Andrey Smirnov :: main projects


GENERATION_Z

Interview with A.Smirnov about the Sound_in_Z exhibition (in Russian)
Review from the Wire Magazine, February, 2009 (pdf 1.2 mb)

Generation Z is an ongoing project by Andrei Smirnov and Lubov Pchelkina that is attempting to restore the censored history and culture of the Russian artistic Utopia of the 1910s and 1920s that was destroyed through its collision with the totalitarian state of the 1930s.

In Stalinist Russia, when someone influential was shot or sent to the Gulag, their physical disappearance was not enough - they were also retroactively transformed into traitors and saboteur, eliminated from the public record and wiped from group photographs as though they had never lived.

This was true also for the whole emerging culture of 1920s. By the late 1930s, the cultural and intellectual elite of the previous two decades had effectively been written out of histories, wiped out from the text books as though they had never existed, forming the surrogate, known under the name "The Soviet Culture".

In Russia the 1910-20s was a time of complex and inconsistent social and political movements that had resulted in the destruction of the Russian monarchy and, as it seemed then, offered great prospects for a new dawn of art and science. To many artists, enthusiasts, inspired with revolutionary ideas, avant-garde approaches to the arts became an integral aspect of social revolution.

It is difficult to name another period in Russian history (and perhaps beyond) in which the creative energy of so many people was developed to such a high level, leading to innumerable new inventions and artistic concepts. This intense period of activity fostered a self-organizing horizontal network of professional and social interrelations that offered a promising basis for future scientific and cultural development. It was a period that in many respects was cut off in its prime – a period of technological and ideological advancement that has made a significant contribution to international science and culture and yet which, for primarily political reasons, ostensibly failed to achieve its potential or to gain the recognition it undoubtedly deserves. Without effective local self-management, authoritarianism thrived, suppressing the horizontal social and professional creative networks that had emerged despite the oppressive context. The last phase of Stalin’s epoch brought an end to a generation of experimentation in music and audio technology. It is a story that is still relatively unknown in the West and is only now beginning to come to light in Russia itself – documents and archives surface with increasing regularity while public and academic interest in the period continues to grow.

Generation Z offers an introduction to some of the key figures of the period and their areas of research. Many of the featured documents, sound and footage has not previously been made available in the West and tantalizingly offers just a taste of the material from the period that remains to be explored.

The letter Z, is in many ways emblematic of the period. Z is for zigzag, the spark; it is the symbol of energy, of radio transmissions and communications, of electrical charges and of lightning. ‘From a spark the flame will flare up' – this popular expression of the time offers a sense of the spirit characteristic of it. Z, the spark, is a letter that represents the horizontal networks synonymous with the period, and simultaneously the counter currents of the vertical forces and pressures that stifled its development.

In 1918 the people's commissar of education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, told the composer Sergey Prokofiev: “You are revolutionary in music as we are revolutionary in life – we should work together.” While Prokofiev chose to emigrate, many artists and musicians chose to stay and were ready to move their workshops to factories and industrial plants to mark the transition from individual to communal creativity.

The dissemination of the electrical current and the proliferation of radio waves bewitched and delighted the Russian public, who responded with an almost religious fervour. These and other technological phenomena became the inspiration for widespread cultural activity. The Russian Futurist Velimir Hlebnikov asserted: “Radio has solved a problem that the Temple as such has not solved […] – the problem of joining the uniform soul of mankind to a uniform daily wave […] This problem is solved by means of lightning.” Pioneering avant-garde artist, designer, photographer and architect El Lissitzky commented: “Only creativity that fills the world with energy will unify us, just like a circuit of electric bulbs.” The new form of energy was a potent symbol of the inwardness that overcame a society in the process of creating the New Russia. The young artists of the Method group (S. Luchishkin, S. Nikritin, K. Redko, and A. Tyshler) had the aim of transforming the phenomena of radio and electricity to create dynamics of movement. Klement Redko named his proclaimed new artistic direction ‘electroorganism' in 1922.

The advent of electrical and communications technology was accompanied by large-scale engineering and building schemes, leading many to grand, utopian project ideas. The City of the Sun, a work by Russian Constructivist architect Ivan Leonidov, was a pioneering multimedia project about self-developing cities – buildings for intellectuals made of steel and glass that were connected to each other via global information communication systems. Along with this harbinger of the Internet and satellite technologies, other of Leonidov's concepts included world-wide video broadcasting and the creation of special ‘Brain' centers – control units for entire countries. Although none of Leonidov's projects were realized during his lifetime, he was in many ways ahead of his time by 80 years. In 1928 the architect Georgy Krutikov proposed the idea of ‘Flying cities,' in which he suggested using the ground for working, rest and tourism, and going to live in city-communes up in the clouds.

