themes / Laboratory of Risk

The future, as always, belongs to the dreamers

Dobrila Denegri

What concrete artistic results does the affair between the visual arts and science produce? The artistic director of the Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu in Toruń and curator of the “Spaceship Earth” exhibition gives us an answer to this question.

Whose History? Why History? History for Whom? … The answer to the first of the three questions could be: the history of the “dreamers”. It is the history of those forward-looking men and women who challenged conventions, pushed further boundaries of knowledge, and above all, followed the roads that haven’t been taken before. This history could be told in a myriad of ways and with countless number of heroes.

Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), an American architect, engineer, inventor, environmentalist and humanitarian could certainly be one of them, because his ideas and achievements echo stronger than ever in many of current artistic practices and scientific research. His intellectual adventure remains a source of inspiration since he was among the first to start raising consciousness about ecological and energetic hazards more than a century ago and he anticipated the creation of a global informational network almost fifty years ago. Moreover, he gave a concrete example of a person who put all of his creative potential into the service of the humankind and by doing so he invented and proposed numerous alternatives for more ergonomic and sustainable life on this marvellous “spaceship” called Earth.

Buckminster Fuller’s world is a world of amazing geodetic domes and spherical “dwelling machines” much more in tune with a human body than our present architecture.

It is a world of mobility and dynamism beyond any of still dominating concepts of possession and exploitation of the land and its resources. His world is, or should become, a world of cities floating in the air as predicted by the “Cloud Nine” project, a world of ecological urban zones called “Climatroffice” and “Dimaxion” cars that can move in four directions. His world is above all an example of how perspective and perception can be changed.

This very question of “how our perception of the space can be changed” is also one of the central themes of “Spaceship Earth” exhibition.

BETWEEN DUCHAMP AND WOODSTOCK

The entire history of our culture is a sequence of these points of rupture and paradigm shifts. One of the major breakthroughs happened in the Renaissance period, also triggering Copernican Revolution. But if we focus on a shorter time-span and question what introduced major change of our perception of space today, one of the answers would certainly be: World Wide Web.

Even if it became global not so long ago, its origins are rooted back in the ‘60s, when an engineer of Polish origin, Paul Baran designed the first distributive network enabling communication between computers. At the same time the ARPAnet – the world's first multiple-site computer network was created, thereby initiating what we know today as the internet.

It was 1969, a year associated in our collective imagination with Woodstock concert and the end of Vietnam war, but also with another epochal event: landing on the Moon.

Thus in the same year that symbolises the “conquering” of the outer space, seen by millions of people all over the globe, the inner digital network that today connects billions of persons was initiated. Also in 1969 Richard Buckminster Fuller published a seminal book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”, indicating with this poetic title that our planet travels through the Universe like a vehicle which has limited energy supplies and therefore it is necessary to handle them carefully if we want to continue our journey.

The time-frame given by this important period of the late ‘60s, give us the possibility to answer three initial questions from another, more art-historical perspective: the history of the artists who questioned notions of space and perception, challenged conventional boundaries between artistic and scientific disciplines and postulated transformation of the world through the synthesis of arts.

This (hi)story can also be told in many different ways and with numerous protagonists; actually, it has been already told through some exemplary exhibitions[1]. It has been also narrated through the early writings by Jonathan Benthall or Frank Popper, to name just a few examples that preceded huge number of specialised books available today. This history has also been traced through individual artistic poetics, starting with Marcel Duchamp and his “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1911-1918), which was one of the first works expressing the application of the aesthetics of mechanical movement to the human body, and his later works like “Rotary Glass Plates” (1920), “Anemic Cinema” (1926) and “Optical Disks” (1935).

Important chapters of this story were dedicated to Italian Futurists, Russian Constructivists and productivists, as well as to the protagonists of avant-garde movements such as Dada, Surrealism, De Stijl and Bauhaus.

Further on, it continues with the post-second-world-war avant-gardes catalyzed by highly influential figures such as Lucio Fontana with the concept of Spazialismo, or Max Bill with his activity within Hochschule für Gestaltung – HfG Ulm; movements that were led by artistic collectives as well as by individual artists who carried on individual research in the domain of kinetic, lumino-kinetic and optical art[2].

