Art

The Visionary Modernist Experiments of Nicolas Schöffer

An exhibition at the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art tells the story of early experiments that led to the first cybernetic sculpture in art history

Nicolas Schöffer, “Effet prismatique” (photo by N. Dewitte / LaM. © Adagp, Paris – Éléonore de Lavandeyra- Schöffer, 2018)

VILLENEUVE-D’ASCQ, France — Even within this era of energetic algorithms, Nicolas Schöffer’s once-astonishing computer-driven cybernetic art is still a veritable tour de force of techno-theatrical shapeshifting. Moreover, given our recent surveillance-capitalist milieu and the concurrent pressing considerations of the risks and benefits of artificial intelligence robotics, it is timely and pertinent that Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art (LaM) and guest curator Arnauld Pierre are presenting a retrospective of Schöffer’s perplexing Kinetic-Op sculptures, some of which interact with humans and the environment. The faux-futuristic, theatrically-upbeat work of Schöffer — which some might critique as kitschy screen-saver eye-candy — finds conceptual counter-relevance in our time when new cybernetic dystopias are emerging within our viral and bot infected information society. At question is the presumed emancipatory power of Schöffer’s tired utopian idea of an ever-fluid machine art.

The exhibition, called a retroprospective, lucidly demonstrates Schöffer’s four major period styles. First, his paintings, then his spatiodynamic constructions from 1948-on that attempt a post-painting synthesis of spatial and dynamic elements. Then, in 1957, Schöffer’s investigation into space dynamism evolved towards eye-bugging light effects he called luminodynamism with its corresponding Lux sculpture series that usually had movable reflectors and filters that reflected light projections. The visitor here is greeted by one of these rotating sculptures, “Lux 10” (1959), ablaze with a swirling accompanying light show. In his chronodynamic works of 1959 on, word and tone, movement and space, light and color, form a theoretical citywide gesamtkunstwerky total-art continuum in real time. There the work took on the scale of city towers, city plans, and ambitious interior decorating schemes, best realized in 1966 at Le Voom-Voom discothèque at Saint Tropez.

After overcoming the mid-century period-piece retro look of the exhibition that recalled the dopey visual muzak of psychedelic light shows and the uncomfortable space-age haute couture of Paco Rabanne, I nonetheless found it stylistically relevant enough to engage my mind with ideas around our increasingly intelligent, competent, malicious and aesthetically-capable software-driven reality. Schöffer’s cold but flashy work is definitely in the tradition of hard-nosed art-technicians that share in László Moholy-Nagy’s (and Oskar Schlemmer’s) Gropiusesque Bauhaus machine aesthetic. Like they, Schöffer practised an enfant terrible technophilia that took a transdisiplinary approach to both art and technology. After receiving his initial artistic training at the School of Fine Arts in Budapest, Schöffer moved to Paris in 1936, and in the late-1940s embraced the innovative research of cybernetics. This cyber embrace forms the starting point for any reflections on the goals, means, and failures of his work, particularly in terms of current cyber cultural considerations.

Nicolas Schöffer, “Le Prophète” (The Prophet, 1932) tempera sur papier (courtesy Janos Haas – Haas Gallery, Budapest. Photo by Haas Gallery, Budapest. © Adagp, Paris – Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, 2018)
Nicolas Schöffer, “Sans titre” (Untitled, circa 1947-1948) oil on canvas, 67 x 56 cm (Collection Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, photo by: N. Dewitte / LaM. © Adagp, Paris – Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, 2018)

