SUPERSTUDIO’s Radical Architecture

Nowhere was the postwar avant-garde more radical than in architecture.  In order to shake off the “hegemonic grip” of academic classicism—and therefore bourgeois society—architecture would have to undergo a complete definitional transformation.  Instead of buildings serving functional uses for consumers’ lives and thereby reinforcing unjust social divisions, architecture would form a “single continuous environment, the world rendered uniform by technology, culture, and all the other inevitable forms of imperialism.”  And just what does that look like?  What does it look like to start over? To traverse the radical city of the mind?

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Formed in 1966 in Florence by a group of architecture students, SUPERSTUDIO was at the heart of the avant-garde for about a decade.  With Adolfo Natalini at the helm, the young firm undertook a stunning and extensive visual experimentation at the intersection of graphic design, architecture, and technology.   Florence, the bastion of Italian humanist architecture and home to the University and its attendant bourgeois attitude, proved a poignant site to reject architecture and engage the “flip side of the Italian dolce vita.”

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SUPERSTUDIO’s signature designs played with the interface between natural and artificial environments, to wit, the iconic grid, overlaid onto New York City, Niagara Falls, the desert, etc. Superstudio wrote that ultimately the grid would allow for a truly democratic human experience: because every point on the grid is identical, no place is better than any other. [images] It was a proudly utopic vision of a world un-designed and made whole by technology.

 

The aptly named French group Utopie likewise broke down barriers of form both on the ground and on the page.  Utopie’s “Inflatable Structures” offer another nod to “undesign,” where squishy inflatables fought rigid, establishment design.  One could also read them as counter-metaphor for over-inflated academicism, just about to burst.  In Paris 1968 the members of Utopie were certainly aligned with the pulsating culture of anti-government protest.

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Because much of their work would never come to physical realization, SUPERSTUDIO’s presence in print remains an important legacy. Their visual experiments appeared in and gained renown through Casabella and Domus, Italy’s leading design magazines, and in self-published catalogs. Rethinking the architectural profession altogether, SUPERSTUDIO, among others, managed to shift the focus of their practice toward conceptual and theoretical cultural criticism.  Symbolic, poetic content not only took precedence in their work, but was SUPERcharged. This campaign of images they created initiated an entirely new and to this day, enduring, way to explore and share ideas. And the world took notice: in 1972 they were included in MoMA’s show Italy: The New Domestic Landscape while still in their twenties.

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Beinecke has recently acquired Natalini’s personal archive on SUPERSTUDIO, featuring original catalogs, periodicals, and ephemera.  Don’t miss several issues of Utopie, as well as various archival material relating to their work, too.   

Taptoe Gallery

Flier for very first show at Taptoe, December 22, 1955

Beinecke has recently acquired a near complete collection of posters, catalogues, and ephemera related to the short-lived but influential Taptoe Gallery in 1950s Brussels.  A “center for the arts,” Taptoe opened its doors in 1955 under the direction of Gentil and Clara Haesaert.  In addition to an exhibit space, Taptoe had meeting rooms, a bar/cafe, and beds, a setting ripe for the sort of heady pow-wows one could expect from wandering avant-garde artists. They featured poetry readings, jazz concerts (Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins), and conferences (one titled “Architecture is a Crime that Pays”), and anthropology lectures. As it was, Taptoe was one-of-a-kind in sleepy Brussels–a cultural “desert”–despite its proximity to such progressive centers of artistic activity, Paris and Amsterdam.  As Corneille Hanozet remembers, “It is hard to believe that in Brussels in the 50s it was extremely rare to find a simple place to get to know one another and express ourselves.” (Taptoe)

Close-up, another exhibition opening invitation

Taptoe took its name from Piet de Groof’s (a.k.a. Walter Korun) short-lived and irreverent poetry revue/comic book from just a few years prior.  He had decided on the name because of its bilingual resonance in French and Dutch–an apt quality for a Belgian enterprise–though curiously, “taptoe” is not a French word.  (Further confirmation that one must take de Groof’s retellings in Le général situationniste with a grain of salt.) In Dutch it means “tattoo,” not the kind you’re thinking of, but a military curfew–the drumbeat or bugle sounding for soldiers to repair to their garrison for bed.  More generally, it can mean the last call, the final gong, that’s enough.  De Groof was a celebrated Belgian aviator before turning to poetry, which explains his familiarity with the term.  In 1955 as his Taptoe periodical began to lose steam he signed over the moniker to Gentil and Clara Wyckaert, then editors of De Kunst-Meridiaan, for their new gallery. Thereafter he joined the ranks as contributing member.

