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ThemesOverview of Media ArtForerunners
Media → Art / Art → Media
Forerunners of media art in the first half of the twentieth century
Dieter Daniels

Media replace art—art responds to media

Over the past 150 years the audio-visual media (photography, film, radio, TV, multimedia) have gradually taken over an area of human perception that used to be reserved for the classical arts and their various genres (painting, music, theater). Photography was invented in 1839 and expanded to mass status at a lightning pace, further boosted by new printing technology in the second half of the nineteenth century. Film rapidly rose to become an industry with wide-ranging influence all over the world in the early twentieth century, and radio almost exploded into being in the 1920s—which all shows the power wielded by these distribution and production instruments. Then from the 1960s television became the mass medium, hence the coining of the term. Only in the 1990s did it start to have some competition from the Internet and the multimedia platforms linked with it.

Each of the audio-visual multimedia technologies raises new aesthetic questions. This is true in two respects: the first is inherent in the medium (e.g. various forms of montage in photography, film and thedigital image media), secondly in the overall cultural context, i.e. how the medium relates to existing media and art forms. The death of painting was first proclaimed when photography was invented, and this cry was heard again in relation to film when television came along. Yet people are still painting and making films today. But the established art and media forms respond to subsequent developments: since Impressionism at the latest, but also in Cubism and Surrealism, painting demonstrates precisely those physiological and psychological aspects that elude photography. In contrast with the fragmented, highly vocal babbling mass of information offered by television, the cinema emphasizes the complete, emotionally binding story. And artists' videos and performances confront the perfection of industrial images with the fractures and disturbances of a new authenticity. So both avant-garde and mainstream have greatly affected each other in terms of both media technology and aesthetics since the early days of Modernism. The radical conclusion to be drawn from this is: «All modern art is media art.»[1]

Why do artists use media?

Let us first of all look at these complex mutual effects from the artists' point of view. They have two decisive reasons for using media. The first motive lies in modern art's loss of wide-ranging impact, a fact that is as profoundly felt as it is clearly acknowledged. Since the emergence of the avant-garde in the late nineteenth century, and at the latest in the early twentieth century with the arrival of abstraction and Cubism, advanced art ceased to be generally acceptable to the contemporary population's aesthetic «common sense.» The use of new technologies like film and radio, which are potential mass media, is associated with the hope that the avant-garde can be released from its self-imposed isolation so that «art and the people can be reconciled with each other,» as Guillaume Apollinaire put it in 1912 in the conclusion of his book on Cubism.[2]

This hope is expressed in early programmatic demands for the artistic use of media like film, radio and television, for example Dziga Vertov's and Walter Ruttmann's designs for a new film art, Bertolt Brecht's radio theory, or the Futurists' Manifesto for television(«La Radia» 1930). Here mass art becomes a political program under such completely opposing ideologies as the Russian Revolution and German and Italian Fascism. Walter Benjamin's epoch-making 1936 essay «The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction»[3]also addresses the social and political ineffectuality of the avant-garde and for the first time provides an all-embracing theoretical basis for a concept of art that is changed by the media: art should get over the limited quality of the manually produced original by using technical media, thus reaching a new audience and mobilizing that audience socially. These basic ideas, communicated when they were revived in the 1960s in media-theory essays from Marshall McLuhan to Hans Magnus Enzensberger, greatly influenced the development of media art.[4]hey act as leitmotifs for the pioneering days of video art, experimental film and audio art.

The second central motive for artistic work with audio-visual media lies in their aesthetic potential to create image and sound experiences that have never been seen or heard before, in other words art forms that go beyond all known genres. Thus in 1919 Walter Ruttmann designed «an art for the eye that differs from painting in that it is time-based (like music). … And so a type of artist will emerge who is quite new and previously only latently in existence, placed somewhere between painting and music.» And this new art «can definitely expect to reach a considerably wider audience than painting has.»[5] This idea takes on concrete form in the absolute films made in the 1920s by Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter and others. Kurt Weill produced an equivalent idea for «absolute radio art» in 1925, in which «an army of new, unheard sounds that the microphone could produce artificially» was to make possible something like «an absolute, soulful work of art, floating above the earth.»[6]

These new approaches to media aesthetics were conceived from the outset as a reaction to the increasingly technological nature and media acceleration of everyday perception.[7] This second motive also continues today in artists' analyses and deconstruction[8] of mass media. Examples extend from William Burroughs' literary cut-up via Nam June Paik's remix of TV images to Dara Birnbaum's systematicanalysis of TV semiotics and to the representation of how the Internet is subtly commercializing our language in Heath Bunting's «_readme» Net Project.

