Every Single Crash – Filip Berendt’s art

Uncategorized
Berendt2

from the ‘Every Single Crash 1’ series photography, archival print ed. 5+2AP, 100×80 cm / http://www.filipberendt.pl

This text was written to accompany Filip Berendt’s show at L’étrangère, London in 2015.

Working in Taiwan a few years ago, Filip Berendt was struck by the profusion and variety of ordinary materials on sale there. Taipei’s shops offer paper, metal foil, plastics and other other everyday materials in dizzying, even excessive, variety. He was also drawn to black, perse and green jellies made made from lychees and different grasses in Taiwan. In their diversity and unfamiliar textures and finishes, these cheap but often lustrous substances struck Berendt, an artist from Poland, as strangely vital, even ‘creepy’. He started using them in photographic experiments with colour and light that eventually developed into artworks which form three series sharing a common title, ‘Every Single Crash’ (2011-13). Combining photographs of shimmering light patterns reflecting off the surfaces of some unknown order of objects and intense monochromatic planes, the ‘Every Single Crash’ images seem to offer an invitation to a rich world of sensation. Perhaps one might sense hints of the brash artificial light and colourful signs of the streets of Taipei and the lush nature of the East Asian island in the first and second series, as well as the cooler subfusc notes of Poland where Berendt made the third set in 2013 using different resources including animal bones and aluminium. But these images eschew photography’s promise to explain the world to the viewer: instead, they present matter which refuses to stabilize into fixed forms or coherent objects.

In fact, the ‘Every Single Crash’ works present the viewer with uncertain surfaces, scales and effects. What has been recorded? How small or large are these assemblages of things? Are they things? If so, where are they? Berendt uses instant film, a once-popular format (then known by the generic trademark, Polaroid) that is still employed by studio photographers for test shots today. Instant film accentuates the colour and the contrast of the subject but lacks the overpowering detail of much digital photography. In fact, works in his third series images look particularly lossy, as if some information has been discarded in the process of making the image, or, like the electron microscope images of the ultrastructures of cells and crystals; matter beyond human perception. But these are not digital images. A product of analogue techniques, they result from a resolutely manual process. Working in the studio, Berendt creates temporary sculptures from ordinary materials, all the time checking the appearance of his assemblage in the camera. Each sculpture is fashioned for the lens. Preoccupied with managing the effects of light and colour, he searches out light reflections in the arrangement of the form. Light ricochets – or perhaps as the series’ title suggests, crashes – from one surface to another, or is absorbed in the waxy skin of some unidentified substance. The vivid colours in these photographs are not the inherent properties of materials but are the additive effects of light. Once the photograph is made, Berendt destroys the sculpture. The image is then incorporated into artworks that seem closer to paintings than anything else. The chromatic effects in the studio photographs – already overpowering – are sometimes amplified by being laid over simple geometric compositions and then set into monochromatic frames. In these ways, Berendt’s work produces in the attentive viewer the kind of retinal afterimages and auratic effects of colour contrasts which have long preoccupied artists and scientists alike.
In some works in the first ‘Every Single Crash’ series, the flat colour fields which form backgrounds for the photographs flood over the picture frame. A boundary or limit, the frame usually separates the artwork from the world. It is, according to Louis Marin, one of the ‘means by which a representation presents itself representing something’. When Berendt colours his frames in the same vivid hue as the picture plane, he reminds the viewer that the artwork is less a representation than a three-dimensional object. Like the photography of sculptures which have been carefully organized by Berendt to form an angular constellation of planes for the lens, this is another switch of dimensions.

Berendt’s engagement with form, light and colour place him outside the dominant currents of Polish art, at least in recent years. Many of the most high-profile artists who have enjoyed critical success have acted as guides to the transformation of the country since 1989, often for international audiences fascinated by the catastrophe and dreamworld of Soviet style socialism. Artists like Monika Sosnowska and Wilhem Sasnal have put a spotlight on blind spots in the historical consciousness and on the rapid transformations and commercialization of public space. Berendt, however, belongs to a different current in Polish art that has taken a much deeper interest in the formal qualities of art and their effects, not least on the operations of the eye. A line can be traced from the constructivist avant-garde of the 1920s through the experiments in visual perception made by artists like Jan Ziemski and Jerzy Rosołowicz in the 1960s known as ‘wizualizm’ to the quasi-scientific formal experiments of structural film makers associated with the Workshop of Film Form in the 1970s. Berendt’s place in this succession is perhaps not surprising: he studied in Łódź, the city that might justifiably claim to be the home of this tradition. In what was once a major centre of industry, modernist painters and constructivist artists created one of Europe’s first museums of modern art in 1930. Berendt admits a fascination with the works of one of their number; Henryk Stażewski (1894-1988), the longest lived member of the inter-war avant-garde whose paintings and reliefs rarely departed from the zone of geometric abstraction. In the 1960s Stażewski adopted the square as the basic element in his artworks. By multiplying and subtly colouring this ‘component’ on monochromatic planes (which, like Berendt, he often extended over the frame), he produced intense colour effects and the illusion of movement.
Viewed in isolation, the three ‘Every Single Crash’ series seem to have an affinity with Stażewski’s investigations into optical effects. But seen in the company of other works made by Berendt over the last decade or so, they signal an interest in something a little darker.

'Pandemic', photography, archival print on dibond ed. 6+2AP, 40×50 cm - from http://www.filipberendt.pl

‘Pandemic’, photography, archival print on dibond ed. 6+2AP, 40×50 cm – from http://www.filipberendt.pl

Earlier works include ‘Pandemic’ (2009), a series of photographic studies of mould that look like the last traces of life in a dying world, and ‘Badland’ (2010-11), a series shot in the studio in which androgynous human beings appear to be as artificial and repulsive as the fetid objects that they try to adapt as tools and clothing. Far less abject than these works, the ‘Every Single Crash’ series still have the capacity to disturb. This may have to do with the ‘creepy’ associations of some materials that first drew Berendt into the shops of Taipei, as well as the intense concentration of colour in the works.

We come to images cued to perceive them. Our experiences of colour, movement, sight, sound, smell and touch, form a kind of memory field against which we judge all images but photographs in particular. Held back from complete abstraction, Berendt’s images seem to hover on the edge of a distinctly palpable and yet unknowable world. This has much to do with the way they seem to call for and, at the same time, deny touch. We engage with the world responsively, testing our expectations against experience. Hard or dry, soft or wet? We like to touch things for the veracity and certainty that this sense provides. Philosopher Georg Hegel claimed that, of all the senses, only touch can give a sensation of spatial depth. ‘Initially,’ he writes, ‘the child only has the sense of light, though which things are made manifest to it. This mere sensation misleads the child into grasping at distant objects as if they were near at hand. However, the child learns about distances through the sense of touch. Thus it acquires a sense of visual proportion and casts which is external outside itself.’ Even when touch is not possible (or, meaningful in an immediate sense, as in the case of almost all photography), we still rely on haptic memory. Occasional notes in Berendt’s compositions seem to offer these cues of familiarity – rippling waves of light across a surface suggest cool smoothness or perhaps the grainy texture indicates sawn timber – but for the most part these images seem to confuse our sensory memory. Perhaps this is where their fascination and even their creepiness lies.

