Notation: Calculation and Form in the Arts

Akademie der Künste
Berlin, Germany
ZKM Center for Art and Media,
Karlsruhe, Germany
Marc Gloede

Walter Benjamin, in his 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, analyzed the displacement of the auratic object from the center of artistic practice at the beginning of the twentieth century.1 For Benjamin, media and technologies emerged as a key aspect of a new assemblage that pervaded all forms of thinking and living. Instead of the object, the process of production itself became the focus, the artwork irrevocably changed through the possibilities of reproduction and the suspension of temporal and physical immediacy. But as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have pointed out so accurately in their book A Thousand Plateaus, it would be a gross oversimplification of Benjamin’s ideas to reduce his insight to a technological or machinist dimension. A society “is defined by its amalgamations, not by its tools…tools exist only in relation to the interminglings they make possible or that make them possible.”2 If we remove the machinist dimension, certain questions come to the fore, for example, how do we get at the processes of art—its making, its discussion, or its general perception. Across the 20th century, one feature of art making becomes increasingly important in all disciplines: notation.

Walter Benjamin, Farbsignets zum Projekt Pariser Passagen und zu den Baudelaire-Studien, 1928–1940.

Walter Benjamin, Farbsignets zum Projekt Pariser Passagen und zu den Baudelaire-Studien, 1928–1940. 1 1/3 x 8 inches. Akademie der KüNste, Walter Benjamin Archive © Hamburger Stiftung Zur Förderung von Wissenschaft Und Kultur.


In some art forms, music for example, notation was always crucial. In other arts, such as painting, sculpture, dance, film or architecture, notation took on a new status: it was no longer considered to be a sketch or step in-between on the way to the full artwork, but became a fully expressive form itself. The exhibition Notation: Calculation and Form in the Arts presented at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, and the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM), Karlsruhe, aims to reflect on the extent and diversity notation assumes over the course of the 20th century in almost every field of the arts.

Iannis Xenakis, Le Pavillon Philips, 1958.

Iannis Xenakis, Le Pavillon Philips, 1958. Manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale De France, Paris, Archives Xenakis.


One of the striking achievements of this exhibition is that the curatorial team (Hubertus von Amelunxen, Dieter Appelt, Peter Weibel, and Angela Lammert) finds a subtle path through the enormous variety of material that is relevant to this discourse without becoming either random or didactic. Drawing mainly on remarkable archival resources, this exhibition reveals the centrality of notation’s development and connections across the arts of the 20th century. The curatorial juxtapositions among the works allow different aspects of notation forms to correspond with each other across otherwise unbridgeable disciplinary gulfs, creating very fragile and exciting narrative lines. For example, the show offers visitors an immediate understanding of how Walter Benjamin’s colorful annotation systems of his own works correspond to Paul Klee’s annotated questions concerning color systems, or Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack’s scores for his Farbenlichtspiel (Color Light Game), particularly those from 1963. The same serendipity occurs in notation strategies that try to capture unseizeable movement such as Etiénne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographs Courants de fumées (1901), Rudolf von Laban’s dance annotations, or Antonin Artaud’s explosive notebook drawings. These insights are neither hard knowledge nor declarative scholarly positions about notation, nor do they dominate other developing narrative lines of the exhibition. Instead, they preserve a lively openness, fostering a deeper understanding of art processes in general. Instead of separating the creative processes into rigid categories of organizing, reflecting, and producing, the generative fluidity of process becomes clear.

Étienne-Jules Marey, Corps fuselé avec chronographe, 1901.

Étienne-Jules Marey, Corps Fuselé avec Chronographe, 1901. Vintage print, 3 1/3 x 2 inches. Collection Cinémathèque Française, Paris

