Király’s Immoderate Fashion

Design as Critique, Eastern Europe, Sexuality, Uncategorized

89_30X40cmIn 1986 Tamás Király arranged for his latest collection to be photographed on the steps of the Műcsarnok, the kunsthalle in Hősök Tere in central Budapest. A group of adults and children – barefooted, with stiff sculptural caps and belted robes – occupy the steps. The men are peacocks in bright silks; the woman, in black. The appearance of this extended family is so conspicuously alien, so strange, it is as if they belong to some kind of cult or perhaps have arrived in Budapest from another world.

Never produced, Király’s designs far exceeded what was required of fashion in the Hungarian People’s Republic at the time. Fashion performed the role of persuading citizens that they lived in a modern society; one orientated to meeting their consumer needs. In fact, the emancipatory project of ‘socialist dress’ based on principles of utility and egalitarianism had long been abandoned in recognition of the pragmatic task of managing desire. Upmarket Budapest boutiques (introduced after the economic reforms of 1968) as well as mass-market brands, and glossy fashion magazines presented a world of choice and moderate fashionability, albeit one which Hungarian factories usually failed to deliver.[1] In fact, the authorities entered into co-production arrangements with Western brands in the late 1970s – including Levi Strauss & Co. – to profit from the pent up demand for these ordinary luxuries.[2] Style, in János Kádár’s Hungary, was largely a matter of staving off the lingering sense amongst consumers of being démodé. If it had a social role, fashion was not to promote individualism but a common sense of the Hungarian People’s Republic as a permissive environment.

Király’s collections played no part in the project of managing consumption: usually one-offs, his designs formed part of ‘underground’ culture in Budapest in the early 1980s. It is telling that his first show in 1983 was called ‘Rejtett divat’ (Hidden Fashion), though there was little about his work which was introverted or secret. In fact, with close creative relationships with artist film-makers (including Gábor Bódy, János Xantus and Gábor Bachman) and new wave groups (A.E. Bizottság, URH, Kontroll Csoport and Sziámi), his designs lent themselves to spectacularisation. Fantastic ‘catwalk’ shows of Király’s garments were organized in Petőfi Csarnok, a popular concert venue in the Hungarian capital, that also featured live new wave acts and, sometimes, animals. Exercises in improvisation and punky iconoclasm, Király appears to have made little use of the techniques of the trade like pattern cutting. In ‘Baby’s Dreams’, his 1985 show, crowds of amateur models swarmed across the stage in garments that looked like they had been roughly pinned onto their bodies moments earlier.

The New Art Studio, a boutique established by Gizella Koppány in Budapest in 1980, was a vehicle for Király’s exuberant imagination. He introduced ‘moving displays’ into the store’s window in which living models presented the boutique’s garments. Designs – created with Koppány and Nóra Kováts – were often ‘hacks’ of existing clothes, some of which had been collected on trips to the countryside. _GEL3407Király and his young friends also organized informal ‘fashion promenades’ through the capital in 1981 in which they brought a kind of sartorial élan to colourless streets. Unannounced and exuberant, these walks were an example of what writer Dick Hebdige once called ‘hiding in the light’ – the blinding quality of subcultural style to be both arresting and incomprehensible, at least to those lacking the cipher to crack its codes.[3]

kiraly tamas 80s ruhak tranzit.huOver the course of the 1980s, Király’s designs began to take on more recognizable forms. Wearing his highly structured, monochrome dresses, models were given geometric silhouettes. One visitor to Budapest, a reporter from Stern magazine who went to Hungary in 1990, noted a strong resemblance to the puppet-humans of Oskar Schlemmer’s ‘Triadische Ballett’ (Triadic Ballet, 1922).[4] Making few claims on utility, these garments existed to be seen and, above all, to be photographed and filmed. Király’s contribution to Xantus’s otherwise conventional film profile of Hungarian Goth band Neurotic, ’Rocktérítő’ (1988), was to dress the clientele and staff of a basement bar – a glamorous vision of Hades. The stiff wings, exaggerated collars and long tube skirts worn by the women obliged them to walk with jerky steps and their arms projected forwards. It is as if the garments – glittering in the low light – have more life than the people wearing them.

Király’s conception of fashion far exceeded anything else created in Hungary at the time. He announced an expanded notion of style which owed more to the streets and clubs of London than perhaps anywhere else. In the aftermath of punk, ‘street style’ had been trumpeted in the UK as the triumph of youthful, uninhibited imagination over the stale elitism of the fashion houses. For cultural theorists searching for evidence of youthful opposition to commodity culture, the resourceful bricolage of punk and new wave style was even taken as heartening signs of resistance. Behind the bondage, workmen’s boots and reworking of early rock n’ roll style worn by the first punks, ‘lay hints of disorder, of breakdown and category confusion: a desire not only to erode racial and gender boundaries but also to confuse chronological sequence by mixing up details from different periods’, according to one writer at the time.[5] To do its job of unsettling conventions, style was deployed to queer the world. Sometimes this meant embracing non-heterosexual desire; more often, it meant a kind of inversion of the norms which ordered society.

Face 68Street style was elevated to style culture a few years after punk, first in Britain and soon elsewhere. This was a kind of reimagining of the idea of the avant-garde for the consumer age: the style cognoscenti were a vanguard, testing new looks and, ultimately, shaping the tastes of others. And style magazines (or ‘style bibles’ as some commentators liked to call titles like The Face and i-D in the UK, Tempo in Germany) set themselves the task of recording the rapid turns of fashion, naming and charting embryonic trends before, its seems, they had even had a chance to become a fully-fledged look.           Of course, there was a good deal of self-promotion in the valorization of style. This was hardly new either: the transmission of culture and commodities has long depended on taste-makers. What, perhaps, did mark out a difference was a ‘cool’ attitude which penetrated deeply into the the pages of the style press; into the new medium of the pop video; and in the theatrical catwalk shows of fashion designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood and, of course, Király, even when their designs teetered on absurdity. Irony allowed hyperbole, theatricality, politics, and history to be embraced without commitment: to wonder how seriously these images were to be taken was, of course, to risk being uncool. When the sober-minded monthly Marxism Today published a commentary on British style magazines in 1987, its writer was both disturbed and fascinated by the ways in which politics and history were flattened on their pages. Serious matters and trivial subjects were treated with equivalence: ‘In the fashion photographs and general deployment of “looks”,’ he wrote, ‘history exists as one large set of slides to be wittily back-projected behind the models. History as hair conditioner – it makes everything more manageable and free of knots. Coalminers, the 40s, bikers, Red Indians, Palestinian solders, and lately even the 70s have been plundered in search of new “angles”, new “looks”. Inevitably then, everything becomes plaything, meaning does not seem that meaningful anymore – the history of Cuba is really the history of salsa.’[6] In approaching history not as politics or even as effects, but as images to be appropriated, style culture was infected by a kind of ironic detachment (as well as the pleasure which could be generated by occasional shock and outrage). Irony – the capacity to say one thing but mean another – allowed budding entrepreneurs in the music and fashion industries in the West to imagine that their activities were somehow outside the commercial frameworks in which they operated.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the communist world provided the new stylists not with ideology but with images. Fashion and graphic designers occasionally looked to the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s to provide dynamic blueprints for their new designs. The art director of The Face magazine, Neville Brody, raided Alexander Rodchenko’s portfolio for his spreads; LPs by new wave and electronic groups were packaged in sleeves which looked like posters from the Russian Civil War; and designers dressed models in Red Army chic. What Agata Pyzik calls the ‘proto-Ostalgie’ of much new wave music in the West drew deeply from an imagined Eastern Europe, populated with revolutionaries and commissars, new men and new women.[7] Of course, immersed in these myths of the avant-garde, it was rarely the present-day Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellites which attracted the style-makers except, perversely, as a wasteland of style. (And an ironic commentary on The Face’s sovietophilia came in the form of a television advertisement made in 1986 for Levi’s in which a Soviet customs official confiscates a copy of the magazine from the suitcase of young man arriving in the USSR, overlooking the jeans hidden underneath). Király was almost unique among Eastern European fashion designers in the fact that his work enjoyed attention in the West before the Berlin Wall was pulled down, featuring on the pages of i-D in 1989 and presented alongside collections by Vivienne Westwood and Yoshiki Hishinuma at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 1988.[8]

Király too seemed to have his own Soviet fantasies. Working with young architect Gábor Bachman on a short video entitled ‘Kelet-európai riadó’ (Eastern European Alarm), Király designed a dress which turned its wearer into a red star. In Bachman’s film, she marches up the steps of Műcsarnok, arm-in-arm with a commissar. Fashioned from shiny satin and clad in blood-red boots, she was like some kind of latter-day Octobriana. Her partner – a copy of Pravda in his hand – looked as if he had just stepped off the tribune after delivering a rousing speech. They embrace – she without much enthusiasm – under a long red banner announcing ‘Művészet és forradalom’ (Art and Revolution) and then argue over a bottle of vodka. At that time (November 1987), Műcsarnok was hosting an exhibition with the same title, ‘Art and Revolution’, recording Hungarian and Russian art from 1910-1932. Mounted on the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution, the exhibition was probably the most extensive show of Eastern European avant-garde art held in the Bloc. And yet the response of the public was muted and the audiences small. Few seemed to have much enthusiasm for the Soviet avant-garde, except perhaps for Király and the underground culture to which he belonged. Bachman – with architect and samizdat publisher László Rajk – designed a number of conceptual schemes, interiors and film sets which imported El Lissitzky’s Red Wedge into contemporary Hungary;[9] György Soós promoted his industrial music group, Art Deco, with imagery from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 film ‘October’ and the visionary architectural schemes of Yakov Chernikhov.

Na-Ne posterLater, in 1990 Király was one of the founders of the short-lived NA-NE gallery in Budapest (with seven other artists and designers including Bachman, Rajk and Soós). Meaning ‘Oh No, This Cannot Be’, the interiors and many of the exhibits of the gallery experimented with the forms and artistic languages of constructivism, albeit in a critical, deconstructive manner. One suspects that these late expressions of Hungarian enthusiasm for the Soviet imagery owed less to a sense of living in the Eastern Bloc, than in their affinities to the new wave culture which had its origins in London, New York and Berlin. The NA-NE artists and designers to have developed a kind of ironic taste for their own estrangement and alterity, perhaps not unlike the way that the punks had turned anomie into an aesthetic in the UK and elsewhere. Art historian Éva Forgács describes the NA-NE aesthetic as ‘an iconic collection of formal elements which may have had a function of an original Constructivist work, but now all they reference is the falling apart and the historic failure of the one-time beauty and one-time idealism of Constructivism.’[10] In other words, the imagery of revolutionary socialism was queered in their art and design.

Few of Király’s garments from the 1980s survive today, except, of course, in the form of videos, film and photographs. This has much to do with the improvised nature of his designs, often created for one-off events. It is also an effect of their excessive qualities too. Király’s designs refuted moderation. Uncompromisingly excessive and unfunctional, they denied the possibility of any kind of productive return, even in the moderated form of mass fashion in Hungarian People’s Republic. The politics of his designs did not reside in the manipulation of signs and symbols. After all, style culture achieved its effects by hollowing out meaning. If any kind of political significance is to be attached to Király’s activities before 1989, it is to do with their immoderation. And as excess, the fate of his designs – to be destroyed – was certain, even at the time of their conception.

[1] Djurdja Bartlett, FashionEast. The Spectre that Haunted Socialism (Boston, MA: MIT Press) p. 239.

[2] Michael Dobbs, ‘Budapest’s Blue Jeans Revolution: Levi’s Sets Up Shop To Meet the Craze’ in The Washington Post (11 May 1978)

[3] Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light. On Images and Things (London: Comedia, 1988).

[4] Jan Kromschröder, ‘Folklor und strenge Linien: Die Kreationen des Tamás Király’ in Stern Magazin, 14 (29 March 1990) pp. 150-154.

[5] Dick Hebdige, Subculture. The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen and Co., 1979), p. 123.

[6] George Barber, ‘Nick Logan’ in Marxism Today (September 1988), p. 52.

[7] Agata Pyzik, Poor But Sexy. Culture Clashes in East and West Europe (Winchester: Zero, 2013) p. 113.

[8] CD. ‘Fashion Hungary’ in i-D, no. 71 (1989) p. 83.

[9] See Péter Esterházy, ‘Egy építészeti kérdéshez’ in Magyar Építőművészet, (February 1986) pp. 56-7.

[10] Éva Forgács, ‘Deconstructing Constructivism in Post-Communist Hungary’ in David Ayers et al, eds., Utopia: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and (Im)possible Life (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2015) pp. 320-321.

The Poster Remediated – installation shots and press

Design as Critique, Design Exhibition, Design/Critique, Graphic Design

These installation shots in Poster Museum at Wilanów were provided by Podpunkt, the excellent studio which designed the show and the accompanying book. They were photographed by Michał Drabik.

Podpunkt did much more than design the show: they worked closely with me to shape its conceptualisation. Much of the intellectual drive of the show comes from Podpunkt’s design.

The show was controversial. Some designers felt that it undermines the tradition of the Polish poster – perhaps it does. My intention was not to treat posters as works of art (in the traditional sense) but to explore the relationship of this historic form to other media – to cinema, television, print media and of course the Internet. Some of the most striking works in the show are by unknown designers.  So in this sense, the highly artistic and authorial tradition of the poster was abandoned, at least for the duration of the show.

A large number of critics also wrote a letter to the Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, demanding the reinstatement of the traditional Biennale competition (an open call for designers to submit posters – whether they were commissioned works or simply propositions for posters) and describing the decision to change the format and appoint me  a ‘scandal’. You can hear the arguments being rehearsed on Polish radio here. During the opening of the show, there was a protest against the concept of the exhibition. Ten or maybe twelve painted posters were hung in the courtyard which divides the two pavilions housing the show. Here are two of them – you can judge their merits.

If you read Polish, there are some thoughtful reviews and previews in Polityka, dwutygodnik (a typically excellent and critical piece by Karol Sienkiewicz), Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita. The last(!) print issue of 2+3D magazine also includes an interview with me, an editorial on the Biennale and a feature on the work of Jordan Seiler and Vermibus, two artist who feature in the show. There is also an image-led piece the summer 2016 issue of Eye.

The Poster Remediated

Design as Critique, Graphic Design

Extracts from a longer essay exploring the future of the poster which will be published in Warsaw in June 2016


In 1971 the Swiss graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann and the artist Shizuko Yoshikawa published a book surveying the history of the poster. Committed modernists, they concluded their catalogue of past designs with some reflections on the form’s future. They saw flashes of optimism in the foundation of the Warsaw International Poster Biennale in 1966 as well as the city’s Poster Museum two years later, and in the creation of the Deutsches Plakat Museum in Essen in 1971. Here was evidence of the poster’s “great importance as an economic, social, political and cultural means of communication.” Yet, at the same time Müller-Brockmann and Yoshikawa worried about its end:


It cannot be foreseen with certainty whether, or for how long, the poster will have a long-term future. Doubts regarding its prospects are justified when we consider the possible way of life of a post-industrial society, with almost unlimited new technical resources in an environment planned according to human resources. Some practical aids, which scientific and industrial production is placing, or will place, at our disposal in the near future: audiovisual communication by telephone: audiovisual communication with stores providing a survey of good available, automatic order and deliver in house; audiovisual communication with a neutral marketing advisory office; a newspaper delivered by home computer, independently of time, giving all desired marketing information by means of stereoscopic pictures; a home computer connected to a data bank of administrative associations and giving topical information regarding social, and political events …[1]


Reading their words today, it seems clear that, in outlining their vision of a future after the poster, Müller-Brockmann and Yoshikawa foresaw the Internet.


Such anxiety about the decline of the poster has proven, at least in terms of volume, to be premature. Advertising continues to fill the horizons of our towns and cities; elections and political protests still warrant the production of great waves of visual propaganda; and cinemas, galleries and theatres announce their programmes with graphic posters as they have always done. Occasional moratoriums on billboard advertising issued by cities in an ascetic mood – …– do little to reverse the flow. Moreover, the conventions which first governed the design of the modern posters in the age of Lautrec and Mucha, and, later, Müller-Brockmann too, are still intact today, at least when it comes to the output of professional graphic designers. “The values of a poster are first those of ‘appeal,’ and only second of information” wrote Susan Sontag in 1970: “The rules for giving information are subordinated to the rules which endow a message, any message, with impact: brevity, asymmetrical emphasis, condensation.” Arresting graphic images combined with punchy copy continue to demand our attention today. What has changed, however, is that the means by which these appeals are delivered. Digital billboards, interactive screens and even the phones in our pockets are increasingly the means by which poster messages are mediated. In 2014 The Guardian newspaper announced, for instance, that 2015 would be the year when the spend of advertisers on digital and online promotion in the UK would outstrip than on print buses, cinema, billboards, TV and radio combined.[2] Hollywood movies and upmarket television series are now promoted, for instance, with so called “motion posters” – not a trailer but an animation of elements of the promotional poster which lasts little more than a few seconds.

Four stills from the motion poster promoting “Bajirao Mastani”, a Bollywood movie 2015.

Four stills from the motion poster promoting “Bajirao Mastani”, a Bollywood movie 2015.

Letters ripple into life; actors strike a pose; lightning flashes overhead. Commissioned by movie studios and television broadcasters (or created by fans), these poster-format designs are easily posted and reblogged on social media. Many motion posters attempt to combine the wide-screen effects and intimate close-ups which characterise much cinema. Whether this constitutes a definition of the genre yet is too early to say: the motion poster is too new to have established a firm set of conventions (and in fact, like many trends on the Internet, it might turn out to be no more than a short-lived fad). Nevertheless, their desire for life is unmistakable. Not only do these posters come to life in your hand or on your desktop but they also want to escape the flat surface of the screen.

The desire for life in the poster can be traced back to its earliest days, or perhaps more precisely to the first movies at the beginning of the twentieth century. As the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin wrote in Einbahnstrasse (One-Way Street) in 1930:


Today the most real, the mercantile gaze into the heart of things is the advertisement. It abolishes the space where contemplation moved and all but hits us between the eyes with things as a car, growing into gigantic proportions, careens at us out of a film screen. And just as the film does not present furniture and facades in completed forms for critical inspection, their insistent, jerky nearness alone being sensational, the genuine advertisement hurtles things at us with the tempo of a good film.[3]


Writing in Weimar Germany, Benjamin – who set himself the task of diagnosing modernity – stressed the shock effects of the modern media of film and advertising. In this, lay the modern poster’s disturbing liveliness. Today, new, more coercive forms of poster interaction are emerging. The fantasy of the “personalised” billboard which knows you and your tastes – vividly presented in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Minority Report” (2002) – is drawing closer. In 2012 the UK charity Plan UK created bus advertising which scanned a viewer’s face to select an ad according his or her gender. “Men and boys are denied the choice to view the full content” of the “Because I’m a Girl” campaign “in order to highlight the fact that women and girls across the world are denied choices and opportunities on a daily basis due to poverty and discrimination” explained the charity.[4] Similarly, in its #LookingForYou campaign, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, an animal charity in London, worked with an advertising agency and technologists in 2015 to combine leaflets with RFID chips with electronic billboards and digital displays at a shopping centre.