Advertisements

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 - http://artmuseum.pl/en/archiwum/archiwum-eustachego-kossakowskiego/189/17027

II Syncretic Show of Włodzimierz Borowski, Foksal Gallery in Warsaw 1966 – MSN – http://artmuseum.pl/en/archiwum/archiwum-eustachego-kossakowskiego/189/17027

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 - http://artmuseum.pl/en/filmoteka/praca/kwiek-pawel-video-c

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] http://www.galeriaopole.pl/pl/zbigniew-makarewicz-keep-level-trzymaj-poziom-trzecia-wystawa-sztuki?page=1 – 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 http://www.fprengel.de/Lem/Summa/preface.html – accessed January 2010.

[17]

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.

[20]http://www.wajda.pl/en/filmy/film11.html

[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 http://www.robakowski.net/tx2.html – 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.

Pop Effects in Eastern Europe under Communist Rule

Collage, Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized

PA8In September 1974 Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid exhibited four works at an exhibition of nonconformist art in Moscow, which had been reluctantly permitted by the authorities. Two weeks earlier, the artists had had an artwork – a double self-portrait as Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin – destroyed in the notorious demolition of the ‘Bulldozer Exhibition’, another open-air display of nonconformist art.[1] The state-sponsored violence (conducted by loyal workers outraged at the anti-Soviet art, according to official reports) had caused a storm of international protest and so a second exhibition was hastily organised. Komar and Melamid’s canvases in this second show appeared to be heavily damaged showpieces of pop art: they included versions of one of Andy Warhol’s 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans 1962 and Robert Indiana’s The Confederacy: Alabama 1965.

Komar and Melamid, Post-Art

Komar and Melamid, Post-Art

Works from their ‘Post-Art’ series, the canvases appeared as if they had been salvaged by citizens of the Soviet Union from some kind of catastrophe that had befallen capitalist America. Interpreted in these eschatological terms, Komar and Melamid’s works could be aligned with official analyses of history in the Soviet Union. In the early 1970s, Nikita Khrushchev’s 1961 ringing promise to ‘catch up and overtake the West’ was still being repeated by the Kremlin (even when it was widely known that the Soviet Union was dependent on importing US food stuffs and machinery).[2] Nevertheless, Komar and Melamid’s ‘Post-Art’ hardly represented orthodoxy: art in the Soviet Union during the Leonid Brezhnev era (1964–82) was to provide ringing, uplifting images of Soviet progress.

Pop art was an unmistakably foreign phenomenon to both its champions and enemies in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. A number of Soviet commentators – including prominent aestheticians – wrote book-length studies of pop art in the 1960s and early 1970s.[3] Their objection to pop art belonged to a broader critique of what ideologues called the ‘decadence’ of the West, a word that signalled the abandonment of the uplifting role of culture in favour of base and selfish pleasures. As such, pop art presented a pronounced version of what Soviet critics detected more generally in modernism. Their high-minded critiques were also underscored by deep-set anxiety about the effects of mass culture in the Soviet Union. As the state invested in television, pop music and limited forms of consumerism, to satisfy the growing expectations of Soviet citizens, patrician ideologues worried about what they saw as their pernicious effects.

Even if the Soviet engagement with pop art was predominately antagonistic, it testifies to the fact that the works of Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg as well as pop art from Western Europe was known, at least indirectly, through their reproduction in books and magazines. These materials often arrived ‘off set’, via the ‘fraternal’ nations of the Eastern Bloc where, by comparison, more liberal cultural policies were in place. Many Soviet artists and critics testify to having read illustrated magazines such as Projekt (Poland) and Umění (Czechoslovakia) to extract information about developments in the West.[4] Well-travelled and well-informed writers like Jindřich Chalupecký in Czechoslovakia and Urszula Czartoryska in Poland wrote articles and books on contemporary art that detailed the activities of the Independent Group in London or the Sonnabend Gallery in New York.[5] Their analyses were remarkably free of the heavy hand of official ideology and might even be read indirectly as a critique of Soviet culture. In his 1965 book, Umění dnes (Art Today), Chalupecký, for instance, characterised pop as social critique, writing: Too often art disguises the truth: here, instead, it is revealed. This is the theory and the practice of anti-art. [Daniel] Spoerri only fixes a random piece of ordinary reality in his ‘snare pictures’ (a table with the dishes after a meal, a shelf with spices); Wolf Vostell uses the direct methods of Pop Art – such as reproduction of news photographs – to make a shocking critique of modern society.[6]  Czech readers may well have interpreted Chalupecký’s words as a rebuttal of the seemingly unshakeable Soviet tenet of realism in the arts.

Opportunities for the citizens of Moscow’s satellites in Eastern Europe and former Yugoslavia to see works of art by Western pop artists first hand also occurred, albeit infrequently. The first exhibition of pop art in the region, featuring screenprints by Jim Dine, Allen Jones and Andy Warhol among others, was held in Belgrade and Zagreb (both in former Yugoslavia) in 1966 with sponsorship by tobacco concern, Philip Morris International.[7] Three years later the Smithsonian Institution organised a larger touring show of American art after 1945 entitled The Disappearance and the Reappearance of the Image, which featured works by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. It travelled to various Eastern European cities including Prague (former Czechoslovakia) (remarkably twelve months after Warsaw Pact forces repressed the reform movement there). These US displays belong to the long and well-recorded history of attempts to use modern art and design to broadcast ‘American values’ during the Cold War.[8] Interest in pop in Eastern Europe also took in its Western European variants. Strong French connections in Poland brought the works of Alain Jacquet, a representative of nouveau réalisme, to the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland, where he had a solo exhibition in May–June 1969, and to the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, where he arranged a performance of ‘Le Tricot de Varsovie’, which involved the production of a large soft sculpture in situ.

The effect of these various encounters with spectacular works of pop art on artists from Eastern Europe is clear. A number of young artists went through a pop phase. Hungarian painter László Lakner, for instance, who has admitted a debt to Rauschenberg, started doubling and fragmenting his careful renderings of documentary photographs and masterpieces of art history.[9] Instead of using the mechanical process of screen printing, Lakner painted these photographic details by hand. Later, in the 1970s, he was to extend his interest in documents in conceptual and photorealist works.

Tomislav Gotovac, My Jazz Day 1964. Printed photographs, newspapers, painted paper, cigarette butts, razors, glue / hardboard. Galerie Frank Elbaz /

Tomislav Gotovac, My Jazz Day 1964. Printed photographs, newspapers, painted paper, cigarette butts, razors, glue / hardboard. Galerie Frank Elbaz /

In former Yugoslavia, Tomislav Gotovac – later well known as a performance artist and filmmaker – made numerous collage works throughout the 1960s using advertisements, packaging and pages from magazines from the West and, as Yugoslavia underwent its own consumer revolution, from local sources too. Leonhard Lapin, the central figure in nonconformist art in the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, was one of the founders of a short-lived pop alliance called ‘Soup 69’ (another reference to Warhol) at the end of the 1960s.[10] For these and other artists, pop was often a brief experiment in careers that were later made in performance, conceptual art, experimental film or other artistic practices that established deeper footings in the artistic cultures of Eastern Europe in the 1970s. Pop provided an introduction to the practice of appropriation, a rebuttal of the shibboleths of modernist art: self-expression, originality and individuality. This was what made this embryonic and fleeting engagement with pop at the end of the 1960s an important watershed: the revival of modern art, and of abstract painting in particular, after the death of Stalin and the so called ‘Thaw’ of the mid-1950s had been strongly motivated by humanist principles, not least intellectual and artistic freedom.[11] Ten years later new questions about the effects of the mechanised image seemed to press on the minds of artists in Eastern Europe.

