The media utopia of the avant-garde
The word avant-garde comes from the military lexicon. Both Russian and Italian Futurism have a military background and a military conception of cultural action; but the word avant-garde is linked to the concept of utopia, as it implies the opening and prefiguring of a possible historical future.
Neruda speaks of utopia in terms of a horizon. We walk and see the horizon, and we head in that direction. Although the horizon is shifting further and further and we can never reach it, looking at it gives meaning to our walking.
Utopia is like the horizon.
As the etymology of the word implies, Utopia can never be brought into existence, but the history of the 20th century avant-garde tells a different story. Generally utopia becomes real, although in an inverted sense. The libertarian utopias of the century have mostly given birth to terrorist totalitarian regimes.
The utopia of the machine nurtured by Italian Futurism generated the overproduction of cars and the alienated production form of the assembly line. Communitarian utopia concocted the reality of nationalism and fascism. The utopia of Russian Futurism met the totalitarian violence of Stalinism.
Then, at the end of the century that had faith in the future, utopia induced a kingdom of dystopia.
The relationship between the utopian imagination and dystopian reality is especially interesting when it comes to the Media.
In the first decades of the century, machines that amplify and spread the voice were an indispensable tool for the creation of political authoritarian power. Both democratic and totalitarian regimes based the creation of consensus on new electronic technologies of communication (the loudspeaker, the radio and cinema), giving leaders the possibility to fill massive urban spaces with crowds of followers and bring together large territories and distant populations. Futurism experimented with and foreran this utilisation of the media. The biographies of artists like Marinetti, Russolo, Cangiullo, Depero and many other Italian futurists attest to this anticipation. Emphasizing electricity as the universal medium, Futurism was the premonition of the ultimate utopia of Cyber-culture that emerged in the last two decades of the century.
Paul Valery writes somewhere that, in the future, the citizens of the world would be able to receive information directly in their houses, like water that comes out from the tap. The universal flow of communication was foreseen as the actualization of an ideal human universality. The ‘wireless imagination’ that Marinetti speaks of is the origin of the network of technique, knowledge and sensibility that joined the planet together throughout the century, until it turned it in an all pervasive global mind, as Kevin Kelly calls it in the book Out of control, published in 1993.
The contribution of Futurism to the development of the media sensibility is significant. The visual experiments of French pointillism and divisionism at the end of the nineteenth century paved the way for cinematic technique and perception. In those years, when cinema was starting being developed, the works of Balla and Boccioni intended to experiment with visual techniques that provided the perception of movement in the motionless framework of the painted canvas.
According to Henri Bergson, cinema shows a close relationship between consciousness and the technical extroversion of movement in time. For the first time in human history, cinema made it possible to re-actualize an action that happened in the past, and gave us the possibility of going back to the future once the future had past.
In 1912 Delaunay, a pupil of Bergson wrote in a letter to the Italian Futurists: ‘your art has velocity as expression and the cinema as a tool.’
In the Manifesto tecnico della pittura futurista, written in 1910 and signed by Boccioni, Balla, Carra, Severini and Russolo, the idea of dynamism is proclaimed as follows:
‘le geste que nous voulons reproduire sur la toile ne sera plus un instant du dynamisme universel. Ce sera simplement la sensation dynamique elle-meme.’ [The gesture we want to reproduce on the canvas is no longer an instant of universal dynamism. It will simply be dynamic sensation itself].
Futurist dynamism wants to infuse the canvas with the perception of the progression of time, as is evident in Balla’s painting Signorina con cagnolino [Dynamism of a dog on a leash], and Boccioni’s Stati d’animo [States of mind].
Futurist innovation has the rhythm of the innovation of techno-media: photography, cinema and radio.
Cubo-futurist painters intended to capture the dynamics of movement by the simultaneous presentation of different sides of an object, preparing the sensibility of cinema and television.
Chlebnikov and Krucenich sing the praises of the radio as the medium of universal love and sympathy among men.
After dreaming of the evolution of the media, after proclaiming the advent of universal communication and wireless imagination, in the second half of the century the Avant-garde perceived and witnessed the conversion of the media into tools of domination of the collective mind. But the ambiguity was already there at the beginning.
In 1921 Velemir Chlebnikov wrote an amazing paper entitled The Radio of the Future. In this text you can find everything and the opposite of everything: the exhilarating adventure of communication that spreads all over the planet, joining and connecting distant villages and communities, carrying words and images and enlightening every corner of the world. But in the same words and in the same tones of the text you can feel the prophecy of totalitarian control, of the centralized state domination that annihilates freedom. Utopia and dystopia emerge from Chlebnikov’s imagining of the radio, which is simultaneously the irradiation of a light of love and knowledge, and the voice of an almighty power.
In the country of Guglielmo Marconi, Futurism translated the spirit of the new medium into the formula ‘wireless imagination’; whilst in the newborn Soviet Republic Chlebnikov chanted the glory of the irradiating medium. In Russia these are the years of civil war, massive scarcity and widespread starvation, but the enlightened and naive spirit of the Futurist poet wandered beyond the fogs and clouds and saw the bright future of the media. In his words, the radio became a gigantic screen in the centre of all cities and villages that enabled people to receive news, suggestions, advice, lessons and medical instructions. In his visionary text of 1921 Chlebnikov clearly foresaw something that we, today, call ‘The Internet’, that infinite connection of places without a place, and his imagination is simultaneously wildly libertarian and despondently totalitarian. His radio broadcasted colours and images thanks to a system of mirrors that reflected what was happening in a distant place. But the flow of images and words that could be received by the web of radio-screens disseminated everywhere in the country came from a central place which was the Supreme Soviet of Sciences which broadcasted daily to all schools and villages. Chlebnikov foretold a medium that today we call television.
The history of the twentieth century may be described as the struggle between the broadcast and the web, between the centralized medium of television and the proliferating medium of the internet. The two models are obviously intermingling and interacting, but the philosophy of one and the philosophy of the other are clearly distinguishable as the utopia and the dystopia of the mediascape.
However, in the imagination of the Futurist King of the Universe (as Velemir Chlebnikov named himself) these two faces are united in the same nightmare-dream.
London, May 2009