#LookingForYou, still from a film documenting the interactive billboard created by OgilvyOne UK for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, London, Date. Courtesy Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

#LookingForYou, still from a film documenting the interactive billboard created by OgilvyOne UK for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, London, Date. Courtesy Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

Holding a leaflet which he or she had picked up on arrival, a visitor was “followed” on his or her journey by an appealing looking dog which appears on every screen en route. Walk back pass the screen and the dog is still there, waiting for you. Here, the shock identified by Benjamin in Weimar Germany has been replaced by a more subtle – and in this case affective – form of interaction which, of course, raises many ethical questions about consent, and about the way in which data about our identities and movement is stored and used. To date, such attempts to customise advertising remain rare and, in fact, the charities concerned have made much of the technology to draw media attention to their good works. And, as the use of the hashtag in the name of the #LookingForYou project infers, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home wishes to share their work not hide it. Moreover, not all forms of interaction carry overtones of manipulation. The UK based company Novalia, for instance, specialises in the development of paper surfaces which offer interactions based on touch. Conductive inks, and electronics and small speakers hidden in a thin board allow a poster to become an drum kit which can be played. Another poster designs – like its “Sound of Taste” – connects with a smart phone. When the artwork, a flood of rich colours created by illustrator Billie Jean, is stroked, different chords are triggered and played out of the speakers on the phone. Commissioned by a spice retailer, Schwartz, the project aims to connect the senses. Such inventions might be dismissed as gimmicks, but Novalia’s achievement is not just to have produced an experimental prototype but to have worked out how to produce interactive posters in large numbers at relatively low cost.

Interactive poster created by 73andSunny and Novalia, for the second Google Impact Challenge, San Francisco, 2015.

Interactive poster created by 73andSunny and Novalia, for the second Google Impact Challenge, San Francisco, 2015.

The potential of this technology is considerable, a fact not lost on Google which worked with Novalia and a creative team from 72andSunny to design an interactive “voting” poster for the streets, bus stations and cafes of San Francisco in 2015 which invited passers-by to decide how money the wealthy business had set aside for non-profit schemes with social benefits in the area should be spent.[5]


The Mediation of the Media

What the appearance of motion posters illustrates is not that the poster has been has killed off by the screen but that poster effects have been subsumed into new media. Far from vanquishing the conventional poster – words and images printed on paper and pasted on the walls of our streets – the screen has consumed it with great appetite. Lively images accompanied by slogans on smart phones contain so many poster-like qualities that they might be best to see them as containers of all the histories of the poster. This is one face of what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, writing more than a decade ago, called “remediation”. Reflecting on the rapid transformation of the media in the 1990s, they argued that “digital visual media can best be understood through the ways in which they honor, rival, and revise linear-perspective painting, photography, film, television, and print.” Old media are never entirely replaced: they persist but, necessarily, “refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media”. In other words what is “new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media.”[6] Viewed in this way, a digital billboard promoting new fashion is a layered or “seriated” medium in the sense that its graphic components each have their own histories: a sans-serif letterforms might date from the beginning of the nineteenth century; the company’s logo was, perhaps, an invention of the 1960s; the lighting effects might owe much to the studio techniques of Hollywood photographers in the 1930s (who, in turn, had taken lessons from chiaroscuro painters); and so on.

Guess billboard, Venice, photographed by Stilltheone 1, 2009. (Reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

Guess billboard, Venice, photographed by Stilltheone 1, 2009. (Reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

The deep penetration of digital technologies into all aspects of life may well constitute a fundamental transformation of our environment – perhaps even a revolution – but it is one phase in a longer and continual process of what Bolter and Grusin call the mediation of the media: “Each act of mediation depends on other acts of mediation. Media are continually commenting on, reproducing, and replacing each other, and this process is integral to media. Media need each other in order to function as media at all”.[7]

The interdependence of different media both for the generation of meaning and for its distribution is well illustrated by “And Babies?”, a poster created by the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) in New York in late 1969 to protest against American military involvement in Vietnam.[8]

Art Workers’ Coalition, “Q. And Babies? A. And Babies”, poster, 1969. Collection Poster Museum, Warsaw.

Art Workers’ Coalition, “Q. And Babies? A. And Babies”, poster, 1969. Collection Poster Museum, Warsaw.

The poster features words and an image which had already been widely reproduced in the US media before they were combined by the AWC. Eighteen months earlier, in March 1968, a troop of US soldiers had massacred the population of a Vietnamese village, known as My Lai (Song My).[9] The hundreds of people who died in this brutal episode had initially been described by a US army spokesman as a Vietcong unit. The evidence provided by the Army’s own photographer, Ron L. Haeberle, revealed, however, that men and women, old and young, were not only civilians but that they been killed indiscriminately. The images of the dead taken by Haeberle, as well as other shots of peasants recoiling from the menacing GIs, found their way into the American mass media. They were shown on major news broadcasts without commentary, such was their shocking force. CBS also televised an interview with Paul Meadlo, one of the soldier who had participated in the massacre. When asked by TV anchor Mike Wallace whether the soldiers had killed men, women and children, “yes” came the answer. When Wallace pressed again, asking “And Babies?”, Meadlo replied “And Babies.” The next day a full transcript of the interview was published in the New York Times.[10] This was at a time when American attitudes to the war were already changing. And for the anti-war movement, here was brutal evidence of indifference and violence done to the very people the USA was claiming to protect.

Securing official permission to use the photograph and with the endorsement of the Museum of Modern Art, the AWC – an alliance of politically-engaged artists– published “And Babies?”, laying Wallace and Meadlo’s words from the newspaper transcript over the army photographer’s image. Union lithographers donated their services, and paper was obtained without cost. On hearing about the project, the president of the board of trustees of the Museum withdrew the institution’s support. Nevertheless, the AWC went ahead, publishing the poster in an edition of 50,000 copies, which it then distributed “free of charge all over the world” including in the Museum’s lobby. The group issued a press release reflecting on this turn of events:


Practically, the outcome is as planned: an artist-sponsored poster protesting the My-Lai massacre will receive vast distribution. But the Museum’s unprecedented decision to make known, as an institution, its commitment to humanity, has been denied it. Such a lack of resolution casts doubt on the strength of the Museum’s commitment to art itself, and can only be seen as a bitter confirmation of this institution’s decadence and/or impotence.[11]


The group also mounted a “lie-in”, parading the poster in front of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), one of the most compelling anti-war images of the twentieth century, in the Museum’s galleries.[12] In effect, the AWC staged what at the time was being called a “Photo Op”, an event which was organised to attract media attention or, in other words, to be mediated.[13] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the action in front on Guernica was reported in the New York Times.[14] Various art magazines also promised to publish this image on their covers.[15] In the event, it only appeared on the cover of the November 1970 issue of the British art magazine, Studio International. In the same year, the Baden Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, Germany, adopted the poster as the cover of the catalogue accompanying its Kunst und Politik (Art and Politics) exhibition in summer 1970. The cover design was given a kind a gauzy treatment, appearing as if the poster had been shot from a television screen.

The cover of Kunst und Politik (Art and Politics), catalogue of an exhibition at the Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, Germany, 1970. Private Collection.

The cover of Kunst und Politik (Art and Politics), catalogue of an exhibition at the Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, Germany, 1970. Private Collection.


Human Billboards

The “And Babies?” poster was fashioned from material which had already undergone various forms of mediation. Moreover, the design – already printed in thousands of copies – was distributed indirectly by being reported in the print media. This particular form of remediation has a long history and a special association with protest. A parade of placards and posters brings a particular advantage to protesters. Inherently photogenic (and, of course, spectacular en masse), vivid posters like “And Babies?” supply their own captions when they appear in press photographs. Moreover, in their mobility, poster parades bring their messages to settings which are already inscribed with meaning. When in 1968 African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, went on strike to express their deep frustration with dangerous conditions, as well as workplace racial discrimination, they organised boycotts, sit-ins and marches. Famously, in March three hundred protestors marched from Clayborn Temple, their home base, to City Hall, the site of civic authority in Memphis, as well as their employer. Each carried a placard, printed in the Temple’s print workshop, carrying the slogan “I am a Man.” A assertion of human dignity, these words connected civil rights with campaigns for the abolition of slavery in the eighteenth century.[16]

Such demands for civil rights in the United States in the 1960s; for democracy during the Arab Spring in 2011; or the defence of freedom of speech in the aftermath of the attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in Paris in 2015 had particular poignancy by being printed and carried by ordinary citizens. And their messages were amplified by the way that the posters were borne. When the Memphis sanitation workers marched, they sometimes hung their placards around their necks (much like the Suffragettes in Britain before the First World War).

Suffragette with posters demanding votes for women, London, undated. Source: Library of Congress.

Suffragette with posters demanding votes for women, London, undated. Source: Library of Congress.

In this way, they announced “I testify to the injustice which I have experienced”. In his interpretation of the AWC “lie in” at MoMA, Gregory Sholette points to the symmetries between the gestures in Picasso’s aggrieved painting and those the protestors in press photographs – the fist of the fallen soldier echoes the grasp of the protestors on their poster before the canvas.[17] In their expressiveness, gestures of these kinds accentuated the poster’s message.

The murderous assault on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and the violence that spiralled out across the city and the country thereafter led to waves of anguished expressions of dismay and anger. The words “Je suis Charlie” were tweeted within minutes. And within an hour, Joachim Roncin, a French artist and journalist, had turned the phrase into a graphic device, employing the block letters of the weekly magazine’s masthead. Expressing solidarity with the victims of the attack and defence of freedom of speech, numerous newspapers and press agencies reproduced Roncin’s design. The day after the attack, Belgian financial daily De Tijd and French newspapers Libération and L’indépendant issued entirely black front pages featuring the “Je suis Charlie” slogan, and similar gestures were made by newspapers in Estonia, the UK and Sweden. Google France added the device to its homepage. But perhaps the most affecting uses of the slogan was by citizens around the world who downloaded a digital file from the Charlie Hebdo website and then carried print-outs in vigils and demonstrations.

Demonstration in Paris, January 2015 photograph by Valentina Calà / flickr  (reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

Demonstration in Paris, January 2015 photograph by Valentina Calà / flickr (reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

Some simply displayed the design on their smart phones. Modest in scale and often adapted by their bearer, these small posters were clasped over the chest or held above the head – effectively giving voice to silent and invariably sombre faces. And the claim on unity in the face of terror acquired full meaning, according to Roncin, by being carried by thousands of people of different genders, races and nations: “It is a purely republican message; one of hope, of solidarity, of peace, of unity that goes beyond Charlie Hebdo. It is a message that says that our fists are raised and we are not afraid. They didn’t just attack an editorial board or Jews or policemen. They attacked the world of free thought.”[18]

The words “Je suis Charlie” resonate with other assertions of human rights: not only “I am a Man” in Memphis but also “I am Spartacus” from the 1960 Hollywood movie; President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin in 1963; and the “I am Michael Brown” banners carried by Black Lives Matter protesters after the shooting of a young black man by the police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The frequency of such declarations also forms a ground against which progress itself can be measured, sometimes negatively. This would seem to be one of the points made by the American artist Dread Scott in his 2009 performance “I am not a Man”. Carrying a modified version of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ poster, Scott walked through the streets of Harlem in New York City, historically the setting of some of the most vital forms of black culture in the United States (aka the Harlem Renaissance). In a tie and jacket, Scott looked like a figure from another time, perhaps one of the dignified protestors of the Civil Rights movement fifty years earlier. Most of the documentary photographs recording Scott’s performance seem to capture the indifference of the people around him. And when he stumbles and his trousers fall down, Scott emphasises the pathos of the protestor who calls for acknowledgement of his or her humanity. In the light of continued disadvantage and violence still experienced by African-Americans, Scott’s work can be understood as a commentary on civil rights after decades of activism.

The most provocative version of the human billboard in recent years has been created by Femen, the feminist group which emerged in the Ukraine in 2008 and now has loosely-affiliated branches across Europe, as well as North and South America. Objecting to domestic violence, prostitution, the corruption of female sexuality by pornography, and other forms of misogyny, Femen’s members write slogans across their bare breasts and then engage in acts of civil disobedience, often targeting politicians and religious leaders.

Femen activists marching in Paris, 2015. Photographed by Mickael Menard. (Reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

Femen activists marching in Paris, 2015. Photographed by Mickael Menard. (Reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

They create what they call “body-posters” through which the “truth [is] delivered by the body by means of nudity and meanings inscribed on it”. Here the correct gesture or body stance is vital: Femen’s organisers train novices how to stand when protesting – feet apart and firmly rooted; with an aggressive demeanour and unsmiling. With one or more breasts exposed, Femen’s activists invoke historical figures of revolution and resistance including, most obviously Eugène Delacroix’s canvas “Liberty Leading the People” (1830), and, from their own homeland, the sword-wielding “Motherland” monument overlooking the river Dnieper in Kiev (completed 1981).

The dramatic and spectacular nature of the events which its activists create, as well as their sex appeal ensures that images of Femen’s actions circulate on the internet and in print and broadcast media. Easily dismissed as stunts, the risks which they and their associates have taken are real. In March 2013, Amina Tyler, a young woman from Tunisia, aligned herself with Femen by posting pictures of herself on Facebook. In one, she had written “My Body is My Own and Not the Source of Anyone’s Honour”, a reference to the meaning attached to the veil in conservative Muslim societies. The response was quick and extreme: she was subjected to death threats, assaulted and arrested.[19] Muslim clerics denounced her actions. Adel Almi, head of the national Commission for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice claimed that Tyler’s actions “could bring about an epidemic. It could be contagious and give idea [sic] to other women.”[20] Criticism of Femen’s activities does not just come from their enemies: some feminists have objected too. After attacking the sex industry in Eastern Europe, “they started to ‘recruit’ young Muslim women in France”, writes Agata Pyzik, “… conflating, stereotypically, Islam and patriarchy/misogyny. But in doing so, they were not only racist, they neglected the meaning of years of struggle that are behind defending the rights of women from different than European/white background.”[21]

Femen’s actions are undergirded by a utopian belief in universal freedom which overrides – or, as their statement below suggests, prefigures – all cultural and historical distinctions:


In the beginning was the body, the sensation the woman has of her own body, the joy of lightness and freedom. Then came injustice, so harsh that it is felt with the body; injustice deprives the body of its mobility, paralyses its movements, and soon you are hostage to that injustice. Then you push your body into battle against injustice, mobilizing each cell for the war against the world of patriarchy and humiliation.[22]


In making themselves human posters, Femen activists also become targets in actions which they know will provoke a response, even violence. Hijacking meetings and ceremonies organised by the Roman Catholic church, the far right or Muslim groups, Femen’s activists are often dragged off-stage and away from the cameras: sometimes they are beaten in the act. In protesting against violence against women, they induce it. It seems that nudity – carrying association with sexuality and vulnerability – amplifies this effect.

In other circumstances, opposition carries mortal risk. Here, the anonymity afforded by the Internet sometimes provides security. The wave of protest that spreads across the Arab World since 2010 has stimulated the production of what is sometimes called “electronic posters”, i.e., designs which can be downloaded and printed by anyone with access to a domestic printer.[23] This has been the output of Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh (The Syrian People Know the Way), a collective of 15 anonymous artists, formed in 2011 to express support for the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Established by an art student from Damascus and a calligrapher from Meah, near Hama, the group were joined by Syrians inside and outside the country, and turned their attention to the regime at home. Posted on Flickr and Facebook, their designs – signed by the collective – were carried in demonstrations by university students, civil society activists, and ordinary Syrians who demanded democratic freedoms and an end to the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad. Counter-propaganda against the state-controlled media at the time they were made, Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh’s designs often referred to prohibited and, as such, highly combustible, themes.[24] One “electronic poster” carrying the words, “It will not happen again”, features an image of the waterwheel at Hama, the site of a notorious massacre of 25,000 civilians in 1982. Under Bashar al-Assad public discussion of this event was strictly suppressed. In the foreground, a child – rendered like a stencil – seems to be writing on a wall. This is a reference to the events of March 2011 when children graffitied the popular revolutionary chants they had seen on satellite television – “The people want to topple the regime”, “Your turn is coming, Doctor” and “Leave” – on the walls of a school in Deraa were arrested and tortured. Public anger at their treatment was one of the triggers of anti-Assad protests. In another electronic poster, a woman covers her face with a veil or possibly a chequered keffiyeh associated with Palestinian nationalism.

Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh, “I’m going out to demonstrate”, electronic poster.

Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh, “I’m going out to demonstrate”, electronic poster.

She is framed by the words “I’m going out to demonstrate” in elegant Arabic calligraphy. As Robyn Cresswell notes, the Arabic verb for “to demonstrate,” atazahar, suggests the process of “appearing” or “becoming visible”.[25] Here, the possibility of private identity and public protest – which characterises Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh’s actions – is, itself, the theme of one of its designs. The contrast with Femen’s “body posters” could not be greater.






Protestors are not the only groups which attempt to amplify their poster messages by thumbing a ride in the press or on social media. Lacking the resources to mount expensive print advertising campaigns, charities and other interest groups often court controversy by commissioning publicity which tests public opinion and sometimes contravene the codes which limit advertising in many countries. In this way, a poster can become a news story in its own right. Today, it often seems that sex or images of children are the most effective vehicles for controversy. In 2010 a French campaign commissioned by Droits des Non Fumeurs (The Rights of Non Smokers / DNF) from the BDDP et fils agency set out to capture the attention of the young, who appear to be largely unmoved by warnings of the deadly effects of smoking-related disease. Instead, the director of DNF argued that it was necessary to tap the sexual desires and dislike of authority of teenagers in its press and poster campaign. Featuring the slogan “To Smoke is to be Enslaved”, the campaign images presented the act of young people smoking as if compelled to perform an act of fellatio on an older besuited man. If the clarity of the message was doubtful, the media effects of the image were not. The French press immediately called on public figures to give an opinion – libertarians attacked the publicity’s censorious tone; champions of family values identified paedophilia in the images; and the Minister of Health judged the campaign to be inappropriate precisely because it set out to shock. Evidently, DNF had a “succès de scandale” on its hands, ensuring that its publicity was publicised.

Sexuality also featured in the public discussion of one of the most controversial commercials in the UK in recent years. A series of weight-loss advertisements were placed on billboards and on public transport in spring 2015 featuring a slim and tanned model in a bikini with the question “Are you Beach Body Ready?” The company behind the advertisement, Protein World, produce and market food supplements and meal replacements. The ad immediately drew a critical response, often in ways that combined both a direct engagement with the poster in situ and the rapid, centrifugal effects of social media. Angry passers-by answered the ad’s question personally and directly with marker pens and stickers: one transformed it into “Everyone is Beach Body Ready!”; another replied with “None of Your F*cking Business”.

