Russian Avant-Garde Theatre, War, Revolution, Design

It was a time of change. It was a time of hope. In those first thirty years or so of the twentieth-century the artistic world moved in tandem, and at times with the same pulse as the political movements that fought for radical change.

In painting Cézanne and then Picasso and Braque changed the way we looked at surfaces, Vlaminck and Signac, in the footsteps of Van Gogh and Gauguin revolutionised, in their own individual way, our perception of colour.

In music Schoenberg had taken Liszt and Mahler to their logical conclusion and torpedoed tonality, and with it melody as it was understood as well as harmony. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring did the same for rhythm.  All these artists and many more had overthrown the old order in art.

But only in Russia the dream of establishing a totally new society became a real possibility. And it was there, in those turbulent early years of the century, that the most radical artistic revolutions took place. And in particular they took place in precisely in that art form that required group co-operation and directly addressed the audience – theatre and later the cinema.

It was to be art of the people for the people. As the curators of Russian Avant-Guard Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913-1933 at London’s V&A point out, this was one of the characteristics distinguishing the Russian scene from all others.  Virtually all the artists, regardless of their other artistic fields of interest, worked in theatre.

Here we encounter the radical painter Kazimir Malevich, the photographer Alexander Rodchenko, constructivists Vladimir Tatlin, and Liubov Popova, film director Sergei Eisenstein, and composers Shostakovich and Gliere.

New types of theatre production required innovative design solutions and artists from a variety of mediums, painting, architecture, textiles, photography, painting, and design came together to create a rich tapestry in the theatres. These in turn influenced every art form not just in Russia but elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

Also, as the curators point out, at this time women had equal representation to men. In addition to Popova, the exhibition shows works by Alexandra Exter, Varvara Stepanova, and Tatiana Bruni. Moreover, the art and theatre world was not just confined to Russian artists, but the Georgian Irakill Gamrekeli, Belarusians, Latvians and Ukrainians.

Here, on walls painted the vermillion red of change, the red of revolution, you see the incredible variety of designs employed, the daring use of colour and line in the costumes, the bold designs, the application of industrial imagery in the scenery, indeed the totally new way of linking clothes, movement, music, and background as a totality.

Malevich is presented by sketches and lithographs for the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, premiered in 1913 in St Petersburg, where the costumes are made of contrasting patches of colour, using the beautiful clashing of black, white and red in large patches –  and the backdrops of cloth sheets painted in monochrome graphic forms.

One such is a large black and white square divided diagonally, a forerunner of his iconoclastic Black Square of 1915, a work which embodies the aesthetics of the Suprematist movement. On show are also his voluminous creations in bold colours which reshape the human figure.

As a member of Malevich’s art group Supremus from 1914-1916, Liubov Popova contributed to a number of exhibitions. Her involvement in theatre design is presented by her amazingly dynamic costumes for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and a maquette for a set model for the The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) performed at the radical Meyerhold Theatre.

Popova’s set design comprised a mechanical mill, wheels and conveyor belts, in front of which Meyerhold (the curators use the Russian spelling Meyerkhold – there is no ‘h’ in the Cyrillic alphabet) could present his acting theory of biomechanics, which favoured gesture and movement over the representation of emotions.

In Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, with music by Glière, Isaak Rabinovich rejected the traditional set by installing a unified architectural installation to match the structure of the performance replacing the traditional crank-and-pulley system. Elsewhere, the Georgian Irakli Gamrekeli experimented with sets with multipurpose usage.

Artist and photographer Rodchenko collaborated with the innovative theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold on a number of productions attempting, successfully, to represent in costume and scenery Meyerhold’s system of making the actors body more physically expressive. He also worked with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky on the bed bug (1929) for which he designed radically futurist ensembles featuring wide silhouettes and breathing apparatus to convey men from later decades.

Nicolai Musatov working with choreographer Kasian Goleizovsky designed clothes using taut geometric forms and limited colour range that allowed the free movement required by free dance or danse plastique.

Sergei Eisenstein’s costume design for the 1921 comic operetta Being Nice to Horses is both funny and futuristic. Eisenstein’s creations appear again in the costume and stage design for Macbeth. Alexandra Exter’s stage and costume design for Salome (1917) and for the pioneering as well as entertaining 1924 science fiction film Aelita: Queen of Mars are also on display here.

