Tuesday, 20 May 2014 00:00

"Generation Z: ReNoise" and a Little Bit More

The CTM festival, a.k.a the Festival for Adventurous Music & Art in Berlin earlier this year placed a lot of emphasis on early electronic music from Eastern Europe, especially music from the USSR. One of the main attractions of CTM festival was "Generation Z: Renoise", an exhibition on "Russian Pioneers of Sound Art and Musical Technology in the Early 20th Century". For a whole month, the exhibition space down the hallway of the Bethanien was filled with a variety of noise instruments made from metal and wood. Guests were turning handles, banging gongs, drilling against large pieces of sheet metal to their heart's content, and the clickety clack, rumble, boom and twang never ceased. It was like a collective improv noise performance. These machines were replicas of the noise machines invented by Vladimir Aleksandrovich Popov (1889-1968) in the 1940s.

For many years, the imagination of Soviet art in the minds of the general public were dominated either by the dreadful description of a mechanically produced novel by George Orwell, or the forced cheerfulness of North Korean patriotic songs on youtube that are so often the subject of ridicule by bored netizens.

"Generation Z" is a reminder of a USSR that wasn't all kitsch. During the early 20's, there was a brief flash of creativity in Russian history, when artists and scientists strove to create a communist utopia where man and machine were one. Noise orchestras, post-human discourse, experiments in graphical sound and musique concrète appeared, way before anything similar appeared in the West. These projects were the brain child of the Russian avant-garde groups, heavily influenced by Russian futurism and further inspired by Lenin's 1920 dictum "Communism equals Soviet power plus the Electrification of the Entire Country". Unfortunately, these progressive ideas were seen as hostile to the authority of the Bolshevik government. They were gradually repressed by Lenin and brutally abolished by Stalin.

Julia-CMT-ThereminThe main star of the exhibit was Leon Theremin (1896-1993), who invented the famous theremin and who also worked for the KGB making machines for espionage. Works of lesser known artists who were nonetheless way ahead of their times also featured in the exhibition. There was Arseny Avraamov (1885-1944), who was already experimenting with the prepared piano, and Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), who was already toying with pre-recorded music and musique concrète.

However, the most interesting part of the exhibition for me was its introduction of the various organizations, or to use the curator's own words, the various "network cultures", which are "based on numerous cross-connected "creative units" comprised of artists and scholars" that sprouted in attempt to contribute their own version of Soviet utopia. For instance, Proletkult, founded by Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928), was a organization that aimed to re-examine traditional art, literature and science through cybernetics in order to create a new proletarian culture. It opened studios in worker's unions all over the country, using nonhierarchical methods to encourage workers to express their own voice.

"Generation Z" focused on the noise orchestras that sprouted accompanying the experimental theaters that performed under Proletkult. The display of instruments used in these orchestras were imbued with a heavy punk DIY spirit, as they were commonly made with household objects such as chairs, pig bladders, or abacuses. This was in accordance with the Constructivist slogan "art into life", which, according to scholar Konstantin Dudakov-Kashuro, made "no distinction between everyday life and art, production and culture, work and leisure, musical instruments and working tools." Of course, there was a more pragmatic reason underlying these high claims: Russia was facing a lack of materials to create traditional instruments due to the ongoing civil war.

Julia-CMT-Portrait-of-Alexei-Gastev-by-Z.-TolkachevWhile organizations like Proletkult were busy cultivating their utopia from a class-based approach, others did so through the attempt of fusing man and machine. A radical institute called The Central Institute of Labour (CIT) was founded in 1920 by Alexey Gastev (1882-1939) and supported by Lenin. Heavily influenced by Fordism and Taylorism, Gastev sought to realize the man/machine metaphor through biomechanics: Instruments for photography and film were found within the institute, monitoring the workers' movements in order to calculate the most efficient working method. The ideal was that by the completion of the training, "full automatism" would be attained and workers' mind would be freed to engage in new stimuli.

Unfortunately, most of these projects came to a nasty end. Bogdanov's insistence on Proletkult's autonomy from the central Communist was viewed as a threat by Lenin. As a consequence, Bogdanov was removed from the leadership role of Proletkult, while Proletkult itself was made into a subsection of the governmental cultural agency. It was closed down by the Communist party in April 1932. in 1938 Alexei Gastev was arrested for "counter-revolutionary terrorist activity" and executed the following year. The CIT was subsequently closed down. By the mid 40's, these projects had been erased from the "official" history of Soviet Russia. New ideas were stifled because under Stalin's regime, anything that was beyond immediate comprehension was branded as "formalism", idle contemplations of the petty bourgeois and should be immediately banned. What was left was Stalinist realism, a cookie cutter style that existed only to glorify Communist rule.

