Published in 1923, the concrete poetry book For the Voice can be described as El Lissitzky's tour de force of textual visualization. In collaboration with Vladimir Mayakovsky who contributed the poems, El Lissitzky brought type together with geometric shapes that were used to build symbols (such as the Communist hammer and sickle), clip art (such as the pointing finger that can be found on several pages of the book) and negative space - all of which were colorized in the suprematist hues of red, black and white - in order to achieve a book of poems that were meant to be seen rather than heard.
Of the three things that I built for the Manege Museum exhibit in Spring 2014, this is the one where I took quite a few liberties and deviated from my overall principle of replicating El Lissitzky's output as closely as I could. I wanted to place the pages of the book in a three dimensional architecture that avatars could walk through, and to this end I decided to employ strategies that would involve manipulations of the original material.
Of course, I could have reproduced the pages exactly as they were, which would have resulted in an opaque labyrinth, whereas what I had in mind was something in which transparencies were layered upon one another. In other words, a construct that would work in such a way that it would allow for the entire book to be visible all at once. To this end, I drastically altered the original book pages in photoshop by deleting most of the white backgrounds, and sometimes by replacing these white flat areas with thin stripes or by inverting the white backgrounds to black to achieve better contrast amongst superimposed transparencies in order to aid legibility.
Needless to say, I approached this third project with a lot of misgivings and trepidations. In fact, I was almost not going to do it since playing around and changing something that I love so much in its original form, something that was created by a true master and that cannot be improved upon, did not sit at all well with me. But, in the end curiosity won out - I really did want to see what the book would look like in 3D.
In my defense I will say that, although I did alter the backgrounds of the page spreads I did not change the layouts at all. All the text, the shapes, the clipart stayed exactly as El Lissitzky had placed them - but then again, the fact that once the spreads were placed as three dimensional architectural components (glass walls, if you will) these elements were superimposed upon one another, inevitably changing El Lissitzky's original, clean design.
Would El Lissitzky have approved? I do not know. Given the sense of humor displayed in such abundance all over his output; if anything, he may have been somewhat amused by my efforts. But more likely is that he would have snatched the mouse (or in my case the tablet pen) from my hand and shown me how to do it properly.
One thing however that I think that I can surmise with some confidence (based upon my readings of his texts) is that El Lissitzky would have loved the metaverse! Which is one of the many reasons why I wish to pay him this homage now: I am not only a graphic designer who stands in awe in front of El Lissitzky's work, almost a hundred years after its creation; but I am also a handler of metaverse avatars. And avatars may well be beings that are quite a bit closer to his suprematist automatons than we, the humans who inhabit them, consider them to be.
The book For the Voice (Dlia Golosa in Russian) is the product of two of the 20th century’s greatest revolutionary artists, Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) and El Lissitzky. First published in Berlin in 1923, the poetry book is seen to be one of the finest achievements of Russian avant-garde bookmaking - a tradition in which poets and artists collaborated to create books that attained the status of art objects.
The book constitutes a significant example to what is a seemingly impossible merger between Constructivism and Suprematism that El Lissitzky actively cultivated and applied to most of his creative investigations in design and architecture.
Prior to his involvement with the Suprematist movement El Lissitzky had whole-heartedly embraced the tenets of Constructivism, and would return to them after 1924 when the Suprematist movement came to an end under Stalin's new regime. What is of note in his 5 year-long affiliation to Suprematism is that the movement is fundamentally opposed to the post-revolutionary positions of Constructivism with its cult of the object, and its strategies of adapting art to the principles of functional organization. Under Constructivism, the traditional artist is transformed into the artist-as-engineer in charge of organizing life in all of its aspects. Suprematism, in sharp contrast to Constructivism, embodies a profoundly anti-materialist, anti-utilitarian philosophy. Malevich writes:
"Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion, it no longer wishes to illustrate the history of manners, it wants to have nothing further to do with the object, as such, and believes that it can exist, in and for itself, without "things," that is, the "time-tested well-spring of life;" further explicating that "under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth."
Malevich's influence freed El Lissitzky up to work in a far more abstract/immaterial manner than he had previously done, allowing him to pursue investigations that questioned the relationships between space, shape and time. Although Malevich's artistic concerns were primarily based in two dimensionality, El Lissitzky, with his training as an architect, soon translated the basic two dimensional Suprematist visual grammar that revolved around a very limited range of elements (the square and the circle as the two primary visual components, and the colors red, black and white as the primary colors) into three dimensionality.
Matakovsky's poems were meant to be read aloud, reflecting widely held Constructivist themes such as anger with the idle and satiated bourgeoisie, compassion for the struggle of the common people, and the call for an “army of the arts” to help fight the struggle against the old order.
El Lissitzky, who is credited as the creator of the book, provided typographic interpretations of Mayakovsky’s poems through dynamic visual compositions in which geometric elements were infused with symbolic meaning. Printed letters in red and black tones become pictorial signs, contributing to each poem’s identity. As such, the book also stands as one of the finest examples of early 20th century concrete poetry, albeit of a collaborative nature in which not the poet alone, but the designer and the poet worked together to achieve what is considered to be El Lissitzky's most spectacular achievement in book construction as well as a landmark event in the history of modern graphic design. Thus, the book was inspired by an entirely novel typographic appraoch in which ideas were given form through printed letters, turning them into pictorial signs, resulting in words that are seen and not heard. As El Lissitzky wrote:
"My pages stand in much the same relationship to the poems as an accompanying piano to a violin. Just as the poet unites concept and sound, I have tried to create an equivalent unity using the poem and typography."
In this suggestion of a simultaneity of perception, an attempt is made to achieve a synthesis of visual, aural, and textual voices. Lissitzky's bold yet simple graphic construction conveys the quick-paced rhythm, the excitement, and the furor of not only Mayakovsky's writing, but of the revolutionary period in which both men lived.
The Mayakovsky Girls
The idea of creating avatar costumes out of the page spreads came as an afterthought and can probably be best explained under the adage of 'might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.'
The Mayakovsky Girls are a dance troupe comprised of a corps de ballet and one lead dancer who have the visual symbols and typographic elements of El Lissitzky's book pages mapped onto their bodies as skins. In other words, an extreme liberty taken with the original work is at play here given that I have remediated the material to suit an entirely different purpose than its original one.
Unlike the Victory over the Sun avatars, the Mayakovsky Girls do carry strong references to the human-based shape of the avatar, are in fact immediately identifiable as female humanoid beings. However, just like the 'glass' walls of the architecture in which they are meant to dance, they too carry a certain amount of transparency which allows their audience to see through them, or rather to see them as entities that are blended into the 'book' architecture within which they perform.
As I said - might as well be hung for a sheep...