At the recent exhibition What’s Happening? at Statens Museum for Kunst in Denmark, you could be perusing a collection of local versions of Pop art, feminist performance art and conceptual minimalism from the Danish art scene of the1960s and 1970s – and then you’d suddenly come across the word “CYBERSPACE”. The word is written in capital letters in the lower right-hand corner of a collage that shows human figures placed within a space made up of geometric and organic forms. The creators were the artist Susanne Ussing (1940–1998) and the architect Carsten Hoff (b. 1934). The collage is one among many works that Ussing and Hoff produced in the years 1968–1970 under the assumed name Atelier Cyberspace; several of those works were also exhibited at What’s Happening?
In spite of their inclusion in that prominent exhibition, Atelier Cyberspace may safely be described as relatively unknown to Danish art audiences, which have traditionally shown relatively little interest in the link between art and technology. And the duo is entirely unknown in the wider spheres where the history of international media art is currently being written. Hence the widespread claim that the concept of cyberspace originated somewhere else entirely and in another era. For ever since the US writer William Gibson wrote his 1982 short story ‘Burning Chrome’, describing cyberspace as “A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system”, the concept has been associated with notions of an all-encompassing digitisation of our existence, perception and awareness, often with dark socio-political overtones.
There is general consensus on this definition of cyberspace and the concepts and reception history it entails, both within academic discourse and within the realm of general knowledge as conveyed via Wikipedia, which simply states that “The term “cyberspace” first appeared in fiction in the 1980s in the work of cyberpunk science fiction author William Gibson.”
As is evident at What’s Happening?, the claim that Gibson introduced the term is not historically correct, but even though it is interesting that Ussing and Hoff introduces ‘cyberspace’ more than a decade prior to Gibson, the fact that they present a far more optimistic and humane concept of cyberspace is even more fascinating.
As was the case for Gibson, the main frame of reference for Ussing and Hoff was that of cybernetics: a new science that grew widespread after World War II, propelled by figures such as psychiatrist William Ross Ashby, physicist John von Neumann and, very importantly, the mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener and his book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948). Wiener’s book was a piece of speculative science that explored the opportunities for controlling all aspects of the development of society through programmable systems governed by so-called feedback mechanisms.
During its early years cybernetics was primarily a matter of interest to science institutions, but the 1960s saw a gradual rise in general interest in cybernetics, prompted by a growing interest in models of autonomous social organisation.
Ussing and Hoff’s approach to cyberspace sprang primarily from an interest in cybernetics as a cross-disciplinary method.
“We were curious. We wanted to know what was going on right at that time. We read Wiener’s book The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, which had been translated into Danish in the early 1960s. And we went to see the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA in London in 1968. That was an eye-opener. It was about art’s potential for employing modern technology, particularly information technology. I don’t recall whether the exhibition prompted us to read Wiener or whether it was the other way around, but I do remember that the catalogue was a huge source of inspiration,” relates Carsten Hoff to Kunstkritikk.
Thus, Ussing and Hoff’s collaboration under the moniker Atelier Cyberspace began with a keen interest in space, sensuality and technology. Unlike Gibson, they found themselves at such an early stage of the evolution of digital technology that the concept of ‘computers’ was essentially a matter of general visions and of imagining a whole new world of possibilities rather than a question of the functionality of specific machines.
The absence of computers is conspicuous when you see the collages from 1968–1970, associated as they are with the ‘Sensory Spaces’ (or ‘sense rooms’) that Ussing and Hoff created at the time. A ‘poster’, made out of transparent plastic and lambskin fleece and advertising a sense-based exhibition at the Nikolaj Church exhibition venue in 1969, lists a number of words that serve to describe the project: system, randomness, repetition, consciousness, nature – and of course the word ‘computer’ as well. The word is not emphasised, but simply appears as one term among many.
The exhibition at Statens Museum for Kunst also included a piece from one of these sensory spaces. The piece consists of abstract, furniture-like sculptures and elements, many of them featuring polystyrene balls and foam. Compared to Gibson’s immaterial hallucination, the Danish artists obviously offer up a very different, physical kind of cyberspace, and when we ask Carsten Hoff why their version of cyberspace contained no computers, his reply is:
“Because computers didn’t exist at that time! Well, they did, but only at the Danish computer company called Regnecentralen and at the Danish Technological Institute, and those computers were the size of a room. At one point, in 1969, we thought we ought to learn about them, so we attended courses on the computer programming language ALGOL. It was all about zeroes and ones and strips of paper, but truth be told we didn’t really understand much of it. The course was really intended for people who had to manage and crunch numbers, accountants and that sort of people. We were the only artists there; aliens in that setting. And one day, when the teacher said that there would be an exam, Susanne and I looked at each other, grabbed our bags and politely took our leave.”
The years around 1970 saw several exhibitions that addressed the relationship between technology and art, such as Software (1970) at the Jewish Museum and Information at the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York, but Ussing and Hoff were unaware of them: “Once we had grasped hold of these ideas we did our own thing. We had a very intuitive understanding of the theory, based on the information and materials available to us. We tried to acquire as much knowledge as possible. Not for the sake of theory in itself, but in order to get on with our work and make something.”
