Footprint in the Sludge

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A Footprint in the Sludge. Remarks on the 20th-Century Culture of Speed

Andreas Broeckmann

The modern cult of machines and speed begins with an accident. Even before, in his newspaper publication of February 1909, Filippo T. Marinetti catapulted the First Futurist Manifesto into the world, he used the introduction to describe a dizzying car ride which, after an attempt to avoid two slow cyclists, ended in the ditch by the roadside. But Marinetti did not take this downfall as a defeat, quite the contrary: instead, it gave the driver a pleasurable encounter with the stinking and oily industrial sludge, necessary to complete the final merging of man and machine. While Einstein's Theory of Relativity and its deductions from the speed of light redefine the relations between space, time and perception, Marinetti is quick to declare the death of space and time, welcoming a culture which can finally see more beauty in a racing car than in a classical Greek sculpture.

Speed becomes the form of movement proper to Modernity – whether as technical and scientific progress, as economic groth, as movement in space or as an increase in the frequency of production. The fascination with technology often goes together with a certain desire for speed, the loss of control and for destruction – a yearning for the sublime experience of absolute acceleration and death. In the everyday culture of the post-Second World War period, also reflected in the arts, the popular topos of an accelerated mobility is paired with the experience with automobile congestion and traffic jams. Thus the European 1960s are not only years of moving, but also of prevented and of standing car traffic: whether in the "Car Crashes" of Andy Warhol's "Death and Desaster Series", Wolf Vostell's Opel car locked in a concrete block, in the car junk sculptures by César Baldaccini and John Chamberlain, already pointing in the direction of David Cronenberg's film "Crash". The same new Realism is used by Roy Lichtenstein, in his "Brushstroke" images, to question the modernist pathos of speed in the gestural painting of Jackson Pollock's and George Mathieu's Abstract Expressionism, and to attempt what art of the industrial age has repeatedly attempted to achieve, namely the reappropriation of an alienated (or disappropriated) sense of space and time.

In 20th-century agriculture, the improvement of productivity is mainly achieved by an expansion of acreage and increase of crops, but hardly by an acceleration of production speeds which are tied to the natural growth processes. At the same time, in industrial production, each individual step of processing and production is continuously optimised. The imagination of armies of robots and overpowering machineries, epitomised in the scenarios of Charlie Chaplin's film "Modern Times", is countered by machine artists like Jean Tinguely with an army of dysfunctional apparatuses and kinetic sculptures which appear hesitant and clumsy, then driven by uncontrolled haste and self-destruction, always squandering and celebrating their own un-productivity.

Modern warfare – to which Tinguely's work is a response – places the highest demands on the speeds of movement, production and information processing; with its Blitzkrieg fleets of bombers and tanks, its remote controlled rockets and drones, war has to be taken as the epitome of the 20th-century culture of speed. Important motivations for the development of the computer, and thus ancestors of digital culture, were the swift decoding of enemy encryption by means of fast and machine-based processing of large amounts of data, and the computation of the flight paths of rockets and bombs. Crucial for this was the concept of real time, which in informatic denotes the opposite of the 'actual passing of time', but rather the necessary simulation of synchronicity between asynchronous processes. Cybernetics, since the mid-20th century, has been striving to turn events into manageable data which can submitted to the logic of machine processing. Since then, the factor of time and differences in speeds play a crucial role in all cybernetic machines. It is therefore barely surprising that the real time of many artworks of the post-war decades describes a radical and natural form of duration: whether in the walks of Robert Long, the date paintings of On Kawara, or the deliberate use of perishable organic materials in the oeuvre of Dieter Roth. The icon of this art of simultaneity is John Cages "4'33"" in which the acoustic events during the defined time span constitute the piece.

Timing, frequency and synchronisation will become key concepts also for the visual arts of the 20th century. In photography, shutter speed is the decisive aesthetic means of quite different practitioners, whether in the multiple exposure images of Étienne-Jules Marey, in the long-time exposures of Hiroshi Sugimoto, or the extremely rapid photographs of Harold Edgerton. In cinematography, the standard of 24 images per second provides a representation of reality which only the human eye perceives as 'truly' continuous. This need for the segmentation and recomposition of temporal sequences underpins the relativity of any sense of time, because the presentation of the film requires the exact same speed of playing back the series of images, in order to create the impression of natural movements.

