Art as Visual Research (Lecture notes)

This text is written in preparation for two upcoming talks and highlights a few aspects of my PhD thesis-in-progress "Automation, Cybernation and the Art of New Tendencies (1961-1973)". New Tendencies were one of the first postwar movements in art to focus on visual research as a way of redefining the role of art in society.

The first talk is part of a panel discussion in the context of "For Active Art – New Tendencies 50 Years Later (1961 – 1973)" at Gorgona Hall, MSU Zagreb, April 15th. Website MSU

The second talk will be at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, on May 11th 2011, 19:00 o'clock at Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Schillerplatz 3, A-1010 Vienna, room DG 14/Turm 4, in the context of the research project funded by WWTF's Art(s) & Sciences-Programm hosted by the academy "Troubling Research. Performing Knowledge in the Arts" (

My thesis interrogates exhibitions as sites of research, taking as a starting point my own practice as artist, curator and theorist in the field of media art. I am suggesting that significant new insights can be gained by locating practices in media art within a framework of techno-economic paradigm change. To test this thesis I have chosen the project and international art movement New Tendencies (NT) which originated in Zagreb, former Yugoslavia, in 1961 and lasted until 1973.

The Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia as a non-aligned nation drove a wedge into the binary logic of the Cold War and provided a space and an institutional environment where a specific synthesis between unorthodox socialist ideas and aesthetic Modernism became possible, and where artists from East and West could meet.

The life-span of NT from 1961 to 1973 coincided with a shift from a period characterised by rapid economic growth and the introduction of new technologies within a generally optimistic outlook with an emphasis on planning and socio-economic mediating mechanisms in the early to mid 1960s - the so called era of Fordism-Keynesianism - and the crisis of that very same paradigm at the end of the 1960s with first signs of a weakening of the economy in leading Western nations, the Vietnam War and student and workers protests.

My research shows close and concrete links between the artistic practices engendered by NT and the apex of high-modernity. Specifically, the research highlights the inner contradictions of a modernistic avant-garde which formulated its social critique as a 'constructive impulse'. That means that NT did not formulate their critique in negative terms but thought that art could actively contribute to the transformation of social relations.

NT was one of the first postwar art movements which strove to replace the notion of art with the notion of 'visual research'. This important step arose from a questioning of the dominant mode of the art market and a desire to redefine the role of the artist in society. NT artists felt that the role of a 'researcher' was more adequate to advanced mode of production in industrial societies than the notion of an artist pursuing individual expressive aims in a solipsistic mode of 'creation'.

The redefinition of art as visual research had a number of direct consequences which for the artists of NT followed with necessity from the first proposition. It implied that from the artwork were excluded any subjective or psychological aspects. Years before the ascent of conceptual art and minimalism, NT artists strove to design working processes based on 'rules of play' which, once those rules had been decided, could be carried out in a 'perfunctory' manner.

The proximity to conceptual art was first highlighted by Darko Fritz (2007)1 and is further emphasised by the fact that Sol Le Witt in "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" (LeWitt 1996) felt the need to explicitely distance himself from what he referred to as kinetic and op art. This is absolutely understandable if we compare for example Le Witt's Grids drawings with the grids of Francois Morellet, co-founder of Group de Recherche d'Art Visuel (GRAV): they look more or less the same only that Morellet produced his grids 10 years earlier (Lemoine et al. 1991).

François Morellet, 3 Double Grids 0°, 30°, 60° (1960-61).
Image courtesy of MSU, Zagreb

NT's reliance on strict methodologies was motivated by a dialectical opposition-taking against Informel and Abstract Expressionism. A closer look at individual careers however exposes that some NT artists at least had to pass through a phase of Informel themselves before they discovered a new way of working. For instance, Gerhard von Graevenitz in Munich went through a wild experimental phase before the arrival at structural progressions of ordered simple elements on surfaces according to mathematical rules. He, it seems, had to pass through Informel and a fascination with the 'automatic painting' of Pollock (Berswordt-Wallrabe & Harmsen 1994).

The notion of the artistic experiment has a long history in art and, for example, has been emphasised by the historic avant-gardes in the early 20th century. NT's contribution was to try to define the experiment more rigorously by stripping it off its arbitrary and subjectivist nature. As the work was defined by the invention of rules within a limited set of conditions and circumstances, the experiment could be repeated, in principle, by everyone and became thus inter-subjective.

