Before the Art of New Media

By Lidija Merenik, 3 October 2007
Image: Julije Knifer, Untitled, 1978

The restaging of Tendencies 4, the 1968 Zagreb based exhibition series and colloquium, in the recent show bit international – [New] Tendencies – Computers and Visual Research does more than deepen and internationalise our understanding of computer art’s early history. It also presents an opportunity to revisit the cultural landscape of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Here Lidija Merenik considers the show in Graz and [New] Tendencies’ unique engagement with international avant-gardist concerns, technology’s utopian potential and the socialist cultural landscape of ex-Yugoslavia


Even though they have been reviewed extensively in historiographic terms, primarily in the work of Professor Jerko Denegri, [New] Tendencies were the subject of their first serious retrospective: bit international – [New] Tendencies – Computers and Visual Research at the Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz this summer.[1] Curated by Darko Fritz, the show was comprehensively prepared in cooperation with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb,[2] which possesses a major collection of [New] Tendencies works, and the Neue Galerie in Graz. Like all pioneering projects, this exhibition comprehensively follows the genesis of [New] Tendencies, offering a lot of art works rarely seen or not exhibited until now. The curatorial rationale lies, it seems, not only in the need to mount a ‘pioneering’ retrospective, but also in the actual logic of the progressive developmental phases of [New] Tendencies. Without the representation of its early stages, it would be impossible to understand the group’s ultimate achievement – its movement towards computer art and its final exhibitions in 1968/69 and 1973.


However, it must be said that the importance of this exhibition lies not only in its comprehensive approach – which sheds light on a little known phase of a strong international movement of post-war avant-garde – but also in its highlighting of a unique moment of artistic, ideological and ethical opposition to the ‘liberalised’ modern art of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Indeed it provides us with insight into [New] Tendencies as a sort of [un?]proclaimed ‘dissident’ art of the socialist era.

The genesis of NT begins with the first exhibition, held in 1961, which coincided, in terms of time but not language, with the European post-art informel situation. The ultimate aim of the 1961 project, on the international not local level, was to transcend, through a pronounced emphasis on discontinuity, the crisis of art in the process of ‘overcoming informel’ and to establish a different artistic philosophy and ideology. The first exhibition was revolutionary in every respect, and is as important as the exhibitions Monochrome Malerei (1960), held in Leverkusen, and Bewagen-Bewegung (1961), held in Amsterdam, in the sense of a shift from painting towards object, or as a shift from art towards science and new technologies (in an essentially synchronous connection with Arte programmata e cinetica (Programme and Kinetic Art). Hence we perceive a succession of apparently heterogeneous concepts, from Piero Manzoni, through Piero Dorazio and François Morellet, to Julije Knifer and Ivan Picelj, which were unified, however, through the idea of the need to create, as stated by Morellet, ‘a revolution in art that will be equally great as the one in the sphere of science’. It is clear that this first segment of development contains the seed of the future kinetic, and subsequently, computer art, but it is not differentiated in this respect and is primarily founded on various notions of the spiritual and the experimental circulating in the early ’60s and underlined by this exhibition underlines. The ensuing [New] Tendencies exhibitions (1963, 1965) mark one progressive development path of not only the Croatian but also the European avant-garde as well, aspiring to create a great international movement.

In the course of this process, the actual artistic ideology of the artists gathered around [New] Tendencies was defined: team artistic work, the grand entry of science into art, a pronounced anti-commercial attitude, exploring new artistic values, visions, if not utopias, about art – as Meštrović states, needing to be ‘an entirely sober, aware and precise voice of the emerging world’. In the catalogue of the second (1963) exhibition, Getulio Alviani wrote: ‘convention has always been very important in history, and it (convention) should be abolished.’ In this respect, [New] Tendencies are indeed a form of concrete utopia, for they argue in favour of the realisation of the ‘constructivist project’ in the society of the 1960s, which was obviously moving fast towards uniting science, technology and art, to effect what Miško Šuvaković has called a ‘rationalisation of art through scientific methods and an aesthetisation of science through artistic visualisations.’[3] For, both the second and the third (1965) NT exhibition give priority to experiments with new technical and technological media (for example: Alberto Biasi’s Light Prisms; Grazia Varisco’s Schema Luminoso Variabile; Bridget Riley and Gruppo MID’s work... ). Their ensuing research elaborated on the chromo- and kine-visual which also clearly referenced inherited artistic tendencies such as constructivism, kinetic art, concrete art, fully acknowledging Malevich, Mondrian, Nicholson or Vasarely.


