Observation in Soviet State Design

Observer and Observed in Soviet State Design Institutes 1960s–90s

Margareta Tillberg

This project studied the influences and importance of artists' observational techniques on other sciences in one of the major research institutes in the Soviet Union: VNIITE—All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Industrial Design (Vsesoiuznyi nauchno-issledovatel’skii institut tekhnicheskoi estetiki), founded in Moscow in 1962 under the auspices of the State Committee of Science and Engineering of the Council of Ministers of the USSR (Gosudarsstvennyi Komitet po nauke i tekhniki Soveta Ministrov SSSR). One of the ideas behind this new research institute was to “invent” new design methods within the planning economy by maximally exploring the relation technology, science, and art. The need to “catch up with the West” was considered urgent.

Five years later, 15 branches of VNIITE had been founded all over USSR with additionally about 200 “artists-construction” (i.e., design) groups with "laboratories." Within only a few years about 10,000 people had become involved in the institute. In 1991, when state subsidies drastically decreased, VNIITE was the biggest institute for design research in the world.

One important field of research at VNIITE was cybernetics. Artists, engineers, architects, mathematicians, physiologists, and economists participated in the multidisciplinary research groups, as well as theorists from these and adjacent fields.

The space and the atomic programs were results of extreme priorities in limited areas of technology. VNIITE was a part of such a priority. At the same time, the institute was to answer to new demands from consumers' industry, an area that had lagged behind since 1917. Standardized products for consumption were in great need, as were the innovative methods to produce them.

“We will reach Communism within ten years,” was the official conviction. However, ideal and material culture were far apart. By 1962, 30 years of severe damaging of the scientific world and other creative fields had reached devastating levels. Stalin's censorship had limited scientific theories to Dialectical Materialism and for visual culture the only allowed method was Socialist Realism.

There are many similarities between the 1920s and the 1960s. The war devastation, the will to transform society into a "new world" were the same. But after three decades of relative isolation the problems in the 1960s were different. Especially the scientific community faced a difficult situation. In contrast to the well-educated intellectual class of the 1920s, not seldom with degrees from the best universities in Europe, the intellectual of the 1960s had to find alternative sources of information. What about increased influences from the West as effects of the relative openness after the de-Stalinization?

In the 1920s the goals were to create a new kind of human species for a new society under the slogan NOT—Scientific Organization of Labour. The visual artists were seen as creative agents that would add to the scientific structures. Avant-garde artists—academically trained or not—were consulted as innovators to visualize a new, never-seen-before society. In the 1920s a number of research institutes existed as zones for free thinking were cross-disciplinary research was carried out. Was the artist and engineer of the 1960s inspired by the avant-gardists of the 1920s? To what extent did the artists influence scientific theories of observation and perception at VNIITE?

What were the objects of research and how were they defined at VNIITE? What kind of knowledge was produced? Preferential? In what areas was this new know-how applied (virtual reality, space program, surveillance, propaganda, control of thoughts)? How was the observer and the observed defined? To how big extent did scientists and engineers use ideas from artists as cognitive valid? Where in the creative process were artists consulted? How were thought processes visualized? What techniques of the observer were used? What was the role and status of the individual observer? What was the cognitive value of human perception in these vast systems of communication and informatics? To what extent was the human factor considered? What was the relation between the individual observer and collective processes of observation? What was preferred: to learn from others or to make own experiments? What technology was used? In the 1920s optical instruments had been imported to Russia from the West. What was the relationship after WWII with the optical industry in GDR (for example Zeiss in Jena)? What role did the totalitarian system play?

  • [Leave out the word art - what then? The Russian avant-garde sees society as an entire design and man as an experiment] "Tag bort ordet konst -- vad händer då? Dagens Nyheter Kultur Essay, June 18, 2004 p. 6.