And Modern Futurism
Futurism was an Italian movement started in the early part of the twentieth century that fed on the dynamic and rapidly changing social and political situations of twentieth century life. The movement encompassed all forms of art and performance including painting, literature, sculpture, theatre and the performing arts. However, this paper chooses to focus more on the Russian Futurist movement, whose roots were in Italian Futurism, and who focused more on the audio and performing arts aspects of Futurism, as they are more relevant.
Futurism, as a movement, had its official start on February 20, 1909 when Filippo Marinetti published Founding and Manifesto of Futurism in a French newspaper. Marinetti was a poet and writer giving Futurism its start as a literary movement. For almost a year after the article was published Marinetti was the sole member of the Futurist revolution, but the following year Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini co-wrote and published The Manifesto of Futurist Painting giving Futurism a place in the arts as well.
Marinetti’s ideas were radical. They called for the art and literature community to embrace noise, sludge, filth and the sounds that the mechanical revolution had given them. He called for the destruction of the traditional arts, the end of “museums, libraries, and academies of every kind. (Osborn, www.futurism.fsnet.co.uk).” His published manifesto follows:
1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt
aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the
4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of
speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath-a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
5. We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth,
along the circle of its orbit.
6. The poet must spend himself with ardor, splendor, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic
fervor of the primordial elements.
7. Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a
masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
8. We stand on the last promontory of the centuries! Why should we look back, when what we
want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
9. We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism,
feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
10. We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the
multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd. (Osborn, www.futurism.fsnet.co.uk)
Marinetti also stated his disdain for traditional art stating:
In truth I tell you that daily visits to museums, libraries, and academies (cemeteries of empty exertion, Calvaries of crucified dreams, registries of aborted beginnings!) are, for artists, as damaging as the prolonged supervision by parents of certain young people drunk with their talent and their ambitious wills. When the future is barred to them, the admirable past may be a solace for the ills of the moribund, the sickly, the prisoner... But we want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!
By 1912, the movement had spread beyond the borders of Italy, most notably to Russia. Russian Futurists, like their Italian counterparts embraced the idea of challenging culture’s traditional artistic structures and accepted modes of language and music. However, its seems that the Russian Futurists, unlike the Italians, took more of an interest in music and sound. The Italian Futurists, whose movement was practically dominated by Marinetti, focused primarily on painting and literature.
Russian Futurism, officially begun in 1912 with an article published by David Burliuk, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Alexei Kruchenykh called A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, called for new linguistic innovations, dislocated syntax, and strange word placement as elements of spoken word (Gordon, 210-211). Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov, as well as Wassily Kandinsky, Nikolai Kublin, and composer Aleksandr Scriabin were noted and celebrated for their experimentation in alternative “Sound Creation.”
Alexei Kruchenykh became associated with the Russian Futurists in the late part of 1911. After that period he appeared as either a contributor or author of almost all of their manifestos. Kruchenykh was a poet, musician, and creator of zaum, perhaps his most notable contribution to the Futurist movement. Kruchenykh co-wrote the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun with fellow Russian Kazmir Malevich, who shall be discussed later.
Zaum was a “rubric that embraced the private languages of schizophrenics, folk incantations, baby talk, glossolalia, random onomatopoetic verse, and Futurist neologisms (Gordon, 212).” The word zaum itself comes from the prefix ‘za’ which means ‘beyond’ and the suffix ‘um’, which means ‘mind’. This word shows us that Kruchenykh was attempting to go ‘beyond the mind’ with his new language. He claimed that thought and speech had a natural dissociation within the brain and that conventional language was static, meaning that each word had an exact pronunciation and meaning. Kruchenykh wanted to break from this idea. He knew that there were feelings and emotions that had no exact word to describe them. He wanted a language that did not marry precise meaning and articulation with any word. Zaum, Kruchenykh stated, gave Futurist poets a “transrational language” that could “…lead the artist far beyond the restraints of socially sanctioned patterns and the vise of national vocabularies (Gordon, 212).”
