Monday, 10 November 2008


What does it mean to re-awaken Buckminster Fuller's legacy as a poet? Even more confusingly: a poet of and for film? This isn't resurrection, it's creating totally new life forms. Here Fuller interrupts with his own preferred moniker: "an explorer in comprehensive, anticipatory design science."

Whatever it might mean, or not mean, the thought, ideas, and practices of R.Buckminster Fuller are back in some sort of circulation. This year Fuller's work  has been presented in a retrospective at the Whitney, whilst, in addition to the articles and catalogue generated by the exhibition, Lars Müller are reprinting a series of Fuller's own books. 

The simple, attractive paperback formats of this series capture the sense that these are practical ideas, books that need to be carried around, in bag or coat pocket, ever ready to be consulted. Perhaps the most accessible of the tomes are those books of "ventilated prose" that constitute Fuller's career as, for want of a better word, a poet -  originally published by Jonathan Williams' Jargon Society.

But I'm trying to get some bearing on the precise forms of Fuller's cultural presence, of the passage from Fuller's neglect to his current position where art world institutions are responsible - like the recent Whitney show and the portfolio of articles in the November issue of Artforum - for simultaneously celebrating his achievement, pointing out his problems, and finding various designers, architects and artists to testify his relevance to their work. 

This odd positioning fits with current notions of legacy, such as Svetlanya Boym's provocative manifesto on the Architecture of the Off-Modern (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), which performs on Tatlin's Tower the kind of critical job it would be useful to do on Fuller. Things don't go more off- than Fuller and his legacy, technocrat and counter-cultural hero. 

Photo by Rico Quimbo

And Film Poet? Fuller provided a long introduction to Gene Youngblood's Expanded Cinema  (1970). In it, Fuller outlines his own world view, with no reference to film at all, but, in the final paragraph he attempts to tie it all together:

Gene Youngblood's book is the most brilliant conceptioning of the objectively positive use of the Scenario-Universe principle, which must be employed by humanity to synchronize its senses and its knowledge in time to ensure the continuance of that little, three- and-one-half-billion-member team of humanity now installed by evolution aboard our little Space Vehicle Earth. 

Gene Youngblood's book represents the most important metaphysical scenario for coping with all of the ills of educational systems based only on yesterday's Newtonian-type thinking. Youngblood's Expanded Cinema is the beginning of the new era educational system itself. Tomorrow's youth will employ the video cassette resources to bring in the scenario documents of all of humanity's most capable thinkers and conceivers. Only through the scenario can man possibly "house-clean" swiftly enough the conceptual resources of his spontaneous formulations. 

Tomorrow's Expanded Cinema University, as the word uni-verse — towards one — implies, will weld metaphysically together the world community of man by the flux of understanding and the spontaneously truthful integrity of the child. (35)

What is the implication of these claims for artists' films today? Sadly, Googling the phrase "expanded cinema university" reveals that hardly anyone has used the phrase since. Indeed, the only project that seems to have framed itself in these terms is Martin Heath's McLuhan inspired pedagogical experiments at Rochdale College of the University of Toronto in which "film and theatre were the principle experimental media for creating new kinds of awareness." 

Heath's projects included inflatable Mobile Cinemas that toured Ontario and sought to establish a shared, collective and engaged cinematic experience consistent with visions of co-operative living such as Moshe Safdie's Habitat (pictured below) at the Montreal Expo in 1967. 

If there appears to be a lack of engagement with Fuller's ideas, there are also connecting lines to be drawn from Fuller to a whole host of current interests in expanded cinema, models, the kinomuseum, participation and social engineering. But I'm struggling to draw those lines and hold to the terms and scale of Fuller's claims. Naming individual contemporary practices doesn't seem the way forward. 

Perhaps I am looking less for a particular medium or practice than an attitude, a method, but how does that become manifest?  Like Sean Kellers article in Artforum, it is always going to involve an embracing of contradiction: the global aim and reach of the expanded cinema university - let's make that phrase googlable, er, again - simultaneously collapsing into the partial and the incoherent... 

So, Fuller as film poet. Here are two initial and highly tentative beginnings: 

1.Think of Fuller's statement as an architecture that houses a certain kind of cinema, and may leak. Here the precedent is the dome he constructed in 1959 for the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park for the Moscow World's Fair, and which contained Charles and Ray Eames's film installation Glimpses of the USA. In twelve minutes, the Eames' presented 2200 images of America on seven 20x30 foot screens. 

2.Try and ground Fuller's all-expansive presence and rhetoric in specificity of particular working relationships and encounters. The June 2008 Modern Painters issue did this, with Norman Foster writing about his relationship with Fuller, observing how their (unbuilt) collaborations continue to feed into his own projects, such as the London Gherkin and his desert city of Masdar, Abu Dhabi. 

Similarly, the forward to Expanded Cinema be viewed alongside other examples of poetic and artistic sociality: Fuller's time at Black Mountain College, and collaborations with Jonathan Williams: a triumvirate of concrete engagements with the communities of artists and poets.  I note: 

Fuller's houses, cars, maps, philosophies are like what I cannot help but capture on film - damaged socialities, translations, entropy proof conversations...

Let's stay for a moment with these two qualities:  overlarge movie architecture and poetic sociality as defining qualities of a certain film poetics - two faculties of an Expanded Cinema University... not that it would have such hackneyed structures... the dream of a system and something else leaking in, there, here, rain, in the viewfinder. I can't be any more specific...


It gains us little to insist that he is, primarily, an architect or a geometer or a mechanic or an engineer or a poet. [At least we can never claim him as a film maker] 

He is a symbiot... He finds the poem "the best medium for lucid communication of unfamiliar thoughts and concepts undigestible or incomprehensible in prose." (The Magpie's Bagpipe: Selected Essays of Jonathan Williams, 15)