Lessons we have all been schooled in recently: the world is even more infintesimally small than we’ve realized, we are all cogs in a bunch of really big machines, most of which do not care about us, and we’ve collectively been living in denial of the very real existential crises that have been knocking on our doors for quite some time. The control you thought you had over your life was an illusion, sorry! If you’d like to stay sane for the foreseeable future, I’d start getting comfy with that idea.
A silver lining, though, is how all of this has highlighted the facets of our lives that we do have a degree of autonomy over but have lost sight of in the age of recent-yore when we zoomed through life in a way that we never will again. In these few areas, you always have freedom of choice as Jenny Holzer said, and in this particular instance, stripped of our normal lives, the main choice we’re left with is to whom we give our time and effort for real connection. As a society we got so caught up in our digital platforms of ego-building, consumerism, and porn that we forgot one of the original intentions of our blessed internet was to be the ultimate connector of people all around the world. I guess it took a world-wide virus to show us that we could still make it that.
In the aftermath of WWI, Europe was obviously devastated, both physically and emotionally. When the Berlin stock market crashed in 1923 and hyperinflation spiralled out of control to the point of one US dollar equalling over four trillion German marks, a young Swiss artist named Xanti Schawinsky had just moved to the city to study at what would later become the Universität der Künste. It was an unstable situation so when he heard about a school in Weimar merging craft, design, and art, where the students also lived on campus, he knew he had to check it out. Convinced by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and Master Josef Albers, Schawinsky entered the required introductory course in 1924 and instantly fell in with the stagecraft department headed by Oscar Schlemmer where he would come up with some of his most important ideas.
When the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1925 due to the recent election which put the increasingly conservative party in power, Schawinsky returned to Berlin. Frustrated by the financial climate and how hard it was to simply find a telephone with which to reach people, he then moved to Dessau and was confronted with the new school building designed by Gropius. The austere and sleek monolithic structure was complete with classrooms and workshop spaces, and even a housing complex for the Bauhaus Masters. The building also featured a unique residential area known as the Prellerhaus, which afforded the school’s Young Masters a place not only to live, but rooms of their own where they could experiment with their practices. With five floors and four rooms, each with a large window and bite-sized balcony, its facade became iconic of the Bauhaus architectural aesthetic and the rooms’ dual functionality symbolic of the school’s ethos. Schawinsky sometimes used the building as a motif in his work, painting a disembodied balcony occupying the same liminal space as a replica of the Roman Forum that one walked past to get the the Bauhaus Master’s complex from the school, evoking the down-from-below angle of Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s photographs.
The Prellerhaus served as a stage where the line between artistic practise and life blurred, making it an integral part of the school’s social life connected by the boisterous personalities living there, amongst whom Xanti was a stand out. It also became a literal stage as the students used the balconies to stage performances and compositions embracing the layers of levels, the mix of curved metal railings contrasting against the building’s sharp angles, as captured in the emerging photography department led by Moholy-Nagy who encouraged experimentation and collaboration, and influenced Schawinsky’s use of different technologies, techniques, and materials.
Ever since the Weimar days, Gropius had a policy of regular party-throwing as a way to bring everyone together and to ease tensions after instances of internal friction. These celebrations were big productions with outlandish decorations and themes that everyone would costume themselves according to. The Bauhauskapelle jazz band would play the hottest jazz music that had just made it to Germany by way of the States, with new musical and dance sensations like the Foxtrot and Charleston linking them to a whole other world across the Atlantic. As a key member of the stagecraft department and the Bauhauskapelle, playing alto and tenor saxophone, cello, flexatone, and slide whistle, Xanti was often captured on film at the heart of the festivities. He involved himself in every aspect of the events in planning and implementation, always impeccably costumed while jazzing up the place. Foreshadowing his career as a graphic designer in Milan and America, he also often designed the parties’ invitations or posters, most notably for the Metallisches Fest thrown in celebration of the material’s newly-embraced formal potential in 1929.