This interest ran through happenings, performances, environments and experimental films as well as early forms of conceptual art in Eastern Europe.[12] In fact, those categories that have been used to describe art in the West – such as pop art – have often been rejected by both artists and critics in Eastern Europe as inadequate and distorting labels. In 1971 János Major made a conceptual artwork in which he combined a small photograph of the tombstone of an otherwise forgotten man called Lajos Kubista with a 17-point text that begins:

1. Cubist Lajos was interred at the Farkasrét Cemetery in Budapest

2. Cubism was born in Budapest

3. No ism was born in Budapest

4. Victor Vasarely was born in Hungary

5. Op-art was not born in Hungary

6. Nicolas Schöffer was born in Kalocsa

7. Kinetic art was not born in Kalocsa

8. Theodore Herzl was born in Budapest

9. Zionism was not born in Budapest

10. The father of the nuclear bomb, Leó Szilárd was born in Hungary, died in the USA

11. Pop-art was born in the USA, its influence extended to Hungary … [13]

 

Major’s doleful text emphasised the alienness of many international currents in modernism, even those that had Hungarian-born pioneers. His point could be extended to other Eastern Bloc cultures too. Moreover, critics – particularly those writing about the Soviet Union – have often denied the existence of pop art in Eastern Europe under Communist rule because consumerism never succeeded there.

Ilya Kabakov, Pipe, Stick, Ball and Fly 1966, Ceramic relief, enamel and oil on plywood. Ludwig Forum für international Kunst

Ilya Kabakov, Pipe, Stick, Ball and Fly 1966, Ceramic relief, enamel and oil on plywood. Ludwig Forum für international Kunst

Of the brilliant early works by Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, which feature casts of mundane objects from Soviet life seemingly set into blank surfaces (such as Pipe, Stick, Ball and Fly 1966), Matthew Jesse Jackson writes, they ‘resembled constructions such as Warhol’s Brillo Boxes: ambiguous, three-dimensional eruptions that coalesced with their surroundings whilst remaining tenuously distinct from them … This work has nothing in common with films, advertisements, magazine covers, television programs, and comic books – the raw material of Western Pop art – but a great deal to do with the desolate Soviet consumerscape.’[14]

The fact that Eastern European citizens confronted shortages and queues in their daily lives is undeniable,[15] but that does not mean that they were unaware of the existence of consumer goods. In Eastern Europe under Communist rule, this knowledge could be both a matter of fantasy and of frustration. Consumer goods and images acquired from the West – particularly clothes, cosmetics, foodstuffs and LP records – gained special significance. Mundane in their original, capitalist context, such things came to carry a heightened importance not only because of their rarity but also because the unfamiliar materials and seductive forms of Western consumer goods could trigger fantasies about capitalist civilisation. Gotovac’s early pop collages – featuring pin-ups and branded goods from the West – are full of libidinal desire. Frustration that was felt strongly by many citizens in the former Yugoslavia and the Eastern Bloc was the product of the gap between expectation (opened up by Soviet promises to ‘catch up and overtake the West’) and experience. In fact, many countries in Eastern Europe underwent their own consumer revolutions at the end of the 1960s in which ‘soft sell’ advertising, brightly packaged and branded consumer goods, new kinds of shops such as supermarkets and fashion boutiques as well as ‘lifestyle’ magazines promised ‘socialist consumerism’.

March 1967 issue of Ty i Ja (You and I) magazine published in Poland.

March 1967 issue of Ty i Ja (You and I) magazine published in Poland.

In the recursive fashion characteristic of pop in the West too, many film posters, magazine covers and LP sleeves featured serial images that were dressed in the flattened forms and bright colours of pop art.

The response to the spread of commodity aesthetics across what Polish art historian Mieczysław Porębski called the ‘ikonosfera’ (iconosphere) was not uncritical.[16]

A work in Natalia LL's Consumption Art series, 1972–5, see www.nataliall.com

A work in Natalia LL’s Consumption Art series, 1972–5, see http://www.nataliall.com

Feminist artist Natalia LL in Poland produced a body of works that she called ‘Sztuka Konsumpcyjna’ (Consumption Art, 1972–5 – films and photographic series in which a model toyed with a hot dog, a banana and a runny pudding in a highly sexual manner, exaggerating the techniques of arousal employed in advertising. In former Yugoslavia, Sanja Iveković addressed the way in which the authorities sought to balance socialist politics with free-market economics. The ‘Ekonomsko Propagandni Program’ (Economic Propaganda Programme) broadcast daily on Radiotelevizija Zagreb was, in effect, state-sponsored advertising of domestic and, sometimes, international products. In Sweet Violence 1974 Iveković recorded one of these broadcasts on a television overpainted with black bars, a simple gesture that alluded to illusory freedoms offered by consumerism. Both Iveković and Natalia LL were preoccupied with the effects of the media – the Polish artist being interested in distinguishing authentic sexuality from its reified forms and Iveković in understanding how private life is haunted by the commercial image. Such differences aside, these works belong to a New Left critique made on both sides of the Iron Curtain, namely that East and West were coming increasingly to resemble each other. A few years earlier Raoul Vaneigem had written in his book, The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967):

 

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 man buys ideology and gets as 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.[17]

 

So was there a distinctly Eastern European pop art? Can the phenomenon only be understood as ripples of what Czartoryska called a ‘wave’, which originated in the West?[18] Pop was, as she observed in 1965, a form of art that in its original setting passed comment on the incessant demands of mass media images on their audiences not through direct and explicit critique but through repetition, multiplication and concentration (‘their creativity is a kind of dramatic intensification of sensation’[19]). Viewed in these terms, the chief claim on the title of Eastern Bloc pop must surely belong to Sots-art. A compression of two terms (Sotsrealism/pop art), Sots-art was coined by the Russian duo Komar and Melamid to describe their own artworks in 1972. In this year they began creating works that treated the mass slogans and political images that formed a ubiquitous backdrop to life in the Soviet Union as art. Early Sots-art works included Our Goal-Communism 1972, a plain red banner painted with a slogan in white block letters and signed by the artists. Another in the series, entitled Quotation 1972, simply replaced the letters with tidy white blocks arranged in a grid bracketed with quotation marks. This was a code, seemingly without a message. Nevertheless, it made a point that was articulated a few years later by the Czech dissident writer Václav Havel describing a Communist Party poster: ‘The real meaning of the … slogan has nothing to do with what the text of the slogan actually says. Even so, this real meaning is quite clear and generally comprehensible because the code is so familiar.’[20] Other Komar and Melamid works approached ideology as a commodity, as if illustrating Vaneigem’s words above. In 1974 the duo created a series of ersatz products: hamburgers ground from a copy of Pravda (itself a performance and Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky Flavoured Vodka (the latter featuring Isaak Brodsky’s 1936 much-reproduced portrait of the Soviet writer on the label). Alongside the painter Eric Bulatov, Komar and Melamid were the first artists to rework the codes and symbols of Soviet propaganda. Often exercises in appropriation, their early works have a kind of cool, ironic tone that is lacking in the sardonic combinations of Western adspeak and Soviet imagery characteristic of much later Sots-art.