The objectification of the creative process also enabled the working in groups and the exchange of ideas and methodologies between group members and within NT as a movement. Groups such as GRAV, Paris, Gruppo N and Gruppo T, Italy, Zero, Germany, Nul, Netherlands, Equipo 57, Spain, functioned like micro-universities of artistic research, both on the level of material practice and intellectual exchange.

The outward appearance of works often was of an abstract, constructivist or concrete type. However, NT explicitly rejected geometric abstraction, constructivism and concrete art since those art forms were still based on 'composition', a notion NT artists considered to be outdated and subjectivist. Instead, NT artists chose the most anonymous elementary forms and defined the rules according to which those forms would be combined or distributed across surfaces. The older dichotomy between form and content was superseded by the relationship between formational rules and overall structure.

This emphasis on visual structure was seen to provide convincing evidence for isomorphisms between structures created through rational artistic experimentation and images of micro-strcutures in nature produced through scientific visualisation, a point brought home again and again through many examples in Kepes' "Structure in Art and in Science" (Kepes 1965).

Kepes' line, however, was highly ideological in the way he constantly emphasised similarities between art and science by reference to simple visual analogy. Martin has shown how Kepes' ideas about pattern seeing were linked to the external and internal structures of postwar corporate architecture, in particular also the architecture of research labs of companies such as IBM and Bell Labs which were shaping the new scientific paradigm of information and communication technologies (Martin 2005). Kepes tried to recruit art to the creation of order and beauty in a chaotic environment shaped by anarchic market forces.

This intention was already made explicit in Kepes' first book "Language of Vision" (Kepes 1944). for which Sigfried Giedion wrote an introduction whose core idea was worked out at length in Giedion's own book, "Mechanization Takes Command" (Giedion 1948). There, Giedion wrote in the foreword:

'The coming period must bring order to our minds, our production, our feeling, our economic and social development. It has to split the gap that, since the onset of mechanisation, has split our mode of thinking from our modes of feeling' (Giedion 1948, p. v).

Kepes had been working with Moholy-Nagy when the latter tried to establish a New Bauhaus in Chicago. Giedion made extensive use of Moholy-Nagy's light photography which in turn owed a lot to the light photography used by the Gilbreth's for time and motion studies in industrial work.

It is to Martin's credit to make apparent another important cross-connection, that with Norbert Wiener and a then still quite young and unknown, Marshall McLuhan. It is the reference to Wiener's concept of cybernetics and its close links with industrial automation which deserves our closest attention.

After more than a century of 'mechanisation', the introduction of machines into production, the splitting up of tasks into separate steps which could either be carried out by machines or by humans subordinated to the discipline of 'scientific management', a reverse movement had begun. Electricity, electronics and last not least, information had begun to infiltrate the machine park and start a new drive towards an organicist view of technology. Giedion was concerned with the establishment of a dynamic equilibrium (Ibid., p. 719). He thought that 'our period demands a type of man who can restore the lost equilibrium between inner and outer reality' the ultimate expression of which would be 'man in equipoise' (Ibid.).

Kepes' concerns were quite similar, but more closely attached to visual communication. Kepes demanded that 'there must be feedback to our central scale of values from the new vistas that confront us in the scientific, technological field' (Kepes 1965, p. i). Invoking Gestalt psychologists, linguistic structuralism and natural sciences, Kepes claimed that structure was the new ordering principle which could be extended from inorganic structures to plants, animals, social behaviour patterns of animals and human relations (pp. ii-iii).

Mc Luhan, often falsely understood as an advocate of a cosy vision of an electronically linked 'global village', privately held much more dystopian views of the effects of electronic media which sometimes filtered through in his writing when he mentiond the future destructions that humans would bring onto themselves. A paradox opens up. While technological organicists such as Giedion, Kepes and McLuhan understood electronic communication as a kind of nervous system of machines and societies, in the real world automation only heightened the contradictions of capital and labour and exposed workers to more alienating conditions at the work-place. People, either as workers or consumers, became seen as "servomechanisms" adding feedback to the system.

