My recent post on Bernard Parmegiani’s film L’ecran Transparent left me with lingering thoughts on the bygone age of Modernism. A moment in history, stretching across the breadth of the 20th century, which saw countless artists delving into the creative unknown – collaborating and blurring the lines of practice, audience, and intent.
While it’s no longer surprising for an artist to work across a number of fields or disciplines, or even to combine them into a single practice, there are a number of crucial aspects to the history of High-Modernism which remain striking today – so much so, that it might be argued that the present is yet to catch up with the past.
High-Modernism, despite its dominant presence within the 20th century’s creative life, encompassing nearly all creative disciplines – architecture, literature, design, music, film, fine art, etc, until the late 1970’s and early 80’s, has remained greatly misunderstood. Often cast as elitist or opaque, its intentions were anything but. While the nuances within field and individual application are wide, there are an number of core components which bind nearly all of its diversity together – developing technologies, and a quest for universal language or fulfillment of need. The hope was simple. In the face of a radically changing world, to harness the agitators of this change, using them to elevate the basic human experience through function and esthetics – to join art and the everyday.
The standing historical critique of Modernism – giving way to Post-Modern and Post-Structural thinking, is that the movement offered too little consideration to the subjective, or individual need and desire. That it attempted to impose a narrow aesthetic or practical framework on the world. While, in broad terms, Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism both introduced important fields of study and acknowledged an inevitable component of being, they almost universally failed to indicate that the shortcomings of Modernism were linked to economics, class, education, and access – that its failures had less to do the potential of its ideas, than how well positioned an individual was to approaching them. This unveils one of the primary problems within Post-Modern thinking – through its focus on actualities of the subjective characters of meaning, it generally neglected to recognize a fairly universal set of aggregators. Modernism’s shortcomings came via its optimism. It saw remarkable means through which the world might evolve and become better, but failed to recognize the character of contexts which were already cemented against change (by restrictions imposed by economics, class, education, and access). Simply put, it didn’t understand where to best plant its seeds, nor when.
Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism largely grew from a belief in the inability to control meaning – that the established self, formed through highly individualized experiences (which again, in my view, have a fairly universal set of aggregators at their root), would assert its subjective understanding (and subsequent needs), and thus negate the possibility for universal absolutes. In the fields of philosophy, this effectively builds a series of proofs after which there could be no more proofs – a context without certain truth, which subsequently leads to the primacy of Critical and Cultural Theory (theory being the indicating operative, as it is an idea for which truth or fact has yet to be, or in this case can not be, determined). In the creative fields, this equally helps rationalize rise of the meta-narratives of self – the artist not as a lens for a contemporary zietgiest, or as an aggregator of broad social change, but rather a totem of individualism, through which understanding (subjective meaning) is filtered – then subsequently interpreted (by those who interact with the results of this production) in an infinite number of ways. Meta-narrative, processed by Meta-narrative, to the point where nothing (or no one) can be absolutely known. As such, both conceptual polarities – the Modern and the Post-Modern, are a victims of their extremes – failing to see the shades of grey.
In the last decade or so, there has been a growing fixation with the history of Modernism, asserting itself across nearly all of the creative fields. Visual art is filled with nostalgia tinged appropriations and signifiers from this bygone age. Contemporary architecture increasingly turns to the materiality of Modernism, and its hard primary forms. In avant-garde and experimental music, the sounds, structures, approaches and ideas (not to mention artifacts) from this era are once again all around us. Some might take this broad cultural shift as an indication of fatigue – that decades of hyper-individualized esthetics have finally exhausted the relentless march forward – that there is nowhere new left go, and thus we are left with the past. There may some truth to this, but there is also a more optimistic point of view – that High-Modernism was headed off too early by the progressive temperaments that it set into play – by its own obsessive march forward, and it unwillingness to address its successive steps. Despite its demise, our need for collective truth, experience, and meaning persists, and intuition has led us to where it left off. From it, we are building a new hybrid form which accommodates its lessons with those which succeeded it.
In the absolute sense, no philosophical stance or practice has ever truly fulfilled our demands or needs. In all probability, this has something to do with the reactions through which its movements are formed, as well as their complex relationships to the territories from which they spring (those who proceeded them), and the egos of those who bring them to be. Yet the desire for truth and meaning remains. There is no doubt that Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism introduced crucial ideas toward understanding how we interpret meaning, as well as interact with and understand others, but, despite its many faults, there are aspects of High-Modernism which were too readily dismissed – the desires for which seem to be asserting themselves all around us today.
