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This is Tomorrow: A Case of Psychoneural Isomorphism


Notes: Article presented during the first Neuro-Aesthetics conference organized at Goldsmiths University, London UK, May 2005. Curating the Neuro-Sensorial - Cognitive Section

So the precedent of the show that Richard Hamilton did in 1951 for which a catalog was published called Aspects of Form, which aspired from essays by Herbert Reed and Ernst Hans Gombrich, Rudolph Arnheim and Konrad Lorenz also had essays mostly by scientists, mathematicians, brain researchers, and also people who were interested in sound and waves and stuff like that. So what I will be talking about is the attitude of a group of artists in the 1950s towards science and the way that they positioned themselves using the role of the scientist and their methodology.

So, since Warren said it was, it is something of a mixed audience, I will give a little introduction to the Independent Group and then give a show of the which you see the plan up there. The piece, [referencing slide] I mean since you’re looking at it anyway, the only thing I am going to talk about is up there on the left. Number 2 is the exhibit I am going to talk about. Ok. The Independent Group was never, except in retrospective accounts, a self-declared group. Apart from a shared interest in advertising and popular culture, car design and science fiction, and the belief that these constituted influences that modern art and architecture had to come to terms with, the Independent Group had no curricular program, no stylistic or formal similarities. A crowd of young artists, architects, and critics, who between 1952 and 1955 off and on gathered at the ICA in London to discuss sculpture, they went their separate ways, with little direct impact on their respective practices, and only found themselves assembled, queried, and celebrated in the early 1960s when Pop Art’s success retrospectively seemed to justify their endeavor. It was in part the style of their discussions of this material, the seriousness, as Lawrence Alloway put it, with which they would consider the material and its consequences on modern art and architecture practice, that conferred onto this group of uncertain and shifting membership, their mythic status. There is no work as such, there are only several exhibitions of largely found imagery put together by individuals or sub groups of Independent Group, of which today exists a few installation shots, checklists, small brochures or catalogs, and sometimes written proposals. The contemporaneous work of some of the artists and architects, like Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, the Smithsons, or Nigel Henderson, or the critics Lawrence Alloway, and Reyner Banham, has for the most part no direct connection to the activities of the group during the period of their meetings. Hence, there is no Independent Group position, in fact the atmosphere of their discussions was often quite confrontational, establishing cliques and festering personal animosities, a climate that is vividly documented by the many interviews by the IG, I will call it IG. Since the early 1960s, in Documentaries, books, and dissertations, these interviews draw a tendentious, backstabbing, and quite gossipy, but altogether reliable picture of the group at this moment.

The exhibition “This Is Tomorrow” was the swan song of the IG’s short association, and taken as their most coherent statement, serves as an enactment of the disparate views of the group, although it was the only show in which all members of the group participated. The exhibition consists of 12 individual displays conceived and executed by 12 groups, of which only 6 had Independent Group connections, the rest were part of a sort of split of the constructivist French group, but most were English art critics and artists. And the idea was that for each group, there was one critic, one architect, and one artist who would collaborate on one display.  Occurring both as temporal and symbolic markers between the period of the IG’s original activities of the 1950s and the period of their later commentaries, “This Is Tomorrow” coincides with the social crisis of 1956 in Hungary and Suez and the cultural crisis sparked by the Angry Young Men, which signaled the change in attitude as the ideology of a stable and affluent postwar Britain, carefully constructed in the early 1950s, began to disintegrate.

