- Dada Engineering
Raoul Hausmann is known as one of most innovative artists among the Dadaists in Berlin. When Richard Huelsenbeck returned in 1917 to Germany from exile in Zurich, he found in Hausmann the right person to expand the Dada techniques that he had developed with Hugo Ball and others in the Cabaret Voltaire. Hausmann became especially well-known for his collages, in which he assembled human bodies and mechanical devices, as well as for his sound poetry, which he explicitly called “optophonetic.”1 The term “optophonetic” is aimed at something like a synaesthetic form of art, where sounds are seen and colors are heard. Hausmann’s exploration of synaesthesia, however, wasn’t solely an aesthetic project. From the early twenties on, Hausmann published several texts such as “Présentismus,”2 “Optophonetik,”3 or “Die überzüchteten Künste” (“The overbred arts”),4 in which he emphasized the importance of art and technology for the education of a new sensibility of man. Hausmann was fascinated by modern media technologies such as film, sound recording, and radio transmission, and he strongly believed that the human sensorium itself would be able to achieve the capacity of technological devices, for example to send and receive radio waves. The Dadaist recognized the human body as literally wired into the circuits of mass communication and believed that perception emerged out of communication with a cosmic ether. This, however, was not only a strange side track from his Dada experiments.
From the early twenties on, he constantly studied different media technologies and was an avid reader of different popular scientific journals. Hausmann continued to work in this vein at least until the early thirties, when he tried to construct a [End Page 169] calculating machine together with the engineer Daniel Broido. This collaboration, however, was not without problems. The artist was eager to assert that he was at least as involved in technological matters as the educated engineer. In a letter from August 6, 1930, Hausmann explained to Broido in detail how he contributed his knowledge of photo-electrical devices to the invention.5 This letter, which appears below, is not only a document that displays Hausmann’s somewhat vain character, but it provides a valuable source for the development of his optophonetic art. His letter clearly demonstrates that Hausmann was highly inspired by emerging television technology in the twenties (Hausmann explicitly refers to the work of Paul Gottlieb Nipkow, the inventor of the Nipkow disc, the key technology for television), and that his belief about the optophonetic extension of the human body is grounded in media technology. The letter represents the end point of a development that started in the early twenties, when Hausmann began to explore contemporary technologies and read extensively about cosmology, physics, and sense physiology. Hausmann’s optophonetic belief was based on two aspects that were intrinsically linked to the technological imaginary of the time, namely Ernst Marcus’ theory of an eccentric form of perception and the relatively new technology of the light-sensitive cell.
Hausmann became acquainted with the neo-Kantian thinker Marcus, who lived in the industrial city of Essen, through his famous friend, philosopher and expressionist author Salomo Friedländer. Marcus developed the concept of “transsomatic” perception, i.e. all perception that is in the distance and not immediately connected to the sensory organ (as for example in the sense of touch) as based on a construction of a “central organ” (as Marcus calls the brain) that communicates with the environment through ether waves. According to Marcus, the brain receives ether waves through the senses, and re-projects them into the world, thereby constructing its own subjective reality. Marcus belonged to a school of thought that rejected Einstein’s relativity and wanted to conserve the century old hypothesis of an ether as the medium in which light propagates.6 Hausmann was voraciously studying all kinds of mostly pseudo-scientific theories that reinforced the importance of the ether. Among these theories were the rather unknown theory of the spiraling propagation of light formulated by the former artillery lieutenant Karl Koelsch,7 the ether pressure theory of the Berlin electrical engineer Johannes Zacharias,8 and the famous glacial...