«In 1922 I ordered by telephone from a sign factory five paintings on graph paper. At the other end of the telephone the factory supervisor had the same kind of paper…One of the pictures was delivered in three different sizes…».
With these laconic words Lazlo Moholy-Nagy described the production process of the Emaille Pictures (1922, also known as Telephone Pictures), one of the most emblematic works on show in the exhibition Sensing the Future: László Moholy-Nagy, Media and the Arts at Bauhaus Archive, Berlin which has been closed after four months on February 2, 2015.
For this project, which was first shown at the Plug In ICA (http://www.plugin.org/) Winnipeg, Canada, the curator Oliver A. I. Botar, professor at the University of Manitoba, gathered important existing documents and works by Moholy-Nagy together with installations, videos and works of contemporary artists closely related to his sensorial approach to technology and media. Utopic proposals, lost works, and unrealized projects by the Hungarian artist have been reproduced or taken as inspiration for the production of new installations, plays, and video-works.
The main focus of the exhibition layed on the poly-sensorial research of Moholy-Nagy, considered as the cornerstone for his understanding of the aesthetic possibilities of multi-media arts. This stand marks his career as artist and as influential educator first at Bauhaus and later at the School of Design in Chicago, today’s Institute of Design and part of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
The exhibition was structured around six thematic issues: Art and Information, Gesamtwerk, Immersion/Participation, Production-Reproduction, Sensory Training, Telehor and the Crisis of Media Art, Transparency/Reflection/Motion, and Projection Spaces and the involved artists have been Eduardo Aquino, Naomi Clare Crellin, Lancelot Coar and Patrick Harrop, Olafur Eliasson, Ken Gregory, Gottfried Jäger and Karl Martin Holzhauser, Eduarco Kac, Erika Lincoln, Guy Maddin, Bernie Miller, Javier Navarro, Freya Olafson, Floris Neusüss and Renate Heyne, Peter Yeadon, and the Theater der Klänge, Düsseldorf.
The interview with Oliver A. I. Botar took place last December, the day after his lecture at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin related to Moholy-Nagy, media and the arts.
Mario Margani: A question that comes to my mind when I think about Moholy-Nagy’s artistic and theoretical production is how his oeuvre looks to be almost in contradiction with the broad knowledge about his experiments within the fields of research of light and photography. With this exhibition you have chosen to focus on Moholy-Nagy’s research grounded on a poly-sensorial approach, where the sight still plays an important role but entangled in a complex of stimuli and perceptions. How have you dealt with this polarization between his more popular artistic production and his attempt to go over it in his approach as a researcher and teacher at the Bauhaus as well as later on in the US?
Oliver A. I. Botar: It is not so much a contradiction as it is a completion. I do feel that there has been an over-emphasis on the visual features in his work, which clearly was very important. Light was the raw material of all visual art. I’m not revising this at all. However what I’m trying to do is to correct a sin of omission, I’m trying to complete the picture and to point out that he was concerned with all of the senses and this is not surprising. This was a concern for Raoul Hausmann, and he had a very strong effect on Moholy-Nagy throughout his career. I also feel that the reason for this focus on vision has to do more with the general ocular-centrism of our culture. Moholy-Nagy was against this ocular-centrism and he would have never used this terminology.
Mario Margani: One section of the exhibition is called “Immersion and participation”, where the beholders are not just called to look at something but found themselves in a situation and have to take part with their bodies and with other senses, especially touching and activating something. Nowadays if we think about immersion in relation to technologies, we could easily think about all the more or less hi-tech equipment and object we use daily, mastered by optics and visual-based application but not really interacting in any other way. We are kind of immersed in a world of information that we see and interact too. But in the sense of Moholy-Nagy immersion seems to have a different meaning.