1956 then, and this was open in August 1956, was not only the year of the IG’s last exhibition, but it constituted a turning point in 1950s Britain, a moment of cultural and social crisis that initiated more overtly critical and retrospectively politicized assessments of the postwar period. References to Britain’s postwar situation, that is to the deprivation of consumer goods, the rationing that was continued into the early 1950s, and the, in retrospect, almost mythical drabness of London, offered so clearly as the justification for the enthusiasm for the glitzy American mass culture that the IG consumed and is associated with. The specific intellectual year that their meetings took place, however, is usually neglected since the artistic comparisons are taken from the 1960s Pop Art, that is both American and British Pop Art. But it was in the early 1950s that the models of perception, ideas about spectatorship and communication which informed the IG’s reception of popular culture and the way in which they saw to incorporate the lessons they took from it into their art practice, were shaped. Facilitated by a philosophical tradition and associated empiricist’s methodology with moderation, common sense, liberalism, and in some cases with the free market economy, avoidance of strong political opinions had by this time become the style of British politics of consensus and new labor.  And the political engagement of the prewar generation was considered with skepticism. The dislike of political ideology became part of the political climate in which the association of science and technology with a new classless and modern Britain, after WWII, was a constituted part of the wealth of culture. Science was considered an objectifying influence, a harbinger of an ideology-free discourse. Apart from a general notion of the scientific, specific ideas from logical causism, psychology, and physics, derived from a diverse group of sources, often filled up with their own interests and sometimes radically popularized, informed the IG’s intellectual milieu. The Independent Group’s search for an artistic language, capable of expressing precise meanings, followed them to the postwar world, and was closely connected to the belief and the ability to control meaning and the fixed connection between image and meaning, sign and signification. The notion of the directness and the immediacy of visual perception attracted the IG to advertisements and popular culture, which they considered pure communication. In the purchasing power of the educated consumer, the IG saw the ability for direct response and thereby the consumer’s chance to streamline the process. This was, to the IG, a pure transaction between two communicating partners. Mass culture also entailed such process of natural selection, and so as Lawrence Alloway said ‘astounding science fiction is the best,’ I think that was the qualification that he thought was most important. A natural selection in which the consumer participated with his purchase and thereby guaranteed the authenticity of its popular appeal. The IG admired the use of scientific research, that is market research, communication theory, behavioral and Gestalt psychology, and psychological means of manipulation, namely, the way in which the newly professionalized advertisement industry used science to reach its audience. The models of perception, psychology, and language from which they operated were intimately related to the contemporaneous philosophical discourse of logical positivism and the resulting scientistic view of communication that also informed the new social sciences after WWII and with it, advertising strategies.

The IG’s passionate interest in mass culture, so often criticized by both their fans and their detractors, must also be seen in this context. The IG sought to treat their environments methodically and scientifically, examining mass culture, car design, art and architecture, with care, but without applying a larger set of value judgments. Based on the logical positivist sensor of metaphysics, Hamilton, for example, could refuse to acknowledge any connotative meaning of the elements from the advertisements he incorporated into his paintings. The exclusive attention to manifest meaning apart from being viable, was supposed to allow for precise decoding of images, that is images and their meaning could be explained, exchanged at will, or refused. Vision in these models was considered malleable, it could be activated and modernized, exposing spectators to a set of imagery or immersing them in environments that challenged perception could change their visual landscape. Spectators, it was assumed, could be compelled to see what and how the exhibitor had intended, or in Hamilton’s plan from an earlier proposal, actually from 1951, they could be forced to see “correctly.” The widespread discussions of visual education were marked by an effort to see visual perception as a positive, scientific or legitimate tool of influence, and to downplay the dangers of manipulation. There were several sources in the IG’s intellectual milieu for this kind of belief in the transformative power of visual education, and I’m only going to allude to a couple of them. There was, to some extent, a popular assumption promoted for example by the organizers of the 1951 festival of Britain that the clean lines of modernism, in its British vernacular, were to have a beneficial effect on the country’s population, not only its aesthetics, but its behavior as consumers and citizens. Designer George Nelson, I know he’s American but he had several publications in English journals at that moment, more emphatically advocated a modernization of vision, an “enlargement of vision,” as he phrased it, if man were to survive modernity. Perception, cognition, and imagination were intertwined in such a way, in this model, that only if vision were modernized, it could prove adequate for the class to come. The kind of mechanism activated by vision may have varied from the influences that I talk about that were, for example, various ways of phrasing older ideas and scientific terms that come together at a certain moment in the 50s in the work of Herbert Reeve, Lancelot Law Whyte, Rudolph Arnheim, and Ernst Hans Gombrich. But the implications drawn from these propositions were similar reliance on the didactic potential of visual perception. The more specific model of an actual relationship between a visual experience and a cortical correlation of mental life came into this milieu from various sources as well. Apart from the relatively straightforward isomorphism proposed in the Gestalt model, it was also Lancelot Law Whyte who went further and proposed a physiology of thought, a kind of neural isomorphism, in which specific ways of thinking, for example, analytic thought, would actually shape the brain itself.

