/ From Monument to Market ↑
Video as Art: An Infra-thin Electromagnetic Wedge between Art and Politics
Stephen Kovats
1 Marcel Duchamp, Notes, presentation and translation by Paul Matisse, Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou 1980.  ↑ 
2 Viktor Schklovskij, “Die Kunst als Verfahren”, [in:] Juri Striedter (ed.), Russischer Formalismus, Munich 1994.  ↑ 
3 Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism, Princeton: Verso Books 1992.  ↑ 
4 Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Paris: Éditions Galilée 1991.  ↑ 
5 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Paris: Editions Gallimard 1992.  ↑ 
6 Ibid.  ↑ 
7 Ibid.  ↑ 
8 Groys, op. cit.  ↑ 
9 Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, New York: Simon & Schuster 1982.  ↑ 
10 Groys, op. cit.  ↑ 
11 Debord, op. cit.  ↑ 
12 Inke Arns, Elisabeth Tharandt (eds.), Ostranienie 93: the International Video Festival, Dessau: Bauhaus Dessau 1993.  ↑ 
13 ????  ↑ 
author's bio
Stephen Kovats is a Canadian-born architect and media researcher. He spent the decade following German unification designing and establishing media-art and culture-related programs at the Bauhaus Dessau. From 1993 to 1997 he was organizer of the Ostranenie International Electronic Media Forum series focusing on the role played by media art and culture in the process of societal transformation in Central and Eastern Europe. He has founded several exchange and networking programs related to media culture, including Archi-Tonomy, EMARE, ECX and the Bauhauskolleg, a multidisciplinary post-graduate programme for alternative urban design. He is currently an international media arts program developer at the V2_Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam.

From an architectural point of view, the fundamental public space of such a medium as “video” resides in a zone of spatial perception, formed by an electromagnetic charge held together by composite materials. The public space of expression is framed by the physics of these materials on the one hand (an impermanent fusion of unstable electrons fused with hybrid polycarbonates) and the broader political realm of electronic dissemination and reception on the other.

Referring to the distance between the mould and the real, Marcel Duchamp called this kind of space of perception the infra-thin. Instead of a clear definition of the term, Duchamp used numerous examples to delineate this space: “the warmth of a seat which has just been left is infra-thin”, or “when the tobacco smoke smells of the mouth which exhales it, the two odours marry by the infra-thin”.↓ 1 In effect the infra-thin is a distance or a difference that cannot be perceived but that can be imagined.

In video, we can speak of a form of electromagnetic infra-thin qualifying the space between perception and politics, defined intrinsically by expression and materiality. These contextual bookends lay the groundwork for the unique ethereal and fleeting character of video as a medium, so that (for example) video can never be film and vice versa, just as oil painting cannot be photography. And although the character of traditional photography  is close to that of film, the historical character of video as a medium of long-distance image broadcast is closer to that of sound and the pioneering experiments of Nikola Tesla, Lev Theremin and Oskar Sala. It was forged largely by revolutions occurring, often simultaneously, in both politics and technology.

The critical moment defining the public nature of video as an abstract and expressionist form of art was the period roughly 80 years ago, when much of Europe was extracting itself from its first mechanized all-encompassing conflict: the First World War. By this time Nikola Tesla had long since left the Croatian village of his birth, making his way through the former Austro-Hungarian Empire’s centers of power and knowledge — Zagreb, Budapest, Vienna — to establish himself in the turbulence of the brave and wild new world of America. By the time the war had ended, at the threshold of the ’20s, a time of surging economic and technological growth, the world was only beginning to experience and ponder the effects of electricity — a product of the Earth’s geomagnetic nature, first noted and confirmed by Faraday and later tapped by Tesla as a power to serve society.

