Paul Klee, Architecture of the Plane, 1923 Erich Consemuller, Untitled (woman w/mask by Oskar Schlemmer), c. 1926 .
These are two posts to the iDC mailinglist that sketch the outlines of a project I might undertake someday, if I have the time and the courage to do the research….
At a recent conference in New York called The Internet as Playground and Factory I was particularly struck by a talk given by Orit Halpern, on the Hungarian emigre painter and designer Gyorgy Kepes. Her presentation showed the incredible inventiveness of a Central European artist confronted with the technological possibilities of the postwar USA – an artist dealing with the transformed vision of the city from a swift-flying plane, then later with the staggering speed and volume of computerized information flow. Kepes seemed to be claiming an ability to shape and model the dynamics of technoscientific change. However, the very fascination I felt during the talk reminded me of what I think is one of the biggest challenges for artists and thinkers in the core countries today, and particularly in America, which is how to analyze the cutting edge of technological development without becoming strangely weightless, ecstatic with the complexity, caught up in the flow, lacking all resistance to the present. Note that this is not a critique of Orit or anyone else, but an attempt to state a much more general problem, the problem of historical figuration in modernism, which was also present in the talk through a reference to Picasso’s Guernica.
In fact this is an old problem of the 20th century, and Kepes himself hails from the milieu where it was first expressed with utter clarity. After the conference I went to see the Bauhaus show at MoMA. The trajectory there is fairly explicit: once they escape from the Gothic limbo of expressionism, incarnated by the shamanic figure of Johannes Itten, the central aesthetic form and operational diagram becomes the grid, which Gropius makes into the basis of Bauhaus pedagogy. The whole adventure can be seen as one of developing the potentials of the grid, as a sensible and yet also mathematizable mediator between the free-floating imagination and the constraints of the industrial process. The aim is to achieve not just a new relation to materials for the industrial age, but above all a thorough-going abstraction of human identity, promising an escape from the horrors that arose out of the combination of modern industry and German nationalism in WWI. The theme of postnational humanity, of World Man, so prominent in the US after WWII, actually has its origins here in interwar Germany. You can see it in the shocking photo of a woman reclining in a modernist chair, her limbs relaxed, her body fully present in the space – and her face erased by an uncannily smooth, reflective metal mask that depersonalizes her entirely, making her into a foreign being, an alien creature of the grid.
Even artists as “spiritually” oriented as Kandinsky and Klee adopted the grid in their own work. From this basis of abstraction and egalitarian homogeneity, they tried to create an expansive range of subjective potentials. Klee’s work with the affective tonalities of color charts is particularly impressive: the grid-structure vibrates, resonates, in one painting it warps into a mobile mesh, as though blowing in the wind. Equally impressive are the very subtle atmospheric works that both Klee and Kandinsky made using a technique of aerosol sprays, which to my eye have all the lightness and openness of consciousness itself. But there is also the mathematical music of the textile pieces made on a Jacquard loom, or the extraordinary “Project for an abstract color film” painted by Kurt Kranz in 1930.
Kurt Kranz, Project for an Abstract Color Film, 1930 (32 painted images conceived as a filmic sequence)
After going back into the show a second time, looking for something, the idea suddenly came to me: In a period of overt political crisis, the overarching ambition of the school was that of finding both a technics and a regulatory aesthetics for a cosmopolitan industrial democracy. Or to put it another way (and this was the phrase I walked out with): They sought to establish and inhabit the machine process as the vector of a trans-identity. In their view, this alone could provide a psychosocial regulation, or a civilizing process if you will, for the destructive powers unleashed by mass production. The violence of mechanized passions was to be dissolved into an infinite subjective mutability. The aesthetic of Moholy-Nagy – who was Kepes’ mentor and friend, and who brought him to the New Bauhaus in Chicago – carries this ambition to its peak, particularly with the endlessly dynamic variations of the Light-Space-Modulator (film here).
