Notation: Exhibition at ADK/ZKM

I have been struggling to write this post in a timely and concise fashion, which is a testament to the enticing complexity of its subject, the exhibition “Notation: Kalkül und Form in den Künsten” at Berlin’s Academy of the Arts.  This is the latest ZKM undertaking by new media art mogul Peter Weibel, with media theorist Hubertus von Amelunxen and ADK Professor Dieter Appelt.  Although I’m familiar with many of his catalogues, this is the first show I’ve attended in person– and it did not disappoint.  It is an example of creative curatorship that weaves together multiple disciplines– film, conceptual art, dance, architecture, music, writing– and combines obscure and canonized artists in a way intended to suggest unarticulated, yet nearly present critical narratives structuring the collection.  I find this sort of temptation irresistible, especially since it addressed the relation of conceptualism, film, and dance, whose relation informs my own current research.  However, after several failed attempts to do this succinctly, I have elected to me recreate an annotated digital version of the exhibition (photographs were not allowed), focusing on its disciplinary collage and an idiosyncratic emphasis on my favorite pieces.  Bear in mind that the general theme of the exhibition, notation, generally included any work that might be seen an attempt to systematically codify and preserve a representational event.  Moreover, the curators immediately identified movement with an ephemerality that has long evaded notational systems– hence the opening conference, “Notations of Movement,” was organized by the Dance Studies department at the Free University.  But what does this have to do with technology, especially given that one of the world foremost New Media Art Museums, the ZKM, is hosting it?  As apparently evident in the exhibition’s first disciplinary sphere of focus, the curators chose the rise of cinema and ensuing early 20th century experiments as the point of no return for untroubled referential relation.
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Early Experiments with Film
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Among the most striking in this first series of works upon entry were the number of pieces by Étienne-Jules Marey.  Given the upsurge of interest in photography’s quasi-scientific early days, this was not an entirely surprising first step, but it clearly defined movement, life, and the evanescent as an urgent thematic concern.  I found this to be particularly present in Marey’s pictures of smoke.  This piece was included in the exhibition:
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Étienne-Jules Marey, Courants de fumée
Or a notebook kept of graphic representations  of many individuals’ pulses under various conditions:
Marey, Cardiac Spectrogram
A distinctly different pioneer of experimental film, whose presence was pronounced in the exhibition by the sheer number of works included, was Oskar Fischinger.  Fischinger was particularly interested in the relation between film and sound, which he explored in his “Sonic Ornament” (a link to his artist statement is available here) series in the early 30s.  Fischinger’s ornaments supposedly produce tones when run through a projector.  It is worth nothing that although this fact is indispensable to the consideration of his examples of “Klingende Ornamenten,” I only understood this in my second trip to the exhibition with a guide.  This odd, almost intentional dearth of background information was a consistent trait of the exhibition, which was clearly not intended to be understood in a single instant– quite in contrast to Fischinger’s excited claim that “With that union, the unity of all the arts is definitively, finally achieved, and has become unquestionable fact.”
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Oskar Fischinger, Tönende Ornamente (1932)
The following roll drawing was produced according to the same sonic principles, and this particular example was included in the exhibition.
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Oskar Fischinger
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Avant-Garde Film in the 1960s and 70s
Likewise, avant-garde film, especially its 60s and 70s structuralist incarnation was also included throughout the exhibition, albeit in relatively small formats and with headphones.  When I look at the list of artists in the exhibition, I have trouble recalling the work by Michael Snow, the vasulkas, or Nam June Paik.  I did recall an enormous sheet of film by Peter Kubelka, composed of only black and white frames, hung on a wall like a painting.  It perhaps only struck me because I’ve seen the film, and its almost invasive energy and silly, accelerated sound track were notably absent :
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Peter Kubelka as a young man in front of one of his films, as displayed in “Notation”
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Although not a structuralist filmmaker, there was a new video installation by Chris Marker– I believe it was called “Abscheid vom Kino,” or “Departure from Cinema.”  In short, I didn’t like it, which is in part why it was memorable.  I cannot find an image of it, but it appears in this funny little video about his recent solo exhibition in Zürich.  The website hosting this video, www.art-tv.ch, is itself pretty interesting…
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Conceptual Art: From Its Origins to Present Practice
There was also a pronounced interest in 60s/70s era conceptualism.  Of its various disciplinary threads, I think that this emphasis on conceptual art is likely the heart of the exhibition.  There were scattered visual works by the likes of Brigit Riley, Sol LeWitt, and Mel Bochner.  Of these, I found the Mel Bochner’s “36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams” (1966) to be the most playful and provocative:
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Mel Bochner’s “36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams” (1966)
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This image comes the Wadsworth Atheneum of Art in Hartford, CT, which has a bigger and better photo, as well as a standard art blurb.  The pictures depict stacks of boxes corresponding to number patterns in the diagrams.  This image, rather large, hung on a wall, was found at the middle of the exhibition, and was located next to an early performance piece by Anthony McCall, in which a team set off controlled flames in a grid pattern at night in a field.  The available documentation consists of a scratchy, amateur film, and McCall’s elaborate diagram that appears to be a plan of its movement.  Something about its serene, ritualistic oddity, and the fact that it was introducing light as a material into conceptualism made it feel important within the exhibition.  I’ve found a strange, seemingly abandoned website that has an excellent description of these pieces
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Anthony McCall, Documentation and Plans for Fire Performances, early 1970s
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This early work by McCall was also particularly notable because one of his recent “solid light films” was displayed in its own space adjacent to the entrance to the exhibition, which was perhaps the most singular work on display.  The room was, as in the photos below, entirely darkened, as a projector emitted slowly, but consistently moving lines of white light onto a black surface.
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Anthony McCall, Doubling Back (2003)
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Despite its having increasingly become a juggernaut in academic and curatorial circles, I had never seen this work in person before, and it has a remarkably serene and absorbing effect, distinctly akin to cinematic comfort.  It did indeed have a “plot” or “dramatic” narrative– the two lines intersection one other and produce potential interactions at a slow, but absolutely steady pace.  But one’s gaze was not necessarily fixed upon this action.  Instead, the planes of animating light were almost tangible and somehow indispensable to mesmerizing calm of McCall’s event.  McCall’s stylistic breakthrough occurred in his 1973 work, “Line Describing a Cone,” which is effectively illustrated in a short video made public on the web by the Tate.  If this work’s undeniable sensual immanence might seem to set the aesthetic stakes for the legacy of conceptualism, it’s important to mention the other contemporary work by a survivor of 60s/70s conceptual practice, Allan McCollum’s “The Shapes Project.”
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“The Shapes Project” as installed at the ADK in Berlin

