Striking Factory and Strike of Consciousness in the Work of S. M. Eisenstein

Experimental movement research in the laboratory of CIT, 1923. René Fülöp-Miller, Geist und Gesicht des Bolschewismus (Wien, 1926)1

The Soviet Union of the 1920s produces and supports multiple connections between the organization of work in factories and research in collective physiology, reflexology and the biomechanics of labour. The biomechanics of movement was not only an aesthetic vector or style of motion, but also a new form of knowledge operating through embodiment. In laboratories of gesture, scientific and artistic circles were experimenting across disciplines and media boundaries to create new forms of expression, thus experiencing new interconnections between body and machine, pathos and matter, time and rhythm, construction and projection. Paradigmatic in this context are the Theatre of the Proletkult, Alexei Gastev’s Central Institute of Labour, and Solomon Nikritin’s Projection Theatre.

In the first section, I would like to give a preview of the expressive practices, which will guide us to my second point. Taking the work of Sergei Eisenstein as my example – his stage drama Gas Masks and the film Strike – I would like to sketch the complex association between the operational topology of the factory and the structural force of cinematic thinking. In these artistic strategies, I am interested in a dialectic method which, in the dynamic processes of montage, rhythm and movement always reveals its opposite sides – the intervals, material resistances and sensuous strike forces. They become decisive when they give rise to new body images and thus contribute to the intensification of filmic expression. Finally, I would like to interpret these visual intensifications as an aesthetic manifestation or even a gestureof the political.

Nikolai Bernstein and Nikolai Tikhonov during an experiment on cyclography. TCA, in: Smirnov, Sound in Z, 114

At the Central Institute of Labour, the translation of ephemeral body movements into visible, audible and replicable media arrangements was at the focus of biomechanical movement studies. Also known as the Institute for the Scientific Organization of Work and the Mechanization of Man, the CIT was founded by the poet and revolutionary Alexei Gastev in Moscow in 1920. Supported by Lenin, Gastev projected in 1928 the Ustanovka (‘Setup’) joint-stock company to audit the work of industrial enterprises and provide recommendations on efficient organization of their work processes. It provided CIT with a commercial basis and led to its financial independence from the state. By 1938, shortly before Gastev was arrested and executed, the CIT had produced over 500,000 qualified workers in 200 trades, and 20,000 industrial trainers in 1,700 educational centres.2

Stereo traces of hand movements. Research work at GIMN in collaboration with Gastev’s institute CIT, Moscow. 1925. (Nikolai Bernstein and Tatiana Popova). GIMN archive. TCA, in: Smirnov, Sound in Z, 107

The experimental training work and the elaboration of educational methods were realized in different ‘laboratories’. Andrey Smirnov and Lubov Pchelkina give a precise description of these intermedial dispositifs and techniques:

Alongside the physiological laboratory, there were the labs for ‘sensorics’, ‘psychotechnics’ and education. A variety of ‘multimedia’ tools and ‘interactive’ gadgets were devised, including instruments for photography and film, systems for monitoring musical performances and instructorless simulation apparatus for cars and planes.3

However, the activities of the CIT went beyond the pragmatic biomechanical ‘mechanization of men’. In one of Gastev’s exhibitions of the 1920s entitled ‘Art of Movement’, accompanying performances of Solomon Nikritin’s Projection Theatre, stereo images traced the physical trajectories of tools, hammers, weapons, the physical joints of workers, pianists and sportsmen, tracking and monitoring the three-dimensional characteristics of motion.4

Physical trajectories of the corporeal joints of a wired pianist. Stereo images, CIT and GIMN, Moscow. 1925. (N. Bernstein and T. Popova). GIMN archive. TCA, in: Smirnov, Sound in Z, 118-121