Yet of the quintet Kepes, Giedion, McLuhan, Moholy-Nagy and Wiener, it was left to the scientist to be the only one to be overtly political. It seems the artists and cultural theorists were resigned to technological progress as a quasi automatic force, so that they undertook little to change the underlying problem, the political economy, i.e. capitalism. Art should try to help cure the symptoms by addressing the 'dynamic equilibrium' but was not supposed to remove the root cause, the domination of labour by capital.

As Wiener clearly expressed in the book "The Human Use of Human Beings"(Wiener 1988) first published in 1950 and aimed at a broad audience, science could not be trusted to govern itself, since it had already cozied up to the military-industrial complex from which it got its funding and took its orders. Furthermore, the new intelligent machinery, governed by so called servomechanisms, could be of devastating consequence to human labour. Wiener even went so far to offer his assistance to the main US trade union, the CIO.

The complex of ideas briefly introduced here traveled over the Atlantic and affected Europe with some time-delay. It did so on several layers. On the layer of industrial automation, so called "Detroit Automation" mainly characterised by the use of transfer machines, was interpreted as the "American challenge" to which European industry responded vividly during the 1950s and 1960s. It is no coincidence that NT, while it had its organisational centre in Zagreb, emerged from the centres of industrial automation in Europe, Milan, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Paris.

On the layer of discourse on art and design the link with the US post-Bauhaus discourse was provided by HfG Ulm, the College of Design in Ulm, Germany, where Wiener visited as guest lecturer in 1955 and where Max Bense and Abraham Moles elaborated on their own version of cybernetic theory..

The key person to link ideas between the old and new Bauhauses was HfG Ulm's first director, Bauhaus trained artist, designer and architect Max Bill. As Margit Staber explained in her contribution to Kepes' book concrete artists such as Bill 'had emphasised the social responsibility of the artist and had underlined the fact that especially their art could have an effect on civilization and could bridge the gap between art and everyday life' (Staber 1965, p.178).Artists such as Max Bill believed that the 'primordial pictorial order of concrete art could be understood as 'fulcrums' or 'centers of equilibrium' whose objectivity had a broad and general effect' (Ibid.) Artists should create 'psychic objects for intellectual use' which had a direct positive effect on the mind of the 'viewer' which would 'like 'medicine' even work subconsciously (Bill, n.p., quoted in Staber 1965, Ibid.).

Such ideas were held in contempt by the Situationists. Asger Jorn who initially was invited by Bill to teach at the New Bauhaus in Ulm immediately had a row with Bill and left after a few days. Later in writing he accused Bill of being a 'functionalist' which for Jorn and the SI was a dirty word. The German branch of SI ridiculed HfG Ulm lecturer and information art theorist Max Bense by producing a fake Bense lecture on tape, a garbled text remixing pieces of Bense's aesthetic information theory with quotations from Marx and Hegel. Another Ulm lecturer, Abraham Moles who independently of Bense had developed an information aesthetics, was greeted with rotten tomatoes when he held his inaugural lecture after receiving a professorship in sociology in Strassbourg.

The biggest villain was of course business-minded Le Corbusier. Yet functionalism could not only apply to architecture and design, but also to the understanding of the role of art more generally and the specific relation ships between brain, eye and perception.

It appears that the understanding of isomorphism as held by early Gestalt psychologists such as Köhler and Wertheim was based on a too simplistic understanding of neurological processes involved in perception (Piaget 1971, pp.53-7). Bill was an important influence for some of the artists involved in NT, yet Staber makes it insufficiently clear in which ways NT artists were 'more modern' than Bill. As Bill was replaced as director of HfG Ulm through a palace revolt of younger teachers such as Tomás Maldonado in 1957, it appears safe to assume that the more radical elements in NT distanced themselves from Bill's utopian idealism and took a more hard-nosed approach to artistic inquiry as an empirical experimental practice along the lines of Maldonado's ideas, summed up in an article by Maldonado's colleague Bonsiepe titled "Militant Rationality in the Service of Cultural Innovation".

Militant rationality was also part and parcel of the program of NT. However, I would like to strongly differentiate between science and visual research. In the following passages I will explain some of the principles of the psychology of perception as they were known at around the time of the first phase of NT. By doing that, I do not imply that artists involved in NT fancied themselves to be scientists. Methodologically, it appears to be more productive to stress the differences between art and science in order to understand the notion of art as visual research. NT artists conducted practical and empirical forms of research.

