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Review: New Tendencies – Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961-1978)

16/01/2017
Kristian Lukic

The book New Tendencies – Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961-1978) by Armin Medosch presents thorough research into the international New Tendencies movement that was active in the 60s and in the 70s. In his book, Medosch gave contextualisation of New Tendencies movement and framed it in the political, social and cultural context of its time. The New Tendencies movement arose in culmination of high modernism in 60s, with its center in Zagreb, Croatia in former Yugoslavia, a country that was itself a modernistic project of the 20th century. Although semi peripheral in industrial development, the climate of modernism in Yugoslavia influenced art and culture and thus prepared conditions for the country to become a knot in a network of artistic centers of European Fordism like Milan, Munich, Düsseldorf and Paris. One of the first who restored the memory of New Tendencies was Croatian artist and curator Darko Fritz with his research Amnesia International, which transferred the memory of NT to the newer generations of Media Art practitioners.

The New Tendencies movement had momentum in 60s, while in the 70s it shared conceptual art’s crisis of faith in late modernism. In the 80s New Tendencies was almost forgotten. Medosch writes that New Tendencies’ “politics of form” was strongly influenced by its disavowal of the artist as a producer of commodities for the art market”. For the first exhibition in Zagreb artists consciously used inexpensive new materials and new media from mass production, such as punch cards, plastic ribbons, cardboard, and plywood. In the third New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb in 1965, organizers wanted to create a new synthesis between art and applied art through creation of Multiples, art that was reproducible, but this idea was not received well. They wanted to democratize art and were against the scarcity principle that was deeply embedded in the art system. Although ideas around the demystification of art were not new, there was novelty in “the specific way New Tendencies tried to achieve this — through the formula of art as visual research.” Art was redefined as visual research and mass production and abundance were not considered as negative. Ideas of interactivity, the democratization of art and the participation of the public in New Tendencies exhibitions was sometimes seen as seductive, especially when in the late sixties political movements and counter-culture started to influence the art world and became much explicit in demands for political and social change.

Third New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb: visitors engage with Rudolf Kämmer’s Drehgrafik (Rotary Graphic) (1964–1965). Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb.
Third New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb: visitors engage with Rudolf Kämmer’s Drehgrafik (Rotary Graphic) (1964–1965). Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb.

The book New Tendencies – Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961-1978) is valuable material for a non-western centric approach to the history of art (it is worth noting that the histories of computer and digital art are not exempt from western centric historization). Still today, there are many examples of ignorance of what was happening outside North America and Western Europe, despite more and more stories, research and documentation about post-WW2 art. Medosch is not looking for the “Other”, trying to fill the geo-holes in the history of arts, or fixing “colonial guilt”, but he is using New Tendencies as a case study of an art movement that connects early history of art & media with social issues. As secondary it came out that the center of this movement was Zagreb and former Yugoslavia. However, non-intentionally Medosch uncovers the story of soft power of that time in Yugoslavia – an uncovering which proves thought-provoking as a counter to western-centrism.

As Medosch outlines, the Croatian artist and curator Darko Fritz was the first to suggest reading New Tendencies as a network – or rather a network of networks that included group Zero from Germany, the groups N and T from Italy, Equipo 57 from Spain, and Paris-based Group de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), to name just a few. Also in Zagreb New Tendencies had direct precursors such as EXAT 51 or GORGONA whose members had close ties with the movement.

Frieder Nake, Achsenparalleler Polygonzug, 25/2/65 Nr. 14 (Rectangular Random Polygon 25/2/65 No. 14) (1965): computer-generated drawing, ink on paper, 22.4 × 31.1 cm. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb
Frieder Nake, Achsenparalleler Polygonzug, 25/2/65 Nr. 14 (Rectangular Random Polygon 25/2/65 No. 14) (1965): computer-generated drawing, ink on paper, 22.4 × 31.1 cm. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

The formation of groups and networking in New Tendencies is shown to include two processes. The first is standard practice in the history of art: young artists get together in order to strengthen their position in art and the social system. The second also showed renewed trust in common destiny and solidarity, that was corrupted by collective totalitarian experiences and disappeared during and after the WW2. New Tendencies artists are of a generation that renovated belief in social progress, common interest and direct democracy. Therefore some groups like GRAV, Equipo 57, and N experimented with collective authorship, a model that for the market is not easy to deal with. This group ethos was not only present in artistic practice but also in curatorial and organizational practices. The curatorial boards of New Tendencies exhibitions and events engaged in joint decision making, often actively communicating with artists about the content they produced. For example, the small details involved in artists filing “application forms” about themselves and describing their works was a self-managed bureaucratic procedure which developed into more complex research and decision making.

