The Peasant in the City

Architecture, Cold War, Design Exhibition, Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized

This piece was written for a Zacheta show, Polska – kraj folkloru? You can download the catalogue in English here. It includes excellent essays by Gabriela Świtek, Błażej Brzostek and the curator, Joanna Kordjak.

A Socialist capital – a city for every citizen … the worker, the peasant and the working intelligentsia’ – political slogan Poland, early 1950s

zrzut-ekranu-2013-01-8-o-14-00-12In the 1952 romantic comedy ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’ (Adventure in Mariensztat), Hanka, a country-girl, arrives in Warsaw as a tourist. A socialist realist fairytale, ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’ was the first full colour feature film in Poland and the director Leonard Buczkowki made full use of the bright fabrics of her festive dress, and the even brighter red horizons of the city. Her route though the capital’s streets, conducted at an exhausting ‘Warszawskie tempo’ (Warsaw tempo) by an animated guide motivated by the spirit of socialism, takes her from Mariensztat, a new housing district, past romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz on his plinth and Stanisław August’s picturesque palace which seems to float on the surface of the lake in Łazienki Park. Her tour ends abruptly when she seems to be lost in Constitution Square, the monumental showpiece of new socialist realist architecture in the city. Unperturbed, the joy of finding herself in the radiant future of socialist Warsaw is written in her smile. She is a peasant who is on the way to becoming a socialist activist. She joins a work brigade, becoming a bricklayer. The agent of her transformation was not a lecture or a political tract but the city itself. Warsaw had done its ideological work in this fable. Not only were the workers making the city; the city was making workers of peasants. Access to education, to homes of the kind being built in Constitution Square and to houses of culture would, it was claimed, overcome what Marx and Engels had classed the ‘idiocy of rural life’ in The Communist Manifesto one-hundred years earlier.

Social transformation was declared to be a priority of the new political order in the People’s Republic of Poland. Vice-Minister of Culture Włodzimierz Sokorski announced:


there is progress, a constant grappling with the new life conditions, a process of transforming peasants into proletarians. And take a look at the newly accepted university students who come from the working classes of cities or villages. Look how they have to struggle, how they are initially oppressed with the dominance of the pseudo-elites that they meet at the start of their student life. How they don’t give up, nonetheless, how they push themselves up to the surface and hold on tight to the positions achieved. They will be our leading and militant intelligentsia.[1]


Yet state attitudes to peasant life were contradictory. At the same time as calling for peasants to be made into proletarians, Sokorski also claimed that peasant culture was the beating heart of national life: ‘Folk art’, had he claimed, ‘formed itself in opposition to aristocratic, courtly culture. And at the same time its roots can be traced to a form of society founded on the drudgery of the masses, the feudal peasantry. When aristocratic culture severed itself from its national origins by becoming a source of docile cosmopolitanism and fossil-like formalism, peasant art nourished itself from a perpetually creative, richly national and deeply class-marked social stream.’[2] Peasant culture was ‘a living movement which renews itself everyday and every hour in the creative march of the Polish countryside to Socialism’.[3] This claim was allegorised in countless representations of the peasant in the company of her fellow builders of socialism. zulawskaHad Hanka looked up during her visit to Constitution Square in Buczkowski’s ‘Przygoda na Mariensztacie’, for instance, she might have even caught a glimpse of herself. The monumental arcades which flank the square were decorated with mosaics created by ceramic artist Hanna Żuławska to represent the seasons. Spring features a brightly dressed peasant woman marching arm-in-arm with a miner from Silesia, a factory worker and a ZMP-owiec (member of the socialist youth organisation) carrying a red flag. Here was an illustration of the national unity so loudly proclaimed by the state at the time. Countless other representations – posters, magazines, and in newsreels – recreated this happy scene. Almost invariably embodied as a woman in these images, the Polish peasantry was identified with femininity and the proletarian worker with masculinity. The peasant was both romanticised and emasculated in such representations (just as the political parties which represented peasant interests had been in the late 1940s).

The paradoxes of official representations of the peasantry was evident to many, even if censorship meant they could not be admitted. Writing abroad Czesław Miłosz in his critical account of the Stalin years, The Captive Mind, accused the state of making a fetish of peasant culture at the time when it was attempting (and failing) to impose collective farms in the countryside, attacking so called ‘kulaks’ (wealthy peasants) and encouraging internal migration to new urban projects like the construction of the city and kombinat of Nowa Huta:


In the villages, where the entire former pattern of custom is to be abolished through the transformation of peasants into agricultural workers, there still remains survivals of the individual peasant cultures which slowly stratified over the centuries. Still, let us speak frankly, the main support of this culture were usually the wealthier peasants. The battle against them, and their subsequent need to hide, must lead to the atrophy of peasant dress, decoration of huts, cultivation of private gardens, etc. There is a definite contradiction between the official protection of folklore (as a harmless form of national culture designed to satisfy patriotic tendencies) and the necessities of the new economic structure.[4]


For those who could not make a permanent move to Warsaw or Nowa Huta, tourism offered an alternative. Day trips and tours to Warsaw were organised for Poles from across the country to witness the miracle of reconstruction. To serve these national pilgrims, plans were put in place for new hotel and cultural centre in the heart of the city, Dom Chłopa (House of the Peasant). architektra002-kopia-kopia-2First conceived in 1946 (though plans for similar structures can be traced back to the First World War [5]), Dom Chłopa was conceived as a place not only of rest but of improvement. The building was to contain not only bedrooms and a restaurant for 500 guests, but also a library, a świetlica (political education room) and a cinema/theatre as well as a medical centre, a photographer’s studio and a hairdressers. Long delayed, the competition to design the building on a plot on Plac Powstanców Warszawy was not announced until May 1957. The winning scheme was designed by the most successful architect of the Stalin years, Bohdan Pniewski, and Małgorzata Handzelewicz-Wacławek. Organised around a quadrangle, their scheme provided accommodation under a rippling roof line (that earned it the nickname ‘the house of the camels’) and a glass-walled lobby from which all Dom Chłopa’s services could be accessed. Constructed after the so called ‘Thaw’, the architects could now take advantage of the ‘contemporary style’.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-17-36-34The open lobby was decorated with brightly coloured furnishings and largely abstract decorative schemes by artists Władysław Zych, and husband and wife team of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz. Attempting to produce a thoroughly modern interior, Hanna Rechowicz admits to making some compromises: ‘There were strange birds and other pretty funny unknown animals and plants … Because it is a hotel in which peasants stay, they asked for some that could be read as fragments of reality’.[6] Nevertheless, the Dom Chlopa’s presented its guests with a vision of the bright future in social, political and aesthetic terms.

Dom Chłopa was an exceptional institution but perhaps one that had been prefigured in the writing of the Stefan Żeromski. In his last novel, Przedwiośne (The Coming Spring, 1924), the writer tells the story of a father and son returning home from Baku after the First World War and the revolutionary events in Russia and elsewhere. It is a political bildungsroman. One of the magnetic images which pulls them home to Poland is the father’s descriptions of a liberated country enjoying the benefits of modern technology. Peasant homes are now, he tells his son, made with glass walls – bright, transparent, warm and above all hygienic: ‘water cools the walls; as a result, even in the greatest swelter it’s as cool there as in our cellar in Baku, but without the damp and the bad smell. The very same water constantly washes the glass floors, walls, and ceilings, bringing cool and cleanliness. (…) there is nothing that could rot or go moldy or smell from visible or invisible dirt, since all the utensils, all the furniture and fittings – everything is made of glass.’[7] Żeromski’s vision was fashioned not only from one of the clichés of progress – glass architecture, but also from one of the deep rooted prejudices of modern life – the dirtiness of the peasant. Similarly, the Dom Chłopa had been shaped by the conviction that the peasant needed to be improved to truly engage with the city. When not decorating the city in her gala dress, she appears to have been viewed as detritus (lit. matter out of place). Varsovian Anna Mańkowska passed her opinion of country tourists when interviewed in an article in Stolica (Capital City) in 1958: ‘I see countless tours through the windows of my apartment in the Old Market Square in Warsaw. Unwashed and rumpled and carrying their cases and bundles all day and foraging for orangeade at a kiosk, I wish for the simple device of day hotels, conceived for ordinary people.’[8]

This trope of dirtiness was evident in other campaigns to improve peasant life. Writing in Stolica Stanislaw Komornicki accused new-comers of reproducing the social spaces of the rural home in their new city apartments. The small, often meanly proportioned, kitchen was, he observed, sometimes used like the traditional czarna izba (black chamber) in the peasant home, a multi-functional room organized around the fireplace where household labour was conducted and meals consumed. In transposition, this ‘disposition’ in the new Warsaw apartment left the much-trumpeted collective services like the communal laundry unused. The other, biała izba (white chamber) – which had been used as a site of display and for the reception of guests – was preserved as a space of display rather than self-education or other virtuous hobbies. The small, new flat, which typically accommodated a family in two or three multi-purpose rooms, was designed according to principles of utility. In effect, the design of the apartment was disregarded by its inhabitants. In the view of this apologist for the new Warsaw, this trace of the peasant disposition in new socialist spaces ‘was an unfortunate memory of long-past, unhappy times’.[9] What Komornicki had in mind was not the ‘private’ time of biography but the epochal conception of Marxism in which life was regulated by the metre of progress: in this teleology, peasant life was destined for extinction. Ideologically correct, his article sought to raise a consciousness that would speed its disappearance.

Komornicki’s criticism tapped into deep-seated town/country antipathies in Polish culture. It also anticipated a good number of sociological and anthropological studies made in the decades that followed which sought to understand why newcomers to the city did not avail themselves of the cultural resources to which they now had access, or seem to have been improved by their new surroundings. negatywyAssessing the situation in Nowa Huta in the 1960s, one academic wrote ‘Where the new blocks were inhabited by the families of rural origins, there were frequent problems due to incompetent use of a contemporary flat by the immigrants. It was often the case that the fittings in a flat were devastated (such as water supply and drainage, or gas heaters in bathrooms) due to incorrect use of the equipment (such as drawing water from the radiator), or using bathroom as a place to keep animals’.[10] Internalising the ‘progressive’ policies of the state, much of this sociology eschewed observation in favour of judgment (‘incompetent use’).

Other portraits of the persistence of rural habitus in the city were more sympathetic. They include the social documentaries produced in the second half of the mid 1950s. During the Thaw, film-makers freed themselves from the task of producing propaganda and began to explore the impoverished conditions of everyday life. Known as the Czarna Seria (Black Series), their short films – sometimes involving actors and re-enactments but mostly assuming an observational style – took their viewers to the building sites and workers’ dormitories of Nowa Huta to witness the hooliganism and alcoholism there (‘Miejsce zamieszkania’, dir. Maksymilian Wrocławski, 1957), and the depopulated towns and villages in the Polish countryside (‘Miasteczko’, dir. Krystyna Gryczełowska, 1956). Another significant theme was the on-going housing crisis in Poland where many still lived in ruins ten years after the Second World War had ended. Made in the second wave of these social portraits, ‘Miasto na wyspach’ (‘City of Islands’, dir. Jerzy Dmowski and Bohdan Kosiński, 1958), a 8-minute film made for Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych, features one of the new clichés of the era, the image of the city as the countryside. New buildings were being constructed in Warsaw in small clusters with vast dusty plains in between. The clearance of the ruins had allowed nature and even small-holdings to occupy the city. Sometimes in Dmowski and Kosiński’s film, this lends itself to picturesque contrasts: a tram crosses a grassy meadow and a tethered cow appears with building site in the background. Other shots are more desperate, showing dilapidated shacks and their inhabitants scratching a meagre living by recycling the debris of the pre-war city. (And Dmowski and Kosiński intercut stills from the crowded streets of the pre-war city, decorated with advertising, to emphasise the contrast between urbanity and rurality). Despite the rhetoric of turning peasants into proletarians, it looked as if the village had come to occupy the city. This was not the romantic image of the village populated with happy peasants but a landscape of desperation. These scenes might also have come from the pages of Żeromski’s The Coming Spring. When the son arrives in Poland – still carrying his now late father’s images of peasant modernity in his mind – his disappointment is palpable: ‘Cezary gazed with cheerless eyes at the miry streets pocked with bottomless potholes; at the houses of all different, heights and colours and degrees outward filthiness; at the pigsties and the puddles, the outbuildings and the charred ruins.’[11]

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-17-33-22Dmowski and Kosiński were making a point, demanding that the post-stalinist state to make good on its promises of improved housing and welfare for all. This argument was taken further in Architektura, the mouthpiece of the professional association of architects in Poland. In 1963 Jan Minorski published an article entitled which interpreted data about life on the fringes of the city generated by Ekonom. Techn. Rady Naukowej przy PRN. Entitled ‘Architektura samorzutna’ (Spontaneous Architecture), it explored the ways in which improvised homes were made from cheap and often scavenged materials on narrow plots of land overlooked by the planners. Minorski’s portrait of such unsupported and largely illegal attempts to ‘meet the needs of human life’ was surprisingly sympathetic.[12] He had been a loyal champion of socialist realism and then, after 1956, of the modernist revival in Polish architecture. Often represented as antinomies, both shared a confident belief in the civilising mission of architecture. Yet, in this article, he expressed a genuine interest in what Bernard Rudolfsky called ‘architecture without architects’.[13] Minorski provided detailed maps of social relations in these households; sympathetic photographic portraits of the inhabitants of these shacks; and positive descriptions of the the resourcefulness and creativity involved in making their homes and running small business in the suburbs. Perhaps to offset the doubts of his readers, he asserted:

‘This architecture is:

  • spontaneous, the result of lively activities,
  • concrete, arising without a blueprint, variable, ‘tachiste’, according to one’s wishes’

Some of these homes and workshops were the product of urban expansion, sweeping former villages into the orbit of the city. Others were the product of tragedy: Minorski, outlining the lives of these householders, points to the dark catalogue of war and destruction that had necessitated this kind of domestic creativity. Moreover, it is clear – from the descriptions of their households – that they are predominately populated with women (or as Minorski puts it, ‘the grandmother reigns over the hierarchy here’[14]). The gendering of the peasant is, in this case, less a matter of ideology than of tragic fate. But his point is that these homes might also contain lessons for architects and urban planners too: they ‘are subject to constant change. Their spatial development is dynamic.’ ‘In spontaneous construction,’ he continues, ‘you can see that what is good comes from heroic efforts to provide a roof over one’s head. What is evil has its roots in the lack of financial, technical, legal, organisational support by the state.’[15] Perhaps little more than a footnote in the history of Polish architecture and urbanism, Minorski’s article did more than any other representation in the period to fill in the details of the figure of the peasant in the city, albeit on its very fringes. Her appearance here was not a fantasy in gala dress or a crumpled figure in need of improvement but was an attempt to understand her concrete existence.






