Two of his central artistic works illustrate this: the Kinetic Constructive System. Structure with Moving Parts for Play and Conveyance (as written on the Moholy-Nagy Website: “Kinetisch Konstruktives System: Bau mit Bewegungsbahnen für Spiel und Beförderung,” 1922) and the Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1930), also called Light-Space Modulator.
In both works, Moholy-Nagy mobilized the viewer’s gaze mechanically. In the Kinetic-Constructive System, the viewer can move freely, in a kind of total theatre, along spiral paths arranged around a central axis with an elevator and sliding pole for the actors. In his description of the first version of the Kinetic-Constructive System, Moholy-Nagy formulated, among other things, the built-in means he had envisioned to mobilize the viewer:
“The structure contains an outer path mounting spirally, intended for general recreation and therefore equipped with a guard-rail. Instead of steps, it is in the form of a ramp. …the lower end runs into a horizontal ring-platform, the upper end of the platform is jointed, with a roller conveyor that throws the audience out through a slide while the lower end emerges on a horizontal which takes the public out by a downward escalator.”3
These rolling and sliding slides, combined with the rotational movement of the entire building, accelerate and make the entire viewing situation dynamic, while the building itself regulates the movement and perspective of the visitor.
However, Moholy-Nagy was never able to realize his Kinetic-Constructive System himself. His Light Prop for an Electric Stage, an apparatus initially conceived by Moholy-Nagy as a lighting device for theatre productions, was different. The Light Prop was produced in collaboration with AEG (which remains one of Germany’s leading consumer appliance manufacturers) and first shown in the department of the Deutscher Werkbund at the Paris exhibition of the Société des artist décorateurs in 1930. While the apparatus exhibited in Paris was almost completely concealed within a closed box with a round opening (possibly provided with a translucent pane) and subsequently received little attention, today at Harvard University’s Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge there exists a version of the apparatus in which the internal mechanism is completely exposed. Here the viewer can move freely around the apparatus, immersing himself in the reflecting light rays, becoming one with the projection. In contrast to the Reflektorische Lichtspiele (Reflective Light Plays) created by Bauhäuslers Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack and Kurt Schwerdtfeger, which were realized by performers following a given score and then projected onto a flat screen, the Light Prop functions automatically and autonomously, relating the viewer to his own materiality, enabling him to interact at will with the circling rays of light, transforming the surrounding space into a multi-layered game of movement and dissolving the viewer’s spatial orientation. The simultaneous superimposition of light effects produced by the apparatus becomes comprehensible in Moholy-Nagy's film Ein Lichtspiel schwarz–weiß–grau (Lightplay: Black-White-Grey, 1930)—probably the most mature artistic examination of the Light-Space Modulator.
In his article “Taking the Kunst out of Gesamtkunstwerk. Moholy-Nagy’s conception of the Gesamtwerk,” Oliver A. I. Botar compares the Kinetic-Constructive System and the Light Prop under the concept Gesamtwerk (total work), emphasizing the participative qualities of the two works.4 In another article, Edit Tóth further elaborates on the effect of the Light-Space-Modulator, relating it to cultural practices and visual phenomena during the Weimar Republic, which resisted conventional patterns of perception while at the same time accelerating the prevailing social irritation:
“The Light Prop subtly engages, by way of its performance, with various cultural practices and visual technologies, including the jazz performance, cinema, outdated optical toys, and theater in a way that defies technological determination and conventional perception, integrating and at the same time separating image-space and body-space that tended to become momentarily confused in Weimar visual culture. Moholy-Nagy’s drive for a self-aware perception that could deconstruct and go beyond the façade of desires of the city’s light environment, however, proved insufficient by the early 1930s. As his constant resituating and reformulation of the Light Prop and with it the problem of perception suggest, he addressed, although underestimated, capitalism’s ever-adapting and controlling means of image production.”5
Seeing in Motion as Therapy for Democracy
The examination of approaches, models and strategies for a redefinition of visual culture, the control of images and the shaping of perception in times of complex social upheaval made former Bauhäuslers such as Moholy-Nagy—who founded the “New Bauhaus” in Chicago in 1937—interesting to the American establishment. Their knowledge was incorporated in the development of democratization tools that aid in the fight against fascism and, later, were strategically used against Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War. In his book The Democratic Surround, Fred Turner describes in detail this interplay between artists, designers and scientists with military and industrial interests in the United States, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower (supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces during World War II) referred to publicly in 1961 as “the military-industrial complex”:
“In 1933 the Nazis closed the Bauhaus, objecting to its members’ ostensibly degenerate penchants for abstraction and collectivism. By the end of the 1930s, many of the most prominent members had migrated to the United States. As World War II got under way, the former teachers of the Bauhaus, and particularly László Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer, applied these techniques to helping make the personalities of American citizens more democratic and the nation as a whole more committed to confronting fascism. Drawing on tactics first developed to challenge the visual and social chaos of industrial Europe, they built environments—in books, in museum exhibitions, in classrooms, and in their own photographs, paintings, and designs—that modeled the principles of democratic persuasion that were being articulated by American social scientist at the same moment. These environments became prototypes for the propaganda pavilions that the United States government would construct overseas throughout the Cold War. Ultimately, they helped set the visual terms on which the generation of 1968 would seek its own psychological liberation.”6
The New Bauhaus in Chicago—renamed the Chicago School of Design in 1939 and known subsequently as Institute of Design (ID) from 1949 onwards, when it became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) university system—received financial support from the government in order to gain insights from artistic-technical research. Initially used during the Second World War mainly for the protection of civil society, during the Cold War this research was turned towards military-political purposes. Cooperation with the military and industry was motivated, on the one hand, from the precarious financial situation of the New Bauhaus and, on the other, from the positivist belief that visual education and technology—if placed in the right hands—could make the world a better place. Last but far from least, Moholy-Nagy wanted to help put an end to the Nazi regime which had driven him from Europe.