NEW TENDENCIES IN ZAGREB

At the moment like the present one, when history of art is undergoing the process of integration, it appears necessary to have another look at certain cultural contexts and artistic phenomena which have played important roles but still need to gain more adequate historical positioning. In this regard it would be interesting to re-examine cultural and artistic events that for over a decade made Zagreb, one of the capitals of former Yugoslavia, as vibrant a centre as the other above mentioned cities of Western Europe.

From 1961 till 1973 Zagreb was a stage of important encounters that interconnected artists and art critics, philosophers, sociologists and information theoreticians from different cultural backgrounds, in the joint endeavour to affirm artistic positions which incorporated scientific and technological innovations, motivated by the final goal to employ all the possible creative potential in order to reach higher levels of social modernisation and improvement.

In a bit more than a decade, on the occasion of five exhibitions known under a common title New Tendencies, personalities like Umberto Eco and Abraham Moles came in contact, as well as many artists, members of groups Zero, GRAV, T and N, or some younger, gathered round Azimuth gallery, like Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani, or around movements like Nouveau Réalisme and Arte Povera. These artists and movements interconnected and became conscious of common ideas and interests.

This five Zagreb events under a common title: “New Tendencies” bear complex history of the rise and dissolution of a larger artistic movement that has been often described as the “last avant-garde”[3].

This movement was consecrated through numerous exhibitive events, among which particularly significant is the one held in MoMA in 1965, entitled “The Responsive Eye”, often criticized by those more left-oriented protagonists, as a moment of commercialisation and simplification of programmatic and ideological principles which motivated cultural and social actions of these artists.

Besides the inner dynamic that animated it, there are some questions that make this Zagreb story so exemplary.The first one is connected with the very fact that this huge and international event took place in a socialist country, and it is exactly because of its ideological background that tendencies of constructivist approach found such a fertile ground in this artistic milieu.

Organizers of five editions, Božo Bek, director of The Gallery of Contemporary Art and art critics Matko Meštrović and Radoslav Putar could engage operative and intellectual potentials in such an enterprise just because they saw as a continuation of progressive ideas that guided Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy, Kassak and other protagonists of historical avant-gardes.

Artists who participated in “New Tendencies” saw themselves not as isolated and socially marginalised figures, but as “workers” in the field of visual arts, ready to put their creative potential into the service of the society.

A decision to use elements like light or movement as “material” indicated their interest in immaterial, mental, spiritual aspects of art, as well as their engagement in emancipating processes that were supposed to elevate individual and collective level of consciousness.

This positivistic and progressive attitude was underlined also by attempt to go against the commoditisation of art, against its value of status-symbol accessible only to the wealthy elite, and finally against the idea of art disconnected from the society and its needs. That is the reason why these artists found many different media to channel proper ideas: mediums like urban and architectonic structures, diverse functional elements as garments and furniture, pages of magazines and motion pictures. All of these components that constitute the material of which our mental and physical environment is made, were equally adequate as the surface of the canvas or the three-dimensional space in which the spectator was transformed in an active participant and “co-author” of the work.

Relational mode and attempt to change perception of the space of the spectator, was for this artists metaphoric transposition of the message that each individual should act as free and active agent within its community and its surroundings.

Of course, they were fully conscious of concrete social and economic conditions within which they were operating, and they were also subjected to many limits connected to the functioning of art system and vaster cultural circumstances. However, what is important is the set of ideas that they expressed and tried to put in practice, valorising some of the most noble and evolved aspects of our culture.

ART AND ADVANCEMENT

From this vast universe of ideas and poetics, considering them exemplary for this particular history, we will quote only a few by Aleksanadar Srnec, Gianni Colombo, Vladimir Bonačić and Piotr Kowalski. Paths of some of them effectively intersected through the above mentioned Zagreb events, as well as other international exhibitions; at the same time, the set of ideas and formative backgrounds can be seen as a link to other artists, even if they haven’t had a chance to get in direct contact during their lifetimes.