While the exhibition strongly points out the importance of profound connections and similarities of process, it also anchors the differences between the various artistic positions. This tension is where we begin to understand the most profound idea of the exhibition. Peter Weibel lays it out most clearly in his catalog essay, “Notation between Record and Sketch: Operational Instructions—Algorithms—Interfaces.” Weibel analyzes the model of the musical score where notation is a series of signs necessary to actually produce an artwork. Any number of works on view here deploy this method: Anthony McCall’s Landscape for Fire: Score for Eternal Condition (1973), Edgar Varèse’s Poeme Electronique (1957/1958) for the Philips Pavilion, as well as Marcel Proust’s remarks on the galleys for À la recherche du temps perdu (1920). Each has a clear instructional character for a work or happening yet to be realized. Here the notation is a guideline, a system that points in a direction and asks for certain things to be done in the future. On the other hand, Weibel points out that notation is often closely connected to documentation.3 A series of photographs is the necessary residue of a dance improvisation, Leporello, by Gret Palucca (1937); the film stock of Stan Brakhage’s film EYE MYTH EDUCATIONAL (1972) documents its own chemical process; and the notations of Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis for the Philips Pavilion help to capture the atmosphere of a space that no longer exists. But this simple before and after binary is too reductive. The exhibition argues that the here and now of an artwork’s becoming—the artistic work as it occurs—has a clear connection to notation as well. Some of the strongest pieces that get at this are the drawings of Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly and Joseph Beuys. The notational lines of these works are neither a set of instructions to create the work, nor an afterword that tries to capture it. They are traces of the most profound connection to a process as it is happening, but at the same time also the lasting remains of that very process.

Anthony Mccall, Landscape for Fire: Score for Eternal Condition, 1973.

Anthony Mccall, Landscape for Fire: Score for Eternal Condition, 1973. Ink, pencil, and photographic paper; 17 x 22 inches. © Anthony Mccall. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York/ Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln.

Here, another dynamic field for notation emerges, one that lies between writing and drawing or calligraphic forms. In his essay “The Art of Notation,” John Rajchman shows how the expanding idea of musical notation in fields such as dance, film, or photography bridged this opposition and established a new turn by “abandoning fixed figures and poses and opening the possibilities of non-posed movement or a non-pulsed time.”4 This shift toward openness and relationality can, of course, be understood as part of a general move in the sciences and humanities away from linear and closed ideas of meaning. Einstein profoundly altered our idea of space, shattering absolute fixity and scale with Relativity theory. In the social sciences, Henri Bergson laid out similar ideas in his 1896 book Matter and Memory.5 The entire shift of the 20th century can be understood as a move from fixity and absolute values to flux and constantly changing relations. It is in this dynamic that Rajchmann locates the importance of notation, since “notation became involved in a larger aesthetico-philosophical question of how to make time, movement, [and] rhythm visible, in life as in art.”6 This thought marks a return to Benjamin: “Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.”7 As with Benjamin’s film, Rajchman’s notation enables us to chart new fields and find aesthetics where we have never before looked for them. David Bunn’s project Subliminal Messages (2004) provides a great example. Large prints, made from high-definition scans of cards from the discarded Los Angeles Public library card catalog, reveal the sudden appearance of lines, fingerprints and cryptic marks. These no longer appear just as traces to be found everywhere, but unfold as significant beauty. Here we are pointed in a direction where future worlds of notations might be found: in the jungles of the photographic and filmic grain, in the white noise of sound landscapes or the pixelated structures of the digital cosmos. They are waiting to be discovered.

David Bunn, Subliminal Messages, 2004.

David Bunn, Subliminal Messages, 2004. Unique iris print and Los Angeles Central Library Catalog Card. Print size: 24-1/4 x 33-15/16 inches; Card size: 3 x 5 inches. Courtesy Angles Gallery, Santa Monica, and Brooke Alexander, New York.

Marc Glöde is a film scholar and curator who is active in a wide range of projects including numerous film series such as: Art Basel, Wild Walls Film Festival, and Experimenta Mumbai/Bangalore, as well as international exhibitions in contemporary art (Los Angeles, Berlin, New York). He lives in Berlin.


  1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217-252.
  2. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 90.
  3. Peter Weibel, “Notation zwischen Aufzeichnung und Vorzeichnung. Handlungsanweisung—Algorithmen—Schnittstellen,” in Von Amelunxen, Appelt, Weibel (ed.), Notation: Kalkül und Form in den Künsten (Berlin: Akademie der Künste, 2008), 32-38.
  4. John Rajchman, “The Art of Notation,” German version in Notation, 68-76.
  5. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory (New York: Zone Books, 1988).
  6. Rajchman, 68.
  7. Benjamin, 236.
Further Reading