To some extent, this is how I have come to negotiate the dangers of our present context, one which is pregnant with the past – where artifacts of former eras are often allowed to occupy a dominant place in our vision, over those from our own. Art, like history, is a tool – a complex construct of language and interpretation, through which meaning is formed. Their components are the building blocks on which we have arrived, and should never be dismissed or taken for granted. Equally, they should not be taken as absolute. They are processes rather than an end. Particularly if you believe in some form of collective self and need, as I do, the narratives of High-Modernism – the underlying motive of its quest, hold a particular appeal. This is why I present artifacts from this era as often as I do. The more of the past which is known and approached, the more with which we have to work toward a better future.
This is a long winded path to our subject – Piotr Kamler’s animated film Chronopolis from 1983, with its incredible soundtrack composed by Luc Ferrari. But, if the movement of Modernism from which it sprang, and lessons of the movement which succeeded it, have taught us anything, it is that context is everything. Meaning, interpretation, and understanding are formed by that which surrounds an object or subject. There is no such thing as free-standing.
Chronopolis is is difficult to position, in part because of the abstract opacity of it its narrative. It is a Modernist effort, heralding the end of its own movement. A form of dystopian science fiction – the story of a gargantuan city lurking in the sky colonized by powerful immortals who have become jaded with eternal life. Most of their time is spent monotonously constructing bizarre and unusual objects while waiting for the ultimate gift to arrive in their hands. While science fiction and the concept of dystopia where far from new, there are some very interesting characteristics regarding how Kamler applies them. Science fiction, as a narrative trope, began as a response to the momentum of technological progress begun during the industrial revolution. It is an imagining of what the future might look like, where that progress to continue at a constant pace. The narrative trope of dystopian science fiction, the best know examples of which are Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, uses the safe distance of an imagined future, to tell us hard truths about ourselves. Its focus is humanity, rather than the things humanity makes. Chronopolis is a slightly more complex realization of the later. The world it portrays is one where the march of progress seems, at least to some extent, to have been the agitator of its dystopia – a world where technology has spawned an idle, restless, and directionless race – their actions an attempt to reintroduce personality, purpose, and sense of self. As such, it is a critique of Modernism’s desire for progress, asking to what end – as well as a nod to Post-Modernism’s acknowledgement of the assertive power of the individual self.
What is crucial to recognize about Chronopolis, is that, while containing elements of Post-Modernism’s critique of it predecessor, it is not Post-Modernism. Chronopolis is a last gasp of Modernism, through and through. It’s thematic elements, and the practice from which it sprang, allow it to be nothing but. The film’s themes are societal, not about the meta-narratives of the self, which were coming to prominence during this era. Importantly, while it critiques the possible outcomes of technological progress, it also embraces them through the physicality its being. Film is a progressive technology with utopian idealism and belief at its core. It is an advanced art form, conceived for the masses, not an intellectual or economic elite, which almost always must be made through collaboration. It is rarely the total product of a single mind, or intended for a single viewership.
As it stands today, Chronopolis is comprised of two recognizable elements – it’s images, and its sounds. While Kamler is Polish, and his work very much part of the grand tradition of animation which sprang from that the country, it was made in France – placing him in contact with Groupe de Recherches Musicales, the collective and studio to which the composer Luc Ferrari belonged. While most of the music which emerged from the studio generally regarding as free standing, a great deal of it, as with the case of a great deal of avant-garde electronic music over the course of its history, was conceived within the context of film and television – part of a great Modernist (and socialist) swell of creativity, attempting to bring complex ideas into every day lives.
Ferrari’s soundtrack is brilliant, opening a fascinating window into the narrative potential of the electronic music – most often regarded as being entirely abstract. In the end, context is central. The film is only whole with its sounds, and the sounds derive their meaning by association with images. Only together are they one, and as such, resting within a broad context of social intervention and concern.
Chronopolis is a crucial artifact, from an important moment in history which still resonates around us now. A last gasp of a movement, to which many of us have returned – holding lessons of its successes, and the character of its demise. Structurally, it is hybrid, from which lessons can be gained – a work of Modernism, embedded with foreshadows of what we have learned since. It is a structural lens toward our our possible futures. A tool. The building blocks on which we have arrived. A processes rather than an end, and thing of beauty, which can take us all further into the world.
Piotr Kamler – Chronopolis (1983)