The struggle against the National Socialists at the New Bauhaus/School of Design took place first in the field of camouflage design to conceal allied military and civil targets. In the Camouflage Class inaugurated by László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes, visual and architectural concepts of camouflage were tested using drawings and models. Moholy-Nagy’s 1943 film, Work of the Camouflage Class, documents a series of student works presented in an exhibition of the same title and includes camouflage patterns derived from the animal and plant world applied to military vehicles and uniforms, models of camouflaged buildings, and aerial photographs of cities and residential complexes modified through abstract painting to appear invisible from the air.
The New Bauhaus war efforts were not limited to camouflage design. Other designs projects initiated at the New Bauhaus were prosthetic limbs for the war-disabled and art therapy modalities to rehabilitate traumatized soldiers. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Victor D'Amico (the first director of the Department of Education at MoMA) played a central role in these projects:
“In 1944, D’Amico drew on a set of therapeutic and instructional practices outlined by Moholy-Nagy and transformed his classes into a national model for using art to resocialize veterans at the Museum of Modern Art’s new War Veterans’ Art Center. In 1948, as veteran demand eased, the museum turned the Veterans’ Center into a public resource, the People’s Art Center.”7
During the Second World War, MoMA developed a program for mobilizing the United States citizens in the fight against Nazi Germany and integrated other Bauhäuslers into it. Half a year after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, MoMA opened Road to Victory, a propagandistic exhibition of large-format photographs depicting life in the United States—from American landscapes to scenes depicting preparations for war—in an effort to bolster citizen support for the war effort. Curated by the then Lieutenant Commander Edward Steichen, and one of the most important photographers of the first half of the twentieth century, Road to Victory’s exhibition design was carried out by Herbert Bayer, formerly head of the Bauhaus workshop for print and advertising, and featured, among other elements, photographs that floated freely in space.8 The arrangement was based on his design principle of the “Extended Field of Vision,” which in a precursory form been used at the 1930 Werkbund exhibition in Paris designed by Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Moholy-Nagy, and had also featured the first public presentation of the Light Prop. Turner describes the characteristics and mode of action of the Extended Field of Vision as follows:
“… as the Museum of Modern Art became a central hub for the boosting of American morale, critics came to see the flexibility and independence that Bayer offered his viewers, coupled with his environmental mode of governing the viewers’ movements, as a uniquely pro-American mode of propaganda making [sic]. Bayer’s extended field of vision solved the problem posed by fascist propaganda and mass media: by granting viewers high degrees of agency with regard to the visual materials around them, and by at the same time controlling the shape of the field in which they might encounter those materials, the extended field of vision could lead American viewers to remake their own morale in terms set by the field around them. That is, they could exercise the individual psychological agency on which democratic society depended, and so avoid becoming the numb mass men of Nazi Germany. At the same time they could do so in terms set by the needs of the American state, articulated in the visual diction of the Bauhaus.”9
Bayer’s strategy was smart. While the exhibition visitor gained the impression of moving freely through the exhibition contents, following their own individual agency and maintaining mastery over their individual interpretations, the spectrum of perception and knowledge was predetermined by the exhibited images’ selection and arrangements. This curatorial concept was to be applied and further developed in the years following in various exhibition projects and media environments. Bayer also designed the exhibition Airways to Peace (1943), curated by Monroe Wheeler, MoMA’s then Director of Exhibitions, and Edward Steichen used his mediation strategy in The Family of Man, his epochal photo installation first shown at MoMA in 1955.10 The intention of the exhibition was to convey a humanist image of man and carry the message around the world that, regardless of their origin, all people are equal. In the following years The Family of Man was deployed as a central component in various American-sponsored exhibitions (including as a national pavilion at world exhibitions) held in politically strategic locations, including Berlin, Tokyo, Paris, Munich, Amsterdam, London, Kabul and Moscow—part of a global American democratization strategy.
These large-scale exhibition projects featuring America’s lifestyle and consumer culture also came to include Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and multimedia installations by Charles and Ray Eames, such as Glimpses of the U.S.A. (1959). The latter introduced algorithm-based information systems and cybernetic principles within its design by, for example, incorporating the communication theories of Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener. In this way, complex perceptual dispositives between control and liberalization emerged, within which the dynamic between individual choice and participatory feedback were increasingly elaborated. While visual and curatorial techniques became more mature and subtle, their underlying trick remained the same: the exhibition visitor was supposed to develop a sense of individual freedom and interpretive sovereignty, perceiving himself as self-determined within the exhibition context. Yet, these exhibition parameters and content were by no means objective but very precisely preselected, designed and curated. As long as the visitor did not see through this technique, a quasi-emancipatory impact was created. Moholy-Nagy described the psychomental process for achieving this effect in his theses on vision in motion in the very first paragraph of the introduction to Vision in Motion (see above).