New Tendencies artists embraced Fordist technological innovation; rather than opposing technological acceleration, as most other artists in that time did, they were thinking of a future technological society beyond alienation and oppression. Similar to their “artistic relatives” Situationists, some NT artists used playful elements envisioning post-Fordist conditions where repetitive work was viewed as oppressive. In his book Medosch gave analysis of similarities and differences between these two groups that shared much common ground.

In his book, Medosch emphasized the connection between social analysis and developed a critique of New Tendencies groups and new readings of Marx, particularly those of Operaismo in Italy and Praxis in Yugoslavia. A central element of these new readings was “Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism applied to artwork and its ideological function in the capitalist world.” Medosch’s intent is to minimize the current tendency to re-inscribe movements that developed a half-century ago in favour of investigating theoretical frameworks and political conditions of that time.

In August 1968 in Zagreb a symposium Computers and Visual Research was organized, at the same time as the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in London. The exhibition in Zagreb, called t-4 (Tendencies – 4) in 1969, that followed the symposium, together with Cybernetic Serendipity, were inaugural moments of international computer art. The symposium Computers and Visual Research marked the line between the first phase of New Tendencies’ analog “programmed art works” (as Umberto Eco defines it in the catalog of the exhibition) and the second phase in which NT embraced art that used computers.

Vjenceslav Richter, Yugoslav Pavilion for World Expo 1958, photograph of model, 1956. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb.
Vjenceslav Richter, Yugoslav Pavilion for World Expo 1958, photograph of model, 1956. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb.

Although Medosch’s idea was not to emphasize Yugoslavian context beyond the extent needed for general contextualization of the movement, the very fact that Zagreb had logistical, infrastructural and intellectual capacity to be the center of the movement for almost 2 decades showed certain “properties” of Yugoslavia of that time. For the book’s readers in former Yugoslavian countries, the book brings certain discomfort, since after the Yugoslav wars in the nineties, there is a general tendency to forget the heritage of the Yugoslav modernist project. Also the “eagerness” of activity in Zagreb could be due to the fact that that after the breakup of Yugoslavia’s ties with Stalin in 1948, Zagreb wanted to restore connections with cultural context of what historian Eric Hosbawm called the “main mountain range or crest of European economic and cultural dynamism”, an area that encompasses Paris, the Rhine valley, north Italy, south Germany and Switzerland.

First New Tendencies exhibition, 1961. Exhibition view: b 256 and b 36 by Paul Talman (1961; floor and wall); Julio Le Parc, Probabilité Du Noir Égal Au Blanc N° 4 (Probability of Black Being Equal to White No. 4) (1961), wall, right side. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb; copyright © Bildrecht.
First New Tendencies exhibition, 1961. Exhibition view: b 256 and b 36 by Paul Talman (1961; floor and wall); Julio Le Parc, Probabilité Du Noir Égal Au Blanc N° 4 (Probability of Black Being Equal to White No. 4) (1961), wall, right side. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb; copyright © Bildrecht.
First New Tendencies exhibition, 1961. Exhibition view: b 256 and b 36 by Paul Talman (1961; floor and wall); Julio Le Parc, Probabilité Du Noir Égal Au Blanc N° 4 (Probability of Black Being Equal to White No. 4) (1961), wall, right side. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb; copyright © Bildrecht.
First New Tendencies exhibition, 1961. Exhibition view: b 256 and b 36 by Paul Talman (1961; floor and wall); Julio Le Parc, Probabilité Du Noir Égal Au Blanc N° 4 (Probability of Black Being Equal to White No. 4) (1961), wall, right side. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb; copyright © Bildrecht.

In a way similar to New Tendencies in 60’s and 70’s, Media Art (a generic term that covers new media art, net.art, net cultures, digital art, in the end 90’s and beginning of 2000) experienced a “specific” relationship with the mainstream art system. The first thing that connects both New Tendencies and later Media Art is reluctance to be incorporated into contemporary art system. This uneasiness has fuelled recent debates, which range from considering that Media Art is the part of contemporary art system to opinions that Media Art is a completely different category. This relationship has similarities with that of the New Tendencies movement in relation to the contemporary art system half a century ago. The other is something that is unfolding in front of our eyes, a kind of new Amnesia International 2.0, an amnesia that is slowly covering memories of media art and culture of 90’s and early 2000.

Armin Medosch’s book makes a structural connection between early media art and culture and the media art of the 90s and early 2000s. Concepts of sharing, critique of the commodification of art object, the de-elitization and democratization of art, demystification of art, the embracing of discussion of pluralistic techno-political impacts of technology; these are common denominators that connect art at the threshold of Information Revolution with art of late Informationalism in the late 20th and early 21st Century.