One wonders why Lunaacharsky's proposal to composer Sergei Prokofiev: "You are revolutionary in music as we are revolutionary in life – we should work together" faced such a sour end. Proletkult sought to spread culture among the proletarians, the CIT sought to realize Lenin's electrified communist moto. Clearly they couldn't be seen as immediate threats to the revolution. "Generation Z" blames the authoritarian nature of the Bolshevik government: "By their very nature, authoritarian states are not interested in supporting ideas that incite society to any activity that might undermine their authority." While this may be true, the exhibit's clear-cut distinction between the "artistic and scientific Utopia" of the 1910s and 20s and the "totalitarian, highly centralized anti-Utopia" of the 30s to 50s tantalizes the visitor, beckoning to them to fill in the gaps.

Julia-CMT-noise-machine01Noise Machine invented by Vladimir Popov and reconstructed by Music Laboratory.

Is there no contiguity at all between Utopia and Dystopia? Further studies show that this is not the case. For instance, while the exhibit portrays avant-garde artists striving together towards an electrified communist utopia, some may argue that the idea of the Russian avant-garde and the Communists working arm in arm is a misconception. According to Gassner Hubertus's article "The Constructivists Modernism on the Way to Modernization", many of the Russian Futurists were anarchists before the 1917 October Revolution. They differed from the Bolsheviks in that they distrusted any form of institution and insisted on the autonomy of art from the government. The insurgence of the Bolsheviks however, created a vacuum in the governmental art department, as right-winged conservative artists were mostly sympathizers of the previous social democratic government. The traditional preservationist approach to art on the Bolsheviks' part, on the other hand, was interpreted by the leftist anarchists that artistic freedom could once again fall back to institutional tutelage that haunted the 300 year czarist regime. Some avant-garde leftists thus decided to work with the government and gain at least some political leverage.

julia-CMT-CIT-posterWhile they enjoyed a honey moon period around 1918-19, in which various avant-garde museums and exhibitions were held, institutions became increasingly centralized after the end of the Civil War in the autumn of 1920. Publications ceased to exist and autonomous artistic organizations were dissolved. In a letter criticizing Proletkult, the communist party accused the futurists involved of exerting subversive influences in the organization. Facing this series of defeats, the avant-garde leftists had to rethink their position in society. They came up with constructivism, which attempted to identify the artist with the worker and their artwork as product, thus the slogan "art into life", as mentioned in Dudakov-Kashuro's commentary on Soviet noise orchestras. Though this concept claimed to renovate the relationship between art and everyday life, the price was the disavowal of the artist as subject, as the poet Mayakovski clearly revealed in his statement in 1920: "We declare: to hell with individualism, to hell with words and emotions... so that we can even renounce our own personality... the poet can't be forced but he can force himself"

The artists justified themselves by identifying with the workers in a worker's state, but art risked losing its critical stance to life. Indeed, some critics argued that constructivism wasn't a merging of art into life, but a liquidation of art into life. Marxist scholar Dave Walsh even went so far as to accuse the constructivists for paving the road to Stalin's later oppression of art:

"There is no question that the Futurist-Constructivists, as well as the early Proletkul'tists, provided certain slogans, issues and ideological weapons that were seized upon by the Stalinists and utilized against artistic production itself. The diatribes against inspiration, intuition, "soulfulness," "haziness," etc., were used to regiment and straitjacket the artists of a later period."

Of course, this is in no way to say that the artists got what they deserve, but rather it was an attempt to offer a contiguous transition of the gap left by "Generation Z" in their Utopia/Dystopia dichotomy. It would be insensitive and irresponsible to say that things would be different if those in the avant-garde had done things differently. Art and culture is the most fragile organ of a civilization. In such turbulent times they didn't really stand a chance.


Images Captions:

1. The theremin
2. Noise Machine invented by Vladimir Popov and reconstructed by Music Laboratory  
3. Portrait of Alexei Gastev by Z. Tolkachev
4. CIT poster: “Let’s take the snow-storm of the revolution in the USSR, let’s put the rhythm of american life and perform well-adjusted work like chronometer.”



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