The above photo is of the space as installed in Berlin; “The Shapes Project” visually dominates the wall, and in the background, it’s possible to make out Peter Kulbelka’s film.  Anthony McCall’s “Landscape for Fire” is just off-screen to the right, as is Mel Bochner’s piece.  Certain aspects of McCollum’s work can be deduced from its appearance, which consists of vast rows of black, amorphous, Rorschach test-like shapes against a white background.  Each image is unique– a little background material reveals that McCollum has created 31 billion such unique images using vector imaging on a home computer– and individually enclosed in an identical black frame, designed to look like a commercially frame sold for personal photos.  The frames are a none-too-oblique reference to the invariable loss incurred in the process of representation, and likewise, McCollum’s odd irony resonates with a sense of violence that is foreign to McCall’s solid light films.  To get a sense of this, I suggest clicking on the link in the paragraph above to download his .pdf introduction to the project, which includes sample shapes.  I also stumbled upon a different installation view (seen below) on McCollum’s website, which I find much more striking.

Allan McCollum, "The Shapes Project" (2005/6), as installed at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York (2006)

Allan McCollum, "The Shapes Project" (2005/6), as installed at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York (2006)

(The Idea of) Architecture

McCollum’s interest in an endlessly variable sequence without repetition is also investigated in Greg Lynn’s Embryological House sequence.  Within the exhibition, Lynn’s project stands out because of his fame rather than the unassuming visual display of his work, ten or so palm-sized plastic models of his houses, such as this:

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Greg Lynn, An Embryological House

Architecture is not my forte, and the complexity of Lynn’s project doesn’t lend itself to Saturday morning Google sleuthing.  Furthermore, I’m not sure why the curators would choose such mundane, plastic models for Lynn’s seemingly digitally dynamic, overtly “morphing” forms.  On the wall behind this display were drawings by Friedrich Kiesler, a mid-century architect with connections and influences to surrealism and other movements of the 20s/30s European avant-garde.  Below is one of his studies for his “Endless House,” which self-evidently visually connects to Lynn’s embryo-like structures, as well as sharing a thematic interest in the spatial continuity achieved by infinite singularity of variation.