Sándor Pinczehelyi, Sickle and Hammer 1973

Sándor Pinczehelyi, Sickle and Hammer 1973

Sots-art was not exclusively a Soviet phenomenon (although it was longest lived there). In Hungary in 1973 Sándor Pinczehelyi created Sickle and Hammer, a self-portrait holding the central symbol of Soviet authority (and, as the tools of the workers, its claim on legitimacy) (see fig.5). Some versions are overprinted in a wash of red. Aleš Erjavec has described this work as an attempt at demystification: ‘The Hammer and Sickle have lost their original meaning as mere tools and have been completely appropriated by the symbolic universe of political ideology. It is now up to the artist to revert them back to their non-symbolic, quotidian reality, producing by this procedure an artistic effect.’[21] Pinczehelyi’s straight-faced stance was read as both loyalty and dissent: ‘Everyone sensed irony at that time’, recalled critic László Beke, ‘a man positioned in a heroic stance with a hammer and sickle, yet the police were unable to accuse him of subversive activity.’[22]

The ambivalence of irony has allowed critics to read other works produced in Eastern Europe as critical commentaries on power.

Otašević’s triptych To Communism, Lenin’s Way 1967

Otašević’s triptych To Communism, Lenin’s Way 1967

Young Yugoslav artist Dušan Otašević’s triptych To Communism, Lenin’s Way 1967 featuring the Bolshevik leader is a case in point. Lenin gestures to a five-point red star on the left-hand panel while another, on the right, has a traffic sign marked with the symbol for ‘no right turn’. Produced in the year when much of the world was reflecting – often critically – on the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution and Lenin’s image was being widely reproduced, Otašević’s telegraphic aesthetic perhaps alluded to the enervation of the revolutionary spirit. Other works of this period include his Comrade Tito, White Violet, Our Youth Loves You 1969, a combine made from timber and aluminium panels with a vividly-coloured portrait of the Yugoslav leader as a Second World War partisan, under an ‘empty’ red star. Kitsch, and seemingly composed in the manner of amateur propaganda displays, Otašević’s portrait lacked the aura of heroism and ideological sanctity that characterised almost all Yugoslav representations of Tito. Weighing up the political character of these and other works by Otašević, Branislav Dimitrijević has characterised them as ambivalent reactions to the ways in which socialist ideology and Western consumer culture were becoming entwined.[23]

The extent to which pop art in the West constituted a critical practice has preoccupied many critics and historians. Although pop works produced in Britain and the USA in the 1960s once seemed to have critical and anti-authoritarian potential, they were subsumed easily within the gallery system. Writing of the work of celebrity artists such as Warhol, Jean Baudrillard in 1970 made his reading of pop and consumption clear: it was the end of the modernist avant-garde, a ‘total integration’ of the artwork into the political economy of the commodity-sign’.[24] Sots-art used many of the same procedures as pop, not least the appropriation of the official imagery that was central to the propaganda apparatus. Yet such works could hardly be absorbed in the same manner. Those made by Komar and Melamid, Pinczehelyi and Otašević maintained a cool distance when power required eagerness; and offered ambivalence when official culture called for commitment.

[1] See Laura J. Hoptman and Tomáš Pospiszyl (eds.), Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1950s, New York 2002, pp.65–77.

[2] Jutta Scherrer, ‘“To Catch Up and Overtake” the West: Soviet Discourse on Socialist Competition’, in Katalin Miklóssy and Melanie Ilic (eds.), Competition in Socialist Society, London 2014, p.11.

[3] See, for instance, Mikhail Alexandrovich Lifshitz and Lidija Jakovlevna Rejngardt, Krizis bezobrazija. Ot kubizma k pop-art, Moscow 1968; Viktor Sibirjakov, Pop-art i paradoksy modernizma, Moscow 1969; M. Kuz’mina, ‘“Pop-art” in the Anthology’, Modernizm, Moscow 1973.

[4] See, for instance, Iurii Gerchuk, ‘The Aesthetics of Everyday Life in the Khrushchev Thaw in the USSR (1954–1964)’, in David Crowley and Susan Reid (eds.), Style and Socialism, Oxford 2002, pp.81–96.

[5] See Jindřich Chalupecký, Umění dnes, Prague 1966; Urszula Czartoryska, Od Pop-Artu do Sztuki Konceptualnej, Warsaw 1972.

[6] Chalupecký 1966, p.126.

[7] See Boris Kelemen (ed.), Pop Art, exh. cat., Galerija Suvremene Umjetnosti, Zagreb, March 1966.

[8] Michael L. Krenn, Fall-out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 2005.

[9] Lakner described witnessing Rauschenberg’s works in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 1964 as being like a blow to the head. Lakner cited by Péter Sinkovits, ‘Progresszív álmok: beszélgetés Lakner Lászlóval’, Új művészet, vol.16, no. 4 2005, pp.4–7.

[10] See Sirji Helme, Popkunst Forever. Eesti popkunst 1960. ja 1970. aastate vahetusel, Tallinn 2010.

[11] Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989, London 2011, pp.61–105.

[12] See Claus Groh, Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa, Koln 1972.

[13] János Major cited by Anik Cs. Asztalos (Éva Körner), ‘No isms in Hungary’, Studio International, March 1974, pp.105–11.

[14] Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes, Chicago and London 2010, pp.69–70.

[15] See David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, ‘Introduction’, in Pleasures in Socialism. Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc, Evanston, Illinois, pp.3–51.

[16] Mieczysław Porębski, Ikonosfera, Warsaw 1972.

[17] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. John Fullerton and Paul Sieveking, London 1979, p.36.

[18] Urszula Czartoryska, ‘“Kronika” Andy’ego Warhola’ (1965), in Pisma Urszuli Czartoryskiej: perspektywy historyczne, ed. Leszek Brogowski, Gdańsk 2006, p.155.

[19] Czartoryska (1965) cited by Jerzy Kossak, in Dylematy Kultury Masowej, Warsaw 1966, p.97.

[20] Václav Havel ‘The Power of the Powerless’ (1978), in John Keane (ed.), The Power of the Powerless. Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, trans. Paul Wilson, London 2009, p.15.

[21] Aleš Erjavec, ‘Introduction’, in Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art Under Late Socialism, Berkeley, CA 2003, p.37.

[22] Beke cited by Klara Kemp-Welch, in Antipolitics in Central European Art: Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule 1956–1989, London 2014, p.163.

[23] See Branislav Dimitrijević, ‘DIY POP: Artistic Craftsmanship of Dušan Otašević’, in Dušan Otašević – popmodernizam/popmodernism. Retrospektivna izložba 1965–2003, exh. cat., Muzej savremene umetnosti, Belgrade October–December 2003, p.112.

[24] Jean Baudrillard cited by Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the End of the Century, Boston, MA 1996, p.128.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Signora Ladik

Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized

This piece was published in the epiphanies section of the June 2013 issue of the The WireThe centre of Pest – Budapest’s Rive Droite – is dense and busy, packed with elegant buildings dating from the city’s heyday before the First World War. They feature in the elegant images of the Hungarian capital usually promoted by tourist offices. But as you head south along the river to its outskirts, the city loses its character, becoming a disconnected landscape of wide roads, billboards, red brick chimneys, decrepit factories and train tracks. The main drag, Soroksári út, is flanked by empty plots, flattened, perhaps, in 1944 when the Soviet Red Army laid siege to the city. A few nondescript 19th century tenement buildings still stand, but most seem to be boarded up.

I know this road well because I walked up and down it a few times a couple of years ago looking for Katalin Ladik’s home. Eventually I found it, and her, in a tenement organised around a crumbling courtyard, now an echoing playground for wild kids. I was then gathering material for an exhibition of experimental art and music from Eastern Europe before 1989 and wanted to include Ladik’s work.