[1] Włodzimierz Sokorski, ‘O sztukę realizmu socjalistycznego’ in Sztuka w walce o socjalizm (PIW: Warsaw, 1950) 150.

[2] Włodzimierz Sokorski, ‘O własciwy stosunek do sztuki ludowej’ in Polska Sztuka Ludowa (May 1949) 131.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1985) 67.

[5] Bohdan Rostropowicz, ‘Chłopi będą mieli swoj dom w Warszawie’ in Stolica (?) 15.

[6] Hanna Rechowicz cited by Max Cegielski, Mozaika śladami Rechowiczów (Warsaw: W.A.B., 2011), 164-5.

[7] Stefan Żeromski, The Coming Spring, trans. B. Johnston (Budapest: Central European Press, 2007) 85-88.

[8] Cited in Stolica 45, (1958)

[9] St. Komornicki, ‘Jak urządzić nowe mieszkanie’ in Stolica (1 March 1953) 11.

[10] S. Panek, E. Piasecki, ‘Nowa Huta. Integracja ludności w świetle badań antropologicznych’ in Materiały i prace antropologiczne, 80 (1971) 30 – cited by Ewelina Szpak, ‘’Between Farm and Factory. Peasants in Urban Space in Communist Poland’ in Lud’a Klusáková and Laure Teulières, Frontiers and Identities: Cities in Regions and Nations (Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2008) 248.

[11] Żeromski, Coming Spring, 126.

[12] Jan Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ in Architektura, 4 (1963) 133.

[13] This was a title of an exhibition curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964-5 which surveyed the diverse faces of vernacular building traditions around the world.

[14] Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’, 118.

[15] Minorski ‘Architektura samorzutna’ 115.

Notes from the Underground

Cold War, Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized

In September, Daniel Muzyczuk and I curated a show entitled ‘Notes from the Underground’ for the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz which explores the intersection of art and music in Eastern Europe under communist rule. Rock, punk and new wave were not only embraced by young musicians in the 1970s and 1980s, they shaped the visual arts too. Fashion, graphic design and video were animated by these new sensibilities throughout the so called Eastern Bloc and former Yugoslavia. Of course the idea of the underground was a kind of myth but one which, nevertheless, had tangible effects – and often quite brilliant ones too. Take a look at this video by the East German absurdists, AG Geige.

Between the official sphere and dissident culture, this zone has been somewhat overlooked and so the show in Lodz is an attempt to provide some kind of map to this phenomenon. In fact, the show covers a lot of ground from Prague to Moscow and from Vilnius to Belgrade.

The exhibition closes on 15 January 2017 but we hope that it will travel to other venues in Europe in 2017-18. A 450 pp book published by MSL / Walter Koenig accompanies the show.

Press shots of the show can be seen here.

Karol Sienkiewicz wrote a thoughtful review here and there is a good overview text from Odra by Monika Pasiecznik here. Stach Szablowski’s Dwutygodnik piece reflects on the place of the avant-garde in the museum. He asks what happened to the underground after 1989 – perhaps a task for another curator .. And Waldemar Kuligowski is far less happy with the show in Czas Kultury.

Hannelore Fobo has made a short film, focusing on the works of E-E Kozlov in the show here.

There is an interview with Daniel and myself here.

The Poster Remediated – installation shots and press

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modernism Redux

Architecture, Eastern Europe

In October 1993, Charles Jencks, the leading advocate of architectural postmodernism, was guest of honour at an international conference and exhibition on ‘Post-Modernism and National Cultures’ which was held at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This event coincided with the Yeltsin coup, which culminated on October 3-4 with the fighting at the Ostankino TV Center, followed by the military assault on the Supreme Soviet building and its destruction by tank artillery. This was the final attempt by hard-liners to hold onto Soviet power. And, of course, it failed.

Jencks seized the moment. He issued a pronouncement entitled ‘Moscow, October 4 1993–10:10 AM Modernity Is Dead’ (an update of his famous declaration of the death of modern architecture at Pruitt-Igoe, a large housing project in St. Louis, Missouri).[1] Jencks wrote ‘reactionary modernists all over Russia know the game is up’ and that the ‘post-modern paradigm progresses cheerfully, death by death, marking thereof the more notable funerals with architectural ruins’.


Soviet Russia suffered Modernism and the modern paradigm more than any other country. With the exception of China, its forms of the brutal materialism were more systematic than elsewhere and its imposition of reductive rationalism and mechanism mind-set more thorough going. The utopian housing estates built as vertical concentration camps in heavyweight concrete were more ubiquitous, the secret police and mind control more pervasive.[2]


Now that the Soviet project – the paradigm of modernism – was fatally wounded, radical postmodernism – ‘ironic, dually-coded and resistant to reigning power’ – could enter the stage of history.[3]

In the event, rather than articulating resistance to power, as Jencks prophesied, architectural postmodernism in Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev’s Russia has largely served the cynicism and greed of the post-Soviet elites. Nevertheless, the idea that postmodernism not only coincided with the end of communist rule but that the two were somehow codependent was an attractive one and, in the early 1990s, this connection was often made. Jencks’ vision of postmodernism as being ‘resistant to reigning power’ seemed to be in accord with the image of revolution as a kind of playful overthrow of power – an image which was perhaps most closely associated with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia rather than in the bloody street-fighting in Romania in the winter of 1989 or the long drawn-out negotiations between the opposition and the authorities in Poland which had taken place over a number of years.

Dancing House photographed by Francisco Antunes (Flickr CC licence)

Dancing House photographed by Francisco Antunes (Flickr CC licence)

Prague’s Tančící dům (the Dancing House) was often proclaimed – in the architectural press in the West – as the first postcommunist landmark in Central Europe. A fashionably anthropomorphic pair of buildings clasped together, it was designed in 1992 by Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry with an interior by émigré Czech architect, Eva Jiřičná.[4] Widely reported around the world, it was seized as a symbol of the shift to the West, the creativity and the optimistic mood of Czech culture after the Velvet Revolution. It was even claimed by a writer in the New York Times as an index of democracy in the country.[5] In Jencks’ terms, the Dancing House might well be ‘dually-coded’ but it is hardly ‘resistant to power’. Funded by a Dutch investment bank and providing up-market apartments and a French restaurant, it seemed to illustrate the dramatic arrival of postmodernism and postcommunism in Central Eastern Europe. Here was a vivid example of what Fredric Jameson in 1991 called ‘the logic of late capitalism’.[6] Viewed in these terms, much of the rhetoric which accompanied the appearance of architectural postmodernism in Eastern Europe after 1989 was a kind of victor’s triumphalism.

Whilst postmodern design was widely understood as kind of arrival from the West after the Berlin Wall was breached, the ‘local’ appeal of postmodernism in East and Central Europe should not, however, be downplayed. There had been a sincere engagement with what can be called postmodernist aesthetics throughout the Bloc in the 1980s. This took various forms (even if the title postmodernism was not widely assumed) including paper architecture schemes in the Soviet Union which visualized impossible buildings, often offering powerful meditations on the historic and largely undervalued architectural forms of pre-revolutionary Russia.[7] 4368467286_a9c3707778_oIn their retrospection and nostalgia, the etchings of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, for instance, offered a critique of the fetish made of the new in Soviet architecture. Their ‘Columbarium Architecturae (Museum of Disappearing Buildings)’ of 1984 depicts a memorial structure in which old buildings threatened with destruction are preserved like the ashes of the dead. Yet these buildings have not quite expired. They demand the careful attention of the viewer, whether the occupant of the building or the passerby. If a building is forgotten or overlooked, the massive ball in the centre of the structure swings into action to destroy it. This fantastic scheme, and others by the duo, is explicitly critical of the processes of modernisation which had swept old buildings from Soviet streets in the name of progress.

In Poland, the Roman Catholic church – a relatively wealthy and autonomous organization – commissioned architects to design new churches. Often these structures were given highly symbolic forms like arks, monumental crosses and unfinished ruins to deliver unmistakable messages about the failures of community and distortion of history under communist rule.[8] In Hungary, Imre Makovecz and a number of kindred spirits – architects as well as writers, academics – often working in the south of Hungary in Pécs, developed an archi­tectural philosophy and aesthetic in the 1970s which valued traditional materials and craftsmanship as well as highly expressive and symbolic forms which has come to be known as ‘Organic Architecture’. They established international reputations as instinctive ‘post-modernists’ behind the Iron Curtain who worked in opposition to orthodox state design. Makovecz’s colleague György Csete was, for example, singled out by Jencks in later editions of his 1977 book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture.[9]

Czechoslovakia was relatively unfertile ground for the kinds of postmodern expressivity found in Poland and Hungary prior to 1989. sramkova-2-48074c83e7a5aArchitectural critics have found ‘hints’ of postmodernism in the glass clock-tower on Alena Šrámková’s ČKD building in Wenceslas Square in Prague (1974-83), for instance. But this is one of a small number of structures which have been awarded the label. By a curious twist of fate, Jencks’ The Language of Postmodern Architecture was, in fact, published in Czech in 1979 (as Jazyk postmoderní architektury), seven years before the first Soviet edition and nine years before the first Polish version. It was also reviewed in the specialist press.[10] Significantly, however, the Czech book was a samizdat publication (an illegal, unlicensed version initiated by Jiří Ševčík and others) in an edition of only 35 copies, whilst the Russian edition was issued by Storiizdat, the State Construction House, and the Polish book was widely and cheaply available in official bookstores.

In fact, Poland in the early 1980s was home to relatively open discussions of the failings of modern architecture and design, often focusing on the anomie and alienation produced by the mass housing schemes which had been erected in the 1960s and 1970s. Architects set themselves the task of ‘humanising’ the standard and industrial schemes which filled the environment. Occasionally, these criticisms were even directed at the state: during the rise of the Solidarity trade union in Poland in 1980, for instance, the All-Poland Council of Architects issued a statement which announced:


The disastrous state of housing in Poland is the result of the crisis the whole of society and the economy. Architecture is just a reflection of the collapse of human dignity that accompanies this crisis. … In the existing system, there is no central place for contact between an architect and inhabitant and, consequently, for social impact on the shape of our homes and cities. This economic model cannot solve the pressing problems of house building. We demand the creation of new economic mechanisms, and especially a market for local initiatives, restore law and the responsibilities of the householder, the architect and the contractor under the rule of law and their competence …[11]


This was an extraordinarily bold call: one which could not have been made elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, particularly in Husák’s Czechoslovakia. Such was the central control over architecture and design that attempts to organize unofficial practices were met with a censorious response. The 1983 exhibition ‘Prostor, architektura, výtvarné umĕní’ (Space, Architecture and Fine Art) exhibition organized by Jiří T. Kotalík in Ostrava was closed down and copies of the catalogue pulped. The exhibitors’ interests (some of whom were concerned with existing dilapidated structures in the environment) were less threatening to the state than the independence of action and thought which the exhibition demonstrated. Circumspect announcements about the ‘crisis of modernism’ emerged in the late 1980s in the writings of critic and curator Milena Lamarová and the unofficial ‘Urbanita’ exhibitions in Prague’s Fragner Gallery.[12]

But perhaps the most forceful critique of Czechoslovak architectural design came earlier in the form of a movie, Věra Chytilová’s Panelstory (Prefab Story, 1979) a social satire presenting the chaotic lives of the inhabitants of a characteristically dull and unfinished panel-built housing estate. Shot using a hand held camera on a real housing estate, the film shares much with the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary form: this is unmistakably a real place and so are the experiences of the occupants. They testify to the failure of the estate’s design in their actions: when the water supply falters, for instance, a kettle has to be filled from the toilet cistern. And when a complaint is made by a tenant about the ‘horrible’ finish and ill-shaped spaces of her high-rise apartment, the official response, ‘It was designed that way’, comes with a shrug of the shoulders. Somehow Panelstory managed to get past the censors, though the film was very rarely screened.

