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Martha Schwendener

Martha Schwendener, Ph.D., is an art critic for The New York Times and a visiting professor at New York University. Her criticism and essays have been published in Artforum, Afterimage, Bookforum, October, Art in America, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, The Brooklyn Rail, Art Papers, New Art Examiner, Paper Monument, and other publications. She is working on a manuscript that examines Flusser's philosophy in relation to art.

Articles of Martha Schwendener

Colourful Dialogue: Vilém Flusser, Karl Gerstner and the Casa da Cor

Casa da Cor connected Vilém Flusser with an important interlocutor: Karl Gerstner. Gerstner’s systems-based approach was laid out in his book Designing Programmes: Instead of Solutions for Problems, Programmes for Solutions (1964). He was involved in New Tendencies, the 1960s Zagreb-based group that saw research and the computer as a medium for artistic innovation, and he was included in landmark exhibitions like The Responsive Eye (1965) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and documenta 4 (1968). Flusser and Gerstner discussed developing a denotative color code and creating a three-dimensional color space, called Colorarium, that would follow precedents like Kandinsky’s The Yellow Sound, composer Ivan Wyschengradsky’s audition colorée, or Le Corbusier’s Poème électronique (1958), as well as Gerstner’s earlier environments made with televisions, Plexiglass spheres, and acrylic-on-polyester reliefs. Neither the Colorarium nor the color code were realized, but they were theorized in Flusser’s writings: “On Science III” (1988) in Artforum mentioned Casa da Cor and asked, “Could a color code become a sort of universal Esperanto, complementing or even substituting for spoken and written language?”

Colourful Dialogue (PDF 260.76 KB)

Orthonature Paranature de Vilém Flusser / Vilém Flusser’s Orthonature Paranature

Flusser and French Theory

Flusser lived in France for roughly the last decade and a half of his life, but he often minimized the influence of French philosophy (or “theory”) on his writing. I would argue, however, that the impact and reception of Flusser’s work relies largely on the avenues opened up by French theory, and that French theory provided a fruitful “model” – one of Flusser’s favorite terms – for his own visionary thinking. Flusser was first celebrated in Germany, where Friedrich Kittler, the most prominent media theorist of his era, embraced his technical image writings. Kittler was informed by recent French theory: Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida. In the U.S., Flusser’s reception was through two avenues, both heavily influenced by French theory: photography theory within art history, and the U.S. art world. This paper traces some of these connections, comparing Flusser to contemporary peers and thinkers like Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Paul Virilio, Guy Debord, and François Laruelle.

French Theory (PDF 199.62 KB)

Art and Language in Vilém Flusser’s Brazil: Concrete Art and Poetry

Paradoxically, Flusser felt exiled to the periphery of intellectual life and culture by his forced migration to Brazil in 1940, but he was actually arriving at a center of innovation in art and writing. The Museu de Arte Moderna opened in São Paulo in 1948, the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro in 1949, and the inaugural São Paulo Biennial in 1951. Concrete art intersected with Concrete poetry and Flusser was profoundly impacted by these developments. Flusser was impressed by the formal layout of Concrete art and poetry and their approaches to space, color, and typography. Concrete painting and poetry served as proto- interfaces or screens and offered what poet and theorist Haroldo de Campos called a “new dialogical relationship” with “imperial” languages. These developments caught the attention of Max Bense, the information-aesthetics theorist who served as an early and important model for Flusser, and who exhibited Concrete poetry, as well as computer-generated drawings and the work of Flusser’s friend Mira Schendel, in the Study Gallery at the University of Stuttgart. Flusser translated a fragment of Haroldo de Campos’ Galáxias for Bense’s and Elisabeth Walther’s experimental journal rot, and the enduring impact of Concrete art and poetry can be glimpsed in Flusser’s later concepts: the “superficial” reading of technical images, non-linear “post-historical” thinking, and the idea that philosophy itself would be practiced in images rather than written words.

Art and Language (PDF 424.1 KB)

Vilém Flusser’s Theories of Photography and Technical Images in a U.S. Art Historical Context

In the field of U.S. art history, the photography specialization is fairly new and the discourse is dominated by a handful of voices like Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, while Vilém Flusser has been virtually ignored. This essay examines the trilogy of “technical image” texts Flusser wrote in the 1980s—Towards  a Philosophy of Photography (1983), Into the Universe of Technical Images (1985), and Does Writing Have a Future? (1987)—and beyond these, locating the seeds of Flusser’s “photophilosophy” in his use of information and communications theory to develop concepts like “image,” “apparatus,” “program,” and “information.” It considers the U.S. art historical bias toward writers like Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, and the “control society” ethos of Gilles Deleuze and Flusser’s proposal that technical images and photography criticism could provide models for creative disruption of apparatus and finally, “human freedom.” Placed in the current moment, with its crises of environment, technology, economy, and geopolitics, this essay considers Flusser’s writing as a form of ethics and politics in which photography serves as a model for thinking about history, culture, revolution, and consciousness.

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