Each of them, though, especially because of the work elaborated in the late ‘60s, can be seen as a reference point to one of the thematic axes around which this exhibition rotates: interdisciplinarity, experimentalism, innovation, immateriality, imagination. They incarnate a Bauhaus model of an versatile artist who goes beyond the opposition between “pure” and “applied” arts, or a multiple-talent artist whose formative background is closely related to the field of natural sciences.

Bonačić and Kowalski were trained in the field of mathematics, cybernetics and computer science, but for ethical reasons they decided to apply their scientific knowledge to artistic purposes, dissenting from the misuse of scientific research.

Bonačić with first computer-programmed light-objects and Kowalski with experimental use of lasers, holograms, neon and other innovative materials can be considered true pioneers in the attempt to bridge the gap between humanities and natural sciences, giving the concrete example of the Buckminster Fuller’s prophetic statement: “The more advanced science gets, the closer it is to art. The more advanced art gets, the closer it is to science.”[4]

Seen from today’s perspective, the first part of this quote undoubtedly sounds farsighted and truthful; it triggers reflections on the capability of science to do what art is very good at doing: creating visions. Especially visions for the future.

Biotechnology, microtechnology, genetic engineering, transgenetics, bioethics, nanotechnology are definitely generating scenarios that seem going far beyond the edges of our “real” and known world.

But there is the second part of the quoted line, “The more advanced art gets, the closer it is to science”, which after a while pushes us to reflect a bit more thoroughly. At the time when these words were pronounced there was no doubt for Bucky and his allies: art was in a process of advancement, it was moving forward, it was somewhere on the forefront and it was one of the emancipatory forces that would bring wellbeing to the humankind. But “art and advancement” is a binomial rarely heard nowadays.

Linear paths of progress and faith in it were blown away by postmodernism, so, inevitably the question arises: in which direction does art move today and how is it actually getting closer to the science?

BEYOND MATERIAL, BEYOND CONVENTIONAL

One possible answer could be found where the least expected: at the opposite end of the visual art, in the realm beyond visible, which media artist Victoria Vesna explored together with a chemist and nanoscience pioneer James Gimzewski in a series of collaborative projects, starting with Zero@wavefunction in 2002. Thanks to her work certain scientific notions connected to research and manipulation on atomic and molecular level got an “image”, they became visually perceivable, and, what is more, they can be experienced through the sound and motion too. The artist “translates” scientific concepts into visual language, but that is only the first step.

The second is far more important and it further complements the initial question of Fuller’s quote about the closeness of art to science, which, according to Roy Ascott, is an instrument for understanding “the complexity of structure of the material world”[5]. Art, in turn, indicates deeper implications of scientific advancement and helps shape new paradigms.

In this sense art is not only close to science but it is complementary to it, and even necessary: scientific eye was able to penetrate the smallest sub-atomic particle, which moves perpetually creating energy waves and makes one realize that the structure of the matter consists of emptiness; but the artistic eye can see in that void, in that fluid “emptiness” a seed for a new vision of the world: a world not any longer dominated by materialism and its devastating consequences.

Victoria Vesna’s work activates this kind of awareness, since she brings into the visual realm what otherwise can be approached only with most sophisticated technological devices.

Using completely different means, visionary architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, achieved similar effect with one of the most challenging constructions ever: “Blur” – a building made of “nothingness”. It was actually “made of” water droplets suspended in the air, and with its hazy cloud-like shape it was challenging some of the basic architectonical principles like stability and consistency. “Blur Building” can be seen as a monument to lightness, to evanescence and to flux… to the kind of notions that we find also in other artistic explorations which tend to develop architecture closely related to the human body; the architecture that is not any longer a barrier but a point of contact between bodies and between persons, a sort of permeable “second skin” through which human being can be merged with its surroundings.

Some of these visions project us directly into the future: they are bold, stunning and inspiring; they stimulate our imagination for sure, but at the same time they shake our fixed convictions, reminding us that most of our limits are just social and cultural conventions.