The intangible, ethereal realm of the arts was primarily ignited through the ensuing post-war political fervour, in particular of the Russian Revolution. As a servant of the Revolution, art found a new niche alongside politics, incarnating Viktor Shklovski’s seminal literary Formalist adage that art’s role was “to make things strange”. The “things” included society, our perceptual environment, the acts of our daily lives.  For Shklovski, art was a filter through which one could see and understand the world differently; for the world had changed: it had become skewed, estranged from our traditional perception and understanding. Shklovski called this process of estrangement priëm ostranenije,↓ 2 and claimed that it was the duty of art to create this perceptual shift.

The opportunity for art to define and serve new society, as it was envisaged by the revolutionary leaders, created, not only a new role for the artist but a new artist altogether. Artists were to become the craftsmen of the vocabulary and the means of the Revolution. The power of their creative ingenuity would lend authenticity and legitimacy to the attempt at declaring a new social structure and order. Both Lenin and Trotsky (before his exile) recognized this potential, and saw in it the banner with which to bring, if not electricity, then certainly its ideal and potential to the masses. Electricity, the newfound power that had always lurked in our electromagnetic environment, was to become the Revolution’s new tool and the artists’ new experimental laboratory.

The idea of the complete electrification of the country became a driving force of Lenin’s revolution. Electricity was to be used as an economic, social and political force. “After the Russian revolution Lenin had proclaimed that only when the Soviet Union had been completely electrified, could socialism in its complete version be attained. By emphatically declaring Communism to be electrified Socialism, Lenin vigorously set upon a ten-year plan of building power plants and incorporating them into a national grid, with the goal of extending the wires to every home. He encouraged the artists of the Agitation Propaganda — Agit Prop — to use electricity in their art to demonstrate its power and usefulness, and to use the energy of their creative skills to find new outlets of application of this new medium.”↓ 3

The avant-garde with its shock and provocation was an element of revolutionary fervor that could have been engaged to promote both new political stances and new artistic language of electronic media. Through electrification, light would not only be brought to the masses, but it would also provide new quality of art. Electricity’s seemingly nonmaterial nature heralds the structure of the new age: the structure of electromagnetism, which being a global physical system, parallels the global aims and aspirations of the internationalist revolution. As a phenomenon, it is parallel both to at that time new industrialization of society, and to the rapid expansion of society’s perceived borders through new means of telecommunications, the first broadcast images, microphony, etc.↓ 4

Electric-light-driven art such as that used in Skriabin’s synaesthetically charged operetta became a new phenomenon, and for the first time electronic sound art, using the true wireless electromagnetism appeared — most significantly the work of Lev Theremin.

“The Utopian strands in Socialism were completely in thrall to scientific thinking, in the form in which this had imposed itself in the preceding centuries. Their goal was the perfection of this rational system. They did not look at themselves as prophets disarmed, for they believed firmly in the social power of scientific proof and in the seizure of power by science. However their idea of things lagged far behind the historical reality of science itself. The utopian socialists remained prisoners to the scientific manner of expounding the truth, and they viewed this truth in accordance with its pure abstract image.”↓ 5  The notion of relying on science to expound perceived social truths was “promoted with an experimental ingenuousness” whereas the “smiling future continually evoked by the utopians”↓ 6 found its expression in the powers of electrification in the formation of the envisioned new society.

During this period, the new and heroic art of industrialization — of electrification and of broadcasting across a society — became a part of the “movement of negation in pursuit of transcendence in a historical society where history had not yet directly lived”.↓ 7  As such, it was both an “art of change and one of a pure expression of the impossibility of change” at the same time. “The more grandiose its demands, the further from its grasp is true self-realization. It is an art which is through necessity avant-garde, while at the same time being one that is not. Its vanguard is its own disappearance”↓ 8 echoing Marshall Berman’s reflection on art and design of the modern era: that all that is “solid melts into air”.↓ 9