Kruchenykh was chiefly inspired by a religious zealot named V. Shishkov (Gordon, 212) and Filippo Marinetti’s ‘words-in-freedom’. The religious speech was meaningless, yet it was believed to be dictated by God himself and therefore was higher than meaning. Marinetti’s words-in-freedom were also inspired by wandering mystics but also gave great emphasis to individual syllables, especially vowels. Kruchenykh carried this idea further claiming that vowel sounds were universal as well as eliminating all genders except the masculine from language. What follows is an example of a zaum poem:
zel (Gordon, 213)
Through zaum, Kruchenykh claimed that he had mastered all languages and that his poetry had better sound quality than those of Aleksandr Pushkin’s (arguably Russia’s greatest poet and literary figure). Usually when one makes a claim of such extremity, one opens themselves up to an amazing amount of criticism and perhaps ridicule, but Kruchenykh’s ideas on the fundamental nature of language provoked a great deal of intrigue and debate up until the time of his death.
Yet another zaum supporter and champion was Velimir Khlebnikov. Khlebnikov, like his futurist peers, believed zaum to be the ultimate poetic language. He believed that zaum “spoke universally and subconsciously to all mankind.” (Gordon, 215). Unfortunately, Khlebnikov died of malnutrition in 1922, but not before leaving behind two great futurist works. The first was an alphabet of sorts, listing all the phonemes of language and assigning a ‘characteristic’ to each sound. For example, the letter A had a characteristic of negation, B of collision or magnification and so on. In some cases there was a color assigned to each letter to further indicate the feeling. The zaum alphabet was “the definitive work on the phonetics of the zaum language, giving insight to a language that was, at best, difficult to grasp.” (Schmidt, 22).
The second work left by Khlebnikov was a futurist play called Zangezi: A Supersaga in Twenty Planes. The hero of the play is a man who attempts to explain the language of birds, stars, insects and gods to a gathered mass. He manages to do this by using the language of zaum.
As with their use of language, the Russian Futurists made some radical innovations in music. Led by early pioneers like Wassily Kandinsky, who used his synesthetic visions to assign each individual note a certain color, practiced the use of dissonance in almost all of his works, and challenged the idea the sound must coincide with the actions on stage. Kandinsky is more known for his art work than his audio art, but there is a great deal of his art that was inspired by his music. He would “see” colors in music and put to canvas what he saw. Then he would challenge audiences to guess which musical score inspired which painting. Kandinsky had a theory that there are three essential elements to a performance that can touch an audience- music, movement, and color. He believed that if one could use these different elements in their compositions, they could touch audiences like never before. Unfortunately, Kandinsky was forced to do much of his work abroad, mostly in Munich and Paris, due to the volatile political situation in Russia during the early part of the century. He continued his examinations of color and sound until his death, but his work was never fully realized in his homeland due to his absence.
Yet another pioneer was Nikolai Kublin, who was the authority on synesthetic theory and “musical coloration” (Gordon, 205). Kublin also urged composers to utilize quarter and eighth tones, notes almost impossible for traditional instruments to create, and hence for the creation of new instruments or modification of existing ones. Kublin wrote that musical staves should be abolished replacing them with quarter notes and his “colored music.” He also believed that music had “its own independent power and should remain as free as the everyday sounds in nature,” and that if allowed, this “…new, anarchistic music, floating outside the standard reaches of the five-line scale, could greatly enlarge the composer’s vocabulary.” (Gordon, 205).
Later Russian Futurist sound composers utilized the ideas set forth by these innovators and carried them further, some to the point of exile from their own homes. Mikhail Matyushin, for instance, worked closely with Kandinsky studying color and musical relationships to color. His greatest work was the score for Kruchenykh’s opera Victory Over the Sun, which according to critics and fans was a “wicked and dissonant parody of Verdi” (Gordon, 218).