Forerunners of media art

Manifestos and utopias

Even before artists started to work with the media, their motives and possible goals were formulated in manifestos and utopian drafts, some going well beyond the state of the technology available at the time. In many ways, these theses anticipate the broad artistic practice of media art that has been underway since the 1960s. These text excerpts documented online in «Media Art Net» can be read as the first formulation of the thematic focal points that are reflected in other texts included in this media art overview. In detail, the following can be said to be the forerunners as far as the following texts are concerned:

* Luigi Russolo, «The Art of Noise,» 1913, cf. text on «Audio Art» * Walter Ruttmann, «Malerei mit Zeit,» circa 1919–20, cf. text on «Technological Constructions of Space–Time» * Bertolt Brecht, «Radio as Communication Apparatus,» 1930; cf. for audience participation the texts on «Interaction, Participation, Networking» and «Audio Art» * Dziga Vertov, «Cinema Pravda and Radio Pravda,» 1925; cf. for mass effect the text on «Television—Art or Anti-art?,» and for the globalization aspect the text on «Social Technologies.» * F.T.P. Marinetti, Pino Masata, «La Radia,» 1933; cf. for mass effect the text on «Television—Art or Anti-art?» * Velimir Khlebnikov, «The Radio of the Future,» 1921; cf. for telecommunications the text on «Interaction, Participation, Networking» * László Moholy-Nagy, «Das simultane oder Polykino,» 1927; cf. the text on «Immersion and Interaction.» * James Joyce, «Finnegans Wake,» 1938; cf. the text on «Virtual Narrations.»

From utopia to practice

Even in the 1920s, these manifestos and utopias led to concrete technical experiments and early works, some of which were possible only because of the artists' enormous commitment. Here questions of aesthetics and feasibility are very closely linked. There were no adequate industrial devices available to the pioneersfor carrying out their ideas. They had to become inventors and handymen to make their utopias visible and audible. Russolo built his «Intonarumori» himself; Vertov wore himself out vainly trying to make sound montages using gramophone records before finding his way into film montage; Ruttmann built a film camera and even had it patented. Then in the mid 1920s, concepts emerged in and around the Bauhaus for cooperation between artists and technicians with support from industry, and with results that might possibly lead to real products. The first light-art demonstrations by Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack and Kurt Schwerdtfeger took place in the Bauhaus itself, and their primitive but effective mechanisms were manually operated by students. In contrast with this, László Moholy-Nagy's «Licht- Raum-Modulator» (Light-Space Modulator) was driven by electric motors, but its engineering perfection served only aesthetic purposes. However, transferring such largescale light projections to a «simultaneous polycinema,» which would anticipate even the immersion offered by virtual reality art forms, remained an unrealized project.[9]

From the 1920s to the 1960s

This development of early forms of today's media art was radically interrupted by the Second World War, and was not taken up again until the 1960s. But there is a considerable difference between the 1920s utopias and post-war practice: in the 1920s, film and radio were still generally seen as potential art forms, as though they were a continuation of art history by other means.[10] But in the 1960s, there was an increasing sense of resignation about what were now called «the mass media,» and considered a lost cause for culture. Individual artists were working on alternative models so that they could win the media back at least symbolically, but without in any way being able to change the commercially and politically slanted media as a whole. The thesis «all modern art is media art» (see above p.26) was thus radically and pointedly re-emphasized from the 1960s: all media art is anti-media art.

Politicization and propaganda in the 1930s

This radical change of attitude can be traced back to the 1930s, when artists started to address theincreasing use of the media as political instruments. With respect to radio, as early as 1932 Bertolt Brecht was demanding to «change this apparatus over from distribution to communication.»[11] Walter Benjamin pins his hopes on a new, political function for art, above all in film: «Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie.»[12] But these ideas for a revolutionary social role for the media greatly underestimate the powerful economic and direct political constraints under which the new technologies were developing. Hopes for an emancipatory function for the media were quickly dashed by their propaganda use under Fascism and Stalinism in Germany, Italy and the USSR. Here artists from the pioneering days like Ruttmann, Vertov, Eisenstein and the Italian Futurists devoted themselves to political propaganda. The 1920s pioneers who emigrated to the USA had very little opportunity to continue their experimental work, but like Brecht or Fischinger found that all the media formats there were just as heavily commercialized.