This is a unique collection that has never before been shown in the UK and gives a wonderful insight into the amazingly creative and exciting years, the numerous collective efforts to radically change our perceptions, before Socialist Realism all but killed innovation.

Mohsen Shahmanesh

Works on display in Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913 – 1933 are drawn primarily from the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum (Moscow) and St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music. It will be on exhibition at the V&A museum in London until 25 January 2015.

Read more reviews by Mohsen Shahmanesh here

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Book review: Redesigning Leadership

Redesigning Leadership is a gem of a book, and like a genuine gem is compact, short, succinct and a pleasure to read. Since it starts with a haiku I will attempt to sum up the book with my own feeble effort.

Wisdom in bursts
Succinct, real, obvious
As all insights should

Or as author John Maeda liked to communicate with his team on twitter

@mohsenmedic.. according to media savvy Maeda it is best to lead by listening hard  preferably face-to-face and an open mind.

Maeda’s book is full of advice and experience that seemed on first encounter perfectly obvious, until I reflected that almost all the leaders and managers that I have seen in my life ignore them. All but a handful, and these remain vivid not just in my memory but in that of virtually all the students or doctors that had studied or worked under them.

Redesigning Media by John Maeda published by MIT Press

When Maeda, a US born Japanese designer and computer scientist took over as the president of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in 2008 he thought he knew how to lead. What makes him so successful as a leader was his ability to jettison all preconceived notions that did not work out in practice. In other words he was prepared to listen both to his surrounding and also to his own heart.

In this book he takes us in 80 pages through this experience. For Maeda linking and underpinning macro and micro management, art and design, leading and being led, are the same principles. His is a style of management that when faced with an employee that everyone disliked, instead of firing him he retains him because like a body an organisation ‘needs viruses … to survive and be strong’. My guess is that he also listened to the ‘virus’.

Here is a leader who tries to regularly see his team, preferably over a meal of pizzas: as he says ‘until you can serve pizza and drink over the Web, a social media portal to foster true collaboration will be so-so’.

Here is a president who emails all his students and staff individually when he can’t meet them face-to-face. Just the boss I always craved for and sometimes got.

Better to talk
eye to eye
than blog in stratosphere

Read it and re-read it if you aspire to be leader or boss that is both successful and is remembered with affection and the awe that comes from deep love.

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

Redesigning Leadership by John Maeda is published by MIT Press. Visit the DT bookshop comprehensive selection of books on design.

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Book review: Design as Politics

Our world is nearing a state of structural unsustainability- a truism so obvious that even global-warming deniers deny it under their breath. In Design as Politics, author Tony Frey develops his previous thesis on the role of design in preventing the coming catastrophe  somewhat further.

Sustainability (with a capital S) is to be achieved and catastrophe prevented by placing design at the heart of vital social transformations. Here Fry uses design not in its politically neutral aesthetic definition of design as taste, applied to such products as architecture, furniture and fashion, but to design as it defines our very existence, our life styles, our values and hence the very core that defines our being, our existence and our relation to the environment.

Fry’s critique of the use of design currently in operation ranges wide and introduces many useful ideas. Thus technology has been designed to render us impervious to the way we are being manipulated, and becomes internalised to our very being such that ultimately it is technology that is designing us. The tools themselves effectively design the user. Man becomes defutured through unthinking, unlimited consumption, what has been called ‘consumption as grazing’.

Instead of being the political subject, mankind is instrumentalised into becoming the object of politics. Under these circumstances liberal democracy gives the illusion of change while reproducing more of the same, conjured up to pose as a difference.

Furthermore, under democracy pluralism is seen as a collection of atomised and individualised beings as opposed to collectivities, unities or bonded communities, with communal joint interests and goals.

Design as Politics by Tony Fry. Berg Publishing

For Fry, Sustainment is the acceptance of plurality within one unified goal, a meta-diverse end which he identifies as fundamentally changing our behaviour in order to avoid a defutured world. In this goal he can only be lauded by any sane person. And he rightly recognises that this future is unachievable within a global liberal political structure designed to turn the entire human race into a machine for consumption, using design (and education and the media) to obscure the unsustainablity of their project.

Here democratic politics, as he says, is reduced to providing consumer satisfaction, and hence politics is presented to the consumer as another product for consumption. What we have, he says, is ‘autonomous techno-centrism’ which shows us a ‘future from which we are absent’.

