Thursday, April 17, 2008

BPN 1071 Anniversary of the first multimedia show on earth

Today it is 50 years ago that the EXPO 58 was opened in Brussels, Belgium. The milestone of that exhibition has grown into a city monument: the Atomium, the construction with 9 silver spheres. Yet this monument was not a symbol from the beginning. On the promotion poster (see illustration) the is no Atomium with its nine silver spheres. In fact there is not even the faintest refernce to it, as the poster contains only starts and a silverlike world. Yet over the years the Atomium has grown into a symbol for Brussels and Belgium. In fact it became a comptetitor of the statue of Manneke Pis, the little peeing man of Brussels.

The Atomium is a reminder of the first world exhibition after the Second World War on the European continent. The nine silver spheres, recently remodelled, remind of the new energy in industry and trade after the financial injection of the Marshall plan. The message was that Europe was going to be prosperous, using all the new technologies; a year before the precursor of the European Union with seven partners, the European Coal and Steel Community, had been founded in Rome.

Today it is also for Belgium a day of remembrance. In 1958 Belgium represented itself undivided to the rest of the world and was still rich, possessing colonies like the now Democratic Republic of Congo. The Atomium was the promise of a better life and housing conditions with showers and baths for the Belgians. Today Belgium is divided up to the bone between the factions of the Flemish and the Walloons people. The colonies have gone and the economy has become depended on international institutions in Brussels.

The time when the Expo 58 was held was industrially and technically a promising time. Yet the world had not entered the cyber era yet, despite the fact that there were mainframes around. In fact it was still virgin ground as far as computers were concerned.

Yet the Expo 58 marked the first multimedia show on earth: Poème Electronique (1958). In the venturous pavilion of Philips the first large-scale “multi-media” presentation of Philips took place. The pavilion was to show the strong points of Philips: lightning, acoustics and electronics. This inspired Louis Kalff, an engineer who at the time was Philips’ director of arts, to the daring building and the multimedia show. Under the umbrella of the French architect Le Corbusier the concept Poème électronique, an integrated work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), was created, uniting the architecture by Iannis Xenakis, the music by Edgard Varèse and the colours and images of Le Corbusier. The floor plan of the pavilion resembled the shape of a stomach, with a surface of 1,000m2 (40 x 25m), and a height of 22 meters. The construction technology used was innovative as a geometric construction of pipes and concrete slabs.The interior was empty and dark. To facilitate performance all technological features were concealed. At each showing the pavilion could hold approximately 500 standing visitors, who experienced a shocking multi-media performance lasting 480 seconds. The visitors saw a slide show all around them and heard electronic music from 400 speakers.

The Poème Electronique showed the history of mankind in eight minutes. The show should have been a poem, blending images and sounds into a total experience. But during the long preparations Edgar Varèse got into conflict with the Philips sound engineers. The harmony aimed for at never came about. So when the show was over, the visitors left in astonishment.

The project cost the Philips Company approximately 6,5 million Dutch guilders ( three million Euros). At the end of the Expo, the pavilion was blown up; officially as it was only intended for the exhibition. The project went into oblivion, except for a piece of the architecture, which decorated the entrance to the Lightning factories for years. In 1984 the Technical University of Eindhoven picked up again on the geometric architecture. And also the content of the show was recovered. In 2005 the Poème électronique could be experienced at the IST Conference in The Hague (with the help of new technology, the 400 speakers had been reduced to a few surround speakers). The multi slide show can these days been seen (not experienced) at YouTube (do not mind the Dutch text).

Blog Posting Number 1071

Tags: industrial heritage

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