"Endless - Studie zum Innenraum des Endless House (Study for the

Friedrich Kiesler, Model for the Endless House (1959)

Post-War Drawing, Surrealism, and The Theatre of Cruelty

Kiesler’s connection to the avant-garde seems to be a deliberate point of emphasis within the exhibition’s constellation of materials, as is the contrast between forms of mechanical reproduction and drawing.  Accordingly, the exhibition featured two small works apiece by mid-century Americans Mark Tobey and Cy Twombly (I cannot remember which exactly)

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(Twombly)

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(Tobey)

However,  even if these works seemed somewhat peripheral in the exhibition, they might be seen as providing a bridge between traditional graphic practices of artistic representation and the more purely private work of writers, such as a drawing by surrealist poet Henri Michaux (although not exactly the example from 1960 below, which belongs to the MOMA):

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Henri Michaux (1960)

or this even this extremely apropos piece from 1951, entitled “Movements”:

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Henri Michaux, (1951)

Michaux’s practice, of course, was ultimately an artistic practice intended for a public, even if quietly reserved and obviously inflected by his activity as a poet.  The next step into the writer’s archive in “Notation” might be observed in the diaries, notes, and manuscripts included by writers, such as Michaux’s surrealist “colleague” (to what degree did they know each other?), Antonin Artaud.  This was not one of the most striking pieces in the exhibition, but Artaud’s essential place in the history of my discipline, Theatre Studies, made it particularly memorable (the below image and self-portrait was not in the exhibition, but conforms to its unruly mixture of scribbles and sketches):

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Antonin Artaud, excerpt from journal

Archival Aesthetics: Diaries, Notebooks, Manuscripts

These diaries were primarily grouped in the area directly following the focus on conceptualism.  Artaud’s journal was placed between two larger, wall-length archival collections of materials from Walter Benjamin and Paul Klee.  As an especially interesting gesture, the Klee materials were not drawings, but rather his teaching materials for color theory.  I’m not sure if this was intentional, but given that there is currently a blockbuster exhibition of Klee at the New National Gallery in Berlin, the turn away from Klee’s graphic is significant– consistent with the retreat of the visual as such that marked the exhibition’s initial interest in Marey’s smoke studies.  The materials from the Walter Benjamin Archive, housed at the exhibition site, Berlin’s Academy of the Arts, (there is a also a beautifully printed new book of the archive’s materials, in English and German) are extraordinary, especially for a neophyte Benjamin enthusiast such as myself, (and I likely need not mention the relevance of Benjamin’s presence as one of the foremost thinkers of the tradition and conditions of technique and reproduction.)  These materials consisted of two types.  The first were Benjamin’s notes for his late essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which resembled continuous surrealist text drawings.

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Walter Benjamin, Notes for “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Although these drawings might be dismissed as odd, albeit fascinating, exercises that demonstrate the strength of surrealism’s influence on Benjamin, I was quite unprepared for the idiosyncratic graphic index he had developed during his readings of Baudelaire in preparation for writing “The Arcades Project”:

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Walter Benjamin, Notes on Baudelaire for “The Arcades Project”

This was one of many bookmarks found in Benjamin’s personal copies of Baudelaire.  The signs on the upper third of the sheet are different colored, simple geometric shapes, (triangles, circles, plus signs), some of which have an “X” through them.  The exhibition contained five or six such examples, each of which arranged a similar three-column pattern of such symbols in a different order.  Next to these was an incomplete index, in which signs were depicted next to a series of keywords or notes that Benjamin was presumably investigating in the construction of “The Arcades Project.”  My none-too-specialist-guide seemed to indicate that the researchers at the Benjamin Archive had expressed little hope at deciphering the precise intentions of this private notation system, but nonetheless, I think Benjamin’s recourse to a graphic organizational structure– one, furthermore, that would never be seen by a reader– is itself of pivotal importance in understanding the visual relative to Marey’s smoke, or perhaps, the singularity of the event.

