context – kinetic art

Context Discussion Paper

The glue continues to flow. After this period of practice and contextualisation I find my research to be continuing in the direction previously defined. My practice has become more focused with some of the many possible directions being put to one side for the time being. However as I pursue the issues of flow and time there are still many interesting avenues to explore particularly in relation to video and the moving image.

Time seems to be a subject that gets more complicated the more you think about it and yet it is crucial to investigating flow and movement. Therefore my research has focused on the issues of movement which has helped to shed light on time from a different angle. My investigation into Kinetic Art has been extremely helpful in this area.

Kinetic Art

Kinetic Art is a stream of work created in the period from 1920 to the 1970s. Susan Ferleger Brades, Director of the Hayward Gallery, London, describes Kinetic Art, in her introduction to ‘Force Fields’ an exhibition of Kinetic Art, as work which explores the ‘language of movement’.

The typology of movement

Kinetic Art seems to move art into a realm of ‘real movement’ (Popper 1968 p.223) where artists created machines, mobiles and projections that involved actual physical objects moving and changing. Prior to this, movement was of significant interest to artists but was generally captured in a still image or a series of images. So the move to ‘real movement’ required some sort of aesthetic framework within which to comprehend the ‘real movement’.

Frank Popper, in his book Origins and Development of Kinetic Art, 1968, describes several ways of establishing this typology, the most important of which is ‘examining the procedures used by artists to convey, represent, suggest or introduce movement into the plastic arts.’ (Popper 1968 p.215)

Popper then defines, in some detail, a long and yet to his mind a non-exhaustive list of ‘simple procedures’. These procedures cover areas such as composition, theme, colour, form, volume, transparency, texture and the competition between these elements. The procedures continue through photographic and filmic categories, covering such issues as juxtaposition and decomposition and recomposition of cinematic film. Finally in his typology of movement Popper defines the category of ‘movement expressed by movement itself’.

Within this categorisation, Popper sees several important areas of movement which all seem to be inspired by movement in nature or the boundary between the natural and the mechanical. Art that uses simple mechanical movement plays with the movement of the modern machine age. Artists such as Picabia, Duchamp, Tinguely and Kramer adopted the use of mechanical movement to simultaneously explore the beauty and monstrosity of the machine in motion. By 1968 the previous introduction of electromechanical, electronic, thermal, hydraulic and magnetic forms of movement produced even more complex results.

The work of Tatlin, Rodchenko and later the more playful pieces of Calder, are all seen by Popper as exploring less predictable forms of movement. Their use of mobiles and later the combining with colour projection and reflection, produced movement that was more complex and astonishing in the variety of the effects produced.

Popper also explores movement in art that is produced by the active participation of the viewer. This is either in the form of starting the movement in a mobile or machine driven piece or by the need for the viewer to move in a certain pattern to reveal the actual images the artist has created. There is also movement as perceived by the growth or deterioration of the material used to create the piece of art.

Finally, Popper defines a further category and with it makes a remarkably visionary statement. Movement as seen through the repetition of formal elements is to Popper a very odd but interesting development. He sees the order that the eye follows in tracing a sequence of like elements as crucial and worthy of further research. He then says (1968 p.222) ‘It is quite possible to imagine that the kinetic art of the future will be composed by a premutational machine.’ A ‘premutational machine’ that represents the repetition of formal elements is surely a computer. Using the formal elements of 1s and 0s the computer is able to represent these in astonishing ways, in effect disguising the fact that all it has to work with are 1s and 0s.

Cosmic Speculation

Guy Brett is another writer who has written extensively about Kinetic Art, he wrote a book entitled Kinetic Art in 1968. However when Brett writes about Kinetic Art in the catalogue, Force Fields; phases of the kinetic, to a major exhibition of this work in 2000, the time difference and in particular the two decades since the effective end of Kinetic Art, has given his observations an objectiveness which is both helpful and enlightening.

One area of Brett’s understanding that I find particularly interesting and relevant to my own work is a thread he identifies in Kinetic Art, which he describes as ‘cosmic speculation’ (Brett 2000 p.10). He sees this as both an investigation of reality and an investigation of the aesthetic. For Brett, many of the artists involved in Kinetic Art, see speculation about the structure of the universe as inseparable from the transformation of the formal structures of art, and vice versa.

Guy Brett (2000 pp. 10-12) then outlines three metaphors of the universe which he sees in use within Kinetic Art. Firstly an image of the cosmos as ‘crystalline planes’, rooted in science and carefully structured. The second vision is best expressed by Henri Michaux, an artist in the l’informel grouping, when in 1963 he described his vision of the universe as, ‘Space that is teeming, a space of gestation, of transformation, of multiplication, whose swarming, even if only an illusion, would give a better idea than our ordinary vision of what the cosmos is like’ (Brett 2000 p.11). The third metaphor for the universe is the void, nothing, emptiness, the limitless and dimensionless.

Cosmic and international

As a practising artist, and not an aesthetician or theorist, I sometimes find the attempts to classify elements of artist practise needlessly narrow and potentially restrictive. A lot of what is written about Kinetic Art and the typology of movement falls into this category. However there is also some extremely helpful and interesting issues which have a direct bearing on my own practise. From work that involves the active participation of the viewer to the action paintings of Jackson Pollock. As my own work explores metaphors of the universe and in particular the relationship between God, time and space, so it was fascinating to discover that these were also interests, even obsessions, for many Kinetic Artists. The important international element to Kinetic Art that Brett reveals is encouraging and I have to agree with his belief that this movement within 20th century art should not be seen as a side line and needs greater exposure and understanding. As Brett (2000 p,61) himself says ‘it was a focus for the aspirations of diverse peoples to be absolutely modern, to speak in universal terms, and to evolve further the contemporary perceptions of space and time’.


Kinetic Art has given an interesting and pertinent context for my research. The possible outcomes I outlined in my Project Proposal have been shaped by both this research and practical implications. I previously suggested the possibility if a tunnel of glass and the flowing glue pouring from above. However my experiments have shown that from beneath the glue doesn’t reveal any of the interesting movement seen from above. The use of a flat screen and dial, to give the viewer control of video documentation of the flowing glue, has started to produce results. After significant technical problems a crude prototype has now been completed and testing can begin. I also wrote about the use of still images to reveal movement and although this exploration has continued the videos have taken a greater prominence. As for sound it has slowly and carefully made an introduction. My fear of sound becoming too dominant, has lead to significant caution, particularly as so far, it has not worked with any films where the viewer can control speed and direction

My methodologies have remained broadly the same with further research into spontaneity, time based media and interaction in art. Colour theory has turned out not to be a significant area of research following my decision to remain purely intuitive in my use of colour. However the editing techniques offered by the latest video editing software continue to be explored with some interesting and surprising results. I do of course, continue to pour real glue over a variety of real surfaces.


Brett, G. 2000. Force Fields; phases of the kinetic. London, Hayward Gallery

Popper, F. 1968. Origins and Development of Kinetic Art. London, Studio Vista

Jonathan Kearney December 2003

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