In his 1959 essay ‘City Notes’, Lawrence Alloway (1926–1990) set himself against the modernist impulse towards an urbanism that insisted on efficient, simple, rational and unified design – one synchronised with industrial modernity. Declaring that ‘The mass arts contribute to the real environment of cities’, Alloway expressed a perspective that might have seemed radical to modernist architects such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius.1 Indeed, this succinct claim was, in part, politically aimed at the urban planners of his own city, London, and written in direct response to a photograph of Piccadilly Circus, published in Ernö Goldfinger’s and E.J. Carter’s book County of London Plan (1946), which was accompanied by the caption ‘architectural squalor’. Goldfinger’s and Carter’s text advanced a vision of the post-war reconstruction of London that included the removal of elevated Victorian railways and the creation of housing estates modelled on Le Corbusier’s ideal of volumetric towers separated by liberal amounts of open space. In the case of the particular photograph that interested Alloway, the planners proposed to eliminate the clutter of abundant and competing visual displays in the city’s public spaces. London, their text suggested, would be an improved city without its many advertisements contradicting and competing with each other. In Piccadilly Circus, the writers sought to strip the visual cacophony from the underlying Regency architecture.
Alloway, however, advanced a different vision of the city, one in which urban planning and the popular were reconciled. The popular environment, wrote Alloway in ‘City Notes’, should be appreciated for embracing an ever-expanding array of mass cultural technologies. Film, advertising, comics, television and pulp cover art were celebrated by the critic, who classed them all together as ‘the popular arts’.2 This was a view not entirely dissimilar from the ‘society of the spectacle’ which the situationist writer Guy Debord would later elucidate.3 However, in Alloway’s model, there is no readily apparent consideration of the role of capital in the production of spectacle. Instead, his view was based on the detection of parallel developments and systems in the diversification of media. As its variety, density, and quantity expanded, he claimed, so did its audience, and so culture became democratised.
In Alloway’s writing, two technologies embodied this new media ideology: the CinemaScope screen, with its dramatic expansion of the field of vision, and the windshield of an American car, which provided a panoramic view of the city.4 Both the windscreen and the movie screen were, according to Alloway, communication devices through which images of the city are formed and transmitted. The popular audience who receives these images is locked in an interactive loop with the realities constructed both in the movies and in the city itself.5 In Alloway’s analysis of the relationship between the public and the popular arts, spectacular culture and popular sensibilities interact and co-evolve. The public environment and media environment are treated as parallel systems.
In situating Alloway’s ideas about the ‘popular arts’ within post-war London’s artistic and political cultures, it is important to explain the role that the emerging science of cybernetics played in the formation of Alloway’s critical thinking, in particular its adherence to comparisons and analogies as processes by which connections between distinct entities can be mapped.
Cybernetics was in part developed on the principle of discovering and analysing the structural similarity of systems of behaviour governing both living beings and mechanical entities. In a 1943 article, the mathematician Norbert Wiener and two co-authors defined behaviour as ‘any change of an entity with respect to its surroundings’, which led them to examine purposeful, as opposed to random, behavioural mechanisms aimed at the performance of a specific task or goal, of which some were governed teleologically, or in their words, by ‘feedback’.6 Two years later, in the first application of the model on an organic system, they studied the human cardiac muscle in precisely these terms. In a system tasked with the purpose of providing blood to a living body, the nervous system provides electrical stimulation to the muscle, which reacts accordingly; this feedback causes the nervous system to subsequently compensate.7 In 1948 Wiener published Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (in which the term ‘cybernetics’ was coined), followed by a second book, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), which conveyed concepts from the new science to a wide readership.8 The scientific study of systems operating with feedback and control mechanisms was extended in the latter publication to a whole host of human interactions with the physical and social environment. Since it is the extension of these ideas to the realm of culture that concerns us, it is worth quoting Wiener on this subject at length:
Man in immersed in a world which he perceives through his sense organs. Information that he receives is co-ordinated through his brain and nervous system until, after the proper process of storage, collation, and selection, it emerges through effector organs, generally his muscles. These in turn act on the external world, and also react on the central nervous system through receptor organs as the end organs of kinaesthesia; and the information received by the kinaesthetic organs is combined with his already accumulated store of information to influence future action.9
In this passage, Wiener details a complete loop through man and the physical, social and informational environment in which he lives. That Alloway had also integrated some of these ideas into his thoughts on mass media and the arts is abundantly clear when he wrote that ‘Popular art offers imagery and plots to control the changes in our world. Everything new in our culture that changes is the material of the popular’.10 This statement might be the clearest statement of Alloway’s critical ideology, and one that advances a cybernetic dialectic: culture provides materials as fuel for a media-engine while, reciprocally, that media-engine evolves to control changes in culture.
