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The aesthetics of notation

In 1966 Mel Bochner curated a show called "Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art". The current show at the ZKM in Karlsruhe has a similar aim and collects together hand-written pieces of paper, photo series, opened books, and sketches. It demonstrates how close the relationship is between concept and drawing, repetition and finished work, and the importance of notation for artistic production during Modernism and after.

There are images which are tricky to slot into the index of representation. Perhaps because they consist of numbers or writing systems and as such are intended not so much to demonstrate as to be deciphered. These could be instructions for some behaviour to be enacted in the future. Or perhaps notes or sketches of events in the past. Categorising such images involves using terms such as print, trace, index, visualisation and notation systems. Now the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, in cooperation with the ZKM Karlsruhe has collected together 450 exhibits in an exhibition titled "Notation, calculation and form in the arts." It is a fascinating show for anyone interested in how images can become independent from what they represent. And almost in passing, it points to the sort of things that we can expect from the connection between art and science that we are hearing so much about lately.

Iannis Xenakis / Le Corbusier
Model of the Philips Pavillion, 1958
© Bayerische Architektenkammer, Munich

When, at the end of the 19th century, the physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey developed his graphic method, it had nothing to do with art. Marey's focus was the movement of birds' wings or the human pulse rate but these movements could only be seen by breaking them down into moments, lines, curves and diagrams. This transformation was only made possible with the help of technical equipment, and this equipment produced images – graphs and chronophotography – which could not only be studied but also shown to the public. For the curators, Hubertus von Amelunxen, Dieter Appelt, Angela Lammert and Peter Weibel therefore, Marey is akin to a chief witness of notation: his methods demonstrate how techniques of visualisation and duplication not only generate knowledge but also set forms of images into circulation. This is the process described by the photographic historian, Michel Frizot, in the substantial and informative catalogue that accompanies the show. Its cover features one of Marey's diagrams that demonstrates a horse's gait. Of course the black and white block diagram shows no indication of any actual horses – and you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a musical score, a dance notation, the plans for a housing estate, or an abstract drawing.

Edgard Varese
Poeme electronique for audio track, 1957/1958
© Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel

And it is from this spectrum that the curators draw their material. Musical notation, for example, is one of the lynch pins of the concept as a whole. Musical scores by Pierre Boulez and John Cage look like drawings, or are exactly that. You come across all number of ways to notate dance, from Rudolf von Laban's' "Kinetografien" from the 1920s, to Trisha Brown's choreographical sketches on millimetre paper from the 1970s. There are architectural drawings which have long since parted ways with realisability, such as Greg Lynn's digitally generated ovoid models of the "Embryological House" (1999-2001). The note books and manuscripts of Antonin Artaud, Marcel Proust and Robert Walser, on the other hand, reveal obsessive work with pencil on paper. What is actually written on the paper is not so important here. What is important then? What holds together this heterogeneous collection of works? In short, it's the logic of notation itself.

Walter Benjamin
Colour imprint for the Pariser Passagen project and "Baudelaire-Studien", 1928-1940
© Hamburger Stiftung zur Förderung von Wissenschaft und Kultur

Notations are always translations. Scribbled notes, photographs, formulae or curves are there to pin down something transitory, they are meant to materialise something that has yet to exist or which won't exist much longer. The exhibition is not limited to notation in the strict sense of musical notation or architectural floor plans, which are intended to guarantee that a piece of music can be performed again and again exactly it was intended, or a building can be serially. Essentially this exhibition turns the relationship between notation and production on its head: the sketch, the aide memoire, the floor plan or the score no longer serve a greater project: mostly they rise to become the main site of focus in and of themselves. If and how the things on the paper can be realised at all, often had to go through a trial stage first. In the 1930s for instance, Oskar Fischinger made ornamental drawings not only on the film itself but also onto the magnetic soundtrack of his films and thereby created music. The musician Iannis Xenakis worked together with Le Corbusier for the World Fair of 1958 to create the Philips Pavilion as a multimedia installation avant la lettre, and developed an exterior form for the pavilion that followed the curves of sound. And Walter Benjamin's virtually indecipherable drawing system of coloured circles and squares which he used to structure his notes on "Arcades Project" shows clearly that a work of art does not take form inside one's head but from working it out on bits of paper.

KP Brehmer
Composition for Tim Wilson II, 1986
Courtesy gelbe MUSIK / Ursula Block
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2009

And the exhibition itself is a conglomerate of scribbled scraps of paper, photo series, opened books and sketches. Small film projections are scattered here and there and even
Allan McCollum's monumental work, "The Shapes Project" (2005/06), is actually a declination of miniature parts – 1440 in total – showing how many forms can be won from a system of difference and repetition. It was a good curatorial decision to forgo grand gestures and to represent a major painter like Cy Twombly solely through photographs of his studio. In this way the exhibition itself retains the sense of proliferation and transience which it claims for the works themselves: it is not only about finished pieces here, but about the process of creation, not about the final form, but about reworking. This can be a process as endless as Friedrich Kiesler's watercolours and metal-fence models for his "Endless House" (1947 – 1959) which of course was never built because it cannot be built. And Cedric Price's sensational "Generator" from the late 70s will forever remain at the model stage. Price was commissioned by the Gilman Paper Company to develop a computer-generated modular architecture which could be continuously adapted to the needs of its inhabitants. Price identified these needs through nuanced questionnaires which matter-of-factly probe sex lives, eating habits and daydreams. It is impossible to know whether these are intended as an ironic approach to flexible subjectivity or as its deployment. But the architectural projects are well-worth studying all the same.

Allan McCollum
The Shapes Project, 2005
Courtesy Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin
and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

The ideas of Jacques Derrida and Bruno Latour seem to float through the exhibition rooms. The exhibits provide plenty of food for thought about the precedence of writing and the productivity of working with things to hand. The importance of writing and sketching for the research process in the natural sciences is something particularly Hans-Jörg Rheinberger has shown, and indeed he has written an essay on the subject for the catalogue. The great achievement of this exhibition is to demonstrate that the same applies for the arts. It's not necessary to succumb to avantgarde euphoria (as in one of the catalogue texts which stylises Marey as an artist) to see how notes and sketches become things in their own right, and it is they that actually set the aesthetic process in motion. Because the potential of the exhibits lies less in the artistic originality of individual personalities than in drawing attention to the dynamics of reproduction and contingency and to sharpen the focus on the different methods of representation. The exhibition at least suggests such thoughts and it can be seen as a challenge to continue trawling the archives for more preliminary studies, snap shots and scribbles.

Mauricio Kagel
Visualisations from Transicion 1 as
"photographic (Musical)Notation", 1959/60
© Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel: Sammlung Mauricio Kagel


This article originally appeared in German in Texte zür Kunst, Issue 73, March 2009.

Kathrin Peters is an Arts-and Culture Researcher currently working at the Institute for Art History at the Freie Universität Berlin.

Translation: lp

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