[slide]

So, this is the plan. Like previous exhibitions associated with IG, those by Hamilton, as I mentioned already Growth of Form, a work from 1955, Man, Machine and Motion, and then by Alison and Peter Smithson, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Nigel Henderson in 1953 called Parallel of Life and Art, this is tomorrow sought to create a closed environment. The environmental corrector of the Funhouse exhibition of Group 2, which is the one we will talk about, and these are three installation shots, there’s one more coming of this environment that was created. The environment of the Funhouse exhibit of Group 2, and Group 2 consisted of Richard Hamilton, John McHale and John Voelker, was to some extent dictated by the format of the system, since the participating architects were designing structures to house their respective groups exhibits. On practical grounds, moreover, the sections had to be separated in order to allow the audience to distinguish between the twelve groups, while allowing it to pass freely through all 12 sections. Group 2’s design controlled all the senses, an intention that was announced by the placement of an enlarged collage of a head on the front wall next to the entrance of the exhibit. And you see the head up there in the left hand corner, but you get a detail later on as well, but just there are arrows pointing to it. In this collage, various arrows point to the sensory organs of a man, each organ labeled with words or phrases such as “Look,” “Smell,” and a question mark over the mouth. On the forehead was written “Think, Think, Think”. The same image was reproduced on the catalog, which you will see in a minute, but with different, more whimsical phrases printed inside the arrows. Placed at the entrance to Group 2’s exhibit, this collage was a statement of intent. The environment they created, consisting of optical illusions and distortions, Duchampian water-reliefs, tilting walls, music from a juke-box, and a spongy floor that, “when stepped on emitted strawberry air freshener,” indeed attacked all the senses. In addition, the main room housed a cinema-scope collage, that’s the one down there, spanning one wall over life-sized publicity posters of Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, and Marilyn Monroe from Seven Year Itch covered another wall in front of which was a 4 foot tall model of a Guinness beer bottle conspicuously placed.

As with Hamilton’s earlier installations, the point of this multi-sensory presentation was to sensitize the audience to the changing visual and cultural landscape around him. The most famous, let me show you…before I go to the slides let’s see what I can go to. So this is another part of the exhibit. If we could go to the slides…

[slide]

That’s the collage on the catalog I was talking about. That’s the collage in the context of the catalog and next to it a diagram that, again, sort of identifies the senses and talks about them. The most famous image from this exhibition is of course “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?”  This collage, that most historians, including Alloway and Banham, pointed to to trace the roots of Pop Art, though it was never itself included in this systema, it was only used in the catalog and as a poster. But the short statement preceding it in the catalog places it well within the period’s emphasis on visual culture, visual education, and scientific method. The statement Group 2 wrote reads, “We reject the notion that tomorrow can be expressed through the presentation of rigid formal concepts. Tomorrow can only extend the range of the present body of visual experience. What is needed is not a definition of meaningful imagery, but the development of our perceptual potentialities, to accept and utilize the continual enrichment of our visual material.  And the point in human affairs where the actual nature of such reality, as traditionally evidenced by the senses on the question, to depict them more on the guise of today’s artifacts, perceived and embroidered according to our present assumptions about their relevance to man, becomes pointless. Any change in man’s environment is indicative of a change in man’s relation to it, and his actual mode of perceiving and symbolizing is in action with it.” The collage then is no longer critiqued, nor is it a wish list of a consumer historic British artist. Rather it is a response to Hamilton’s search for a new language of art. The plundered birthright that as Ernst Hans Gombrich observed in Art and Illusion, “never before has there been an age like ours when the visual image was so cheap in every sense of the word.” For Hamilton, it is the landscape of modernity, the understanding of which is the task of the modern consumer citizen. Giving order to the amorphous mass of mass cultural stimuli, determines survival in Hamilton’s assessment of modernity, and in time it is this learning process that will have a determined isomorphic impact on the way we think, a kind of neural isomorphism that can be traced to several sources as well as to Hamilton. Hamilton saw himself as mediator, medium, and educator, maneuvering in the New World Order of an image-based culture, forcing the spectator to see, to order, and perhaps to see correctly. But he also saw himself as an artist working methodically and scientifically communicating the outcome of his research. The displays of This Is Tomorrow were a part of the strategy, the perceptual onslaught to disorient and provoke a change in perception. Hamilton wanted to change the way people saw, not only by enlarging their visual vocabulary with the iconography of modern life, but by breaking down resistances in a kind of immersion-therapy of visual stimuli. Art and mass culture were not to be judged in terms of good or bad, at least not in terms of hierarchical cultural standards, rather their criteria were professionalized. Influencing the spectator was not an ethical question but one of precision and efficacy, “The test of an image is not its lifelikeness, but its efficacy within a context of action,” also from Gombrich. A position not unlike in style to the mantra of American formalists “Does it work?” Moreover, in the task to educate, all means were fair game, as long as they were used scientifically. It was the use that determined the outcome, at a time when, as was written in 1947, “The formalization of reason had created a situation in which truth is nothing but the successfulness of the idea.”

Dr. Isabelle Moffat is an independent scholar working in London. She received her PhD from MIT in 2002.