Longread — 30 Nov 2018 — Julia Mullié
The launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957 marks the beginning of a space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Who would be first to orbit the earth, launch a human into space, or eventually put a man on the Moon?
The course of the twentieth century is not only shaped largely by secularization and the process of decolonization but also by technological advances. An important question has become the individual’s relationship to the changing world. Rapid technological developments in space travel and natural science receive considerable media attention.
Space exploration, architecture, and philosophy
Space exploration plays a major role in everyday life at a particularly fascinating juncture, writes Geert Buelens, Professor of Modern Dutch Literature: “That space travel took such giant steps in the same years in which decolonization took place is intriguing. [...] Outwardly, it seemed entirely concerned with science and civilization, but in fact barely disguised a hidden drive—to possess and dominate.” [i] He calls another conceivable motive “a guilt-ridden endeavor, beyond Earth, to compensate for the mess humans had made of their own planet.”2
Looking at the designs by architectural collectives Haus-Rucker-Co, Coop Himmelb(l)au, and Archizoom, all established in the late 1960s, one is immediately struck by the way air is used as a material to create protective, organic forms that isolate the individual from the outside world. It seems to reflect a vision of a better future, “makeable, mobile, light, and free from authorities.”3The philosophy of the ’60s also shows a renewed interest in the question of how the individual relates to their environment. Following the death of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in 1961, interest in his seminal work Phenomenology of Perception is reignited when it is translated into English in 1963.4 Merleau-Ponty posits that the human body is the primary means of knowing the world. The use of air and space as artistic material can be traced back to two points that at first seem paradoxical: the desire for sensory, physical experiences, on one hand, and the more ideological progressive optimism based on scientific advancement, on the other.
The Eventstructure Research Group
The Eventstructure Research Group was founded in 1968 by artists Jeffrey Shaw, Theo Botschuijver, and Sean Wellesley-Miller. The previous year, several members had worked on events that clearly anticipated what the group would do next. For example, Corpocinema was performed in 1967; first in Rotterdam, by Theo Botschuijver and Jeffrey Shaw, and then two months later in Amsterdam, with Sean Wellesley-Miller. In happenings and actions such as the Corpocinema, the collective sought out the boundaries of cinema by testing the traditional, one-sided relationship between audience and screen. From the moment the Eventstructure Research Group is established, the group strives to “break through the conditioning in the general pattern of experience and behavior, for example, in the first years of its existence by applying surprise elements in everyday situations, for example, on the street.”5 The name of the collective echoes a trend in which artists present themselves as institutions; for instance, Pieter Engels’s E.P.O. (English Product Organization) and the I.I.v.H.v.K. (International Institute for Retraining Artists, founded by Reinier Lucassen, Jan Dibbets, and Ger van Elk), about which Wim Beeren wrote, “These functions and names are alternatively fictitious or wholly businesslike. They all illustrate a situation in which the artists have turned their backs on the specialist official institutes and address their audience directly."7
The Corpocinema was an inflatable dome made of transparent plastic, five meters high and seven meters wide, onto which a film was projected. Because the dome was not under constant tension, the surface pulsed. Colored powders, foam, and water were used to spray the interior space of the dome while images were projected onto the exterior. A variety of films was screened, including a “visual account of the origins of aviation.”8 This film was made by Jeffrey Shaw in collaboration with Tjebbe van Tijen, who was also the initiator and coordinator of the Sigma Center, which performed the Corpocinema in the context of its Sigma Projects. The first time the Corpocinema was realized was on August 24, 1967, the same day the Continuous Drawing (1967) project, one of the Sigma Projects of Tjebbe van Tijen, arrived in Rotterdam. Parts of the drawing were projected onto the Corpocinema, “so that the drawing, as it were, goes up in smoke.”9
In 1969 the Eventstructure Research Group performs 6 Events in Amsterdam, unannounced.10 Similar to the Corpocinema, these involve inflatable objects that people can enter and play within.11 The first two events are performed on September 17 on Frederiksplein. Something known as the Pneutube is on view, too: a sixty-meter-long transparent tube filled with air, containing a smaller yellow tube, also inflated with air. The small tube is used as a seating area.
A few days later at Sloterplas, an artificial lake, the Waterwalk can be seen (and experienced): a four-sided pyramid made of plastic, floating on the water. Two people climb inside the tetrahedron and the opening is closed by a waterproof zipper. Now, sealed inside, they are able to walk across the lake.
On September 22, the last two events take place on Museumplein, including the Brickhill: an inflatable plastic hill with a brick pattern printed on the exterior. Because the Brickhill is not fully inflated, it is more like a bouncy castle.