The ideologization of utopia

Fascism's aestheticization of politics, as described by Walter Benjamin, corresponds with an ideologization of utopias as seen in the earliest artistic ideas for television, which was still in an experimental phase at the time. For Vertov, film and radio are just intermediate steps towards a new art form, the «radio eye.» He was anticipating television as early as 1925: «In the shortest possible time now, it will be possible for man to broadcast visual and acoustic phenomena, recorded by a film radio camera, all over the world.» He used the media industry's dominance of film as a warning that this new technology should be devoted to the service of Communism from the outset: «We must be prepared to make this invention by the capitalist world into its own downfall.» For this reason, Vertov's art «aims to create a visual link between the workers of the entire world,» as that is the only possible way «of achieving a close, inviolable connection with each other.»[13] In the opposing political camp, the Italian Futurists see television in 1933 as an instrument of Fascist media power in the hands of the artists: «We now possess a television of fifty thousand points forevery large image on a large screen. As we await the invention of teletouch, telesmell and teletaste we Futurists are perfecting radio broadcasting which is destined to multiply a hundredfold the creative genius of the Italian race, to abolish the ancient nostalgic torment of long distances.»[14] And two years prior to this, their leader Marinetti imagines «screens for television suspended from their own aircraft,» to show all the spectators the distant flying presentation of the Futurist «areopittura.»[15] Soon after this, television made a major public début at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which were broadcast from twenty-five public television studios in Berlin. The National Socialists had already used the radio to exploit this possibility of extending the impact of mass events by broadcasting them simultaneously in the new medium, an idea that largely fits in with the Futurist utopia.

A fresh start from 1950 onwards

The utopias that the audio-visual media saw primarily as new artistic resources were overtaken by reality. It could be said that the mass media had finally lost their innocence by the end of the Second World War. After the «Stunde Null» (the zero hour), the moment of the fresh start after the war, artistic developments were at a zero point as well, and it was not until the 1960s that new developments started in what we now usually call media art. But even in the early 1950s it is possible to discern new attitudes to the audiovisual media that made this zero point into a theme. The artists were confronted with a firmly established media system whose technical resources developed more quickly than the corresponding media aesthetics, and it was a system that left very little scope for experiments. For this reason, these approaches relate implicitly or explicitly to the media as a counter-world to art. Using the three media radio, television and film, artistic models were introduced around 1951–52 that are already prototypes for all subsequent developments. Three strategies emerge clearly here in their early, radically pure form.

The utopian-emphatic strategy: Lucio Fontana and television

The introduction of television in Italy gave Lucio Fontana his first opportunity in 1952 to hold a dressrehearsal for the artistic use of the medium with a program about the «Spazialismo» that he had founded. The «Spatialist Manifesto for Television» that arose from this welcomes the new instrument with similar emphasis to that shown by the Italian Futurists, but without their political ambition: «We Spatialists are broadcasting our new art forms to the world for the first time through the medium of television… Television is an artistic device we have been awaiting for a long time, and it will integrate our concepts. We are pleased that this manifesto, which is intended to revivify all realms of art, will be broadcast by Italian television. It is true that art is eternal, but it has always been bound to matter. We want to liberate it from these shackles, we want it to last in space for a thousand years—even if only a single minute is broadcast.»[16] But the manifesto was not followed by any other artistic realizations, and because this broadcast by the Spatialists, their only one, went out live, there is unfortunately no recording of it. And so, entirely in the spirit of the manifesto, this first television art event's eternal quality remains reserved for future viewers, who may some day receive the remains of this broadcast in the faraway realms of outer space. Fontana's claims are utopian; he is going the whole hog, like the Futurists: television is to be changed into an instrument in the hands of the artists. Fontana had pronounced as early as 1948, in the second «Spazialismo » manifesto: «We will broadcast artistic forms of expression of a quite new kind, by means of radio and television.»[17] He then made this artistic penetration of space visible in 1949 by cutting through completely white images («Concetto spaziale») and later, from 1953, in light installations using neon tubes. Perhaps a totally utopian approach of this kind was possible only in a country like Italy, which was still largely untouched by television, as it completely fails to take account of all aspects of the real competition for future markets in the mass medium, which was already completely underway in the USA at the time.