Response to Protein World’s “Are You Beach Body Ready?” billboard advertising in London, 2015.

Response to Protein World’s “Are You Beach Body Ready?” billboard advertising in London, 2015.

And, in a witty gesture, two young women, Tara Costello and Fiona Longmuir, were photographed in their own bikinis standing by the ad on London’s tube system. Both feminist bloggers, they captioned this image with their own Q and A (“How to get a beach body: Take your body to a beach”) and then posted their body positive message on social media. These first angry responses spiralled quickly into something like a campaign against ”body shaming”. Protesters gathered on a cold day in London’s Hyde Park, many in swimwear with the slogan “Beach Body Ready” written on their skin. This media-friendly event made the broadcast news that evening. An on-line petition calling for the ad to be banned attracted more than 70,000 signatures. And the advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a regulatory body received 378 complaints largely claiming that the image of the model and the headline had toxic effects on individual well being and confidence.

In the face of such widely reported criticism, the response of Protein World was highly combative, with the company’s representatives taking every opportunity to defend the ad. “Are you Beach Body Ready?”, they argued, was an invitation to viewers to consider if they were in the shape they wanted to be. The company’s head of global marketing Richard Staveley even revealed the company received a bomb threat but said nevertheless that it had been “a brilliant campaign for us”.[26] What would seem to be clear evidence of this fact was that sales of their slimming product increased during this media skirmish. Much to the disappointment of the protestors, the controversial campaign was also cleared by the ASA: “We considered the claim “Are you beach body ready?” prompted readers to think about whether they were in the shape they wanted to be for the summer” declared the UK ad watchdog, “and we did not consider the accompanying image implied a different body shape to that shown was not good enough or was inferior.”[27] Protein World then shifted its attention to the slimming market in the USA, launching their campaign there by placing the same “Are you Beach Body Ready?” ad on a massive billboard in Times Square in New York. Although the public response proved to be more ambivalent , the American press had been primed, with journalists asking passers-by live on breakfast TV “Are you upset by an ad which caused so much offence in the UK?” An ad had become news, again.


Concentration or dissipation?

The remediation of posters in the press and other news media often focuses attention on the message which the poster has been created to deliver. Not all acts of remediation can be understood as the concentration or amplification of information. Some seem to produce the reverse effect; one of deferral and even dissipation. The afterlives of the AWC’s “And Babies?” poster illustrates this point well. In 1970, Gloria Steinem, the prominent feminist activist, added the words “The Masculine Mystique” to the poster, a play on the title of Betty Frieden’s 1965 book about the ways in which the horizons of women living in the USA were contained by the myths of femininity.[28] In Steinem’s reworking, the murder of the villagers from My Lai was an extension of the values which American society drilled into its sons. Speaking at a US Senate hearing on equal rights in May 1970, Steinem said:


… it seems to me that much of the trouble in this country has to do with the “masculine mystique”; with the myth that masculinity somehow depends on the subjugation of other people. It is a bipartisan problem; both our past and current Presidents seem to be victims of this myth, and to behave accordingly. … Perhaps women elected leaders—and there will be many of them—will not be so likely to dominate black people or yellow people or men; anybody who looks different from us. After all, we won’t have our masculinity to prove.[29]


A few months later Steinem carried her reworked version of the poster along Fifth Avenue in New York during a march of 20,000 women in support of the Women’s Strike for Equality. Reframed by feminism, the “And Babies?” had became an indictment of American machismo.

Other acts of remediation of the AWC poster deferred the original message yet further In 1982 East German designer Jürgen Haufe designed a poster for the Dresden State Theatre production of Heinar Kippart’s play, “Bruder Eichmann”, an adaptation of Hannah Arendt’s study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961.[30] SS officer Eichmann, an official of the Third Reich, had been responsible for the administration of the deportation of Jews to the Third Reich’s extermination camps. Haufe too created an adaptation, this time of the AWC poster. Roughly erasing the original lettering of the poster, Haufe combined the image the bodies of the dead with another of the keyboard of a typewriter. Here was a sharp indictment of Eichmann’s claims to have been an ordinary and God-fearing bureaucrat innocently caught up in events. For those who recognised the crime at My Lai, Haufe’s design connected the violence of US actions in Vietnam with the Holocaust: for those who did not, the poster produced a more general message about man’s inhumanity. Much is lost and gained in such acts of remediation. In this case, the identities and histories of the dead (and those who killed them) were overwritten by a universal message. […]


The Poor Poster

If remediation undermines the hold of authors on their images, it would seem axiomatic that it infers their spread. In an influential 2009 essay, film maker and writer Hito Steyerl gave a name to describe the order of image which travels fastest and furthest, “the poor image”:


The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.[31]


In her essay, Steyerl’s primary concern is to understand the circulation of film in an era which is characterised by the rampant privatisation of the media and the collapse of non-commercial infrastructure for making and distributing films. Deterioration may well be understood as the noisy, low resolution of much Internet imagery, but it also can be thought of as the loss of information about who or what is being represented in an image. One only has to look at television news reports which increasingly feature camera phone footage recorded by ordinary citizens of extraordinary events. Shaky and compelling clips of rioting, natural disasters, the activities of rogue police offers, and, of course, images of billboards being destroyed by angry crowds, are often accompanied by the phrase “we have been unable to independently verify this footage” (and there are many examples of news outlets broadcasting material which has been misinterpreted or even manipulated[32]). The compelling and spectacular quality of low-fi, up-close images often overrides any uncertainty about their status as documents. For Steyerl, the rise of the poor image should not, however, be lamented. The circulation and production of poor images based on cellphone cameras, home computers, and unconventional forms of distribution may yet have democratizing effects: “Its optical connections—collective editing, file sharing, or grassroots distribution circuits—reveal erratic and coincidental links between producers everywhere, which simultaneously constitute dispersed audiences.”[33]

What insights might be gained from Hito Steyerl’s essay for considering the poster, especially now that it is increasingly being delivered on digital screens provided by a small number of specialist companies offering advertising spaces (surely the setting of “rich posters”)? Are we witnessing the concomitant rise of the “poor poster” in the twenty-first century and if so where? Perhaps we should look to the home-made banners and placards carried in demonstrations in Tahir Square in Cairo in 2011, in the Maidan protests in Kiev or in Paris in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders. Unlike their home-made predecessors in other historic moments, these graphic signs were broadcast around the world almost instantly and without restraint (a lesson perhaps learned reluctantly by President Erdoǧan in Turkey when he attempted, unsuccessfully, to block Twitter in the country[34]). Or perhaps the poor poster takes the form of the ephemeral but highly popular Internet memes which slip between different social media platforms to deliver bitterly sardonic messages (or completely inane ones, for that matter). Moreover, for a some period, the criteria for judging a poster – described above as “the rules for … impact: brevity, asymmetrical emphasis, condensation” – by Sontag have been undergoing a change. Some posters were described as “icons” precisely because they appeared to condense a moment or a condition into a single image and thereafter come to seem like its essence. […] Perhaps this process is an inevitable effect of remediation but in the moment of the “poor poster” other possibilities exist too. Writing of the wide distribution of the technology of image-production and distribution as well as the difficulties of what is sometimes called “image management”, activist and architect Eyal Weizman has described the increasingly multitudinous ways in which events are recorded: “We can no longer rely on what is captured in single images,” he writes, “but rather on what we call ‘image complexes’: a time-space relation between dozens, sometimes hundreds of images or videos which were generated around incidents from multiple perspectives including ground, air and outer space.”[35] Weizman’s point might be illustrated well by a demonstration or an occupation in which police, protesters, professional journalists and independent reporters all carry cameras to capture each others’ actions. Lenses faces lenses. Cameras attached to helicopters and drones observe from above, whilst CCTV networks hold a steady gaze. Attempts to record what might be called the “image complexes” of recent conflicts of this kind include the Occupy Wall Street Archive at, a collection of more than 7,500 images, almost 1,250 movies, 339 audio files and 71 texts (at time of writing). It is, in effect, a massive digital archive of the signs, voices, actions and views which made up what might be called “time-space relations“ of Occupy when it filled the business district of Manhattan in 2011. Much of this material has been uploaded by activists to social media sites like flickr, or originates with news media outlets. (We still await the photos and CCTV footage recorded by the authorities and the neighboring businesses). Other recent cataloguing operations include the rapid formation of the Maidan Museum in Kiev to collect not only the artefacts which were created as part of the occupation of the Maidan Square by anti-Yukovich protesters and then its defence during the bloody fighting which broke out in 2014 but also the accounts of the participants.[36] So sharp was their sense of the need to record this historic event, that the future museum’s curators saved the smoke-damaged banners and placards from the Yolka – a tall Christmas tree-shaped structure which had been a temporary gallery of home-made signs – whilst armed militia still occupied Kiev city centre.

'Yolka’, Maiden Square, Kiev, May 2014 photograph by Marco Fieber /flickr (reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

‘Yolka’, Maiden Square, Kiev, May 2014 photograph by Marco Fieber /flickr (reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

Viewed as two poles – the “poor poster”, made non-professional designers that hitches a ride in the mainstream press or spins though the internet, and the “rich poster” created by professional creatives and delivered by digital screens owned by specialist advertising companies who have secured lucrative deals with city authorities – are two very different poster futures, yet they are both likely to persist. Moreover, they both raise questions of public space, whether online or in the streets around us. What rights do citizens have to express their views in public? And what right does society have to exclude irrational or unreasonable views from being posted on walls or on websites? What kind of controls ought to be in place to stave off the domination of our environment by advertising?


[1] Josef Müller-Brockmann and Shizuko Yoshikawa, History of the Poster (Zurich, 1971), 239.

[2] See – accessed 23/03/16

[3] Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London, 1979) 89.

[4] See – accessed 23/03/16

[5] See – accessed 23/03/16

[6] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation. Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA, 1999) 15.

[7] Bolter and Grusin, Remediation, 56.

[8] On this episode see Francis Frascina, Art, Politics and Dissent. Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America (Manchester, 1999) 160-207.

[9] See William Thomas Allison, My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012).

[10] “Transcript of Interview of Vietnam War Veteran on His Role in Alleged Massacre of Civilians at Songmy”, New York Times (25 November 1969) 28.

[11] Cited in Lucy Lippard, ‘The Art Worker’s Coalition: Not a History’ in Studio International (November 1970) 15.

[12] See Francis Frascina, Art, Politics and Dissent: Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999) 160-208

[13] Evidently the practice predates the term. According to Kiku Adatto it was coined to describe and disparage Nixon’s attempt to garner media attention by appearing with TV star Jackie Gleason on a Florida golf course during the 1968 Presidential Election campaign. See Adatto, Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op (Princeton, NJ, 2008) 10.

[14] Grace Glueck, ‘Yanking The Rug From Under’ in New York Times (25 January 1970).

[15] See Michael Israel, Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (Austin, 2013) 135.

[16] See Mary Guyatt, “The Wedgwood Slave Medallion. Values in Eighteenth-century Design” in Journal of Design History, v. 13, n. 2, (2000): 93-105.

[17] Gregory Sholette xxx

[18] Joachim Roncin cited in “Qui se cache derrière le slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’?” (22 January 2015) at accessed 23/03/16

[19] ‘Tunisian activist who posted topless photos is arrested after new protest’ The Guardian (20 May 2013) at – accessed 23/03/16

[20] Cited by Laura J. Shepherd, Gender Matters in Global Politics: A Feminist Introduction to International Relations (London: 2014) 301.

[21] Agata Pyzik, Poor but Sexy. Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (London, 2014) 139.

[22] Cited in Femen and Galia Ackerman, Femen (London, 2014) vii

[23] See Liz McQuiston, Visual Impact. Creative Dissent in the 21st Century (London, 2015).

[24] Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud, eds., Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline (London, 2014).

[25] Robyn Creswell, “Syria’s Lost Spring” in New York Review of Books (February 2015) accessed 24/03/16.

[26] Staveley cited by Siobhan Fenton in “’Beach body ready’ posters in New York spark counter-campaign” at (4 July 2015) – accessed 23/03/16

[27] ASA adjudication (1 July 2015) here: – accessed 23/03/16

[28] Betty Frieden, The Feminine Mystique (New York, 1965).

[29] Steinem speaking at a US Senate hearing on equal rights in May 1970. SOURCE

[30] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Study in the Banality of Evil (New York, 1964).

[31] Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’ (2009) in The Wretched of the Screen (2014) 32

[32] See, for instance, – accessed 21/03/16

[33] Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, 43.

[34] See Kevin Rawlinson, “Turkey Blocks Use of Twitter” in The Guardian (21 March 2014) – accessed 23/03/16

[35] Eyal Weizman, ‘The Image Complex’ in Loose Associations, Oct. 2015

[36] New York Times article TBC

Design Exhibitions Today – Answers and Questions

Design as Critique, Design Exhibition

This piece appears in Disegno magazine, 7, 2014.


Design museums and galleries have long been in the business of celebrating things. Walk through the ornate doors of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London or into the airy lobby of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the building itself tells you – prepare to be impressed. Originality, beauty, and genius have been the bywords of the expert curators who selected and arranged the exhibits. But these lofty criteria start to look shaky in the face of the conditions shaping design today. Globalization, open source knowledge, interactivity, post-Fordism, biotechnology and other unsettling phenomena are changing the practice and role of design, and not always in ways that are unequivocally good. The question facing curators is whether established techniques and methods of exhibiting contemporary design are up to the task. Does the design exhibition need a redesign?

Consider the furore over Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed gun. When the American law student released the files for the boorishly-named ‘Liberator Pistol’ in May 2013, he triggered a media storm around the world. Journalists queued up to interview the 26-year old who obligingly pointed the bulky barrel of his plastic pistol at the lens of press photographers when asked. Wilson also caught the attention of the US state department and was forced to take the files down from his website, Defense Distributed. But this was itself a kind of achievement. Wilson had demonstrated the dark potential of 3D-printing, a technology which is usually celebrated in ringing terms. ‘The first time I heard about it, my jaw dropped’, recalls Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA in New York, ‘I always think that anything that happens in design and technology is for the public good. Duh – no! … That was a wake-up call.’

Antonelli reports that Wilson’s gun was one of the impetuses for her latest curatorial experiment, ‘Design and Violence’. Brilliant seismographs of contemporary design, Antonelli’s MoMA shows – including ‘Design and the Elastic Mind’ (2008) and ‘Talk to Me’ (2011) – have measured the reverberations of new and prospective technologies on the world. ‘Design and Violence’ began its life as a proposal for a show too, but it soon became clear to her and her collaborator, Jamer Hunt from the Parsons School, that an on-line format would be more suited to the theme. Launched earlier this year as a MoMA microsite, ‘Design and Violence’ explores the role of design in the physical and psychological repression of others, as well as in devices to mitigate its effects. Prisons, hand cuffs, handguns, sound cannons and slaughter houses all feature, accompanied with extended captions. A lightly customized WordPress site, ‘Design and Violence’ has a matter-of-fact appearance. She calls it ‘a grass-roots work of love, but done through MoMA channels.’

The website format extends the reach of ‘Design and Violence’ far beyond MoMA’s usual audiences (which, Antonelli modestly says, often ‘stumble’ into design shows ‘on the way to see the Picassos’). It also allows for disputation too. ‘We realized that an exhibition would not do,’ she says, ‘because an exhibition is often a one way street, even if you let people participate. We decided to make a website through which we would ask people who are experts of violence .. to talk about these objects, to use these objects as prompts.’ Disputation does not simply mean ad hoc feedback: it has been structured into the site. Antonelli has invited an extraordinary cast of commentators to offer reflections on the systems, buildings and objects of designed violence. They include a neuroscientist, science fiction writer, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees and an army officer – all experts of violence in one way or another. Their opinions and knowledge is what stops this project being a form of virtual tourism into the misery of others (or, for that matter, just an online forum). Nor are they champions of the designs in the site. Invited to write about ‘The Republic of Salivation,’ a 2012 work by Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta which imagines a Soylent Green world of food shortage and state-controlled nutrition, critic John Thackara takes the two speculative designers to task for exhibiting ‘no curiosity as to the causes of this imminent threat. They focus, instead, on ways to change the body so that it can be fed synthetically—a solution that contrives to be both downstream and fantastical at the same time.’

When it comes to focusing critically on such troubling objects, do websites have an advantage over galleries? Perhaps the aura of exceptionality and enlightenment which hangs heavy in the gallery puts a limit on on the kind of criticality and self-reflexivity which themes like ‘Design and Violence’ require. After all, MoMA – founded in 1929 – still sets itself the task of advocating for the new. Museums also struggle to find coherent ways of reflecting differing viewpoints in their galleries, let alone dialogue. Antonelli concurs, ‘At MoMA I might have a hard time doing an exhibition about negatives or at least ugliness, but with a website you can really go back and forth’.

Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed gun was also one of the first objects to join the V&A’s Rapid Response Collection. Launched in July 2014 by Kieran Long, a curator who joined the museum to focus its approach to contemporary design after working as an architecture and design journalist, the Rapid Response Collection expedites the slow process by which contemporary objects are acquired by the institution. Criteria like ‘beauty’ and ‘rarity’ are not necessarily important when selecting topical designs. They include Christian Louboutin ‘nude’ shoes in an all-embracing range of skin tones; Flappy Bird, the smart phone game which was withdrawn by its designer after being perturbed by its addictive effects; and stainless steel spikes manufactured in Ireland and installed on the forecourts of buildings to deter rough sleepers. The new gallery has attracted considerable international attention. On the day I visit, one of his team is about to be interviewed by a US radio station. ‘The striking thing about the interest we’ve had’, say Long, ‘is that it feels like people have been waiting – including the design community – for a major design institution to come along and take the obvious things seriously and offer them up as evidence of how we live.’

Installed in a V&A gallery, the Rapid Response Collection emphasizes its topicality, not least by the display of at least one new object each month. This also means putting expiration dates on current exhibits too. Many owe their fame to the whirlwind effects of social media too. The mean-spirited spikes were not new but, after a photograph of the entrance to a luxury block in London was tweeted, they were thrust into the public eye by a tremendous wave of anger. 180,000 people signed a change-org petition, forcing their removal from the upmarket apartment building. When being confronted with exhibits like these, it is clear that things are not discrete objects that can ‘speak for the themselves’- they are tangled up in the economic, media and social systems which crisscross the globe.

One of Long’s first contributions to life at the V&A was to write – with other colleagues – ’95 Theses’ about how museums ought to approach their role in the twenty-first century. A knowing echo of Martin Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church in 1517 which kick-started the Protestant Reformation, Long set out to prompt self-reflection on the part of the V&A – a monumental institution with more than 2.5 million objects in its collections and 800 members of staff, many of whom are world-leading specialists in their fields. Rapid Response Collecting is a demonstration of a good number of Long’s theses – including the proposition that ‘Museum curators have as much in common with investigative journalists as they do with university academics’ and that ‘Ugly and sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do.’

