Whether it originates from statistical tabulation or remote sensors, whether it flows in real time or out of recombinant databases, whether it serves the needs of private individuals, globe-spanning corporations or government agencies, information visualization is the operative technology of the networked age, a language of vision for the control society. Infoviz proliferates on the screens of factory workstations, financial trading floors, military commands and surveillance watchspots, everywhere that decisive movements are subject to managerial scrutiny. The graphic flow chart is history because social and productive dynamics can no longer be planned in advance, they can no longer be fixed on paper; instead they are modulated in the present by those with access to the strategic technics of representation. The visualization technologies will continue developing prodigiously, at the pace of information networks. The question for theorists and cultural producers is who will appropriate them aesthetically, in which media, with what sensibility, for what ends.
At stake is the capacity to invent an aesthetic twist on a mode of representation that itself is already one or several degrees away from its primary objects. In other words, it's about the capacity to intervene on the existing visual forms that serve to organize the fit between the individual and society. This kind of aesthetic twist has a long and fascinating history in the 20th century. Each time there is a quixotic attempt to create a regulatory form, a perceptual touchstone, whereby the course of technopolitical development can be apprehended, measured, and inflected despite all the structural traps and contradictions of capitalist democracy. It’s the vision thing. Many such turning points in cultural vision can be identified, in different places, at different moments, and perhaps most crucially, at different scales. I'm going to recall just a few, focusing on major cases where cultural forms intersect with the operational representations of political economy, first during the period of industrial mass production, then in the current information age. In conclusion I will let the historical analysis erupt into debates about the present and its artistic figures. Urgent debates about the need to bring an aesthetic twist to the ruling techniques of vision in networks.
The difficulty but also the interest of this approach is the idea that the key cultural forms do not represent or even directly shape “objective” reality, but rather seek to inflect and modify the dominant modes of representation, aiming for a regulatory effect. This was a major issue for artists, filmmakers and architects at the outset of the 20th century, after the revolution of assembly-line production introduced by Ford in 1908 had revealed its tremendous destructive power in World War I, with continuing destabilization in a tumultuous interwar period marked by great power competition, labor unrest, the challenge of communist revolution and the recurrent disruptions of economic crisis. How could artistic forms achieve a new mediation between the individual and industrial society? And which existing trends would they have to overcome or transform in order to do so?
To begin, consider the way that the Bauhaus artist and theorist, Moholy-Nagy, discussed the relation between Cubism and filmic representation:
"The cubists hoped to develop a method to penetrate reality more thoroughly than had been possible with persepctive-illusion. They had an intimation of the coming forceful visual monopoly of the movies, and tried to escape from it by all means. The principle of the motion picture was a new method of rendering three-dimensional reality. The film was able to show any object in space from many different sides in quick succession. The cubists began to produce such a rendering by 'looking around the corner,' and looking from above, from every side - invalidating the monocular vision of the previous painters.... Besides the emotional upheaval caused by the startling extension of the traditional pictorial elements in a new vision, the distortions and strange transformations of the well-known subject matter produced, in addition, an attack on all pictorial fixations originating in the renaissance. The analysis of binocular vision in motion led the cubists to render objects with a multitude of details seen from every point of view. For this they employed a method of dissolving the whole shape into small geometric units, and saw to it that the multitude of elements did not destroy the original subject matter as a totality."
