Flow – A Visual History of Flow

In his search for the poetic potential of machine gestures and technological modes of expression, Jürg Lehni has developed a series of performative and discursive machines that he uses as the basis for his artistic explorations. Among them is the chalk drawing machine Otto. In the work Flow, Monika Dommann and Jürg Lehni produce a series of drawings on the theme of flow charts and process charts. The work deals with the historical development of these visual languages and their experimental recontextualization and reinterpretation.

What do Baroque ballet notations, traffic plans for plant operation from the Taylorism era, a 1940s graphic representation of the Swiss Cement Trust by Pollux (aka Georges Bähler), an avant-garde Fluxus music score, and a syntax diagram of a programming language from the early 1970s have in common?

They all represent, visualize, coordinate, and synchronize movements in geographic and social spaces and draft choreographies of flow.

Such diagrams may be used to coordinate and synchronize the steps of courtly dances or the movements of workers in a factory, workshop, or warehouse. To set down rules that enable processes and operations to be translated into a computer program. Or, as visualizations that reveal invisible social relations or capital flows.

Over the past twenty years, on a quest to explore the lyrical potential of mechanical gestures and technological modes of expression, Jürg Lehni has developed a series of performative and discursive machines that he uses as the basis for his artistic explorations. For the work Flow – A Visual History of Flow, he cooperated with Monika Dommann to produce a series of exemplary diagrams using the computer-controlled chalk drawing machine Otto, which makes large-scale choreographed wall drawings.

Flowcharts, also known as process charts, are fundamental to the visual grammar of modernity. They reveal the structures and strictures imposed on the human body, from the age of Absolutism to the industrial era. They thus provide eloquent testimony to the dictates of efficiency and the promise of optimization, functioning as a basic prerequisite for the synchronization and fusion of human and machine.

Seeing this arsenal of signs and symbols developed in political, military, economic, and engineering contexts – displayed in a museum – lets us trace the historical evolution of these visual languages. At the same time, their experimental recontextualization and reinterpretation with chalk on slate suggests references ranging from the media of the Enlightenment-era educational revolution to the visual codes of computer-driven societies.

17 Planet Digital
Flow Charts

Jürg Lehni, Otto, 2014 (© Photo: Jürg Lehni)

Historical Backgrounds

Baroque ballet notations, traffic plans from the Taylorism era, a 1940s graphic representation of the Swiss Cement Trust, an avant-garde Fluxus music score, and a syntax diagram of a programming language from the early 1970s – they all visualize movements in geographic and social spaces and draft choreographies of flow.

Beauchamp-Feuillet ballet notation

The lines and symbols of the ballet master, dancer and notator of court dances Raoul-Auger Feuillet created a visual notation system for the dancers' steps and movements in space.

Raoul Auger Feuillet Balet

Raoul-Auger Feuillet, Chorégraphie, ou l’art de décrire la danse par caractères, figures et signes démonstratifs, Paris 1700.

Operational traffic plans

In the interwar period, Taylorist rationalization methods also reached Europe. Using their compasses, rulers and stencils, plant engineers designed blueprints for planning production in the factories.

Der Betrieb 1919 Abbildung 1
Der Betrieb 1919 Abbildung 2

C. Volk, Betriebstechnische Verkehrspläne, in: Der Betrieb, Nr. 15, September 1919, p. 373–382.


The civil engineer and communist Georges Bähler (1895-1982) published writings with diagrams on the financial entanglements of power elites from finance and industry under various pseudonyms (including Pollux, Pierre Lenoir) starting in 1937. Bählers line diagrams condense at the nodes and visualize the appearance of "Filz" (en. felt, used as a synonym for corruption).

