restricted access Capturing Modernity Jazz, Film, and Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage
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Capturing Modernity Jazz, Film, and Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage

László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage (plans, 1922–30; built in 1929–30), a light-generating kinetic device rooted in a multiplicity of cultural practices, including jazz, theater, cinema, optical toys, and architecture, was to offer an inventive example of modern design and a challenging phenomenological experience for the increasingly institutionalized senses of Weimar-era capitalist society. Defining a new vision was a lasting preoccupation of the one-time Bauhaus professor Moholy-Nagy; this vision encompassed experimentation with various new media and materials, including photography, film, metal constructions, typography, and stage designs.1 Already in 1925 he was directing attention to the fact that in the post–World War I era perceptual experience and subjectivity were rapidly transforming, due to the prevalence of “film; the electric sign, the simultaneity of sensorily perceptible events” brought about by the interaction of illuminated and reflecting shop windows, mechanical transportation, and mass media images.2 The awareness of the new optical dynamics, this transient optical fabric of visual culture, however, had dissolved into the background as a result of the reification of technology and consumer culture. For Moholy-Nagy photography, film, and light design had the potential for making visible modernity’s challenge to habits of seeing, by, for instance, transforming visual characteristics of architectonic space and spatial experience.

Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage (also called Light Display Machine and Light-Space Modulator; it was engineered by István Sebők and built by the theater workshop of [End Page 23] AEG or Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft, Germany’s main electric company) is a kinetic construction of various polished metals and Plexiglas, to which he remained attached throughout his life. Constructivist in outlook but Dada-like in its effects, the device is key to Moholy-Nagy’s project of environmental improvisation and perceptual “training” (fig. 1).3 Scholars have commonly described the Light Prop either as a static modernist sculpture prone to technological fetishism or more favorably as a kinetic sculpture generating a light environment.4 Rosalind Krauss more inventively called it an anthropomorphic “actor in technological disguise” for a theater stage, an automaton that minds its own business.5 I embrace a similar creative approach here but propose a more nuanced interpretation by allowing for a variety of contextual engagements with the Light Prop that relate to its development and use. When understood by its performance and phenomenal processes that alter spatial experience, such as the production of mobile shadows, reflections, transparencies, and sounds, the work opens up to larger frames of reference and concerns about perception and society. I argue that the socially interactive and improvisatory aspects of the jazz performance and the interactive technological light environment of the night club, already explored in Moholy-Nagy’s photographic works, could be reconfigured in the Light Prop, fused with experiments in film and stage design, for a variety of purposes, including the altering of architectural space and the staging of an enriched three-dimensional “cinema” to test whether environmental improvisation could survive in visual culture. By refusing to settle into neatly defined categories and contexts, the Light Prop’s performance encourages the awareness of perception as a performative activity responsive to social space. I outline a genealogy of the larger project, which featured complicated images and constructions over time.

I explore the Light Prop’s fluctuating character with the help of the concept of Spielraum, meaning space (or “room”) for play or maneuver, a field of action (where Spiel stands for both play and performance). During the 1930s Walter Benjamin used the term to delineate a new type of technological space within cinematic capabilities, a space that could be accessed through play and that transformed previous relationships between image space and body space, a development brought about by the profusion of images in twentieth-century everyday experience.6 Here I use the word “Spielraum” in a related but broader sense to refer to Moholy-Nagy’s complex experiments with illumination, optics, and technological materials in both performative (or participatory) perceptual space and artistic conceptual space. Spielraum...


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