However, it is the high value placed on analogical thinking, derived from the comparison of organic, mechanical and social systems in cybernetics, that rises to the surface in Alloway’s writing. We can demonstrate the similarity of the critic’s thinking to that of Wiener and his followers by comparing a typical cybernetic analogy to one posited by Alloway. In the first instance, analogy forms the basis for an analysis of the operations of a locomotive and a human digestive tract, for example. One might say that just as a train’s speed is determined by the interaction of its mechanical engine and the input of coal of variable quantities, a human body’s function is regulated by a sequence of organs and affected by the quantity of food consumed.11 Similarly, in the case of Alloway’s analysis of culture, analogical thinking is extended to comparisons of the fantasy worlds projected in film, television and print, and the actual world of the city, tangibly constructed and physically experienced. Noting the topicality of fantasy in the popular arts, Alloway makes a claim for its significance: ‘There is, in popular art, a continuum from data to fantasy … The mass media give perpetual lessons in assimilation, instruction in role-taking, the use of new objects, [and] the definition of changing relationships.’12 In this way, where others might insist on a clear distinction between the real and the fictional, Alloway sees a productive relationship and connection between the actual and the projected. Analogy, here, is not a simple comparison, but a generative operation.
It is generally agreed that the impact of Alloway’s ideas was greatest (or at least most abundantly visible) in his close association with the Independent Group, contributing to the group’s perceived vanguardist ethos as well as its pursuit of an art that is receptive to and engaged with mass culture.13 However, I wish to propose that it was Alloway’s understanding of the cybernetic operation of analogical analysis that became his most influential contribution to the Independent Group and, indeed, to post-war British art in that it not only stimulated interest in bridging high art and mass culture but also represented a logic and a sensibility that structured the practice of a number of artists. Despite the undeniable fascination with the so-called ‘aesthetics of plenty’ presented by America, I wish to suggest that Alloway and the Independent Group were invested in exploring these de-territorialised media-worlds of fantasy and potentiality conveyed through American imagery, only through the local analogue of post-war London.14 Indeed, in his aforementioned description of a car’s windscreen as analogue for the CinemaScope screen, Alloway focuses his readers on the ‘spatial experience’ of the city-as-media environment, a direct echo of the environment described by Wiener as one part of a feedback system in which man both receives information and reacts in adaptive response to it.
For the purposes of this essay, the work of Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005), singled out by Alloway several times, will serve as a case study in a post-war British artistic culture informed by this conception of ‘spatial experience’. Paolozzi’s work offers a particularly good case study of how the analogical reasoning of cybernetics feeds into a process-oriented artistic practice. His was a praxis culled from the vast and variable spectacle of mass media – the very same ‘popular arts’ which Alloway encouraged his contemporaries to reappraise. At the same time, Paolozzi’s work is rooted in an immediate, subjective and psychological experience of the city and its spaces.
It is, perhaps, Paolozzi’s lifelong, exhaustive collecting of mass culture that allows us to draw a direct line to Alloway. Begun in the late 1940s, Paolozzi’s collection provided the material from which his collage works and sculptures were made. Comprising print material, technology, toys, and other popular products, the collection was archived according to a peculiar taxonomy – airplanes, automobiles, film stars, gears, animals, robots, art objects – aligning it more with the sensibility of a child or consumer of popular goods, than that of an archivist.15 Paolozzi’s collage books were the earliest by-product of this collecting habit. These books are, in one sense, merely scrapbooks: a means of gathering found material into book format. However, they are also workbooks in which Paolozzi can be seen working out the relationship between his art and the popular arts. Indeed, in a discernable echo of his collecting and gathering process, the artist pasted numerous images of metal processing and reclamation in his collage books. In these images, a magnet is employed to draw out particular types of scrap metal.