The abstract visual structures of NT exploited phenomena known from textbooks of Gestalt psychology, such as the phi effect (virtual motion), visual ambiguity (i.e. perception of 3D images from two-dimensional forms; non-decidable images where background and foreground keep switching), after-images, colour- and size-constancy, virtual distortion of forms. A good summary of those phenomena is given by R.L.Gregory in "Eye and Brain, the Psychology of Seeing"(Gregory 1977), which, first published in 1966, summarised knowledge that would have been available to the interested layman at the time, including artists who understood themselves as visual researchers .

Image: Pfister's hen, a chicken as visual researcher; from Gregory op.cit

Gregory was sceptical about some of the claims of Gestalt psychology. Psycho-physical research in perception in the 1950s showed that Gestalt researchers had a simplistic understanding of electromagnetic field structures in the brain and that isomorphism did in fact explain nothing (Ibid., p. 9).

The experiments of NT artists did not simply apply known perceptual phenomena as a kind of scientific ready-made but took them as starting points for their own explorations. They created new and unknown effects with new materials and through the usage of movement and light. They created objects and installations scientists in psycho-physical research laboratories probably would have never dreamed of. Based on known phenomena they created new effects and frequently pushed the limits of perceptual capacities of humans.

There could thus lie a more modest form of relationship between science and art, something Morellet hinted at by suggesting that the artists were providing an empirical foundation for further scientific research (Morellet 1962) That, however, did not turn the artist into a scientist. Morellet's hunch was confirmed from the other side, by perceptual researcher Julian E Hochberg who wrote that 'the study of the results of prolonged visual disturbance [was] critically important in the understanding of the perceptual process' (Hochberg 1969, p.121).

An interesting thread which was produced by my research more as a side-result than by intent was to see how many sciences during the 1950s and 1960s were actually becoming "cyborg sciences". What I mean by that is that as an after effect of the original concept of cybernetics as proposed by N.Wiener and through the combined effects of information theory, computer science and the increased use of mathematical and statistical methods a number of sciences subscribed to basic assumptions behind cybernetics and resorted to metaphors based on brain-computer analogies. By the early 1960s the brain started to 'compute' and perception was formulated as processes of encoding and decoding information (Brain 1969).

At the same time cybernetic theories were propagated which conceptualised social and technological systems as cyborg organisms while automation and cybernation made strong progress in production systems and in the ways cycles of production and consumption were managed by corporations and governments. As automation became a reality, the participation of producers and consumers was increasingly seen as a key problem.

For the artists involved in NT it was of great importance that the resulting images only existed in the mind of the viewer. The viewer assumed a central position in the concept of visual research. NT artists were taking further the notion that visual perception was inextricably linked to cognitive processes, an idea which in its modern scientific firm was first proposed by Helmholtz (Gregory 1977, p.101). New research undertaken in the 1950s and 1960s increasingly confirmed that the eye was not at all like a video camera, passively receiving images, and linked to a brain understood as a memory bank with a real-time processing capacity. In every stage of a perceptual process the forming of 'perceptual hypothesis' is involved which also influence 'what' we see. As Gregory writes:

The seeing of objects involved many source of information beyond those meeting the eyes when we look at an object: knowledge of the object from previous experience, not only vision but also other senses, the object's past and possible future ... an object transcends experience and becomes an embodiment of knowledge (Gregory 1977, p. 10).

Some of the optical effects used in art arise when the artwork produces wrong perceptual hypotheses. Other effects relate to certain hardwired functions of the perceptual apparatus. Hubel and Wiesel in a series of experiments in the late 1950s found out that specific neurons in the brain's visual cortex reacted to different types of motion (Gregory op.cit, p. 47). There are time delays in the capacity of retina cells to respond to stimuli because the retina cells "receive" light through a chemical bleaching process which can only refresh itself in certain intervals (p. 64). There are also many brain cells located directly next to retina cells. The retina itself is not simply like a passive membrane or screen but an outgrowth of the brain. Some visual stimuli are do get repressed, they are not sent from the retina to the brain - there are close interactions between receptive cells and brain, or 'feedback' as the cyberneticist would say (p. 61).