Oliver A. I. Botar: One of the most important reasons to expand the sensory range of Moholy-Nagy’s interests is because it is precisely through these interests in the different senses that he comes to multiple media. You cannot discuss Moholy-Nagy as a pioneer of new media, without understanding that he was interested in more senses that just the visual sense. Immersion has many meanings and he does talk about being immersed in the multiple sensory inputs of modernity, for instance right here in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, precisely because he was thematizing this condition of modernity.
This brought him to this idea of immersion, meaning not only a physical one, but also thought as multiple-sensory inputs. For him there was something even more than that, which is a really important aspect of his oeuvre. In the history of art, when people speak about immersion, they don’t put it into the frame of technology. They talked about “walk-in-paintings” for example. El Lissitkzy Proun Room in 1923 is also part of that. And then after the war there are artist like Lygia Clark going again into the physical immersion. Moholy-Nagy comes to this through Alexander Bogdanov and his theory of tektology. Moholy-Nagy didn’t read Russian and I don’t even know if he really understood Bogdanov, but through his friend and collaborator Alfred Kemeny, he gained a certain understanding of him. This is important precisely because it poses a question to our notion of immersion, which is often a virtual one, between avatars, virtual reality and so on. This is not only a dematerialization, but also a loss of the body and for Moholy-Nagy, even though he was fascinated with technology, the focus on the body was pivotal and it comes out from his involvement in the Reformpädagogik and in Biocentrism.
Even artists like the Brazilian Eduardo Kac (showing at Bauhaus Archive Aromapoetry, a volume of olfactory poems), who developed genetic art, actually discusses twenty-two years ago in a very smart way and in detail how the so-called Telephone Pictures (actually, the Enamel series, 1923) anticipated various aspects of digital art and culture. Moholy-Nagy can be seen not only as a forerunner of the digital, but also as a critic of the digital, that is he can be read as engaging in such a critique from the body-centered point of view. He didn’t exactly know where things were going.
Some of his predictions did come true, some other spectacularly failed, like he though that television would be the medium of abstract light-play. But it still is interesting that his work does anticipate so much post-war artistic culture, not really the digital, but the post-medial condition, disputing the notion of hierarchy in artistic media. His idea of projection spaces, the Polykino, introduces us to what we now call “expanded cinema”. He along with a small group of other people did anticipate not so much the development of new media, it was much more important that he anticipated the attitudes of the contemporary arts, like the tension between embodiment and disembodiment. He was somehow already intuiting that and this is to me very interesting.
Mario Margani: Talking about Telephone Pictures, they epitomize Moholy-Nagy’s approach and curiosity for new languages and new media, without taboos in using other tools than those already affirmed at that time for artistic production. His way of appropriating another language and making free use of media over the fixed boundaries shows how he was not really afraid of going over the duality human vs. machine. It still works as a very effective statement also for us today. How does this way of experimenting position Moholy-Nagy inside the debate between the positive and negative vision related to technology at that time?
Oliver A. I. Botar: It was both an experiment and a demonstration. It was a demonstration for him of what could be done. It is possible to break art down into information by establishing a coordinate system, using graph paper. It is easy enough to transfer this information using a standardized color scale. Had they only been demonstrations, he wouldn’t have publicized them to the extent that he did. Ultimately it is a conceptual gesture, which has to be seen in the context of Marcel Duchamp. But Duchamp at that point had never though of his ready-mades as multiples. They only became multiples maybe in the 1930s as images in his Boîte-en-valise, and then eventually became multiples when the galleries in California in the early 1960s wanted to commercialize them.
Even though the idea of the ready-made is a different idea from Moholy-Nagy’s idea, because he never though about the ready-made, he did thought about sub-contracting the production of artworks, which is actually nothing new. The studio-system of the Renaissance and later was all about subcontracting, but still “subcontracting” to your own apprentices and sometimes to outside people, like for production with special materials. But in the context of modern art it was new, because of the Romantic cult of individualism and genius. It had to be the hand of the artist, a trace that signified authenticity.
