THE BIOTECHNIC

Soft Machines after the October Revolution

 
 The Seven Technical Forms of the Biotechnic, El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters, "Nasci,” Merz 8/9 (1924). 

The Seven Technical Forms of the Biotechnic, El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters, "Nasci,” Merz 8/9 (1924). 

"So a new science is founded: the Biotechnic. This little book will deal with its fundamental thoughts. They are founded on a law of nature. And laws of nature are always true..." --R. H. Francé, Die Pflanze als Erfinder, 1920 [1]

In 1920, Raoul Heinrich Francé published Die Pflanze als Erfinder, declaring that the seven elemental and universal forms of nature are the Crystal, Sphere, Plane, Pole, Ribbon, Screw, and Cone.  These seven Ur-types are the formal resultant of the biological processes of nature; Francé names this new science of type as "the Biotechnic."  Four years after publication Plants as Inventors, El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters co-edit the Merz issue no. 8&9 entitled Nasci, echoing Francé's insistence that these seven nascent types are the essential figures of form in nature.

"Alles, was ist, sind wohl kombinationen dieser sieben urformen. Sie sind das ganze um ..." --El Lissitzky, Merz no. 8&9 Nasci, 1924 [2]

The 1924 issue of Merz represents a shift in the aesthetic zeitgeist of the early 20th avant-garde, diverging from the rubrics of both Suprematism and Constructivism.  Lissitzky and Schwitters propose a radical set of new formal archetypes as the genetic material for this emerging aesthetic of the soft-machine. Their divergence from the machine aesthetic is a major artistic shift not in its rejection of the machine, but in its visual reinterpretation of the machine as a series of forming processes. Merz Nasci proposes a techno-organic avant-garde in which the spirit of a biological will to form will reshape the utopian visions of the modern machine age.  Nasci  attempts to reexamine the machine as a modern device capable of achieving this morphogenetic intelligence. It is in this celebration of genetic process that places Lissitzky's proposal of form in the margins between the ideologies of Malevich's Suprematism and Russian Constructivism – Merz proposes paradoxical synthesis of both transcendent ontologies and immanent imperatives of techno-organic form-finding.

The Biotechnical philosophy of Merz Nasci represents a specific shift in the Russian Avant-garde zeitgeist. Galvez asserts that “Schwitters and Lissitzky had discerned, perceptively but also sadly, that the much ballyhooed rallying cry of an entire generation of artists had devolved by 1924 into a type of empty slogan.” However, Nasci is more than a fundamental change in the positivist machine aesthetic.  There exists a nostalgia remaining from the artistic exuberance following the October Revolution. Lissitzky and Schwitters refuse to discard the machine and instead cling to the belief in a flickering of this spirit of Becoming nascent in the machine. Their Bioconstructivism proposes a new set of elemental forms that are derived from the processes of both time and matter, indexing the structural logics of organic life. 

Biotechnical form-finding radicalizes the visions of the Russian Avant-garde by promoting these seven archetypes of formal being: bio-nascent and self-generating, they are capable of a serial auto-poiesis absent in the machines of the industrial age.  The use of biological processes as a generator of form marks this Nasci issue of Merz as a direct confrontation with the traditional aesthetics of the techno-fetishes of much of the 20th century avant-garde.  This formal ontology of the biologically nascent in Merz Nasci is a possible origin of contemporary discourse of bio-digital projects of morphogenetics. El Lissitzky and Schwitters predict a new technological aesthetic of parametric emergence, celebrating this soft machine of the Avant-garde: a techno-organic entity of Becoming with the mind of the machine and the spirit of the living.

1. R.H. Francé. Plants as Inventors. (London: Simpkin Marshall, 1926): 8.

2. El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters, "Nasci,” Merz 8/9 (1924): 75. "Everything that is, are probably combinations of these seven archetypes. They are all around..."