One of the curatorial challenges facing Long and his team is that some of the most newsworthy objects are often the most banal. They have put a pair of cotton twill cargo pants – still bearing a Primark shop tag – on display in a glass vitrine. This garment typifies the the cheap clothing which was being made in a reinforced-concrete maze of sweatshops which collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1129 people in April 2013. There is – as we can no longer ignore – a clear connection between cheap clothing consumed in the Global North and the plight of low-paid workers in the rest of world. Yet the display – with a long caption written in a cool, dispassionate tone and a photograph of the ruined factory – does not proselytize. This is the traditional code of journalism – truthfulness, accuracy and objectivity – translated into a curatorial strategy. Such candour, however, makes one wonder about the rest of the objects in the museum, not least the upbeat collection of twentieth century ‘design icons’ next door. Surely many of these things have sinister histories too?

Rapid Response Collecting is one response to a problem which has long confronted curators of contemporary design. If an object is mass produced, heavily promoted or widely available, why put it on a plinth? Perhaps this quandary also explains the appearance of rather extravagant forms of one-off designs in museums and galleries around the world too. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam mounted a Marcel Wanders retrospective earlier in the year to mark the twenty-five year career of the Dutch designer. Oversize versions of his lamps and furniture, like props in some kind of postmodern update of Gulliver’s Travels, were accompanied by footage of a nude model garlanded with clouds – a human lampshade – and a dreamy musical soundscape. Jan Boelen, one of the most creative and thoughtful curators of design exhibitions in recent years, does not pull his punches when reflecting on this order of high aestheticism: ‘It is probably one of the worst design exhibitions that you could imagine at the moment because the goal and the place of the art gallery is to discuss, to debate and to educate. But what I saw there was a non-critical promotion of his works.’ The fact that Wanders has pumped-up or revamped his celebrated designs does little to impress Boelen: ‘I wouldn’t be able see a chair in gold or with laid-in diamonds [elsewhere]. But what is the value of that?’

Boelen has spent the last few years making Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium, into one of liveliest centres of contemporary art and design in Europe. Often combining art and design, Boelen is not much interested in the difference between the two: ‘The medium or the discipline is not that important,’ he says, ‘Topics are.’ At Z33 this has often meant social and ethical issues which ensue from developments in science and technology. ‘The Machine’ in 2012 exhibited many cautionary tools and instruments, most made by designers rather than engineers. Their interest in 3-D Printing and the hacking of mass produced goods was made all the more poignant by the postindustrial setting in which they were exhibited, a cultural centre in the buildings of a former mine in Genk.

A number of Z33 shows have formed a stage for speculation and design fictions. But perhaps more importantly, Z33 – like many contemporary art centres – has made a ‘performative turn’. In the last decade or so, the exhibition has been reimagined as a fluid and participatory affair in which the exhibits are not necessarily fixed or finished and audiences are imagined as participants or co-curators rather than viewers. Increasingly, curators want their shows to be busy places filled with people and exhibits doing things. A 2010 ‘Design by Performance’ at Z33 audited performances as well shape-shifting and self-generating objects created in the previous decade by designers like Martino, Gamper, Tjep, Studio Glithero and Jurgen Bey. And, at the beginning of 2013, a visit to Z33 involved a welcome from a performer-invigilator who would share stories of ordinary objects in the gallery or even the possessions in the visitor’s pocket. Conceived by London-based graphic design collective Åbäke, ‘All the Knives (Any printed story on request)’ turned the gallery into a living anthology of stories about things. In this case, there are clearly echoes of the techniques employed by artist Tino Sehgal in his ‘constructed situations’ and employment of ‘interpreters’ to talk one-to-one with visitors in galleries and museums. Are Abake indebted to Sehgal? Perhaps so. But the fact that this is an experimental technique – and, as such adaptable and reusable – is more important than originality. In fact, this summer Hans Ulbrich Obrist, the curator of the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, worked with Sehgal to present original plans and models of Cedric Price’s unbuilt Fun Palace scheme (1960-1) as well as material from the archive of Swiss sociologist and art historian Lucius Burckhardt. Well cast and well informed students from architecture schools bring this material on trolleys to visitors and present it in person. There are no spotlights, blown-up text panels, interactive screens or any other conventional exhibition paraphernalia. The qualities that distinguishes the Swiss Pavilion from the encounters with architecture and design in most galleries and museums, according to V&A curator Long, are its ‘intimacy’ and ‘generosity’.

A Z33 project might take the form of a performance, a concert or, of course, a website. ‘We do the research and then find the right medium’, Boelen says. Moreover, launching a website to generate and share new knowledge last year, Z33 staked a new claim to be a research-based institution – more like a think tank than just a gallery. There is little new, of course, about on-line publication, but it means that the themes of a Z33 exhibition can be sustained long after the exhibits have been packed away. ‘I am trying to put things on the agenda,’ says Boelen. ‘Let me give one example where one can feel that things are happening: in April 2012 I made “The Machine” exhibition which referred to the new industrial revolution. It ran through out the summer and six weeks after the exhibition closed 10,000 people here in the region lost their jobs when the Ford car factory closed down. I did not want to address the matter of the post-fordist society too directly because this might seem insulting to those people. But we, as exhibition makers, as curators, as institutes, have to address what is happening globally, and to link that to the local situation … These exhibitions should not only act as an awareness machine but they should also give inspiration and hope. Critique is too easy – it is important to formulate alternatives. Constructive debate is very important.’

In their efforts to set new agendas for design Boelen, as well as Antonelli at MoMA and Long at the V&A, not only have to shape new kinds of exhibitions; they need to gather new kind of audiences too. A few years ago, French philosopher Bruno Latour called this dingpolitik – the politics of things. Things are of common interest even and perhaps because they are often the focus of disagreement. The challenge of curators or critics is to create assemblies where our common interests can be aired and negotiated. Long has an interesting proposition when it comes to thinking about the V&A’s public role. Comparing Parliament Square in London where UK government has banned protest since 2005 and the V&A’s Porter Gallery where a show on ‘Disobedient Objects’ employed in protests around the world is on display, he says ‘Those two things are continuous. Both are part of the public funded, public realm … I don’t see the things here [in the V&A] as being outside the world; they are just in a different part of the part of the public realm.’ And, as he stresses, that recognition of the Museum as a public realm has special importance when that order of space is diminishing – sometimes for political reasons (as in the case of Parliament Square) and sometimes for economic ones. Britain, as he points out, has seen a massive wave closures of libraries whilst the V&A survives and is even expanding. For ‘All of This Belongs to You’, an exhibition planned for spring 2015 when the next UK General Election is scheduled, Long is hoping to persuade the authorities to erect a functioning voting station in the gallery containing the Raphael Cartoons. Originally designs for tapestries in the Sistine Chapel, the site of the Papal Elections, they are now on loan from the Queen. Here one of the ‘95 theses’, that ‘Museums should provide a setting for democratic encounter’, may well be realized in a literal and provocative way.

Making things truly public – the challenge issued by Latour – means many things. Perhaps more than ever, it requires the kind of sharp-eyed, enquiring and intelligent curators who act as editors, collecting and exhibiting things on our behalf. But it also means developing and employing exhibition techniques which allow for exchange with their audiences too. None of the techniques employed by these design curators is a perfect solution to the task: on-line exhibitions forego the encounter with material things whilst the intimate interpretation in-situ are no doubt costly. But perhaps the idea of a solution – a word which once occupied a central place in the professional vocabulary of designers – is itself a distraction. Contingent, responsive and often provisional, their shows don’t pretend to have all the answers.

Nervous Systems: New Machines and Bodies in Polish Art and Film after the Thaw

Cold War, Design as Critique, Eastern Europe, New Media, Uncategorized

This essay was published in the catalogue accompanying the Cosmos Calling! exhibition at Zacheta, Warsaw, summer 2014.



Iluminacja, photo: Jerzy Troszczyński, 1973, Filmoteka Narodowa

Iluminacja, photo: Jerzy Troszczyński, 1973, Filmoteka Narodowa

In 1973 Krzysztof Zanussi made a movie, ‘Iluminacja’(Illumination), to explore the ways in which science, the state and religion understood life in its most immediate sense, that of the living human being. Relaying the fictional career of Franciszek Retman, a young physicist in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL), over the course of the 1960s, Zanussi’s film is a brilliant collage of documentary material, interviews with living scientists and the venerable philosopher, Władysław Tartarkiewicz, as well as a narrative about the life of Retman and his young family. This arcs from a position of certainty in 1961 when, newly matriculated, Retman announces his desire to commit to physics because of its ‘concrete knowledge’, to one of existential anxiety after the failure to cure his unnamed malady, a life-threatening condition which seems to be triggered by his high ambitions.

Zanussi’s film is a lofty philosophical enquiry, but it also has political overtones too. When, for instance, Retman is forced to give up his studies to meet the costs of raising his young family, he takes employment testing the cathode ray tubes in a factory making televisions: high expertise is put to the mundane needs of society. Another way of making a living includes volunteering for scientific tests. Retman is paid to sleep whilst wired to an electroencephalograph recording his brain activity in angular lines on a plotter. His dreams appear to have greater value than his thoughts. At the same time, various professional voices in the film hypothesize about the new frontiers of genetics, molecular biology and neuroscience. Here, the human brain is presented as new challenge to the technical and ethical limits of science. In fact, one section uses footage of open-brain surgery during which the neurosurgeon manipulates the brain of patient lying alert on the operating table. Pressure applied with a probe on the glomerulus region triggers the strong impression of smell in the patient. Smell, it seems, is not a phenomenon in the world but a product of electrical impulses in the brain.

Zanussi, it becomes clear, is preoccupied with the nature of consciousness. He is not alone in this: on screen, Iwo Bialynicki-Birula, a professor of theoretical physics at Warsaw University, reflects:


The passing of time in our minds can be equated to moving lighting. The present and the past, which exist in our memories, are illuminated, while the future drowns in darkness. Perhaps a method will exist to light up the future, to widen the scope of this illumination. Or maybe there are those who can find the vague outlines of that which will be tomorrow, even in the darkness. Coming from a physicist, such attitudes might sound astounding but modern science does not exclude the fact that the future exists in the present in ways that are similar to how our pasts exist in our memories.


‘Iluminacja’ remain one of the most vivid and thoughtful commentaries on science in Poland during the communist period.Addressingconsciousness, the real effects of scientific discovery in the world, the role of technocratic experts (aka ‘the scientific elite’) and the knowability of the future, Zanussi’s film surveyed the new paths which had been set for science and technology during and after the volatile period of destalinization in the second half of the 1950s. The future – as will be seen below – was being imagined in terms set by cybernetics, artificial intelligence and computing, television, electronics as well as other novel and seemingly immaterial technologies. Progress in these fields was inevitable, at least according to the technological determinism which prevailed in the Eastern Bloc. In 1956 Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin had announced the Scientific Technological Revolution (STR), a programme intended to shape a new Soviet consciousness.[1] A scientifically literate and technologically expert society would be better able to compete with capitalism in the Cold War. The principal symbols of the era – space flight, atomic power and modern telecommunications – broadcast the triumphs of Soviet engineering and science to the world. In a similarly bullish mood, reform leader Władysław Gomułka took the stage at the Third Congress of the Polish United Workers’ Party in the same year to announce new conditions for intellectual life: ‘An atmosphere of free discussion in science, broadening contact with science all over the world, not excepting the capitalist countries, daring in handling new themes even though we are not always in accord with the directions this daring sometimes takes. These are all developments that are conducive to intellectual revival and are propitious for scientific progress.’[2]

But with Retman increasingly dissatisfied with the answers offered by science and medicine to his existential questions, Zanussi’s 1973 film also explores another legacy of the Thaw, that of doubt. After the trauma of Stalinism, intellectuals in Poland could no longer give their loyalty to authority unquestioningly. For one vocal commentator during the ‘Thaw’, philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, the heady promises of future science should not to be confused with the real challenges of socialism. Once a loyal communist, he became a vocal critic of the official course, damning the fetish then being made of science:


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 tradition 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.[3]


For Kołakowski the task of socialism was to improve the intellectual and environmental conditions of the individual in the present moment. This was an existential response to the interminable exaltation of the working classes during the Stalin years – fanfares made whilst ordinary citizens of all classes lived in miserable conditions and often in fear. The challenge for communism was the rehabilitation of the human being (one which was nourished by the ‘discovery’ and publication of the early writings of Karl Marx which articulated his ‘dream of the whole man’).

Exuberant scientism and doubting existentialism represented two poles of thought in the Thaw years (and after). What was the ‘ideal’ – or perhaps simply tolerable – relationship of the individual to technology in an age which heralded intelligent machines and the extension of the human body by means of genetics or even biological prostheses? This was an urgent question in a society which claimed both to defend the individual against exploitation and also to be advancing to the utopia of full communism. In what follows, I explore some of the ways in which artists, composers, writers, filmmakers and designers in Poland in the 1960s and early 1970s sought to answer it.

Command and Control

The declaration of the STR was accompanied by the revival of science fiction in the Eastern Bloc. Largely prohibited during the Stalin years because the genre had been employed as a vehicle for expressing doubts about the possibility of utopia, it offered a vivid platform for imagining the future and, perhaps, forgetting the recent past.Ikarie XB-1’, a Czechoslovak movie (dir. Jindřich Polák, 1963) is typical of its kind. Set in the year 2163, the film is an adaptation of StanisławLem’s Obłok Magellana (The Clouds of Magellan, 1955)and describes the long journey of the Ikarie XB-1, a space craft, to a satellite of the star Alpha Centauri known as ‘The White Planet’. Representatives of the communist society of the future, the crew encounter the floating wreck of a spaceship launched from earth in 1987. Its crew is long dead but the ancient craft still carries its highly-toxic cargo of nuclear and biological weapons. In this way, ‘Ikarie XB-1’ passed comment on the Cold War antagonisms of the day and signaled mankind’s long term destiny.

Ikarie XB-1

Ikarie XB-1

Much of the narrative of ‘Ikarie XB-1’ takes place on the spaceship’s flight deck, furnished with illuminated consoles and massive screens feeding images from the dark vacuum of outer space and pulsing abstract patterns. Life on board is overseen by the ‘Centrální Automat’, a computer with tremendous processing power which answers the crew’s questions in the machinic voice characteristic of the genre. Enveloped by this voice and enclosed by screens, the crew control the artificial environment and the flight of the ship through banks of switches, lights and monitors. Performing what they imagined to be the operating routines of the future, the actors ‘play’ the interfaces like musicians, rhythmically tapping out their instructions as if playing some kind of as yet unknown instrument. When the crew slip are rendered unconscious as an effect of a radiation cloud, the mission continues. The computer oversees an ‘unmanned shift’, before the crew revive twenty-four hours later.

This image of human dependency on the intelligent machine marked a significant shift in the technological imaginary of the Eastern Bloc under Soviet rule. During the Stalin years, for instance, the emergent science of Cybernetics had been represented as an ideological weapon which would deprive mankind of its humanity – a zombie science originating in the West which would replace humans with docile machines.[4] ‘The process of production realized without workers!’ screeched one Soviet critic with the pen name, ‘Materialist’. ‘Only with machines controlled by the gigantic brain of the computer! … what an enticing perspective for capitalism!’[5] Consequently, this adolescent science went underground with its early adepts camouflaging their interest with specialist jargon. In his 1955 novel on which ‘Ikarie XB-1’ had been based, Lem – for instance – substituted the term ‘mechanioristics’ (mechaneurystyki’) for cybernetics in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid censorship.

In the changed conditions of the Thaw, Cybernetics was recast as a technocratic and progressive science. The Polish adepts of this new creed promised to apply its insights to the planned economy,[6] to the classless society and to socialist culture.[7]Visions of intelligent machines which might divest man-made systems of human error and of dynamic, self-correcting communication techniques based on feedback loops seemed like a panacea for the economic inefficiencies inherited from Stalinism. Modest versions of the computerized space deck on ‘Ikarie XB-1’ were found in the command and control centres that began to be constructed in Eastern Europe in the 1960s. Computers were introduced into Główny Urząd Statystyczny (Chief Statistical Office) in Warsaw and the Państwowa Komisja Planowania (State Planning Commission), key bureaucratic instruments in the management of the command economy in Poland.

Państwowa Komisja Planowania (State Planning Commission),Warsaw,  late 1960s from Polska Sztuka Uzytkowa w 25-lecie PRL

Państwowa Komisja Planowania (State Planning Commission),Warsaw, late 1960s from Polska Sztuka Uzytkowa w 25-lecie PRL

Coal mines and power stations were modernized by the introduction of operation rooms equipped with illuminated panels to oversee the distribution of material, energy and working bodies in real time. Technocratic spaces, these information centres were, nevertheless, objects of public knowledge. Typically, they appeared in news reports as depopulated zones. If workers were present, they were white-coated personnel dedicated to servicing these new thinking machines. In ‘Komputery’ (‘Computers’, 1967), a short educational film made by Zanussi before ‘Iluminacja’, for instance, the camera tracks smoothly through banks of computers and monitors. The soundtrack, pulsing lights and the voice-over make it clear that these intelligent machines are at work on important tasks like calculating ‘the optimal economic plan.’ In a volte face, the ideological prohibition expressed so vehemently in the mid 1950s against the replacement of workers by machines seemed to have been overturned, though as Lem, writing on cybernetics ten years later, noted, the modern mind was still ‘haunted by the medieval myth of the homunculus, an artificially created intelligent being’.[8] And when Zanussi sets out to explain the switching mechanisms contained within the smooth cases of mainframe computers in his film, he choreographed children dressed in polka dots or stripes on a grid. Representing binary code, they symbolise innocence and, of course, the future: what better way to humanise the intelligent machine?

Ergonomics was another state-sponsored science which gained importance during the 1960s. An international field, Ergonomics in the PRL took particular interest in the measurement of the body at work, supplying data which could improve the design of equipment and machinery in state factories.

Ergonomic studies, IWP, Warsaw, 1966

Ergonomic studies, IWP, Warsaw, 1966

It provided ‘evidence’ of the claim that socialism could serve the needs of the worker better than capitalism and staked out a difference from the commercial practice of product styling. The Instytut Wzornictwo Przemysłowe (The Institute of Industrial Design) established its Zakład Badań Ergonomicznych (Department of Ergonomic Research) in Warsaw in 1964 to assess the design of machines and equipment. In the same year artist and designer Andrzej Pawłowski formed (with Zbigniew Chudzikiewicz) the Industrial Design Department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków with a common purpose. Both drew on an extensive exercise in measuring Polish bodies which had been conducted between 1955 and 1959 by the Anthropometric Commission of the Polish Academy of Science (full data for 100,000 individuals). These largely static measurements were augmented in the course of the 1960s in numerous tests to test body movement – grip, stretch, rotation, reach, etc. – as well as human reaction and other effects of perception. By the early 1970s, the human instrument had been thoroughly mapped for the ‘needs of design’ and ‘the needs of the machine’.[9]

There are many precursors for this kind of design scientism: they include Frederick Winslow Taylor’s time and motion studies in American factories at the beginning of the twentieth century and the experiments of Alexei Gastev to improve worker efficiency in Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

'Russian Taylorism in Gastev's Institute: Investigations into the rational handling of firearms by means of chrono-cyclography'  (from René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind And Face Of Bolshevism, 1927).