Too rarely, a clear distinction is made between speed (as a neutral measure of describing a movement or frequency) and acceleration (as an increase in speed). Similarly, it is too often ignored that some processes become slower, or that the acceleration of one process is concomitant to the deceleration of another – just think of the transit and waiting times in international airports. For a critical understanding of speed culture, it would also be useful to distinguish more rigorously between different types of speed, and between different forms of movement, representation and perception. For instance, the mobile phone has not made telephony 'faster', but it has expanded the temporal availability of people for each other. The continuous increase in computation speeds is experienced by most computer users merely in the form of shorter waiting times – which are soon to be extended again as the communication networks, despite ever increasing bandwidths, are slowed down by new applications and security requirements. Post-modern consumer culture makes it possible to buy modernist acceleration – an Ersatz-modernity whose machines of speed are, most of all, machines of frustration that do not seek to incite the beginning of a better life, but merely the acquisition of the next upgrade. Like the acoustic illusion of the Shepard Scale of an endlessly rising tone, or the digital development of this concept in Jan-Peter E.R. Sonntag's illusion of an endlessly 'falling' white noise, the post-modern speeding frenzy is, most of all, just that: an illusionary, spiraling stasis.

A recent, design-driven redefinition of the notion of speed no longer puts blind trust in acceleration (in the sense of faster is better), but seeks to define an appropriate speed for all shapes and processes. This new definition has been criticised sharply by the philosopher Ivan Illich who points to the manifold natural and social phenomena that do not fit the straight-jacket of speed and timing. Like Marinetti, Illich has observed the power of machine-aided speed to disembody, to overcome gravity and disconnect the body from the continuum of nature. Thus, the invocation of acceleration is a code word for a bio-politics that spans from the 18th-century techniques of discipline, through Taylorist ergonomics, to ubiquitous computing, and that seeks the complete inscription of all events of life into an ever more refined cybernetic structure. The potential of resistance of art practices dealing with the paradigm of speed, relates directly to its ability to cross these temporal structures and modes of discipline.

For the imaginations of the 20th century, any type of acceleration was still of major importance, whether in the form of speed records by cars and trains, as the overcoming of the sound barrier by a passenger plane, or the decoding of the human genome. By now, even the continuous and regular, five decades-old increase in computation power is little more than surprising, and also a bit boring since it is predictable according to Moore's Law whose applicability might, if Moore himself is right, end in the 2020s. In contrast, the belief in the sustainability of economic growth in capitalism was rejected by Peter Sloterdijk in his critique of political kinetics as early as 1989, and has been dwindling further with the realisation that this growth is directly proportional to the destruction of the environment and the natural foundations of human life on Earth. Only a few years ago, the embodiment of accelerated social developments was the sprawling of the mega-cities and their slums. But what now outshines this image is the writing on the wall of an accelerated climate change, its monumental sculptures of melting icebergs and glaciers dominating all political image discourses. Illustrating the romantic tableau of deceleration at the end of modernity is the (anthropomorphic) carbon footprint which (atavistically) hails walking speed as the measure not of acceleration, but of survival in the 21st century.

Translation by the author.



Bibliografic references

Mark Dery: "An Extremely Complicated Phenomenon of a Brief Duration Ending in Destruction": the 20th Century as Slow-Motion Car Crash. In: V2_Organisation: Technomorphica. Rotterdam, 1997
Sigfried Giedion: Mechanization Takes Command. Oxford University Press, 1948
Ivan Illich, Matthias Rieger, Sebastian Trapp: Speed? What Speed? In: Jeremy Miller, Michiel Schwarz (eds): Speed – Visions of an Accelerated Age. London/Amsterdam, 1998
Peter Sloterdijk: Eurotaoismus. Zur Kritik der politischen Kinetik. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1989 (Engl. excerpts in Miller/Schwarz, 1998)
Tiqqun: L'hypothèse cybernétique. In: tiqqun 2, Paris, 2001
Paul Virilio: Surfing the Accident. In: Joke Brouwer et al.: The Art of the Accident. Rotterdam: V2_Organisation/NAi Publishers, 1998
Peter Weibel: Die Beschleunigung der Bilder. In der Chronokratie. Bern: Benteli, 1987


(Berlin, 3. Januar 2010)


(published in: Katrin Bucher (ed.): Catch Me! Geschwindigkeit fassen. Ausstellungskatalog Kunsthaus Graz, 2010)

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