Fundamentally, Paolozzi’s processing of mass cultural fragments was biased towards figuration and based in the re-combinatory use of image fragments. For instance, in an early print entitled Automobile Head 1954–62, there is an amalgamation of disjunctive juxtapositions of image parts that adhere into a head (fig.1). The artist created a composite figurative form from illustrations of automobile engines, probably derived from the cut-away diagrams that populate popular mechanics magazines. The parts were angled, repositioned, transferred into a figurative shape, and transposed into lithography, where they became interlocking mechanisms. In this way, a composite body is built from an amalgamation of material fragments. The link between such a composite figure and the ‘Everyman-viewer’ described by Alloway becomes increasingly apparent when one considers the metaphors built into the artist’s images. These heads are, after all, receivers of mass cultural images which are literally shaped by them, while also becoming engines of interacting mechanical parts. In Paolozzi’s hands, then, collage functions as an analogy for the perceiving subject’s reception, processing, and response to its media environment.
It is significant, then, that Paolozzi’s use of collage as a figurative technique was developed and extended in his sculptural practice. In his 1950s bronzes, Paolozzi adapted the lost-wax method to behave like collage. He invented a means of constituting figurative sculpture from dissonant found material. Instead of moulding his figures out of wax, Paolozzi began with slabs and irregularly shaped masses of clay, into which he pressed various three-dimensional objects from his collection. Wax was poured over the clay surface before the wax blocks were treated with a refractory and heated to form a mould.16 These moulds were pieced together to form vertical figurative constructions in a manner that echoes collage. In this way, the material of popular culture remained present in his sculptures transmitted into a conglomerate of contiguous shapes and surfaces. For example, Tyrannical Tower with Thorns of Violence 1959 (fig.2) is a modular, architectonic, vertical figure, both containing and functioning like a building. Its shape evokes a post-war variant of the Corbusian approach to high-density housing; namely the modular towers of London public housing of the late 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, the reformation of the London skyline seems to be the subtext of this work (and others similar to it). It was in these same years that the London County Council began to erect modular concrete or brick towers of housing exceeding six stories. The towers pierce the low London skyline like geometric, modular thorns, or like figures in an unfamiliar landscape. The sculpture receives information in material form within a feedback loop from the urban environment, and responds adaptively to it by taking its resonant form.
The earlier prefabricated housing units (which preceded these concrete towers) are also evoked in Tyrannical Tower. The haphazard, hobbled-together arrangement of boxes in the base and the piecemeal appearance of the sculpture’s modular sections simulate the rapid on-site assembly of prefabricated segments into rudimentary, modular units. In this way, the early residential building types of post-war London underlie Paolozzi’s approach to figurative sculpture. These are all tentative structures which the figure inhabits and is integrated into. However, the sculpture is not a representation of that architecture. Rather, it stands in for the cybernetic subject engaged in spatial experience. It is constituted by its environment and speaks back into it. As such, the sculpture is analogical at three interlocked levels: firstly, it parallels the process and architecture of post-war reconstruction; secondly, it stands in for the subjective experience of such an environment; and finally, it is a repository for material pop culture retained in negative in the textured metal.
One might wonder, then, just what Paolozzi’s attitude toward post-war London might have been. Did it coincide with the viewpoint expressed by Alloway in ‘City Notes’? Alloway’s proposition that the worlds of fantasy present in popular culture interact dynamically, even dialectically with material reality provides a starting point. In this regard, close analysis of the artist’s taste in pop cultural fantasies is revealing. In the juvenile literature, science fiction, popular science magazines, and children’s toys that he collected, several fantastical figures recur and, having been collected in mass cultural forms, re-emerge in his art. These are: the monster, the cyborg and humanoid robot, the hermaphrodite, and the bodybuilder. Alloway noted Paolozzi’s attention to such figures in the essay ‘Artists as Consumers’. Identifying the serious study Paolozzi makes of monsters in popular culture, Alloway observes the significance of such monsters in creating and sustaining ‘suppressed values [in] “covert culture”’ which are not outwardly acknowledged and accepted by a society but nonetheless have an ‘ebullient’ existence and significance within a culture.17 In Alloway’s ‘popular arts’, these and other mutants are presented as radically ulterior species – metamorphosed from the normative human body into an entity with an unstable, new identity. In Paolozzi’s hands, they are all biological mutants who provide a means of incorporating the pop cultural idea of self-fabrication – the self-willed invention of a new identity – into figurative form.