Reviewing the state of Czech socmodernism a couple of years after the Velvet Revolution, curator Lamarová stressed what she saw as the impoverished state of both the design profession and its continued attachment to modernism: ‘While the [rest of the] world has experienced a strong wave of postmodernism since the early 1970s – first in architecture and thereafter in design and fashion – Czech design is still trying to conform to modernism in its drooping, postwar socialist form. A complex – formed by anxiety about copying foreign design from the West, and the general conservatism of a generation of designers, not to mention the characteristic bitterness of Czech industry and the total consumerisation of the skyline – continues to encourage meaningless proclamations about “functional” form …’.[13]

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 01.00.52Perhaps this sense of isolation and the exhaustion of the official design offices accounts for the enthusiastic and rapid embrace which was given to the Jencksian version of postmodernism in Czech culture in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. In April 1990, the Applied Arts Museum in Prague presented an exhibition entitled ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ (The Paths to Postmodernism) curated by Josef Kroutvor. The exhibition – focusing on architectural design, furniture, ceramics and graphics – placed a particular emphasis on the unofficial currents which had been gathering pace in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. In his introductory essay, Kroutvor linked the programmatic character of the avant-garde (effectively a synonym for modernism) with totalitarianism – much like Jencks.[14] He also played up the underground associations of postmodernism in socialist Czechoslovakia, stressing the pioneering role of critics Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík who had published some of their essays on postmodernism as samizdat; [15] the emergence of Atika in 1987, an independent design group who eschewed the shibboleths of economy, simplicity and manufacturability for ‘irony, fairy tales, the surreal and sensations brought to us by the media’ in their designs for furniture;[16] and on the resolutely impractical , ‘post-Cubist’ chairs and tables designed by the controversial and dissident artist, Milan Knížák, in the 1970s and 1980s. In this sense, ‘The Paths to Postmodernism’ accentuated the critical bona fides of postmodernism at a time when the style was being accused elsewhere of ‘pseudohistorical nostalgia, the fabricated traditions, the pandering to a nouveau-riche clientele, the populist rhetoric that often sounds more paternalistic than democratic, the abandonment of any social vision’.[17]

Too young to have exhibited in Kroutvor’s survey, Olgoj Chorchoj formed at the height of enthusiasm for postmodernism in Czech design. Conceived during a Vitra Design Museum Workshop in 1990, its founders, designers Michal Fronĕk and Jan Nĕmeček, were then students at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. The Academy was itself undergoing its own palace coup with a high proportion of the established professors being replaced by a new generation of artists and designers – selected by open election – who brought in new ideas about aesthetics as well as the role of the designer. Fronĕk and Nĕmeček were taught by Bořek Šípek, the émigré living in the Netherlands with an international reputation for high-end designs for famous brands.[18] Fronĕk and Nĕmeček recalled ‘Bořek Šípek came to our studio after the revolution … He opened up the world, and we went with him to Holland. Suddenly we saw that design could extend beyond its perceived boundaries as trade, to be a highly prestigious thing. It was said there that a designer should be a star. We saw that it was possible to make beautiful and affordable things. And that fame … is the means to ensure freedom and secure an existence.’[19]

Sexy MF copy

Sexy MF vase (1992)


Škoda I and II tables (1997)

Both Olgoj Chorchoj’s fantastic name and the studio’s earliest designs seemed to suggest a kind animism in which ordinary objects – glassware, lamps and tables designed by the duo and made by small-scale Czech manufacturers and workshops – exhibited a kind of liveliness and exuberance. Undeniably practical, these objects downplayed utility in favour of humour and pleasure. The Sexy MF vase made in 1992 in the Rückl and Sons glassworks, for instance, invited its user to couple the two anthropomorphically-shaped parts. The ‘Mr XL Fingers’ desk, a vigorous sweep of veneered plywood from the same year, seems less like a piece of office furniture than a witty comment on power. Olgoj Chorchoj’s postmodern phase was relatively short-lived. By the mid 1990s, the duo’s designs for furniture eschewed ornament and symbolism in favour of an emphasis on the texture and visual effects of materials, as well as a restrained vocabulary of forms (though they maintain a taste for gently ironic titles). In fact, as the decade progressed, the Olgoj Chorchoj Studio established an international reputation for its skilled handling of materials, often by working closely with Czech workshops. The suggestive mass and void of the Škoda I and II tables (1997), as well precise geometries of their forms, was achieved by slicing through many layers of plywood using the cutting tables at the Škoda Factory in Pilsen. This technique produced a vivid and ‘natural’ effect of stripes through the timber blocks. To avoid wastage the tables were cut from panels in standard dimensions. Deriving their proportions and aesthetic effects from the process of making, the Škoda tables represent the kind of sophisticated modernism which has come to characterize upmarket Czech architectural and furniture design since the late 1990s (the same might be said of the group’s architectural designs in the new years of the century as well). In the light of the phenomenon’s loud dismissal of socmodernism in the first years after the Velvet Revolution, what is striking about so much Czech design in the last two decades has been what architectural critic Rostislav Švácha has described as its ‘austerity’.[20] For Švácha this is largely a matter of style rather than economy, not least because most of the neomodernist villas and minimalist furniture designs have been created for wealthy private clients or in limited editions.

Is this taste for minimalism simply a matter of the turn of the wheel of fashion after the expressive excesses of postmodernism? The answer to this question may well lie in the way in which the phenomenon of Czech modernism of the inter-war years itself has undergone a wholesale reassessment since the Velvet Revolution. And, in this history, Olgoj Chorchoj should be regarded not only as an interpreter of Czech modernism but as an agent in its revival. In 1993, Fronĕk and Nĕmeček restarted ‘Artěl’, a co-operative established in Prague in 1908 to produce modern applied art designed by artists and made in workshops by skilled craftsmen and women. More than a brand, Artěl’s founders imagined the cooperative as a community of makers (much in the manner of other design reform groups like the Wiener Werkstätte in Austria). The ceramic, glass and metal wares designed by Artěl members took a variety of forms including traditional folk arts (echoing growing Czech nationalist sentiment at the time) and the angular modernism of cubist designs. Vlastislav Hofman, for example, sought to realise a decorative Cubism by deforming traditional ceramic forms in a series of services and vases. The surfaces of these Artěl products were transformed with angled planes and trimmed edges.

Artěl thrived in the 1920s in the newly independent Czechoslovakia but was eventually forced to close in 1935 when it was no longer financially viable. Nevertheless, it formed an important chapter in a longer history of modernism in the Czech lands that also includes Družstevní práce (Cooperative Work), a publishing house with a large middle class readership founded in 1922 which opened a shop and gallery in Prague with the name Krásná jizba (Beautiful Household) five years later. Selling domestic products designed by associates of the cooperative including Ladislav Sutnar as well as other pragmatic modernists (in the early 1930s, for instance, it sold Bauhaus furniture[21]), Družstevní práce set out to demonstrate that the ways of living mapped out in Modern Movement blueprints were no longer distant avant-garde dreams: they were becoming part of middle class experience.[22] Other moments in this longer – though fragmented – narrative might also include the so called Brussels Style of the late 1950s and 1960s.[23] Pointing to the interwar roots of this festive expression of Czechoslovak modernism at the Brussels Expo in 1958, Fronĕk and Nĕmeček have said ‘It was an optimistic time here, and shaped by people who had grown up in a freer society. But certainly there was no celebrity, because the designs were not in production and were not associated with their creators. Brussels was obviously a very formal style. But design is not just about form: form is the last joyful activity, the icing on the cake, a place for emotion. But a good designer is able to prepare a place for emotion. Design is usually 80% rational, whilst 20% depends on the emotions.’[24]

Fronĕk and Nĕmeček’s decision to revive Artěl and reissue some of its distinctive products – including a clock and a bookshelf designed by Josef Gočár in 1913 as well as a 1912 table by Pavel Janák in the Czech cubist manner; and a modernist breakfast service designed by Ludvika Smrčková from 1931– was by no means an expression of nostalgia. Also issuing new contemporary designs, Artěl II was a statement of intent in the early years of the Czech Republic. Czech Cubism of the 1910s – little more than a dusty antiquarian interest on the part of scholars during the years of communist rule – was, like postmodernism, a ‘discovery’ which seemed to resonate with the postcommunist condition. Here was a local version of modern design which seemed to combine national distinction with an openness to foreign influence: it also connected the Havel’s republic with the Masaryk era, widely viewed as a kind of golden age of Czech modernity. Here too was a model of business which valued high production values and served middle class markets (both attractive features after what Lamarová called ‘the bitterness of Czech industry’ during the Husák years); and, of course, here was a business led by artists. Some even saw the living line of Czech modernism from the beginning of the twentieth century to its end as an expression of what architectural theorist Kenneth Frampton called ‘critical regionalism,’[25] an architecture of resistance against the impact of universal culture and placelessness: ‘There is every hope that this remarkable example of living culture, which was interrupted by the various prohibitions of totalitarian regimes’, wrote François Burkhardt, ‘has regained its freedom of expression and will find in its own tradition the idiom appropriate to its aspirations. Postmodernism, with its return to critical regionalism, may breathe new life into a movement which has earned the historical right to continue.’[26]

Burkhardt writing in 1992 was keen to stress the postmodernity of Czech Cubism not as a form of anti-modernism (in the manner, say, of the Organic Architects in Hungary) but as its extension: ‘To expand its horizons beyond the frontiers of modernism’, he wrote, ‘it has added the emotional dimension, which touches upon the new postmodern sensibility.’[27]

Mr Egg

Mr Egg (2001)

Olgoj Chorchoj’s designs – even when they approach the emphatic simplicity of Czech functionalism – might well be understood in exactly these terms. With their humorous and sometimes gently ironic titles (like the ‘Mr Egg’ set of drinking glasses for the Květná Glassworks, 2001), their designs often have a tender appearance (the ‘20%’ investment in emotion).

Czech postmodernism was a short-lived phenomenon, particularly when compared with the long interconnected chains of Czech modernism which have been so carefully sustained through museum exhibitions, the writings of historians and, of course, the actions of designers too. But it was perhaps a necessary phase for Olgoj Chorchoj as well as for others: it stimulated an understanding of the importance of both authorship and of emotion in design; and, above all, the value of the past, in this case the bourgeois tradition of modern design in Czechoslovakia which had been obscured by image of failure which attached to modernism in the 1970s and 1980s.



[1] Charles Jencks in Alexey Yurasovsky and Sophie Ovenden, eds., Post-SovietArt and Architecture (London, 1994) p. 11.

[2] Ibid, p. xx

[3] Ibid, p. 13.

[4] Joseph Giovannini, ‘Fred and Ginger dance in Prague; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vlado Milunic’ in Architecture vol. 86, no. 2 (February 1997) pp. 52-63; Laurie Wale, ‘The dancing building; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vladimir Milunić in Architect & Builder (January 1997) pp. 2-5; ‘Praga [Ginger and Fred: offices for Nationale Nederlanden, Prague]; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vladimir Milunic ‘ in Arquitectura Viva no. 52 (January/February 1997) pp 94-99; Robert Bevan, ‘Inside Fred and Ginger’ in Interiors for Architects & Designers (Spring 1997) pp. 24-27; Simonetta Carbonaro, ‘Der tanzende Palast: Frank O Gehry und seine Begegnung mit Vlado Milunic in Prag’ in Deutsche Bauzeitschrift, vol. 44, no. 9 (September 1996) pp. 93-97.

[5] ‘Mr. Gehry’s design was approved by 68 percent of the voters in a referendum held in 1993 after the Velvet Revolution, when voting became the unofficial national pastime’ wrote Timothy-Jack Ward in ‘The Towers In Prague That Swirl And Waltz’ in New York Times (1 February 1996).

[6] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London, 1991).

[7] See Alexander G. Rappaport, Paper Architecture. New Projects from the Soviet Union (New York, 1990).

[8] See Lidia Klein, ed., P1 Postmodernizm polski. Architektura i urbanistyka (Warsaw, 2013).

[9] Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London, 1987) p. 159.

[10] Bořislav Babáček, Jiří Kučera, Jaroslav Ouřecký, ‘Jazyk postmoderní architektury’, Architektura ČSR XXXVII (1978) pp. 463-467.

[11] Statement of the All-Poland Council of Architects (Warsaw, November 1980) published in Architektura xxx

[12] See, for instance, Milena Lamarová, ‘Na vlně postmodernismu’ in Domov, 3 (1987) pp. 20-24.

[13] Milena Lamarová, untitled essay in the catalogue for the ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ exhibition at the Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum (Prague, 1990) unpaginated.


[14] Josef Kroutvor, untitled essay in the catalogue for the ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ exhibition at the Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum (Prague, 1990) unpaginated.

[15] See for instance, Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, ‘Loučení s modernismem. Čtyři úvahy o nové malbě’ in Sborník památce Jiřího Padrty (samizdat), 1985, pp. 21–29 reproduced in Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, Texty (Prague, 2010) pp. 188–194.