Fry is clearly well read and takes us through a fascinating, though somewhat complex and at times linguistically dense, journey touching on a large number of philosophers, social scientists and thinkers.

So far so good, and not very contentious. But when Fry goes into providing what he sees as a road to solution he goes badly wrong. While recognising the enormity of the problem he separates the political from the class-productive relations that are at the roots of the unsustainability of our current level of consumption.

Moreover, despite his repeated assertion that his solution is the only one that is not utopian, the world of Design as Politics is essentially built on a series of unsupportable assumptions.

He clearly understands that the fundamental cause of the unsustainabilty of our existence is anthropocentrism that was accentuated by the introduction of the capitalist mode of production that, in his words, has no reformative other.

Moreover he spends countless pages showing the undemocratic nature of democracy but then wishes to rebuild it from the inside (see page165). He then, contradicts himself by proposing to reform capitalism. The entire Design as Politics project aims at reforming capitalism (and democracy) so that it is changed from creating a technology for consumption to one for sustainment.

Central to his thesis is that design determines our fate – hence to change that fate we must begin by changing our understanding of design, to ‘rethink and redefine and reinvent the very nature of urban and rural life,’ and at its core a, ‘design becoming more dynamic, more powerful and more able to communicate the significance of designers to society in general’ he writes.

The agency for this change is an (hopefully) ever-widening, but tight, circle of people – designers – who have woken up not just to the horrors of a defutured world (after all many of us are already there) but on the root causes of that defuturing.

And what are those root causes? It is design for consumption, or ‘consumption as grazing’. And the solution is design for sustainment. And since democracy (I guess he means parliamentary democracy although nowhere does he define it as such) is also a system designed to cloud our vision we need to go beyond it. But by going beyond democracy Fry does not mean more, and more meaningful, democracy, which he dismisses as utopian radical democracy, but less – much less.

What Fry proposes is a cabal of designers and teachers who will in what he rightly recognises as a hard and difficult road, convince global capitalism to reform itself before the entire system collapses under the mass migration induced by global warming; and for the rest of us to consume for survival not for pleasure.

They, and we, will do so through teaching and persuasion, turning ‘knowing into the service of economic ends’. The hoped for outcome: a self-imposed ‘dictatorship of Sustainment’, or if people won’t, by imposition from above by an ‘adaptive design directorate’.

And if that change cannot rely on agreement it must ‘aim with material force’. Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, which was his shorthand for the democratic control of the majority on society, becomes the dictatorship of a committee or at best an idea – ‘thought itself as redirective practice’, as Fry puts it or ‘designed and managed interventions’ to impose ‘unfreedoms’.

His main foe is democracy with its laisser-faire attitude to the rampages of technology gone wild. His heroes are Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, both neo-romantic critiques of democracy and philosophers of authoritarianism. His effectors are a clique of educators – in the form of enlightened designers educating (read imposing) a new form of design that safeguards our future by taming the rampages that capitalist profit motive has sown on our planet. A modern version of Plato’s philosopher king transposed to twenty-first century globalised world.

Somewhere among his solution both the real effectors of unsustainability, capitalism, and its dictatorship imposed through apparent parliamentary democracy is lost. Here Fry not only misses the real critique of Heidegger of the roots of technology, but aims to reform capitalism by educating it to respect the future of the human race by ceasing to be so anthropocentric – a socialised capitalism, so to speak.

It is like educating the thief to patrol the neighbourhood. Marx had identified commodity fetishism as central to capitalist relations. By placing design at the centre of the futuring of the planet, Fry is demonstrating the most extreme form of commodity fetishism to defetishise commodities. No wonder Marx barely gets a mention in these pages.

Fry rejects utopian solutions but opts for the impossible. To ‘induce a being otherwise’ by design begs the question of who is the designer, chosen by whom and answerable to whom.

Dictatorship of sustainment will become just that – an imposed unfreedom imposed by unelected designers, answerable to no one but that very global capital (where ‘the capitalist commodity sphere was constituted as a world of desire’) that presumably employs the designers.

It is not entirely accidental that the word profit does not appear anywhere in this book. Does Fry imagine a capitalism without profit. Without it would they be persuaded to create a world where ‘to live is to suffer’ reigns eternal?

