Fritz Kahn: Respiration (top) and What goes on in our heads when we see a car and say car? 1939

Fritz Kahn: What goes on in our heads when we see a car and say car? 1939

Kahn’s fascinating information graphics from the 1920s and 1930s have become motifs for the industrialism and mechanisation of the period – the result of Fordism and the idea of the man-machine, production-line, time-and-motion, rationalisation of work – essentially making man fit in with machine-age capitalism. Kahn’s beautifully intricate graphics echo the zeitgeist that is also illustrated (and summoned) in Raoul Hausmann’s Spirit of Our Times (1921), Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and Karel Capek’s Rossums Universal Robots (1921), etc, etc.


Raoul Hausmann: Spirit of the Age 1921

The fact that Kahn’s work tended to solidify and ratify the mechanistic rationale of how our body and senses work, and that this was the model that determined how many of us (of my generation at least) were taught, makes you wonder at the cybernetic and computer-processing metaphor that is the current zeitgeist model of how we work. It’s inevitable, I guess, that we use these descriptors as metaphors – explaining the complex in terms of the simple. I was aware of this image long before I discovered that it was by Fritiz Kahn. It appeared uncredited in films and prints by Eduardo Paolozzi (History of Nothing, 1960) and Stan Vanderbeek (Science Friction, 1959).

If you’re interested in Fritz Kahn and his work, there’s a great monograph on him by Ute and Philo von Debschitz (Taschen, 2013).


Bob Cotton: Zeiteye 2010

Bob Cotton: Zeiteye 2010

This is a short film I made 2009-2010. It was a way of dramatising an archive database – a database film as Lev Manovitch called it. Its intent was to illustrate the changing zeitgeist of the previous 11 decades of new media innovation:
ZeitEYE is a film about innovation in media and the arts since 1900. It is in the form of a rapid montage of stills featuring all the principle media and art innovations of the last eleven decades. It is punctuated and contextualised by the inclusion of keynote artists and celebrities of each decade, and is framed by closeups of the eyes of these zeitgeist figures. It is a kind of back-story of our contemporary broadband networked media, and it is a film about the evolving spirit of the age. It is eleven decades of media-arts innovation in eleven minutes.”

The avant garde music is Ballet Mecanique, composed by George Antheil between 1923-24 originally for the film Ballet Mecanique made by Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy and Man Ray in 1924. Used with permission of the George Antheil estate.  This recording is conducted by Daniel Spalding and played by the Philadelpia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. CD available at


Janusz Maria Brzeski: Zrwotnice (Crossover) photomontage series 1936

Janusz Maria Brzeski: Zrwonice (Crossover) photomontage series 1936

The Polish artist Brzeski , graphic designer, photographer and film-maker, produced a phenomenal range of photomontage – series of works exploring the zeitgeist motifs- the emergence of modernity – in the 1930s – visions of mechanisation (the Narodziny Robota – Birth of the Robot- series), visions of modern capitalism |(Idylls of the 20th Century), visions of War (Zwrotnice – Crossover series), and of emerging sexual equalities (the Sex cycle). Powerful image-making, pulling printed photographs, drawings, typography, news-clips etc together, Brzeski’s work parallels that of his contemporary  Czech artists/architects Karel Tiege and Jiri Kroha – the second generation of photo-collagists.


What inspires me about these second generation photomontagists is that they shared in a more-or-less common vision of the zeitgeist of modernity – glamour, commerce, industrialism, mechanisation (the robot and the production-line), and the threat of fully mechanised, aerial warfare in a future world war.

Patrick Hughes: Reverspective paintings 1964-present

Patrick Hughes: Reverspective paintings 1964-present

Hughes’ Reverspectives are amazing. I first saw one at the Chelsea Arts Club in about 2004. I was blown away. I knew that Patrick had been deeply involved in the study of paradox and visual paradox in particular, and this (he called them Reverspectives) was a brilliant example of a great idea, beautiful crafting of the 3d painted-construction, and acute understanding of how perspective illusions are created in our brain. I must have walked up and down in front of this Reverspective for about half-an-hour, marvelling at the acutely visceral effect a mere illusion – a tromp l’oeil – was having on my perception.