Taken from a late biographical sketch entitled “Abstract of an Artist” (1944), this quote encapsulates multiple aspects of Moholy's long trajectory, spanning three decades and traversing three major cities (Berlin, London, Chicago). From 1923 to 1928 Moholy had been a teacher of the foundation course at the Bauhaus, which was struggling to achieve a synthesis of artistic creation and machine technology in a cultural climate marked both by the lingering nostalgia of nineteenth-century craft ideals and by the actively regresive forces of Volkisch ideology. Today, a reductive view of the Bauhaus sees it only as a laboratory for the rationalist discipline of functional design, eliminating the artist’s subjectivity and culminating in the International Style of postwar corporate architecture. But the school’s founder, the architect Walter Gropius, in fact sought a more complex fusion of artistic and industrial methods. As he noted in 1922: “Young artists are beginning to face up to the phenomena of industry and the machine. They try to design what I would call the ‛useless’ machine (works of Picasso, Braque, Ozenfant, Jeanneret, the new Russian and Hungarian schools, Schlemmer, Muche, Klee, etc.).” What Gropius sought was not the elimination of what Kant had termed "the productive imagination" or "the free play of the faculties," but instead, its displacement onto a plane coterminous with design and engineering. The geometrical figure of the grid that dominates Bauhaus iconography is a mediator between art and industry: a technique for the rendering of pictorial form into reproducible products, but also the abstract basis for a free exploration of new physical and cultural environments.
Moholy-Nagy, a representative of the new Hungarian schools strongly influenced by Russian constructivism, was an all-terrain artist and theorist of the “useless machine,” translating the early 20th-century breakthroughs of pictorial form into photography, sculpture, film and experiments with projected light. At the close of the decade and the end of his own Bauhaus years he wrote his first pedagogical synthesis, Von Material zu Architektur (1929, translated in English as The New Vision). In this book he saw the Cubist vocabulary of simultaneous viewpoints, distortions, disolcations, superimpositions etc as a strategy to clear away the inherited hierarchies of visual representation and move toward the more dynamic forms of light projection and kinetic sculpture, which in his view were uniquely able to shape a sensibility for contemporary architecture. With them the visual artist could contribute decisively to the construction of a new urban environment, by opening the senses of the public to "the actual felt quality of spatial creation, the equilibrium of taut forces held in balance, the fluctuating interpenetration of space energies" -- i.e. the specific characteristics of modernist architecture, masked by the inherited forms of the traditional fine arts. From this perspective, the Light-Space Modulator or "Light Prop," constructed in 1930 after eight years of investigation and planning, appears as the culmination of Moholy’s artistic research. It was a complex metallic sculpture mounted on a rotating base and outfited with an array of electric bulbs so as to project a changing sequence of shadows and lights into the volume of an architectural space. As he writes:
"In this experiment I tried to synthesize simple elements by a constant superimposition of their movements. For this reason most of the moving shapes were made transparent, through the use of plastics, glass, wire-mesh, latticework and perforated metal sheets. ... When the 'light-prop' was set in motion for the first time in a small mechanics shop in 1930, I felt like the sorcerer's apprentice. The mobile was so startling in its coordinated motions and space articulations of light and shadow sequences that I almost believed in magic. I learned much from this mobile for my later painting, photography, and motion pictures, as well as for architecture and industrial design. The mobile was designed mainly to see transparencies in action, but I was surprised to discover that shadows thrown on transparent and perforated screens produced new visual effects, a kind of interpretation in fluid change."
Here as throughout Moholy’s Bauhaus teaching, the ultimate aim was a cinema of perceptual experience, freely embodied by the inhabitants of the Großstadt (metropolis). The Cubist vocabulary, mobilized and projected into space, would offer new means for the apprehension of architecture, and more importantly, a transformed environment in which the viewer could generate expressive correspondences between his or her own inner emotional states and the articulations of industrially produced architecture. Through this exploratory process, the view would be transformed into an active, creative agent of technological modernity, shedding inherited social hierarchies and psychic constraints along with outmoded beaux-arts symbolism. Far from the regimented mechanization that had become the terrifying face of nationalism during WWI, the double nature of the grid appears perfectly in the polished metal latticework of the rotating machine parts. Through the projective abstraction of art fused with industrial technology, the Bauhaus pioneers sought to establish and inhabit the machine process as the vector of a trans-identity.
