It is not the aestheticization of an object that can be found at the core of Peter Vogel’s art, but aisthesis, the act of recognition with all five senses and the expansion of perception through the interaction with the object: Peter Vogel approached his work with the conviction that intellectual creations are very closely linked with and reflected in sensory occurrences.
If art creates knowledge, art is science, and in a new sense that extends over and above art historical considerations. Peter Vogel would have approved of such an unconventional attribution of art as science and the application of scientific processes in art: he himself closely united both disciplines in his extensive oeuvre both as a scientist and an artist. In order to free himself from purely application-oriented and restricted natural scientific work, he decided to devote his activities as a researcher to the unrestricted methodology and language of art. One of the most important scientific problems he concerned himself with as an artist: Was the question of humans’ neuronal and psychologically conditioned responses and relationship to the machine as their own construct and counterpart, and how to make this tangible for the viewer of his objects in the form of interactive experimental test assemblies. The following observations regarding Peter Vogel’s work within a scientific and artistic context during his lifetime, are based on personal communications with him over the final five months of his life.
The catalogues that accompany all of Peter Vogel’s major exhibitions feature essays in which Peter Vogel’s artistic approaches have been introduced and analyzed in depth numerous times. According to Peter Vogel, just a few weeks ago, it is not necessary to extensively repeat what has already been written. The present essay accordingly begins by briefly summarizing the information about Peter Vogel and his work that is presented in greater detail in these publications.
Born in 1937 in Freiburg im Breisgau, Peter Vogel is presented in these texts as, without a doubt, one of the great pioneers of electronic art, or to put it more precisely, as a pioneer of interactive sound art. The objects he created generate and respond to sound, to motion, and to light; they are musical and performative, imaginative. The operations are determined by exacting rules but during the process they are also frequently subject to chance. They are experimental, calculated, and mysterious; they are only brought to life through their interaction with the viewer and through this interaction they find their culmination in a new and different way each time.
Peter Vogel’s artworks are essentially presented to the viewer as easily accessible and as stimulating as they are thoroughly playful. They are particularly well suited for a playful intervention with children and adolescents, and even adults find great pleasure in them.
It is especially this previously mentioned and fitting aspect of the playful in Peter Vogel’s work, which was by all means intentional, that has often formed the central focus of considerations in writings about him; it has, however, become a cliché of sorts, blocking in the process a more comprehensive understanding of the questions and objectives on which his work is founded. Peter Vogel’s approach as an artist was fundamentally that of the researcher. As such, he made use of scientific questions and methodologies in his art, the development, execution, and observation of which was intended to stimulate the viewer, who during this process becomes an improvising co-author of the respective work.
Peter Vogel already addressed the frequent misunderstanding of his intentions in a 1981 conversation with Uwe Rüth:
“Only very few people [recognize and understand my approach]. Most people only see the visual attractions, and the response [of the objects] has an encore in store for them that features a surprise moment and a playful charm. But the fact that some people only see one thing and other people only see other things does not prevent me from continuing with my work.”
Over the last few months I have been very fortunate, because Peter Vogel himself provided me with insights into his extensive archive of sketches and notes, drawings and written commentaries, music and dance notations, mathematical calculations, articles and photographs, in addition to sound and video recordings. They served since the 1960s as the basis for his equally playful and systematic preparations, notes, and analyses in which he recorded his thoughts and ideas, testing them out on paper and documenting his questions, his intentions, and his working method.
Like sound, motion and light—the title of the first major retrospective dedicated to Peter Vogel’s work—in the majority of his interactive objects, his early personal development is characterized by diverse interests of varying intensities running parallel to each other. Eventually these interests gradually come together to form a complex oeuvre, one that cannot be easily categorized or described in line with traditional art historical or musicological genres. At the mere age of 14, Vogel was audacious enough to construct his own tape recorder “in order to record music and manipulate sounds.” He simultaneously began painting with oil paints.