In one of the collages from the series later entitled Bunk, Paolozzi places the cover art from copies of Popular Mechanics and Unknown Worlds next to each other.18 This seems an unlikely, even jolting, juxtaposition of a popular magazine primarily devoted to explaining technology and a pulp anthology of fantasy fiction. There are, however, covert connections between them. The Unknown Worlds cover dramatises the arrival of a fantastical gnome, a monster whose body is deviated from that of a human. Emerging from a curtain into the foreground, he moves between fictive realms. Had he written about this specific work, Alloway might have seen a metaphor for the reader’s encounter with the fantasy fiction genre, entering an ever more unrealistic, unnatural fictive world, where characters and events only provisionally resemble our own lived reality. In the illustration, this distortion of reality is manifested as extreme anatomical exaggeration and deformity of the shape of these monster-gnome bodies, signalled by highly pronounced, out-of-scale facial features. They are, in a sense, icons of the genre’s fantastic deviation from reality. They are radically other.
In the post-war British context, however, their placement by Paolozzi next to an aeronautical scene that has evidently required mid-flight evacuation suggests reading them (according to Second World War Royal Air Force slang) as ‘gremlins’ – mythical, mischievous sprites who caused otherwise unexplained mechanical in-flight mishaps. They are, in other words, mutant creatures with specific meanings in a local cultural imaginary. Significantly, it is a simple juxtaposition that creates a relationship between the two images. This potential subtext emerges out of analogy.
Paolozzi’s collage compares these monster figures with another type of mutant, namely the mechanical man or cyborg. In the adjacent Popular Mechanics cover illustration, a pilot is depicted wearing life-supporting aeronautic gear. Strapped into an ejection seat and wearing an oxygen-supplying helmet, it is a scene in which technology aids and augments his body’s biological functionality. In this sense, he might be classed as a bionic human, an organic body enhanced by electromechanical elements.
In his article ‘”Pop Art” Since 1949’, Alloway identifies the prevalence of such ‘allusions to obsolescent robots’ in Paolozzi’s work where they become comingled with the Hollywood monsters.19 One especially conspicuous example would be a 1956 sculpture entitled Robot which has two viscera-exposing cavities in its body and screw-shaped calves.20 The sculpture makes direct reference to contemporary popular imagery of robots common in the material he collected. Molten, lumpen and irregular, the bodily distortion in Robot also disrupts binary gender. With three gaps piercing the body – at the neck, the gut, and the groin – Robot has been stripped of some of the body’s most gendered elements: its voice, its womb, and its sex organs. It is an eviscerated body become machine – a cyborg body with a vacant centre utterly lacking in any essential identity and freed of burdensome organic functions. It would seem that Paolozzi’s mechanical men anticipate the writer Donna Haraway’s ‘theorized and fabricated [hybrids] of machine and organism’, and ‘[creatures] in a post-gender world [with no] seductions to organic wholeness’.21
However, one should not rush to advocate the view that Paolozzi was a gender radical avant la lettre. Works such as Robot are fantasy fabrications which turn towards the dystopian as easily as they gesture towards utopian possibilities. Furthermore, a distinctly privileged position for masculinity is retained at the point where fantasy is reconciled most directly with the concrete realities of urban experience. One distinctly gendered mutant receives particular attention in Paolozzi’s archive and early work, the bodybuilder. His images of bodybuilders were frequently taken from advertisements for the training methods of the Italian-American bodybuilder Charles Atlas, frequently found in pulp magazines, each promising the consumer an easy means of attaining a newly muscled physique in very little time. For example, Paolozzi includes one such full-page advertisement in an early collage book. It offers the reader an image of ‘the world’s most perfectly developed man’. Below, the text tells the consumer, ‘I can make you a new man too!’ The bodybuilder, here, is developed and built into a type – a mutant who extends his masculinity by expanding his body. It is one of many such popular cultural images that appeal to the desire to remake oneself in a new image by obtaining a reshaped body. In this sense, the bodybuilder figure is similar to the other mutant figures in the artist’s figurative library. It is a sustained metaphor for identity construction – the generation of new forms of being.