Programmatic statements such as those of GRAV who sought an as close as possible 'relationship with the eye' (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel 1962) show that research was directed at finding out ways of confounding the eye in particular ways by finding those perceptual in-between-spaces opened up by properties of the visual system as described above. In today's hacker language those would be called exploits. Yet those effects were not an aim in themselves.

NT artists tried to establish concrete and specific links between the work and the viewer, often within situations which would unfold over time and would include the movement of the viewer or moving elements in the artwork. Thus, practically all the artworks in this early phase were of a participatory character. The participation of the viewer was not just an afterthought but a central requirement intrinsically related to the notion of visual research; from this follows that conceptually visual research also embraced a new concept of authorship.

It is important to point out that hardly any of the artists involved was interested in motion for motion's sake so that the term kinetic art is a misnomer. There is a physiological connection insofar as there are intricate relationships between motion and changes in perception; and there is a more philosophical aspect to this, since motion is connected to time and to memory. We do have a sense of time, but we do not know how we do it. This aspect points to a strong influence of phenomenology, in particular Merleau-Ponty(Maurice Merleau-Ponty 2002; M. Merleau-Ponty 1964), but also Enzo Paci2

The creation of such a situation which brought the viewer and the object into a dynamically unfolding relationship has been termed 'arte programmata' (programmed art) by Bruno Munari in the context of an exhibition showcasing work of some of the Italian and French artists involved in NT in the showrooms of communication equipment manufacturer Olivetti. The term 'programming' however, was used here more metaphorically, no computers were actually used during this phase of NT (from 1961-65). The notion of a program is intrinsically linked to the notion of control (Beniger 1989).

At this stage a conundrum opened up in my research. The artists and theorists involved in NT can be subsumed under the broad rubrique of the New Left. The curators and organisers in Zagreb were aware of the work of the Praxis group which invented new versions of a philosophical humanist Marxism in close exchange with Western colleagues, in particular Critical Theory. While the positions of the Zagreb team were not identical with Praxis there were sufficient philosophical and ideological proximities to use Praxis as a point of orientation. French members of NT were quoting Lefebvre, while Italians, in particular Gruppo N from Padua, were in contact with groups and magazines such as Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaio. The goal was to create a socially progressive abstract art.

But how on earth did NT artists think that those precious little objects and machines using electrical motors and light would help change the world? More specifically, in which way did the notion of participation in the participatory artworks of NT relate to the new production paradigm of automation and cybernation? In the Nr.9 of the Situationist International the Situationists had the follwoing to say about this:

On one hand, endeavors such as the “Visual Art Research Group” clearly tend toward the integration of the population into the dominant socioeconomic system, along the lines currently being worked out by repressive urbanism and the theorists of cybernetic control. Through a veritable parody of the revolutionary theses on putting an end to the passivity of separated spectators through the construction of situations, this “Visual Art” group strives to make the spectator participate in his own misery — taking its lack of dialectics to the point of “freeing” the spectator by announcing that it is “forbidden not to participate” (tract at the Third Paris Biennial).

(SI, Nr.9, 1964)

Those are harsh words, but while the critique is not completely unfounded, it contains an aspect of exaggeration which may stem from the fact that the Situationists were keenly aware how close groups such as GRAV were to their own program. The very selective quotation overlooks the fact that GRAV's statement was a provocation and that a key goal of GRAV and other groups involved in NT was to end the apathy of consolidating consumer society. NT artists and theorists stressed the notions of indeterminacy and instability. Formal innovation was understood as a a way of changing the world.

The programmed artwork was creating a 'field of possibilities' wrote Umberto Eco in a text for a brochure published on the occasion of the Olivetti exhibition (Eco 2010). Another key contemporary critic, Jack Burnham, understood NT as an 'aesthetics of the relational field' (Burnham 1968).

It seems that they thought that the creation of a new relational aesthetics using new materials would break through established patterns and encourage people to start to think about their own position in society. The creation of awareness of different realities, of different spaces of possibilities was understood to lead people out of the hierarchical closed loops of the factory, the military, the office and the shopping mall.