For Moholy-Nagy in the middle of the modern movement to reject this belief in the sign or trace of the hand, Handarbeit, as a signifier of authenticity was a truly radical move. That is way I think nobody understood him at that time. He wanted people to order the “Telephone Picture” at any size. He ordered these three different sizes to be made, but the idea was that if you wanted, you could have ordered whatever size you wanted. This was a radical gesture and in this sense was a statement.
Mario Margani: From the very beginning he was playing with the presence of his hand always in an already mediated way.
Oliver A. I. Botar: Yes, and yet he said that the hand of the artist is not that important. So it was also an ironic and playful gesture.
Mario Margani: During your lecture on Moholy-Nagy at the Embassy of Canada you were asked about influences on Moholy-Nagy by Rudolf Steiner and other anthroposophic-type movements. They may appear to have quite a conflicting approach with Moholy-Nagy strategies discussing something like the Telephone Pictures. But being embedded in the Zeitgeist of the early 20th century they still had actually many features or common interests and objectives.
Oliver A. I. Botar: I would say that Rudolf Steiner’s though is often simplified. He started as a scientist and wrote a Ph.D. on Goethe’s color theory. During his entire career Rudolf Steiner, in addition to speaking to the angels, was also developing organic farming himself, organic cosmetics and a new education approach which is still popular everywhere. He was a kind of multifaceted genius and a kook at the same time. By saying that there are parallels between Moholy-Nagy and Rudolf Steiner, this is just like recognizing the real contribution that Steiner has made to modern culture. Some of us may be interested in his esoteric writings and take them seriously, like Joseph Beuys perhaps, and others don’t.
I don’t take them seriously and Moholy-Nagy would never have taken them seriously, because it wasn’t in his personality. But I don’t think that he would have been particularly disdainful of people taking them seriously, because when he was involved in groups like Lebensreform, he was with Steinerians, and also near to the Mazdaznan movement, which had many supporters in Germany, including Johannes Itten. It was like being in that scene anywhere, meeting all kinds of people, not necessarily agreeing with all their views but still open to discussing everything. In fact some of Moholy-Nagy’s closest friends where totally into alternative medicine, like Paula Vogler and her husband who was Moholy-Nagy’s house doctor.
Mario Margani: And in the Bauhaus School the passage between Itten and Moholy-Nagy was maybe also acceptable because he was somehow part of the same scene, even though with another approach and some different ideas.
Oliver A. I. Botar: This passage is always shown like a break, but was not in that sense. Itten was becoming a cult figure, a spiritual leader. Walter Gropius had to stop this for the good of the school. You couldn’t have a cult leader competing with Gropius within one institution. They were praying every morning, there were even breatheading exercises, but Itten was a brilliant educator and a very good artist. Gropius valued all this. In a sense he hired Moholy-Nagy as a “secular” Itten, but the one break that there was at that time was that Gropius recognized that he had to move into training for production which after all was the original intent of the Werkbund. It was based on the British model; training people to design for industry and mass production but the early years of the Bauhaus were characterized by the post-war aesthetic, exalted, Espressionist, Handarbeit cults, which was again a part of the Lebensreform movement. This comes back periodically as a kind of reaction to over-industrialization.
Gropius realized that if he didn’t move to training for industrial production, the Bauhaus was going to go broke because he could not depend completely on the financial support of the state of Weimar, and he was absolutely right. In 1923 they organized in Weimar their first exhibition to demonstrate to the leaders of the local state what they were doing. The politicians were horrified. Gropius knew that the school either had to leave or it had to make its own money, or both. And he did. He both relocated and started making money off the patterns and objects that the students were developing, mostly lights and textiles.
Mario Margani: You have worked on the re-edition of Telehor, this publication that Moholy-Nagy designed and published in 1936. As you said during the lecture, Telehor (Greek for tele-vision) came out on the verge of the first media crisis in the 1930s. Why did he undertake this publishing venture?
