Text and the Avant-Garde

"Whereas all previous forms of writing involve physical marks on a physical surface, in digital information technology writing takes the form of a series of cues the resulting textuality is virtual, fluid, adaptable, open, capable of being processed, capable of being infinitely duplicated, capable of being moved about rapidly, capable, finally, of being networkable – of being joined with other texts." -- George Landow

Virtuality of Electronic Text

How has the avant-garde of the early 20th century prefigured the advancement of electronic text, its mutability, its scalability, its dynamic energy, its departure from the statis of early textual forms.

Unlike previous forms of text, in which physical marks were made on physical surfaces, electronic text is a virtual representation of information. While printing adds multiplicity and fixity, digital information allows the recording of documents as virtual, reproducible, networkable representations. It is also virtual in regards to scale, typography, originality, and linearity.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the Futurists

“The book, the most traditional means of preserving and communicating thought, has been for a long time destined to disappear, just like cathedrals, walled battlement, museums, and the ideal of pacificism...The Futurist Cinema (interactive multimedia) will ... collaborate in a general renewal, substituting for the magazine–always pedantic– for the drama–always stale–, and killing the book–always tedious and oppressive. -- c. 1910 from “La cinematogria futurista”

Filippo MarinettiMarinetti had lived in Paris from 1893 to 1896. At the cafes, salons, literary banquets and dance-halls frequented by eccentric artists, writers and poets, the 17 year old Marinetti was soon drawn into the circle around the literary magazine La Plume. they introduced Marinetti to the principles of ‘free verse’, which he immediately adopted in his own writing. (Jarry’s Ubu roi was performed on Dec. 11, 1896, the year Marinetti left Paris for Italy. The Manifesto is based jarry-style with its energy and bombastic ironies, firmly establishing Marinetti as the enfant-terrible of the Italian art world.

The Futurists attacked the book, its linearity, its stasis, its fixed quality, and its canonical rigidity. Replacing the book, the Futurists announced new genres: film, performance art, electronic music. “Filmed words-in-freedom in movement (synoptic tables of lyric values - dramas of humanized or animated letters - orthographic dramas - typographical dramas - geometric dramas - numeric sensibility, etc.) Painting + sculpture + plastic dynamism + words-in-freedom + composed noises (intonarumori) + architecture + synthetic theatre = Futurist cinema.” The futurists predicted the transformation from the canonical written word to the multi-sensory, anarchically-driven Gesamtkunstwerk. A more living, dynamic experience.

Futurist Manifesto (1909)

Futurist ManifestoThe history of Futurism begins on 20 February 1909 in Paris with the publication of the first Futurist manifesto in the large-circulation daily, Le figaro. Its author, the wealthy Italian poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, writing from his luxurious villa rosa in Milan, had selected the Parisian public as the target of his manifesto of ‘incendiary violence’. Such attacks on the establishment values of the painting and literary academies were not infrequent in a city enjoying its reputation as the ‘cultural capital of the world’.

Futurists exploding conventional typography

Futurist TypographyIn Richard Lanham's the Electronic Word, he describes the Futurist deconstruction of language, text and typography:

"The book is seen as static, inelastically linear, sluggish; the new cinematographic form as dynamic, interactive, simultaneous, swift. This war on the book chose as its immediate target typographical convention, with results like SCRABrrRrraaNNG. here we see the book and all it represents in the act of deconstructing itself– all unawares the little children played, even as early as 1919– esplosione at its center literally shattering typographical convention into distended fragments.

Futurist Typography It is to this stage that Marinetti– and electronic text – would return us. He seeks to make us aware of the enormous act of simplification than an ordinary printed text represents; he wants to make us self-conscious about a register of expressivity that as literate people we have abjured.



Futurist TypographyIt is common to call experiments of this sort “outrageous,” but surely they aim at didacticism much rather. In a literate culture our conception of meaning itself – whether of logical argument or magical narrative– depends on this radical act of typographical simplification. No pictures; no color; strict order of left to right then down one line; no type changes; no interaction; no revision. In attacking this convention, Marinetti attacks the entire literate conception of humankind– the central self, a nondramatic society just out there waiting for us to observe it– and the purposive idea of language that rests upon it. He would urge us to notice that all this reality-apparatus is as conventional as the typography we are trained not to notice. There was a time it did not exit;: in the oral culture, in fact, out of which Greek rhetoric developed."

Bauhaus (1919 - 1933)

BauhausThe Bauhaus mission was to unify art and technology, the fine arts and design arts, resulting in the revolutionizing of typography, painting, graphic design, industrial design, and theater. Founded by Architect Walter Gropius in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, the Bauhaus brought together such artists as László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Oskar Schlemmer. It was moved to Dessau in 1925-1927 where the building above was constructed. The Bauhaus moved to Berlin briefly in 1933 where the Nazis shut it down. After the war many Bauhaus artists including Moholy-Nagy and Gropius went to the US.

Joost Schmidt (1893 - 1948) - Bauhaus Typography

Joost Schmidt was a typographer and sculptor, Born in Wunstorf/Hanover, in 1910, he began studying at the Grand-Ducal Saxon Academy of fine Art in Weimar. A student at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1925, he trained in the wood-carving workshop. His first typographical works date from 1923. Schmidt taught at the Bauhaus from 1925 to 1932. There he was head of the sculpture workshop from 1925 to 1930 and head of the advertising department from 1928. He taught the Lettering course plus life drawing. Schmidt also rented a studio in Berlin and worked as a cartographer in a publishing house.

Weimar ExhibitionJoost Schmidt’s poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar, with its round and square motifs, recalls reliefs by Oskar Schlemmer.



Bauhaus WallpaperThis illustration is from the catalog “‘The future belongs to Bauhaus wallpaper.’

Bauhaus Journal

Bauhuas JournalThe cover for the Bauhaus Journal published from the end of 1926 to 1931. In this virtuoso design for the first issue of 1928, Herbert Bayer takes of the tools of his graphic art to illustrate a variety of representational levels and means.