Turux / Proun

In the late 1990s, I started my short career as a graphic designer and web constructor, first in Toronto, then in Montreal. Just a couple of years earlier I’d wanted nothing to do with computers or the internet, and my growing interest in design was mainly analogue, inspired by early modernist designers in Russia and Germany. I wanted to be a designer, but using these older tools and methods. I liked that you could still see the tactility of that work, whether it was pencil traces left on paper, or the layered grain of photograms; that typography was redesigned with every project, rather than fonts reused; and I liked the onus on invention connected to grand social purpose. Two things finally drew me into the digital – my old friend Mat coercing me to spend a summer building websites with him, and my long-growing collection of (and fascination with), rave flyers, techno album cover art and, eventually, giant glossy books devoted to each (who remembers Localizer 1.0 ?).

Increasingly, I was drawn to projects that combined design and scripting, often deconstructing the former through the latter. By 1999, my favourite of these was turux.org (1995-2003) and related sites silverserver.org/lia and dextro.org (where Turux is now archived).

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Turux projects were built with Macromedia’s Director software, the package used to build CD-ROMs before the web and, before that, games for the original 8-bit Nintendo. By the late-90s, Director was a sophisticated but bloated package capable of all sorts integrated multimedia authoring including animation, scriptable non-linear timelines, and embedded video. The problem was that Director’s outputted Shockwave movies were usually too heavy for dial-up internet and the software’s web-related features were really just tacked onto a package designed with very different purposes in mind. Director became a bit of a white elephant, replaced on one hand by interactive DVD discs, and on the other by Macromedia’s Flash which was built from the ground up to be the basis of interactive web apps. There’s no question that, on the whole, Flash is far better suited to the web. But what was lost in the switch was the anti-aesthetic environment of Director, with its primitive drawing tools, rough edges, awkward approach to layers and transparency, and script-focussed timeline. What we got in its place was the hegemony of the Flash aesthetic – smooooooth edges, heavily anti-aliased (i.e. no jaggedness) everything, cute things bouncing, solid colours, and absolute depthlessness (as if the photographic had never existed), except via the affected dimensionality of simple gradients (“Look! I’m 3D!”). It had to be flat and vector based in order to bring flashy graphics to computers still running on dial-up connections.

Turux was an alien in this environment. In small ways it had the markers of something going on obsolete, with its jagged-edged lines and characters, but these elements were subsumed by something utterly futuristic looking (or maybe from a potential present that never caught on). It relied on vectors as well, but built with a set of tools that was far less pretty and prescriptive of an aesthetic than the ones in Flash. Many of the site’s most beautiful pieces exploited an odd feature in Director’s animation controls, the “trails” setting which causes any moving object to leave images of itself in its wake. It’s easy to do, but it’s difficult to make it look good. On Turux, however, it became a whole new aesthetic – pixelated elements dancing with ghostly gradients. The site’s animations made amazing use of simple shapes, transparency, and non-anti-aliased characters, set into steady motion and leaving semi-translucent reverberations in their paths. That the motion is caused by a combination of keyframe animation, user interaction and the seemingly chaotic tangents of vector equations, gave them an alien and vaguely life-like (or intelligent) quality.
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What strikes me now, looking back on the archived Turux pieces, is how much they actually have in common (visually, at least) with some of the Soviet art and design that first grabbed my attention when I was younger, especially the more adventurous works of artists like El Lissitzky. Lissitzky’s five-year long Proun series, running from the early- to mid-1920s, was the source of some of the most iconic imagery of the Soviet project at its most experimental. He styled himself a “constructor” – not a painter or artist, but a social technician via design – of a new utopian order and Proun was what he named his “project for the affirmation of the new.” Prounen, like the ones below, took off from Suprematism’s fixation on pure form, but shifted its flat geometry into 3-dimensional space where experiments in dynamic spatial relations and perspectival multiplicity (both entrenched modernist obsessions by the end of WWI) could be conceived. For Lissitzky and other artists working for the new Soviet regime, such works represented initial theorisations (abstract machines, in a sense) towards new utopian approaches to architecture, urbanism and industry which, together, would could carry Russia into the modern industrial age. If Dextro and Lia’s abstract machines have a politics, then the link is less overt, although they do belong to a period in the history of the net (remember when we still wondered if e-commerce would take off?) when a utopian idealism about its potential as a free space, generating new realms of the social, still had some valence. And, if my memory is correct, the original Turux.org was connected with Austrian anti-racist organisations and anarchist-leaning social movements.

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But my point is that Dextro was ultimately working with many of the same concerns that drove Lissitzky – multiplicity, dynamism, shifting axes, the potential of new technologies to generate new forms – only at the other end of the modern project; the other end but not post-. Turux was very much a “project for the affirmation of the new.” There was nothing retrospective, ironic or conciliatory about it. Like the Prounen, it created an abstract space-apart where the new forms could be tested. Only unlike Lissitzky, Dextro and Lia worked with the potentials of chaos, rather asserting a totalising order. Movement could be shown rather than implied. And, using the tools of the digital constructor, Dextro and Lia built abstract machines for the exploration of user-responsive forms in 4-dimensional space, with axes and planes swinging through one another, engaging the user to a point, but seeming just a little impervious as well.

You can still see the Turux collection at dextro.org. Better still, as of May you can buy the collection on CD-ROM, guaranteed not to become another piece of monumental ephemera lost in the shifting sands of the web.

One Response to “Turux / Proun”

  1. lia Says:

    http://www.turux.at ( Archive of selected works of Turux, 1997 to 2001 by Lia. )