Prometheus Unbound

Psychedelia, Gesamtkunstwerk and fractional freedom in Soviet Tatarstan.

Rustem Saifullin and light-music installation “Yalkin-1” (late 1970s)

The world of Soviet sci-fi is full of mad scientists. They don’t have rich patrons, secret laboratories, ambitions for world supremacy, or extravagant costumes. They are simple engineers in checked shirts who go to work and spend their evenings tinkering away on incredible things in their tiny apartments. They are like Shurik, the nerdy protagonist in a series of Soviet films beloved by generations. In the film “Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession” he succeeds in building a time machine. While his neighbors nag him about how the building’s light fixtures keep popping out as a result of his experiments, Shurik opens a portal into the era of Ivan the Terrible.

Shurik is a stereotypical technical intellectual, without whom Soviet reality is unimaginable. In the late 1950s, three times more engineers graduated from universities in the Soviet Union than in the United States. They may not have built time machines, but they turned their bathrooms into darkrooms and almost every young man in the Brezhnev era could make a radio out of improvised materials. The desire to invent was not only a way of resisting the totalitarian agenda. Many young people truly believed in the ideal of socialism and made efforts to bring about the utopia of advanced technology and universal equality. And some lucky ones weren’t limited to experimentation in their garages: research institutions were environments of relative freedom within the regime. One of them, in Tatarstan’s capital of Kazan, was the birthplace of the experimental project “Prometheus,” led by the physicist Bulat Galeyev.

Rustem Saifullin and “Mondrian” installation (1975)

In 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the USSR and the United States were on the brink of nuclear war, a “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total artwork) was created at the Kazan Aviation Institute. Enthusiasts erected a semi-circular paper screen with an area of 180 square meters. There were colored lamps behind it, which connected to the control desk of “Prometheus-1,” and they would light up in time with the music of Alexander Scriabin. 

When completing the musical poem “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire” in 1910, Scriabin included a part for the color organ, a so-called “luce.” In 1915, a sound and light production of the piece was attempted in New York’s Carnegie Hall, but the technical possibilities of the time were limited and, as a result, critics didn’t appreciate the experiment. Another half-century passed before the dream of the avant-garde composer was realized. 

In 1965, a sound and light film of “Prometheus” was made. It was the first attempt at an original method of filming: shots were filmed on three black-and-white negatives, and then, after coloring and overlapping the films, the resulting positives came out in color. However, Scriabin’s musical poem with the full inclusion of a “luce” was only produced abroad in 1972 when it was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Elyakum Shapirra.

Prometheus concert “Scriabin+Kandinsky” at the Kazan Conservatory (1996)

Researchers of the USSR often call the bridge between the 1950s and the 1960s the second avant-garde. Soviet culture did not develop linearly but cyclically. After the eruption of the 1920s, years of repression and war followed, and it was only after the death of Stalin that the regime softened. The decade of the Khrushchev Thaw produced non-conformist artists and dissident poets. As before, they were marginal figures, but at least people weren’t shot for this kind of art. 

It was even easier for the Prometheus group. Officially, they were engaged in scientific work, not art (although, for example, the extravagant artist Konstantin Vasiliev was at the forefront of the project – he would go on to work with Russian mythology and his works started to be used as propaganda for the national cause). Bulat Galeyev became a real star. They put on light shows in theaters, with sound traveling around the auditorium, and continued to shoot abstract films for musical compositions, from classical to electronic.

The group’s activities were poetic in their essence and pragmatic in their form. The construction office of Prometheus remained a leader in creating light and music equipment for a long time. Nowadays, however, their devices look decidedly DIY. When the Moscow Polytechnic Museum reconstructed the “Crystal” installation in 2015, the team realized just how makeshift some methods used by the Prometheus engineers in the 1960s were. For example, they hand-painted the incandescent lights with colored varnish. And this was in a research institute, which was far from underground. 