It is perhaps the case of the Russian physician and musician Lev Theremin that best illustrates the rise and the subsequent demise of the application of electromagnetic principles in the art and in politics of Russia — actually, the entire former East bloc. Theremin took interest in the structure and dissipation of frequencies and in Tesla’s pioneering work with transformers. At the Institute for Physics, Technology and Radio, where he worked, Theremin noticed that by holding a metal rod in one hand, he could obtain obtained high-pitched sounds along with high-voltage sparks. The pitch of the sound depended on the distance he held the rod from the electromagnetic source. Having presented his instrument at the congress of the electromechanical union in 1921, devoted to the goal of electrifying the entire country, Theremin was invited by Lenin to give him a private demonstration at the Kremlin. Apparently, Lenin was delighted with Theremin’s instrument and enthusiastically approved his research, giving him the right to travel freely throughout the country, to do exhibitions and to give concerts. During this period Theremin extended his work on wireless technology and created the first-ever television set. But the constraints of the contemporary context hindered its practical development, and it remained just another Theremin’s marvels of wireless electromagnetic magic.

In 1924 Theremin was sent abroad in order to further his scientific research and tour the Thereminvox. He played to full houses across Germany, and, on at least one occasion, played live on the radio with Oskar Sala, whose equally revolutionary electronic instrument — the Trautonium — was beginning to make its concert debuts in Berlin. The Trautonium, unlike the Thereminvox, was played by touching, or rather by sliding the fingers along thin metal plates that produced amplified electronic frequency oscillations.  In 1927, Theremin was sent to the United States, where the new Soviet State was fighting for international acceptance and recognition. Although Theremin’s voyage was mainly motivated by a desire to continue his research, one of his intentions was certainly to help increase the Soviet Union’s prestige in the U.S. and, as Theremin put it, to fight the impression that his country was backward and condemned to political downfall. General Electric and RCA began to serially produce his instrument, and up to 250 were constructed before 1939, when Theremin hastily departed the United States and returned to Russia. There is a great deal of speculation concerning the circumstances of his departure.

The Soviet Union had changed dramatically since Theremin left. The artists of the avant-garde proclaiming new Soviet order had been discredited and had come to be seen as agitators against the State. Many were caught up and imprisoned. Theremin disappeared from the public eye for the next thirty years. Some speculated that he had been banished to a labour camp or even killed. In fact, he had been placed under house arrest and put to work for the State security apparatus, focussing his creative energy not on art, but on developing electromagnetism and wireless technology for the State’s covert desires: instead of creating works of electromagnetic art, he developed the first-ever bugging devices and other forms of electronic surveillance. The State had recognized the power of this new medium  as a means of securing its own illegitimate grip on the people, and also the imperative need to keep the technology in its own hands. The means to broadcast wireless energy or signals — whether as sound or image — in the hands of its citizens would be too much of a threat to the State, disrupting its crucial monopoly on information, which lasted until the Soviet sphere of influence crumbled in 1990.↓ 10

Whereas the original revolutionary ideology put forth by Lenin expounded a so-called “coherence of the separate” which is in itself politically/conceptually infra-thin — separation of classes, management systems and economic forms — the reality that emerged was self-contradictory. With Stalinism, the ideology rediscovered its own incoherent essence. The ideology, based on what Debord and other analysts perceived as an intrinsic untruth, was in fact a lie that, once entrenched in the bureaucracy, could no longer be challenged and became a form of madness. Ideology was no longer a weapon but an end in itself. “Eventually both reality and the goal sought dissolved in a totalitarian ideology proclaiming that whatever it said was all that there was.”↓ 11

Thus, in pre-market Eastern European society, there was always a barrier to the development of electronic and media-based art, as a publicly shared and viable domain. Even when Stalinism had eventually been discredited — and Theremin himself re-emerged into the public realm, and television (in the 1960s) became a commodity — the State’s relationship to the electronic expression remained dependent on its need to control access to, and flow of information. Art and communication had strict boundaries, and even as the technology of broadcasting and video-taping became available — theoretically — to the masses, access to and ownership of technology was strictly controlled. Artistic expression, using the electronic canvas provided by video, was indeed possible in some realms — a good example being the pioneering abstract video work of the Hungarian Gabor Body — but the natural relationship between borderless broadcast and the electronic medium was strictly curtailed.

