Everything in Sound and Color was in motion: the constructions, the color, the sound, and even the smells.’[29] And like EAT, ARGO’s artists were largely indifferent to (or unable to reflect on) the ideological effects of their creations.

Others – elsewhere in the Bloc – were more critical. In 1970 Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Workshop of Film Form) was established as a section of a science club at the Łódź Television, Film and Theatre School in the People’s Republic of Poland.[30] Critical of the teaching programme of the School and, at the same time, drawing resources from it (including 35mm film stock, editing tables, video cameras and monitors), the Workshop belonged to the ’experimental zone’ which had been licensed by the scientism of the Khrushchev Thaw just over a decade earlier. The Workshop’s members were, as one Paweł Kwiek recalls, ‘scientifically minded’, reading widely in psychology and cybernetics.[31] Working with film, photography and, within a few years, video, they set out to explore the practices of the ‘operator’ rather than the artist. Many of the films created by the Workshop’s members have the procedural, though often improvised, character of a test: what will be the effect of this action in these conditions? Objectivity was set as an ideal: ‘A documentary film’s aim is to provide the truth about man’, wrote Kwiek in 1974 for instance, ‘both for the sake of Art as well as from a scientific point of view. So far, however, it has not been possible to prevent the distortion of the truth, which results from (the subjectivity of the creator).’ Direct forms of image making like the camera could, he thought then, diminish such distortions: ‘We can conclude’, he continued, ‘that the truth we receive from man is based on direct contact with him, regardless of what he would like to show himself or in what fashion he would like to be perceived …’.[32] This was a statement which might have come off the pages of an ergonomic manual.

One approach to direct forms of image making was to combine medium and body (resulting in what member Józef Robakowski called ‘biological-mechanical records’). In an early ‘test’ film, ‘Prostokąt dynamiczny’ (Dynamic Rectangle, 1971), he recorded his attempts to match the insistent, mechanical rhythm of a piece of music created by Eugeniusz Rudnik in the Experimental studio of Polish Radio. The on-screen image of a pulsing and mutating red rectangle was achieved by Robakowski opening and closing a diaphragm manually in front of the 35mm camera as he listened to the music. The piece is never quite in sync as the image (created by the live movements of the artist) fails to accurately match the sound (pre-recorded music). Knowing that behind the image there is a body falling short of the measure of the machine lends poignancy to Robakowski’s ‘test’.

‘Video C’ (1975) by Paweł Kwiek made in the studios of Polish TV
‘Video C’ (1975) by Paweł Kwiek made in the studios of Polish TV

Similarly, ‘Video C’ (1975) by Paweł Kwiek, made when the members of the Workshop were given access to a television studio, records the hands of an operator (Kwiek himself) manipulating the faders and buttons of a vision mixer, a device used to switch between video sources in a TV studio or to add graphic effects to the picture. The operator appears to be using his fingers to move a triangular cursor around the TV screen. Sometimes it seems to hover, as if trying to touch the on-screen hand or to trace the line of the operator’s arm in space: sometimes the on-screen hand responds, appearing to palm the cursor back or to map its three points with a pinch of the fingers. Kwiek explained his interest in this impossible union thus ‘I construct such sets where the observed reality is the human being, for whom, in turn, the image of reality is his own constructed image.’[33] In this mise-en-abyme, what distinguished a human being from his or her electronic image dissolved.

Parallels can be drawn between the Workshop of the Film Form and the output of the Béla Balazs Film Studio (BBS) in Hungary. Established in 1959 and enjoying official support from the early 1960s, BBS was relatively autonomous zone in which film makers could experiment with many different genres from social documentary to feature-length experimental films, with the benefit of professional crews and cameras. Censorship of the studio’s output was rare (though the film makers could not effect the distribution of their ambitious films). At the end of the 1960s the Studio opened its doors to artists, musicians, theatre professionals, writers and sociologists. A young artist and writer Gábor Bódy – inspired by his readings of structuralism – was invited in 1973 to commission a series of films exploring the ‘Language of Film’. The included neo-avant-garde artists Tamás St. Auby who made ‘Kentaur (‘Centaur’) and Miklós Erdély who made ‘Partita’.

Bódy’s own contribution to the series was ‘Négy Bagatell’ (‘Four Bagatelles’), a non-narrative film made by modifying or adapting existing films: archive footage of two peasants from Transylvania dancing is, for instance, augmented by a crosshair moving across the frame; while a sequence showing a ballet dancer is framed by an iris which opens and closes to capture her movements. In both cases, the naturalism of the documentary film is undermined by a set of technical operations which alert the viewer of the activities of an unseen operator. The fourth ‘bagatelle’ in the quartet which forms the film puts the operator’s hands (Bódy’s own) before a screen which is being filmed by a video camera. The result is another mise en abyme in which both hand and screen repeat and recede into infinity.

Bódy’s film – like those of the Workshop of Film Form – is usually discussed in terms of the hold of semiotics and structuralism on neo-avant-garde film in Eastern Europe. But, in pointing to the disappearance of the human actor under the pressure of the instrument, perhaps it is possible to detect a critique of technology being made too. There is little of the heady pleasure promised by EAT or Schöffer’s illusions of participation. Here, the camera and the monitor infer surveillance, and the console suggests command and control of the individual who uses it. In other words, these films were self-experiments in which their maker were both performers and observers at the same time. In closed circuits such as this, self-portrayal becomes a form of self-observation. This is not the euphoric liberation of heighted sensation suggested by, but a much darker conception of the cybernetic concept of feedback. In the case of the films made by Workshop of the Film Form, one might also detect a kind of pathetic quality in human gestures too: Robakowski’s body fails to fall in line with the rhythm of the machine; and Kwiek’s ‘Video C’ attempts an impossible act (one kind of immaterial pointer, a cursor, attempts to touch another, a human finger).