After a brief period of painting in a rather dreadful Symbolist-Surrealist style, best exemplified by the dystopian “Le Prophète” (The Prophet, 1932) and “Sans titre” (Untitled, circa 1947-1948), his flat work tips into a personal form of Constructivism, as seen in “Spatioplastique 7” (1950). Schöffer begins to seriously investigate his spatiodynamisme idea with semi-mobile pieces like the cute kinetic sculpture “Spatiodynamique 2 ou Horloge spatiodynamique aux mouvements contrastés” (Spatiodynamics 2 or Spatially Controlled Clock with Contrasting Movements, 1949-1950). Soon after, he kicks-off his seminal 3D grid Mondrianesque kinetic sculpture series that includes the seminal “Cysp 1” (1956), which appeared in Jasia Reichardt’s famous 1968 exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity. “Cysp 1” is considered the first cybernetic sculpture in art history in that it made use of electronic computations developed by the Philips Company. The sculpture’s title is composed of the first letters of cybernetics and spatiodynamic and was the first spatiodynamic sculpture to have some autonomy of movement. Photo-electric cells and a microphone built into the sculpture sample the variations of color and light and sound intensity and make it interactive. In this exhibition, it was programmed to move around a restricted space in response to hand claps, just like the interactivity of The Clapper in 1984. As art it is not all that august, but you might consider it as a good stage prop used to produce special effects for the theater or TV. Which Schöffer did. His kinetic environmental sculpture “Le Prisme” (The Prism, 1965) created the stage set for the 1968 cyber-kitschy music clip Contact, that has a frigid Brigitte Bardot in metallic dress (by Rabanne) robotically chanting a teensy song by Serge Gainsbourg. “Cysp 1” was first featured at the Nuit de la poésie (Night of Poetry) at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt and Schöffer later expanded the “Cysp 1” idea into a film.

Nicolas Schöffer, “Spatiodynamique 2 ou Horloge spatiodynamique aux mouvements contrastés” (Spatiodynamics 2 or Spatially Controlled Clock with Contrasting Movements, 1949-1950) aluminum and plexiglas polychrome, système électrique, socle en béton, 198 x 103 x 48 cm (Collection Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, photo by N. Dewitte / LaM. © Adagp, Paris – Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, 2018)
Nicolas Schöffer, “Cysp 1” (1956), 250 x 180 x 170 cm (Collection Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, photo by DR. © Adagp, Paris – Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, 2018)

In 1957, he presented his first luminodynamic light shows, called Spectacle Spatiodynamique Expérimental, at the Théâtre d’Évreux in Évreux, Normandy and at Grand Central Station in New York. There is an entire gallery devoted to these pleasingly mysterious works that seem strongly influenced by Asian shadow puppetry, shown alongside a masterful four-minute Jacques Brissot film produced by the musique concrète master Pierre Schaeffer. The film, Fer chaud (Hot Iron, 1960) features music by Yannis Xenakis. Schöffer would later tip-toe into Schaeffer’s and Xenakis’s world of experimental electronic music. Indeed his Béla Bartók-inspired LP, Hommage À Bartók (1979) is still worth a listen. Schöffer also collaborated successfully in 1963 with another musique concrète master on Pierre Henry’s metallic Spatiodynamisme recording, and in 1954 Schöffer, together with Henry and engineer Jacques Bureau, created the sound work Tour Spatiodynamique Cybernétique et Sonore for the Exposition Internationale des travaux Publics au Parc at Saint-Cloud. This project, though initially recorded in Schaeffer’s studio, came about with Schöffer’s push to create architectural units and even urbanist plans, such as the “Tour Lumière Cybernétique de Paris-La Défense en situation, illuminée” (Tour Lumière Cybernétique de Paris-La Défense in situ and illuminated, circa 1970), a structure over a thousand feet high which was to monitor and report on various conditions in the Paris environment.

Nicolas Schöffer, “Tour Lumière Cybernétique de Paris-La Défense en situation, illuminée” (Tour Lumière Cybernétique de Paris-La Défense in situ and illuminated, vers 1970), (Collection Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer. photo by N. Dewitte / LaM. © Adagp, Paris – Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, 2018)

Late-1960s to mid-1970s was a weird and wild period when western culture swung between silver space-race technophilia and hippy acid technophobia. The show closes with Schöffer very much swinging between the nerdy technology-means-progress and groovy love-in poles. The show features this dynamic with the immersive scale of his ornate “Le Prisme” project, designed so that translucent screened walls of enormous spaces could be theoretically filled with moving chromatic effects in non-repetitive rhythmic combinations. Such strenuously flabbergasting and preposterous pop displays bolster the general undertone of the modish ‘visionary’ nature of Schöffer’s work, associating his flashing and spinning techno-decorative oeuvre with magical management and paranormal paradises.