You may well have seen her perform. Last year, she made an appearance in Peter Strickland’s eerie film, Berberian Sound Studio. Playing a resurrected witch, she is ushered into the Italian sound studio to supply explosive screams for a horror movie being overdubbed there. Budapest-based Strickland paid her the credit of having her introduced as Signora Ladik on screen, testimony to her unique voice.

A Hungarian from the multi-ethnic Vojvodina region of Serbia, Ladik has been active since the mid-1960s. As a poet, actress, visual artist and performance artist, she was an animated and controversial spirit in the neo-avant garde in Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s. But she left the country in 1992 at the start of the Yugoslav wars. It was clearly a traumatic experience, and Ladik was still feeling the loss of her home when I visited her. Yugoslavia – despite the terrible violence and intolerance that erupted in the 1990s – had been a remarkably fertile space for art in the 1970s.

I knew her work in that way that occurs when you slowly notice that someone or something never leaves your side vision. Without realising it, she had been a point of connection for so many images and sounds that interest me. Her first marriage was to Ernö Király, the composer and ethnomusicologist who used folk instruments as the sound source for his tape music in the 1960s. She performed with Dubravko Detoni and Milko Kelemen’s experimental group Acezantez, realising one counterculture’s fantasy of liberation by appearing naked on stage. Later in the 1970s she played a central role as a vocalist in what must have been a truly monumental performance of Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate. Conducted in Belgrade by Oskar Danon, it involved four vocalists, four orchestras and banks of tympany, all augmented – as if anything else might be needed Đ with Vladan Radovanović’s tape music made from samples of folk, electronic works and pop songs.

In 1973, when she was a member of Bosch + Bosch art group, Ladik crossed the border to Balatonboglár in Hungary, where young artists had rented out a disused chapel. 40 years on, long after the police had closed it down, the place has a kind of mythical status as a laboratory of conceptual art and what art historians like to call “the dematerialisation of the object”.

She performed O-pus there, an improvised sound poem exploring the register of intense sensations stored in the phonic O (“oh!” to “oooooooooooooooo”). Even then, of course, conceptual art was a specialist interest. But Ladik was also a celebrity, kind of. She often performed naked, treating her body like an instrument by running a primitive bow across her hair. When, in 1975, these performances attracted the attention of mass market magazines, she was expelled from the League of Communists of Yugoslavia for ‘immorality’. In the paradoxical fashion of Yugoslav socialism, she then became a star on state TV, appearing in one of its forays in erotica. Her science fiction and fantasy films from the early 1980s form a particular kind of late-socialist kitsch.

Ladik was never a campaigning feminist, and her performances always placed female subjectivity at the fore, often in uncompromising ways. In the early 1970s she created a remarkable body of graphic scores collaged from material sliced from West German women’s magazines, sewing patterns and popular music sheets from the 19th century. I knew that she had employed these artworks as graphic scores in live performances. There is a grainy photograph of her performing such a piece at the Belgrade Student Centre in the mid-1970s. But I did not know how they were used or what her interpretations sounded like. When I asked her, she took me to her kitchen where she stood in front of a score framed on the wall and began to sing. Her voice was and remains simply extraordinary – sweeping across an unnatural sonic spectrum from high frequency trilling to low rumbling tones. Expressing neither lyrics nor words, Ladik nevertheless seemed to draw on the full phonetic range of both Hungarian and Serbian, her two native languages in Vojvodina. Strangled plosive stops from Hungarian phonemics combined with the rattling cadences of the Slavic language. I had heard recordings of her voice before, of course, but what was so striking about this impromptu performance was the remarkable force of her breath. You could almost hear the air being struck, as dozens of different women tumbled out of her mouth. Patently being generated by Ladik, these sounds did not seem to belong to her. It was precisely this uncanny, even disturbing quality in her voice that Strickland celebrates in his film; I had the unnerving pleasure of being given a private performance.

Sounding the Body Electric. Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957-1984 – II

Eastern Europe, Modernism, Music, Uncategorized

A new version of the 2012 show opened at Calvert 22 in London in late June 2013. it ran until Aug 26th. Here is a gallery of installation shots – courtesy of Calvert 22. There is also some footage of me talking about the show on the Calvert site here. You can download a pdf of the Calvert catalogue here. Here is a link to a review in Frieze magazine; another in Eye and a third review in Art Monthly. You can hear a talk presented at MoMA in spring 2013 here as well.

Singing with Beck

Graphic Design, Music, Uncategorized

This review was published in Eye magazine in summer 2013 ♦ 

Berlin's Haunted House, 1914

Berlin’s Haunted House, 1914

Just over a hundred years ago the music business experienced its first major crisis. The success of new gramophone records played on a hand-cranked turntable with an overbearing horn, sounded the beginning of the end of popular sheet music, the business’s most profitable product at the time. In their heyday, scores for sentimental tunes and patriotic marches printed between vivid illustrated covers, sold in tens of thousands of copies.

The graphic products of Tin Pan Alley offered musicians considerable latitude. In an age before sound recordings, there was no authoritative version against which the player in the parlour could judge his or her performance. When the gramophone, and later the radio, became a standard feature of the home, the decline was not immediate: sales of sheet music were given a lift by the popularity of Hollywood musicals in the 1930s, for example. Nevertheless, the fate of sheet music was, it seems, sealed.

beck-fullcoverToday, the music business faces another crisis as record companies and high-street retailers struggle to find ways to persuade people to pay for recorded music. The Internet has turned what the industry used to call ‘product’ into a stream of code for downloading. Artists try to turn fans into consumers by issuing deluxe versions of their albums, often packaging their LPs with weighty books and films. At the end of last year, American musician Beck Hanson issued his most recent album as a ‘Song Reader’, a collection of twenty songs. What makes his project unique (at least when viewed from the present), was that this album is only available as sheet music in a beautifully designed folding portfolio. Each score features cover artwork by illustrators, often picking up the wistful mood of the songs. ‘The Last Polka’, an angular composition for piano in a musical genre which has not been fashionable for at least a century, and ‘Why Did You Make Me Care?’, a plaintive song for a jilted lover, are both packaged with illustrations from Peter Gamelen, a young British illustrator living in the US. The melancholic atmosphere which Gamelen brings to his drawings of moonlit rooms and empty streets in the dusk of Depression-era America lends itself well to Beck’s nostalgic project.

Beck’s ‘Song Reader’ began life in conversations with Dave Eggers, the writer and founder of McSweeny’s, the marvelously idiosyncratic publishing house. But the project has deeper roots: Beck has a track record as pop musicologist. ‘One Foot in the Grave’, an early album, for instance, opens with a traditional black spiritual played on a steel-string guitar. But the ‘Song Reader’, as a musical and graphic project, is not an exercise in historical authenticity. Sensitive to the traditional form of sheet music – three or four pages contained within simple covers – Beck and art director, Walter Green (a McSweeny’s designer) also bring a touch of wry humour to the project. The back pages of each sheet features convincingly retrospective adverts for products for music lovers like the harmonically-tuned needles for seamstress and scores for ‘Instrumentals for the End of the World’. America’s love with its own ‘age of innocence’ – evident in Hollywood films and the hokey homespun rhetoric of her politicians – is gently mocked and celebrated at the same time. This places Beck in a long tradition of liberal artists including Bob Dylan, Robert Crumb, and Ben Katchor who find values and sentiments in the American past which are missing or distorted in the present.