In "Form as Social Committment"(Eco 1989, pp.123-157) Eco provided a closer analysis of this relationship. Eco thought that 'well known social illnesses such as conformism, unidirectionism, gregariousness, and mass thinking' all resulted from 'a passive acquisition of those standards of understanding and judgement'. Modern art, by breaking through those patterns, had in Eco's view 'a precise pedagogical function, a liberating role [...] art were to inscribe itself into a much larger context: it would come to represent modern man's path to salvation, toward the reconquest of his lost autonomy at the level of both perception and intelligence' (Ibid. 83).

The definition of art as visual research led NT artists to abandon painting and conventional sculpture and use new materials for the production of 'objects' and environments. Those works in various ways brought the perceptual capacities of viewers to their limits and beyond, creating indeterminate and unstable situations whose political aim was to make viewers reconsider their established views of reality.

It remains, however, still hard to understand why NT artists imagined a viewer without psychological properties, i.e without subjectivity? A tabula rasa was created in a double sense: all previous art was declared nil and void as "visual research" replaced the notion of (bourgeois) art. At the same time a viewer without subjectivity was created who should interact with the work on a kind of purely visual and psycho-physical basis while the semantic aspect of the work was left completely open.
Already at the time a perceptive criticism was that NT tried to 'reduce the viewer to a retina' (Cordeiro 1965 quoted in Rosen 2010). Was such a program condemned to fail in the first place, since it offered itself too easily for exploitation by an art system hungry for novelty but with a deep disregard for the social and political concerns of NT artists? And was the turn to art as visual research based on more than a little fetishisation of science?

NT set out to achieve the 'final demystification of art'(Mestrovic 2010), as Matko Mestrovic wrote in a text in 1963 published without title in the catalogue of the second installment of NT, later republished as "The Ideology of New Tendencies". But did NT, with its turn to science, buy into and collude with the mystification of science?

Another way in which NT artists thought their work would change the world makes evident the legacy of Constructivism (Lodder 1983) and Productivism (Kiaer 2008). Visual research would establish fundamental percpetual and cognitive patterns and relationships which could then be used to influence industrial design or be applied on an architectural or even urban scale (Denegri 2010). It is important to understand that such ideas were not imported from the West but travelled on an axis of Leningrad to Zagreb, via Prague, Brno and Budapest. A precedent had been set in this regard by the work of Exat 51 in Zagreb. NT was closely linked to a modernisation impulse in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in general and Zagreb in particular. As Yugoslavia pursued its own path to Socialism based on the notion of workers self-management a Productivist approach was plausible in Zagreb in the early 1960s (Denegri 2003; Exat 51 1951; WHW 2009).

Such constructive impulses however, were soon betrayed by the actual course of events. The developments described above were achieved in a very productive early phase of NT between 1961 and 1963. The drive to modernisation in Yugoslavia experienced setbacks after 1965. Not only did economic growth begin to stutter and stall, a growing gap between self-management as official rhetoric and the reality on the ground became obvious, forming the background and topic for discussions in Praxis and the Yugoslav 68.

Western participants in NT were much more exposed to the corrosive effects of success on the art market. As NT became absorbed by the very system against which it had developed its original program, much of its dynamism was taken out of it. But it would be wrong to see the market as the only reason for the failure of the movement, which also failed in two further respects.

NT almost blew apart at the very moment when it tried to achieve more cohesion as a movement in 1963, unable to bridge the gap between trying to define a stringent conceptual basis and the desire to be grassroots-.participatory and a democratic open movement. Had it been possible to define a strong consensual and collective determination it might have been easier to counter the centrifugal forces of the market.

The program of the movement, however, was running into invisible walls of societies not ready for them. NT artists appear to have received a similar fate to what was expressed in the famous Declaration of the Constructivist Artists in 1922: "Today we stand between a society which does not need us and one which does not exist"(Richter, van Doesburg, El Lissitzky 1922; Jaffe 1967).

There was no institutional system to support art as visual research in Western Europe ate the time. Furthermore, while Russian Productivists in the years following the October Revolution could hope to build Communism by engaging with the material basis of the Soviet production apparatus, by the 1960s a similar approach had assumed a fixed role and meaning in society, that of industrial design, which implied a subservience to the needs of capital. NT artists committed to visual research had nowhere to go in 1965.