The receptive-analytical strategy: John Cage and radio

In the USA, John Cage found scope for a new definition of the medium deriving from receivers, rather than broadcasters. In his 1951 composition «Imaginary Landscape No. 4» and some other pieces he used theradio as a musical instrument. The score instructs twenty-four performers to select volume, tone and station on twelve radios. The piece is four minutes long, and here, a year to come before his famous silent piece «4'33''» Cage makes two random structures overlap: for the composition he uses incidental components from the Chinese oracle «I Ging» combined with incidental sounds from the radios; sounds that are in the air have to be received on the predetermined frequencies according to the time and location of the production. Thus Cage is realizing one of the first fully «open artworks» using technical media—incidentally, even before Umberto Eco coined this term.[18]

In fact, «Imaginary Landscape No. 4» represents a fresh start in Cage's work in three respects: it is the first performance of a piece in which he uses the «I Ging,» and it is the first use of media information that is not entirely predetermined.[19] The two different starting-points adopted by Cage meet: the ancient Chinese oracle and modern American media technology. Thirdly, «Imaginary Landscape No. 4» also uses silence as a compositional element: Cage says that «almost no sound» was to be heard at the 1951 premiere, and that he was aware of the soundless quality of this piece even while writing it.[20]

As with «4'33'',» the audience of «Imaginary Landscape No. 4» experienced four minutes of heightened sensitivity in which musical content is replaced by pure listening, though still mediated through the twelve radios used as instruments, allowing the mass media omnipresence of the broadcasting stations to be experienced as aesthetic raw material at the time of performance. In today's terminology, it would be possible to speak of «433» as an ‹unplugged› version of the piece for radio. The art takes place only on the part of the recipient in both pieces, though in «433» direct physical experience replaces the radio-mediated experience. Cage turns all utopias involving artistic use of the broadcasting capacity of the mass medium upside-down: the medium remains unchanged, only our perception changes. Perhaps there is a suggestion of the power of the recipients in this: they increasingly define their own program flow from the available raw material in this age of TV zapping and web surfing.[21]

The critical-destructive strategy: Guy Debord and film

At the age of just under twenty, Guy Debord attached himself to the Lettrist movement around Isidore Isou, which attracted his attention because of the scandal they caused at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. His first contribution to Lettrist filmmaking premiered in Paris in 1952, but it was stopped after twenty minutes because of protests from the public. This was because «Hurlements en faveur de Sade» did not contain a single image, but simply alternated between a brightly-lit, white and completely dark cinema screen. Spoken dialogue could be heard in the light sequences; the dark passages were completely without sound. It was not until October 13, 1952 that a troop of Lettrists successfully insisted on a complete performance of the one-and-a-half-hour film. This time the audiences were prevented from leaving the cinema by promises and violence, and so finally came to enjoy the end with its twenty-four minutes of darkness and silence.[22]

So Debord had already defined the direction which was to take him away from Lettrism and on to his foundation of situationism in his first effective public appearance: «The arts of the future will be violent upheavals in situations, or nothing» says a programmatic sentence from the dialogue in the screenplay.[23] Like Cage's «4'33'',» Debord's film also rejects any form of spectacle. This radical critique of the media society then became the cornerstone for his theory of the «Society of the Spectacle,» which was to form the basis of the 1968 movement. His aim of «harming the spectacle society,» which he was still proclaiming in 1992, is already clearly present in his cinematic work forty years earlier.[24]

Three media, three strategies

These three archetypical examples of media art have two things in common: their astonishing simultaneity and the fact that they have survived only as drafts or memories, because they have been lost in audio-visual form: Fontana's broadcast went out live, without being recorded, as was customary at the time. There were no recordings of Cage's compositions with radios on principle, because according to Cage, as for «4'33''» they had meaning only in the here and now of their performance. Debord's film is thought to be lost; only various versions of the screenplay have survived.[25]

The theses put forward by these three artistic interventions can perhaps also be related to the state of development of each of the media concerned around 1952, in that they turn the chronology of technical development back to front: the film is already so well organized and commercialized that the only possibility left is a radical anti-approach of the kind that was later demonstrated in experimental work and video art. Radio's sound material still seems open to manipulation; it can be deconstructed and recombined, and this strategy too then becomes part of the artistic work program, from ‹found footage› to rave music's sampling. Only television, which seemed to offer a new field that was still open for the art of the future, still has utopian hopes clinging to it, though they were soon to be bitterly disappointed by TV reality.[26]

These three strategies, presented here in their pure conceptual form, are thus continued, differentiated and developed further from the 1960s in the many media art forms that exist in a state of tension with technical and social media development.


Translation by Michael Robinson

© Media Art Net 2004