‘Russian Taylorism in Gastev’s Institute: Investigations into the rational handling of firearms by means of chrono-cyclography’ (from René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind And Face Of Bolshevism, 1927).

A poet whose writings hymned the machine before the October Revolution (‘the iron demon of the age with human soul, nerves like steel, muscles like rail’[10]), Gastev imagined all aspects of life in the future as being regulated by self-regulating and self-correcting machines. Humanity would itself become machine-like, cleansed of irrational emotion – ‘no longer expressing himself through screams of pain or joyful laughter, but rather through a manometer or taxometer. Mass engineering will make man a social automation.’[11] To shape Soviet machine men and women, Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labour (Центральный институт труда) in 1920 which ran a network of training centres where workers were taught to think and act. Trainees were drilled to regulate their actions using tools at workbenches in order to conserve energy and maximize efficiency. One visitor to Soviet Russia wrote: ‘Anyone entering through the front door of this institute as a normal living man issues from the back door, after passing through countless laboratories, as a completely perfected working machine.’[12] Curiously, Gastev was attacked for not being ambitious enough: ‘ .. the mass man is to be part of a mighty aggregate of turbines, and not transformed into a might cobbler’s awl.’[13] In other words, in concentrating on the actions of the hand equipped with manual tools, Gastev’s programme did not live up to Lenin’s industrial ambitions. Nevertheless, the scale of the Central Institute of Labour’s programme was truly industrial: half million workers and 20,000 instructors were trained between 1921 and 1928.

Unlike Gastev, who sought to organize the body for maximum efficiency at the bench, ergonomic design in the PRL fifty years later claimed to reduce psychological and physical injury in the factory. ‘Through creativity in the industrial field,’ wrote Pawłowski in 1965, ‘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.’[14] Pawłowski claimed naturalizing and humanizing effects for his work in industrial design. In his designs, Marx’s ‘dream of the whole man’ still resonated.

Nevertheless, the visual data generated by ergonomic research formed a striking and often bizarre genre of images in the PRL. [ill 8] In tests, machines were reduced to their interfaces – buttons, pedals, levers and switches; workers were turned into gestures or functions; and factories and workshops were replaced by white-walled laboratories. Entirely absent were the products and services provided by these machines or their place in the networks of power or industry. Machines never failed in this new imaginary; and workers did not slack. In the most advanced expression of this science, the operations of driver of a crane or the use of a lathe could be rendered as algebraic formulae. As publicity for socialist science, ergonomics was a fetishistic, technocratic knowledge, providing the authorities with an image of ‘clean’ industry populated with willing workers (something that could not be guaranteed in life). By replacing the mammoth engineering works populated with sweating workers and coal-fired furnaces – the drive shafts of communist industry in the Stalin years – for the laboratory-like conditions of the command and control centre or the ergonomically-designed workstation, a symbolic decontamination of the past was also being undertaken. The violence and irrationalism of the Stalin years – the gulags, the show trials, delusional claims about the Party’s infallibility – could be flushed clean with science. And disconnected from the output of industry, ergonomics itself came – like the computers in the State Planning Commission – to seem like a closed circuit, disconnected from the real conditions of life.

In 1969 artist Zbigniew Makarewicz offered some ironic reflections on the cybernetic turn in his ‘Cybernetyczny system sterujący’ (Cybernetic Steering System) installed at his blankly-titled ‘Wystawa Sztuka’ (Exhibition of Art) at BWA in Wrocław. This was one of a number of temporary environments which Makarewicz created with high-tech names like ‘Centralny Generator Pulsacji Układu’, ‘Indykator Dedukcji Na Płaszczyźnie Zespolonej’, ‘Zespół Pamięci Komórkowej’, and ‘Schemat Kierunkowy Sterowania’. In Wrocław, shabby materials – an old lamp, inkpot, empty jars, a pre-war radio, a television with an adapted handle, dominos – were connected with wires trailing from a stepladder, perhaps some kind of ‘control centre’. These items looked as if they had been retrieved from the trash. Broken and shabby, these were precisely the kinds of mundane objects which the command economy – steered by cybernetics – was to do away with. Recalling the absurd operations of his system in 2013, Makarewicz pointed to its political symbolism: ‘A ballet was performed at the opening of the exhibition in which a dancer in a black leotard jumped from a box to the TV whilst reading from a Spanish dictionary along the lines of the speeches of Fidel Castro and then performing cycles of raising and lower [her] arms. Needless to say, this was a perverse criticism of real socialism with its obligatory slogans and exercises.’[15]


The Measure of Life

In Zanussi’s 1973 film ‘Iluminacja’, the young scientist Retman asks ‘Where does a man stop being a man?’ He is troubled by the the interventions that medical science makes into the minds and bodies of patients that he witnesses whilst working in a hospital. When a doctor asserts that the body is just a set of ‘biological processes’ in which medical science can ‘interfere’, Retman responds by saying that the ‘spirit’ and body are indivisible. And this seems to be Zanussi’s view too: later in ‘Iluminacja’, medicine’s confidence in its capabilities comes to seem overstated when the death of a patient after brain surgery to cure his epilepsy is depicted. But Zanussi’s purpose is not to highlight the failures of medicine but to test its limits. Retman’s question had been asked just a few years earlier in ‘Przekładaniec’ (‘Layer cake’) a short film adapted from a short story by Stanisław Lem for television by film director Andrzej Wajda in 1968.

Ostensibly, it is a light-hearted story of racing driver, Ryszard Fox, set in America in the near future. The downtown landscape is formed from sweeping concrete highways and glass curtain walled towers (with a newly competed point block in Warsaw’s ‘Ściana Wschodnia’ providing the hospital setting where much of the action takes place). Ryszard Fox receives his brother’s internal organs after his death in a crash on the racing circuit. So complete is the extent of the transplant of organs that Tomasz Fox’s life insurance company rejects his widow’s claim. As one character remarks in the film ‘When is a person alive? When his or her vital organs are alive. The places where they are situated are not important.’ With 70% of Tomasz’s biological material ‘invested’ in his brother and in others, he is, the company’s lawyer claims, only ‘30% dead’.

Lem’s story is comic and irreverent but it was not without a point. In fact, ‘Layer Cake’ belongs to a deep and often philosophical enquiry into the boundaries of the natural and the artificial, the human and the posthuman, as well as the acceleration of evolution, conducted by Lem in his novels, essays and philosophical books. The latter includes Summa Technologiae (1964), a work that he described as a ‘thought experiment’ into the long term effects and potential of technology. Indifferent to the limits set by ideology or by current science, Summa Technologiae, was ‘an attempt to predict what could not be predicted’.[16]In fact, Lem objected to the simple determinism which often accompanied most public discussions of the future – in the PRL and elsewhere. Not only was it impossible to project ‘progress’ – a key word in the vocabulary of power – along ‘straight paths of development’ but that many of the images of the future in circulation were, he argued, based on outmoded thinking. Of the ’contemporary attempt to populate outer space with space “ships,” including a brave “crew,” “watch officers,” “helmsmen” … on board’ in science fiction Lem wrote; ‘It is not that one should not write like this, but this kind of writing belongs to a genre of fantasy; it is a form of “reverse” nineteenth-century historical novel.’[17]

Summa Technologiae is a compendium of many themes – the search for extraterrestrial life, artificial intelligence, virtual reality – but the subject of the most vivid and original sections of the book concern the future of the human being.Projecting the acceleration of evolution by developments in biotechnology and genetics, he wrote ‘The invasion of technology created by man into his body is unavoidable’. In fact, Summa Technologiae presented an image of human kind dissolved in technology.Lem sketched worlds populated with various types of genetically, and biochemically modified human beings as diverse as ‘the various kinds of ants’. His concept of ‘Phantomology’ disturbed all the conventional metaphysics of humanism: a mind could be stimulated into the perception of being somewhere else or multiple individuals could be networked to a single brain. Life in space would, according to Lem, necessitate the ‘cyborgisation’ of the body:


The cyborg has a number of biological elements, such as the skeleton, the muscles, the skin, and the brain, but this brain consciously regulates what used to be involuntary body functions. In the key points of its organism, there are osmotic pumps, which, in case of need, inject nutritious or active agents – medication hormones impulse-inducing substances – or agents that lower basic metabolism, or even agents that induce hibernation. … The cyborg is not a partly prosthesized human; it is a human that has been reconstructed in part and equipped with an artificial system of nutritional regulation- which facilitates [its] adaptation to various cosmic environments.[18]


For Lem the cyborg was simply a stage in an accelerated process of evolution now that humankind had the means to alter its own biology. Moreover it demonstrated that the ‘current model’ of the human being – itself an adaptation to life on Earth – was no more universal or natural than the cyborg of the future.

Summa Technologiae expressed a view found throughout Lem’s writings: that the human being, as understood in the middle of the twentieth century, was not the fixed measure of life. A rebuttal of the anthropocentrism of most science fiction, this was also disavowal of the figure who had been claimed as the antidote to the disaster of Stalinism, that of the ‘whole man’. In the introduction to the 1974 edition of Summa Technologiae he wrote:


I do not trust any promise. I do not believe in assurances based on the so called humanism. The only way to deal with a certain technology is another technology. Today, man knows more about his dangerous inclinations than he knew a hundred years ago, and in another hundred years his knowledge will be even more complete.[19]


Far from rejecting the STR and other forms of scientism, Lem accused them of lacking daring.


Senses Divided

After watching ‘Przekładaniec’ on television in August 1969, Lem wrote to Wajda congratulating the director on his adaptation. He also noted the imaginative and ingenious ways in which the film’s designers (including Barbara Hoff, the celebrated fashion designer) had created the scenography and costumes: ‘The imminent, indefinite “future” has been very cleverly constructed, especially considering the scant means you had at your disposal.’[20] Poland in the late 1960s was – in material terms – poorly-equipped to embark on the creation of the brave new worlds of science fiction or the post-human forms of life projected in Summa Technologiae (a point made forcefully by Leszek Kołakowski in his critical review of the book.[21] Nevertheless, the STR had licensed a culture and infrastructure in which ‘experiments’ could be conducted not only by cyberneticists, psychologists and ergonomic designers but also by artists, film-makers, architects and musicians too. Galleries, theatres, film and recording studios were described in the 1960s – by their creators – as ‘laboratories’ and artworks as ‘instruments’. Belonging to the newly-licensed zone of ‘experimentation’ and sharing the official rhetoric of progress, these labs enjoyed resources and relative freedom from censorship.[22]

In these settings, artists used technology to extract and separate the functions of the body.Human faculties – like touch and sight – could, it seems, become object-like with the aid of technology. Composer Krzysztof Penderecki created, for instance, ‘Psalmus’, his major work of electronic music in the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio in 1961. Established three years earlier, the studio’s founder, Józef Patkowski, had imagined it as a kind of laboratory where a composer, working closely with a skilled engineer, could manipulate sounds materially (by editing and joining tape) and electronically (using filters and generators). Judgments could be made about the timbre, dynamics and pitch of any sound with little or no need to involve musicians. Working with recordings of basic elements of speech – vowels and consonants – Penderecki and engineer, Eugeniusz Rudnicki, filtered and processed the sound of two human voices, a soprano and a baritone. These treatments produced long notes which shifted in pitch and colour as well as percussive sounds and tremolo effects. Listening today, the piece remains extraordinary: a ‘natural’ capacity, the human voice, is rendered ‘artificial’ and given the task of expressing sounds rather than singing words. Here was a new conception of what a human voice might be when detached from its sounding body.

‘Stymulatory wrażeń nieadekwatnych’ (Stimulators of Non-adequate Impressions, 1963-4).

‘Stymulatory wrażeń nieadekwatnych’ (Stimulators of Non-adequate Impressions, 1963-4).

The author of an early experiment in an experimental recording studio, Penderecki was not alone in being galvanized by the prospect of capturing human faculties. Andrzej Pawłowski, a prominent artist as well as an industrial designer (see above), isolated the human facility of touch in a set of experimental devices that he called Stymulatory wrażeń nieadekwatnych’ (Stimulators of Non-adequate Impressions, 1963-4). [ill 10]Textured natural materials like roughly-cut timber and stone were placed in clinical white boxes. Users were encouraged to touch these things through narrow apertures with sleeves that made it impossible to see what was felt. Images and other objects were placed above in another box, which could only be penetrated with sight. According to Bożena Kowalska, this resulted in a ‘conflict between coherent sensations received by the sense of sight and touch.’[23] In dividing the senses, Pawłowski’s purpose was to better understand their interconnection in the human sensorium.

Artist Włodzimierz Borowski took a more abrasive approach to the stimulation and division of sensation. He began his career in the late 1950s creating abstract paintings and mixed-media objects which he called ‘Artons’. Made from paint, rubber and glass, some had lights powered with batteries. Artons seemed strikingly vital, at least in the eyes of one critic: ‘organisms endowed with their own kind of life; kinetic objects of metal and plastic, pulsating with electric lights turned on and off in some aleatory rhythm.’[24] In their animation and anti-illusionism, these works anticipated what in the 1960s became Borowski’s series of ‘syncretic shows’. In June 1966 he organized the second of these in the

II Syncretic Show of Włodzimierz Borowski, Foksal Gallery in Warsaw 1966 - MSN -

II Syncretic Show of Włodzimierz Borowski, Foksal Gallery in Warsaw 1966 – MSN –

in Warsaw. [ill 11]The small gallery was divided in two parts: in one, visitors encountered flashing spotlights and hanging mirrors, some spinning. The other space was occupied by the artist, isolated and invisible behind a screen formed by with plastic balls bristling with nails. Borowski, hidden, watched the reactions of the visitor. The audience was presented with itself in the mirrors, albeit in highly fragmented and temporary impressions. The eye was not allowed to focus or to rest. Borowski arranged the gallery as an experiment which both accentuated and denied vision, in this way drawing attention to sight itself. His preoccupation with visual perception was emphasized by the installation of a red illuminated sign with the command ‘Cisza’ (‘Silence’).

The show seemed to test ideas which Borowski had first outlined in his ‘Manifest Lustrzany’ (‘Mirror Manifesto’) written in Lublin in March 1963. In it, it becomes clear that silence is not just an auditory quality:


MIRROR. The unreal image of the object achieving the right illusions. Replaces the object of art as a catalyst of sensations. Eliminates the ‘noise’ that always accompanies the information provided by the image. In the traditional image there is only ‘noise’ when trying to take in the range of information.[25]


Art was diminished by ‘noise’, a term which Borowski had adopted from Norbert Wiener’s writings on cybernetics to describe ‘disturbance’ in a system (‘Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise’ – Wiener). Understood in this light, Borowski’s experiment in the Foksal Gallery sought to strip away the general conventions of art spectatorship to produce something like the pure experience of vision. In both Pawłowski and Borowski’s cases, an experiment was being conducted on the visitor. In the catalogue to his 1966 Krzysztofory Gallery exhibition – his fifth syncretic show – Borowski made this clear: ‘This show is an instrument with the help of which I examine the reactions of viewers, because man too is the object of my experiments.’


‘The only way to deal with a certain technology is another technology’

Many of these experimental schemes conducted by artists in the first half of the 1960s employed technology to draw attention to the fragmentation of the self. In dividing and enhancing the senses, Pawłowski was, for instance, interested in how they might be better combined. But at the end of the decade more self-consciously critical approaches to the extension of the body by technology appeared in Polish art. In the aftermath of the events of 1968, the principal axioms the Thaw – that technology was innately progressive or that Soviet-style socialism could be reformed and humanized – came to seem naïve.[26] Makarewicz’s ‘Cybernetic Steering System’ – discussed above – is one marker of a new, critical sensibility. Others include the early works of the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, a recent graduate of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art industrial design programme. Of his studies, Wodiczko said ‘I was trained to be a member of the elite unit of designers, skillful infiltrators who were supposed to transform existing state socialism into an intelligent, complex, and human design project.’[27] As if to fulfill this destiny, he had been employed as a designer for Unitra, the main state electronics conglomerate in Warsaw. This was not his only connection to the experimental zone of technology: the son of a prominent conductor, he was also connected to the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. In fact, he turned to the Studio’s engineers for advice on the construction of a series of technological artworks that can be understood as musical instruments.[28]

Photographs and publicity for Krzysztof Wodiczko's ‘Personal Instrument’ (1969) now in the collection of the Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, author's photograph

Photographs and publicity for Krzysztof Wodiczko’s ‘Personal Instrument’ (1969) now in the collection of the Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, author’s photograph

His Instrument Osobisty (Personal Instrument, 1969) was, for instance, an electronic device worn on the head and hands. Responding to the movements of the wearer, the device allowed the individual to amplify or diminish the flow of sound from the environment. A sensor on the glove turned the hand into a microphone. With his or her arms raised to filter the sounds, the wearer seemed to be conducting the city, making the traffic and conversations and footsteps of the passersby seem like instruments. In a text describing the operation of the Personal Instrument, Wodiczko wrote:


The instrument allows the conversion of ambient sound.
The instrument relies on the movement of the hand.
The instrument responds to sunlight.
The instrument is portable.
The instrument is used in any place and at any time.
The instrument is intended solely for the author.
The instrument enables the author to achieve virtuosity.


One year later Wodiczko prepared an instrument for the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio.

Wodiczko, Instrument–laboratorium perkusyjne (Instrument–Percussion Laboratory)

Wodiczko, Instrument–laboratorium perkusyjne (Instrument–Percussion Laboratory)

It was a compact grid of metal beams and joints that formed a frame with precise dimensions (396 x 396 x 288 cm). Panels within the framework could carry flat grilles to hold sound sources (including the percussive instruments of the object’s title), microphones and lighting equipment. With strong columns at the corners, the structure could be repositioned in different settings. Wodiczko arranged for the structure, which was illuminated by its own lights, to be photographed in darkened space, thereby emphasizing its universal qualities. In the technical drawings for the design, he presented the performer at the heart of the structure as a human silhouette, in the manner of an ergonomic system being employed by industrial designers or even the human figure framed by geometry in Le Corbusier’s Modulor (1945) system for architectural measurement. The Instrument-Percussion Laboratory was, it seemed, the most flexible and universal of instruments. ‘In their experiments today,’ wrote Wodiczko, with the deadpan logic of the design technocrat, ‘a great number of composers and performers use percussion-generated audio material. Musicians like this material for its acoustic variety. The simplest percussive sources of sound are forms made with solid, rigid or acoustically resilient matter, structured as open forms or planes, in the shape of pipes, rods, sheets, foils, the so-called acoustic niches of various sizes, quantities and proportions. Musicians dream of freely combining, exchanging, congesting, rearranging and operating such forms to fit their intentions and needs.’[29]

In these projects, Wodiczko seemed—at least ostensibly—to extend human capacities. The Personal Instrument turned everyday activities like walking in the city into music and the Instrument–Percussion Laboratory was, as Wodiczko said explicitly, an open form. Yet the forms of these objects clearly confounded the neutral, technical explanations that Wodiczko gave his works. They are better understood as allegorical devices. The Personal Instrument, for instance, alluded to the practices and technologies of surveillance, a branch of applied electronics that was put to malign effects in the Eastern Bloc under communist rule.[30] Moreover, Wodiczko’s instrument – which seemed to require the emphatic hand and arm movements of it wearer – produced the unsettling image of a man under the control of a machine. Similarly, the Instrument–Percussion Laboratory contained its user, dreaming of control over his or her environment, in a prison-like grid of geometry.

