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From: "Aspects of the Aesthetics of Telecommunications"

by Eduardo Kac

Originally published in Siggraph Visual Proceedings, John Grimes and Gray Lorig, Editors (New York: ACM, 1992), pp. 47-57.

Republished in English and German in Zero -- The Art of Being Everywhere, Robert Adrian X and Gerfried Stocker, Editors (Graz, Austria: Steirische Kulturinitiative, 1993), pp. 24-32, 40-48, 62-69, 75-92.

Also republished in English and Hungarian in the art magazine Árnyékkötôk, N. 15, Vol. 6, Budapest, Hungary; and in Portuguese in the book Comunicação na Era Pósmoderna, Monica Rector and Eduardo Neiva (editors), Editora Vozes, Rio de Janeiro, 1998, pp. 175-199.

Traduit en français par Marie-Hélène Dumas pour le livre Connexions : art, réseaux, media, A. Bureaud & N. Magnan (dir.), Paris, Ensb-a, 2002.

This paper discusses the history and theory of pre-Internet telecommunications art, from early avant-garde radio and Moholy-Nagy's Telephone Pictures to recent international collaborative works.




The telephone, the automobile, the airplane and, of course, radio, were for the avant-garde artists of the first decades of this century a symbol of modern life, in which technology could extend human perception and capabilities. The dadaists, however, deviated from the general enthusiasm for scientific rationalism and criticized technology's destructive power. In 1920, in the "Dada-Almanac", edited in Berlin by Richard Huelsenbeck, they published the irreverent proposal that a painter could now order pictures by telephone and have them made by a cabinet-maker. This idea appeared in the "Almanac" as a pun and a provocation. Constructivist Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was living in Berlin at the time, but it is uncertain whether he read it or heard about it. What is certain is that the soon-to-be member of the Bauhaus believed that intellectual motivations were as valid as emotional ones in creating art and decided to prove it to himself. Years later, the artist wrote,


In 1922 I ordered by telephone from a sign factory five paintings in porcelain enamel. I had the factory's color chart before me and I sketched my paintings on graph paper. At the other end of the telephone the factory supervisor had the same kind of paper, divided into squares. He took down the dictated shapes in the correct position. (It was like playing chess by correspondence.) One of the pictures was delivered in three different sizes, so that I could study the subtle differences in the color relations caused by the enlargement and reduction.[19]


With the three telephone pictures described above, the artist was taking his Constructivist ideas several steps further. First, he had to determine precisely the position of forms in the picture plane with the minute squares in the graph paper as the grid through which the pictorial elements structured themselves. This process of pixellation in a sense anticipated the methods of computer art.

In order to explain the composition over the phone, Moholy had to convert the art work from a physical entity to a description of the object, establishing a relationship of semiotic equivalence. This procedure antedates concerns set forth by conceptual art in the 1960's. Next, Moholy transmitted the pictorial data making the process of transmission a significant part of the overall experience. The transmission dramatized the idea that the modern artist can be subjectively distant, he or she can be personally removed from the work. It expanded the notion that the art object doesn't have to be the direct result of the hand or the craft of the artist. Moholy's decision to call a sign factory, capable of providing industrial finishing and scientific precision, instead of, say, an amateur painter, attests to his motifs. Furthermore, the multiplication of the final object in three variations destroyed the notion of the "original" work, pointing towards the new artforms that emerge in the age of mechanical reproduction. Unlike Monet's sequential paintings, the three similar telephone pictures are not a series. They are copies without an original. Another interesting aspect of the work is that scale, a fundamental aspect of any art piece, becomes relative and secondary. The work becomes volatized, being able to be embodied in different sizes. Needless to say, relative scale is a characteristic of computer art, where the work exists in the virtual space of the screen and can be embodied in a small print and in a mural of gigantic proportions.


Despite all the interesting ideas it announces, the case of the telephone pictures is controversial. Moholy's first wife, Lucia, with whom he was living at the time, states that in fact he ordered them in person. In her account of theexperience, she recalls that he was so enthusiastic when the enamel paintings were delivered that he exclaimed: "I might even have done it over the phone!" [20]. The third personal record of the event, and as far as I know there are only three, comes from Sybil Moholy-Nagy, the artist's second wife:


He had to prove to himself the supra-individualism of the Constructivist concept, the existence of objective visual values, independent of the artist's inspiration and his specific peinture. He dictated his paintings to the foreman of a sign factory, using a color chart and an order blank of graph paper to specify the location of form elements and their exact hue. The transmitted sketch was executed in three different sizes to demonstrate through modifications of density and space relations the importance of structure and its varying emotional impact. [21]


We are left with the question, usually set aside by commentators, of whether Moholy actually employed the telephone or not. Although apparently irrelevant, since the three works were actually painted by an employee of a sign factory according to the artist's specifications and were named "Telephone Pictures" by Moholy-Nagy himself, this question cannot be totally disregarded or answered.

Lucia seems to remember the event clearly, but the artist's account, in the absence of proofs that state otherwise, would have to be preponderant. One tends to assume they could have been ordered over the phone because Moholy was an enthusiast of new technologies in general and of telecommunications in particular. In the book "Painting, Photography, Film" [22], originally published in 1925, he reproduced two "wireless telegraphed photographs" and a sequence of two images he described as examples of "telegraphed cinema" -- all by Prof. A. Korn. In the same book, Moholy seems to conclude this chapter by launching an early call for new art forms to emerge out of the age of telecommunications:


Men still kill one another, they have not yet understood how they live, why they live; politicians fail to observe that the earth is an entity, yet television has been invented: the 'Far Seer' -- tomorrow we shall be able to look into the heart of our fellow-man, be everywhere and yet be alone. (...) With the development of photo-telegraphy, which enables reproductions and accurate illustrations to be made instantaneously, even philosophical works will presumably use the same means -- though on a higher plane -- as the present day American magazines. [23]

19 - Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist (New York: Wittenborn, 1947), p. 79.

21 - Sybil Moholy-Nagy, Moholy-Nagy; Experiment in Totality (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1969), p XV.

22 - Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1987).

23 - Moholy-Nagy [Painting, Photography, Film], pp. 38-39.


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