John Cage and The Impossible Score

In regard to such a singular, evanescent aesthetics, a personal favorite piece in the exhibition was a late (1988 or so) painting by John Cage.  It might even be a watercolor, (as is the piece below), which would be quite to the point.

John Cage, New River Rocks and Washes, 1990, 101" x 384", watercolor on Rag paper

John Cage, New River Rocks and Washes, 1990, 101" x 384", watercolor on Rag paper

John Cage, late painting, circa 1990

This isn’t exactly the correct piece– the included work lacks the black streak in the middle of the canvas, and instead has a series of footprints moving from right to left across the canvas.  Consistent with Cage’s earliest work, the footprints highlight the process of the painting’s production and entreat its spectator to reconstruct its progress as an event.  It’s a work full of details– the imprint of Cage’s sneakers, the traces of his uneven pattern of steps and distribution of weight– Cage’s inimitable humor, and the inevitable disappearance of his movements into the black mass at the left end of the canvas.

Cage might also be seen as marking the intersection of two related tendencies in the exhibtition: the introduction of referential instability into traditional graphic forms of representation and the emergence of the aesthetic in purely notational forms, especially scores.  Such expanded scores might be either musical or choreographic, and indeed, Cage is a figure engaged in both of these worlds.

It is thus no surprise that among the significant dance documentation of archival materials belonging to Mary Wigman, Gret Palucca, (both German Expressionist dancers from the 20s), and examples of Rudolph Laban’s notation system one would find a drawn score by Merce Cunningham, one of Cage’s oldest and closest collaborators.  However, the most striking choreographic contribution were three small drawings from the mid-seventies by Trisha Brown, an original member of Judson Dance Theatre.  I recently saw an evening of her recent works, which were quite disappointing, but Brown’s drawings are precise and rigorous:

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Trisha Brown, “Defense” (1980)

The piece above is only an example of the most freeform of the three drawings, the other two of which were aligned on clearly delineated horizontal and vertical axises, which I believe corresponded to temporal and spatial components.  Even beyond the evident epochal resonance of Brown’s grid-based drawing style to the minimalist/conceptual strategies so crucial to “Notation,” Brown’s scores assume a life and aesthetic value of their own apart from the event that they are intended to record, recognize, and render reproducible.

This was equally true in the collection of musical scores that dominated the final room of the exhibition, which focuses on post-war serialism (Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, etc.)

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Mauricio Kagel, “Heterophonie” (1959/61)

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Stockhausen, “Klavierstück X” (1961)

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Morton Feldman, “Intermission 6″ (1953)

A Few Concluding Considerations

(After)Life and the Event

Rather than a conventional exhibition, “Notation” is an act of creative scholarship, an investigation that poses, but does not overtly enunciate, a number of possible critical connections in the assembled body of materials.  Indeed, it would be inaccurate to say “works,” as the curators have sought to produce tension between archival materials and the work proper.  Their interest in the archive is quite to the point– the archive is precisely that reservoir of possibilities excluded from the event’s visible field.  Broadly speaking, the immanently posed critical efforts of “Notation”‘s three curators suggest the possibility of re-evaluating the visual vis-a-vis the archive.  Of course, among these stakes is life, a theme strongly suggested from the exhibition’s outset by Anthony McCall’s almost autonomous solid light films and Etienne Jules-Marey’s the relation between body, soul, and film.

Absence of the Social

However, the very potential of such an archival aesthetics is undermined by the exhibition’s aggressively formal, idealistic aesthetics, which evidenced virtually no interest in the social.  Accordingly, there was almost no connection to the lines of critique that ensued between 1970 and the present, be it gender studies or the postcolonial.  Quite to the contrary, the social experience of exclusion was as elusive as Marey’s smoke and as abstractly removed as McCall’s mesmerizing, white geometric shapes…

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