IvanPicelj, [Nove] tendencje 4, 1969  

Ivan Picelj: [Nove] tendencije, 1969

A significant turnaround occurred with the symposium and the exhibition entitled NT 4 Computers and Visual Research, (1968/69), whereby [New] Tendencies defined the meaning, ideology and purpose of the experiment they had been running from the very beginning. The period until NT 5 (1973) was almost solely focused on the achievements of computer art. After Tendencies 4 and the first international colloquium [New] Tendencies, and until 1973, when the Tendencies 5 exhibition was held, the above mentioned vision entirely turned not only towards anticipating but also taking some of the first steps in computer art; a dialogue between art and ‘machines’ capable of creative activity.

That same year marked the establishment of bit international, a periodical arguing for a ‘symbiosis of art and machine (computer)’, an organ of ‘information theory, exact aesthetics, design, mass media, visual communications and related disciplines.’ It was certainly a very exclusive periodical, and the only one of its kind in Yugoslavia which, along with texts by Abraham Moles and Max Bense, published papers dealing solely with the relationship between computers and visual experimentation. Evidently, then, in that period the role of computers in the visual media was not the sole issue for [New] Tendencies; it is a radical, and we can now say, premature concept of Gesamtkunstwerk based on a vision of a high-tech world. The Graz exhibition is focused precisely on this, the most revolutionary phase of NT, and effort has been made to present a documentary film about NT 3 and digitally restored audio recordings of four NT symposia held in Zagreb (1968-1973).


At the Graz exhibition my attention was drawn by Vladimir Bonačić’s Computer-Controlled Light Installations (1971). In a photograph depicting Bonačić’s experiment in the centre of Zagreb on the NAMA department store, (NAMA standing for 'narodni magazin’ [people’s store] and representing Yugoslavia’s first well-stocked, Western style socialist department store), one can see a giant billboard placed on the city’s main street. It reads: ‘Citizens, extend a loan for the building of the Zagreb-Split highway.’ Such an almost bizarre combination of avant-garde artistic practice and the environment of socialist-populist self-management was characteristic of art in Tito’s Yugoslavia in general. More precisely, of the period from the political break-up with Stalin in June 1948 to Tito’s death in May 1980, designated as ‘socialist modernism’.

 DIN. PR 10 [NaMa II], 1971

Vladimir Bonacic: DIN. PR 10 [NaMa II], 1971, computer-controlled dynamic object / light installation at the storefront of NaMa in Zagreb, Ilica Street


On the other hand, two decades separate this work of Bonačić’s from the advent of the seminal Zagreb group EXAT 51, and five decades separate it from the advent of the first international Yugoslav avant-garde movement (then designated as the Zagreb-Belgrade avant-garde), Zenit (1921). Mentioning Zenit and EXAT ’51 now presupposes a necessary understanding of the continuity in the establishment and operation of the few, albeit strong, international avant-garde movements in the former Yugoslav artistic space whose shared point of origin was Zagreb.


We are thus faced with at least two possible levels of reviewing [New] Tendencies. One pertains to the political and culturological climate of Tito’s Yugoslavia and Tito’s ambivalent attitude towards what he called ‘Western tendencies’ in art. The other is the line of continuity of avant-garde movements, so few and far between and so little understood, in ‘the first’ Yugoslavia (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, 1918-1945) and ‘the second’ (Tito’s Socialist Yugoslavia) alike. Naturally, the last but not least aspect of this is the specific character of the radical modernist expression and avant-garde tendencies occurring in Zagreb after 1951, which were immeasurably different from the modernisms of other Yugoslav cultural centres and divergent from the climate of ‘socialist modernism’, ‘traditional modernism’ and ‘socialist aestheticism’.  