Oliver A. I. Botar: Telehor is fascinating for a number of reasons. Together with my colleague from Vienna Klemens Gruber, we engaged in producing a facsimile edition of Telehor, because it was already costing up to 3.000 dollars. We though it was very important that it became available to a wider public, not only because it was an anthology of Moholy-Nagy’s writings, but also as a compendium of reproductions of his works. It was in fact the first important monograph on Moholy-Nagy ever published. It was also important because it happens at a time and a place, which are symptomatic of the climate of Europe. In the middle of the 1930s many political changes had already taken place.
The initiative for Telehor was taken be the 23-year-old Moravian František Kalivoda,who thought that Moholy-Nagy’s approach was the way of the future because. Kalivoda was interested in multiple media and typography. Although he was an architect he was also very interested in film and even more left wing than Moholy-Nagy. He was a member of the Communist party and so on. Kalivoda wanted to organize, starting with Moholy-Nagy, a journal of new media art. He had actually planned for the first issue to focus on Hanna Höch, who was also working with multiple media, just like Raul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters, Theo von Doesburg, El Lissitzky.
The fact that he was able to produce this journal at that time is significant. It became the unique issue of this journal and it was important for us that they produced it in four languages: German, French, English and Czech. We decided to publish a facsimile and add four languages onto that. Hungarian obviously because many of these text had already at that time appeared in Hungarian, but also Mandarin, Russian and Spanish in order to reach a reading audience as wide as possible. And we wrote an essay on that.
Finally, Telehor, As far as I know, documents the first crisis of new media art in the 20th Century. One particular text tells a lot about the climate, it is entitled “Dear Kalivoda”. It is not a letter that Moholy-Nagy answers, but a rhetorical device probably rooted in his contact with Kalivoda, who was a member of a younger generation. The main subject of this rhetorical letter, a fictional response, was to question this artistic and cultural retrenchment that some from the young generation were questioning. This happens in the context of the rightward-shift in Europe. Even in Italy where the Futurists had been sort of quasi-official artists, things were changing artistically and culturally and the Italian Fascists were trying to accommodate themselves to the National Socialist model. So things were really changing everywhere in Europe.
Mario Margani: You are also going to publish a book about Moholy-Nagy and the media theory…
Oliver A. I. Botar: Yes. I would like to look at Marshall McLuhan and Siegfried Giedion. The last was among one of Moholy-Nagy’s closest friends and later became a friend of Marshall McLuhan. Then in his first English course he ever taught in his life, 1938 in St. Louis University Marshall McLuhan apparently assigned Moholy-Nagy’s first book published in English, The New Vision as textbook. So there are interesting connections I would like to investigate further, as well as other intersections. I’m also going to look at Walter Benjamin, Vilém Flusser and Friedrich Kittler. As an art historian I may not be that familiar with media theory, so I want to read Moholy-Nagy through media theory, and read media theory through Moholy-Nagy.
Mario Margani: You felt that it was important to combine Moholy-Nagy with contemporary artists under the same exhibition and project. Some artists have also been working on works by Moholy-Nagy, recreating them, whereas through other works and installations you develop a parallelism in their strategy.
Oliver A. I. Botar: Yes, this was part of the project from the very beginning. The history of this exhibition is that I had already organized one in 2006 about the early Moholy-Nagy: Technical Detours: The Early Moholy-Nagy Reconsidered in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Then I took it to the Zimmerli Art Museum of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick. It went later to the Janus Pannonius Museum Pécs, Hungary, just before Pécs became European cultural capital, and then it travelled to Budapest, to the National Gallery. After this exhibition toured in North America and Europe I felt like I wanted to do something for my own community in Winnipeg, but a big historical show didn’t really make much sense to me in that context. There was not really a need for that. What was needed in Winnipeg was to work on something that could have spoken in a more general way about the history of new media. I intended this exhibition not really for fellow art historians but for young artists. It was important for me therefore to underline the relevance of Moholy-Nagy’s ideas and a way to demonstrate his relevance was to invite local artists who shared his sensibility in some way.