To Ussing and Hoff, the concept of cyberspace was not, then, an elaborate theoretical statement. The word itself came to them one morning in bed when the romantically involved couple woke up after having worked late, or possibly after a night out partying. According to Hoff this was “a very creative stage where our imaginations ran free. That combination of being in love and of partying, waking up the next morning and feeling liberated.”
Unlike Gibson they never wrote down a definition of the term. As Hoff says: “To us, ‘cyberspace’ was simply about managing spaces. There was nothing esoteric about it. Nothing digital, either. It was just a tool. The space was concrete, physical.”
What is unique about Ussing and Hoff’s cyberspace is the fact that it was an architectural – in the sense of spatial – concept. Even though cybernetics were applied to a wide range of disciplines and professions, no-one else was working with integrating cybernetics directly in architecture at the time. According to Hoff, they “were quite alone in that. To the best of my knowledge there was no established scene within the field. I certainly never bumped into any colleagues working in that field at that time.”
It is true that in 1973, the management theorist Stafford Beer and Chilean president Salvador Allende launched a failed experiment, Cybersyn, which was intended to bring about a socialist revolution through an infrastructure based on cybernetic feedback mechanisms, but that attempt was concerned with a cybernetic model of society rather than with cybernetic architecture.
When Ussing and Hoff visited London to see Cybernetic Serendipity they also met the group Archigram, whose elaborate fantasies represented one of the most prominent views of architecture at the time, and they interviewed Peter Cooks from Archigram. It turned out that his group was also interested in technology, albeit, as Carsten Hoff says, “at more of a product-related level where they imagined how different products could be combined to form new products.”
Ussing and Hoff approached technology and cybernetics with completely different intentions. “Our shared point of departure was that we were working with physical settings, and we were both frustrated and displeased with the architecture from the period, particularly when it came to residential buildings. We felt that there was a need to loosen up the rigid confines of urban planning, giving back the gift of creativity to individual human beings and allowing them to shape and design their houses or dwellings themselves – instead of having some clever architect pop up, telling you how you should live. We were thinking in terms of open-ended systems where things could grow and evolve as required.”
Other figures of the day were interested in questions of space and form and in how to rethink them, for example the sociologists Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre and the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. However, the vein of French thinking represented by Foucault, Lefebvre and Bachelard had stigmatised cybernetics as anti-humanist. Indeed, Ussing and Hoff’s approach was to a greater extent associated with an American tradition for doing things yourselves, for creating your own home. Hoff calls Stewart Brand’s journal Whole Earth Catalog one of their bibles, and Buckminster Fuller was also read with great interest: “He was hugely inspiring, but not into individuality the way we were. We were more inspired by allotment gardens and their diversity and lushness.”
The installation shown at Statens Museum for Kunst includes almost all of the works from the cyberspace project, but one work is not included. It was never realised, and the drawings are now lost, says Hoff, describing something that sounds like a 3-D printer avant la lettre: “We also imagined a kind of mobile production unit, but unfortunately the drawings have been lost. It was a kind of truck with a nozzle at the back. Like a bee building its hive. The nozzle would emit and apply material that grew to form amorphous mushrooms or whatever you might imagine. It was supposed to be computer-controlled, allowing you to create interesting shapes and sequences of spaces. It was a merging of organic and technological systems, a new way of structuring the world. And a response that counteracted industrial uniformity. We had this idea that sophisticated software might enable us to mimic the way in which nature creates products – where things that belong to the same family can take different forms. All oak trees are oak trees, but no two oak trees are exactly alike. And then a whole new material – polystyrene foam – arrived on the scene. It behaved like nature in the sense that it grew when its two component parts were mixed. Almost like a fungal growth. This made it an obvious choice for our work in Atelier Cyberspace.”
As was stated in the above, several decades would pass before architects truly began to integrate cybernetics and computers in their works, and ultimately this – rather limited – technological progress also marked the end of Ussing and Hoff’s cyberspace project. Looking back on the project today, Hoff mainly sees it as a time of inspiration: “Without being fully aware of it, this was a period where we honed our interest in the potential offered by technology. We quickly discovered that we were out of sync with the times: it was completely impossible to get anyone to work with computers for us. Computers simply did not exist, only at an embryonic stage, and we were keen to build something. That is why the cyberspace project remained at a more manifesto-like level.”
The ‘disrupted’ nature of the project notwithstanding, Atelier Cyberspace nevertheless invites a rewrite of the history of the concept. Perhaps even more importantly, it is an early and splendidly visionary example of a distinctively organic and sensuous perception of technology that – quite ironically – disappears as technology evolves, replaced by the more rational logic of the machine. In that sense the Atelier Cyberspace project could almost be described as a piece of science fiction, a dream-like vision of a technology that was – or still is – ahead of its time, but not yet realised; a technology whose potential continues to challenge us to rethink and expand the horizon of how we perceive technology.