Wodiczko’s antihumanism was rare in the PRL in the late 1960s and 1970s but not unique. The Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Workshop of Film Form) was established in 1970 as a section of a science club at the Łódź Television, Film and Theatre School.[31] Founding members included Wojeciech Bruszewki, Paweł Kwiek, Andrzej Różycki, Zbigniew Rybczyński and Józef Robakowski. 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.’ In particular, the Workshop’s members formed a sharp critique of narrative film, and its dependence on ‘characters’ and plots. In 1975 Robakowski wrote ’We are trying to develop techniques to characterize film beyond the theory of literature hence the revival of interest in the so called ‘pure cinema’ and the effects to purify film from any possible narrative structures and the method of literary poetics.’[32]

The Workshop’s members were, as Kwiek recalls, ‘scientifically minded’, reading widely in psychology and cybernetics.[33] 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 Paweł 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 …’.[34]

One approach to direct forms of image making was to combine medium and body (resulting in what 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 (Penderecki’s engineer when making ‘Psalmus’ ten years earlier). 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’.

Kwiek, ‘Video C’ (1975) - stills - movie can be seen here -

Kwiek, ‘Video C’ (1975) – stills

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. [ill 14]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.’[35] In this mise-en-abyme, what distinguished a human being from his or her electronic image dissolved.

What is striking about the works produced by the members of the Workshop of Film Form (and Wodiczko’s instruments) is that many of their ‘experiments’ were conducted on themselves. In other words, they were self-experiments in which one was both a performer and an observer at the same time. In closed circuits such as this, self-portrayal becomes a form of self-observation. Numerous commentators have identified a degree of schizophrenia in arrangements created by artists like Bruce Nauman: ‘The medium of video art’, writes Rosalind Krauss, for instance, ‘is the psychological condition of the self split and doubled by the mirror reflection of synchronous feedback.’[36] In the case of the films made by Workshop of the Film Form, one might also detect a kind of pathetic quality: 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). Science and technology – the site of considerable hubris in the PRL in the 1960s and early 1970s – was used, it seems, to produce pathos. In their claims on objectivity and body-machine union, the works by the members of Workshop of the Film Form ought to be a kind of high water mark of scientism in the PRL. Moreover they were made at a time when a new regime under Secretary of the Polish United Worker’s Party Edward Gierek was announcing yet another scientifically-minded modernization programme – known as ‘Druga Polska’ (Second Poland). This is the context in which the Workshops’ members enjoyed access to well-equipped television studios, for instance. Strange then, that their distinctly posthuman films and video artworks drew attention to human failure.






[1] See Konstantin Ivanov, ‘Science after Stalin: Forging a New Image of Soviet Science’ in Science in Context, vol. 15 no. 2(2002), 317-338.

[2] Gomułka cited SL Shneiderman, The Warsaw Heresy (New York: Horizon Press), 250

[3]Leszek Kołakowski, ‘The Jester and the Priest’ [1959] in Towards a Marxist Humanism (London, 1970), 57.

[4]Cybernetics was introduced by American mathematician Norbert Wiener in his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948). The science of ‘control and communication in the animal and the machine’, it focused attention on the interactions of parts in a system, one which might including both machines and beings. ‘It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback’ (Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950) 26.

[5] Cited in Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2002) 128

[6] Oskar Lange, Introduction to Economic Cybernetics (Warsaw: ‪Polish Scientific Publishers, 1970).

[7] Józef Kossecki, Cybernetyka kultury (Warsaw: PIW, 1974).

[8] Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae (Kraków: Wyd. Lit, 1964) 106.

[9] See A. Bogatowska and J Slownickowski, Atlas antropometryczny dorosłej ludności Polski dla postrzeb projektowania (Warsaw: IWP, 1974).

[10] Gastev’s Poetry of the Worker’s Blow’ cited and translated by Rolf Hellebust, Flesh to Metal. Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003) 50

[11] Gastev cited in Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford / New York: OUP) 152.

[12]René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism (London/New York: Putnam and Sons, 1927) 211.

[13] Unidentified critic in René Fülöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism (London/New York: Putnam and Sons, 1927) 212.

[14] Andrzej Pawłowski. ‘Cel i założenia Wydziału Form Przemysłowych’ (1965) in Inicjacje. O sztuce, projektowaniu i kształceniu projektantów Biblioteka wzornictwa 6’87 (Warsaw: IWP, 1987).

[15] – accessed March 2014.

[16] ‘[What] I confronted myself with was like a paradoxon: to predict what could not be predicted. I am an anti-historicist, like Popper who thinks that history is as unforeseeable as the natural evolution of the species. On this, I agree with him’, Stanisław Lem, introduction to the German edition of Summa Technologiae, 1978 reproduced on-line – accessed January 2010.


Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae (Kraków: Wyd. Lit, 1964) 15.

[18] Ibid, 381-2.

[19] Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae, 1974 edition translated by Joanna Zylinska, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 12.


[21]‘One day humanity will invent telephones with which you can call Pruszków from Warsaw easily, build an elevator which will work for weeks without breaking down, as well as glue suitable for gluing and razors suitable for shaving’. Leszek Kołakowski, ‘Informacja i utopia’ in Twórczość (November 1964) 117

[22] See David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk, Sounding the Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe, 1957-1984 (Łódź: Muzeum Stuki, 2012).

[23] Bożena Kowalska, Polska avantgarda malarska 1945-1970 (Warsaw: 1975) p. 161.

[24] A. Kępińska, ‪Nowa sztuka: sztuka polska w latach 1945-1978 (Warsaw: WAF 1981),65.

[25] W. Borowski, “Artony i Manilusy’, exhibition catalogue, BWA Lublin 1966, np.

[26]Principally, the repression of student protests in Poland and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces.

[27]Douglas Crimp, Rosalyn Deutsche and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, ‘A conversation with Krzysztof Wodiczko’ in October 38 (autumn 1986) 33.

[28] Interview with Krzysztof Szlifirski by the author, Warsaw, 2010.

[29] Krzysztof Wodiczko, ‘Instrument – laboratorium perkusyjne’ in Res Facta, 5 (1971) 185.

[30] See Robert Ciupa, Monika Komaniecka, Szpiegowski arsenał bezpieki. Obserwacja, technika operacyjna, kontrola korespondencji jako środki pracy Służby Bezpieczeństwa PRL (Katowice-Kraków: IPN, 2011).

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

[32]Józef Robakowski, ‘Bezjęzykowa koncepcja semiologiczna filmu’ Zeszyt Warsztat Formy Filmowej 7 (1975) – available at – accessed March 2014

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

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


[35] Paweł Kwiek, ’Co robię’ in Ryszard Kluszczyński, ed., Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Warsaw: Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, 2000) 71.

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

Living Design

Design as Critique, Design Exhibitions

Revital Cohen’s The Immortal

This is an introduction to the work of various designers and artists that can be described as ‘transhuman’. It is appeared in Polish in Autoportret in autumn 2012.

A series of life support machines were plumbed together in London over the summer. A heart-lung machine, a dialysis machine, an empty incubator, a mechanical ventilator and an intraoperative cell salvage machine were linked by tubes and wires.  Electrical currents, oxygen and artificial blood (albeit in the form of saline water) pumped through these channels. Pulsing lights and a low hum – signs of constant exertion – filled the gallery at the Wellcome Institute where this series of interlocked machines was exhibited. Revital Cohen’s project presented the unsettling prospect of life support machines organized as an interdependent system; in fact, as a kind of body. Each machine manages what doctors call a ‘vital function’, the biological processes on which life depends directly. Entitled ‘The Immortal’ (on film here), Cohen’s project seems to suggest the possibility that we can sustain eternal life, a deep-seated human fantasy. Yet life itself was missing.


Artificial hand, from Ambroise Paré’s Instrumenta chyrurgiae et icones anathomicae (Surgical Instruments and Anatomical Illustrations), Paris, 1564.­


i-Limb ultra from Touch Bionics

The various machines which have been conjoined to make up ‘The Immortal’ are all forms of prostheses. They were designed and manufactured to compensate for weakness, failure or deficiencies in the human body. They even resolve matters of doctrine. The intraoperative cell salvage machine recycles a patient’s own blood during operations, satisfying the prohibition of blood transfusion by Jehovah’s Witnesses. As the Wellcome Institute exhibition shows, the history of this branch of human ingenuity is long and often unhappily circular. French surgeon Ambroise Paré designed mechanical hands to replace those amputated on the battlefields of sixteenth century France.  His 1564 manual, Instrumental Chirurgiae et Icones Anatomicae, was displayed close to Touch Bionics’ new ‘’, a highly sensitive powered prosthetic hand, often worn by veterans who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Replicating the subtle and complex movements of the human hand with remarkable accuracy, the i-Limb ultra is supplied with different ‘skins’. One is translucent, allowing its owner to show off his or her hand’s internal mechanisms. By putting the i-Limb ultra in the company of Paré’s historic designs, the curator’s point is clear: whilst electronics and engineering have advanced to extraordinary degrees of refinement, warfare remains brutal and primitive.

The title of the Wellcome Institute show suggests that prosthetics offer ‘Superhuman’ potential, that is to extend our human capacities and abilities by incorporating technology into our bodies. The promise of what is often called transhumanism is not just that we can repair our failing bodies but we can become more than human. Might you elect to replace your birth-given hands with prosthetic ones if they were stronger, more nimble, more musical, more beautiful? Whilst this kind of fantasy, of course, has long been the realm of science fiction novels and Marvel comics it seems to be increasing within reach.

For some commentators, one of the litmus tests for transhumanism will be the moment when prosthetics or implants are preferred over the original human organ or limb which they replace. When people choose to amputate healthy parts of their body in favour of prostheses, we will have crossed into the transhuman age. But this is, perhaps, already an out-of-date view. Rapid developments in synthetic biology and genetic engineering are perhaps the most important catalysts in the creation of the transhuman.

This threshold has been foreshadowed by lots of speculative thinking. Ray Kurzweil’s prophesy of the impending arrival of what he called ‘the Singularity’, the moment when artificial intelligence reaches human levels of intelligence, has lead to much dizzying speculation about the gradual blending of the biological human brain with computer technology. One day soon, wetware will meet hardware. Commentators talk with enthusiasm about the prospect of the development of cybernetic brains within a generation, a kind of a neural external hard drive which gives its owner to have perfect recall, photographic memory or access to the entire content of a library. Perhaps as we face the overload of data which seems to be an inevitable byproduct of progress, the cyber brain will be a necessity. Trajectories extrapolated from current development in genetics seem to suggest the possibility of ‘upgrading’ future children to be disease-free. Others enthuse about the dramatic extension of human life. The predicted development of nanotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic organs has been accompanied by dizzying projections about future average life expectancy … 120, 140, 200 years or more.

Whilst these scenarios might seem distant prophesies, traces of new nature are here. Biochemistry is widely used to improve intelligence: one in ten students polled at Cambridge University in 2009 admitted to using cognitive enhancement drugs in the course of their studies. And other species are being transformed by genetic engineering. We are already able engineer mosquitoes to produce sterile progeny. If they become extinct, the threat of diseases like Yellow Fever and Malaria which they transmit will diminish too. With the future of nature looking increasingly man-made, commentators are keen to describe our era as a post-evolutionary age. In other words, the slow evolutionary processes that occur through natural selection have been accelerated by new technologies that originate in the lab.

The books and articles dealing with the prospect of Transhumanism could fill a library (or perhaps a cyber brain). Nevertheless, little has been said or written about its impact on the practice of design. After all, for much of the last century, design had an easily recognizable form. Working in studios on drawing table and then computers, designers created the forms of our vehicles, tools and products. Employed by manufacturers, their task was to make the things which fill our world work better, look more attractive or be more sellable. The ethical questions were, on the whole, rather uncontroversial. Was one material more sustainable than another? Was it right to design things which might hurt people? Now when design can mean the reorganization of nature and even of ourselves, the stakes seem higher.

Over the last few years, Transhumanism has begun to attract the attention of designers. For some, it offers new opportunities for speculative enquiry into the future, and perhaps even a chance to reclaim a visionary role for design which has been extinguished by (the very real) pressures of sustainability or the narrow parameters of the market. For others, the laboratory – and not the factory or the studio – is place where the future is being made now.

The challenge for designers in this brave new world is to define their role. Many of the projects which consider transhumanism – like Cohen’s ‘The Immortal’ –occupy the border zone between art and design, not that this concerns Cohen: ‘The place I am coming from is design thinking. I see that in my process, in the way I work and in the way I approach these objects, redesigning them objects and rebuilding parts of them. But if they are defined as art, this also is fine by me.’



Others see the laboratory a place where design can have the greatest impact. , a UK based project to develop bacterial biosensors which respond to pollutants by changing colour, is the product of a collaboration between designers and scientists. For Daisy Ginsberg – one of the designers working on the project – synthetic biology and the other new fields of scientific inquiry which are already changing our world need to be invigorated with new ideas about design too: ‘Synthetic biology is modeling itself on an old fashioned view of design’. For Ginsberg, this means ‘designing things out of context’ with little regard for ‘lifespan and disposal … They are making bacteria produce unnatural things because they fit in systems which already exist. What is required is ‘a much bigger vision’. Design thinking means eschewing big abstractions like humanity for clearer thinking about how humans behave and shape their world. That bigger vision means thinking more widely and even politically about the uses to which synthetic biology might be put.

The E. chromi project – like many transhumanist design schemes – uses the timeline as a method for imaging future applications of technology. Its authors have projected a long future for bacterial biosensors. By 2039, they suggest that consumers will be able to buy yoghurts which seed these warning signs into their stomachs. Thirty years later Google, they suggest, will release pollution-mapping bacteria that will stain the sky red when pollution reaches critical levels. In one sense, there is nothing new in all of this. Design has often claimed an anticipatory role. Much modernist design at the beginning of the twentieth century was motivated by a strong sense of the inevitably of progress. The task of the progressive designer was to bring the future into being. Even in the commercially-minded world of the present, designers are commissioned today to give form to the things and spaces we will need tomorrow. Whether the cycles are short (a few months in the case of new mobile phones) or a long (decades envisaged by transport schemes), they are always rooted in the technological and economic limitations of the present. Looking more than fifty or one hundred years ahead, Ginsberg and her colleagues are proposing go beyond the extrapolation of fact. And, like much futurology today, the E-Chromi timeline expresses an ambivalent view of progress. When Google’s warning clouds cross national borders in 2069, in their scenario, a diplomatic crisis is triggered.


Arne Hendriks

If such schemes have little immediate prospect of being materialized as products, speculative design does not, however, necessarily mean useless design. Some designers have turned to forms of transhumanism to ask important questions about our relationship to our environment. In a witty project entitled ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’, Dutch designer Arne Hendriks asks us to consider what the benefits of reducing the average height of our species to 50 cms. The broad trend for humanity to grow taller as a result of better diets and healthcare means that we need more energy, more food and more space. Affluence too seems to produce excessive growth too. ‘While in most developed countries family size has been shrinking’ notes Hendriks, ‘the average home has actually grown in size’.  The resource benefits of downsizing the human are clear. And, as Hendriks points out, there have been many people for whom 50 cms is a natural height.  The social prejudices against shortness are a form of collective height dysphoria – an excessive preoccupation with size. Hendriks’ project – in the form of talks, exhibits and articles – sets out to survey the biological means for reducing the size of humanity. This might mean changing diet or living in a warmer climate (where people are on average smaller) or it might be a matter of design: embryo screening would allow future parents to screen their babies for size.

If the proposal that future progeny might be ‘screened’ sets alarm bells ringing, reverberating with echoes of China’s one child policy or even eugenics in the Third Reich, that is Hendriks’ point. He calls ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ an exercise in ‘speculative modeling’, a lesson that he has learned from historians and futurologists who have asked ‘what if’ history had taken a different course. ‘The what-if factor makes it possible to ignore some of the immediate practical objections’ says Hendriks, ‘and paint our desired picture of the future, and enter it. It enables us to practice and prepare for future scenarios, and to map any difficulties that are hard to encounter in a more cerebral approach. Also, perhaps, it’ll make some of us excited about the new possibilities’.

Bullet-proof skin

6a00d8341bf67c53ef014e8acd355a970d-800wiDesigners have long drawn inspiration from nature. Often this is a matter of aesthetics. And, occasionally, it is the ‘genius’ of nature on which a claim is made. The champions of biomorphic design claim that nature has already solved many of the problems faced by engineers and technologists through billions of years of ‘research’ otherwise known as evolution. The structures, growth patterns and behaviour of living forms can teach designers how to shape our world with greater efficiency and utility.

Of course, the recent fashion for biomorphic design has taken hold at the moment when nature no longer seems natural. By contrast, Artist Jalila Essaïdi has developed a ‘post-evolutionary’ approach to the development of a new material. Spider silk – a material long-celebrated for its elasticity and strength – can now be produced by splicing the spider’s silk-making genes into goats. The protein can be harvested from their milk. Working with the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands, Jalila Essaïdi seeded this material with human skin cells. The resulting in vitro skin grown in a lab at the University of Leiden is ‘bulletproof’.

Essaïdi  then arranged for the skin to be shot with .22 calibre long rifle bullet (adopting the name of this project, ‘2.6g 329m/s’, from the weight and size of the bullet). It performed as well as a bullet proof vest, though did not survive the experiment. Her intention was not just to test her new material but also our preoccupation with ‘safety’. ‘By creating this “bulletproof” human skin I want to explore the social, political, ethical and cultural issues surrounding safety’ she says. ‘With this work I want to show that safety in its broadest sense is a relative concept, and hence the term bulletproof’. Superheroes have skins and suits which can deflect bullets. But what underpins this fantasy? In what circumstances would you need bulletproof skin?

E. chromi

In the summer of 2009 a group of students working in labs at Cambridge University spent their time working out how to make bacteria secrete coloured pigments. Taking genetic material, available as BioBricks (standardized sequences of DNA), they modified E. coli bacteria to produce different colours. The project showed how bacteria could be turned into biosensors, registering the presence of different pollutants.