By only issuing the ‘Song Reader’ as scores, Beck invites musicians to interpret his songs. In fact, in a thoughtful preface on the challenges of writing music which depends on other people to play it, Beck makes an observation which chimes with the recent fascination with participation in art and design: ‘There’s something human in sheet music’ he writes, ‘something that doesn’t depend on technology to facilitate it – it’s a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it. That instability is what ultimately drew me to this project.’ Perhaps Beck writes off technology a little too quickly, for the Internet has provided McSweeny’s with the means for the players of these songs to share their recordings with the world. Its Soundcloud pages have been filling in the weeks since publication with dozens of different versions of Beck’s songs. Some are recast as ambient house or chamber music, whilst others follow the ‘trad.’ piano and ukulele arrangements provided in the ‘Song Reader’. Neither is more or less authentic than the other. Beck and his many ‘song readers’ have achieved together an exceptional union of the material world of the printed score and the dematerialized world of digital music.

Honzík – how high the sky?

Architecture, Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

This is an extract of a talk which I will present at the ‘Afterlives of Constructivism‘ conference at Princeton University in May 2013 ♦ At the height of the period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia in the mid 1960s, architects began imagining the kind of ambitious projects for cities and buildings that went far beyond the official imperative to build ‘economically and quickly’ and eschewed the technocratic role given to architecture in socialism. As architect and critic Jiři Hrůza argued – perhaps boldly – his 1967 book The Utopian City (Město Utopistů), surveying many speculative projects including those designed by Leonidov and Chernikov in the 1920s as well as those of his contemporaries such as Karel Honzík, the future could operate as a critique of the present: ‘Just as we can find in the concepts of utopian architectural avant-garde both audacious and prescient anticipations of the future, we can also find escapism from the coarse and prosaic reality of life, an ideal dream formed in disillusionment with the present …‘.[i] To find a way out from this kind of impoverishment, Hrůza directed his readers to science fiction. There they might discover a rich vein of imagination unfettered by mundane concerns.

P1040277

Honzik’s, Creation of Lifestyle, 1946

Honzík (to whom Hrůza’s book was dedicated) could supply both architecture and sci-fi. A prolific essayist, architect and former member of Devětsil, who had designed numerous functionalist buildings before the Second World War, he had welcomed the new order in Czechoslovakia at the end of the conflict. His early post-war writings – like the introduction to Creation of Lifestyle (Tvorba životního slohu, 1946) – is full of parallels between the Czechoslovak present and Russia after the October Revolution. In 1949 he published a letter in Volné směry which made his modernist affinities clear: ‘I firmly believe that new and truly full realism can be achieved only by those artists who have absorbed the seeking and experimentation of the last fifty years.’[ii] The claim on experimentation was a call for intellectual freedom. The editor of the journal published a series of sharply disapproving responses from prominent champions of the new order, some of whom had once been Honzík’s close allies and collaborators. And so under considerable pressure, like Syrkus in Poland, he disavowed his past by writing an essay for the architectural press with the title ‘The Final Farewell to Thirty Years of Constructivism.’[iii]

Domurbia

Domurbia

A few years later after the prohibition on modernism had been lifted, Honziík, then unwell and in semi-retirement, began working on experimental housing schemes. His designs self-consciously revive the idea of the collective home as a single megastructure, a preoccupation of Soviet architects at the end of 1920s (cf Barshch and Valdimirov’s schemes c. 1929-30). Honzík’s vision for ‘vertical community’ living, ‘Domurbia’ (1962-64) took the form of three massive blocks connected by high bridges and a common service zone on the lower floors. All human needs of the 2000 inhabitants – social, health, educational and domestic – would be served in one structure. This proposition, though still unbuildable, had little of the imaginative reach to warrant the label ‘experimental’ or ‘utopian’ – this baton had been passed to ambitious young architects designing bravura socmodernist structures like the much-lauded television tower and hotel on the peak of the Ještěd mountain (Stavoprojekt, Liberec, 1963-73) or Slovak National Radio headquarters in Bratislava (Štefan Svetko, Štefan Ďurkovič and Barnabáš Kissling, 1962-85).

P1040262

Trace in the Universe, published in the 1980s – after Honzik’s death.

Honzík’s architectural imagination had perhaps been debilitated by his experiences but it was still exercised vividly in his science-fiction novels and short stories written from the late 1950s (few of which were published during his lifetime – he died in 1966). His story, Trace in the Universe (Stopa ve Vesmíru) describes an ideal society of intelligent extra-terrestrial beings who have achieved full communism. War and private property are things of the past and the state has withered away. They live, unsurprisingly, in tower- cities. New buildings are manufactured and delivered to site by aeroplanes. Others have mobile facades. All needs are met by machines and, in an echo of his earlier writings, all consumption is governed by the rational principles of need. The beings who enjoy this world are not human: they have evolved from a squirrel-like progenitor. Honzík’s point being that all intelligent life would ultimately follow a path predicted by Marx towards communism.

How we assess the utopianism of such schemes in the 1960s in political terms is not clear. This ambiguity may well have even been strategic. Groups like Dvizhenie in Soviet Russia operated with official imprimatur, only occasionally falling foul of the patrons in the party/state. The group’s chief ideologue, Lev Nussberg, was a well-connected and skilful operator, adept at persuading the authorities to support the group’s projects. In the late 1960s, Dvizhenie’s works travelled abroad and were widely reported in the international press, providing vivid examples of the creativity of Soviet culture in the face of evidence of its ossification. At the same time, architects in Czechoslovakia – perhaps more than any other Eastern Bloc state – were able to convert their visions into daring architectural forms. Responsible for the Ještěd Television Tower, SIAL –around Karel Hubáček in the state architectural office, Stavoprojekt, in Liberec – also claimed privileges from the State by pressing their bona fides as loyal visionaries.[iv] Honzík was a loyalist too but in his science fiction one senses a desire to sustain restore the fantastic dimensions of Utopianism in the face of technocratic thinking. Might his paper worlds be understood as what Theodor Adorno called ‘negative utopias’, i.e., conditions or experiences which resist the foreclosure of the possibility of a completely new way of being?[v]  


[i] Hruza, 163.

[ii] Cited in Honzík, 2002

[iii] ‘Konečné rozloučení s třicetiletou érou konstruktivismu Architektura ČSR, 12, 1953, 141-144.

[iv] See Jiří Jiroutek, Fenomenen Ještěd (Liberec 2005) 66; see also ‘Excerpts from an interview with Karel Hubáček’, in Mašinisti, exh. cat., Fragner Gallery (Prague 1996)138.

[v] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London, 2004) 176

LOOKING FOR THE COMMON GROUND: THE 13TH VENICE ARCHITECTURE BIENNALE

Architecture, Design Exhibitions, Uncategorized

 This piece was commissioned by Space magazine. It appears in the magazine’s October 2012 issue.

Each Venice Architecture Biennale is given a theme by its curator, a leading architect or critic. The 2010 show was gathered under the slogan ‘People meet in architecture’ by SANAA’s Kazuyo Sejima. Two year’s earlier Aaron Betsky called for ‘Architecture Beyond Building’. Like most Biennale themes, these were open-ended propositions suggesting some kind of social agenda. With such ambiguous propositions as guides to the maze of displays and pavilions over the Biennale’s two sites, the visitor often struggles to find a connection between concept and content. Neither noisy self-promotion, whether of architectural practices or nations, nor the untrammeled pursuit of novelty are the best ways to approach social problems. And with prizes awarded to the best pavilions and displays, the Biennale has often been like a kind of strange beauty contest in a zoo where different species are judged.