In his main theoretical text, in practice a textbook on biomechanical generation, Kak nado rabotat’ (‘How people work’), Gastev urged the decentralization of labour administration, which was to be carried out in the future by worker and machine. What is interesting here is the primacy of the expressivity of the work gesture. At first sight it appears to be diametrically opposed to the imperative of a mechanical optimization of the movements involved in work. Gastev speaks of an ‘organic engineering passion’, of ‘infecting the masses with restless passion, with the work of energy’, of ‘coefficients of stimulation’, and of ‘working atmosphere’ etc. This expressive-emphatic primacy within work routines is methodically realized in the projecting of work rhythms.5 This paradigm allows clear representation of how the organization and conditioning of movement not only implies the transfer of new embodied knowledge, but also continually creates new forms of expression, new body images.6

Dziga Vertov’s first sound film, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931), contains a unique documentation of Gastev’s training units. Footage from coalmines is inserted into this biomechanical ballet, with the coalface workers performing gymnastic exercises. These are carried out slowly, rhythmically and synchronously, recalling the biomechanical theatre training sessions of Meyerhold or Nikritin. Concerning the representation of these work rhythms, Pudovkin wrote in a commentary on Vertov’s film:

Image sequence from Dziga Vertov, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931)

Dziga Vertov’s first sound film, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931), contains a unique documentation of Gastev’s training units. Footage from coalmines is inserted into this biomechanical ballet, with the coalface workers performing gymnastic exercises. These are carried out slowly, rhythmically and synchronously, recalling the biomechanical theatre training sessions of Meyerhold or Nikritin. Concerning the representation of these work rhythms, Pudovkin wrote in a commentary on Vertov’s film:

All his [Vertov’s] work was aimed at exploring the rhythmic nature of montage. […] For his trials of different rhythmic arrangements of film sequences, he needed material that he could cut as he liked. […] Mainly it was footage of identical repeated processes: the work of human beings, the work of machines, the movement of the masses etc. […] Machines provided, because of their regular periodic movement, the ideal material for rhythmic montage. It is, therefore, totally absurd to regard Vertov as a documentary filmmaker.7

In this balancing act between monotony, precision, and the repetition of work gestures on the one hand, and their rhythmic sound-experimental montage on the other, there was a tension from which new forms of expression emerged. My hypothesis is that these expressive modifications and inventions imply a political dimension in the aesthetic sphere. For it goes hand in hand with a new division and fragmentation of materiality (its disjunction and interconnection with sound), which lends the body a new visibility in a visual-filmic economy.

In February 1924, Sergei Eisenstein, then a director at the Proletkult working theatre, performed the play ‘Gas Masks’ on the premises of a Moscow gasworks. The author of this ‘melodrama in three acts’, Sergei Tretyakov, determined the venue as follows: ‘The interior of a gasworks. Machines, workbenches, trapdoor to the gas main, an office to the side: table, electric bell, telephone’.8 The scenic construction consisted of gigantic real machines and a wooden frame as used in theatres. The play was performed in front of an audience of the gasworks’ employees. The actors wore neither make-up nor costumes, but were dressed in their everyday clothes, and thus blended in with the audience of workers. Eisenstein later wrote that he discovered in these possibilities of materiality, ‘a new kind of effective stimulus, for the gasworks itself, and everything that went along with it, was an organic attraction of the montage of stimuli. The actors were interpreted as physical models (naturzhiki) and not in the sense of an artistic image (obras).’9 After the play, the workers from the audience were supposed to climb on to the ‘stage’ and continue their work on the machines and workbenches. But the production, according to Eisenstein, lost much of its force as a result of the contrast between workers and actors, between theatrical scaffolding and actual machines. ‘The plastic charm of factory reality was so strong that the line of the actual material of reality burst into flames with new ardour. It drew everyone under its spell.... and had to break the bounds of that art where it could not exploit its potential to the full.’10

And so Eisenstein describes the transition to cinema, where, in his first film Strike, he uses the factory as a topos in the filmic sense. In other words, it is not deployed in its entirety as an attraction, as was the case in Gas Masks; nor do the monotony and the rhythmic montage of the work gestures in Strike constitute the expressive character of the material as in Vertov’s film Enthusiasm. Through the striking workers, the factory itself becomes expressive: through new linkages between bodies and machines, through a change in function of factory attributes, tools and other work-related objects. Over and beyond the narrative line of the workers’ strike itself, the factory is, in a visual-filmic manner, taken apart, fragmented, and put together again to great effect.