Another late and great Futurist composer was Nikolai Foregger. Foregger created MASTFOR (Workshop for Foregger) to attract gifted avant garde artists to his studios. Foregger and MASTFOR’s greatest sound creation was a Noise Orchestra to accompany the actions onstage. The Noise Orchestra was created in order to produce all of the sucking, whirring, grinding, and crushing noises needed in order to imitate machinery. The instruments were made of boxes of broken bottles, packing cases, metal sheets, whistles, paper horns, gongs, sticks of all materials- wood, copper, iron- and a reed pipe. The Noise Orchestra was so successful that in 1923, Walter Duranty described it in the New York Times as so: “Arms wave, bodies are flung to and fro in regular oscillation, like machines in a factory. Rumbling, rattling, buzzing, and whirring noises off-stage aid the illusion, and after the spectator’s first astonishment is past, one does begin to see the effectiveness of the mimicry.” (Gordon, 222).
Foregger’s success among the working class was huge, but the newly formed government did not care for his particular form of entertainment and put the house under strict censorship. Many attempted to imitate or duplicate the success of MASTFOR, but none came close to Foregger. He was one of the last prominent Russian Futurist to involve themselves with sound before the movement dissolved in the mid to late twenties.
Unfortunately for Futurism, both in Italy and Russia, the timing and political affiliations of most Futurists clashed with the current or rising scenes of their receptive countries. Futurism was politically Fascist. If it was not Fascist, it was highly anti-government, anti-establishment, and anti-conformist. For Russian Futurists, the fall of the Czarist regime and the establishment of a Leninist government were fatal. Lenin did as much as he could to stifle any voices that denounced the government and by their very nature, the Futurists fit snugly into that category.
Futurism as a practice also became divided into bickering factions as artists became more and more critical of one another. Some tended to label anyone who came along with an new idea, whether it was a good idea or not, as geniuses, while others denounced anyone that did not adhere absolutely to Futurist ideas. In the end even pioneers of Futurism like Kublin came under the ridicule of his peers.
If it was not the political situation that brought a downfall to the Futurist movement it was the internal fighting. Neither can be solely blamed as they both led to its demise, but both were a determining factor.
While the Futurist movement died in the late 1920’s, the ideas set fourth by the Futurists did not. The idea that one must actively seek to undermine the established musical and artistic norm has been carried on since its inception. The idea that one can use mechanical, natural, and dissonant noises as inspiration and instrumentation has not died either. Many composers and movements have empowered the ideas set out by the Futurists. While few have gone so far as to adopt their political ideas, their artistic ideas have lived on.
One group that could be argued to have boldly taken on both the political and artistic ideas of the Futurists, whether they knew it or not, were the Punks of the late sixties and early seventies in Great Britain. Author Karen Pinkus offers us an interesting parallel between the Punk Movement and The Futurists in her article Futurism: Proto Punk?
In it she argues that both the Futurist and the Punks shared a dislike of high art, bohemian/hippie art, and of nostalgia. In perhaps the most convincing argument of punks being a reincarnation of the Futurists Pinkus states: “Futurism created an immediate mass scandal, and the members of the movement began to organize "evenings" (happenings) that combined drama, music, politics, provocation, and assault on the audience. The performances were violent, and as the Futurists gained notoriety throughout Italy, they were stalked by a sizable police presence, which only helped to further arouse the curiosity of the spectators. The Futurists traded insults with respected members of the town they visited, objects were thrown on stage, and performers and spectators engaged in gobbing, an act that later became a punk trademark (although according to John Lydon, nee Rotten, it all started not as a planned program to break down traditional performer/spectator boundaries, but because of his sinusitis).” (Pinkus, http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/protopunk.html).
The creators of each respective movement also closely resemble one another in attitude and practice. Malcolm McClaren, founder of the Sex Pistols and self-proclaimed father of punk, and Filippo Marinetti, founder of Futurism, were both egotistical, attention grabbing individuals. Both had similar politics on women and sex (that essentially men could and should do without both) and similar political motives. However, according to Pinkus, Marinetti managed to keep more control over his movement working from the inside out. McClaren tended to be more of an overlord.