According to Theo Botschuijver, the objects were bound by one condition: “It must remain play, and cannot be turned into something commercial […].”12The aim of the Eventstructure Research Group was to surprise people, in which sense they capitalized on developments in art and society.13
From the moment that Marinus Boezem (1934) started his so-called Shows in 1964, air and space became recurring materials in his work.14 As art historian Edna van Duyn observes, Boezem uses air “not only as material in itself, but more generally, as an experience of a spatial ideal and, in a metaphorical sense, as freedom and purification.”15 Boezem made his Shows between 1964 and 1969, based on the idea that, for an artist, it was no longer relevant to have “an attic full of canvases.”16
For this reason, he decides to perform an artwork only when someone demands it. According to Boezem, “Every month I sent one show to people who worked in the visual arts.
According to Boezem, “Every month I sent one show to people who worked in the visual arts. They were then able to order a work of art based on these ‘silly’ comic strips. Several Shows were realized later.”17 Take, for example, Show XV Soft Room (1968), in which a room is filled with lightweight tables spread with tablecloths that undulate in the airflow produced by moving fans. “A swirling, transparent cloth continuously takes on a changing spatial appearance in fluid motion. Space is not primarily presented here as an object with fixed boundaries, but as content: the air. The tablecloths are the medium through which the immaterial air can manifest itself as a variable aspect of space,” says Boezem.18 A slightly different application of air can be found in Show V Immaterial Sculpture (1965). The accompanying typescript emphasizes the intended sensory experience:
“Various air doors through which one can walk are installed in this show. This offers the sensory experience of warmth, air, and cold. See technique used by revolving doors in department stores. Boezem 1965.”
The Shows form an important starting point for Boezem’s intervention Bedsheets hanging from the windows of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1969).19 During the exhibition Op losse schroeven: situaties en cryptostructuren (1969) at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, sheets and pillows were hung from the windows of the museum’s facade. It was a way to “bring a breath of fresh air into the museum.” The work is not simply a comment on the obsolescence of the museum; the sheets also act as a medium to materialize the immaterial air. The work was recreated for the exhibition Amsterdam, the Magic Center.
In 1969 Boezem realized his work Signing the Sky above the Port of Amsterdam with an Aeroplane, for which an advertising airplane’s vapor trail spelled out his name. The piece seems to be an allusion to the question of who actually owns the sky. At the same time, it is a response to the new possibilities that accompany lofty ambitions.
In the installation Weather Drawings (1969), scientific knowledge unites with the sensory and volatile. During Op losse schroeven, Boezem projects maps of the day’s weather (possible thanks to satellites), accompanied by the voice of the weather man reading the weather reports aloud. He also exhibits the Beaufort Wind Scale, which gives an indication of how different wind speeds will affect the human environment. Boezem explains, “The scale is structured as follows: the first column shows the Beaufort number. The following shows the wind speed per minute. Accompanied by the classification ‘calm,’ ‘moderate,’ or ‘hurricane.’ And, last of all, a picture is included to show what it looks like. That was a major step for me: realizing you don’t need to draw something with an elegant line to make it look like a tree, that everything has its own logo. And a ‘logo’ in the original meaning: the sign. So we know: ‘that is that.’”20
That space travel had an influence on the consciousness of the relationship between the individual and the world around them is beyond dispute. A new academic discipline devoted to considering how this would impact the future even emerged: futurology.21 But artists also theorized about the role space would play in the future. For example, in 1967 Boezem wrote a manifesto on the role of air in the year 2000. Three years earlier, stanley brouwn (1935–2017) had described what the year 4000 would look like, “When science and art are entirely melted together to something new / when the people will have lost their remembrance and thus will have no past, only future. / When they will have to discover everything / every moment again and again when they will have lost their need for contact with others… / …then they will live in a world of only color, light, space, time, sounds and movement will be free / no music / no theatre / no art / no / there will be sound color light space time movement.”22 As art historian and critic Sven Lütticken wrote recently, this manifesto clearly stems from the enormous interest in space travel at that moment.23 This interest was part of the broader movement of the intensification of information, communication, and science. The artist himself stated that one of the most important aspects of his work is “the scientific approach.”24
Among other things, this approach underpins the series of this way brouwn that he made from 1962 onwards. This well-known series of works consists of sketchy drawings made using a black marker pen on a white sheet of paper, drawn by passersby whom brouwn approached on the street and asked to draw a route from A to B. In this series, brouwn emphasized the experience of time and space. He saw this kind of activity as “opportunities for the public to discover the city, the earth, once and for all, before mankind once and for all, enters space.”25
In 1969 brouwn made a new version of his this way brouwn, entitled this way brouwn per telegram. A copy of the telegram, shown in the exhibition Amsterdam, the Magic Center, is the result of an invitation circulated by brouwn’s gallery, Art & Project. The invitation contained an instruction: on the day of the opening, the invitees had to send a telegram documenting the approximate route that they would travel that evening between their home address and the gallery. In this way they were made aware of their relationship to their environment.