Taptoe set out to revitalize Belgium’s avant-garde.  As a site for both national and international artistic dialogue Taptoe began to combat the sentiment that the Belgians were merely derivative of the Paris scene: Taptoe “reacted to and opposed the ‘official’ avant-garde imposed and protected by higher authorities.” (Le general situationniste) The gallery’s first two group exhibitions were runaway hits, surpassing all expectations.  With paintings by Pierre Alechinsky, Hugo Claus, Serge Vandercam, Corneille, and sculpture by Reinhoud d’Haese, one critic avowed, “We must applaud Taptoe’s efforts of the last few months to pull from the shadows some of the most audacious works of art of today. These exhibits prove that art continues on its adventure despite initial hesitations.” (Taptoe, Corneille Hanozet)  Taptoe went on to feature Asger Jorn, Walasse Ting, and Paul Snoek in solo exhibitions.  In February 1957, a now historic exhibit on Psychogeography played a role in catalyzing contact between Jorn and other future founding members of the Situationist International.

Walasse Ting

Asger Jorn painting

Post CoBrA and before SI, Taptoe came at an important moment, providing a venue for its most influential members during a crucial point in their evolution.  So what, in keeping with the name, were they signaling the end of? Like other “counter-culture” movements of the post-war period, European artists needed to shed the heavy burden of the war, and with it, the ancien regime. According to de Groof, “We had to invent something for ourselves. All of a sudden everything was lighter. Our generation is … responding much more to our own aspirations.  A new life is opening to us.” (Le general situationniste)  

Gentil Haesaert and Christan Dotremont outside Taptoe

Henri Chopin, part deux

Chopin’s library contains all kinds of quirky and fascinating volumes.  Many are collections of dactylopoèmes (examples of which mentioned in last week’s post) complete with wonderful titles, like: Passementeries (Trimmings), Riches heures de l’alphabet (The Alphabet’s Heyday), Folles folies des follies (The Foolish Folly of Follies), and Squelette du verbe et alentour (Skeleton of the Verb and Elsewhere). Other examples provide a colorful glimpse into Chopin’s wide network of friends, like Pour parler et pour cause, dedicated and written by fellow avant-gardist Gianni Bertini.  Inside the front cover lies a check from the “Banca della felicità et dell’amore” (Bank of Happiness and Love) made out to Chopin for 365 days of happiness. In one interesting passage, Bertini compares the act of writing a poem to a butcher wrapping meat–first it is cut, blood oozing, then weighed and swaddled tightly in sturdy paper. “We wrap words so that they cannot escape.”

Still other books attest to Chopin’s imaginative talents and neverending stream of multimedia projects.  Here a deeper look into The Cosmographical Lobster, a poetic novel.

The Cosmographical Lobster: slim volume and bright red sleeve

The Cosmographical Lobster opens with a nonsensical sum, alerting us to the novel’s playful relationship to conventional logic: 
22 + 8 + 7 + = 987678432 + 5 + 7 + 8 = 3 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 7 + 9 + 7 = 4789765456765536543423341
and insisting : THE ANSWER’S RIGHT.
He then goes on to introduce the novel’s key characters: ERnest (age 222222, 000000, 6666666, 888888, 4444444), the President of the World Government, and Mr. X, Governor of the Ciphered People.  For eons, the Ciphered People had lived without the WORD: “The word as such was of very little account – its function, which had previously been indispensable to the misunderstanding of human beings…” The ridiculous authors who had used it, Shakespeare, Molière, Plato, were “old museum pieces.”  Their favorite TV program, a masterpiece, was a “0” on a white background. For the Ciphered People there was no more need for philosophers, poets because all of metaphysics could be summed up with  ” + added to – = “.  “It was strictly imperative to listen to the speech of the Head of the Universe,” writes Chopin, “but of course it was strictly forbidden to comment on it or to understand it. In any case, understand means nothing.”

Lobster-esque dactylopoème inside front cover

But ERnest, the enlightened, craves to live once more among the Word. And so he quests to recreate the Universe because, as it is well-known, “In the beginning was the word.” With each of his succeeding thoughts and movements, ERnest regenerates the Cosmos, the Earth, and all living creatures. In a spaceship hurdling through time and space, the difficult voyage continues oward the rebirth of the word, attempting to reverse the damage of history: “Humanity, that had become dumb in the twentieth century, was thrilling to life once more.”  At last, the final proclamation: “THE SOUND OF THE UNIVERSE WAS HEARD.”
Throughout the novel, Chopin strings together entire paragraphs without spaces, spells words backwards, launches into rhyming tangents, makes verbs out of friends’ names (heidsiecking, gysinning) and employs scattered spacing, among many other puns and disruptions.  Naturally, the loose “narrative” is often occluded and hard to follow.  But it is a fun meditation on humankind’s simultaneous devotion to and repugnance for language.  The Word is at once fundamental to the universe and completely meaningless, a theme undoubtedly present in his sound poetry and typewriterpoems.  It seems Chopin also makes reference to the terrible power of language to influence the masses; he saw firsthand how propaganda and political rhetoric had ended in catastrophe in the 20th century. Perhaps, then, The Cosmo Lobster is a cautionary tale: we must be careful with words and appreciate the sounds proferred in the universe, lest we lose them. 
 