Later on I discussed with the Canadian artist Bernie Miller the idea of reconstructing Moholy-Nagy’s MetallKonstruktion (1923), since we had very good documentary photographs of it. But we had no scale. He derived the scale from a screw-head! He always loved Moholy-Nagy and this was for him a challenge that he really wanted to do. I also felt that this work was really important, because it is actually not a “construction.” Rather, it is spread out horizontally like a city. The analogies are not to a building, which was the analogy for most Constructivist works, combining materials in a certain way to produce a vertical structure. Rather, this was an arrangement of elements on a horizontal plane, some of which were transparent, some of which were reflective.
The model was an urban design and this approach is quite radical for that time. Giacometti begins to do things like this a few years later but in a Surrealist vein. So I wanted this work to be recreated in order to understand it better than just trough photographs. Guy Maddin was working on a huge project called “Hauntings”, commissioned by the Centre George Pompidou and the concept was to reconstruct lost film of the 1920s, silent cinema, or realize unrealized film scripts from that time. Since I knew him (he is my colleague at the University of Manitoba), and he is an alternative film cult figure, I invited him to work on Moholy-Nagy’s 1928 film script “Once a Chick, Always a Chick”.
Mario Margani: You started to work on Moholy-Nagy about 30 years ago visiting the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin…
Oliver A. I. Botar: My focus at that time was the Hungarian avant-garde. I was just coming out of my degree in urban planning, my career started as urban planner and I was interested in the Hungarian avant-garde also because I could use my linguistic ability. Early on I was interested in Ernő Kállai, a Hungarian theorist, teacher and writer who was living in Berlin in the 1920s and who coined the term “Bioromanticism”. Originally I wanted to write my dissertation about International Constructivism and the role that Hungarians played, including Moholy-Nagy but not only about him. And then my interest moved towards Biocentrism and Modernism, which really became a focus of my research. This is what I think I brought to Art History. It all began in this field of the Hungarian avant-garde, then discovering Ernő Kállai and his interest in Biocentrism his work at the Bauhaus and his relationship with Moholy-Nagy.
Mario Margani: Right here in Berlin was concluded the two-year Anthropocene Project at HKW, a program of meetings, talks, researches and exhibitions. The topic of biocentrism and modernism seems to become more and more central in the world of contemporary art and activism, in very different variations from a more pessimistic approach, to more politically active positions, including also a revival of mystical tendencies, refusal of technology and techno fanatics, escapism. Has it something to do with the retrenchment of the 1930s?
Oliver A. I. Botar: This tension is also an important part of the biocentrism and modernism topic. And this comes out also in Moholy-Nagy’s writings. One of his most famous articles is entitled Geradlinigkeit des Geistes, Umwege der Technik (Directness of the intellect, Detours of Technology). He had a critical approach towards technology and this is the other point that I wanted to underline in the exhibition and book. He is seen as a techno-mad, techno-centric artist over and over again. I want to point out that this is simply not true, neither in his practice nor in his thinking. He loved technology like a little child likes gadgets, but he was very aware of its limitations and this is why the popular biologist and biophilosopher Raoul Francé is important.
The reception of Francé’s theory has been the common ground amongst this group of international constructivists in the 1920s: Mies Van der Rohe, El Lissitzky, Schwitters, Moholy-Nagy, Hannes Meyer, Friedrich Kiesler. They were all interested in Raoul Francé precisely because he legitimized for them both their love and fascination with nature, which was very typical for 20th century Europeans, but also their fascination with technology. He was able to bring the two things together in a way that didn’t elide the potential of criticism in this activity. It simply underlines that technology is part of nature. That doesn’t make it necessarily good. There is a simplistic way of thinking that nature or the organic is good and technology is bad.
This binary structure was complicated by some of these people and it doesn’t mean that there weren’t contradictions within their own way of thinking, but after his experience in the United States Moholy-Nagy became much more proto-environmentalist, talking about the earth as an entity and about the way that we are despoiling the landscape and the cities. These forms of critique come out especially later in his career.