There’s an interview with Patrick at:

And a short video sequence illustrating a walk-past of a reverspective:



Kees Boeke: Cosmic View – The Universe in 40 Jumps 1957

Kees Boeke: Cosmic View - The Universe in 40 Jumps 1957

Boeke was an amazing man – a Quaker and a pacifist, married to a Cadbury heiress, an educationalist, anti-capitalist, film-maker and artist. His Cosmic View illustrated an idea that was to meme its way through the following half-century, triggering filmic and bibliographic versions that illustrated or visualised the concept with varying but generally improving quality, from drawings and animation in Eva Szasz’ Cosmic Zoom (1968), to high-fidelity photography in the Charles and Ray Eames Powers of Ten and the Philip and Phylis Morrison Powers of Ten book.


Charles and Ray Eames: Powers of Ten 1977 Some 13 years or so before Photoshop and 16 years before After Effects, Charles and Ray Eames brilliant exposition and amplification of Kees Boeke’s idea, is to me, the best yet – it combines an aesthetic clarity and coherence with a ‘data-visualisation’ approach – you can see the numbers flicking faster upwards as God-like we accelerate out beyond the Milky Way into intergalactic space, and realise how small and delightfully insignificant we are in the great schema. In contrast, Boeke’s simple pen and ink visualisations are the bare maximum expression of the idea. Drawn with pedagogical intent, – to express and illustrate the amazing qualities of exponentials – Boeke’s book remains a brilliant masterpiece of information design.

This level of world-class information design embraces iconic examples of design such as Harry Beck’s London Underground map, Otto and Marie Neurath’s Isotypes, Florence Nightingale’s Mortality diagrams, and Alan Kay’s Alto graphical user-interface.


Florence Nightingale: Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East 1858 It was by means of diagrams like this that Nightingale was able to convince the British Military that profound changes in hospitalisation and care of wounded were essential. The clarification that a well-designed diagram brings to a mass of complex data explains why the art/science of information design and data-visualisation have become synch a central part of our intellectual world in the 21st century. These are some of the great pioneers.


Otto and Marie Neurath: Isotypes 1936. With the artist Gerd Arntz, the Neurath’s created a brilliant information-design system specially to humanise the illustration of complex statistics and other quantitive data. Their rationalisation of Isotypes into an information-design system has had a pround impact in this field, not least in the utilisation of simple icons and other symbols in the field of human-computer interface design (initially implemented by Alan Kay and the Xerox PARC team in the Xeroix Alto interface (1973).


Harry Beck: London Underground Map 1933 Becks brilliant innovation in schematic mapping uses colour-coding, simple symbols, a Gill Sans typeface, and a harmonic grid of horizontal-vertical-oblique to simplify the complex data of a geographical map, while at the same time preserving the logical relationships between stations and interchanges – all this with a stylised River Thames running across the capitol!


In 1982, Philip and Phylis Morrison, who assisted the Eames partnership in the making of the Powers of Ten film, produced a brilliant book of the subject, each page of the main sequence amplifying the image-field by a power of ten. In something like 80 pages the Powers sequence amplifies each step with contextual information, examples of artefacts at that scale – from DNA molecules to Galactic Clusters – informing at the same time as gratifying the senses.

And I started with Kees Boeke’s book not just because it was an original idea, nor because he was the first to visualise this idea, but because the book in its graphic simplicity has a kind of zen purity – a koan quality – that makes it sublime – it is Zen and the Art of Information Design.

Raoul Grimoin-Sanson: Cineorama 1900

Raoul Grmoin-Sanson: Cineorama 1900

Grimoin-Sanson’s Cineorama fuzes two media technologies to create a new experience: immersive cinema. The media-art-form of the early 19th century, invented by Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre, the diorama – a circular building in which was hung a 360-degree painted canvas depicting views, great battles, etc – is combined with a very modern and recent 19th century invention, the cinematograph, in a bravado tour de force of new media experimentation worthy of the Paris World Exposition of 1900.


Grimoin-Sanson’s 10-camera panoroamic camera rig for shooting content for his Cineorama of 1900. Using synchronised cameras with slightly overlapping frame coverage of the entire 360-degree scene from an ascending balloon over Paris, Grimoin-Sanson then projects these linked films to create a simulated balloon ride for visitors to the Expo.