Henri Chopin: An Introduction

At left: Chopin at a sound poetry performance. At right: sample dactylopoème or typewriterpoem.

General Modern has recently acquired the library and archive of the late Henri Chopin, avant-garde artist and poet (1922-2008).  Following on the heels of French lettrisme, Dada, and Surrealism, Chopin is probably best remembered for his contribution to the budding discipline of “poésie sonore” or sound poetry.  Among other techniques, Chopin might swallow a microphone and record the minute vibrations of the human instrument, often layered on top of other recorded sounds, producing such works as “Throat Power,” “Digestion,” and “Interplanetary Rocket.”  He used very basic equipment and often tampered with the tape path by, for example, pasting matchsticks on the reel bed to create purposeful distortions.  (He would also perform his works, which is quite fun to watch; check it out here.)

By passing the same sheet of paper through the typewriter multiple times and at varying angles, Chopin achieves this design.

But throughout his 50+ year career, Chopin was prolific also as a painter, graphic designer, typographer, and film-maker.  He published dozens of volumes of his audio-visual magazines “OU” and “Cinquième Saison,” as well as many original books, collage works, installation pieces, and writings.  While he was careful to remain unaffiliated with any particular grouping–he called Lettrism “a dictatorship”–and cherished his artistic independence, he nevertheless collaborated and corresponded constantly with other leading figures of the European avant-garde.  A big portion of his collection are various books, letters, and art pieces dedicated to him by the likes of Raoul Hausmann, Brion Gysin, Francois Dufrene, William Burroughs and Gianni Bertini.  His connections across Europe and disciplines reveals he was a major point of contact on the international post-war art scene, and through tracking this network we can index the ever-shifting preoccupations of the avant-garde.

Underappreciated in mainstream art historical dialogue, Chopin’s work plays with and challenges conventional notions of speech, language, music, sound, and semantics.  His sound poems and dactylopoemes shed previously held verbal or symbolic value, to focus instead on purely sonorous or decorative qualities.  The latin alphabet, he insists, “is more geometric than calligraphic for our vision,” and “consists of constructivist forms.”

An ode to the dynamism of the sound recorder, here depicted as the Paris metro in a series called “Tubes.”

By manipulating modern-age technology, Chopin seeks to access the primal expanse of communication, the infinity beyond symbolic meaning.  The tape recorder makes possible the elongation and elaboration of sound shapes, makes audible the normally inaudible.  Similarly, the typewriter, in its perfect repetitious typescript, showcases the “architectural skeleton” or pure form of letters and words. In this way, Chopin simultaneously engages the mysterious archaic and the mechanical state-of-the-art.

From his “Concerto en Zhopin mineur,” a simultaneous play on the “z” sound and the “z” formation.

Perhaps this interest in the intersection of modern and primal can be traced back to Chopin’s experience of the Nazi regime, with its prehistoric violent warfare and hatred in a modern technological context. After France fell under German occupation, he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Czech Republic from which he managed to escape.  After spending time with the advancing Red Army, he was recaptured by German forces and sent west on a Nazi “Death March.”  It was then he discovered the power of “extra-verbal communication.” He also lost two brothers in the war, both, like him, renegade spirits who didn’t share Henri’s luck.  The sounds he creates, then–from vibrating nose hairs, to farts, hisses, and labial snaps–become profound expressions of human existence, made possible, perhaps, by his very own humanity having been called into question. Beyond the obvious quirk and hilarity in his work, there lies beneath a deeply poignant creative act.

Much of his library (around 500 books) is catalogued and available for study, and his amazing archive forthcoming.

Paris, Bizarre

Bizarre, nos. 1-2; new series, nos. 1-46 (Paris, 1953-1968)

Siné's Cover for Bizarre, no. 11/12 (May 1959), a special issue devoted entirely to "Jocondoclastie," or the playful misappropriation (and willful defacement) of the Mona Lisa

Founded by Eric Losfeld–who went on to publish Jean-Claude’s notorious Barbarella comics in the early 1960s–Bizarre lasted for just two issues before falling off the map in 1953. The magazine was soon revived, however,  by

Special Tarzan Issue, Bizarre, no. 11/12 (1962)

Special Tarzan Issue, Bizarre, no. 11/12 (1962)