The work of Polish artist Józef Robakowski is a good example of the ironies of what was in effect a clandestine video underground. A media-art pioneer and leading figure of the Polish avant-garde, Robakowski has been investigating the realms of photography, film and video since the early ’70s. In his work In Memory of L. Brezhnev (1982-1985), Robakowski condensed the four-hour TV transmission of the Soviet leader’s funeral into an eight-minute video. By recording the broadcast on 16mm film, then re-recording it on videotape and editing it using two VCRs, the artist achieved a condensed form of recording that transformed the sombre intent of the original transmission into what he termed an abstract and abnormal “nightmare event” — an excavation of the viewer’s reception. He noted that “one must maintain daily contact with video, because it is the only medium which can be inquisitive and expansive and, at the same time, intimate and delicate, using minimal technology to maximum effect.”↓ 12 In fact, much of Robakowski’s work — voyeuristic, chronologically expansive in detail — can be seen as the practice of an infra-thin wedge skirting the edge of perceived reality, with a supremely tangential whiff of desire with which to implant the viewer in an unusual public spectacle.

Where the State allowed greater freedom of expression (for example in Yugoslavia), experimentation with video — within the usual constraints of avoiding the political realm — played a more pronounced role, becoming a form of acceptable, if not chic, “underground” art. Nevertheless, the state monopoly on expression and criticism remained the major barrier between the medium and its intrinsic desire to be broadcast. When the Slovenian art group Laibach emerged in the early ’80s with its use of symbols of totalitarianism and the message of subjugating the State through the artistic practice, the State attempted to reveal their agenda by the use of mass culture, putting them “on trial” by television: in June 1983, the five members of Laibach appeared on the weekly TV political-information show “TV Tednik”. Here is an excerpt from the TV interview:↓ 13

Pengov (moderator): Up until now you have been spreading your ideological provocation in writing. Was your decision to acquaint some 600,000 to 700,000 members of the public with your ideology by appearing on TV in any way difficult?

LAIBACH: Along with the educational system, television has the leading role in the formation of uniform opinions. The medium is centralized, with one “transmitter” and a number of “receivers”, while communication is impossible. Being aware of the media’s manipulative capacities, Laibach is exploiting the repressive power of media information. In the present case, it is the TV screen.

Pengov: You have assumed the role of “Public Enemy No. 1” in a masochistic way, as the proverbial sacrifice, but the number of your true followers, or at least fans, is very questionable. Is there a gap between your idea and its alienation from the people, the masses?

LAIBACH: Art is a noble mission that demands fanaticism, and Laibach is a group whose goals, life and means are higher — in their power and duration — than the goals, lives and means of its individual members.

Pengov: What do you think of the idea that neither the State nor the system or the Party can bring happiness to the people — that one creates one’s own destiny?

LAIBACH: Neither the State, nor the Party, or God or Satan; happiness lies in the total denial of one’s identity, in people’s consciously waiving their personal tastes, beliefs, judgments, in their free depersonalization, in their ability to make sacrifices, to identify themselves with a superior system with the masses, the collective, the ideology.

Pengov: Can you tell us anything about yourselves? For instance, who you are, what your professions  are, how old you are; are you all here or are there more of you?

LAIBACH: We are the children of the spirit and the brothers of strength,

Whose promises are unfulfilled.

We are the black phantoms of this world,

We sing the mad image of woe.


Following this interview, there was an administrative ban on Laibach’s live performances and public use of the media. The group’s artistic mission — to work towards the elimination of the State by throwing symbols and actions of totalitarianism back in the State’s face — was ultimately fulfilled when Yugoslavia eventually disintegrated. With the collapse of the State and the demise of the Iron Curtain, the art of electronic media fused with the power of broadcast culture and political control. The role of the medium video as a metaphor of the transformation from state monument to that of liberal market became a fait accompli.

Rotterdam, November 5th, 2004

NInA NInA MKiDN Wrocław Wrocław Wrocław Wrocław