This year, the Biennale has been curated by David Chipperfield, a British architect with a reputation as a meticulous modernist architect of museums and homes around the world. Like his predecessors, Chipperfield has charged the Biennale with social purpose, that of mapping the ‘Common Ground’. For Chipperfield this means recognizing that cities are ‘created in collaboration with every citizen and the many stakeholders and participants in the process of building.’ This was an unambiguous rebuttal of the idea of the ‘star’ architect who shapes the world with iconic buildings. Chipperfield’s brief was underscored by realism: after all, almost all the buildings and urban schemes which are created today are the product of large teams of people with different skills. Chipperfield’s brief was also an expression of idealism. If architects can forge a common ground – with each other, and with the future users and occupants of their buildings– perhaps architecture can restore its social purpose.

So with celebrity and novelty under an embargo, how well do the exhibitors deal with the challenge of representing architecture today?

In Common

Chipperfield’s attack on the architectural ego has been widely and, it would seem, enthusiastically accepted by the exhibiting nations and practices. The Korean pavilion contains eight practices – representing established architects and newcomers – who turned off the spotlight by presenting their schemes anonymously. Global superstar practice OMA honours the much maligned municipal architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, another form of near-anonymous design elsewhere. Different architectural practices share the white-walled spaces in the Central Pavilion to engage in dialogues about form. Dublin-based Grafton Architects, for instance, have picked up Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s call for architecture to be drawn out of the landscape in its new scheme for UTEC university campus in Lima. Their monumental studies in building form are arranged in a ring like some kind of prehistoric sacred site with photo blow-ups of da Rocha’s Serra Dourada Stadium (1973-5), a concrete megastructure, filling the horizon behind.

Foster – the voice of the street?

Even Norman Foster – perhaps the most the successful architectural global brand in the last two decades – agreed to Chipperfield’s terms. One of Foster’s two contributions to the Biennale is a multi-media installation called ‘Gateway’ made with film maker Carlos Carcas and artist Charles Sandison. Dozens of rapidly-paced documentary photographs, showing different gatherings of humanity – from riots to the Haj pilgrimage in Mecca – are projected high on the walls of a pitch-black room. This spectacle is accompanied by a booming soundtrack, carefully synchronized to accentuate the elation and the anxieties in these moments. Underfoot, data projections of the names of illustrious architects from the past and present, stream across the dark floor and up the rough columns of the Arsenale like a digital virus. Whilst the installation is impressively dizzying, what is not clear is the connection that Foster, Carcas and Sandison want to make between architecture and these dramatic events.

So which schemes and projects on display in Venice might improve the quality of being together? ‘Common ground’ infers something shared. Perhaps it can be understood as the meeting point for consensus and universal values. This is clear in Chipperfield’s introductory statements. But for a ground to be truly ‘common’, it has to accommodate difference and disagreement too. In recent years political philosopher Chantal Mouffe has made the case for agonistic relations in our political, cultural and economic lives. For a democracy to succeed, she argues, different and critical views need to be expressed. Critique and disputation are important for the health of civic society. They are just as important for architecture too.

Herzog & de Meuron have installed a show which sets out the schedule of one of their major schemes, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, which shuddered to a halt in November 2011 in the face of conflicts between the client (the city) and the contractor. It is now scheduled for completion in 2014. The building is presented as a series of suspended forms fashioned from layered blocks of foam held by plywood panels. These models offer little more than an impression of the interior spaces of the concert halls. Blown-up pages from the German press flank these hanging boxes. What is impressive is the amount of frank coverage of the scheme and the differences between the three main players. For architecture to truly occupy the common ground, it needs to be well reported. The public nature of a building should start with discussion of proposals, construction and even costs, and not on the day that the contractors leave the site. On this evidence, German readers are certainly better served by their press than most others elsewhere.

The US Pavilion celebrates the power of bottom up design.

Some of the most interesting exhibits in Venice offer reflection not on buildings as distinct objects but on the means by which we – architects and non-architects alike – can improve our buildings and cities. The US Pavilion, a small neoclassical temple, is filled with more than 120 examples of what the curators called ‘Spontaneous Interventions. Design Actions for the Common Good’, that is ‘bottom up’ attempts to improve the environment, sometimes by architects and artists, and sometimes by local citizens. They include real achievements such as a community scheme in Jackson Heights, Queens which has turned asphalt roads into grass playgrounds for children. Desires are mapped too: Candy Chang’s ‘I wish I was …’ schemes in which local people can express – in a direct and simple fashion – their hopes for vacant lots. Like these projects, the American display asks for just a little effort on the part of visitors. Large hanging panels describing each scheme hang on pulleys from the ceiling at head-height. When they are pulled into view, a counterweight suspended close to the walls rises to reveal, in a few words, the ‘solution’ to the problem being addressed. Underfoot, the curators have created an infographic charting the long history of participatory citizenship in the US to demonstrate that the projects overhead are deeply wired into the country’s DNA. Whilst all these schemes undoubtedly seek to improve the spaces of American life, many do not require the conventional skills of architects. In fact, sometimes what is required, it seems, is less architecture.

Architecture takes the form of a Venezuelan bar

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this kind of rethinking on show in Venice is a spirited project recording the squatting of Torre David, an abandoned and unfinished 45-story office tower in the middle of Caracas, Venezuela. With its roof-top heliport, the tower was planned for the super-rich. Today, 750 poor families make their home in this ruin of the boom-bust economy. They have cut holes in the reinforced concrete frame for doorways and laid cinder blocks to form interior walls. Homes, shops and other businesses have been made in this concrete skeleton. For Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, researchers from Urban-Think Tank and ETH-Zürich, and curator Justin McGuirk, Torre David represents an important experiment in informal settlement which has much to teach architects. Of course, they are not the first to take lessons in participation in the favelas and barrios. The key difference is the lateral sprawl of the shanty town is replaced by the vertical organization of the tower. The tower in ruins is one of the nightmares of modernity. In his 1976 novel High Rise, JG Ballard makes power cuts to an up-market block the trigger for a spiraling descent into primitive violence. Here in Venice, it is presented as an urban landscape with real social value. The community which has formed in the tower has become a self-governing society.

This project won a Gold Lion award from the Biennale jury, not least because McGuirk and his colleagues mounted a joyful and energetic show, complete with a Venezuelan arepa restaurant and moving photographs of everyday life in the tower by celebrated Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan. The café is the most lively corner in the what, for the most part, is a rather serious Biennale. The attention given to the building has not been welcomed by the Venezuelan architectural community or the press for that matter. In the run up to the show a campaign was mounted to discredit the project, claiming that the country was being misrepresented by this ‘vertical slum’ occupied by squatters with no regard for private property. The arguments for and against the exhibition in Venice have rippled across the national press.

McGuirk told Space that the inhabitants of Torre David are circumspect about the attention that Venice has brought to their home:  ‘It is a delicate thing because they love being special and that they are doing something interesting which is worthy of architectural analysis … I would not say that its ideological but they do believe in what they are doing. They think of themselves as a commune, of a kind which they can traced back to a South America before the conquistadors … They are self-organised. They have systems in place. They have water and electricity and security. It is a miniature city. But they are also nervous. If you attract too much attention, you might be kicked out.’