How come, then, that ‘socialist modernism’ was the dominant climate of creative work and a cultural policy supported by the regime, one from which [New] Tendencies so greatly differed? Primarily politically motivated, the break-up with socialist realism (which was in full swing from 1945 to 1949/50) in Yugoslav art and the shift towards international modernism would not have been possible (or the process would have unfolded much more slowly and with difficulties, as in the USSR and most Eastern European countries) had it not been for the official break with Stalin, the Comintern, USSR and the Eastern bloc countries in June 1948. An essential factor in this complex history, which cannot be dealt with in any great detail here, was purposeful action in the sphere of culture. Namely, the education of artists from the early ’50s primarily by means of efficiently organised grant schemes directed mainly towards the USA (Fulbright) or Paris. Tito’s policy aimed to shift art to the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’, to the very heart of the mainstream – abstract expressionism and its affiliated artistic languages. 

The early 1950s were also characterised by the beginning of Tito’s policy of ‘sitting on the fence’ between the USA and the USSR (the ‘Western’, capitalist bloc, and the ‘Eastern’, communist bloc), which would intensify after Stalin’s death in 1953. This also marked the beginning of the era of 'socialist modernism'. Even though the Cold War was at its peak then, Yugoslavia solidified its international position, and culture became an important and obvious link with 'capitalist countries', the most visible and symbolic representation of that policy. The regime paid particular attention to various forms of the modernisation of art, for such art, characterised by a changed ideological key, could represent a clear signal to the new ally, the West, not only of a changed semantic landscape but also of the seriousness with which Tito’s regime was undergoing change.

Still, this desirable pro-Western art was subject to certain forms of political control from the shadows. Speaking of the attitude of the state/Party authorities towards the liberalisation of culture, one should have no illusions about their tolerance, and in particular about the possible visual literacy of the Yugoslav politicians of that time. Judging by the views expressed in the course of the 7th Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia we can conclude that, in the 1952-1958 period, the Party’s tolerance of modernist trends was most likely strategic in nature. The Yugoslav situation was unique, 'softer' than in the Soviet Union, especially when the socialist realist dogma was abandoned and new, not so easily discernible and more intelligent criteria were established. As opposed to the Soviet brand of dogmatism, where the bureaucracy ordered artists to do things in a particular manner, in Yugoslavia the political establishment made unofficial agreements with artists or gave recommendations against doing something.


In post-war Yugoslav art, 'socialist' modernism played two historically vital roles. The first one consisted in liberating the fine arts from the direct influence of the Party’s ideology of socialist realism in the period after 1949/50. In this respect, its effect was highly evolutive, visionary and progressive. The second role, under the given political circumstances, had to be shared with the political establishment willy-nilly. Here modernism played the politically useful role of providing an enlightened 'civilisation wrapper'. Socialist 'underdevelopment modernism' unfolded on the loose foundation of a society which, although unprepared and in the midst of its own contradictions, very quickly turned away from real communism and socialist realism towards the acceptance of Western models of living, working and creating. The high modernism of Yugoslav art was a symbol of Tito’s Yugoslavia and a half-real, half-virtual modernisation; it was eventually institutionalised in the sphere of the official Yugoslav culture of enlightened socialism as 'socialist modernism' – a symbol of the new state, just like other inventions including socialist democracy, the self-management system and the non-alignment movement.

It is clear that EXAT ’51 – a group that, today, can be considered the ideological and linguistic precursor of [New] Tendencies – was not built on similar foundations and did not please the Party ideologues who liked 'recommending' an acceptable 'modern' manner of expression. A polemical climate was created as early as 1951/52, mostly to do with EXAT’s activities. Abstract (that is, non-objective) art was sharply criticised, first of all as an art whose 'ideological basis was vague and uninvestigated', as being 'hermetic', and as a consequence of uncritical acceptance of 'foreign' influences (Tito was fond of using the term 'Westernisation'). EXAT was the earliest and the most consistent proponent of the supremacy of abstract art and of a new profile of art and the artist; a synthesis of 'pure' and 'applied' art. Also, it would be more correct to view EXAT as a project or concept of the modernist total work (as evidenced by the Manifesto of 1951) than as a group pursuing a conventional course of artistic action attempting to effect changes within a single area of practice. In this respect, EXAT was a multidisciplinary (‘total’) project. The abolition of the allusive and the associative, as well as the destruction of principles such as the harmony of painted elements in a 'composition' (more precisely, the rejection of the heritage of L’Ecole de Paris and the principle of 'push-and-pull' composition inside the 'frame' unique in ex-Yugoslavia’s modern art), certainly must have disturbed an establishment used to a 'feeling of harmony' and to that 'soft' modernism that provided a warm, conformist shelter through its elegant aesthetisations. In this sense, the advent of EXAT does not only represent a watershed for Croatian art, but a generator of tectonic disturbances on the Yugoslav art scene at large. It is also one of the rare movements that clearly broke with the convention of 'composition', that is, the deeply rooted heritage of French modernism, cultivated to the level of a cult. 