Jean-Jacques Pauvert and Michel Laclos, who kept its torrent of iconoclastic wit, cultural criticism, and artistic daredevilry running uproariously from 1955 right up to the eve of the Paris uprisings in the spring of 1968. No stranger to controversy, Pauvert made a name for himself in the immediate postwar years publishing (at times clandestine) editions of  Sade. His new bookshop on the Rue Bonaparte was quickly put under police surveillance when it opened  in 1956, just a year after he restarted Bizarre, and the besieged bookseller/ publisher   found himself at the center of the “Affaire

Special Issue on Lettrism, Bizarre no. 32/33 (1964)

Special Issue on Lettrism, Bizarre no. 32/33 (1964)

Sade,” as the French government stepped in to ban the publication and sale of such works. Clashes with authority and public controversy also hounded other contributors to the journal, including its ‘s star illustrator, Siné. An anarchist with sharply anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, and (as many would later find) anti-semitic views, Siné felt pressured to quit his position as political cartoonist for L’Express due to his virulent opposition to the Algerian War, which provoked public outcry from many readers, and for a time in the early sixties he worked on Révolution africaine, a journal financed by the Algerian resistance organization FLN. When the uprisings came in 1968, Siné again joined with Pauvert to found the magazine L’Enragé, an important document of the rebellious spirit of the late sixties and early seventies recently acquired by Beinecke as part of the Philippe Zoummeroff Collection of May 1968 Paris Counterculture.

Channeling undercurrents of political unrest and cultural discontent, as well as a simple delight in mockery, Bizarre became an important artistic expression of the culture of protest that peaked (at

(Cosmetic?) Surgery on the Mona Lisa, Bizarre, no. 11/12 (May 1959)

(Cosmetic?) Surgery on the Mona Lisa, Bizarre, no. 11/12 (May 1959)

least initially) in the revolts of May ’68. Bizarre excelled in the scavenging techniques of détournement and bouleversement wielded by avant-garde poets, artistists, and cultural critics in the Paris of Situationism and Lettrism (one issue of the magazine is entirely devoted to a critical engagement with the latter). Siné’s cut-out design for the cover of Bizarre no. 11/12 (shown at top) cloaks the Mona Lisa (La Joconde) in the garb of a heavily

"Miss Mona Lisa 1957," shown with labels for Mona Lisa brand cheese and cigars and a pin featuring the Eiffel Tower, Bizarre, no 11/12 (May 1959)

"Miss Mona Lisa 1957," shown with labels for Mona Lisa brand cheese and cigars and a pin featuring the Eiffel Tower, Bizarre, no 11/12 (May 1959)

decorated (and heavily wounded) military officer, but inside the covers one finds a medley of playful misappropriation, commercial exploitation, disfigurement, and material destruction. There are paint-by-number Mona Lisas, Mona Lisa gag postcards, crossword puzzles, postage stamps, posters,  Mona Lisa comic strips and

Mad about MAD: "Les limitaions de Mad a l'egard de la segregation sont celles du liberalisme american dans son ensemble ... Cette hypocrisie de bonne foi qui pousse les plus honnetes a considerer que la mystique anti-negre ne constitue meme pas matiere a scandale, a l'accepter passivement sans se sentir troubles par leur propre silence, est un des elements les plus inquietants de l'ideologie americaine." Bizarre no 6 (November 1956)

Mad about MAD: "Les limitaions de Mad à l'égard de la ségrégation sont celles du libéralisme american dans son ensemble ... Cette hypocrisie de bonne foi qui pousse les plus honnêtes à considerer que la mystique anti-nègre ne constitue même pas matière à scandale, à l'accepter passivement sans se sentir troublés par leur propre silence, est un des éléments les plus inquiétants de l'idéologie américaine." Bizarre no 6 (November 1956)

measurements of her physique, “typographical” portraits of the Mona Lisa, and countless other permutations, all gathered around Jean Margat’s tongue-in-cheek theoretical treatise, “Introduction à la Jocondoclastie” (Introduction to Mona-Lisa Iconoclasm). The last dozen or so pages are devoted to “exercises” in this new art–“découpages,” “clivages,” “déformations,” “trucages photographiques,” “chirugie,” and “destructions matérielles.”

Cinema and pop culture were also popular themes. Tarzan, Boris Karloff, Bela Lagosi, Brigitte Bardot share layouts with “monsters” from circus sideshows, film noire, comic strips, and lots of American beauties pointing guns at the viewer. A jarring flux and flow strongly reminiscent of the illustrations of Internationale Situationniste that were being published in the same years. The editors of Bizarre had a penchant for revealing the dark side of American popular culture, as in this stinging critique of MAD magazine, chastized for its lily-white heros and its complete silence on the topic of racism and the civil rights movement in the United States. The rising wave of détourned political comics, which spread quickly throughout Europe in the early sixties and became a staple visual component of protest literature in the wake of 1968, certainly ripples through the 48 issues of Bizarre from first to last.