[16] Milena Lamarová from the catalogue for the Studio Atika exhibition in Prague, 1989 reproduced in Dagmar Koudeliková and Anežka Šimková, eds.,  Atika 1987-1992. Emoce a forma (Olomouc, 2007) pp. 112-3

[17] Mary McLeod, ‘Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism’ in Assemblage, no. 8 (February 1989) p. 22.

[18] See Martina Pachmanová and Markéta Pražanová (eds.), Vysoká škola uměleckoprůmyslová v Praze, 1885–2005 (Prague, 2005) pp. 85-7.

[19] ‘Olgoj Chorchoj: Sláva je prostředkem ke svobodě’ in Lidové noviny (12 December 2011) – – accessed 31/3/16

[20] Rostislav Švácha, Czech Architecture and Its Austerity (Prague, 2004).

[21] Iva Janáková, ed., Ladislav Sutnar. Prague-New York. Design in Action, (Prague, 2003) p. 188.

[22] See Christopher Wilk, ed., Modernism. Designing a New World 1914-39 (London, 2006) pp 392-3.

[23] See Daniela Kramerová and Vanda Skálová, eds., Bruselský sen. Československá účast na Světové výstavě Expo 58 v Bruselu (Prague, 2008).

[24] Olgoj Chorchoj: Sláva je prostředkem ke svobodě’ in Lidové noviny (12 December 2011) – accessed 31/3/16

[25] Kenneth Frampton ‘’Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’ in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture (Port Townsend, 1983) pp 16-29.

[26] François Burkhardt, ‘Czech Cubism Today’ in Alexander von Vegesack, ed., Czech Cubism. Architecture, Furniture and Decorative Arts 1910-1925 (London, 1992) p. 105.

[27] Ibid, p. 96.

The Poster Remediated

Design as Critique, Graphic Design

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Mediation of the Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


Human Billboards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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


Concentration or dissipation?

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


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


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

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


The Poor Poster

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] See – accessed 23/03/16

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

[4] See – accessed 23/03/16

[5] See – accessed 23/03/16

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

[7] Bolter and Grusin, Remediation, 56.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] Gregory Sholette xxx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[36] New York Times article TBC

All Power to the People

Graphic Design


This is a draft version of a short essay which will appear in a book accompanying ‘The Sixties: A Worldwide Happening’, an exhibition being organised by the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen in the Netherlands.

A new global consciousness infused the political poster in the 1960s. The fight for Civil Rights in the United States, decolonization in Africa, the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), the Cuban Revolution (1953-9) and the Vietnam War (at its height between 1965 and 1975) threw up not only powerful images of societies undergoing dramatic and sometimes violent transformation but also heightened awareness of the injustices produced by various kinds of imperialism. Liberation movements in what is sometimes called the ‘Global South’ today provided inspiring models of action, as well as powerful critiques of Cold War order. In the most affluent consumer societies of the ‘First World’, political activists identified with ‘Third World’ revolutionaries. For many, Frantz Fanon’s 1961 study, Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) was a key text. Fanon challenges his readers to throw off the myths of progress which had been generated in the West since the Enlightenment: ‘Two centuries ago, a former European colony decided to catch up with Europe. It succeeded so well that the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness and the inhumanity of Europe have grown to appalling dimensions … The West saw itself as a spiritual adventure … [and] justified her crimes and legitimized the slavery in which she holds four-fifths of humanity.’[1] The challenge facing all liberation movements was, according to to avoid reproducing the social structures and illusory freedoms on which European humanism had been based. Violent resistance was a legitimate response to the overbearing violence of colonialism. And national consciousness – raised by artists and poets in the aftermath of colonialism – need not lead to nationalism, but to greater internationalism (an African or Arabic consciousness).[2] Looking beyond the West, Fanon – a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front – saw signs of the new world to come: ‘The liberation of Africa and the growth of consciousness among mankind have enabled the Latin America peoples to break with the old merry-go-round of dictatorships where each succeeding regime exactly resembled the previous one. Castro took over power in Cuba, and gave it to the people.’[3]

Time magazine, Jan. 1959

Time magazine, Jan. 1959

Fanon – like many left-wing intellectuals around the world – looked to Cuba with high expectation. Seizing power on the Caribbean island in 1959, Fidel Castro’s 26 July Movement had toppled the Batista dictatorship and promised to end inequality and bring social justice. Cuba’s hold on the imagination in the West and the East was perhaps greater than the size of the island or its population might warrant. But its proximity to the United States, and the extent of popular support for communists like Castro (unlike, say, in Eastern Europe where the seizure of power had been achieved in the late 1940s through murky machinations and menace) added much to its global importance. Moreover, the guerilla war to oust Batista exploited – like no other revolution before it – the power of the image. Castro’s revolutionaries, small in numbers, achieved the ‘media effect’ of amplification by performing horseback parades and gun salutes for the cameras of the world’s media.[4] And once in power, Cuban films, magazines and posters continued to trumpet the values and the achievements of the revolution abroad, in forms which were no less vivacious even when reporting sugar cane harvests.[5]

Although often screen-printed on cheap paper, Cuban posters of the mid-1960s drew enthusiastic praise around the world for their vivid fields of colour and uninhibited designs. They were generally created by designers on the books of official agencies such as Comisión de Orientación Revolucionaria, the publicity wing of the Communist Party and Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos which issued posters to promote films. Printed in large numbers (more than 5 million posters in one year, 1972[6]) and in a great plurality of styles (from portraits of workers in the socialist realist manner to fashionable Op Art aesthetics), they formed the visual environment of post-revolutionary Cuba. They also travelled well: Cuban posters were shown in galleries on both sides of the Cold War divide and reprinted in large format anthologies within a few years of the revolution.[7] The diversity of poster styles, it seems, was living proof of Fidel Castro’s promise to cultural workers made in 1961 to withdraw from questions of artistic form, in exchange for party control of content. Although writer Susan Sontag argued that undisciplined aesthetics lacked the rigour required to be truly revolutionary, she traced the contours of freedom in their hedonism: ‘These posters give evidence of a revolutionary society that is not repressive and philistine … a culture which is alive, international in orientation and relatively free of the kind of bureaucratic interference that has blighted the arts in practically every other country where a communist revolution has come to power.’[8] In other words, these posters were proof that Cuba was not the Soviet Union, with the paranoia, conservatism and despotism that Brezhnev’s rule entailed.

Alfredo Rostgaard, poster marking the 10th anniversary of ICAIC, 1969

Alfredo Rostgaard, poster marking the 10th anniversary of ICAIC, 1969

Castro presented the Caribbean island as the friend of small nations living in the shadow of aggressive neighbours and a sanctuary for revolutionaries around the world. Black leaders in the United States were drawn, with Havana’s encouragement, to Cuba, particularly after the explosive Watts Riots in Los Angeles in August 1965. Black Power activists including Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver left the USA for Cuba in 1967 and 1968, before being given passage to Africa to agitate for their visions of pan-Africanism there. In 1966 Cuba hosted the Tricontinental Conference in Havana to promote ‘solidarity with the Third World people’s struggles, claims and most precious desires.’ Under a neon sign of fist clenching a gun fixed above the entrance of the Havana Libre hotel, representatives from more than 50 countries gathered to express their opposition to imperialism and neo-colonialism. There was little consensus about what to do next, except perhaps to express solidarity with the people of Vietnam. In his concluding address, Castro drew attention to the resistance being encountered by half a million well-equipped American troops fighting in Vietnam: ‘To the amazement of the world, the people of Vietnam are furnishing the most extraordinary example of heroism the history of any liberation movement has ever seen, because a liberation movement has never had to face more powerful forces. The people of Vietnam are reversing these forces and defeating the might of the Yankee imperialists’.

Following the conference, OSPAAAL – Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina (Organisation of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America) – was formed. Engaged in various forms of propaganda activity, OSPAAAL was a major publisher of posters with messages in Spanish, English, French and Arabic. Opposition to the influence of USA was a mainstay of OSPAAAL designs, as was support for indigenous peoples and left-wing governments in the three continents.

Perez and Ernesto Padron’s ‘Day of Solidarity with the Peoples of Puerto Rico'

Perez and Ernesto Padron’s ‘Day of Solidarity with the Peoples of Puerto Rico’

Faustino Perez and Ernesto Padron’s ‘Day of Solidarity with the Peoples of Puerto Rico’ (1968), for instance, marks an objection to the Americanisation of Cuba’s near neighbour, with a precolumbian trigonolito (carved three-corner stone) – perhaps representing a Taíno deity – putting well known corporate logos to the torch. Such posters were folded into copies of Tricontinental, an OSPAAAL magazine which was distributed to libraries and other subscribers in more than eighty countries around the world. A supplement to the magazine, these designs were less attempts an attempt at persuasion than, perhaps, a matter of confirmation for its readers. The idea of revolution had high currency around the world in the late 1960s, not least in the West. There, the conviction that society could be dramatically reorganized at a stroke – motivated a new generation disenchanted with the divisive effects of post-war affluence. Revolutionary images were adopted in the modish fringes of consumer culture. In ‘Street Fighting Man’, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, for instance, sang about his excitement of witnessing demonstrations around the world from the perspective of ‘sleepy London town’. Posters promoting liberation movements and their leaders – not least Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara[9] – formed backdrops for fashionable lifestyles in the West. As Sontag noted, consumption in capitalist societies is based on appropriation: ‘counterrevolutionary societies … [have] a flair for ripping any object out of context and turning it into an object of consumption’.[10]

Cuba was not the only communist country which issued posters protesting against American involvement in Vietnam. Chinese and Soviet authorities did the same, often in images which stressed the unbreakable bonds of international solidarity and other clichés. Rather more compelling were those anti-American images produced in the United States by artists who identified with the emergent counter-culture.

Ungerer, EAT, 1967

Ungerer, EAT, 1967

In a much reproduced 1967 poster, celebrated graphic designer and children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer depicted the symbol of welcome to the United States, the Statue of Liberty (a figure who announces to the world, ‘give me your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free’), as a symbol of violence. A Vietnamese figure is compelled to consume this American gift with the bold injunction ‘EAT’. The emphasis suggests a second critique of American foreign policy: in asserting freedom around the world in the face of the spread of communism, Washington was demanding the conditions in which people would become free to consume American commodities. Making a clear opposition to the actions of the Pentagon and the White House in Indochina, the poster has been criticized for representing the people of Vietnam as victims, when, in fact, the Vietcong (North Vietnamese forces) were – as Castro had argued a few months earlier – proving to be very difficult to overcome.[11]

Art Workers' Coalition, Q: And Babies, 1970

Art Workers’ Coalition, Q: And Babies, 1970

Another anti-war image produced in the United States also emphasized the victimhood of the Vietnamese. In 1968 a troop of US soldiers massacred the population of a Vietnamese village, Mai Lai.[12] The 106 people who died in this brutal episode were initially described by a US army spokesman as a Vietcong unit. The evidence provided by the Army’s own photographer revealed, however, that men and women, old and young, had been killed indiscriminately. The images of the dead, as well as other shots of peasants recoiling from the menacing GIs, found their way into the American mass media. They were shown on the major news broadcasts without commentary, such was their shocking force. The images appeared at a time when American attitudes to the war were already changing. And for the anti-war movement, here was brutal evidence of indifference and violence done to the very people America was claiming to protect. The Art Workers Coalition – an alliance of politically-engaged artists in New York – published ‘And Babies?’ a poster based on an image that had caused a storm of controversy when it had been broadcast on American television.[13] What is more, the artists returned this image back to its mass-media home by parading for the world’s media in front of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937), one of the most compelling anti-war images of the twentieth century, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970. Here, the process of what Sontag called ‘ripping’ an image was put to critical effect.

Viktor Koretzky, 1964

Viktor Koretzky, 1964

Another indictment of the United States frequently-made by its enemies concerned the segregation and discrimination against black Americans. Viktor Koretzky’s 1363 poster, for instance, combined the historic symbol of American freedom, the Statue of Liberty, with a scene of licensed brutality. A group of uniformed officials — perhaps police officers — appear to be lynching a black man, a fate suggested by the ominous presence of a noose. Produced during the height of Civil Rights protests, the Soviet poster pointed out the failings of American democracy (and was, as such, a direct riposte to Washington’s claims that the Kremlin denied fundamental human rights to the citizens of the Soviet Union).

Emory Douglas

Emory Douglas

Civil rights and international solidarity combined in the posters issued by the Black Panther Party which was formed in the USA in 1966. Founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton professed deep admiration of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.[14] Advocating armed patrols to monitor and challenge Police brutality as well as other public services such as free meals for poor children and opposition to the military draft (which called up a disproportionate proportion of black Americans), the membership of the Black Panthers grew rapidly across the USA. Eschewing the non-violence of earlier civil rights activists in favour of what it called ‘self-defense’, and styled in uniforms of berets and leather jackets and bearing arms (legally), the Black Panthers attracted considerable publicity. In fact, the Black Panthers were skilled communicators – issuing a manifesto (aka ‘The Ten Point Program’), publishing a newspaper (reaching a circulation of 250,000 copies) and of course, leaflets and posters. In ‘Afro-American Solidarity with the oppressed People of the World’ (1969), designer, Emory Douglas, made a clear connection between the interests of African-American people and those living in the Third World.[15] Produced at a time when the leadership of the Black Panthers wanted to put a halt to common sexism in its ranks, this revolutionary — displaying her black pride in her Afro hair and militant posture — carries both a rifle and a spear, and like a superhero, lines of light radiate from her body. With typical ambition, Douglas is identified as the Minister of Culture and the publisher as the Black Panthers’ Ministry of Information on the poster. And, as if to fulfill this dream of statehood, Black Panther delegations visited marxist North Vietnam, North Korea and China in 1969 and 1970.