It is entirely appropriate that the new 20th century should be celebrated by a marriage of old and new media, and of course that the content of this new marriage should be the experience of flight. So three years before the first powered aeroplane flight, Raoul Grimoin-Sanson celebrates the experience of flying in this stimulation of a balloon-flight over Paris. Filmed using a set of synchronised 70 mm movie cameras, projected using a similarly synchronised set of 10 projectors, Cineorama provided the first taste of 20th century immersive entertainment.


Poster for the Cineorama – a foretaste of theme-park rides and subsequent world expo installations, Cineorama begins a long strand of innovation exploring immersive experience and simulation that culminates with the invention of virtual reality and augmented reality, iMax theatres and immersive-art installations towards the end of the century.

Christopher Chapman: A Place to Stand 1967

Christopher Chapman: A Place to Stand 1967

Chapman’s Oscar-winning entry for Expo67 was commissioned by the province of Ontario. It uses a ‘multi-dynamic image’ technique – a phrase invented by Chapman to describe the use of ‘dynamic frames’ – filmed sequences that varied dynamically in size as they were projected, and the multiple use of these ‘screens’ or ‘panes’ within the vast screen he was using at Expo67 – a screen that measured 66 feet by 30 feet – (i-Max size). Remember that in 1967 computers weren’t ready to process this kind of media-making, so that Chapman had to use auditor’s printed spreadsheets to work out how his multi-dynamic film should be shot, how it should be storyboarded, and finally how the multi-image effect that he wanted should be described accurately enough for the Todd-AO optical-printing specialists in Hollywood to actually assemble all Chapman’s clips (180,000 feet of film) together – as he wanted – into an 18-minute multi-dynamic film.


Chapman’s A Place to Stand was his first widely-promoted attempt to realise his multi-dynamic image approach. This is a fragment of the 70mmm film with sample images optically (photographically) printed as dynamic frames within the span of the 70mm frame.

A Place to Stand is a multi-image treatment – a motion-montage – about the province of Ontario. Chapman’s film content  follows the  ‘city symphony’ ideas of the 1920s (Ruttman: Berlin – Symphony of a Great City, and Vertov: Man With a Movie Camera, etc), and following the avant garde experimental approach of those early attempts to capture a physical space, Chapman’s film invents new techniques – a new form, in fact – presaging the digital compositing software that came into wide use in the last two decades.

BTW users of contemporary 21st century compositing software like Adobe AfterFX, Nuke, Maya Composite, Apple Motion etc, will find it hard to understand the level of difficulty facing Chapman in his quest for the multi-dynamic image form. It is relatively so easy today to assemble and view test composites in realtime, or after only a few minutes rendering time, and see the results on large flatscreen display monitors – as you are working. Try to imagine this kind of compositing being planned using a standard Movieola. This is how Chapman describes part of the process:

“180,000 feet of film were shot. Some additional footage of material I had not time to shoot myself was shot by David Mackay, using TDF cameramen. After completely familiarising myself with the footage, I worked out a storyboard of the entire film. Although it was theoretical, it did give me an impression of how the subject matter could be structured. I then had to devise my own charts as did Barry Gordon who translated my charts into his own lab charts in a language that the lab could comprehend. The lab was most impressed with the clarity of Barry Gordon’s technical instructions.
To edit the film I had a 2 picture head moviola which was the closest one could get to visualising the results. One could only use it to compare actions of any 2 shots at one time and designate the length of shots. In normal film editing, one works with the actual footage and soon discovers that frame or two on any shot can make a difference in rhythm. With the Ontario film I could never “see” the film develop. The charts indicated the movement of the shots. Because of the shortage in time their could be no changes in structure in any of the sequences once they returned from the lab. It was a tremendous discipline for me, for once I had made a creative decision, I could not change my mind. The entire concept of development therefore, was on paper in chart form.”from
There’s a short clip of Chapman’s film here:

So like graphic designers of the time, Chapman had to provide the optical printing lab at ToddAO with a set of written instructions and multi-image storyboards, then wait for several days or weeks while the Lab constructed his multi-dynamic film. Nowadays we can visualise this more or less in realtime. What lucky bastards we are!



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