In a dark room on the fifth floor of MoMA you can find the three films that are the subject of this piece.  Flanked by Monet’s Water Lilies (1914-1926) and Picasso’s Three Women of The Spring (1921), they are testament to a particular sort of avant-garde vision of industry and machinery. These films show the impact of technological advancement, directly and indirectly, knowingly and subconsciously. They are caught in a historical moment at the crest of mass industrialisation, the product of a time when technology was not taken for granted, but was an inspiration for artistic exploration.
Joris Ivens’ (1898-1989), ‘Die Brug’ (The Bridge) made in 1928 focuses on the operation of a railway bridge over the Maas River in Rotterdam. Beginning with an examination of the bridge, Ivens then deconstructs the structure into its constituent parts, the camera lingering on rivets and bolts. This focus on meticulous mechanical detail is a common trope, and all three illustrate a scientific vision – a microscopic look at the machines, an intimate dissection of their workings. The beguiled camera taking close ups, framing the mechanisms at work – letting them take centre stage.
‘Mechanical Principles’ (1930), by Ralph Steiner (1899-1986) is the ultimate example of this practice; with each frame filled by gear or cog. Stenier’s film exemplifies the grinding motion that penetrates each of the three films. The workings of each mechanical element takes on a majestic beauty winding up and down the screen. The result is perpetual, and relentless – an indication of rhythm of the twentieth century and the idea of technological progress. This ideal is cited clearly by Eugene Deslaw (1898 – 1966) in the title of his first film, ‘The March of the Machines’ (La Marche des Machines) (1928). Progress is the cold, hard metal of the industrial world, which is shown pulsating through the film. In all three features, what could be considered the mundane workings of machinery becomes the subject. No further narrative is included; no starlet, no evocative scenery, and no love interest.
These films are considered experimental artworks, but they are a fusion of art and science – and not purely because of their reliance on cinematic technology. Their sole focus on the technological is fascinating, as it elevates something usually revered or appreciated for its purpose into, ‘a work of exceptional beauty and significance’. As the curators of MoMA have identified, Steiner’s veneration for these machines is rooted in their ‘durability, affordability’, and ‘accessibility.’ As these characteristics suggest, these films are a celebration of machinery that is meant to be ubiquitous and unnoticed. This technology was mass produced, utilitarian, neither celebrated for its innovation nor scientific advancement – it is a subject that by design was meant, if not to be invisible, at least to be recognised for the products it produced, rather then the machine itself.
The three films provide evidence of the influence of industry, and industrial machinery on the artist in the early to mid-twentieth century. Their subject and style demonstrate a marked difference from other, and to some degree, more famous experimental films from the era that are influenced by similar themes. All these films celebrate the machine but its central importance is diminished in other features. Fernand Leger’s, ‘Ballet Mechanique’ (1923) draws similarities between human existence in the modern city and the experience of the machine, but it is quite different in focus from the films discussed as it centres on the anthropomorphic qualities of the machines that it features.
Walter Ruttmann’s, ‘Berlin: Symphony of a Big City’ (1927) is arguably the most well known of the city symphony genre, and perhaps of the films discussed. Machines feature as the metronome of modern existence, setting the rhythm of urban life. Ruttman’s subject however has a much larger focus, looking not solely at the movement and rhythms of the metropolis but capturing the life of the city as a whole. Dziga Vertov’s, ‘The Man With a Movie Camera’ (1929) then may be seen to be similar in focus to the three films that are the basis of the article, as in the words of Martin Norden, ‘a mechanical subject – the camera itself – becomes the star of the film’. This observation cannot be denied, the film is a celebration of the camera and is deliberately and intermittently peppered with shots of its subject. The role of the camera however is not to be broken down as a mechanical dissection; it is the camera as the Seeing Eye that is explored here.
This exploration of the limits of the purpose of the machine is clearly different from the features of Ivens, Deslaw and Steiner. It is the fact that these particular artists believed that these industrial workings deserved to be captured on film that intrigues me. The films demonstrate how technology can provide inspiration for artists but it is the interwoven nexus of the relationships between art, science, technology and culture that they describe best. They recount relationships and influence with large scope and global reach; the films are the product of three countries and two continents, and they suggest a fascination and reverence which provides an interesting framework in which to think of the mass examples of technology entering work and the home during the period.
 Museum of Modern Art, New York: http://www.moma.org
 MoMA Wall Panel Text
 MoMA Wall Panel Text
 Martin F Norden, ‘The Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1920s: Connections to Futurism, Precisionism, and Suprematism’, Leonardo, Vol. 17, NO.2, pp.108-112, 1984, p.110
Suggested Reading/ Viewing –
Frankie Kubicki –
Frankie previously studied History at King’s College, London. She has a keen interest in museology and has previously worked at Somerset House, Wellcome Collection and Two Temple Place. Her MA thesis examines paper disposable products from the early twentieth century and aims to question wider ideas of what makes a thing, ‘rubbish’.
© Frankie Kubicki, 2013. All Rights Reserved.