The groups that characterised the first phase broke up when some individuals achieved considerable success in the institutional art system and on the art market. Many however, decided to leave the field of art, became designers or academics, and some retreated entirely from public life. Quite a few of the artists of the first phase of NT actively supported the student revolts in 1968. The Situationist smear-word 'functionalist' maybe sticks to Bill but not to NT. Paradoxically, although NT was an art movement of revolutionary intent, it did not become the art of the revolution (Feierabend 2009, p. 11).

Thus, a further condundrum opens up. In the long run art history failed to recognise the true achievements of the first phase of NT. From 1963 on and especially after "The Responsive Ey", at MOMA New York (1965) kinetic and op art received a lot of attention and major international exhibitions were arranged. The boom lasted up until the early 1970s, yet the subsumption under those very terms kinetic and op art only served to obscure the 'socially progressive' goals of the movement. While some artists continued to enjoy a level of success the movement as such and its intentions were completely forgotten by the late 1970s.

Let me try to summarise: The notion of art as visual research made it necessary to establish a direct and specific relationship between the work and the viewer. The content of the work could not contain any subjective expression or message from the artist, since this would contaminate the purity of the experiment. For the same reason artists had to try to de-subjectivise the production of artworks. They looked to identify specific assemblages of materials and of rules of play or productive methods through which the works were produced. This led to the development of participatory artworks which unfolded in a dynamic relationship over time. It also fostered collaborative working processes and working in groups. And it necessarily resulted in a redefinition of authorship. Despite the objectivisation of the 'programmed' artwork the situation between viewer/s and works played out a dialectics between determination and indeterminacy, between program and chance. The 'fields of possibilities' thus created would offer people the chance to emancipate themselves from heteronomic tendencies of societies dominated by mass production and consumption. This is only a small part of the story of NT but already a lot in terms of its contribution to the history of art.

If we consider the achievements of the first phase from 1961 to 1965, it is really hard to understand why NT is not widely acknowledged as one of the major art movements of the postwar period. Despite the efforts of Darko Fritz, MSU Zagreb, ZKM/Neue Galerie, Ingolstadt Museum of Concrete Art and other people and institutions, NT remains marginal in the grand narrative of contemporary art since the late 1950s, early 1960s. I would not want to speculate on the reasons of that marginalisation now but rather discuss that in the context of upcoming events.


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Hello Armin,

Just a quick response to your text: you might already be aware of two rather popular stories or histories in this context, but they are the first things that come to my mind when reading your questions.

The first is the book Militant Modernism by Owen Hatherley, which I heard has been a big success in the UK. Hatherley describes a similar, almost anti-human/psychological tendency in early Russian modernism. This is meant to make the people break away from bourgeois, patriarchal behaviors and politics. It is most radically embodied in architecture in which families were supposed to live in blocks with separate rooms for everybody (husband and wife no longer sharing one bedroom) and a big communal space for the children, who are now everybody's children. I think NT may have been infected with that same line of thought.

The second is the story about the CIA and its use of modern art as cold war propaganda. I did not look into this deeply, but I have been told it is more than a rumor. Here is an article that was on FB a while ago:
If American modern art was used as propaganda, it is highly likely that any remnant or descendant of 'Russian' modern art would at least in the late fifties early sixties have been actively ignored or trivialized.

Why it is still not recognized today is another story, even if it is of course connected to all the above. In my text Let's Talk Net Art (the book is on my desk since a few days, whew! :-)) I have tried to explain why certain art (the kind in which science and technology are important) is not recognized since the early sixties. Though my work is no doubt faulty and missing a lot of detail still, I do think that the late fifties early sixties have left us with an almost debilitating separation of technology and culture, which in art has translated into an extreme and puritan conceptualism in the arts. Describing the work of Simondon from that same period Brian Massumi speaks of us becoming locked in 'a relative level of collective ontogenetic stupidity'.

Hope this at least gives some inspiration. Best of luck,


not anti-human

hi Josephine,

thanks for your comments. the Militant Modernism book sounds interesting, although I doubt that NT really belong into that genre. If they erred a bit in the direction of scientism, it was certainly a very humanistic scientism.

I have added to my post to explain the thing with Kepes a bit better with this notion of 'equilibrium' the roots of which go back further than C.P.Snow's famous Two Cultures lecture which also plays a role in the background. I also added a quote from Eco about Form as social commitment which is key to understanding the social engagement.

I also included another picture, this time by an artist, to show that the works were actually mostly quite lyrical, nothing harsh or heavy about them, part of the ideology was also the idea of 'least effort'.