Nicolas Schöffer, “Maquette du Centre de réflexion prismatique (Cathédrale oecuménique de la lumière) (détail)” (1975) (Collection Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, photo by N. Dewitte / LaM. © Adagp, Paris – Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, 2018)

But when you cut through the pioneer cybernetic presumptions and tired notions of artists and dancers as robots, Nicolas Schöffer Retroprospective, in actuality, is a pleasant encounter with mesmerizing light shows. Everywhere refracted psychedelic colored lights bounce off revolving moving polished metal forms, casting slightly morphing lights and shadows: overwhelming and immersing the viewers’ eyes in shifting color. In that respect, Schöffer succeeded, like Moholy-Nagy et al, with opening up the static three-dimensional sculptural form to a fourth dimension of time and motion.

In terms of formulating a creative epistemology, Schöffer’s interactive-oriented formalist output can be considered in terms of a combination of the vibrant dynamics found in Yves Klein’s fête of the virtual void and the mechanical dynamism originally initiated by the Cubo-Futurists’ idea of automation and robotics, ala Fernand Léger. This urge towards the virtual-run-robot (functional software/hardware interaction) was intensified and solidified by the general impact of Constructivism in sectors of the Paris art world, as art historian Frank Popper has abundantly documented. Key here are artist-tech types such as Naum Gabo, Anton Pevsner, Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, and the techno-visionary Moholy-Nagy. Indeed Moholy-Nagy’s 1947 book Vision in Motion — and of course his “Light Space Modulator” (1923-30) — clearly prepare and contextualize Schöffer’s oeuvre, as well as that of Takis’s and Pol Bury’s artistic dialogue between machine, light, shadow and motion.

As we know, AI algorithmic systems are continuously harvesting our data, and many cyber-friendly artists (myself included) are choosing to express an art-of-noise rejoinder that privileges the glitch over this reality of simulation and its presumptions of progressive perfection. But in terms of the consequences of cultural computation, we all pretty much perceive the art world through cybernetic computational filters; filters that organize our aesthetic-worth choices around the feedback endorsements (or lack thereof) of other conforming computational mediations.

Schöffer’s glitzy cabaret is particularly beneficial in scrutinizing all art that uses feedback (aka interactivity). For him, Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theories suggested an artistic process that used the circular causality of feedback-loops to enabled complex artistic relationships to emerge from within the work itself. But today, similar functions push the AI patch programs, scripting, databases, sensors, and digital platforms that are imposing negative social shifts that include full-on panoptical surveillance. So given this utilitarian colonization of computer culture, it should be remembered that Schöffer’s elaborated cyber-loops also came out of his involvement with Surreal-Symbolist painting. Indeed, fuzzy Surrealism’s emphasis on chance and perceived ever-changing spontaneity probably helped form Schöffer’s final mind melting monuments. I can see how his pipe dream propositions that build on Voom-Voom room proportions extend the thrust of André Masson’s automatic drawings that were based in visceral psychic automatism into unconscious go-go pop technological repetitive gestures.

Jean-Jacques Morer, “Danseurs avec projections dans Kyldex I” (1973) (photo © Jean-Jacques Morer, 2018. © Adagp, Paris – Éléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, 2018)

I guess meglomania might be alleged against his 1969 book La ville cybernétique (The Cybernetic City) — containing his plan for an interactive gesamtkunstwerk total-artwork based on smart towers awash in light and motion – but besides the Voom-Voom room, the closest he got to that was the fifty six meters high “Tour Spatiodynamique et Cybernétique” (Spatio-dynamic and Cybernetic Tower, 1961) which was constructed in Liege with sixty-six revolving mirrors. Schöffer’s ever-sensing connected cybernetic city concept is all-at-once kitschy, way-too-real terrifying, and presciently breathtaking.

In all of its decorative splendor and technical variety, Nicolas Schöffer’s entertaining retrospective reminds us that he is a key player in the middle of the art-tech intellectual narration that once defined artistic achievement in Western liberal cultural progressive terms. So we are left with the question: should Schöffer’s dazzling and flighty work be judged shallow and naïve by our technological dystopic reality, or should we assess our reality as wanting in light of his presumed utopian emancipatory intentions.

Nicolas Schöffer Retroprospective continues at the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art (LaM), 1, allée du Musée, Villeneuve d’Ascq, France until May 20. The author’s train travel expenses to Lille and back were provided by the cultural communication agency Claudine Colin Communication.

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