One should be careful about distinguishing the works of these young artist/operators in Eastern Europe from those of others elsewhere in the world in the early 1970s. After all, one of the effects of the Cold War competition was that of the mirror: East and West came to look more and more alike. (And the spread of consoles is one symptom of that fact). Moreover, many artists in the West – including, most famously, Joan Jonas, Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman – also turned to the mirror effects afforded by video to split the subject. Rosalind Krauss has identified a degree of schizophrenia in their live gallery installations: ‘The medium of video art is the psychological condition of the self split and doubled by the mirror reflection of synchronous feedback.’[34] Nevertheless, in a setting where the state was increasingly using security services to monitor the people, self-observation surely had different and distinct meanings.

[1] This is Beatriz Colomina’s phrase – see her ‘Enclosed by Images: The Eameses’ Multimedia Architecture’ in Grey Room, no. 2 (Winter 2001) 6-29.

[2] Stan Vanderbeek, speaking Stan VanDerBeek: The Computer Generation, Film
Camera Three Productions directed by John Musilli and written by Stephan Chodorov, 1972.

[3] See Richard Fifield, ‘Audio-visual evolution or revolution’ in New Scientist (29 July 1971) 277.

[4] John Harwood, ‘The White Room: Eliot Noyes and the Logic of the Information Age Interior’ in Grey Room 12 (Summer 2003) 5-31

[5] A 1969 report written by G. Liubimova cited (and translated) by Tom Cubbin, From Technocracy to Techno-Utopia: Futurology and the Soviet Home at VNIITE1964-1974 (RCA/V&A History of Design MA Dissertation, 2012) 80-81.

[6] Alexei Gutnov, et al., The Ideal Communist City, trans. Renee Neu Watkins (New York: George Braziller 1971).

[7] Richard Brautigan, All Watched Over by Machines of Living Grace (‪Communication Company, 1967)

[8] … ‘while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic’ Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845) available on line – – accessed 1 May 2015.

[9] Norbert Wiener writing in Science, vol. 131, no. 3410 (6 May 1960), p. 1356.

[10] Slava Gerovitch From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Boston, MA: MIT, 2004) 161

[11] This exchange is recorded by Willis H. Ware and Wade B. Holland in Soviet Cybernetics Technology: I. Soviet Cybernetics, 1959-1962 (Rand Corporation Report, 1963) 11.

[12] Leszek Kołakowski, ‘The Priest and the Jester’, 1959, 57

[13] Henry Dreyfuss, The Measure of Man (1959) 4.

[14] Ettore Sottsass cited in Sparke, Ettore Sotssas Jnr (London: Design Council, 1982) 63

[15] Andrzej Pawłowski, Inicjacje. O sztuce, projektowaniu i kształceniu projektantów Biblioteka wzornictwa 6’87 (Warsaw: IWP, 1987).

[16] A. Pawłowski. ‘Cel i założenia Wydziału Form Przemysłowych’ [The aim and assumptions of the Industrial Design Department]. Biuletyn 1965, Industrial Design Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, 1965.

[17] On Vico’s claims for the gesture, for instance, see Adam Kendon, Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance (Cambridge: CUP, 2004) 36.

[18] Nicholas Negroponte, The Architecture Machine (Boston, MA: MIT 1970) 9.

[19] ‘My conviction about the possible change in some creative processes brought about by the computer is that speculation in this matter is valuable so long as it is coupled with a conscious effort to shape the technology toward meeting basic human goals – including human creativity. I feel it is not completely a question of what the computer will do TO us, but a determination ofwhat we will best have the computer do FOR us. Just as important is an assurance that a necessarily diverse group is in a position to make these basic decisions.’ William Fetter, ‘Computer Graphics at Boeing’ in Print Magazine, XX:VI (November-December 1966) 32.

[20] Gustav Metzger, ‘Automata in History’, Studio International (1969) 107-9.

[21] Maldonado and Gui Bonsiepe, ‘Wissenschaft und Gestaltung’ in Ulm, 10/11 (1964) 10–29

[22] See Margaret Morse, Virtualities: television, media art, and cyberculture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) 75.

[23] A. Michael Noll, ‘Choreography and Computers’ in Dance Magazine, Vol. XXXXI, No. 1, (January 1967) 43-45.

[24] ‘Kyldex: Dampf auf Zuschauer-Kommando’ in Der Spiegel (June 1973) 107.

[25] Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

[26] Billy Klüver, Pavilion by Experiments in Art and Technology (New York: EP Dutton, 1972) xi

[27] Max Kozloff, ‘The Multi-million Dollar Art Boondoggle’ in Artforum 10, no. 2 (October 1971) 72-6.

[28] One answer to this question is to be found in the arguments made for the democratisation of computers by figures like Ted Nelson in his book Computer Lib (1974) or the magazine, Radical Software (est. 1970) in the USA.

[29] Francisco Infante ‘Artificially Created Spaces: The Projects and Realizations of the ARGO Group’ in The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol. 5, (summer 1987) 116.

[30] See see Łukasz Ronduda, Polish Art of the 1970s (Jelenia Góra / Warsaw: Polski Western / CCA Ujazdowski Castle, 2009) 300-14.

[31] Kwiek in conversation with the author, summer 2013.

[32] Paweł Kwiek, Dokument obiektywny o człowieku [Objective Document About Man], 1976 unpublished mss, Centre for Contemporary Art., Ujzadowskie Castle, CSW Archive.

[33] Paweł Kwiek cited by Ryszard Kluszczyński, ed., Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Warsaw: Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, 2000) 71.

[34] Rosalind Krauss, ‘The Post-medium Condition’ in Perpetual Inventory (Boston MA: MIT Press, 2010) 10


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