Despite the historical classification of EXAT, as well as various subsequent 'new tendencies' in Croatian art, as 'abstract' and 'geometrical', neither the truth about them, nor their essential historical significance, lies in their morphological structure. Their prime significance, I believe, lies in their overall ideological weight and ideas of progress that lift them above the modernisms of their contemporary national culture and, essentially, single them out as strong international avant-garde movements within a primarily European cultural space. Geometry, then, is a tool. Progress, then, is the goal. The 'bit international' concept is actually the only Yugoslav project of yearning for an electronic age, a kind of reverie about the computer as the most perfect, impersonal artist; a wake up call to computer art.


It is therefore the art of its European time, but art outside its socialist Yugoslav time and particularly outside 'socialist modernism' and its status quo aesthetics. I imagine that Tito’s diatribes 'against abstraction' (1963, 1964, 1966) may have been provoked by works that irritated him, such as Knifer’s Meander (the Graz exhibition shows a historical specimen dating from 1960, when Knifer 'invented' the Meander), or works by Picelj, Aleksandar Srnec, Vjenceslav Rihter, Vojin Bakić and Vlado Kristl dating from the late 1950s or the first half of the 1960s. Judging by some of Tito’s speeches (which, however, had no political consequences for the artists concerned due to the image of tolerance the Party was cultivating), this is quite certain. Excerpts from various speeches he delivered in the course of 1963 clearly show a considerable degree of ambivalence, if not the outright schizophrenic nature of the above-mentioned 'sitting on the fence':

[...] In literature especially, and in art generally, there are a lot of foreign elements, irreconcilable with our socialist ethics, something that is attempting to divert the course of our development from the one determined by our revolution. These are various decadent phenomena, brought in from abroad. We must fight against them; however, we must do it not always by resorting to administrative measures but through political action. [...] I am not against creative searching for the new [...] but I am against spending our community’s funds on some so-called modernist works that have nothing whatsoever in common with artistic creation [...]. [4]

Also, it is clear today that, as Professor Denegri remarks, EXAT was better known outside Yugoslavia, so that no particular echo of these innovative initiatives was felt inside the country, not even in Zagreb itself. However, the situation changed with the first [New] Tendencies exhibition, the groundwork having been laid by people who were aware of EXAT’s contributions and their possible further consequences, such as Vjenceslav Rihter, Radoslav Putar, Božo Bek, Matko Meštrović and others. 'Exatians' also joined [New] Tendencies. Knifer and Kristl, for example, strongly influenced the shaping of the earliest phase of NT, which was founded on various non-gestural, 'pure' and primary, geometrical, visual structures. Picelj, on the other hand, worked on the level of optical, kinetic-visual constructions. Until 1968, that is, when NT entered its most original phase and began gathering around the ideas of bit international, one should not underestimate the impact of EXAT which was much deeper than it initially appears

Even though they were, without doubt, of paramount importance for radical modernism, and outside the context of 'socialist modernism', I dare say that NT achieved their true aim with artists like Vladimir Bonačić. He (otherwise a PhD and an electronics engineer) first hit upon the idea of visually generating the scientific results obtained while working with computers: 'This was’, he said, ’best evidenced when, researching polynomials, we got pictures that also expressed certain aesthetic values'. This paved the way for his creation of the first light-kinetic objects, whose screen displayed a sequence of over 65,000 differently structured visual situations (obtained researching Galois fields). But he did not wish his scientific, visual investigations to be a mere aesthetic object placed on a pedestal in some museum or other. He therefore produced ambient installations or temporary installations in situ (where the architecture of the building was used as a ‘host’ for the computer controlled experiment with light, visible from outside and together comprising a giant ‘sculpture’). in the centre of Zagreb (the NAMA department store and Kreditna banka). These Computer-Controlled Light Installations completely integrated the formal-aesthetic aspects established in the early phase of NT with his scientific, visual and early electronic investigations – a special form of 'electronic iconics' which produced the NT 4 emblem. Bonačić developed this concept further by means of very complex audio-visual and kinetic constructions (GF-4 32/71, 1971, today located in the UNESCO building). Proceeding from his visionary works, authors like Tomislav Mikulić, not being content with the possibilities of computer graphics or objects, arrived at the first Yugoslav computer generated cartoons (Mikulić’s Random, 1976).