When he was 17 years old, he travelled through England and Scotland for a few weeks with a puppet theater. His great interest in psychology developed around the same time, which would lead to his lifelong occupation with the subject. Immediately after graduating school, Vogel did a technical internship at a motor factory and then took up his studies of physics at Freiburg University. At that time he also gathered initial experiences with musique concrete while constructing another tape recorder and his originally representational painting was also growing increasingly abstract. His dealings with sound technology ultimately enabled Vogel to superimpose additional voices and sound material over his own piano improvisations, thus taking advantage of the feedback possibilities of the tape machine’s recording head in order to “be able to play duets with myself.”
Peter Vogel joined the student theater company in Freiburg whilst studying physics. This led to him beginning dance training, to diverse experiments in the fields of image technology and sound engineering, as well as to the construction of his own intricate electronic organ, and the development of his first movement and dance notations. In parallel and complimentary to these activities, he felt the urge to introduce a third dimension of time to his oil painting. At a time when artists were primarily seen as painters or sculptors who worked naturalistically and with photography, film, and performance yet to be generally counted as artistic genres in the narrowest sense of the term, the notion of a static painting had become too confining for Peter Vogel.
Similar to his dance and music notations drawn in pencil or ink, he painted formations on his canvases that unfurled from left to right, repetitive symbols and abstract signs; he developed these linear arrangements into highly complex, in part overlapping and colored notations, which he termed score paintings. He regretted that the viewers could only see them—like his painted landscapes—as static pictures instead of in their processual context. Vogel’s intense efforts to translate and develop the sensorial stimuli tangible in time-based art to his painting led him to integrate additional materials. His paintings now included, for example, plastic and metal foil and later he even set his pictures on fire. He hoped to be able to observe and pictorially capture chronological sequences by means of the deliberately deployed and yet inevitably uncontrollable procedure of burning these materials.
As a logical extension of these experiments, Peter Vogel began shortly thereafter to surprise the approaching viewer by mounting electronics behind the painted canvas that caused concrete objects, for example a rubber hose, to move or which controlled the lights on the front of the canvas. The artist later designated the objects he was still attaching to the painted canvas during this phase as response objects. An impetus behind the development of his sound, light and mobile objects can be found in this integration of chronological sequences into his pictures.
Information Theory and Cybernetics
The 1960s were characterized by a general revolutionary upheaval in all fields of science, society and politics, in addition to a break with conventional ways of thinking. Especially art, music, theater and film, were on the front lines of this movement. Numerous artists joined the Fluxus movement at the outset of the decade. A new radical art form developed through the integration of innovative action forms consisting of music, theater, film, art, literature and especially electronic media, which aimed at abolishing the boundary between the arts and the public. At the same time, the first of five exhibitions titled Nove Tendencije [New Tendencies] was shown in Zagreb in 1961. These exhibitions took place every two years and concentrated on artistic experiments with new technologies, in addition to program-oriented art and its associated information aesthetics.
Likewise, in the early 1960s the Stuttgart aesthetic theorist of information Max Bense encouraged the production of computer-generated art, organizing the 1965 show with works by Georg Nees; it was probably the world’s first exhibition of computer graphics, triggering a wide-ranging discussion on the aesthetics of computer art. Finally, the epoch-making Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition took place in London in 1968 and attained widespread attention on account of its cybernetic-inspired works by dozens of international artists. The show’s curator Jasia Reichardt directly referenced Max Bense in her foreword to the exhibition catalogue, writing: “The idea behind this venture, for which I am grateful to Professor Max Bense of Stuttgart, is to show some of the creative forms engendered by technology. The aim is to present an area of activity, which manifests artists’ involvement with science, and the scientists’ involvement with the arts …”
The exhibition presented the first extensive survey of works from diverse genres that interacted with their environment via sound, motion, or light and were made by integrating algorithmic procedures and cybernetic processes, as well as by using computers. Towards the end of the decade, the physicist, mathematician, science fiction author and leading computer art pioneer Herbert W. Franke summarized recent developments when he noted, “Science, technology, society and art are regenerate phenomena that can only do justice to their task through deliberate intercommunications. Art is not only the object but also the means of this communication. They comprehend information theory and cybernetics as perceptual processes, resulting in new tasks for free creative work…”
Even though it is not known for sure whether Peter Vogel visited the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in London, we can assume that he thoroughly familiarized himself with the then nascent developments in the fields of art, science and technology. He suggests this himself in his writings as well as in interviews. Peter Vogel’s interest in a broader notion of art cannot be seen in isolation from his intense occupation with the most recent discoveries in the field of science and the increased attention he was paying to psychology, cybernetic and brain research. He united these interests throughout his oeuvre with the goal of exploring the underlying neurophysiological and psychological behavior in the relationship between man and machine and to make them accessible to the viewer in playful experiments.