01 Pollux Zement Industrie Blat 1
02 Pollux Die Regierung

Pollux, Der Zement- und Baumaterialien-Trust. Zürich 1946. ZB Zürich, Nachlass Georges Bähler, Ar 27.4 Publikationen, (under the pseudonym G. Baumann: Neue Platte mit Mackie Meser, 12.2.1957)

Dench Blues Double Pattern

As governing body of the International Roller Skating Federation (FIRS - Fédération Internationale de Patinage à Roulettes), founded in Montreux in 1924, the International Committee for Artistic Roller Skating (CIPA - Comité International de Patinage Artistique) takes care of the rules and regulations of artistic roller skating, including the standardized notation of dance patterns. The double pattern describes the steps of both partners as two separate but connected paths. In the resulting dance, however, these two paths are then superimposed in a point-symmetrical manner.

CIPA Dench Blues

Robert Dench & Leslie Turner, Dench Blues Double Pattern, in: CIPA Rule Book – Artistic Roller Skating Special Regulations & Sport Rules, 2011

Music for Electronic Metronome

An early Fluxus member in the late 1950s and early 1960s, composer Ichiyanagi became an important part of the New York avant-garde music scene among the likes of John Cage, Yoko Ono (to whom he was married), and George Maciunas. Music for Electric Metronome uses numbers and connecting lines as instructions for a meandering sound journey based on chance and interpretation.

01 Toshi Ichiyanagi Music for Electronic Metronome
02 Toshi Ichiyanagi Portrait

Toshi Ichiyanagi, Music for Electric Metronome, 1960

Flow Charts & Punch Cards

In "Planning and coding of problems for an electronic computing instrument, Part II, Volume 1" (1947), Herman Goldstine and John von Neumann introduced the idea of representing program flow charts of computer programs by flow charts. Flowcharts like these, and by extension the templates to draw them, became an important tool for describing computer algorithms, which were then translated and punched into punch cards for execution on the room-sized mainframe computers of the time. Since the 1970s, however, these diagrams lost importance as interactive computer terminals and third-generation programming languages became common tools for computer programming.

01 IBM Flowcharting Template
04 IBM Programmer with Punch Cards
03 IBM Programmer Drawing a Flowchart
02 IBM Punch Card

Flow Charts & Punch Cards

Wirth & Pascal

Niklaus Wirth, who was professor for computer science at the ETH between 1969 and 1999, developed the programming language Pascal, with which millions of students became acquainted with programming. Apple adapted Pascal for its own operating system of Apple II and Apple III.

01 Wirth Pascal

Niklaus Wirth, The Programming Language Pascal, ETH Zürich November 1970.

During a visit in December 2021 Niklaus Wirth lent us his copy of Apple's Pascal syntax poster from 1979. The posters in psychedelic Apple colors hung on the walls of the programmers' offices and were also given away to dealers and customers.

02 Apple Pascal

Apple Pascal Syntax Poster, 1979. Privatarchiv Niklaus Wirth.

Who is Otto?

Otto is a scalable, robotic chalk-drawing machine designed to work on large surfaces of up to 10×10 meters.

Throughout the past 20 years, Lehni has conceived a series of such machines and contraptions (Hektor 2002, Rita 2005, Viktor 2008, Otto 2015), each based on related geometric principles of positioning through triangulation and a continuous negotiation between the involved motors.

Post-industrial in their nature, these machines are not designed to be perfect: They each feature distinct characteristics and poetic qualities in their gentle, fragile gestures as they execute line drawings, using tools originally created for human use such as chalk or spray-paint, and in ways reminiscent of how a human would complete the task – a gentle and yet mesmerising spectacle. Behind their creation lies the urge to question computer-technology, its mostly standardised palette of tools and their influence on the artistic process and its outcomes.

Lehni deploys these machines to stage lectures and performances in artistic contexts. The choreographed drawings are often developed in collaboration with other artists and designers, using the machines themselves and the themes that they evoke as starting points for a creative exchange and dialogue that eventually is condensed to a drawing.

Collaborators Flow – A Visual History of Flow

Prof. Dr. Monika Dommann, Department of History, UZH
Jürg Lehni, http://juerglehni.com

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