Material Memories

Torre David also represents another theme which runs through the Biennale, that of the fate of modernist buildings. This is emphatically a post modern show (after all, everything in it is after modernism). But it is not one which celebrates its defeat. In fact, many of the exhibits seem wistful, reflecting on what the material legacy of modernist structures which still form much of our material environment. This is perhaps not surprising: David Chipperfield Architects is perhaps best known for its restoration of the Neues Museum, a twelve year project completed in 2009. In Berlin, Chipperfield eschewed imitation, trying to salvage what he could of the historic fabric whilst introducing unsentimental and avowedly new elements where the past could not be reclaimed. Like strata in an archaeological dig, fragments of nineteenth century decorative schemes float on rough plaster and new wall surfaces frame old brickwork. The result is not only ethereal but it makes the Neues Museum a chronometer of Berlin’s troubled history.

Dispassionate modernism

The German Pavilion in Venice makes a claim on a much later and less remarkable type of building – the unassuming brutalist and late modernist structures erected in the 1950s and 1960s found in almost every German city on both sides of the former Cold War divide. Usually regarded today as being fatally outmoded, they are often destroyed to make way for the new. Muck Petzet, the German commissioner, makes the economic and environmental case for reusing and recycling these buildings, perhaps even reducing them as cities and societies shrink. To illustrate his project, Petzet has identified more than a dozen schemes which revive the brutalist concrete structures, seemingly the most unyielding forms of post-war modernism. Presented with the challenge of improving the large, grey and poorly insulated Dornbusch Church, a sixty year old structure, Meixner Schlüter Wendt Architects proposed reducing the building in size. Now the site features a large courtyard inscribed with the footprint of the much larger structure which once stood there and the reduced church itself has gained the dramatic chromatic effect of over-sized stained-glass windows.

The display in the German Pavilion is strangely cool and dispassionate, even if the attachment that young architects feel for late modernism is real. The settings – blown up so that they seem architectural in scale – are always depopulated in Erica Overmeer’s photographs. Whilst the economic case for reuse is made in the Pavilion, the emotional one seems missing. This is clear if one compares the German Pavilion with other engagements with the recent past. In the Korean Pavilion for instance, architect Hanh Jong Ruhl focuses on three schemes which contain memories, albeit sometimes painful ones. Recyling buildings from era of the Japanese occupation – such as the former Kyungsung Court House which was converted by Jong Ruhl to become the Seoul Museum of Art ten years ago means coming to terms with the traumatic events which took place within their walls (such as the trials of Korean independence activists). Similarly, the Estonians used the Biennale as an opportunity to reflect on the value of a Soviet-era building, the Linnahall concert hall designed by Raine Karp and Riina Altmäe and built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The display, entitled ‘How Long is a Life of Building?’, features a melancholic film of the long and low structure in its present ruined state and a more upbeat set of interviews with people who have memories of the building. These include stories of events in the late Soviet period when the high pomp of official rituals were interrupted by cats chasing mice, and concerts become impromptu opportunities for anti-Soviet sentiment. A structure which could so easily be presented as symbol of the failure of a much detested system, Soviet socialism, is presented as a rich field of Estonian memories.

Common Languages

It is perhaps not surprising that the Korean, the Estonian and many other displays turned to forms of documentary film to capture architecture. The challenges facing anyone seeking to represent buildings and cities in an exhibition are daunting. The chief problem is one of absence. For the most part, the subjects of all the Venice exhibits are simply elsewhere. Unlike the art biennale which occupies the same national pavilions and rooms in the former dockyards of the Arsenale on alternate years, the content of the show – whether the research being undertaken by British architects abroad or the environmental problems facing Greenland – has to be delivered through representations. Moreover, buildings, cities and landscapes are intricate things requiring considerable explanation and interpretation. Many of the exhibits – like the American pavilion and Herzog & de Mouron’s stop-start scheme in Hamburg – requires a lot of words. So what are the alternatives?

Light is coloured by the Dutch exhibit

The Dutch chose to focus on their own pavilion. Designed by Gerrit Rietvelt sixty years ago, this simple box on a square plan with full height windows.  Artist Petra Blaisse has done little more than fill this void with a curtain which slides into fixed positions on mechanical runners fixed to the ceiling. The sequence takes almost 40 minutes to complete. This moving wall is made from fabrics with different degrees of transparency or metallic finishes. As it loops back and forth, a rich variety of light effects and new spaces are produced, if only temporarily. Called ‘Re-set’, the installation is intended to highlight the quantity of empty buildings in the world today which might be reused. (Curator Ole Bouman reminds us that the building, only used for three months in the year, has been empty for forty years of its life). The effect of Blaisse’s moving curtain is entrancing and this rather mundane point is quickly forgotten. In the company of the densely packed and information-rich pavilions – which demand a lot of their visitors – the Dutch pavilion really holds the visitor’s attention.

Hi-tech, low content

Whilst CAD may rule architectural studios today, relatively few schemes in Venice make use of digital display techniques.  There are almost no fly-thrus and very few digital models to be seen. The Russian Pavilion is an exception. A team gives out digital tablets equipped with QR scanners to visitors. The first impression is exhilarating. One steps into a complete world of pulsing code equipped – like a time-traveller in a Hollywood fantasy – to read the mysterious geometry on the walls and floors. When the screen in one’s hands flashes up stern portraits of the members of the city council of the new Russian silicon valley, Skolkovo, being planned near Moscow, the effect is disappointing. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the content being delivered on the tablet  – a upbeat narrative of a new city which is being planned by a superstar cast including Chipperfield, SANAA, Herzog & de Meuron and others – the format cannot hide the fact that one is looking at a promotional website.

Sublime pattern making

Farshid Moussavi’s investigations into the ways in which pattern and ornament produce what she calls ‘affect’ are far simpler and, perhaps as a result, far more effective than the interactive screens in the Russian Pavilion. Moussavi has filled a tall gallery in the Arsenale with immersive video projections derived from the structures of historic buildings. They include the medieval ribbed vaults in Lincoln Cathedral and the scalloped forms of the Orchid Pavilion designed by Yutaka Murata in Tokyo (1987). Past and present are bridged by what she calls ‘affect’. This is how the rhythm and spatial organization of ornament and the patterns formed by structure affect the body. Architecture is, for Moussavi, a kind of moment when the body enters into a space, even one created five-hundred years ago. Her idea seems slightly strained when converted into large projections in the Biennale. But there is value in being reminded that our encounters with buildings are embodied ones when so many of the rest of the displays are so wordy.

Sound promotes touch, as visitors to the Polish Pavilion cling to the walls

This point is also made – quite loudly – in the Polish Pavilion. Artist Katarzyna Krakowiak and curator Michał Libera have ‘filled’ the space with the sound to – in Libera’s words – ‘make the building more audible, more sensual for the people who walk in’. Outside feeds deliver snatches of familiar Venice experiences such as the sound of a motor boat passing by on a canal or occasional laughter. But it is the building itself which provides the most remarkable sounds. The building’s natural resonance have been amplified into a low, percussive rumble which seems to issue from the walls and floor itself. The effect is compelling. When it came to judging the schemes the Polish Pavilion did not win a one of the three ‘lions’, the prizes awarded by the Biennale Jury but it was given a special nomination. Restrained and yet sensual, imaginative but not spectacular, it captures many of the undercurrents running throughout the 2012 Biennale. Perhaps one should never set too much score by the award of prizes. But the jury – led by Chipperfield – was surely out to make a point or two. They gave the chief prizes to the Torre David installation and the Japanese Pavilion featuring architect Toyo Ito’s emotional narrative of working with victims of the Tsunami to design new homes which provide the practical and psychological shelter which victims of a disaster require. The American Pavilion’s assembly of ‘Spontaneous Interventions’ was nominated as well. These garlands were clearly a reminder to the profession to listen harder to the people that use the buildings it designs.