Xanti left the school later that year after teaching stagecraft while its former teacher Oscar Schlemmer created a new course called Der Mensch at the decision of the school’s new controversial, communist director, Hannes Meyer, which examined the person from a physical, formal, and psychological perspective. As a foreign, Jewish artist associated with a now openly left-leaning institution, Schawinsky was interrogated and raided several times by the empowered Nazis, and thought it best to head down to Switzerland then Italy. After a few years designing advertisements for companies like Illy, Motta and Cinzano, as well as a typewriter for Olivetti, Mussolini’s fascist regime made it no longer safe for him to stay. With the help of former Bauhausler Josef Albers, Schawinsky was offered a teaching position at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
It was at Black Mountain College that Schawinsky finally brought to fruition his ideations of a multimedia piece of total-theatre that were planted during his Bauhaus years, which he described as showing how “color and form, motion and lighting, sound and word, pantomime and music, illustration and improvisation become the alphabet for a more complex means of expression.” Known as Spectodrama, this new form of performance would go on to influence Allen Kaprow’s Happenings and the work of John Cage, ushering in a new era of performance art.
Schawinsky went on to live and teach in New York for many years as he experimented with new techniques from painting with the tires of a car or airbrush, to innovative photomontages, ingratiating himself to the social world all the while. He became a central figure in the scene around Julien Levy’s gallery, where the first exhibition of Surrealism was mounted in the States. It was also where he participated in his friend Marcel Duchamp’s Imagery of Chess which consisted of artists designing unique chess sets and playing against the blind-folded chess world champion. Xanti’s board used plexiglass curves to give form to the thoughts and movement through space of each player’s turn, physicalizing the intellectual process by which two people come together, albeit in opposition. Even when the human form is missing from the piece, his work always comes back to the person.
Balconies were originally constructions of war, essentially elevated platforms from which one could shoot down at an enemy, with the verb “bretescher” meaning to fortify. They were later handed from the military to the governing body as a way to communicate with the public, with the verb “bretèquer” to proclaim. When balconies were installed in the homes of ordinary people, this luxury once saved for the elite and powerful gave them the privilege to exist independently while still being out in the world. They became places of celebration, from cheering on processions for now-forgotten monarchs to grilling up some food on the bbq. And now they are essential lifelines to the outside world for those lucky enough to have one, not only for fresh air but for some semblance of interaction, whether it’s through the sharing of music by Italian grandmothers and German technoheads, or holier-than-thou Brooklynites shouting at those below to “go home” and “flatten the curve.” Balconies have been re-weaponized against the insularity pervasive in the world of Before, forcing us all to admit that, like it or not, we are in this together, even as we are separated.
Of living in the Bauhaus Prellerhaus, Schawinsky remarked that “the individual balconies turned out to be ideal communication stations; contact with neighbors could be established from there by shouting without having to visit each other.” Balconies real, metaphysical, digital, or otherwise are points of convergence between worlds and interests. Allowing yourself to go there takes vulnerability and an openness to what is happening beyond your immediate experience, whether or not you understand the small glimpses behind other’s curtains or whatever spills out into the public sphere, be it awful shower-singing or the smell of a delicious meal being prepared, communicating myriad unspoken truths. In this way, all opposites must come together.
In their simplest forms, what more is art or communication than externalizing the internal, creating a nexus between worlds. Without certainty in the world at large, we can only rely on ourselves to make that process authentic to our perspective so as to bridge the gap between all of our experiences ever so slightly. A political and religious exile, Xanti Schawinsky made his home in the relationships he forged and his artistic quest to unearth yet another way of communing. In order to make it through this similarly chaotic epoch, we must allow ourselves to find solace in those we love, to hear and be heard by others by any means possible, in spite of and especially in the case of differing opinions. Step out on the balcony and shout your truth; now is a time when people are listening.
“The economist’s interest in [any] subject may differ entirely from the composer’s, the physicist’s from the poet’s and the astronomer’s from the psychologist’s or physician’s view. But in bringing together these various concepts, theories and principles on the stage as a ‘laboratory,’ vistas open up a deeper understanding of all phases involved, including also the purely emotional aspects of the individual.” – Xanti Schawinsky, 1969 Spectodrama: Contemporary Studies, Leonardo 2, no. 3.