So, maybe in not such a distant future visionary body-architectures developed by Acconci Studio and organic structures created by Xàrene Eskandar will become part of our urban landscape. But for the moment, we can just accept them for what they are now: metaphoric transpositions of what our world can become if the human and the planet regain central position, and become the fulcrum of research and intellectual reflection.

TO SEE FROM A NEW ANGLE

In the late ‘60s ideas like that were elaborated by one of the members of Gruppo T, Gianni Colombo, with his concept of Elastic Space – space understood as a sort of “experimental playground” designed to force the spectator to step out of his/hers conventional behavioural patterns. He believed that this could be the way for art to achieve one of its main prerogatives: to broaden perspectives, make us see the world from a new angle, and finally put us in a position to sense and exercise intellectual freedom.

Colombo, who can be considered one of the most influential Italian artists of the second half of the 20th century, drew on the legacy of Bauhaus, which postulated, which was also Paul Klee’s conviction, that the new art must be based upon science.

This conviction was shared by many protagonists of kinetic and optical art, as well as other similar movements out of which developed numerous categories that we know today as media arts.

In that pioneering period, very particular, even if less known research in kinetic and lumino-kinetic domain was carried out by a Croatian artist Aleksandar Srnec, who, like Gianni Colombo, incarnated this polyhedral figure of an artist, whose activity could touch and cross many different expressive domains. His Luminoplastics – a series of works conceived and partly realized in the late ‘60s gained interest more due to the process than the novelty of the result: it testifies to the passage from the still medium of painting to time-based media such as film, and then its transposition back to the sculptural or ambiental form.

Abstract color-based films led Srnec towards experimentation with screening modalities that would go beyond bidimensionality of the canvas.

His almost immaterial structures act like a sort of 3D screens, and in this sense they seem anticipating some of the more recent research, like the one carried out by Tobias Putrih creating hybrid “display” devices – “Re-Projection” from 2008 and other similar projects.

Hence, to reply once again to the initial question “why history?” – it is because the very nature of artistic ideas and visions remains always “contemporary”; even if they were expressed just as mental images, sketches or prototypes, at different time and different place they will re-appear and “re-materialize”.

In the late ‘60s Vladimir Bonačić was installing computer – programmed light – objects on buildings, dreaming about “luminous” architectures, which today actually became a part of our common urban landscape.

On the other hand, some formal correspondences that artworks realised by younger generation of artists share with those realised about half a century ago, trigger reflections about the change of contents and, inevitably, about the change of the Zeitgeist. Symbols and synonyms of techno-scientific utopias used to took shape of shiny artworks, so precisely calculated and geometrically formed, or so mysteriously animated through interplay of lights, reflections and transparency. However today similar forms reveal almost the opposite, a sort of techno-dystopia, or an image of a contemporary society that is not any more a society of in-formation but, as Stanislav Lem puts it, ex-formation.

That is how “Future Times” – data-sculpture realised by Christopher O’Leary and Casey Alt appears – as a fascinating luminous object that should present a century of forward-thinking, but rather alludes to the entropy and obscurity of informational systems that are coordinating and controlling our society.

The work by Katarina Löfström, in turn, shows the same kind of paradox: rhythmical video-animation based on the “shoot” taken from the Hubble telescope which should present the farthest point of the universe we could reach visually – a sort of the boundary of knowledge, so to say, which is actually just another “blind spot”. But still, now as much as before, artists aware of the perspectives and limitations of the technological and scientific advancement shape through their work mental and metaphorical universes – which in our present condition might be defined as “multiverses”.

MULTIVERSE AND UNIVERSE

“Multiverse” is a difficult term to find in dictionaries, despite the fact that it originated more than a century ago. It is a word that exists in both fantasy and scientific worlds. In both worlds the term alludes to something that not only challenges our concept of space but also the boundaries of imagination itself.

Other worlds and parallel realities, figments of imagination and fantasy, are now set up like preludes to scientific scenarios.