Poster issued by the Committee to Defend the Panthers.

radical-chicUnsurprisingly, the organization seen as a threat by different branches of the state and the legal system in the USA, not least the FBI which mounted a campaign to discredit the organization. Numerous attempts to prosecute Black Panthers failed,[16] a fact which drew high-profile liberal supporters to the group. Most prominent among them was composer Leonard Bernstein who held a fund-raising party in 1969 for twenty-one Black Panthers accused of ‘conspiracy to murder New York City policemen and to dynamite five mid-town department stores, a police precinct, six railroad rights of way and the New York Botanical Gardens.’ This event was lampooned by Tom Wolfe in a biting account in New York Magazine in which city’s glittering elite rubbed shoulders with leather-jacketed revolutionaries over cocktails and ‘little Roquefort cheese morsels’.[17] Artists Donald Judd. Frank Stella, Nancy Spero, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein amongst others gave works for a fund-raising auction in a Manhattan church. In spring 1971 John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band released ‘Power to the People’, a variation of a Black Panther slogan which featured on this poster issued by the Committee to Defend the Panthers. Designed by Richard Earl Moore (Dhoruba al-Mujahid Bin Wahad), one of the defendants and a member of one of the most active and socially engaged Black Panther chapters in New York. When the eight-month trial concluded in May 1972, the Panthers in the dock were acquitted after the jury deliberated for less than one hour. The testimony of three undercover police officers had been entirely unconvincing. With its raised fist and broken chain, Moore’s design trades in clichés but it also holds rare authority as the creation of an artist who lived the experience it depicts.[18]

[1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 252

[2] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 199.

[3] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 76.

[4] See, for instance, Lee Hall, ‘Inside Rebel Cuba with Raul Castro’, Life (21 July 1958), 29-35. See also Richard Gott. Cuba. A New History (Yale University Press, 2005) 160-4.

[5] For a survey of Cuban posters see Lionel Cushing, Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art (Chronicle Books, 2002).

[6] David Craven, Art and Revolution in Latin America, 1910-1990 (Yale University Press, 2006) 95

[7] See Cubaanse Affiches (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1971); Dugald Stermer, (ed.), The Art of Revolution: Castro’s Cuba, 1959–1970 (London, 1970 ).

[8] Susan Sontag ‘Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity’, in Stermer, The Art of Revolution, p. xxii.

[9] See David Kunzle, ‘Uses of the Portrait: The Che Poster,’ in Art in America, 63, n. 5, (Sept-October 1975) 63-73.

[10] Sontag ‘Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity’, in Stermer, The Art of Revolution, p. xvii.

[11] See Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich, Vietnam images: war and representation (London: Macmillan, 1989) 115.

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

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

[14] See Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London: Verso, 1998) 77-78.

[15] See Danny Glover and Kathleen Cleaver, The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Art of Emory Douglas (New York: Rizzoli, 2007).

[16] An article in the New York Times (21 December 1969) listed 23 significant arrests and raids by the police on BP leaders and offices in 1968 and 1969 which did not result in successful prosecutions – see Charter Group for a Pledge of Conscience, The Black Panther Party and the Case of the New York 21 (New York, nd).

[17] Tom Wolfe, ‘Radical Chic. That Party at Lenny’s’ in New York Magazine (8 June 1970)

[18] Dhoruba al-Mujahid Bin Wahad’s freedom was shortlived. He was arrested again within weeks of his acquittal and prosecuted for the attempted murder of two police officers. He served 19 years in prison before being released in 1990 when a judge agreed to a retrial. In 1995 the Manhattan district attorney’s office stated that it would not pursue the case. With evidence that he had been the subject of a FBI smear campaign and that the prosecution had withheld evidence in the original trial, the FBI and the City of New York agreed to pay Dhoruba significant damages.

The Future is Between Your Legs: Sex, Art and Censorship in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Eastern Europe, Sexuality

This is a draft version of a text which will be published by Nottingham Contemporary in 2016.



Katalin Ladik, Zagreb 1970

Katalin Ladik, Zagreb 1970

In spring 1970 a small audience gathered in a church in the Old Town in Zagreb to watch a performance by the poet, actor and artist, Katalin Ladik. Dressed in nothing but a loose fur, Ladik performed a piece which she called ‘Vabljene’ with a traditional Hungarian bagpipe, a small skin-covered drum and a traditional bow. No recording of this event exists, but in the same year she was invited into the television studios in Novi Sad, her home city, to perform for the cameras. Reciting her poems in her native Hungarian – a language which few outside the multi-ethnic Vojvodina region understood – she stretches and extends her voice in the footage, sweeping across what seems to be unnatural sonic spectrum from high-frequency trilling to low rumbling tones. Interviewed by an Italian journalist, she said ’I do not do anything strange: peforming naked I expose the nakedness of my soul, and my inner reality … The public does not have to accept me for what I say but they must accept me for who I am, as I am, with my hips, with my breasts exposed. … I am naked and they too are stripped of their preconceptions. When we reach this understanding, this is the moment in which the audience and I achieve the necessary means to perform together the great ritual.’[1] She was, it seemed, engaged in the discovery of a sensual language – perhaps originating in prehistory – for new rituals which would escape the social conventions which managed desire, not least in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in the 1960s.

Ladik was invited to perform in Zagreb by the organisers of GEFF 69, an experimental film festival which for this, its fourth meeting, took ‘Sexuality as the Way to a New Humanism’ (Seksualnost kao mogućnost za novi humanizam) as its theme. The slogan captured a new mood in the country, or at least a new boldness on the part of the Yugoslav counter-culture which had been stirred into life by student protests in 1968, the arrival of rock music and psychedelics, as well as a cocktail of esoteric philosophy and new left politics. For four days in April 1970 (a few months after the original planned date), films, performances and talks reflecting on various kinds of sexuality drew large audiences to Zagreb’s cinemas, theatres and even the old town church. One reporter wrote, ‘Sex – an evangelical word – was an overwhelming call for the audience to join a orgiastic visual adventure (without danger). Although the films only partially fulfilled expectations, the screenings and associated events took place in crowded halls.’[2] Screenings included Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Fuses’ (1965) – a overpainted diary-film which sought to capture what ‘one feels during lovemaking’ – and two homoerotic Warhol movies (‘Flesh’ and ‘Lonesome Cowboys’, both 1968).

Mila Budisavljević, ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4', 1969

Mila Budisavljević, ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4′, 1969

A prize-winning film in the festival competition, Mila Budisavljević’s ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4’ (Optional View of the World, 4’, 1969) presented a close-up view of a woman’s lips and tongue, seemingly pressing against the lens of the camera, making the smooth, seductive mouth which appeared in so much advertising and cinema seem fleshy and real.

Celebrating uninhibited sexuality and other pleasures, the organisers of GEFF 69 were at pains to stress high-minded aspirations, perhaps to head off accusations of exploitation: ‘The sexual plan is just as important as the social and political ones … GEFF sets out to explore what this kind of movie can be when it is an experiment outside the bourgeois frameworks of pornography and kitsch: … We want to know whether in this field it is possible to something more than merely reflect things (so often, it comes down to the picturing the sexual act), we are interested in whether the filmmaker can escape this passive position.’[3] In this way, sexual liberation – then being trumpeted with loud horns in the West – could be harnessed to have real effects in Yugoslavia. Revolution, so often presented in terms of deferral in Eastern Europe (the utopia over the horizon), was within grasp of the individual: all he or she had to do was to revolutionise his or her thought and lifestyle. After all, a new humanism – predicated on a conception of a community of creative , equal and self-managing individuals – had been promised by the regime but remained little more than an imprecise slogan. GEFF 69 promised to put flesh on Tito’s bones.

The festival was organised as a critique of conservative attitudes, whether those held by society or by the authorities. Sexuality constituted a new front in which humanity could be liberated from various forms of repression, not least the ties of marriage, the laced-up conventions of dress and the fetishism of commodity culture. GEFF 69 juror, Dušan Makavejev, made this the subject of his remarkable film, ‘WR: Mysterija organizma’ (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971). Ostensibly a documentary on the life and work of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and in particular, his ‘discovery’ of ‘Cosmic Orgone Energy’, Makavejev’s often-funny movie is a meditation on sexuality and violence – the latter seeming to erupt when the former is repressed. A collage film, it offers a catalogue of scenes from the sexual revolution in the USA, as well as the story of allegorical love affair between Vladimir Ilich, a celebrity ice-dancer who represents the Soviet Union around the world, and Milena, a Yugoslav partisan and sexual revolutionary. Critical of socialism’s repression of sex as well capitalism’s commodification of it, Makavejev’s film achieved international notoriety and plaudits for the candid treatment of the subject, but it was not the only expression of what one champion of GEFF 69 called ‘our revolution’.

Lazar Stojanović’, ‘Plastični Isus’, 1971

Lazar Stojanović’, ‘Plastični Isus’, 1971

Lazar Stojanović’s ‘Plastični Isus’ (Plastic Jesus) (a graduation project made the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade in 1971) shared not only Makavejev’s collage technique but also his interest in sexual and political taboos.[4] And at the same time, the OHO collective of artists, poets and writers made sexuality one their principle themes of their activities in performance and proto-conceptual art before fully embracing the hippy fantasy of disappearing into nature when in 1971 they formed the Šempas Commune. In fact, the group’s retreat from modernity was prefigured in Naško Križnar’s Beli Ljudje’ (White People) film made in 1969-70 with the full resources of the Neoplanta Film Studio in Novi Sad.[5] [3] With two distinct halves, the first part of the film shows a group of twelve men and women – OHO and their friends – playing various kind of sensual games in a white space. They eat and kiss, roll naked in what look like white feathers and reproduce the movements of the mice and sheep that share their closed space.

Still from Naško Križnar’s ‘Beli Ljudje’, 1970

Still from Naško Križnar’s ‘Beli Ljudje’, 1969-70

The men and women are sometimes undressed and the scenes occasionally turns orgiastic, though never sexually explicit. In the second half, the community moves into natural landscapes and the scale of their gestures expands: they leave trails of white powder on the coastline and fill the air with coloured smoke.[6] In 1970 writer Bora Ćosić identified in OHO’s works, the deployment of ‘sexuality as a transgressive, critical and subversive instrument of confrontation with the opportunism and hypocracies of the real-socialist society.’[7] Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 12.58.23Such confrontations were in fact rare: in 1970 OHO’s Andraž Šalamun, for instance, published a series of photographs of a couple in positions from the Kama sutra in Problemi which caused a ripple of protests from its readers.[8]

The programme of sexual liberation was not just a marginal interest of the counter-culture in Yugoslavia after 1968. The appearance of pornographic magazines on newsstands at the time was also explained in terms of Yugoslav exceptionalism, the claim that socialism was not organised according to either the Soviet model or by the dictates of capitalism in the SFRY.

Chic magazine cover, 1969

Chic magazine cover, 1969

Interviewed in 1972, Ljubisa Kozomara, editor of Čik magazine – one of a new wave of pin-up mags which appeared at the end of the 1960s, said ‘Sex magazines are just another way in which Yugoslavia is socially and economically more free than other Communist countries’.[9] Yugoslavia’s embrace of ‘market socialism’ offered tangible incentives to publishers to find mass audiences. Čik, like other prominent titles Start and Adam i Eva, featured centrefolds alongside political and social reports, as well as interviews with public figures. These colourful magazines treated sexual pleasure with a degree of seriousness: the editor of Adam i Eva said ‘I believe I’m doing some very human work. We publish letters from homosexuals, who are still arrested and jailed in this country. We give advice to village girls too ashamed to take their problems to a doctor.’[10] Likewise, in its early years, Start featured informative articles on birth control and artificial insemination, as well as a running a full length illustrated feature on childbirth.[11] The paradoxes of a magazine which promised public enlightenment whilst trading a limiting vision of femininity (the pin-up) are clear: nevertheless, Kozomara and his colleagues were sincere in their belief that they were breaking repressive taboos.[12] Adapting the clichés of Titoism to its cause, Start editorialized: ‘The epoch of the rule of the youth is coming – sexual liberation cannot be separated from the other individual and social problems, but it can contribute to solving many of them.’[13]

Whilst such magazines thrived in the 1970s, official approaches to images of sexuality were inconsistent and often censorious. Adam i Eva’s editor was taken to court on the grounds of obscenity in 1971 but acquitted. Moreover, censorship was applied differently in different republics and shifts in power between conservative and liberal factions in power meant that was tolerated at one moment might become pro­hibited the next. Nevertheless, sexuality was invoked throughout the history of the SFRY as grounds for censorship.

