Foreword to Electronics for Artists by Bill Urmenyi

by Guy Brett [15th June 2001]

Earth, air, fire and water: the words themselves have an ancient, foundational ring about them. Electricity appears more modern, but of course it isn’t. Only the formation, the familiarity, the naming, of electricity as a form and a concept is apparently more recent in human experience. The use of electricity by artists even more so! Despite the existence of some remarkable bodies of work, beginning in the 1920s with such figures as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Naum Gabo and Marcel Duchamp and continuing with the kinetic movements of the 1950s and 1960s, up until today’s extremely diverse practices, consideration of the influx into art of a material which is also an energy has been rare. Manuals of painting and drawing abound; they have been common in Europe for centuries, and in cultures like the Chinese for millennia. But books which treat the nature and behaviour of this form of energy, with the needs of visual artists in mind, have been hard to find. Bill Urmenyi’s manual on “Electronics for Artists” must be one of the first, surely the first on CD-Rom.

My own introduction to contemporary art was fundamentally influenced by two masters of electricity who I came to know in the 1960s: the Greek artist Takis and the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. In many ways, by temperament, by vision, they were opposites. Takis seemed to seek out the pure heart of electricity. It might be manifested in the blue haze of a rectifier lamp, sending sparks running over a pool of mercury, or in the trembling of a taught wire holding a nail floating a few centimetres from a magnet, in the pulse of needles over a battery of dials, orchestrated by Takis¹s idiosyncratic circuitry, or in the penetrating twang coming from his austere wall-hung electronic harps. Takis spoke of the need to follow the “profound spontaneity” of materials. His aesthetic was so close to the elemental energy itself that when his ‘Telemagnetic Sculpture’ first appeared at the end of the 1950s many took it as a direct manifestation of the forces of nature, without any artistic or symbolic intervention by the artist. Takis was very partial, for example, to the forms of porcelain insulators - objects directly shaped by material necessity.

If Takis seemed to aim towards the cosmos, Jean Tinguely was firmly planted in the human world. Not that is work is any less a manifestation of energy and movement, or any less experimental and inventive in its use of electricity. Generations of technicians had channelled the raw force into the tight coils of the electric motor and its reliable, repetitive, controlled movement. Tinguely set it free again. By taking motors, mounting them in precarious instability to animate an assemblage of junk and carefully chosen trivia, he gave back to machines the anarchic freedom of clowns and carnival dancers who know how to banish human cares by banishing the rigid and humourless. Tinguely had a rough and affectionate attitude towards his materials (“I made experiments, I beat up the motors, I put together the most incongruous things”) and his art was closely allied with his political attitudes, in which, he said, he was “against all types of force which come together and crystallise into an authority which oppresses other people”.

Both Takis and Tinguely found their own way to work with electricity. Takis in the 1960s would hide behind the door of his small room in Paris when he first wired up and switched on a new piece, just in case everything blew up. Bill Urmenyi shares this spirit, being an artist himself. Just for this reason, his manual is a practical, accessible and expert step-by-step guide to the way electricity should be handled and brought into play. His aim is to “excite the mind of the artist with the possibilities that are available”, but he imposes no aesthetic of his own. He entirely respects the imaginations of his readers.

Guy Brett

London, 2001