Taking possession of the term “multiverse” opens up new perspectives of an immense space which is in continuous evolution; a space composed of myriad universes, which are potentially similar to our own. If this holds true, and if the theory of cosmic inflation is verifiable, it would change the concept of infinity. Science is showing us the way, allowing us to perceive or detect some elements of the infinitely small and of the infinitely big, by making us float through the nanoscale of molecular structures and the incalculable vastness of the cosmos. Science is generating a new concept of the world, in which the non-visible and non-material are becoming crucial factors to deal with.

“Multiverse” is not just fascinating because it repositions us in an immensely vast cosmic landscape; but it also offers itself as a metaphoric model that makes us re-evaluate concepts of diversity and multiplicity.

It also opposes the idea of monoculture in favour of a dynamic structure composed of autonomous “universes” that correlate and connect each other. “Multiverse” turns our attention in many directions; it directs us toward every single element and toward the whole, by giving precedence to a holistic vision of the world in which the future seems dramatically affected by emergencies and imminent disasters. It matches terms like multiplicity and universality, which have so far been divided, giving rise to themes that acquire new weight and actuality through this union. These are the themes that have animated, for over a century, the reflections and visions of many different personalities, from Richard Buckminster Fuller to Félix Guattari, from Joseph Beuys to Satish Kumar.

Now more than ever, these themes are at the centre of interest for younger generations of artists, who transcend various fields of creativity: from architecture to art, design to music, film to all the fields that cross communicative systems and advanced technologies.

“Multiverse“, this nomadic term that has travelled through diverse literary and scientific territories, now enters the orbit of art filled with significance that reflects research done by younger generations of artists like Loris Cecchini, Micol Assaël, Alicja Kwade, Jakub Nepraš, Christiane Löhr, Martin Rille, Simon Thorogood, Nikola Uzunovski and Johannes Vogl. Now “multiverse” reflects their way of moving into multi-disciplinary manner and their way of confronting the complexity of the contemporary world which seems completely absorbed in an entropic vortex. Yet, at the same time, the world depends on visions that are more suggestive, project-oriented and able to create new equilibriums between the individual and the environment.

The article was originally published in catalogue of the “Spaceship Earth” exhibition (4.03 – 22.05.2011), shown at the Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu in Toruń. The title is a quotation from the book “The Dreams of Reason” written by Heinz R. Pagels. Subheadings and shortenings were created by the editors of the website www.culturecongress.eu.

© 2010 Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu
© Dobrila Denegri

  1. 1. Such as “Le Mouvment” organised by Denise René in 1955 in her Parisian gallery, where she also showed Mondrian, Strzemiński, Kobro and Maljevič, “Bewogen Beweging” in the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum and Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1961, “Lumière et Mouvement”, in Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1965, “E.A.T/9 evenings: theatre & engineering” at the New York 69th Regiment Armory in 1966, “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” at the MoMA – Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1968 or “Cybernetic Serendipity” presented at the ICA in London in the same year.
  2. 2. To mention groups such as Group Zero (Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, Günther Uecker) established in 1958 in Düsseldorf; Gruppo N (Alberto Biasi, Ennio Chiggio, Toni Costa, Edoardo Landi, Manfredo Massironi) in Padua in 1959 as well as Gruppo T (Giovanni Anceschi, Davide Boriani, Gianni Colombo, Gabriele De Vecchi, Grazia Varisco) in Milan, also in 1959, GRAV – Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel (Horacio Garcia Rossi, Julio Le Parc, François Morellet, Francisco Sobrino, Joël Stein, Yvaral) in Paris in 1960 and artists Victor Vasarely, Nicolas Schöffer, Frank Malina, Jesús-Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Almir Mavignier, Yaacov Agam and others.
  3. 3. Vergine, L., "L'ultima avanguardia, Arte programmata e cinetica 1953-1963", Palazzo reale, Milano, November 1983-February 1984, quoted in Denegri, J., "EXAT 51 and New Tendencies – Constructive approach art", Horetzky, Zagreb, 2000
  4. 4. Hatch, A., “At Home in the Universe – Buckminster Fuller”, A Delta Book, New York, 1974
  5. 5. Ascott, R., preface to the book, “Nanoculture – implications of the new technoscience”, edited by N. K. Hayles, Intellect Books, Bristol/Portland, 2004