The intimate coloristic figures of Klee, the rhythmic geometric murals of Kandinsky, the expressive space-exploring gestures of Schlemmer’s choreography, but also the cool, functionalist volumes, stackable furniture and smoothly rounded appliances of the experimental house designed for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar are all condensed into the mobile transformations of the “useless machine” that was the Light-Space Modulator, which appears in retrospect as a supremely theoretical device, anticipating decades of multimedia work in the postwar period. Yet as he recounts in “Abstract of an Artist,” Moholy was depressed not to find a public for the direct exercise of this new vision, and he was compelled to translate it into an experimental film, entitled Lichtspiel, Schwarz-Weiß-Grau (Light Display: Black-White-Gray). With its mobility safely contained in two dimensions, the film was a compromise, an attempt to met the viewer half-way. And though Moholy claims “a certain success” for his creation, it could be more important to investigate the sources of his frustration and depression. In reasity the German public of the time was fascinated not with the tonal abstractions of Schwarz-Weiß-Grau but with the cinema of Grauen (horror), shaped by the dark psychological intensities of Expressionism and the obsessive romantic theme of the Doppelgänger, which revealed a split personality at the basis of everyday social relations.
The mismatch between the affective drives of the viewing public and Moholy's artistic concept of architectural liberation through projected light seems to encapsulate the entire Bauhaus experience, as a failed attempt to transform the traditional visual arts into a regulatory aesthetics for a chaotically changing industrial society. Instead, it was Expressonist cinema that set the affective tone of urban experience. As Fritz Lang wrote in 1926: "Perhaps never before was there a time which sought new forms through which to express itself with such reckless determination. The fundamental upheavals in the fields of painting and sculpture, architecture and music speak eloquently enough for the fact that people today are looking for, and also discovering their own means of shaping their imagination." As the indisputable master of the crime film, Lang was able to develop the taste for irresolvable conspiracy and psychological turmoil that gave popular expression to the pervasive uncertainty of the time. Though far more “realistic” in its approach to representation, his work rejoins the Expressionism of Wegener, Wiene and Murnau through the themes of angst, violent excess, insanity and the perverse or arbitrary manipulation of unwitting victims.
Today, academic criticism disputes Siegfried Kracauer's claim that the German cinema of the 1920s offered a "premonition of Hitler." In effect, neither expressionist pathos nor the ghostly cinematic figures of the Doppelgänger can stand in for the deep regimentation and mechanization of society carried out by the Nazis under the aegis of a national myth. Nonetheless, it is clear that Lang himself came to see one of his most popular creations, the criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse, as exactly such a premonition. The corruption of top officials by a ring of underground criminals, the deliberate release of counterfeit notes to debase the currency, and finally the uncontrollable fire unleashed in a Berlin chemical plant as the culmination of a plot to destabilize the government, all make the last film of Lang's Weimar period, Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse (1932), into a powerful allegorical portrait of the collapse of the Weimar democracy and the entry into fascism after the Reichstag fire. The dream of a trans-identity able to surmount the shocks and contradictions of industrial modernity was over. For the artists and teachers of the Bauhaus, as for Lang himself, there was only one solution: flight to France, to England and ultimately to America.
To be continued....
[Friends, this is only the first part of a text on the attempts at developing a regulatory aesthetics for the mass-manufacturing age, and then for the information society. It is naive, highly narrative, almost popular and I might even keep it that way, unless the criticism is too intense and then I will have to go back and find a more valid language for this kind of investigation. On that score, criticism is obviously welcome! Next sections and notes should come soon....
Following sections will include:
--Vision in Motion (Moholy, Kepes, Fuller and Cybernetic America)
--Psychedelic Visions (Black Mountain College, Cage, La Monte Young and the Merry Pranksters)
--Mondovision (I guess this has somehow to be about satellite TV and globalization)
--Vision in Networks (Lev Manovich and Tactical Media via Cognitive Science and A Thousand Plateaus)
→ So hang on for the ride!]