Still from Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’, 1958

Still from Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’, 1958

Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’ (Don’t believe in Monuments’, 1958) which depicts the attempts of a young woman to make love to a sculpture of a reclining male figure in a park was criticised and shelved for being too erotic.[14] Twenty years later, the editors of the youth magazine Polet (Enthusiasm) were taken to court for publishing a profile of the Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper, Milan Sarović. The accompanying images recorded Sarović emerging naked from a pool. The case provoked outrage, not least among feminists who saw hypocrisy at work.[15]

Tellingly, it was often the admix of sexuality and politics which attracted the strongest responses from the authorities. ‘WR: The Mysteries of the Organism’ was shelved, after being screened in a film festival in Pula – thereby adding greatly to its status as ‘forbidden fruit’.[16] And when Katalin Ladik appeared nude on the pages of Start and other magazines as well as in her public performances, her membership of the League of Yugoslav Communists was withdrawn for violating the ‘moral image’ of organisation.[17] Ladik was by no means an underground figure: in fact, her high visibility owed much to the support of state-licensed institutions – theatres, student centres and publications.[18] Perhaps her principal misdemeanor was not to to have put sexuality at the centre of her creativity, but to have become a popular figure, thereby escaping the marginal zone of the neo-avant-garde.

When editors of pornographic magazines or the organisers of GEFF 69 made the case for liberal attitudes, they couched their arguments in terms which aligned with state ideology: if desire was liberated and a far wider spectrum of sexual experiences recognized as ‘natural’, the result would be greater happiness, a condition which was, after all, the professed ideal of Yugoslav socialism. But at the end of the 1970s, a number of developments set the grounds for a radical and sometimes controversial rejection of this ‘theraputic’ view of sexuality. The vibrant Punk and New Wave scene (which penetrated deeply into performance and video art) as well as the ideas of group of Neo-Lacanian philosophers including Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar were focused on far darker and sometimes morbid drives governing desire than the humanists of the 1970s. Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 12.59.56These two worlds merged in three ‘punk’ issues of Problemi, an important intellectual forum in Slovenia since the 1960s and then under the editorship of Dolar. In its punk issues (1981-3), Problemi identified closely with its subject, adopting the cut and paste aesthetics of the fanzine, and reproducing the lyrics of many of the most openly critical bands including Pankrti (Bastards) as well as darkly distopian comic strips. [5] So dramatic was the change from a sober journal to fanzine, that perhaps Dolar and his colleagues were engaged a particular and early version of what Žižek famously characterised as ‘overidentification’ in his later discussions of Laibach/Neue Slovenische Kunst.[19]

The second issue drew an official response. When the anti-socialist lyrics of bands like Gnile Duše (Rotten Souls) and photographs depicting lesbian sex in the second Punk issue were censored, the editors decided to overprint blocks on the offending material. This gesture did little to assuage the authorities, and Dolar was accused of having allowed the publication of pornographic material, and fined.[20] Despite this penalty, the third Punk issue (1983) was no less provocative in its hyperactive treatment of sex and violence. Spreads included illustrated features on erotic asphyxiation (a translation of an article from the Italian magazine, Fridigaire); the sadomaschostic lyrics of tracks by Borghesia, an electronic music group (see below); and a set of photographs by Miki Stojković of a man and topless woman playing with a large five-pointed star, the primary symbol of Titoism, under the title ‘Revolution is a Whore’.

Photos: Miki Stojković

Photos: Miki Stojković

Many of the authors of this material in Problemi were associated with FV 112/15, a theatre group established in 1980 by Neven Korda and Zemira Alajbegović. Abandoning the stage, FV 112/15 evolved rapidly into something like a multimedia platform for the production of alternative forms of culture, much in the DIY spirit of punk. It released records and audio cassettes through its music label; in 1982 it established a regular club night in Ljubljana, Disko FV, in 1982; it organised the Magnus, a festival of gay and lesbian films in 1984; and in 1982 four members (Dario Seraval, Aldo Ivančić, Korda and Alajbegović) formed a band, Borghesia, which achieved international success on the electronic music scene in the late 1980s. [7] According to Korda, VF 112/15 was not interested in shifting mainstream cultural practices and values: instead, the group staked out a zone where the conventions of Yugoslav life did not seem to apply, though happily drawing resources from state-funded institutions when needed (for, instance, borrowing the cameras owned by ŠKUC-Forum’s video section).[21]

One of the defining features of the videos made by FV members like Korda and close associates Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid was the way they fused sexual and political images, a caustic zone in Yugoslav culture. Babara Borčić notes that much of the material that the FV artists snatched for their video projects featured ‘recognisable political personalities, rituals and manifestations including Tito’s funeral, or popular Yugoslav music stars’ as well as ‘shots from pornographic movies recorded from private Italian television programmes’.[22] Whilst early video works like Korda’s ‘Obnova’ (Renewal, 1983), compiled from clips emphasizing the industrial rhythms of sex in pornography, and Alajbegović’s ‘Tereza’ (1983) which TV footage of socialist ceremonies is intercut with popular melodramas, could be filed under the voguish category of ‘appropriation art’, another way of understanding this material is to see it as a queering of Yugoslavia socialism. FV videos and performances sought to unsettle the normative effects of state media, sometimes by eroticizing its heroes and sacred symbols. Recalling her activities at the time (particularly the video works made with Šmid), Gržinić writes: ‘queer positions – every form of non-heterosexual positioning we understood, exclusively and entirely, as a political stance. This queerness – and the word queer means literally “not right/not quite” – demands, of us and of the viewer, a rethinking of the conditions of life, work, and possibilities of resistance.’[23]

In 1984 Borghesia – a FV 112 /15 offshoot – created a multimedia performance with the provocative title Lustmörder (Love Murder) in the Student Centre in Zagreb which it described as ‘a metaphysical process of discovering which is hidden by repression.’[24] [8] Eschewing the conventions of the rock concert, short videos – FV 112/15 productions – looped on eight TV screens standing on the stage and tableaux were performed by members of the group. In one, two men – wearing S&M garb – performed a disturbing ritual in which the first smeared and stretched bloody liver on the chest of the other before cutting into it with a knife. Two women dressed in shining plastic also took to the stage with whips. All the while, electronic music added menace of the performance (as perhaps did the lyrics, ‘He prefers hard sex and authority / iron-handed / jackboot / blood on the altar’). Emphasising denaturalization and excess, little about ‘Lustmörder’ was designed to encourage emotional identification. All was staged, as the emphasis on-stage screens made clear. (Roleplaying is, after all, the ‘unnatural nature’ of S&M). In her review for Start, Drakulić Ilić equated equated the ‘sex, perversion, violence, militarism’ in the performance with fascism.[25] This indictment hardly troubled the FV artists and their associates. Writing in Problemi in 1983 Gržinič and Alajbegović had presented their interest in transgression as a mode of critique: ‘The power of Ljubljana’s subcultural production lies precisely in the fact that it is not “high” art but, by using the creative operations of mass culture … and introducing content that [usually] serves the ideological function of the mass media (sexual repression, social control and manipulation, the use of banned symbols …) so that they are meaningfully radicalized, the dark side of a set of norms can be exposed, like “grafitti of the walls of a prison”.’[26] In other words, what is judged obscene or unnatural is not only a political matter but those ideological judgments become visible when the lines which have been drawn – whether consistently or not – are transgressed.

A poster by Dušan Mandić – a member of NSK/Irwin and designer of the third punk issue of Problemi – appeared on the stage of the Lustmörder performance with the words ‘1968 is over. 1983 is over. The future is between your legs’ (‘1968 je prošla. 1983 je prošla. Budućnost je između vaših noga’). The poster made it clear that Borghesia and other members of Ljubljana’s subculture rejected the progressive and universalising rhetoric of sexual liberation which had been announced so boldly at the end of the 1960s. Sex in subcultural Ljubljana had to be freed not only from the petit-bourgeois morality of the League of Communists but also from the humanist libertarians. Of course, the FV 112/15 position was not without its own contradictions: the organization of gay / lesbian nights at Disko FV and homosexual film festivals has been interpreted as brave acts of public advocacy at a time when homosexual sex was still illegal in parts of Yugoslavia and underground elsewhere; yet at the same time members of the group embraced queer alterity. And despite eschewing the common project of libertarian humanism, the FV 112/15 artists still approached sex and its repression as a social and political symptom. Writing about punk in Problemi 1981 Žižek had described it as a ‘symptom [that] reveals an intrusion of the suppressed “truth” of the most calm, most normal every life, of exactly that life that is shocked and annoyed by it. Symptom returns our suppressed truth in a perverted form …’.[27] After being promised as Yugoslavia’s remedy for more than a decade, sex in Ljubljana in 1984 was claimed as a sign of its defect


[1] Katalin Ladik interviewed by Aldo Bressan, ‘La poetessa che recita nuda sulla scena’, in L’Europeo (3 December 1970) 36–41 reproduced in Miško Šuvaković, Moć žene: Katalin Ladik retrospektiva 1962 – 2010 (Novi Sad: Muzej savremene umetnosti Vojvodine, 2010) 90.

[2] Ivo Lukas, ‘Intimna Nega’ in Sineast, 11 (1970) 41

[3] Mihovil Pansini cited in Lukas, Sineast, 40.

[4] See Sezgin Boynik, ‘Contributions to a Better Apprehension and Appreciation of Plastic Jesus’ in Život Umjetnosti, no. 83 (2008) 80-91.

[5] See Ksenya Gurshtein, ‘When Film and Author Made Love: Reconsidering OHO’s Film Legacy,’ in Kino!, no. 11–12 (2010) 128–54.

[6] On OHO’s engagement with land art see Maya Fowkes, The Green Bloc. Neo-avant-garde Art and Ecology under Socialism (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014) 65-110.

[7] Ćosić cited in Miško Šuvaković, The Clandestine History of the OHO Group (Ljubljana: Zavod P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E., 2010) 9.

[8] Ibid, 104.

[9] Kozomara cited by David Spurr, ‘Liberal Magazines Abound in Yugoslavia’ in The Montreal Gazette (26 July 1972) 17.

[10] Cited in Spurr, ‘Liberal Magazines Abound in Yugoslavia’, 17.

[11] Biljana Žikić, ‘Dissidents liked Pretty Girls: Nudity, Pornography and Quality Press in Socialism’ in Medij. Istraž, v. 16, no. 1 (2010) 59.

[12] It is noteworthy that Kozomara had been the scriptwriter for one of the major films of the Black Wave, Živojin Pavlović’s ‘Kad budem mrtav i beo’ (When I am Dead and Pale’, 1967), in which a number of women characters enter willingly into casual sexual relations with the central male character. See Branislav Dmitrijević, ‘Suffragettes, Easy lays and Women Faking Pregnancy’ Bojana Pejić, ed., Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe (Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, 2009) 46-52.

[13] Start editorial (1975) cited by Žikić, ‘Dissidents liked Pretty Girls’, 64.

[14] Daniel Gerould, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience, 1945-2001 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002) 60.

[15] Slavenka Drakulić Ilić, ‘Muški su nešto drugo in Polet (2 April 1980) 13. This essay is also reproduced in her anthology Smrtni grijesi feminizma. Ogledi o mudologiji (Zagreb: Znanje 1984)

[16] Ibid, 142.

[17] Cited by Miško Šuvaković in Moć žene: Katalin Ladik retrospektiva 1962 – 2010 (Novi Sad: Muzej savremene umetnosti Vojvodine, 2010) 85.

[18] In fact, many of the works discussed in this essay were funded indirectly by the state, often through organisations like Neoplanta Film in Novi Sad (the producer of Križnar’s Beli Ljudje’ and Makavejev’s ‘WR: Mysterija organizma’). See Gal Kirn, Dubravka Sekulić and Žiga Testen, eds., Surfing the Black. Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema and Its Transgressive Moments (Amsterdam: Jan Van Eyck Academy, 2012) 63-8.

[19] Slavoj Žižek, ‘Why are Laibach and NSK not fascists?’ in Inke Arns, ed., Retroprincip (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 1993) 49-50.

[20] Dolar interviewed in Jones Irwin and Helena Motoh, Zizek and his Contemporaries (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) 93-112.

[21] Neven Korda, ‘FV and the “Third Scene” 1980 – 1990’ in Liljana Stepančič and Breda Škrjanec, eds. FV Alternativa osemdestih (Ljubljana: Mednarodni grafični likovni center, 2008) 312.

[22] Barbara Borčić, ‘Video Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism’ in Dubravka Djurić, ed., Impossible Histories. Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991 (Boston: MIT press, 2003) 514

[23] Marina Gržinić, ‘The Video, Film, and Interactive Multimedia Art of Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid, 1982–2008‘ in Marina Gržinić, Tanja Velagić, eds., The Video Art of Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid, trans. Rawley Grau (Vienna: Erhard Löcker GesmbH, 2008) 48

[24] Cited by Slavenka Drakulić Ilić, ‘Fašizam na alternativnoj sceni’ in Start (28 July 1984).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Marina Grzinič and Zemira Alajbegović, ‘Ljubjlanska subkulturna scena’ in Problemi (October-November 1983) 26.