Fashions were almost identical in the movements. Futurists wore skinny ties and dark tattered suits. Their hair was spiked, rarely brushed, and messy. This was done to make their performances all the more outrageous, much like the punks with their torn shirts, spiked hair, and the same thin ties and suits.
It seems that the most interesting parallel to the movements, at least to the writer, was that music was never primary in either movement. Futurism used their music as part of a larger performance. It rarely stood alone. Punks also used their music as a secondary to their performances. The Sex Pistols, the first and most notorious punk band, did not even bother to learn to play their instruments before their first show. Both artists provoked their audiences, sometimes to the point of rage. Both groups were interested more in noise than music and both groups were not above insulting their sponsors or benefactors in order to drum up publicity.
It seems that both movements were born from social and political changes that happened in different countries, but the way they went about their movements is strikingly similar. Futurism may not have been a direct influence on the Punks, but the Punk movement was a modern Futurist movement.
For more information on this particular subject read Karen Pinkus’ article Futurism: Proto Punk? available at http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/protopunk.html.
Yet another modern Futurist group, who open admits to be carrying on the idea set fourth by the Futurists, are the Neo-Futurists, a performing arts group based out of Chicago. They strive to engage the audience with political, personal, and highly charged works. They offer a history of their beginnings that follows:
In typical postmodern fashion, a theory was borrowed from here, a form was stolen from there. From our namesakes, the Italian Futurists, came the exultation of speed, brevity, compression, dynamism, and the explosion of preconceived notions. From Dada and Surrealism came the joy of randomness and the thrill of the unconscious. From the theatrical experiments of the 1960's came audience interaction, breaking down all notions of distance, character, setting, and illusion. Finally, from the political turmoil of the 1980's came a socially conscious voice and a low-tech, "poor theater" format.
As well as their own manifesto of sorts:
We are dedicated to:
1. Strengthening the human bond between performer and audience. We feel that the
more sincere and genuine we can be on stage, the greater will be the audience's identification with the unadorned people and issues before them.
2. Embracing a form of non-illusory theater in order to present our lives and our ideas as directly as possible. All of our plays are set on the stage in front of the audience. All of our characters are ourselves. All of our stories really happened. All of our tasks are actual challenges. We do not aim to "suspend the audience's disbelief" but to create a world where the stage is a continuation of daily life.
3. Embracing the moment through audience interaction and planned obsolescence. In
order to keep ourselves as alive on stage as possible, we interweave elements of chance and change -- contradicting the expected and eliminating the permanent.
4. Presenting inexpensive art for the general public. We aim to influence the widest
audience possible by keeping our ticket prices affordable and our productions intellectually and emotionally challenging yet accessible.
For more information on this group, go to their website at: http://neofuturists.org
The ideas and practices of the Futurists are still alive and well in groups like the Neo-Futurists and have been highly exposed in movements like Punk Rock. It is a safe bet that most people outside of the academic have not heard of Futurism, or if they have it has only been in passing in an art history class. However, almost everyone has heard of the Punk movement and if one is lucky enough to make it to Chicago or New York they can experience the experimental theatre offered there. While the actual Futurist movement may have died out with the end of the twenties, the ideas are still alive and well.
The Futurism Website. Designed and maintained by Bob Osborn. Online. Internet.
1930).” Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde. Ed. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994. 197-243.
Marinetti, F. T. “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” Originally published in
France, 20 Feburary 1909. Online. Internet. Available http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/manifesto.html/
The Neo-Futurist Website, http://neofuturists.org/
Pinkus, Karen. “Futursim: Proto Punk?” Originally published in Speed Kills magazine,
date unknown. Online. Internet. 20 April 2001. Available http://www.unknown.nu/futurism/protopunk.html/