Of course the Bauhaus was a failure in Germany. The problem, if I may interpret it in a shorthand way, was that this incredibly gifted bourgeois vanguard had no social basis of support. Near the end, when the Weimar Republic was seriously vacillating, you can see them scrambling in Dessau under the short-lived directorship of the communist Hannes Meyer, trying to create some social fundament of industrial use value for the mass of the people. At this point the audacious formal experiments fade away in favor of a more immediate, utilitarian approach. Meyer enlists everyone to build a school for the German Trade Union Federation. The school was completed, but the larger sociopolitical strategy did not work. He was forced to step down by the government of the state of Anhalt, for being a communist. Under Mies, who was the last director, the searching cultural and subjective side of the project disappears and a technocratic, proto-corporate look begins to predominate. The International Style is on the horizon.
Curiously, it is in New Deal America that these artists find a chance to realize their utopia. The whole theme of postnational man is adopted after the war by an American intellectual elite that includes a great number of emigre German artists, thinkers and scientists. I find it ironic that the USA, the most liberal of all countries (where liberal signifies the classic bourgeois preoccupation for free trade, convertible money, commercial infinity) should be the place where an institutionalized solidarity, Roosevelt’s welfare state, would finally provide the social basis – or what thinkers of the time would have called the “metastability” – required for pursuit of the vanguard aspiration to trans-identity. Not that this was achieved in the 40s and 50s: it was prepared in that period, and finally came to a massive expression with the next period of crisis, in the late 60s and 70s, when the new paradigm of informationalism began to emerge. I was intrigued by the Kepes images because you could see that aspiration being realized, stroke by stroke, particularly with the aesthetics of information flow and the vanguard ethics that consisted in exposing oneself to a sublime overload of information, so as to learn how to navigate this transhuman environment.
Charles and Ray Eames, Glimpses of the USA (multiscreen film) Inside dome by Buckminster Fuller for 1959 US exhibition in Moscow
From all of this I withdraw two main ideas. The first, which I can only express in cybernetic terms, is that the constructivist epistemology taken up with such subversive brilliance by Heinz Von Foerster in the 1970s represents a fulfillment of the modernist dream that begins with the Bauhaus artists’ intimation of subjective potentials latent in the abstract grid. I can’t help but see some family resemblance between Von Foerster’s second-order cybernetics and Bauhaus trans-identity. And whether you accept that or not, probably no one would deny that Von Foerster’s classic statements – such as “The environment as we perceive it is our invention,” from the 1973 essay “On Constructing a Reality” – have had enormous consequences on the character of our civilization today, with its simultaneous move into infinite cyberspace and imminent ecological disaster. The second idea is that in our age, marked by the seemingly arbitrary nature of autonomous information systems and by the weightlessly self-creative capacities of global individuals, what threatens us, perhaps with all the violence that marked the mid-twentieth century, is once again the loss of any sense and social practice of solidarity – a solidarity that I would extend beyond people to things, and particularly to those “things” we used to call nature. I really do think it is the lack of any effective practice of solidarity that has now brought our liberal societies to a triple crisis, economic, ecological and geopolitical (i.e. military). We no longer need the mediating figure of Klee’s angel and Benjamin’s text, today we can feel the gathering storm and see the debris piling up in front of us.
All of which loops the loop and brings us back to the initial question: How to analyze what the world is now becoming through the application of technoscience, without losing all resistance to the present and participating in the very dynamics that seem to be rushing us toward our own undoing? How to find a language that allows one to come to grips with all this as an intellectual, and yet not lose contact with the living beings who are most immediately affected by the violence?
For me it’s a challenge, I don’t know how to do it. I guess that’s one of the basic problems that Armin Medosch and I are trying to resolve in our technopolitics project.
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Kevin Hamilton wrote:
>My sense is that in some cases, the Bauhaus grid met with some resistant forces in America – largely, that of industry expectations of art and design education. I can’t cite the source at the moment, but I remember reading about how Moholy-Nagy in particular faced pressures in this regard, where Chicago business had grown dependent on the Illinois Institute of Technology for the provision of ready workers in the design and application of visual identity. They apparently began to complain that students under these new European instructors weren’t adequately prepared for working in industry […]”
If you dig up the reference, do tell. That fits into my understanding, which is that the German and Central European artists, with their strong abstractionist and Gestalt ideas, merely found refuge in the US at first, gravitating notably toward the cybernetic thinkers and finally having their strongest influence in the 60s and 70s. Everyone has always focused on the emigre figures as the bearers of industrial modernism, but what I’m starting to think is that the deterritorializing effects of the early 20th century vanguards went far beyond industrial modernism. The social-democratic regulation of mass production society, which the Bauhaus artists and their Weimar peers were not able to create in Germany, was the result in America of a compromise forged in the 1930s between leftist/workerist forces and industrialists, both of whom had little use for vanguard visuality or trans-identity. That compromise, anachronistically known as “Fordism” (or the Keynesian National Welfare State, if you wanna get geeky about it) produced the consumer society in its classic forms, the cliches of American Grafitti: a society whose epistemological base was still more behaviorist than cybernetic, despite the feedback loops that started coming into play in the 1950s through the monitoring of consumer reception. The consumer culture was all about regimes of identification, working on the acquisitive desire for things, both as the objects of raw libidinal drives and as ego-attributes. Such a culture was not dynamic enough for the elites, who came up against real limits to corporate growth from the late 60s onward, due to all kinds of factors including market saturation, renewed labor unrest, internal hierarchical rigidities, etc.