While unrelenting regarding the critique of science as a new kind of religion, maybe the artists could be seen in an entirely different tradition, more like those artist-craftsmen who made hydraulic water sculptures and fountains for Arabic noble men in Granada or the intricate clocks built by the Ptolomeans in the Middle east. At the same time we could never forget that this art of NT arrived at a time of accelerated technological change in the economic boom years of the late 1950s and early 1960s. What I tried to do in this text, however, was to focus more narrowly on visual research, because otherwise I might quickly start rewriting the whole thesis all over again.

The Cold War connection of the CIA is very real, there are two good books, one by Guilbaut on How new York Stole the Idea of Modern Art and one by Frances Saunders on the Cultural Cold War. Both books are a good start but also leave open many questions, since in their reception some aspects have been over-emphasised.

Congratulations that your book is out, I already saw the announcements. Looking forward to reading it

This is getting really good now

Hello Armin -

What a pleasure to read this on an early morning in a Chinese village! I look forward to again have time for our technopolitical exchanges, after finishing this round of intense travel.

The comparison between Morellet and LeWitt is perfect. Minimalist art was highly derivative of structuralist and phenomenological ideas. It's great to deflate their claims to originality which are mainly a creation of the New York art market.

Beyond that, the texture of your research has grown really complex, full of internal dialectics, able to explore all the differences and conflicts within a broad social field. I am glad to see the use you make of Kepes and his recent interpreter Reinhold Martin. Excellent stuff!

I have a question and a remark.

The question concerns structuralism itself, since there is so much talk of structure here. Certainly structuralist theories would have been well known in the very Paris-oriented intellectual circles of Yugoslavia? And what about Morellet and the GRAV group, surely they were directly influenced? I am wondering what NT made of those theories which aimed to transform cybernetic principles into a general anthropology of human thought and behavior. Your summation of NT's aesthetics reads as totally structuralist: "The older dichotomy between form and content was superseded by the relationship between formational rules and overall structure."

I have not read the Kepes book on Structure in Art and Science, I'll see if I can get it. Were any of the NT artists directly aware of it? I am just wondering if Parisian structuralism would have been a closer mediator between the American, scientific sources and the painterly and literary processes of visual research.

The remark concerns the later period of NT as you describe it, and the question about the reasons for its demise. Was it a case of scientism and "militant modernism"? I would lean in another direction. You write:

"Despite the objectivisation of the 'programmed' artwork the situation between viewer/s and works played out a dialectics between determination and indeterminacy, between program and chance. The 'fields of possibilities' thus created would offer people the chance to emancipate themselves from heteronomic tendencies of societies dominated by mass production and consumption."

It seems to me that this is exactly the way that the command-and-control structures of first-order cybernetics supercede themselves, through a multiplication of reflexive processes. Thus second-order cybernetics emerges as an internal complexification of the initial paradigm. New problems arise from this reflexivity, which cannot be dealt with inside the older paradigm; therefore earlier groups and schools break up, despite their unrealized potentials. I am curious (I gues it's a second question) whether there is a direct influence from Pask, Von Foerster or Varela & Maturana in the final debates leading to the breakup of NT?

This conversation would lead onto Josephine's excellent question about why post-68 culture has become so technologically and scientifically illiterate. I would be interested to understand that better. Perhaps the repression (the word is maybe not to strong) of ecological thinking is one of the reasons? Ecological thinking in its earlier phases was hardly simplistic... If it had become a dominant paradigm we would have been much better off...

all the best, thanks for the inspiration -




thanks for your encouragement and not just in general but concerning the specific questions which you raise which point in an interesting direction. I will, however, not try to answer those questions here but in a different way, through the next draft I hope to produce within a number of weeks.

meanwhile I have read some of your recent travel reports from China, very interesting stuff, thanks for posting those and please keep doing this. I would also love to read about Argentine in English (sorry my lack of language capabilities). I thought it would be good if more people did this and such "travelogues with an angle" be aggregated somewhere, because its very hard to get interesting view points on this world from mainstream media (though I saw recently some documentary about those massive investments in soy in Argentine and Uruquay, where it seems the "beef barons" are replaced by agricultural firms directly linked to hedge fonds and other financial firms