In 1965, on the outskirts of Colorado, in the desert fields of El Moro, one filmmaker (Gene Bernofsky) and three artists (JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit, and Clark Richert) established an alternative space of communal living. It was coined Drop City, not only because the founding members and transient visitors had “dropped out” of mainstream societal strictures, but also because the artists-turned-architects “dropped” mini-complexes that took on the form of geodesic domes, in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, atop the landscape’s topology. Although they were influenced by Fuller’s architectural strategies and philosophies, they took an ad hoc approach to the production of their living structures—acting as bricoleurs, they repurposed refuse, using car tops to form their dome habitats. By the late 1970s Drop City was abandoned, evacuated of hippies performing alternative lifestyles and left in ruins.
Like many dissolved art collectives, the living members of Drop City are neither in agreement as to the original aspirations nor the legacy of their now iconic commune. For some, Drop City was meant strictly to be a functional living space. Despite the frequent leaks caused by rain falling through the cracks between the composite metal fragments, some defended the domes’ structural integrity, pointing to the maintenance needed for the upkeep of even the most urban of apartment units. Others, however, posited Drop City as an art project in which aesthetic and social aims outweighed utilitarian purposes. For them, the commune was a realization of the mission of modernity, an albeit short-lived fusion of art and life. The domes provided a theatrical backdrop to the bodies that circulated the commune and formed a constellation of aesthetic radicalism and social upheaval.
While the artistic intention behind the geodesic domes and the commune remains in contention, there is one art object—recreated in 2011 and on display in the Walker’s galleries—whose status is undisputed: The Ultimate Painting (1966/2011). The work, which took the form of a circular canvas covered with trippy, quasi-futuristic poly-chromatic shapes, was attached to a rotary apparatus that allowed it to spin at various speeds. Increasing the dynamism of this early participatory and kinetic artwork was a control panel with arcade-game-like buttons that projected various stroboscopic lights onto the rotating circular composition—creating indeterminate, immersive, and at times discombobulating, visual experiences. The Ultimate Painting presented viewers-turned-players with hundreds of different visual computations depending on their own rhythmic engagement with the five red buttons at their disposal.
Although one might not readily link the product of a hippie commune characterized by “droppings” of junkyard-made dome living structures with avant-garde visual music, there is an uncanny parallel between The Ultimate Painting and the visual music apparatus known as the Optophonic Piano invented by Russian Futurist artist and composer Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné (1888–1944) in the early 1900s. The “optophone”—which, translated from the Greek, means “visible sound”—comprised many hand-made elements by the artist that would presage the color-wheel projectors of the 1960s, especially The Ultimate Painting. The Optophonic Piano was a hybrid audio-visual apparatus comprising a piano keyboard plugged into a screen onto which variable circular color compositions unfolded based on which keys were struck.
The color configurations of the circular projections were determined by a number of small, abstract hand-painted disks (gouache and watercolor on celluloid) that in hindsight share a striking resemblance to the Ultimate Painting in miniature. These discs were linked to chords within the organ.
Baranov-Rossiné explained how his intermedia instrument operated:
Each touch of the keys of the organ, which are fixed in a chosen position, make a certain apparatus move quicker or slower, together with the transparent filters, through which a beam of white light passes … Light filters … single colored filters and optical elements…prisms, lenses or a mirror are employed. The complex filters include elements of graphic art… Add to this the possibility of changing the position of the projector, the form of the screen, the symmetry of the compositions, their movements and intensity, and you can imagine this light piano.1
Irrespective of whether the Drop City artists who collaboratively created The Ultimate Painting would agree that “light” was their primary medium, it was this natural, yet painterly element that turned a static painting into an “ultimate” ever-changing kaleidoscope. In the words of Baranov-Rossiné one month following his November 1924 Otophone performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow: “My apparatus … provided unusual expanse in dynamic painting, the sort of color painting one might only dream about… In one second, billions of pictures: a willful, universal kaleidoscope.”2
Baranov-Rossiné turned his colorful dreams into reality, scoring new possibilities for future experiments in the interstitial space between the visual and the auditory.
The “light piano” Baranov-Rossiné describes could very well be Drop City’s Ultimate Painting, which likewise moves at various speeds due to the choreography of the player’s fingertips and the resulting light forms. Whereas the “graphic art” of the Optophone lies in the painted disks hidden within the apparatus, the painterly gestures of Drop City are readily apparent on the surface of the circular canvas. The key similarity, however, is the shared importance of light in creating a multi-sensory experience. It is the manipulation of light that allows for the generation of a myriad permutations of color patterns, allowing for an audio-visual experience that bridges the material and the immaterial. Both the Optophonic Piano and The Ultimate Painting rely on the player to take an active role in the unfolding of a synaesthetic orchestra—the intermingling of the tactile sounds of keys and buttons being pushed and the mechanical noises of the projector humming and the circular canvas accelerating and decelerating in rotation.
1 Rossine, Vladimir, Aleksandra S. Shatskikh, and N. B. Avtonomova. Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné : the artist of Russian avant-garde, St. Petersburg: Palace Editions, 2007, p. 40–41.
2 Ibid., p. 41.
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