Whilst the science was relatively clear, the purposes of this new technology was not. With designers Daisy Ginsberg and James King, they set out trying to imagine future uses. As Ginsberg says, the narrative drive in most applications of new science is ‘save some poor person in a distant country’. But they decided to bring this technology back home’ by designing a timeline proposing ways that E. chromi, as they named this modified bacteria, could develop over the course of the next century. The scenarios that they came up with started with the immediate and familiar, such as testing polluted water in the developing world, and ended with high drama of war, terrorism and new types of weather.

Designers know how to make objects which will be meaningful and useful. Ginsberg and King – working with the science students – imagined commercial applications for E. chromi in the form of products. They included the Scatalog, a cheap portable testing kit for disease, predicted for 2039. After being ingested as yogurt, the E.Chromi will colonise the human gut. Coloured excrement would become a early-stage warning system for different human diseases.

Designers also know how to make vivid and attention-grabbing images and objects. The Scatalog – in the form of a suitcase with compartments of coloured faeces – drew considerable attention in the national press. The benefits of this kind of this kind of attention is, from Ginsberg’s perspective, rather mixed: ‘When you are working with the science itself, the speculation can be so grounded in realistic technology that the it becomes confused with reality. Even though we’d set the Scatalog at about half way along our time line, we’d given it physical form. It eclipsed the rest of the project and was confused with the reality of the project, which is the pigment itself.’ ‘This made me realize, she continues, ‘that part of the complexity of working with speculation is that when it goes out into the world, it can start to define reality itself. The speculation becomes real and now there are several scientists trying to make the poo real.’

The Immortal

Trained as a designer on the Design Interactions programme at the Royal College of Art in London, Revital Cohen has devoted much attention to the machines used to support life. ‘The Immortal’ is Cohen’s most recent exploration of the theme. She has organised a series of life-support machines to pump air and liquids in sequence, suggesting a biological structure or perhaps even a body. The technofantasy of the cyborg has long occupied a central place in science fiction. A patient attached to a kidney dialysis machine or a new born baby in an incubator are his real and rather mundane cousin.

When used in medical care, these industrial machines typically disappear into the background. They only hold the attention of the doctors and nurses who use them or perhaps the patients who are wired into them. ‘Designed and created to perform a single, most meaningful function’ says Cohen, ‘we never subject these devices to a critical investigation as industrial products within the context of material culture’. Styling, branding and the other attention-demanding features of modern design have little place in this world. ‘I don’t know if they can be defined as commodities, as treatments, as products or as computers  .. it depends on who is selling and who is buying. In certain parts of the world they are commodities and commercial products. In other places, they are just governmental tools and outside of the market. So they have their own logic according to politics.’

The challenges faced by Cohen in securing these machines for display in London reveal much about the priorities and politics of health care. ‘Its interesting that a dialysis machine very easy and cheap to get hold of’, she says, ‘but an infant incubator is almost impossible because apparently in the Third World they are in most demand. The emphasis there is on saving the young rather than that old.’


Jarosław Kozakiewicz’s 2011 film ‘R/evolution’ takes as its point of inspiration the recent discovery that Oriental Hornets harvest the sun’s energy using their own solar batteries. The insect’s exoskeleton contains many oval-shaped interlocking protrusions which trap sunlight, like microscopic batteries. These hornets are the only known species which collect energy in this fashion.

728_2111_articlesKozakiewicz has long practiced in the space between art and architecture, often drawing insights from nature and natural science. The body has been the subject and the point of origin of many of his schemes for buildings, artworks and even landscapes. In 2007 Kozakiewicz adapted his ideas about the common geometry of the body and the cosmos to reshape a postindustrial landscape in Boxberg, Germany, in the form of a left ear. More recently, he designed observation tower overlooking the Warta river, deriving its polyhedral form from the arrangements of the orifices of the human body.

‘R/evolution’ projects a futuristic vision in which humanity is also equipped with solar panels. Silvery panels seem to grow across the shoulders. The precise nature of augmentation is not specified: are these panels worn or grown? Similarly the circumstances in which energy needs to be trapped in this way are not explained. With the sun beating down on Earth, humanity seems to need to draw its energy directly from sunlight rather than through digestion. Where have the plants and animals on which mankind feeds gone? Although presented in the manner of a documentary film, ‘R/evolution’ raises more questions than it answers. Like many works which explore transhumanism, Kozakiewicz’s futuristic project seems to walk a line between both promise and anxiety.

As the title of the short film suggests, we are on the threshold of a post-evolutionary age when the slow cycles of evolution are accelerated by human intervention. The behavior of the hornets living in large communities resembles, in some respects, that of mankind. Kozakiewicz’s draws attention to the aggressive mass behavior of both species.

From Homelessness to Homelessness

Architecture, Design as Critique, Modernism

This essay was written as a coda to a book edited by Robin Schuldenfrei, Atomic Dwelling (Routledge, 2012)

 Covering the period between the end of the Second World War and the early 1970s, the essays in this book explore subjects in the era in which modernism triumphed, or so it seems. A set of aesthetic and intellectual propositions about the nature of modern design generated after the First World War were realized around the world in the uneasy peace which followed the end of the Second World War. The dream of an “International Style” was achieved to a large extent, with, of course, “local” differences in context and timing.[1] North American and Western European industry turned to modernist designers to provide the blueprints for chic modern furniture and electronic consumer goods as the “affluent society” took shape in the 1950s; after 1956, Eastern European states set about creating the kind of mass housing schemes which had been proposed by Le Corbusier, Ludwig Hilbersheimer and others in the 1920s; and newly independent states in Africa and the Middle East commissioned concrete and glass monuments from “First” and “Second world” architects to demonstrate their claims on modernity. Twenty years after the end of the Second World War, modernist architects and designers could justifiably claim to be shaping the world. Ernesto Roger’s 1952 totalizing ambition for design, dal cucchiaio alla città (from the spoon to the city), was, it seems, being realized.[2] Thirty years after 1945, however, the modernist project seemed to be in jeopardy, threatened by economic recession and environmental anxieties, and disturbed by the critiques of rationalism and technocracy in the West and the emergence of dissidence in the Eastern Bloc.[3] In 1975, Gaetano Pesce, the subject of Jane Pavitt’s essay in this book, could assert “La Futur est peut-etre passé.”

The reasons for what is usually described as the historic “failure” of modernism are many and often debated. Much of the explosion of writing on post-modernism in the 1980s was largely dedicated to providing explanations of its breakdown.[4] In this coda, however, I would like focus on the midpoint of the period covered by the essays in this book, the late 1950s. Even at the moment of its greatest success, as the essays in this book demonstrate, postwar Modernism in architecture and design displayed many symptoms of anxiety. But, of course, all societies fret about the conditions of the age in which they live. Even those times and places which have been cast in retrospect as “golden ages” were invariably understood by their contemporaries in terms of anxiety. “Golden Age Vienna” was the birthplace of psychoanalysis and the “Swinging Sixties” produced the Counter Culture. Moreover, the home has often been claimed as either a symptom of or as an antidote to social failure, anomie or poverty. The indictment of the domestic environment as a generator of poverty and “lax” morality in the postwar discussion of the Sassi cliff homes in Matera, Italy, described by Anne Parmly Toxey in her essay, for instance, shares much with characterizations of London’s rookeries one-hundred years earlier.[5] So what distinguishes the anxieties of modern dwelling in the age of its accomplishment? In what follows I will reflect on this question by exploring views of the past, present and future of the modern home articulated in the late 1950s. In each “moment,” the question of what constituted a human environment rose sharply to the fore.

Coming to Terms with the Past

Modern design in Europe after 1945 was conscripted into the project of postwar reconstruction and the creation of new, “just” societies. The view that modern design should ameliorate social problems was, of course, nothing new: what had changed in the postwar years was the sense that modern architecture and design could address existenzfragen (existential questions) (and, as such, formed a European counterpart to North American design pyschologism). Postwar modernism could not only create the future but, in some settings, would also heal the wounds of the recent past. The recent experience of “total war” which had seen entire societies conscripted into the war effort as well as the shocking awareness of humanity’s terrible potential for destruction made the heady technological futurism of the 1920s seem naïve and obsolete. The challenge – widely accepted by modernist designers and architects – was to set new technologies to peaceful or “humanist” purposes. Writing about the intellectual mindset of architects and designers, Barry Curtis has described humanism as a “pervasive mood” which “responded to recent experiences of totalitarianism and scientifically planned mass destruction.”[6] Similarly, Ignasi de Solà-Morales has described it “not as a strictly philosophical current but as a cultural climate.”[7] The impressionistic tenor of words like “mood” and “climate” accurately capture the widespread but diffused influence of humanism in its existential and phenomenological modes in the postwar years. “Humanity” and “man” were the common platitudes, invoked at almost every important gathering of architects and designers in Europe during the reconstruction years: the German Werkbund organized the second Darmstädter Gespräch to discuss “Mensch und Raum” in 1951; the Milan Triennale in the same year took “Architettura, misura dell’uomo” as its governing theme; whilst the following year the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne met in Hoddesdon, a town near London, and published its findings there in The Heart of the City: Towards the Humanisation of Urban Life.[8]

       Preparing the West German pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, Hans Schwippert represented modern architecture and design as part of this humanist crusade:

A movement is starting in the world … against the dehumanizing trends of mechanization, against the threat of the new horrifying means of annihilation and of “progress” … a movement that seeks and achieves a new lightness, a new tenderness and a new beauty. The glass walls of the new architecture, the new lightness of offices, workshops, factories, the graceful style of new furnishings, the pleasure of living among green, growing things  … are all wonderful experiments in a general human opposition to the threat of darkness and impending chaos.[9]

Schwippert was the secretary of the German Werkbund, a much-celebrated professional lobby that had played a key role in the development of Weimar Modernism. After 1945, the Werkbund came to enjoy a significant role in West Germany, derived, in part, from its standing as a rare prewar institution which could claim some degree of autonomy from Nazism. In the first half of the 1950s the Werkbund sought to orient the material culture of the country to its cherished ideal of “gute Form” (good form), a loose formulation which claimed moral effects for modernist design. It mounted didactic exhibitions, promoted design education and the output of a few prominent manufacturers.[10] Claiming a prewar Modern Movement heritage and counting figures like the former director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, amongst its alumni, the Werkbund saw an opportunity to remake the world – in material and moral terms – from the ruins of the Second World War.

The Werkbund sought to be a moral compass which would steer West Germany through reconstruction to democracy. In 1951 it invited Ortega y Gasset and Martin Heidegger to speak at the second Darmstädter Gespräch which gathered to discuss “Mensch und Raum.” This event took the following words as its motto:

Building is a fundamental activity of man

Man builds, by joining spatial figures, thus shaping space

Building, he responds to the spirit of the age

Our age is the age of technology

The plight of our age is homelessness.[11]

Heidegger famously presented his “Building Dwelling Thinking” essay at this meeting in which he reflected on homelessness as an ontological state. The solution to this existential quandary was not to be found in “well planned, attractively cheap, open to air housing” but in understanding “what it is to dwell.”[12] It is clear that Heidegger did not directly capture the imagination of those who met in Darmstadt but he did reflect something of the existential mood of the gathering and, in fact, of Werkbund thinking in the period. Werkbund secretary Schwippert’s contribution to the discussion was to claim that the existential question of dwelling in was best answered by “bright and mobile [architecture] as a light and open sequence of spaces, and this is something that for some time now and ever more insistently asserts itself in these times.”[13] This was hardly Heidegger’s famous home of the spirit, the Black Forest farmhouse. Glass and steel were, nevertheless, capable of metaphysical effects. They could, for Schwippert, produce light, open spaces which would counteract the darkness and monumentality of the Third Reich and of the Soviet Bloc.

The West German pavilion at Expo 58 in Brussels – orchestrated by the Werkbund (with the Rat für Formgebung) – was perhaps the most spectacular realizations of Schwippert’s vision of “a new lightness, a new tenderness and a new beauty.”[14] Not a single structure, it was a series of two and three-storey pavilions connected by a chain of walkways covered with a white polythene roof forming circular route. The complex was entered across a footbridge suspended from a high steel pylon, the only element visible from a distance. Emphasizing overall effect of low horizontality and transparency, the structure of each building was created by a grid of stanchions and framed by a glass wall set one meter inside the roofline. The effects of transparency were amplified by the ascetic and controlled style of display inside. selection of exhibits tended towards modesty, a feature which was heavily laced with ideological significance in Werkbund debates. Alfons Leitl, writing in the exhibition catalogue, stressed “there is a social and democratic element … in the modest but dignified atmosphere of our everyday life.”[15] What might have been presented as glittering commodities took the form of a display of possessions (Persönlicher Bedarf) which were exhibited to demonstrate the ordinary face of a nation which had once proclaimed its citizens to be Übermenschen.

This meant that the home was given special significance above all other social sites in the national display in Brussels. Expo visitors were presented with three different full-scale model homes in the West German pavilion. The most important of these domiciles was a six-person family, single-storey apartment. It was presented as a glass-walled exhibit within the “Stadt und Wohnung” section. The family kitchen was displayed in cross-section with all the facing walls framed with glass. The viewer was offered uninhibited views of the pipe-work under the sink and the contents of the cupboards. Things were to reveal themselves in the most direct and unmediated fashion. The isolation of the single object – whether a cardigan, a bass violin or a prosthetic limb – suspended in the air was released from the need to address its viewer as consumer. Such displays even aspired to what Susan Sontag was to call “transparence,” the experience of “luminousness of the thing itself.”[16] The model home and, in fact, the entire West German pavilion, displayed a kind of distrust of images or, more accurately, of their powers of seduction. An image which treated images with suspicion, visitors were presented with evidence of inward-looking and modest Germany to suppress recent memories of her belligerence and to demonstrate her commitment to spiritual renewal. Here was a German home without a past or even an unconscious in the sense proposed by Gaston Bachelard.[17] For the French philosopher, writing when millions of Europeans had been homeless as a result of the Second World War and the decisions made at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the home was place where one’s most intimate dreams and anxieties could be stored. Privacy had – since 1945 – been given a central role in the denazification of a militarized, corporate society. At Brussels, this order of domestic politics was publicly demonstrated to the rest of the World.

West Germany presented the most pronounced version of what were the general circumstances in which many modernist architects and designers found themselves in Western Europe in the 1950s. Substituting radical politics for a humanist rhetoric, many put themselves in an arrière-garde position. Exercising what artist Richard P. Lohse called their “artistic ability, moral powers of resistance and knowledge of continuing cultural and psychological conditions,” architects and designers were to stave off what they saw as alienating effects of modern life.[18] New terms entered into the discourse of modern architecture. Community, to give one instance, now had to be reconciled with the needs of privacy, argued Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander in 1963, in order to produce a “new architecture of humanism.”[19]


Here, Now

The home was given ideological functions in Western Europe after 1945. The Marshall Plan had, for instance, put numerous model homes on display across Western Europe in the early 1950s. This technique, in Greg Castillo’s words, “conflated democratic freedom with rising private consumption” and contested Soviet claims on the superiority of socialism.[20] In the early 1950s a series of exhibitions promoted American models of domesticity in West Germany, Belgium and France, albeit in the “elevated” mode promoted by Edgar Kaufmann, curator of Industrial Design at MoMA. The designs of Eero Saarinen manufactured by Knoll and the import of the Knoll line of furniture to Belgium – the subject of Cammie McAtee and Fredie Floré’s essays in this book – were turned into symbols of reassurance, democracy, affluence and liberalism by being conscripted in this fashion. Berlin was given its own venue for such exhibits, the George Marshall-Haus, which opened in 1950. Wir bauen ein besseres Leben (We’re Building a Better Life, 1952) was a typical Marshall-Haus event. Its centerpiece was a single-family home containing a generous supply of consumer goods manufactured by Marshall Plan member nations. Here was a demonstration of the benefits of international exchange guided by the market. For many contemporaries, this was Americanization by another name.[21] Lefebvre called “that ideological commodity imported in the name of technical progress, ‘consumer society’ and the mass media.”[22] The building – ordinary in most respects – was rendered knowable by the fact that it was roofless. Visitors to the exhibition were led up on to an elevated gantry from which they could spy on everyday family life, performed by adult and child actors. Here, what Barthes later called the “publicity of the private” was given the ideological function of producing both envy and knowledge of the lifestyles contained therein.[23]

These techniques were almost a decade old when, in 1958, the West Germans built and furnished their pavilion in Brussels and when, in the following year, the United States put consumerism on display in Moscow at the famous American National Exhibition. Evidence of American prosperity – automobiles, kitchen appliances, color television and even a supermarket – were exhibited in order to produce the destabilizing effects of envy amongst the Soviet citizenry. The angry conversations between US vice-president Richard Nixon and premier Nikita Khrushchev on the opening day became one of the best-known arguments of the Cold War known as the “Kitchen Debate.” Nixon seized the opportunity to represent America as a land in which householders held the whip hand: manufacturers and housing developers were, he suggested, compelled by market pressures to meet their every whim such was the power of the consumer. Nothing could be better for the economy than the fact that ordinary citizens grew tired of their new homes within a few years. This kind of psychological obsolescence was, he argued, the engine of progress. Khrushchev countered by boldly claiming the minor miracles of washing machines and refrigerators were nothing new: “You think the Russian people will be dumfounded to see these things” barked the Soviet premier, “but the fact is that newly built Russian houses have all this equipment right now.”[24] The Soviet system was superior because it eschewed short-term benefits for the long-term goals of socialism. Paradoxically, however, this event came at the end of Soviet “long-termism” and was coincidental with policies designed to produce immediate effects.

At the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1962 Khrushchev announced “For the first time in history there will a be a full and final end of the situation in which people suffer from the shortage of anything … [by] 1980 this country will far outstrip the United States ….”[25] Families in the Soviet Union and in allied socialist nations were to enjoy new levels of domestic comfort: high rise housing in single-family apartments was the first and most important aspect of this promise to meet the material and social needs of working men and women. After the idealized collectivism of the “domkomuna” (the experimental housing commune of the 1920s) and cramped conditions of the “komunalka” (the communal apartment shared by many families), the single-family apartment represented a much-desired atomic dwelling in which the family constituted the key social unit. It was not the only symbol of the age. The design of scooters, consumer goods like East German plastic kitchen utensils and radios and fashionable clothing were all attempts to materialize Khrushchev’s promise to make socialism a worker’s paradise. Eastern Bloc authorities, as Ana Miljački explores in her contribution to this book on Czechoslovak images of “socialist lifestyle”, could no longer rely on the conventional indices of industrial progress – the factory and the machine – to demonstrate their hold on modernity. By turning consumerism into a site of “peaceful competition,” the East and the West had produced a state of affairs in which consumption was equated with citizenship. In fact, when faced with the American dream home implanted on Soviet soil in 1959, Khrushchev had bragged “In Russia all you have to do to get a house is to be born in the Soviet Union. You are entitled to housing.”[26]

This promise was repeated and extended in the years that followed by Soviet government and in the regimes which formed the Eastern Bloc. Material comforts which had once been offered in return to a narrow elite for their loyalty and political activism were now extended to all.[27] This was a new kind of contract based on political passivity, acquiescence, and ritualized gestures of support.[28] This was perhaps most evident in the period of “normalization” in Czechoslovakia following the suppression of the political reforms of the Prague Spring.[29] Václav Havel writing in 1978 described this uneasy contract in succinct terms when he wrote, “The post-totalitarian system has been built on foundations laid by the historical encounter between dictatorship and the consumer society.”[30] For critics from the New Left in the 1960s, the symmetries of East and West in this regard (and others) was evidence of the intellectual poverty of both worlds. In his book, The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), Raoul Vaneigem wrote:

The cultural détente between East and West is not accidental! On the one hand, homo consomator buys a bottle of whiskey and as a free gift the lie that accompanies it. On the other, Communist buys ideology and gets a free gift a bottle of vodka. Paradoxically, Soviet and capitalist regimes are taking a common path, the first thanks to their economy of production, the second thanks to their economy of consumption.[31]

For contemporary critics like Vaneigem – an associate of the Situationiste Internationale – the idea that happiness could be measured in possessions was perhaps the most troubling illusion of the age.