By that time Prometheus was already fulfilling large government contracts. In Kazan, they carried out a large number of site specific projects – among them were the dynamic stained-glass windows of the Tatarstan hotel and the architectural illumination of the circus which changed depending on the weather. They even had an installation in their hometown Kremlin: the bell tower was lit up both from the inside and the outside with the light intensity matching the loudness of the bell. 

“Light Music Kazan” (1975). An experimental film about the Design Office Prometheus produced by Bulat Galeyev and Rustam Mukhametzyanov. The film was used as an advertisement of materials.

Active theoretical work also helped Prometheus stay within the safe confines of academic science. They gave lectures and organized conferences, and they wrote articles and books which became bibles for the new generation of Soviet media artists and electronic musicians. Bulat Galeyev made television appearances, attended conferences in France and Canada with his wife Irina Vanechkina, and took part in the international festival Ars Electronica. Perhaps the government consciously made him into a “person for export” to show the West how rapidly new technologies were developing on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Members of the Prometheus group tried to avoid the word “psychedelic” in relation to their works, but they often used it in educational talks about foreign color music. Psychedelics were perceived as something exciting but pointless – LSD and nightclubs were worlds away from the Kazan inventors. The Prometheus group’s Woodstock took the form of cultural centers and concert halls. Of course, they couldn’t ignore the development of discos in the USSR and even wrote the textbook “Technicalities of the Disco,” but with the intention of spiritually enriching the lives of the Soviet youth. Their video works were meant to have an effect on the psyche, but only in useful ways – to help citizens relax after their working day and to acquaint them with classical music and works by Soviet composers. 

Andrey Shumilov and another model of the “Yalkin” installation (late 1970s)

Prometheus even developed an installation to support the psychological well-being of the most important people in the Soviet universe: astronauts. Truth be told, the installation didn’t make it to space. In one version of events, the reason for this was that portable tape recorders were necessary for the installation to work but they hadn’t yet been invented. In another, the installation was simply too large. The idea by Prometheus was supported by the founding father of Soviet astronautics Sergei Korolyev, but the project was put on hold after his death.

In the 1980s Prometheus works appeared on television. At that time, Soviet history had gone through its next cycle and stagnation was replaced by a third avant-garde: perestroika. By now, Prometheus could afford to experiment with the works of Salvador Dali and the music of Pink Floyd. Later, the members of the group discovered modern computers and the internet, and began to develop software. Their most famous project became “The Singing Shamail” – the program produced a musical version of a line of Arabic calligraphy from the cover of the Quran. However, unlike the office’s other projects, “Shamail” was rejected by Western festivals. Galeyev decided that the problem lay in the religious content of the text and made a secular version of musical calligraphy: a version of the word “Kazan.” 

“Mondrian” installation in action (1972)

After the collapse of the USSR, the government lost interest in Prometheus. Research institutes ceased being oases of freedom and remained remnants of the Soviet past, to which people generally turned a blind eye. Nonetheless, the Prometheus office continued to function right up until Galeyev’s death in 2009. 

Gradually, the works of Prometheus started to be perceived as art. Curators and researchers of media art started to take an interest in them, and their installations can now be found in museums. Their latest exhibition was the large 2017 retrospective PROMETHEUS. DEMO: The Experiment Promises to Become Art, organized by the Triumph Gallery and the Department of Research Arts in the Moscow art gallery NII x Alpbau. Nowadays, the inventions and films of the Prometheus group can seem too innocent for media art, and they were. The best example of this is an installation in which a television sits in a real stroller and, on the screen, a baby is crying. 

In general, Bulat Galeyev and his colleagues had more technical resources than many other Soviet inventors, but these were still limited, and they had to develop their own language within a vacuum. The Prometheus group knew perfectly well that they were working outside the context of the world and, despite their daring, regarded their work with irony. They didn’t invent a time machine, but they created an alternate-reality machine capable of transporting audiences to an ideal world of victorious socialism. A world in which technology lives side-by-side with the classics, and where the line between rich and poor, like the boundary between light, color and sound, was erased. 

All images courtesy of Design Office Prometheus.