In his interviews, Peter Vogel regularly spoke about the research carried out by the renowned neuropsychiatrist and cybernetics pioneer William Grey Walter (1910–1977), who wrote his doctoral thesis on the electrical current in nerves and muscles and subsequently did research in London on electrical brainwave patterns. Based on his interests in medicine, Walter had already developed the first cybernetic robot in 1948. The small three-wheeled Machina Speculatrix was fitted with photocells and motors and designated “tortoise” on account of its form; its autonomous searching movements were permanently orientated by the change of light and shade and when its battery ran low it could also find its way back to the recharging unit on its own. What primarily interested Walter was the observation and examination of elementary interactions between responsive systems, and questions concerning how highly complex behavior can materialize through the effect of a decidedly limited number of sensors and circuit components (neurons). Shortly thereafter, the measurements carried out by Walters with an electroencephalogram (EEG) supplied fundamental insights into the structure and workings of the human brain; they were published in the scientific journal Nature in 1964/65 and met with a broad response from the specialist community.
Around the same time (1965), Peter Vogel’s work as a physicist in the field of medical sensors involved research in developing measuring devices that transmitted electrocardiogram measurements of equestrians and parachutists for a company in Freiburg. In 1970, he joined the research department of Hoffmann-Laroche, where he worked on the development of the brain electrodes that would assist in the neurological determination of death in conjunction with the company’s “Status Moriendi” project. As was the case with Walter’s brainwave measurements, both of Vogel’s research projects employed skin surface and depth electrodes, with the help of which, biological cybernetic processes could be recorded. Vogel’s professional activities as a physicist led to his scientific interest in the functionality of neurophysiological stimulus-response patterns and the resultant cybernetic processes.
Peter Vogel’s scientific and artistic interests would soon join forces in a new cycle of works. Inspired by William Grey Walter’s experiments, Vogel began working on making his own replica of the Machina Speculatrix in 1968, which he made use of for cybernetic research. Among his private papers, there is a note written in hindsight in which Vogel discusses his Machina Speculatrix:
“Upset about the brief lifespan of the batteries, I came upon the idea of connecting it to the mains power supply and hanging it on the wall.”
In the context of Peter Vogel’s oeuvre, this can be comprehended as a further step towards the development of his first interactive wall objects.
In his 1971 wall object Der Gummischlauch [The Rubber Hose], a rubber hose is affixed to the painted canvas with an integrated photo cell and a small electric motor that begins to violently spin around when a viewer approaches. The chronological sequence of motion in the picture is now linked to the spatial proximity and response of the viewer. It was, at the very latest, at this point that the artistic autodidact Vogel conceived the great overriding question concerning the cybernetic structures of the man-machine relationship that would then occupy him for the rest of his life.
Beginning around 1969, Peter Vogel turned his back on traditional painting, dedicating himself from then on to developing his first cybernetic objects that were vested with their own concrete behavioral patterns.