Tendencies 5 (1973), even though it was the last exhibition of its kind, opened the door to the coming phenomenon of neoavant-garde, conceptual art (John Baldessari, Giuseppe Penone, Sol LeWitt, Endre Tot, On Kawara, Goran Trbuljak, Braco Dimitrijević, Iannis Kounellis, Giulio Paolini...). As a linguistic and aesthetico-technological art practice, but also as an ideological and ethical construct of sorts, in the period between 1961 and 1973, NT found themselves 'squeezed' in the European cultural space between two dominant artistic poles. They stood in antithesis, on the one hand, to Art Informel, the painting of matter and gesture, and, on the other, to that trend of conceptual art embodied by the Turin Arte Povera circle around 1968, which notionally refused any form of technical, technological craftsmanship or aesthetic determinants. NT were also 'squeezed' in the Yugoslav cultural space between the politically acceptable 'socialist modernism' with its mostly non-experimental models of a work of art, and the radical artistic action and behaviour that appeared in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, gathered around the Belgrade and the Zagreb Students’ Cultural Centres, whose prime exponents were Marina Abramović and Braco Dimitrijević. By the time of Tendencies 5, Belgrade’s Students’ Cultural Centre was already engaging in radical international projects; the Centre was headed by its spiritus movens Biljana Tomić, one of the greatest Yugoslav gallerists of avant-garde and neoavant-garde movements, educated, small wonder, though the exhibitions and colloquia of Zagreb’s [New] Tendencies. That was how, in symbolic terms, a series of uncompromising artistic concepts came full circle – from Zenit, through EXAT and [New] Tendencies, to Belgrade’s April Meetings: concepts, projects, action, creation and conduct that paid no heed to the dead end street of socialist modernist aestheticism and the unbridled era of happy consumption, characteristic of a cushioned, neither-socialist-nor-bourgeois state.

This invisible line of continuity, which we can understand today owing to post festum insights, including, among other things, the Graz exhibition, could not be as pronounced in the 1970s. Indeed it remained submerged until the mid-1990s, with NT’s efforts languishing in the bywaters of local art the way the avant-garde efforts of ZENIT and EXAT had done before them, and seemed irretrievably lost, first in the inarticulate climate of transavant-garde tendencies of the 1980s, and then in the brutal political and merciless wartime climate of ex-Yugoslavia. A visible inrush of 'new tendencies' into the ex-Yugoslav cultural space occurred in the latter half of the 1990s, owing to the influx of contemporary digital technologies and the possibilities of artistic expression they afforded, conducting the process of artistic creation outside the domain of matter and the material. However, the lines of development of recent art directly connected to digital technology are numerous and conceptually and ideologically diverse in each of the former Yugoslav cultural centres (Zagreb, Ljubljana, Belgrade, Skoplje, Sarajevo, Podgorica), and truly constitute a separate subject for consideration. Let us just add that today, the contemporary artists of ex-Yugoslavia are collecting the shards of that world of concrete utopia, one of the main advocates of which was none other than the [New] Tendencies project.

Lidija Merenik, PhD, is a Professor at the Department of Modern Art History of the Faculty of Philosophy of Belgrade University




[1] J. Denegri, Apstraktna umjetnost u Hrvatskoj 2 [Abstract Art in Croatia 2], Split 1985

[2] Ex-Gallery of Contemporary Art

[3] M. Šuvaković, Pojmovnik moderne i postmoderne likovne umetnosti i teorije posle 1950 [The Terminology of Modern and Postmodern Fine Arts and Theory After 1950], Belgrade 1999

[4] J. B. Tito, Govori i članci [Speeches and Articles], XVIII, Zagreb 1966



bit international – [Nove] tendencije, Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, 28 April – 26 August, 2007,