These new trends strongly affected Russian political and social spheres, and also played a role in the communal transformation of public consciousness. Special institutions were founded for the development and improvement of ‘the New Human,' engaged in the mastering and perfection of professional motion in sports, in working life, military activity, musical performance and so on. While some ideas were little more than science fiction at the time, many projects and proposals were more immediately viable or were actively seeking to develop the technology necessary to deliver them.

The revolutionary poet, anarchist and polymath Alexei Gastev (1882-1939) was a sort of attractor. From its inception he was the main ideologist of Proletkult - an association that subsumed more than 200 organizations in various areas of art, founded in 1917 by Alexander Bogdanov – the ‘father' of cybernetics. By 1920 Proletkult comprised around 400,000 members across Soviet Russia. Their proclaimed goal was to strive for the universal development of a ‘creativity of new proletarian culture,' to encourage and to focus the creative power of the proletariat in the fields of science and the arts.

In 1918 Gastev has established a network of trade unions according to model of the French syndicalists. Fascinated with Taylorism and Fordism, h e has been convinced that his main artistic creation was CIL – the Central Institute of Labour which was founded in 1921 and supported by Lenin. CIL was extremely unusual institution where the same space was shared by selflessly experimenting old fanatics-inventors and fascinated teenagers. Alongside with physiological laboratory there were laboratories for sensorics, psychotechnics and education. To achieve maximum results a whole bunch of “multimedia” tools and “interactive” gadgets were involved including all sorts of photo and filming techniques, cards with precise instructions, imitating apparatus (cabins of the cars, planes, various control panels) to produce training without the instructor in a very short terms.

It was Gastev who coined the term ‘Bio-mechanics,' which was widely used then in the psychology of labour as well as in the field of theatre, most evidently in the work of producer, director and actor Vsevolod Meyerhold. It was scientific research with an interdisciplinary and broad-ranging agenda. And at the foundation of this approach lay a powerful manmachine metaphor associating, in particular, with the concept of Organoprojection (1919) by Pavel Florensky - Russian Orthodox theologian, philosopher, mathematician and inventor, executed by NKVD (KGB) in late 1930s.

During the 1920s, in one of Gastev's exhibitions, entitled Art of Movement, stereo images demonstrated the physical trajectories of tools, hammers, weapons, the corporeal joints of workers, pianists and sportsmen. Most of this documentary was produced by Nikolai Bernstein (1896–1966) - the Institute's leading physiologist, who conducted a series of experiments that measured the trajectories and speeds of human limbs, while his subjects performed various labour tasks.

Although by 1938 CIL prepared over 500 000 qualified workers in 200 professions as well as 20 000 instructors of industrial training in 1700 educational centers, the toleration of state officials finished. Alas, the totalitarian State was not interested in the Utopia based on creative network of perfect, socially-engineered Cyborgs with liberated minds. It required screws for the soulless state-machine. Alexei Gastev was arrested in 1938, his institute was closed, documents were destroyed. Among thousands of other outstanding people, Gastev was executed on 15 April, 1939.

In 1922 in the port town of Baku in celebration of the fifth anniversary of the revolution composer, performance instigator and music journalist Arseny Avraamov (1886-1944), inspired by the poetry of Alexei Gastev, has staged his best-known creation - the Symphony of Sirens . This bruitist spectacular used the services of a huge cast of choirs joined by spectators, the foghorns of the entire Caspian flotilla, two batteries of artillery guns, a number of full infantry regiments including a machine-gun division, hydroplanes, and all the factory sirens of Baku. Conductor posted on specially built tower signaled various sound units with colored flags and pistol shots. S omewhat later, in 1923, working on the draft program of GIMN institute, Avraamov proposed a project named ‘Topographical Acoustics'. He suggested building powerful electro-acoustic systems that could be installed on aeroplanes, from which vast areas of land could be covered with sound.

During the 1910s and 1920s he experimented with ‘prepared' pianos, harmoniums and various noise sources as well as a symphony orchestra to develop new approaches to organizing sound that are very similar to recent techniques of electroacoustic and spectral music. As early as 1916, in the article ‘Upcoming Science of Music and the New Era in the History of Music', Avraamov predicted and explained different approaches to synthesize sound, including some of today's latest techniques of physical modeling. It was Avraamov who completed the first artificial Graphical soundtrack in 1930 based on geometric profiles and ornaments – produced purely through drawing methods. This was achieved by means of shooting still images of drawn sound waves on an animation stand.