“Above all, the objects should be able to alter their responsive structure. ‘Behavioral changes,’ that occur in psychological or physiological procedures were simulated through electronic circuitry; as such, there were objects, for example, that imitated habituation, the conditioned reflex or comparable processes.”
These structures imparted to the objects potentialities that enabled the addressing of specific stimulus-response processes.
Chance and Play
It was in the liberation from the traditional work of art as proclaimed by the art movement Fluxus, in the annulment of the subjectivity of the creative process in Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades and Stoppages, in the explicit integration of chance in the Drip Paintings by Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock, as well as in the music of John Cage and Steve Reich that Peter Vogel discovered: “An unprecedented broadening of artistic possibilities. […] Artistic actions expanded sensorial perception through physical operations; interaction gives the viewer increased responsibility in the perception of the work.”
However, soon enough the deterministic behavior inherent to his early stimulus-response objects, no longer corresponded to the complexity of the chronological and qualitative in biological cybernetic systems observed by Peter Vogel. He himself said “the language that is spoken here [by the response objects], primitive” and subsequently introduced change to his objects’ behavioral patterns.
Between 1970 and 1975, Peter Vogel experimented with manipulative and responsive forms, initially producing wall objects that reacted to light and shade, to the movements of approaching viewers, and to sound. In the process of which, the responses of these objects occurred immediately or were delayed, they were in part determined as chain reactions or otherwise entrusted to chance in their procedures. When the chronological trigger of the tone sequences, color changes or movements can no longer be precisely determined in advance and repeated; the result is uncontrollable and highly complex overlapping, which in the case of multiple triggers, can then be perceived as altered tone sequences, color changes and movements. The unpredictable interactions of the viewer heighten the degree of complexity to such an extent that the object can never behave the same way twice. Insofar as Peter Vogel deliberately imparts this leeway to his objects, he eliminates the deterministic stimulus-response pattern in favor of an expanded interaction on the part of the viewer.
The object’s interactive controllable actions combine with its unpredictable random actions to form an observable overall behavior, which the viewer can view as analogous to a living being. The viewer can now awaken the object to life through their interaction. Through a clever varying of the shadow’s duration and frequency the viewer is able to set acoustic processes into motion, so that they gain the impression that they can also visually comprehend the object’s behavior. They then enter into an intense spatial relationship with the object through their movements, orienting themselves to the object with their body and all five senses. But, because of the object’s intrinsic aleatoric responses, the viewer never gains complete control over its behavior during the pleasurable and inquisitive explorations of the object’s possibilities. This makes the multifaceted and variable possibilities of referencing, proximity, communicating, testing, learning, and recognizing available to the viewer; it seduces them into an intelligent game with the object’s structures, into playful experimentation in which they experience and stimulate their own potentials with all five senses—aisthesis—in a very special manner.
Improvisation and Performance
From his adolescence onwards, Peter Vogel occupied himself with music, dance and theater; it was therefore more than natural for him to expand the viewer’s restricted movements before his planar wall objects out into the space. To this end, the object itself had to operate in the space and become three-dimensionally tangible on all sides. At the same time, the viewer had to be given room to maneuver and interact with the objects in an as unhampered manner as possible. The decisive factor for a heightened interaction, was not the laborious observation of a restricted picture object hanging on the wall, but rather an animated action in an open space.
Peter Vogel gained crucial experience for the advancement of his work with the large-scale sound installation Musical Cybernetic Environment. Commissioned for the 1975 Donaueschingen Festival, this environment is situated at the threshold to a comprehensive broadening of his artistic activity as a choreographer, musician and performer. It consists of three meter-high stelae made of metal wire, electronic components and Plexiglas that are mounted in the space on bases; the integrated photo sensors that respond to the viewers’ movements control the signal for a synthesizer in the background.