The corporate elites saw immense possibilities for restructuring in the information sciences, which had already been developing for managerial and logistical purposes since the war. The real rupture came in the crisis of the 70s, which marked the decline of industrialism and the beginning of another economic paradigm. What would be important to understand today is how the vanguard European artists and thinkers (and not only the Bauhaus ones) eventually contributed to the entirely new, post-industrial paradigm of informationalism, which comes massively into play from the mid-70s onward. I think they did contribute the mobility, the superior agility of a trans-identity.
> To my knowledge (and Orit likely knows more here), Kepes benefited essentially from a patron in the form of MIT’s president Wiesner at the time, whose utopian vision kept CAVS alive. My understanding is that when Wiesner left, CAVS tanked.”
> This happened more or less at the same time as Von Foerster’s lab ended here at Illinois – his patron, the Office of Naval Research, was forced to drop him when the Mansfield amendment restricted military funding of “blue sky” projects.”
Well, fortunately there were some restrictions placed for a while on the military and the CIA’s license to do whatever they wanted! I’m nostalgic for the Mansfield amendment and the Church commission. The blue-sky research of the 50s and 60s amply laid the grounds for the takeoff of the information society from the 70s onward, with a fresh influx of military money from Reagan’s star wars in the mid-80s, then another huge military injection in this decade, which we’re gonna bitterly regret down the line… Now, I don’t mean to give a univocal reading of informationalism as some kind of dark plot. In my text Filming the World Laboratory I proposed looking at Von Foerster as a kind of double-agent within the military-industrial complex, a subversive figure who rendered much of cybernetic theory useless for command-and-control purposes by the reflexive twist that he gave to it. Patricia Clough, who studied with Von Foerster, seemed like she might have interesting things to say about that interpetation! Bateson, Von Foerster, Maturana and Varela, Deleuze and Guattari, Stengers and Prigogine, they compose a kind of phylum that puts a twist on informationalism and offers possible alternatives, a bluer sky if you will. However, at that level of theoretical elaboration there are always great ambiguities. The power complexes have a way of appropriating everything.
Over the past two days I realized that you can read the book chapter from which Orit Halpern drew her talk, it’s really extraordinary, check it out: http://orithalpern.net/chapter3.pdf . Near the start of the chapter she says something very insightful about the way Kepes fit into the American context where he produced his first book, Language of Vision:
“Language of Vision is, therefore, an inverted lens upon the Bauhaus education. It is not so much a break from this history, as a mutation and extraction of certain impulses within histories of design, now unmoored from previous modern conceptions of material, time, and representation.”
The words “unmoored” and “unbound” – which I associate with “disembedded” (Polanyi) and “deterritorialized” (Guattari) – recurr again and again in this chapter in the attempt to describe the way that Gestalt ideas, originally conceived as designating fundamental perceptual structures, are reworked in a radically constructivist fashion until they become operative schemata for the production of informational worlds. These mediated environments – like the ones that the Eameses built for the US Information Agency and IBM – present their own intrinsic dynamics and complexity, through which the subject “navigates” an existential course, but a fundamentally arbitrary one, cut off (unmoored, disembedded) from any traditional habitus or sedimented ground of experiential knowledge. You see these environments emerging as possibilities in the 1950s, but they couldn’t be massively developed until semicounductors became cheap, in the 70s. It would be interesting to look closely into the theory of things like “sensurround” cinema, which was first used in 1974… Today, the city itself has become a screenic environment, a sensurround. These are the artificial worlds of simulated perception that the great corporations have succeeded in imposing as the leading edges of the informational economy, which is now the second nature that we live in. I’d say the supreme expressions of these radically constructive artificial worlds are to be found in the realms of global finance and of the imperial American military, in the worlds of satellite-controlled warfare and computerized trading, which between them make the greatest strategic use of computing power and informational networks.