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

Design as politics by Tony Fry is published by Berg 2011. You can purchase the book directly at Design Talks Bookshop here.

Tony Fry is a director of the sustainment consultancy Team D/E/S and adjunct professor of design at Griffith University, Queensland College of Art, Australia. Among his publication is A New Design Philosophy: an Introduction to Defuturing, and Design, Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice.

Also read another interesting take on this by Peter Radziszewski in Rock n Roll!

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Music as design: Kafka Fragments

Less is plenty. With some clever lighting, a single trapezoid block of blue-grey wood as both background and foreground around which Elizabeth Watts (soprano) and Alexander Janiczek (on violin) dressed in simple black, moved, sang, acted, and performed only meters away from the audience, they were able to take us through an emotional range that seemed to span the entire experience – humour, fear, pathos, angst, being tong tied, boredom, challenge, amazement, love, life, and death wish.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre

This was Kafka Fragments, composed by György Kurtág and directed by the Rene Zisterer, in a single performance at the beautiful sport-gymnasium-like City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre.

Composed in the late 1980s, during the fall of the iron curtain in the composer’s home country of Hungary, Kafka Fragments is based on tiny fragments from Franz Kafka’s diaries and letters.

Kurtág chose the 40 fragments seemingly at random, but there is a logic and an emotional power that simply carries the listener through its hour-long songspiel. Using a complex but easily approachable musical language, Kurtág manages to convey the feel of each tiny fragment, some lasting less than a minute.

Even the superficially banal pieces were given deeper meaning by the use of music. You could say the music is used to design the language and vive-versa – viewing design in its more fundamental sense of giving deeper meaning and significance to something, and highlighting a characteristic that is hidden in its essence.

Such apparently random words as: ‘Meine Ohrmuschel fülte sich, frish, rauh, kühl, saftig an wie ein Blatt’ (My ears felt fresh to the touch, rough, cool, juicy, like a life) were given another dimension when set to music.

‘Kafka Fragments is a work that goes to the heart of mankind’s existence, seen through a mix of cutting insight, profundity and at times mundane day-to-day experiences,’ wrote cellist William Conway and artistic director Hebrides Ensemble (who performed Leos Janácek’s Kreutzer Sonata earlier) in the program notes.

The CBSO Centre with its wooden flooring and three rows of balconies skirting the walls provided the perfect setting for looking inward into mankind’s – and one’s own – existence.

Watts sang and acted the words like she had lived them. And Janiczek’s violin, using three instruments each tuned to different pitches, gave out sounds and musical patterns that open the ears to a new world.

In the last fragment, ‘Es blendete uns die Mondnacht’ (the moonlit night dazzled us) ends with: ‘Wir krochen durch den Staub, ein Schlangenpaar’ (we crawl through the dust, a pair of snakes).  Watts crept up to the wall, using her right hand casting a writhing shadow on the trapezoid wall as she sang ‘Schlangenpaar (a pair of snakes) Schlangenpaar, Schlangenpaar’. And Janiczek undulated and twirled the snake around in sound from behind the wall. Both visually and aurally an amazing end to a remarkable evening, achieved with minimal visual intrusion.

It is a sad reflection on the almost total separation of different art forms that the small CBSO Centre remained half empty. There is nothing unapproachable to the evening’s music that could not add to the life-experience of many. Alas, a magical experience was experienced by the void on the empty seats.

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

Kafka Fragments by György Kurtág was at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre on 3 June 2011.

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Turner prize: Sound as sculpture

This year’s Turner Prize was awarded to Scottish artist Susan Philipsz for her sound sculpture Lowlands. Philipsz used a sixteenth century Scottish lament about a sailor who drowns, but returns to give a final farewell to his loved one – recording all three existing versions in her own voice played under different bridges over the river Clyde in her birthplace Glasgow.

Susan Philipsz at the Turner Prize 2010 ceremony

Philipsz, who now lives in Berlin, is intrigued by the way sound can be transformed into architectural and visual images in the listener. As you walk on the underside of these bridges – ‘the dark side’ as she calls them – you catch bits of one song, merging with bits of the next under the following bridge. In the gallery setting the three songs are broadcast through different loudspeakers.

This is the first time the Turner prize has been awarded to a sound sculpture – perhaps a recognition by the visual art establishment of the interconnectedness of the senses.