After diverse experiments with this sound environment, he carried out the first in a long series of dance performances with the KASP group at the 1977 Zagreb Music Biennale. As a consequence of his experience working with professional dancers and lay audiences alike, Peter Vogel later created numerous horizontal sound walls that were up to six meters wide, which he outfitted with a number of photo cells and retrievable sound inventories. The sounds are now no longer generated by a synthesizer but rather by the electronics of the sound walls themselves. Infinite variations of overlapping sounds and rhythms could be created by means of repeated longer or shorter periods of blocking the light falling on the photo cells. Because the individual tones and the tone sequences were arranged repetitively, these variations can be triggered by the dancers and accessed again and again, but their multifaceted overlapping cannot be controlled.
In the sound objects that he began developing in the 1980s–often characterized as towers or stelae–as well as in the later assembled ensembles and large-scale sound orchestras featuring strings, clappers, bells, metal cans, wooden boards and even complete musical instruments (zithers, drums), the viewer can cause the predefined and open aleatoric structures determined by the artist to resonate in diverse pitches, rhythms, tempi and timbres.
For Peter Vogel, however, the interaction of the viewer with the objects is fundamentally not an interpretation of a prescribed piece of music, but rather a pure improvisation of the structures in the objects that were allocated by the artist. There is no score in the conventional sense, and for this reason the artist does not see himself as the composer of a specific piece of music; instead, he only makes the potential of an interaction available to the proactive viewer, who creates ever new sound figures and rhythms. As such, the piece is never completed; it is and remains inherently open to the respective new improvisations of the viewer whose interactions make him the work’s co-author. The artist withdraws behind his work, which can only find its expression in the viewer’s interaction with it.
Reduction and Transparency
Peter Vogel conceived, developed, and tested each of his objects from scratch in addition to assembling them out of elementary electronic components, diodes, transistors, resistors, condensers, lamps, and loudspeakers. Each individual element is necessary for the intended function in the electronic control loop; nothing is superfluous, nothing serves decorative purposes or a heightened aestheticization. The optimal form is a consequence of the object’s function, in the process of which the visibility of every element and structure is given priority. His filigree sound objects, his light and mobile objects that take the form of playable transparent sculptures–in which none of the working parts are concealed–are produced in the context of this extreme reduction down to the absolutely necessary elements in a functional logical arrangement: within which, metal wires simultaneously provide the electric connections to the electronic elements, as well as the required static framework.
It is in this consistent focus on transparency that we can find the reason why Peter Vogel never participated in the otherwise omnipresent digitalization trend. As an artist and scientist he wanted to be completely free from the predetermined, limiting functionality of commercial computer hardware and software that is incessantly updated for the sake of marketing. Ever since the 1960s, Peter Vogel rejected the principle of mystification in art and science. His objects were not suited to the black box in which their functions operate in the background. His objects are conceived with a view to total transparency. Vogel’s deliberate rejection of the only seemingly convenient pre-made digital solution and reduction down to concrete functionalities, gives the viewer of his objects the opportunity to transparently experience their own behavior through interaction. Vogel’s own important contributions as a scientist and artist, which have not yet been sufficiently acknowledged, rest in the constancy and scope of his explorations into the depths and variations of interactive operations.
If sound art has become a permanent fixture at numerous festivals and exhibitions over the last twenty years and is now very naturally taught at many art schools, and if electronically generated sounds have been operating for years as highly developed signals of global communications in all interactive media: then one should keep in mind that Peter Vogel, a major pioneering scientist and artist, introduced the medium of electronic sound to art and contributed to the further development of its interactive forms.
It is possible to approach Peter Vogel’s noteworthy oeuvre from two directions, namely from sound art and from the visual arts. In the end, however, just like his objects, every one-sided approach leads to a curtailment that does not do justice to his oeuvre. Peter Vogel’s art, profoundly stimulated by science, combines sound and visual art, music, dance, physics, psychology, and neuroscience to create a total artwork in which all genres and disciplines resonate simultaneously.
“Le cerveau va jusqu’au bout des doigts – The brain extends down into the fingertips—it is everywhere in the body—you can experience such things in my work.”
The Brain Extends into the Fingertips