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Pink Floyd, “The Wall” and Gustav Metzger

March 13, 2014

Gustav Metzger The Wall Rorschach Audio Archive

Gustav Wall -2

In March 2002 I wrote an opinion piece for “Sound Projector” magazine (issue 10, page 138, published May 2002), which was largely inspired by a cache of documents that had come to light among my dad’s possessions – a book and information sheets relating to the “Cybernetic Serendipity” exhibition at The Institute of Contemporary Arts, and catalogues of the “Anti-University of London”. The Anti-University documents are discussed in an earlier post (see below), and all are striking, not least on account of the involvement of auto-destructive art pioneer and peace activist Gustav Metzger. Gustav Metzger was a founder member of the campaign group The Committee of 100, alongside Stuart Hall (see earlier posts); to get to the point however, in the “Sound Projector” article I speculated – and do please remember where you read this first – that Gustav Metzger’s work “Five Screens With Computer” may well have inspired the central motif in Pink Floyd’s album, film and stage-production “The Wall”.

In 1968 Studio International published 2 printings of a special magazine dedicated to the “Cybernetic Serendipity” exhibition – the “first serious consideration of the role of the computer in the arts, and its potential service to artists, composers (and) graphic designers” – which had been organised by Jasia Reichardt, in collaboration with Mark Dowson, Peter Schmidt and Franciszka Themerson, and held at The ICA earlier in 1968. Although technically a magazine, the 2nd printing is a large-format hardback book, and Studio International’s “Cybernetic Serendipity” book contains an article by Gustav Metzger, describing a talk he gave at the Architectural Association in 1965, which in turn described his proposal for an enormous public art project called “Five Screens With Computer”.

As described, “Five Screens With Computer” is “an elaborate project for auto-destructive art composed of five screens made of stainless steel, about thirty feet high, forty feet long and three feet deep. These are arranged thirty feet apart, staggered in plan, and sited in a central place between large blocks of flats. Each screen consists of ten thousand uniform elements three feet in length, whose section is either square, rectangular or hexagonal. The elements are tightly packed, and ejected one by one… After a ten-year period, the site remains to be turned-over to another use. The artist prepares the (computer) programme for the ejection of the elements.” If it wasn’t already obvious from that description, the diagram in Studio International depicts “Five Screens With Computer” (in profile) as a series of walls constructed from rectangular building-blocks, which fall out onto the ground in varying sequences. Understanding the word “screens” to refer here to walls, and “elements” to refer to component building-blocks, with those building-blocks tightly stacked-up in and ejected from a steel shelving system, the similarity with “The Wall” by Pink Floyd seems self-evident. The question remains as to whether (or to what extent) the similarity might have been coincidental? The Studio International article states “these ideas were discussed by Gustav Metzger in his lecture at the AA in 1965”.

As it happens, in terms of background, it seems Pink Floyd formed some time after members Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright met, while studying Architecture at The London Polytechnic in Regent Street (now the University of Westminster), not far from the Architectural Association, around 1962-3 [1]. Now, by comparison, it’s well-known that Gustav Metzger introduced The Who guitarist Pete Townshend to the concept of using destruction (the deliberate smashing of guitars and drums etc) and audio feedback as artistic elements, when Townshend attended Metzger’s lectures at Ealing Art College; Pete Townshend freely acknowledges that influence, and sponsored Metzger’s exhibition at Modern Art (formerly Moma) in Oxford in 1998. Likewise (I am indebted to Bronac Ferran for pointing-out that) Syd Barrett biographer Julian Palacios states that “Roger Waters and Rick Wright shared a flat with Hornsey (College of Art) students (Peter) Dockley and Pete Kuttner” [2] (themselves fascinating artists); Dockley recalled that “while Pete Kuttner and I were at Hornsey, Gustav Metzger gave a lecture-demonstration in the main hall of the college. Metzger used ink suspended in an oil base, housed between glass small enough to insert into a projector that used two-by-two inch slides. The lecture was completely enthralling. Suddenly, these miniature-scale coloured ink events and interactions were blown-up fifteen foot square. I turned to the back and there were (Roger) Waters and (Rick) Wright, soaking up Gustav’s performance. They went to speak with him afterwards, and to look in more detail at his equipment. Artist Mark Boyle was also using similar projections, so it was in the air. I like to think Gustav, a brilliant artist but very unassuming man, was in part responsible for a chief component of the psychedelic experience.” Nick Mason himself is quoted as stating that in 1963 he and Roger Waters lived in a flat owned by architect and light artist Mike Leonard – Leonard also being a tutor at Hornsey and at the Regent Street Poly [3]. Pink Floyd were filmed performing in Mike Leonard’s house for the BBC TV science programme Tomorrow’s World [4], Peter Dockley himself went on to collaborate directly with Pink Floyd [5], and Pink Floyd recorded an (as yet unreleased) soundtrack for the film “Speak” by art-science pioneer John Latham [6], who (separately) collaborated with Gustav Metzger.

So, while this evidence does suggest that Pink Floyd seem to have moved in similar circles to Gustav Metzger, to have attended at least one Metzger lecture, and to have personally questioned Metzger about aspects of his art, what’s most important here is that the sets for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” were designed by architect Mark Fisher [7]. In addition to the fact that, by the time of the conceptual genesis of “The Wall” in the late 1970s, Metzger’s proposal for “Five Screens With Computer” had (as published by Studio International) been readily publicly available for years anyway, The Guardian also confirms that Mark Fisher “began his studies at the Architectural Association in London in 1965” [8] – the same year that Metzger presented his original proposal for “Five Screens With Computer” at the Architectural Association (and Mark Fisher also worked as a Unit Master at the AA School until 1977).

By any standards “The Wall” is an enormously impressive and powerful piece of work, and, what you might call the official version of the genesis of “The Wall” concept, seems to suggest that, reflecting the increasingly distant relationship between mainstream (ie – stadium) rock performers and their audiences (that, as it happens, strongly influenced the emergence of punk) Roger Waters developed the imagery of “The Wall” as a metaphor for his alienation from over-adoring music fans and from figures of social and political authority. In fact the music in “The Wall” moves away from Pink Floyd’s psychedelic roots towards, in places, almost disco influences, and, in terms of lyrics, the politics of punk. So, while it’s beyond question that there’s a huge amount more to “The Wall” than just that one main visual image, however it’s also true that the official version and the hypothesis posited here aren’t mutually-exclusive. Finally, for those artists, curators, historians, journalists and bloggers etc who might wish to repeat or discuss the idea that “Five Screens With Computer” may have influenced “The Wall”, please be sure to acknowledge my articles on this as your source (and, if any reader has information that sheds more light on this, please do get in touch).

[1] Glen Povey “Echoes: The Complete History of Pink Floyd” 3C Publishing 2008
[2] Julian Palacios “Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd – Dark Globe” Plexus 2010
[3] Nick Mason & Philip Dodd “Inside Out – A Personal History of Pink Floyd” Phoenix 2004
[7] Vernon Fitch & Richard Mahon “Comfortably Numb: A History of The Wall” PFA 2006

Thanks to Colin Banks & Bronac Ferran

Copyright © Joe Banks, 12 March 2014

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