Two interesting aspects of this prize are worth noting. One feature is the visual content of sound. Syesthesia, where a person involuntarily transfers one form sensory stimulus, say auditory, into another such as colour, has long been known in neuro-psychiatry.  Many composers had such perceptions.

The Russian composer Scriabin, for instance, tried to convey this sensation by having various colours projected during performances of his music, and added an olfactory element by releasing particular smells during his orchestral work Poeme d’Extase.

The French composer Olivier Messiaen took this a step further. Many of his works have specific colour titles such as Couleurs de la cité céleste. In his Treatise of Rhythm, Colour and Birdsong, Messiaen wrote descriptions of the colours of certain chords, sometimes in great detail: blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant. Nearer to our time Andy Warhol worked closely with Velvet Underground in a similar light.

We can also approach Philipsz’s sound sculpture from the point of view of the modernist movement for abstraction. It began, partly in response to photography, by Gustave Courbet in his pallet knife paintings, Claude Monet in his flattening of forms and Paul Gauguin in moving colour away from its natural roots.

As Richard Brettell wrote in Modern Art 1851-1929, this was a process whereby the subject matter was pushed back and the artist and viewer brought forward. It was, as he said, a move to introduce more of the painter and more of the imagination of the viewer into a work. Thus the road to abstraction was paved.

The fauves went on to place colour at the centre. Henry Matisse’s The red Studio (1911) merges floor and wall into one glorious red. Robert Delaunay (France 1885-1941), Frantisek Kupka (Czech 1871-1957, Piet Mondrian (Dutch 1872-1944) and many others, all contemporaries and all having spent some time in Paris, abstracted colour further. The ultimate abstraction of colour was its total elimination in the all-white or all-black canvas.

The Russians Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Kasimir Malevich (1878-1936) introduces Slav mysticism into abstract art. Malevich with Lazar El Lissitsky (1890-1941), Mikhail Matiushin (1861-1934) and others in the Constructivists revolutionary artistic group around the Bolsheviks used abstract art as a tool in revolutionary propaganda and the building of a revolutionary society. El Lissitsky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1920) became an iconic propaganda poster. Malevich hung his almost all-white canvases in special ways in galleries as a precursor to installation art.

Mysticism, as well as the interrelationship of sound and colour, was a theme taken up by the American artist Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986). The Americans also developed another aspect of abstraction – and of colour and emotion – in the form of abstract expressionism.

This peaked in the paintings of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) where juxtaposed shades of colour draw the viewer into the canvas thus into creating an emotional state – an inner painting or sculpture. Malevich’s monochrome paintings, hung in abstract architectural forms in a gallery, or Rothko’s merging colour forms, are but one step away from Lowlands where Philipsz has completely removed all shape and colour, leaving sound as the medium for reconstructing sculptors and paintings in the imagination.

When critiques found figures in Kandinsky’s self-declared abstractions, they were not mistaken. Abstraction allows the reign of imagination. Philipsz takes this logic further by totally eliminating the visual input and allowing the listener to imagine form and colour. In this she has also completed the amalgamation of painting and sculpture started by Marcel Duchamp in the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (1915-23)

Philipsz has taken abstract art to its logical conclusion. By choosing an old lament and suspending the sound under a bridge in the dark underbelly of Glasgow she has already introduced a mystical element that existed in Kandinsky, Miro and more latterly in O’Keefe. And she has recreated the special relationship with sound as the creator of images and defining space.

‘Even in a gallery you become more aware of the space you are in,’ Philipsz said at the Tate Modern as she picked up the Turner prize. ‘You also become more aware of yourself,’ she added.

By putting an untrained voice in a public place, without the river and of shadows beneath a bridge, the mind is focused on the music. The effect is as the artist predicted: ‘Strange, like putting something private into a very public context’ … where the words ‘will be more focused and more intimate’ and ‘very visceral,’ as she noted. As a viewer, you cannot help but be affected by it.

Clearly the judges agreed. It was a good choice and the Tate should be congratulated to have the vision and courage to recognise this.

Philipsz picked up the £25,000 Turner prize presented by fashion designer Miuccia Prada at the Tate Modern in London on 7 December. She was awarded for the presentations of Lowlands at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art and Long Gone in the group exhibition Mirrors at MARCO Museo de Arte Comtemporánea de Vigo in Spain.

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

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