Avantgarde and Psychotechnics in the Russian 1920s

Avantgarde and Psychotechnics. On the Convergence of Science, Art and Technology in the Russian 1920s.

Margarete Vöhringer

In post-revolutionary Russia, life has become an experiment. The Russian Avantgarde took the new communist society as a quasi-artistic attempt and followed the formalist idea of "art as a method" for visualization, trying to free the automated perception of the suppressed worker by way of artistic alienation in order to produce an "enlightened Proletarian" (Viktor Shklovsky).

At the same time the Russian Revolution gave the impulse for a fundamental reconfiguration of all the disciplines that seemed important to the new regime. Thus a complex interdisciplinary state arose that allowed for the transfer of methods and practical knowledge particularly between psychology, physiology, architecture, and film. The result of this, so far the main thesis of the project, can be observed in the spread of a new scientific application—psychotechnics—which had one major vision: to build a new world for the new, revolutionized human being, and which again meant the need to produce new preconditions for visual perception. Arts and life sciences apparently  beceme entangled in one common, experimental setup.

To analyze how artistic and scientific activities interfered in the experimentalization of the senses, the project not only looked at their products, but extended the inquiry to their experimental practices and places of production (laboratories, studios, institutes). In doing so, both the objects and agents of the arts and sciences and the density of their disciplinary borders were challenged.

The first investigated location is the "Psychotechnical Laboratory" of Nikolai Ladovski, an architect and central pedagogue at the VChUTEMAS (Higher Artistic-Technical Laboratories) in Moscow. In order to study and train the visual perception of architecture via lines, angles, volume, and space, in 1926 Ladovski installed a series of instruments in a room painted completely black, a so-called "Glasometry" (eye-meter). Ladovski's experiments on human perception are compared to contemporary experimental practices and instruments and can thereby be connected to psychotechnical approaches in Harvard (Hugo Münsterberg) and Berlin (Walter Moede), and to avant garde artists like Le Corbusier, El Lissitzy, Vassily Kandinsky, and Mikhail Matyushin.
The second crucial site of interaction was Ivan Pavlov’s physiological laboratory in Leningrad where, in 1925, Vsevolod Pudovkin, the well-known realism filmmaker, started to shoot his first film "The Mechanics of the Brain." The project outlined how Pudovkin, while representing reflex conditioning, tried to practice reflexology through the medium film. Having learned from Pavlov’s laboratory routine, Pudovkin at the same time imitated the viewer’s visual activity with his camera aperture and disrupted it by repetition and aberration in the montageline. As the experimental system of the architect, the medium film was used to stimulate the nervous system of its user.

The third case dealt with Alexander Bogdanov’s Institute for Blood Transfusions, founded in Moscow in 1926. Bogdanov’s unique practice of mutual blood transfusions was also incorporated into his philosophical engagement, like in his practical ambitions to realize a cultural transformation of the new society by the help of artistic experimentation. The latter so-called Proletcult Movement, well known to every avant garde artist at the time, provided the dispositive for the equation not only of artistic and scientific activities but also of theory and practice, nature and technology, and even life and death. Producing art had become an enterprise not only of artists but also of psychologists, psychiatrists, and eventually physiologists.

After the transfer of psychotechnics into the artist’s laboratory, and of reflexology into film, the project opened up a fairly new form of psychotechnics by way of blood—one that could not find correspondents in any discipline and the epistemic status of which can only be described along the entanglements of artistic and scientific practices.


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