[27] Žižek (1981) cited in Irvin and Motoh, Žižek and His Contemporaries, 114.

Hasior’s Dreck

Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized


This essay is a transcript of a talk given in Zakopane in late 2014. It will appear in a book edited by Kola Sliwińska.


Władysław Hasior, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) Coll: Muzeum Śląski (Katowice)

Władysław Hasior, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) Coll: Muzeum Śląski (Katowice)

Junk and trash seemed to rise to the surface of Polish culture in the mid 1950s. Of course, in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the Second World War, the country itself was full of debris. Ruins and bombsites still considerably outnumbered new buildings in Warsaw and elsewhere; and because the Stalinist economy did little to provide new clothes and furnishings for a needy population, the Poles had become adept at the arts of repair and bricolage. Nevertheless, a new kind of trash that one might even be called modern appeared in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) during the so called Thaw, the turbulent period of reforms which followed Stalin’s death in 1953. New trash is, of course, close to being an oxymoron. But this trash was new in one important sense: it was the chosen medium of a number of young modernist film makers and artists. After the Stalin years (1949-53) – during which culture had been required to deliver ringing messages of progress to society – artists embraced the opportunity to explore hitherto closed-off zones including those filled with junk.

Władysław Hasior was one of these junk artists. His earliest works embraced the particular kind of primitivism which is offered by the decrepit. Works like his portrait of the Peruvian singer, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) and ‘Srebrna maska’ (Silver Mask, 1961) were assembled from broken and exhausted material which would otherwise have been thrown away as trash. Writing in Ty i Ja in 1966, Hanna Kirchner pointed out the value that Hasior found in waste:


Hasior is a poet and philosopher of things, exploring the dialectic of their existence in the human world. He forms altars, statues, monuments and shrines with objects that seem to coexist with man, forming his natural surroundings because they are worn and poor. They provide [Hasior’s] masks, and allusions. His compositions are most often anthropomorphic figures wound from wire, moulded with soap, arranged from panes of various kinds of glass. Sometimes a great body is suggested by bread, an anachronistic machine or a cast-iron stove …[1]


Others interested in animating trash at the time included the young filmmaker Roman Polański. Before the director achieved international success with his feature films, he made a number of shorts including ‘Gdy spadają anioły’ (When Angels Fall, 1959) and ‘Lampa’ (Lamp, 1959). ‘When Angels Fall’ begins with the journey of an old woman to work along the streets of an empty city, populated with little more than dustbins. She is an attendant in a public toilet, one which is highly ornamented in the Victorian manner. Her clients – drunks and workers – seem to trigger thoughts of her life and loves, presented in flashback. Memory, the anticipation of death, human waste and other themes beloved by Samuel Beckett run through this 21 minute film. In ‘Lampa’, a single scene movie by Polański, a man repairs dolls in his workshop. The camera records his crafts, panning over the china faces and limbs of the figures in his care – all bathed in the warm light of oil lamps. Then time seems to jump forward: the man is older and the workshop is lit by electric light. When the workshop is shuttered at the end of the day, it catches alight (or perhaps is incinerated by the menacing anthropomorphised electrical meter). The dolls are destroyed. Polański’s film seems particularly bleak: there is no catharsis, no redemption.

Z. Beksiński, Dno, photocollage, c. 1958/9 - coll: National Museum in Wroclaw

Z. Beksiński, Dno, photocollage, c. 1958/9 – coll: National Museum in Wroclaw

Artist Zdzisław Beksiński’s early photographs seem to share much in common with Hasior’s art and Polański’s early films. His portraits and nude studies appear distorted or torn, as if the negative has been through some kind of trauma or the portrait has offended its owner. Pathological and even misogynistic images, Beksiński’s subjects in these early works appear defaced as if by some violent act. Other works were organised in sets with three parts, often featuring amateur photographs, reproductions from magazines and text books, damaged negatives and pages from entries into dictionaries. ‘Dno’ (‘Bottom’, 1958/59) for instance, features a nineteenth century studio portrait of young girls and close-up of a tombstone: in between, a column from the page of a dictionary are reproduced marking a descent from ślub (wedding) to śmierć (death).

Trash found its way into Polish theatre at around the same time. Poet Miron Białoszewski established Teatr na Tarczyńskiej (Tarczyński Street Theatre) in his apartment in Warsaw in 1955. Drawing upon a circle of friends in the artistic avant-garde, Białoszewski with Ludmiła Murawska, painter and actress, and Ludwik Hering formed a small company, ‘Teatr Osobny Trzech Osób’ (The Individual Theatre of Three Individuals). They performed fragments from the classical cannon including works by Cyprian Norwid, Juliusz Słowacki, Adam Mickiewicz and William Shakespeare as well as Białoszewski’s own plays. Finding a grotesque character in everyday life, his works drew upon the language and experience of Warsaw’s streets finding absurd proportions in the most ordinary things. What is significant, for this talk at least, is the way in which he dressed his dilapidated flat, with Białoszewski and Murawska producing crude costumes and backdrops by painting cardboard. It also furnished the props. If the drama called for a door or a dog, one was ‘on hand’. A chair could be a character.

Miron Białoszewski and Ludmiła Murawska in Songs for Chair and Voice, Osobny Theatre, Warsaw 1958 (Photo: Marek Piasecki, 1957 in the collection of Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej)

Miron Białoszewski and Ludmiła Murawska in Songs for Chair and Voice, Osobny Theatre, Warsaw 1958 (Photo: Marek Piasecki, 1957 in the collection of Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej)

This sensibility also shadows artist, dramatist and writer Tadeusz Kantor’s 1961 concept of ‘realność najniższej rangi’ (‘the reality of the lowest rank’), a term which he used to describe the power of lowly objects to stimulate the imagination: ‘being, death, love … exist somewhere in a poor corner, a parcel, a stick, a bicycle wheel … bereft of pathos or illusion.’ In his words, ‘refuse, cast-off ends and odds’ were conscripted throughout his career into productions, performances and happenings.[2]

Cover of April 1963 issue of Ty i Ja magazine designed by Roman Cieślewicz

Cover of April 1963 issue of Ty i Ja magazine designed by Roman Cieślewicz

The taste for junk seemed to spread widely in the early 1960s, even becoming something like a popular fashion. This is evident on the pages of Ty i Ja (You and I), a popular magazine launched in 1959 by the Ligia Kobiet (Women’s League), an offshoot of the official Polish United Worker’s Party. Early on, however, its editorship was taken over a group of young writers and designers who shared a taste for the démodé. Printers’ devices, illustrations from nineteenth century school books and studies of natural history were used to ornament the pages of the magazine. In appearance, the magazine was a kind of printed collage in which out-of-date images were folded into the present – interviews with film stars and directors, short stories and reports of new fashions in London and Paris. Its covers – often created by Franciszek Starowieyski and Roman Cieślewicz – were a play on the romantic possibilities of the magazine’s title, but often tended to the eccentric and even absurd.  This graphic style found its way into numerous publications in the period, not least Andrzej Banach’s 1964 monograph on Hasior.[3]



What significance might we attach to this taste for broken and out-of-date images and things? And what lay behind their appeal? One fact is evident: these things originated in another time. Not antiques or saintly relics, these out-of-date things might be best described by the Polish word ‘starocie’ (lit. ‘old things’). Their primary value lay in the very fact of their survival. This was as much the product of rhetoric as it was a matter of fact: the party-state had gone to great lengths to announce that the Poles were now living in a new epoch. In this way, many of the objects which feature in Hasior’s art were doubly lost.

Home of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz from Ty i Ja, Feb. 1963

Home of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz from Ty i Ja, Feb. 1963

During the 1960s starocie in PRL was domesticated, literally. There was a marked fashion amongst poets and painters, film makers and academics – the intelligentsia – to furnish their homes with scuffed Biedermeier chairs, collections of vernacular spoons, earthenware jars, dingy seventeenth century portraits and other minor survivors from the past. We know this because each month in the 1960s Ty i Ja featured their homes in a regularly feature called ‘My Home is My Hobby’. Other regular features guiding this taste for the old included the series ‘Kolekcja nie śmietnik’ (‘Collection Not Trash Can’). The aesthetic was so consistent that it is barely worth singling out examples. But perhaps the home of artists Gabriel and Hanna Rechowicz – best known for their contemporary style murals in socmodernist shops and other public buildings – warrants special mention. Their ‘Anty-mieszkanie’ (Anti-apartment) on Lekarska Street in Warsaw, organized around an enormous decorated sleigh from the late nineteenth century, traded the entire apparatus of conventional domestic living for the aestheticism of starocie.[4]

Homes filled with starocie might be what Russian philosopher Mikhail Epshtein, writing in the 1980s, called ‘lyric museums’:


What kind of museum is it where ordinary Things are on display, and what right does it have to draw attention to them? … every Thing, no matter how insignificant, can possess a private or lyrical value. The latter value depends on the degree to which a given Thing has been lived and thought through … The purpose of this museum is expose the endlessly diverse and profound significance of Things in human life, their rich figurative and conceptual meaning which is not at all reducible to the utilitarian function.[5]


This order of home is a place for the care of things in the final stages of their lives before they are cast into the dump (recall ‘Kolekcja nie śmietnik’). Writing in the Soviet Union in its last years, Epshtein identified curatorial attitudes in the making of these homes. The significance of this care for venerable things is all the more pronounced because the USSR had announced a preference for the future over the past. In fact, this was one of the major ideological planks of the Thaw throughout the Eastern Bloc. One of the signs of destalinisation was the pronounced and loudly-voiced avowal of science and technology. The ‘Leninist way’ – which Stalin, according to Khrushchev and his followers, had abandoned – meant reengaging with the rational and international values of science, technology and engineering. New prospects for Soviet-style socialism were being opened up by computing, abstract art and modern movement architecture. Yet inside intelligentsia homes – quite literally – one might enter into a world fashioned with the material remnants of the past. Like Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s figure of Angelus Novus, these citizens of the PRL surely looked on these fragments of history as the remains after an explosion.

There is perhaps little new in this taste (and that is perhaps the point). Nationalist intellectuals had turned their homes into collections of mementoes of the nation in the nineteenth century when the Poles lived as unwilling subjects of foreign empires.[6] But the dominant mood of intellectual life in Poland in the 1950s and 1960s was not national romanticism or even decisive anti-communism. Perhaps if we look for one common thread, we will discover it in the low-key but pervasive existentialism of the age. This was found, for instance, in a marked preference for things as found rather than as they might or even ought to be according to the certitudes of Marxism-Leninism; and in attention to social realities, even when irrational and absurd. It is hardly surprising that the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco were performed on Polish stages during the Thaw to enthusiastic audiences. Beckett’s ‘Fin de partie’ – a play in which two characters live in dustbins – was staged in Kraków’s Theatre 38 in November 1957, just six months after its premier in London and then on Polish television in Stanislaw Hebanowski’s production in 1958.

Ionesco’s ‘Les Chaises’ was performed at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw in August 1957; a play which ends with an invisible crowd or audience on stage. This is Ionesco’s direction:


For the first time human noises seem to be coming from the invisible crowd: snatches of laughter, whisperings, a ‘Ssh!’ or two, little sarcastic coughs; these noises grow louder and louder, only to start fading away again. All this should last just long enough for the real and visible public to go away with this ending firmly fixed in their minds. The curtain falls very slowly.[7]


The theatre audience watches and listens mutely to an absent presence, the other audience ‘on’ the stage. Things – the chairs – mark both presence and absence. They are starocie. As such, they need to be seen in terms which had been set by Hannah Arendt in her 1958 book The Human Condition. Of things like starocie, she wrote: ‘it is this durability which gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produced and use them, their “objectivity” which makes them withstand, “stand against,” and endure, at least for a time, the voracious needs and wants of their living makers and users. From this viewpoint, the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.’[8] Viewed in this way things, starocie marked continuity after catastrophe (of war and of Stalinism) and, conversely, the lack of such ordinary things was the cause of disconnection.



Władysław Hasior, The Widow, 1957

Władysław Hasior, The Widow, 1957

Despite its existential appeal, starocie does not adequately describe either the form or the distressed condition of many of the works by Hasior, Beksiński and other junk artists of the late 1950s. Marked by abjection and destruction as well as the uncanny effects of animism and anthropomorphism, they offered little solace. A work like Hasior’s ‘The Widow’ (1957), a figure whose roughly-hewn face might well have been fashioned from the butcher’s cleaver which forms her torso, suggests anguish in both theme and appearance.

Władysław Hasior, Grandmother, sculpture, 1960 Muzeum sztuki, Lodz.

Władysław Hasior, Grandmother, 1960 Muzeum sztuki, Lodz.

His ‘Prababka’ (Grandmother’, 1960) has the appearance of a human body which has turned into fat or even shit. Perhaps ‘dreck’ – a word which I have adopted from the writings of Tomasz Kitlinski – might be a better term than starocie to describe the turn to junk.[9] A Yiddish / German word meaning filth or crap, dreck can signify rotting matter but also kitsch. Products can be dreck, as for Berthold Brecht, for instance, were American theatre.[10] And for Hasior and other Polish artists in the Thaw who sculpted or filmed garbage, wounded and broken bodies too could be dreck. Here was an an aesthetic which testified to the dark subject of unheroic and brutal death.