Artistic expression allows us to look at something like the psycho-perceptual level of these transformations, and so art movements become really interesting when you trace their development over space and time. Orit’s research confirms the “family resemblance” that I saw between the abstraction of the Bauhaus grid and the radical constructivism of a cybernetician like Von Foerster. But the resemblance is expressed through an inversion, or what I’ve described as a chiasmus, which reverses some of the key terms that were initially at play. I think this has to do with the dialectical reversal of industrialism into informationalism (cf. my short text Into Information!). Orit writes the following, concerning the operative procedures that evolved in the wake of Kepes and the Eameses, but also of Wiener and the cognitive sciences:
“There is no single norm for vision. If, for example, the pre-war designers and psychologists thought there is a “natural” or essential gestalt form that preceded the perception of an image, then in post-war design that form is now manipulatable, you can build any gestalt to produce any perceptual field. The designer doesn’t need to learn the rules gestalt psychology discovered, the designer must understood the principle of relationality and builds gestalts. An inversion, if we will, of the original modernist design principles. The ideal of a singular, or objective form of vision is replaced by a fantasy of effectiveness or affect serving particular functions.”
It’s a brilliant insight which has everything to do with the concept of simulation that Baudrillard and others have developed, but here it is much more precise, you see exactly how the collaboration of cognitive scientists, designers and corporate sponsors produces the environments we live in, which can also be called “control spaces” (Sze Tsung Leong’s term). Orit’s work is the most precise theoretical genealogy of these environments that I have yet read, very inspiring.
One more point from Kevin:
> The question that remains is this – What can we learn from the consequent influence of the Bauhaus grid on Chicago’s image industry, or of cybernetics on economics and management theory? Are these examples of the familiar story of long-term capital-driven projects borrowing from the avant-garde without sustaining it? How else might we tell these stories?”
That’s the question! Telling these stories otherwise is one of the most important things, since the informationalism to which those figures helped give rise is now in crisis and the outcomes of that crisis are going to shape our civilization for decades to come. Keith asks about a pattern whereby emigre thinkers are functionalized in the US context, or (I’d add) remain as kinds of prophetic figures whom we still don’t understand (Marcuse, Bateson, Varela, many others…). But the pace of change is such that we not only have to go back and tell the stories differently, but also sustain some vanguard positions ourselves, in the face of parallel developments in database capacities (for simulation) and biometric identification techniques (for control). These are going to take on huge importance in the coming decades. We may all feel like emigres in the strange new landscapes that are coming.
It’s clear there was a postwar thinker who knew everything about information theory and was able to use that idiom to express basic issues of life and death and solidarity and betrayal, albeit in a predominantly tragic mode. That was Lacan, whose algorithms of the relation to the Other were meant to infuse an existential content to the mathematicized functions of the emerging communication system. In Lacan’s time, the Other appeared at the limits of Western humanism, in the national liberation movements of decolonization. Today, as the capacity to produce artificial Gestalten is dramatically augmented through neuroscientific research, the locus of the Other shifts: the Other is at once very near, just beyond the police perimeter of exclusion from the security society, and at the same time very far away, within us, as the radical schiz between the programmed realities that constitute the greater part of our own consciousness and something else which we can’t name. I’d say this namelessness is the field where the Other is blurred and obscured by anxiety over our own deaths in the coming deflagrations, both social and ecological, promised by the vast contradictions of informational rationality. The issue that concerns me in contemporary informatics is not play and it’s not the factory either either, it’s the abuses of the power to create worlds for mortal beings. In the face of the corporate-state appropriation of the very capacities of perception, what counts is an ontological question: How do we touch a human reality that persists through the successive artificializations, or through the flux of what I’ve been calling trans-identity? Orit’s text closes on the ontological question. It’s food for thought and maybe for some more discussion.
The full discussion appears in the iDC archive.