Into the Future?

Even by the standards of the day, Khrushchev’s futurology was rather limited. Purpose-built, single-family homes equipped with a refrigerator or washing machine may well have represented a kind of dream for the citizen-comrades of the Eastern Bloc (and for many people in the so-called first and third worlds too), but it was a relatively modest ambition for an utopian ideology which proclaimed its superior command of advanced technology. Even the most ambitious form of high rise housing in the Soviet Union in the 1960s – conceived by Nathan Osterman working for Mosprojekt 3 (the Institute of Standard and Experimental Projects in Moscow) and known as Dom Novogo Byta (House of New Life) – offered a modest strain of futurism. In the Dom Novogo Byta, some 2,000 people were to occupy the 812 small apartments in the tall residential blocks served by a low complex containing a canteen, library, television rooms, hairdressing salons, launderettes, cinema and a sports center with a swimming pool. The aim was to provide housing for young people and new families, who would exchange the privacy of the single flat for the benefits of communal life. A revival of ideas of the domkomuna of the 1920s, this scheme looked much like a “first world” hotel.

Other experimental schemes of the era – described as “the house of tomorrow” or the “house of the future” – were more spectacular. Characteristically featuring plastic monocoque shells, electronic communication systems and domestic robots, this was a genre of housing which claimed its place in era of space travel, cybernetics, nuclear power and electronic communications. The most celebrated of these schemes was British architects Alison and Peter Smithson’s “House of the Future,” an exhibit at the annual Ideal Home exhibition in London in 1956. They built their vision of what life would be like in 1980. A series of flowing spaces organized around a central patio space, the “House of the Future” had no meaningful exterior. It was a cave-like space made from smooth panels, seemingly made from plastic, which formed the walls, ceiling and floors. The living room was organized around an adjustable table which could be set a different heights or disappear into the floor. This was also a thoroughly commodified future home, full of “push-button” gadgets. The shower for instance not only regulated its own temperature, but also combined a blow drier and a sun lamp. Other celebrated schemes of the era included Ionel Schein’s Plastic House of 1956, shown at the Salon des Arts Ménagers in Paris in 1956 and the Monsanto House designed by MIT engineers and exhibited at Disneyland in 1957. In the course of the 1960s others were created in Germany and the Soviet Union as well. Even Cuba participated in this global experiment with young architects designing the Módulo Experimental de Vivienda de Asbesto-Cemento (Experimental Asbestos Housing Module), an experimental housing type constructed from prefabricated molded sheets (1964–1968).[32]

Based on off-site prefabrication, these structures were to be light and mobile. Freestanding homes could be delivered to their plots by truck or even helicopter and living “pods” would be stacked to form high-rise structures or laid in interlocking chains on the ground. Their architects celebrated the idea that such schemes would become redundant within a generation. After all, the pace of technological invention would supply new and better homes. Such homes also assumed a kind of diagnostic function, presenting models of life in the future. Often displayed at international exhibitions and trade fairs, they invited the visitor to imagine that they too would one day enjoy life in a “smart home.”[33]

Whilst this genre of domestic architecture demonstrated faith in future technology, in the early 1960s no one could assert with complete confidence that there would be a future. Periods of high tension in the Cold War – particularly at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – brought the prospect of war between two antagonistic systems armed with nuclear weapons terrifyingly close. In an age when apocalypse seemed one potential future for mankind, any consideration of this genre of buildings needs to be supplemented with “homes of future apocalypse.” These might include the smart home in Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story, There Will Come Soft Rains, which continues to operate even when its inhabitants have been irradiated shadows after a nuclear explosion. Other homes in this unarticulated genre might include the “Underground House” presented at the New York Fair of 1964 by the Underground World Corporation. Visitors descended into a kind of cave which contained a suburban home complete with artificial garden and swimming pool. In this luxury bunker, “natural” conditions could be sustained with lighting which simulated the conditions of dawn, daylight, dusk and night. The “dial-a-view murals” could be changed at the press of a button. New York’s skyline could be substituted for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. In the company’s own publicity, the true purpose of these structures – survival after a nuclear attack from Moscow – were almost entirely ignored in favor of soothing descriptions of the benefits of underground life. What could be better, trilled the company’s publicity, than life underground in a world protected from criminals and intruders: “Greater security – peace of mind – the ultimate in true privacy.”

Even those structures which loudly proclaimed their technological optimism might be understood as belonging to the category of “homes of future apocalypse.” As Beatriz Colomina has shown, the Smithson’s house was full of defenses.[34] Visitors to the house were required to walk through a draft of warm air, as if being decontaminated. Moreover, the steel door through which they passed was itself a kind of electronically operated air-lock, like that required for a spacecraft or for a submarine. It implied the possibility of sealing the house from the outside world. The external threat was both invisible and deeply penetrating, not unlike the nuclear threat posed by the Cold War itself. Like a spaceship, submarine or a bunker, this was also a home without an outside. But, in a vertiginous fashion, it was also the prehistoric form of a cave. Caves are, of course, not only spaces of shelter but also the home of dark fears. They represent, as numerous films and novels depicting life after nuclear war produced during the period, a kind of return to the primal condition of “bare life.”

In the 1960s, growing interest in life in what the architect Peter Cook was to call “edge situations” like the Arctic and on the seabed – popular themes in the architectural imagination – can also understood in terms of anxiety. In 1971, Frei Otto, the brilliant engineer, was commissioned by Farbwerke Hoechst AG to plan a new city for the Arctic that would be home to 45,000 workers exploring and developing the Arctic. Living under a transparent pneumatic dome covering 3km2, they would enjoy an artificial climate. The most challenging form of marine architecture, the underwater structure, was a recurrent dream throughout the period, shared by Archigram architects Warren Chalk (Underwater City, 1964) and Peter Cook (Sea Farming Project, 1968), and Claus Jürgen (Submarine Centre, 1971).From such environments man could explore these terrae incognitae for mineral resources and farm the seabed. Although rarely articulated, these schemes harbored within them the fear that mankind’s conventional habitat faced destruction: perhaps in the future, humanity would have no choice but to colonize hitherto uninhabited environments. The greatest threat to mankind was increasingly understood to be man himself. Critic Michel Ragon, for instance, examined the implications of overpopulation in his influential books Où vivrons-nous demain? (Where Will We Live Tomorrow? 1963) and Les cités de l’avenir (Future Cities, 1966). Combining serious-minded sociology with spectacular futurology, Ragon extrapolated from statistics predicting acute population growth, an immense expansion in car ownership and private housing. Mankind faced asphyxiation in the “mineral desert” of urban sprawl.[35]

It is perhaps a paradox that the futurology on which the house of tomorrow or the city of the future was rather conservative on a number of counts. The social and political structures – like the nuclear family – on which these visions of the future were based, owed much present circumstances. Robert Cottrell has argued something similar about the technologies which they claimed:

We can see now that the golden age of blockbuster futurology in the 1960s and 1970s was caused, not by the onset of profound technological and social change, but by the absence of it. The great determining technologies – electricity, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, even manned flight – were the products of a previous century, and their applications were well understood. The geopolitical fundamentals were stable, too, thanks to the Cold War.[36]

Future houses fashioned with plastic walls, equipped with electronic communication devices and serviced by robots were recognizable as conventional homes, namely, spaces for dwelling in a sense that would understood and promoted by even the most doubtful critics of modern technology.

Where were more critical or radical forms of futurology to be found in the period? What, for instance, was to be the domestic landscape of the posthuman figure of the cyborg? Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline coined the term in 1960 to describe the enhanced human being who could survive in extraterrestrial conditions:

man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continually be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel.[37]

With the cyborg redefining the relationship of the human to the environment, it is not surprising that they attracted the attention of architects and designers in the West and the East in the mid-1960s. Archigram in the United Kingdom, Haus-Rucker-Co and Walter Pichler in Austria proposed schemes in which portable homes or “living environments” were as attentive to sensory stimulation as they were with matters of shelter and sustenance. Archigram described the “Suitaloon” – a portable environment inspired by the design of space suits or what NASA called “Extravehicular Mobility Units” – as “clothing for living in … if it wasn’t for my Suitaloon I would have to buy a house.”[38]

At a deeper or perhaps more philosophical level, the cyborg offered an image of man dissolved in technology.[39] Assuming a kind of posthuman viewpoint, the great Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem eschewed any kind of moral or technical limits in his conceptualization of the cyborg. In his 1964 book Summa Technologiae sketched worlds populated with various types of genetically and biochemically modified human beings as diverse as “the various kinds of ants.” His concept of “Phantomology” disturbed all the conventional metaphysics of humanism: a mind could be stimulated into the perception of being somewhere else or multiple individuals could be networked to a single brain. Summa Technologiae was a disavowal of the central figure of Man, the rallying symbol of the postwar reconstruction:

I don’t trust any promise, I don’t believe in assurances based on the so called humanism. The only way to deal with a certain technology is another technology. Today, man knows more about his dangerous inclinations than he knew a hundred years ago, and in another hundred years his knowledge will be even more complete.[40]

Lem was not the only figure to eschew postwar humanism. By the early 1960s it was coming under attack in other fields of intellectual life. Structuralism in France represented existentialist-humanism as loose, ill-disciplined thinking which over-exaggerated individual agency and responsibility in the face of the codes, rituals and structures of language and society. As Claude Lévi-Strauss famously wrote in 1962 “I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences is not to constitute but to dissolve man.”[41] Two years later Theodor Adorno published his attack on Martin Heidegger, Jargon der Eigenlichkeit (The Jargon of Authenticity). Existential humanism, in adopting a metaphysical and sermonizing vocabulary of “shelteredness,” “transcendence,” “truth” and “freedom,” had invented a kind of secular religion which only disguised alienation and injustice:

The empty phrase, Man, distorts man’s relation to his society as well as the content of what is thought in the concept of Man. The phrase does not bother about the real division of the subject into separated subject that cannot be undone by the voice of the mere spirit.[42]

For Adorno, this was evidenced by the deep penetration of “the jargon of authenticity” into radio, television and advertising – arenas which produced alienation and broadcast false illusions.

The earliest signs of a kind of anti-humanist attitudes in architecture and design were to be found in Europe and North America in the late 1960s. New kinds of homes were devised which eschewed principles of community, privacy, dwelling and other humanist preoccupations. As Sean Keller explores in his essay on the formal principles adopted by Peter Eisenman in the design of his “House” series from 1967 onward and, as Mary Louise Lobsinger points out in her essay, Superstudio’s adoption of the grid as the form of its “Continuous Monument” (1970–), abstraction provided the means for a kind of critical estrangement from the mythical notion of home. They were not the only critiques of this kind. We might add here Ettore Sottsass’s contribution to MoMA’s Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibition in 1972. Exhibiting a “home” as a series of free-standing plastic shells, each of which contained the equipment to serve a domestic function such as cooking and bathing, Sottsass presented a domestic space which sought to “decondition” its user. “The form isn’t cute and even, maybe, rough,” he wrote, “and the expected deconditioning process, even if it works in a negative direction, I mean in the direction of eventually eliminating the self-indulgence of possession, will certainly impose a responsibility upon whoever ventures to use these objects. Eliminating the protective layer of alibis we build around ourselves always necessitates great commitment.”[43] Lacking any kind or pre-determined form or setting, Sottsass’s “domestic landscape” was a de-territorialized one.

Working at the end of the Modernist project, Sottsass – like other designers stirred by the Counter Culture’s antagonism to the commodity and traditional social structures – sought to shake off the so called “affluent society’s” attraction to property. Nomadism and communalism, might produce a new kind of being, based on a deeper engagement with the world and with society. In 1951 the Darmstädter Gespräch had gathered writers, artists and architects to debate the rejuvenation of humanity. In the aftermath of mechanized war, the organizers had announced that the “the plight of our age is homelessness.” This was a both real and a metaphysical condition for many Europeans. Only twenty years later – after the consumer boom and the deep penetration of technologies into the home – the promise of the age was to be a form of homelessness.

[1] For discussion of local inflections in the International Style see various essays in Hubert-Jan Henket & Hilde Heynen, eds., Back from Utopia: The Challenge of the Modern Movement (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2002).

[2] Ernesto N. Rogers, editorial in Domus, 20 (1946): 65.

[3] See various essays in Giovanna Borasi & Mirko Zardini, eds., Sorry, Out of Gas: Architecture’s Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2008).

[4] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).

[5] See Robin Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings: English Housing Reform and the Moralities of Private Space’ in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays (London: Architectural Association, 1997), 93-117, and Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).

[6] Barry Curtis, ‘‘The Heart of the City’’ in Non-Plan: Essays on Freedom, Participation and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism, eds. Jonathan Hughes and Simon Sadler (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2000), 52.

[7] Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Differences: Topographies of Contemporary Architecture, trans. Graham Thompson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 42.

[8] Congrés Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, The Heart of the City: Towards the Humanisation of Urban Life, ed. J.L. Sert and E.N. Rogers, trans. J. Tyrwhitt (New York: Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1952).

[9] Hans Schwippert, ‘‘Ein Vorschlag zur Gestaltung der deutschen Beteiligung der Weltausstellung Brüssel 1958’’ in Hans Schwippert (Cologne: Akademie der Architektenkammer Nordrhein Westfalen, 1984), 102. Unless otherwise noted, translations are the author’s own.

[10] Its highest achievement was the organization of the famous Interbau exhibition in the Hansa district of Berlin in 1957. This living exhibition of model housing was a conscious reiteration of many of the themes of the Weissenhof Exhibition in Stuttgart of 1927 and a rebuttal of the Socialist Realist aesthetic being promoted in East Berlin. See the special issue of Bauwelt 24 (1957): 561-600.

[11] Otto Bartning, ed., Mensch und Raum: Darmstädter Gespräche 1951 (Darmstadt: Neue Darmstädter Verlagsanstalt, 1952), 33.

[12] Martin Heidegger, ‘‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’’ [1951] in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach (London: Routledge, 1997), 100.

[13] Hans Schwippert in Bartning, ed., Mensch und Raum, 87.

[14] Hans Schwippert, “Ein Vorschlag zur Gestaltung der deutschen Beteiligung …”, 102.

[15] Alfons Leitl, ‘‘Towns and Homes’’ in World Exhibition of Brussels 1958 Germany, eds., Wend Fischer and Gustav B. von Hartmann (Düsseldorf: Generalkommissar der Bundesrepublik Deutschland bei der Weltausstellung Brüssel 1958, 1958), 117.

[16] Susan Sontag, ‘‘Against Interpretation’’ in A Susan Sontag Reader, ed. Elizabeth Hardwick (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 103-104.

[17] Gaston Bachelard, La Terre et les rêveries du repos: Essai sur les images de l’intimité (Paris: J. Corti, 1948). As Bruno Zevi noted: ‘‘Germany pretends to have forgotten the gas chambers and shows us a distinguished face as if to say that technology justifies everything, whether tanks or electric razors.’’ L’Architettura, 4, (May 1958): 4.

[18] Richard P. Lohse, ‘‘Zur soziologischen Situation des Grafikers,’’ Neue Grafik 3 (October 1959): 58.

[19] Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, Community and Privacy: Toward a New Architecture of Humanism (Garden City, Doubleday, 1963).

[20] Greg Castillo, ‘‘Domesticating the Cold War: Household Consumption as Propaganda in Marshall Plan Germany’’ Journal of Contemporary History 40, no. 2 (April 2005): 263.

[21] Richard F. Kuisel, Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization (University of California Press, 1993).

[22] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 1991), 245.

[23] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 98.

[24] For a transcription of the ‘‘Kitchen Debate’’ in English see

[25] Nikita Khruschev cited by Zsuzsanna Varga, “Questioning the Soviet economic model in the 1960s” in János M. Rainer and György Péteri, eds., Muddling Through in the Long 1960s: Ideas and Everyday Life in High Politics and the Lower Classes of Communist Hungary (Trondheim: Programme on East European Cultures and Societies, 2005), 110.

[26] The “Kitchen Debate” 1959.

[27] Vera Dunham, In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (Durham, Duke University Press, 1990), 17.

[28] James Millar, with reference to Vera Dunham, calls this phenomenon in Brezhnev-era Soviet Union the ‘‘little deal.’’ James R. Millar, “The Little Deal: Brezhnev”s Contribution to Acquisitive Socialism,’’ Slavic Review 44, no. 4 (1985): 694-706.

[29] Milan, Simecka, The Restoration of Order: The Normalization of Czechoslovakia, 19691976, trans. A.G. Brain (London: Verso, 1984), especially chapter fifteen, ‘‘Corruption.’’

[30] Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless (1978), ed. John Keane (London: Hutchinson, 1985), 37-40.

[31] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. John Fullerton and Paul Sieveking (London: Rising Free Collective, 1979), 36.

[32] See Barry Bergdoll,   Peter Christensen and Ron Broadhurst, eds., Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, Part 1 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 128.

[33] Davin Heckman, A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

[34] Beatriz Colomina, ‘‘Unbreathed Air 1956,’’ Grey Room 15 (Spring 2004): 2859.

[35] Michel Ragon, Les Cités de lavenir (Paris: Encyclopédie Planète, 1966), 119.

[36] Robert Cottrell, “The Future of Futurology” in The World in 2008 (London: The Economist Publications, 2007), p. 110.

[37] Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, ‘‘Cyborgs and Space,’’ Astronautics, September 1960: 31.

[38] Peter Cook, ed., Archigram (London: Archigram Group, 1970; repr., New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), 80.

[39] Michael Kandel, ‘‘Stanislaw Lem on Men and Robots,’’ Extrapolation 14 (1972-73): 19.

[40] Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964), 12.

[41] Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 162.

[42] Theodor Adorno, The Jargon Of Authenticity (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 55

[43] Ettore Sottsass in the exhibition catalogue Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, Achievements and Problems of Italian Design, ed. Emilio Ambasz (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in collaboration with Centro Di, Florence, 1972), 162.

Any colour .. as long as it’s black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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