Against the background of the decolonization process and the appropriation of the Moon by opposing world powers, it is interesting that, in several works, brouwn was busy with what could be called “collecting countries.” This becomes all the more interesting when we take into account that brouwn came from Suriname, a country colonized by the Netherlands for almost three hundred years. He started by collecting steps taken by himself and others. This practice took on a new dimension when the steps referred to other countries, such as in the
exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam in 1970, or when the steps were taken in other countries, such as for his exhibition Steps in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam the following year.25 Every day brouwn called the museum to pass on the number of steps, and the countries in which they had been taken. This information was recorded on a blank card in the exhibition. On April 6, 1970, brouwn bought a square meter of land in the Netherlands. The person who sold this square meter wrote a letter declaring that the artist already currently “owned” about ten countries.26 The artist’s aim was to buy square meters in as many different countries as possible—vantage points from which he could, in his imagination, look at a point in space.
In this brief essay it was not possible to discuss all the layers of meaning in the aforementioned works in great detail. It shows, however, how the Eventstructure Research Group, Marinus Boezem, and stanley brouwn were inspired by developments in the sixties such as space travel, the interest in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, and the use of air in architecture. It is striking that sensory experiences and scientific approaches are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, a synthesis takes place in the artworks they produced.
About the author
Julia Mullié (1994) studied art history at the University of Amsterdam. She worked a an assistent-curator at de Vleeshal in Middelburg. Julia now works as a freelance writer and consultant for different media and funds, among which the Bonnefantenmuseum Maastricht and the magazine Art Monthly. Next to that, she is a research-assistent for dr. Marga van Mechelen.
- Amsterdam, the Magic Center: Art and Counterculture 1967–1970, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, July 7, 2018 – January 6, 2019.
- Geert Buelens, De Jaren Zestig (Amsterdam: Ambo Anthos, 2018), 831.
- Thomas Kellein, 1968. Die Große Unschuld (Cologne: DuMont Buchverlag, 2009), 48.
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la Perception (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1945).
- Walter Barten, “Een avondje met verbaasd open mond,” De Groene Amsterdammer (March 20, 1974).
- Wim Beeren, et al., Actie, werkelijkheid en fictie in de kunst van de jaren ’60 in Nederland, exh. cat. (Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 1979), 15.
- Ibid., 120.
- Ibid., 123.
- 6 Events took place on the following dates: September 17, 1969, Frederiksplein: Pneutube and Cushion; September 20, 1969, Sloterplas: Totems and Waterwalk; September 22, 1969, Museumplein: Grassroll and Brickhill.
- Beeren, et al., provides an excellent description of 6 Events, and served as the basis for the descriptions of the events as given in this article.
- Emmy Huf, “Plasic,” Het Parool (May 19, 1970).
- Anneke Bouman, “Nieuwe Rileks: even in de windbuil ploffen,” Het Vrije Volk (October 2, 1969); “Inflate and Float,” Life Magazine (April 27, 1970).
- What Boezem referred to as Shows are stencils with a diagrammatical sketch of the idea for an artwork. A show is performed only as and when it is requested. For the performance, Boezem appeared as a suit-wearing businessman carrying a briefcase containing
- Edna van Duyn and Frans Jozef Witteveen, Boezem: oeuvrecatalogus (Bussum: Uitgeverij Thoth), 121.
- Marinus Boezem, interview with Julia Mullié, February 17, 2014. See Julia Mullié, “Nederlandse conceptuele kunst overschaduwd door een Amerikaans perspectief: Hoe kan de Nederlandse conceptuele kunst uit de periode 1967–1971 worden gekarakteriseerd?” (BA Thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2016), 90–94.
- Marinus Boezem, interview with Julia Mullié, May 7, 2018.
- Geert Buelens, De Jaren Zestig (Amsterdam: Ambo Anthos, 2018), 828.
- Manifesto by stanley brouwn on the occasion of the manifestation Bloomsday ’64 in Frankfurt. See J. Bernlef and K. Schippers, Een cheque voor de tandarts (Amsterdam: Querido, 1967), 170.
- J. Bernlef and K. Schippers, Een cheque voor de tandarts (Amsterdam: Querido, 1967), 173.
- Ibid., 171–172.
- La Paz, Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, February 14–March 16, 1970; Steps, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, March 18–April 19, 1971.
- Archive of Joke and Dick Veeze; the author is currently conducting a research project with Colin Huizing on the oeuvre of stanley brouwn.