Predicting the future of music technology Avraamov emphasized the importance of developing ‘Radio-Musical Instruments'. In 1927 Avraamov noted in one of his articles: ‘The theremin invention is the first real mine under the foundations of the old musical world and simultaneously one of the cornerstones of basis of the future!'

Perhaps one of the most charismatic figures on a crossroad of art technology and espionage was Leon Theremin (1896-1993), well known as an inventor of the first electronic musical instrument the Theremin (aka Thereminvox) (1919). After its invention Leon Theremin proclaimed the new technologically based trend in the arts. As a physicist, musician and engineer he worked on the development of innumerable projects and ideas trying to combine music and color, music and gesture, music and smelts, music and tactile senses. It is hardly possible to imagine now any synthesizers, burglar alarms or automatic door without him. His groundbreaking musical invention led to the application of the technology for a variety of civilian, military, surveillance and espionage purposes, adding to his status as a cult figure in electronic music in the West.

Theremin's life story is a fascinating and well-documented one, n ot least for his secret work for NKVD (the KGB). In June 1926, Theremin has finished his diploma project The System of Dalnovidenie - the first Soviet TV system. Shortly after that Theremin's chief professor Ioffe has patented the Thereminvox and managed an international trip for Theremin. At that time and later no international activities could be undertaken without direct supervision from Soviet intelligence services. Theremin was not an exception. According to his own memories, he had good financial support from the “Soviet Military Ministry” as he called it later.

Most of his inventions he did in US between 1928 and 1938. In his New York studio he has developed numerous musical instruments and scientific gadgets. Among them commercial RCA Theremins , the Rhythmicon - first rhythm machine ever made, the Terpsitone – a musical platform for dancers to control sound through the motion of their bodies.

August 31, 1938 he was illegally taken on board Starry Bolshevik ship on which he has transported over 1000 kilo­grams of electronic equipment to Russia. His intension was to develop an electronic music studio in Soviet Russia. It is not surprising that all equipment was confiscated by Soviet customs. Shortly after arrival in March 1939 Leon Theremin was arrested and condemned for 8 years of GULAG camps. Fortunately after one year in Kolima (the worst place in Siberia) he was moved to Moscow “Sharaga” – special prison for scientists. After release in 1947 he remained to work for KGB until his retirement in 1962 when he moved to Acoustical Laboratory at Moscow State Conservatory (former NIMI), where he tried to revive most of his American inventions and research. On April 1967 an article about him was published by the New York Times, which caused a fast and only possible in the USSR reaction: Leon Theremin was removed from his position and kicked out of the Moscow State Conservatory. The rest of his life Leon Theremin has spent working at Moscow State University in a position of technician at the Physics Department.

While the career of Theremin – physicist began at the Institute for Physics and Technology in Petrograd, his musical career has begun in Moscow, at GIMN institute. GIMN (the Russian abbreviation of the State Institute for Musical Science ) was founded in Moscow in 1921 in an attempt to centralize all activities related to musical science including disciplines such as acoustics, musicology, psychology, physiology, construction of new musical instruments and ethnomusicology. Nikolai Garbuzov was elected Director. From the beginning GIMN was oriented towards academic research. Among GIMN associates were many scholars and inventors from the realm of music and beyond, including Peter Zimin, Leonid Sabaneev, Leon Theremin, Nikolai Bernstein, Paul Leiberg, Boris Krasin and Emiliy Rosenov. Numerous research projects were conducted, articles published and experimental devices built. In 1923 GIMN supported the performance of the Symphony of Sirens in Moscow and even applied for an additional nighttime show, which was never realized. In autumn 1923 Arseny Avraamov was involved in the reorganization of GIMN. He considered this institution his own creation since most of its research activities were based on ideas he had developed and published in numerous articles between 1911 and 1916. It came to represent a struggle between revolutionary artistic approaches and the increasingly conservative mentality. In 1931 GIMN moved to the Moscow Conservatory where it was renamed NIMI and then again, in the late 1930s, as the Acoustical Laboratory.