There may be a generational perspective at work here. These artists were teenagers during the Second World War. Hasior was born in 1928; Beksiński in 1929; Polański in 1933; and Cieślewicz in 1930. (That this was – seemingly without exception – a male aesthetic might also give pause for thought too). Whilst Polański’s biography – as a Jewish child in the Kraków Ghetto and then in hiding – is exceptional, the experience of witnessing human corpses and dead animals in the streets during the war was not. Violence constituted a material fact of this generation’s youthful existence. Polański’s film ‘Lampa’ in which dolls are caught in a total inflagration is evidently an allegory for the Second World War and perhaps even the ovens in which the bodies of so many victims of the extermination camps were tossed. This said, I don’t think that it is appropriate to use art to diagnose individual traumas. Art is not a symptom. But it may be productive to reflect on the ways in which the dreck aesthetic of the late 1950s and 1960s might constitute a ‘return of the repressed’ within the public realm of Polish culture.

During the Stalin years, there had been a knot of factors which had restrained clear recall of the traumas of the Second World War. For instance, Socialist Realism – a Soviet import to Poland in the late 1940s – put a tight representational frame around the representation of violent death. In the Soviet Union – where the rules and rituals of the cult had already been drawn up – death had been attached to utopia. Literary scholar Katerina Clark writes ‘In the Stalinist novel, death and token mutilation have a predominately mythic function. When the hero sheds his individualistic self at the moment of passage, he dies an individual and is reborn as a function of the collective.’[11] Numerous canvases in which Soviet heroes die on Nazi gallows or fighting on the battlefield played their part in embroidering the myth of the Great Patriotic War. In the PRL, however, the representation of death was treated rather more coyly. There are relatively few images of violent death during these years, perhaps because the new regime put such a premium on the joyful project of constructing socialism.[12]

At the same time, political imperatives put the representation of the recent past under considerable ideological pressure. Events and even individual memories were reframed to match a historical script that had been written in the Kremlin. Individuals were forced – with threats or coercion – to retract testimonies which they had already given. Eyewitnesses – like the members of Polish Red Cross who had examined the corpses of Polish offices murdered at Katyn – had to retract their wartime affidavits; and violence against the Jews by Poles was placed sous rature by an ideology which trumpeted brotherhood. But things were different in 1956. During the waves of destalinisation which rocked the Bloc in this year, the representation of the recent past was one of the fields in which the party-state offered concessions in order to hold onto power. For example, during the Stalin years the authorities kept a firm grip on the representation of the Warsaw Uprising. The Home Army soldiers who had risen against the German occupation of the city in the summer of 1944 were described as fascists and reactionaries in official accounts of the conflict. But after 1956, films, new books, monuments and memorials marked changed attitudes to what was now called the ‘heroes of the Warsaw’.[13] In fact, the new regime led by Władysław Gomułka sought to tap popular feeling by announcing – also in 1956 – a competition for a new public memorial dedicated to all those who fought for the city including the Home Army. This announcement was amplified by great swells of public opinion. Hundreds of letters were sent to newspapers suggesting not only the ideal form of the memorial (often a triumphal arch or a funeral barrow) and the most suitable site (usually one connected with fighting in the city), but offering reflection about what should be remembered – the outbreak of the war in 1939, the Ghetto uprising of 1943 as well as the events of the summer of 1944. In April 1958 nearly 200 remarkably diverse designs were exhibited to 100,000 visitors in the Zachęta Gallery. Art critic Aleksander Wojciechowski said this ‘is not an “artistic” competition but a national plebiscite’. So great was public interest that discussion of the competition threaten to spin out of Party control. And so, as Olga Grzesiuk Olszewska has shown, a smaller closed competition was announced in 1959, which specifying that the monument be sited in Plac Teatralny.[14] The winning design was a massive figure of a sword-wielding siren, the traditional emblem of the city, sculpted by Marian Konieczny, a young artist from Cracow who had studied at the Repin Institute in Leningrad.

Marian Konieczny, Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw, installed in Plac Teatralny Warsaw in 1961. Collection: NAC

Marian Konieczny, Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw, installed in Plac Teatralny Warsaw in 1961. Collection: NAC

Monumental and symbolic, this design was insensitive to the acute historical injuries that the ‘Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw’ had been originally proposed to heal.

Perhaps the broken bodies, filth and decay of the dreck aesthetic needs to be seen in the context of the short-lived freedoms of the Thaw. Death, carefully managed and allegorized during the Stalin years, was rehabilitated and it could now be represented in its most abject forms, in the decay of the flesh and irrational violence. Artworks which looked on this order of death were created, or in some cases brought out of hiding. The Ogólnopolska Wystawa Młodej Plastyki (The All Poland Exhibition of Young Artists), known to art historians as the Arsenal Exhibition in Warsaw in 1955 is usually understood as a return of modernism in Polish art: it was also an opportunity to explore prohibited themes, not least death. For instance, Waldemar Cwenarski’s canvas ‘Pożoga’ (Conflagration, 1951) – which depicts a horse stamping people beneath its flailing hooves – was exhibited there for the first time; as was Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949), a Jewish pietà.[15]

Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949)

Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949)

When six years later Hasior had his first one man show in the Salon Współczesności in the Foyer of the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, one critic called found ‘distant echoes of the Arsenal exhumations’ there.[16]

There were many representations of dreck deaths in this period. Perhaps the most emphatic, insistent example was to be found in the cinema the final scene of Wajda’s ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ (1958). Dramatising the final hours and acts of a doomed former Home Army soldier, now in the anti-communist underground, the film is ideologically compliant. But it contains a kind of excessive image of his death. After carrying out his assassination mission despite increasing doubts, Maciek – the Home Army fighter – or as the Stalinists might have put it a ‘fascist assassin’ – is shot and dies slowly alone, digging himself into a rubbish heap. Even in the Thaw, he remains an enemy, but now a pitiable one as a young adherent to the old and doomed ideology of capitalism. But Wajda’s treatment goes far beyond what required politically, even in the turbulent years of the Thaw: this pointlessness of this death is emphasized by the setting, the trash heap.

Viewed in terms of dreck aesthetics, Hasior’s early works seem to take on far darker associations than the later characterization of his work as a kind of PRL pop artist might suggest. Typically, his works combine broken and discarded materials to form bodies which, missing limbs or lacking faces, remain marked by their incompleteness. They seem to give human form to the words of Bruno Schulz, the Jewish novelist who was murdered by a Nazi officer in Drohobycz in 1942. In his 1934 ‘Traktat o manekinach (‘Treatise on TailorsDummies’), the arrogant father of the narrator sets out a vision for ‘a second generation of creatures who stand in open opposition to the present era’: ‘… we shall not demand on either durability or solidity of workmanship: our creations will be temporary, to serve a single occasion. If they are are human beings, we shall give them only one profile, one hand, one leg, the one limb needed to perform their role.’[17] After the Second World War and Stalinism, Hasior’s generation – avid readers (and sometimes illustrators[18]) of Schulz’s works when they were republished in 1957 – perhaps felt as if they were living with the consequences of this vision.[19] Providing none of the solace of starocie, Schulz’s writing also provided uncanny images of matter: ‘There is no dead matter …’ says the father. ‘Its lifelessness is merely an outward show, behind which, unknown forms of life lie hidden’.[20] This was not a claim about the soul but a perspective on the most abject forms of bare life. Some of Hasior’s early works seem approach this condition in which humanity itself is on the edge of slipping into matter. Hasior’s ‘Prababka’ (Grandmother, 1960), a figure slumped in a broken wheelchair, seems more like excreta than a woman. [see figure 7]

Władysław Hasior, ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Muzeum Narodowe Poznan

Władysław Hasior, ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Muzeum Narodowe Poznan

In the early 1960s many of Hasior’s works – made with Dreck and representing broken or incomplete bodies – were given themes and titles which suggest lofty themes of transcendence and sacrifice such as ‘Anioł Stróż’ (‘Guardian Angel’, 1964) and ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Moreover, he increasingly turned to Christian archetypes to lend meaning to his assemblies of junk. Do these titles dip his art in irony? Maybe not. It is probably more accurate to suggest that they pointed to his ambition. Here, perhaps, Hasior departed from his dreck colleagues. So many of the Thaw works which have been discussed in this talk were marked by a disavowal of monumentalism, whether in terms of scale and setting, or the pathos which public art of this kind was and often still is required to deliver. Monuments – as the Heroes of Warsaw competition made clear – had to promise some kind of redemption (just as Socialist Realist representations of death were required to infer rebirth). It seems clear that after the brutality of the Second World War and the hollow triumphalism of the Stalin years, dreck aesthetics provided the means for some kind of reflection on experience without making an accommodation with any kind of historical (or even eschatological) script. However, with such titles, these works point out the direction in which Hasior was to travel as a monument maker after the Thaw. His public monuments from Pomnika Rozstrzelanym Partyzantom (Monument to the Shot Partisans, 1964) at Kuźnice to the Rzeźba Płonące Ptaki (‘Flaming Birds Sculptures’, 1978-80) were created as part of the larger project of managing history in the PRL.[21] Dedicated ‘To those, who fought for the Polishness and freedom of the Pomeranian lands’, Hasior’s roughly-cast birds mounted on rickety cannon carriages at Koszalin was an attempt to monumentalise dreck.


[1] Hanna Kirchner, Hasior’ in Ty i Ja (January 1966), p. 10.

[2] Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Reality of the Lowest Rank’ in A Journey Through Other Spaces. Essays and Manifestos, 1944–1990, ed. Michal Kobialka (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1993) 30.

[3] Andrzej Banach, Hasior (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964).

[4] Felicja Unichowska, ‘Moje hobby to mieszkanie’ in Ty i Ja (February 1963) 15-18. On Gabriel and Hanna Rechowicz see Klara Czerniewska, Gaber i Pani Fantazja. Surrealizm Stosowany (Warsaw: 40,000 Malarzy, 2014).

[5] Mikhail Epshtein, ‘Things and Words: Towards a Lyrical Museum’ (1988) in Alla Efimova, Lev Manovich, eds., Tekstura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) 153.

[6] See Beth Holmgren, Rewriting Capitalism. Literature and the Market in Late Tsarist Russia and the Kingdom of Poland (Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998) 167-77.

[7] Eugène Ionesco, Plays: The lesson. The chairs. The bald prima donna. Jacques; or, Obedience (London: Calder, 1958) 84.

[8] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958) 137.

[9] See Tomasz Kitliński, ‘A Brief History of Cleanliness and Abjection in Poland’ in Dream? Democracy! A Philosophy of Horror, Hope & Hospitality in Art & Action (Lublin: Maria Curie-Sklodowska Press, 2014) 189-195.

[10] Cited in Anthony Heilbut, Exiled in paradise: German refugee artists and intellectuals in America, from the 1930s to the present (New York: Viking Press, 1983) 161.

[11] Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000) 178.

[12] German corpses appear casually and cruelly accompanied by a dog in Wojciech Fangor’s ‘Wyzwolenie’ (Liberation, 1950) or as cold war martyrs in his ‘Matka Koreanka (‘Korean Mother’, 1951). But these are rare appearances.

[13] Made before the Thaw and released in 1956, Andrzej Wajda’s film ‘Kanal’ depicts the final hours of insurgents in the ruins of the city. The first illustrated popular book on the theme – Jan Grużewski and Stanisław Kopf’s Dni Powstania. Kronika Fotograficzna Walczącej Warszawy (Days of the Uprising. A Photographic Chronicle of Warsaw in Arms) was published by PAX in 1957.

[14] Irena Grzesiuk-Olszewska Polska Rzezba Pomnikowa w Latach 1945-1995 (Warsaw: Neriton, 1995).

[15] Celnikier’s painting raises the question of how and when the Shoah was distinguished as a distinct historical phenomenon within the culture of Polish remembrance – a question which Hasior does not help us answer.

[16] S. Ledochowski, ‘Malarstwo, rzezba, grafika. Rzezba sie nazywa’ in Nowa Kultura, nr. 12 (1961) pp.6-7 cited in Wladyslaw Hasior. Europiejski Rauschenberg? (Kraków: MOCAK, 2014) 198.

[17] Bruno Schulz, Sklepy cynamonowe / Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985) 61-2.

[18] In 1963 Roman Cieślewicz produced collages for a new edition of Schulz’s Sklepy Cynamonowe employing illustrations from zoological studies and illustrated newspapers reporting war.

[19] In 1957 the Kraków publisher Wydawnictwo Literackie, published an anthology of Schulz’s writings with the title Sklepy cynamonowe. Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą. Kometa with an introduction by Artur Sandauer.

[20] Bruno Schulz, Sklepy cynamonowe / Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985) 60.

[21] See Marcin Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm: nacjonalistyczna legitymizacja władzy komunistycznej w Polsce (Warsaw: Trio 2001).

Every Single Crash – Filip Berendt’s art


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

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

‘Pandemic’, photography, archival print on dibond ed. 6+2AP, 40×50 cm – from

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.

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

Cold War, Modernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The pushing of the button

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

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

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

Designing the operator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bone Generators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Consoles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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