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 thepolitical.

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