In Russia in the 1920s and 30s, to get support or simply permission to develop a project one had to apply to the local authority which in turn, to avoid responsibility, would apply to the next bureaucratic level and so on. As the higher echelons used to be almost unreachable, proposals would normally get stuck within the bureaucratic mill, circulating between different levels and offices. In the realm of music and its technology GIMN/NIMI was the highest-level organization in Moscow. Projects from all over Soviet Russia seeking a patent or financial support needed a positive review from the appropriate GIMN/NIMI experts. In GIMN/NIMI archives one can find the set of surprising stories making up the section of the given exposition under the title the State and bureaucracy which is illustrating the process of interaction between the authoritarian State and creative community.

The late 1920s was also the period in which sound was being developed to accompany films and animations in Russia. In 1929 one of the leading experimental Soviet filmmakers, the painter, book illustrator and animator Mikhail Tsekhanovsky (1889-1965) was involved in the production of the first Soviet sound movie Piatiletka. The Plan of the Great Works . When in October of that year the first roll of film was developed, it was Tsekhanovsky who voiced the idea: “What if we take some Egyptian or ancient Greek ornaments as a sound track? Perhaps we will hear some unknown archaic music?” He was referring to the shapes and outlines of vases and how these could be used as if wave forms to generate sound. It was at this precise moment that technology of synthesizing sound from light, called the Graphical Sound techniques were invented and, possibly the first electronic soundtracks ever created. The group with whom he was working included the talented inventor and engineer Evgeny Sholpo (1891-1951) who was already working on new techniques of so-called ‘performer-less' music, but the most outstanding participant in the project was the aforementioned composer Arseny Avraamov. The next day they were already furiously at work on experiments in what they referred to variously as ‘ornamental,' ‘drawn ,' ‘paper,' ‘graphical,' ‘artificial' or ‘synthetic' sound. It was Avraamov who completed the first artificial sound tracks in 1930 and b y 1 936 there were four main trends of Graphical Sound in Soviet Russia: hand-drawn Ornamental Sound (Avraamov, early Boris Yankovsky (1905-1973)); hand-made Paper Sound (Nikolai Voinov (1900-1958)); Variophone or automated Paper Sound (Evgeny Sholpo, Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov); and the spectral analysis, decomposition and re-synthesis technique (Boris Yankovsky). Yankovsky's idea was related to the separation of the spectral content of sound and its formants, resembling the popular recent computer music techniques of cross synthesis and the phase vocoder. It was certainly one of the most radical, paradigm-shifting propositions of the mid 1930s. Researchers involved in Graphical Sound had to overcome enormous technical and theoretical (as well as more mundane) difficulties during its short existence. The results of their work were surprising and unexpected, and ahead of the group's time by decades. However, collision with the state was fatal. In less than ten years, all of their work had ended and was almost instantly forgotten.

This was true not just for the group working on artificial soundtracks but also for many other areas of experimentation and advancement in science and culture during the 1930s. While post-revolution, the relationship between state and pioneers had been a complicated one, the consolidation of Stalin's dictatorship as of the mid 1920s had resulted in a political sea change that gradually increased vertical pressure on the horizontal networks of society and culture, triggering a period of control, antagonism and repression among the most outstanding, skilled and innovative representatives of Russian society. Some people chose to emigrate but many lost their lives in Stalin's torture chambers. Most survived through assimilation, deleting from their CVs any connections or affiliations to avant-garde or radical activity. At the same time, many of their names and achievements were being written out of much of the ‘official' history. By the late 1930s, the cultural and intellectual elite of the previous two decades had effectively been wiped out or rendered powerless.

Fortunately by a miracle many documents considered lost have survived. In 2007 over one hour of graphical soundtracks produced with the Variophone were discovered in the State film archive in Krasnogorsk. The exhibition revolves around the archives of Andrey Smirnov and the Theremin Center of the Moscow State Conservatory, the Russian State Documentary Film & Photo Archive , the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture.

The first time the exhibition under the title „Sound in Z“ was held in Paris at the Museum of Modern Art Palais De Tokyo in the framework of the exhibition of the British winner of the Turner Prize - Jeremy Deller, under the title «From One Revolution To Another» during the period 25.09.08 - 22.01.09. The exhibition was produced by Andrey Smirnov with the participation of curators Matthew Price and Christina Steinbrecher, with support by Nikolai Izvolov, Lev Bolotsky, Marina Sholpo. By wonderful occasion the program of Graphical Sound was firstly presented at Palais de Tokyo which building has been constructed in 1937 especially for the French exposition at the Paris 1937 World's Fair.

 

Andrei Smirnov and Lubov Pchelkina, Moscow, August 2009