There is undeniably also an ironic significance to the bodybuilder figure in Paolozzi’s work. It is a self-conscious reference to the analogy of the body-as-a-building. In the case of Tyrannical Tower, the popular fantasy of self-mutation aligns with the sculpture’s engagement in the spatial, urban, architectural experience. Within a single figure, fantasy runs parallel to reality. Cybernetic thinking has been fully integrated into Paolozzi’s artistic practice in process and in form as a chain of meaning-generating analogies.
In the 1957–8 series of sculptures titled Saint Sebastian, Paolozzi’s sculptural method is particularly masterful (fig.3). His vertical assembly of separate trays of wax is fully visible. Stacked one against another like pieces in a collage, they also echo building blocks, another mass-produced item collected by the artist. Alloway would have likely regarded this set of sculptures as exemplars of pop art’s ‘iconography of the battered human image, the human frame subjected to violence’, which he understood as derived from horror comics and monster films.22 However, the nominal reference to the Christian martyr, suggests an iconological deviation. The Saint Sebastian sculptures are the apogee of Paolozzi’s material enactment of his architectural metaphor for self-making. In these works, the tortured and eroticised body of St. Sebastian has its analogue in a series of structurally unstable vertical entities. The gaps in the sculpture’s body echo arrows shot hrough his flesh. Recalling the saint’s preternatural endurance of his torture, the sculpture presents a fragile, damaged figure that maintains a vertical stance despite its seemingly precarious construction. Furthermore, Paolozzi wrote about the work using architectural and urban analogies, scribbling:
A base containing the title, date and author in landscape letters.
The legs as decorated columns / or towers.
The torso like a tornado-struck town,
a hillside, or the slums of Calcutta.23
One is reminded here of the many photographs of Blitz-damaged London, such as those published in Picture Post during the war. The riveted torso seems to echo the structural devastation and instability of an environment such as a ‘tornado-struck town’ or Calcutta slum. This metaphorical underpinning of the Saint Sebastian sculptures is especially poignant. In Paolozzi’s language, the city is seen through the body, and the body is formed from the material city.
There is, then, a definite proximity between Paolozzi’s work and Alloway’s cybernetic dialectic, his analogical thinking, and his conflation of the experience of mass media and (to borrow his phrase once more) ‘spatial experience’. Indeed, it seems highly likely that both men were influenced by Wiener’s writings in similar ways and probable that the critic and artist shared their ideas on the subject with each other. However, the attitude towards the post-war city embodied in the artist’s sculptures is not necessarily equivalent to the sensibility expressed by the critic when he extols the virtues of an advertisement-laden urban environment. The difference can be summarised with a simple distinction. In the cultural geography of London, there is a significant gap between Alloway’s Piccadilly Circus and Paolozzi’s public housing sites. In the first place, the ‘Everyman’ is entertained, while the second is where he must live.
Despite the utopian fantasy of self-invention that pervades Paolozzi’s early work, the title, Tyrannical Tower with Thorns of Violence, conspicuously intones the dystopian, indeed the abusive and hegemonic. Arguably, this wariness is lacking in Alloway’s writing during a period that appears at times to advance the Cold War myth of the democratising force of capitalist culture.24 Paolozzi’s ambivalence, in the end, may have been more in tune with the contradictions of post-war Britain where, on the one hand, austerity gave way to prosperity, while on the other, Empire descended into partitions and crises. Post-war London sat on a pivot between individual aspiration and social crisis. The 1948 arrival of the Empire Windrush and the birth of youth subcultures transformed the shape of British identity, yet the confrontation between these newly prominent social identity groups, by the close of the 1950s, came to a head in the conflicts of the Notting Hill Riots. This is a transformative but conflicted period. Ultimately, these internal contradictions seem more present in Paolozzi’s work than Alloway’s criticism. To extend the mechanical metaphor one final time: some systems simply function better than others.