Fragmentary Affinities

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Fragmentary Affinities. Art beyond the Media

by Andreas Broeckmann

(published in: cat. 5th media_city seoul, Media Art Biennial, Seoul Museum of Art, 2008)


I. Introduction. The present age is post-medial to the extent that the mass media have lost their unrivalled dominance to personal, social, and to minor media. And this age is post-digital to the extent that digital technologies have become so ubiquitous and normal that 'digital culture' is now barely a distinctive term any longer. An entire generation of young people today shuns television and has a more intimate relation with the mobile, distributed and microcasting communciation tools of GSM phones and networked personal computers, which have assumed the status that the broadcast media had for the previous two generations. As this process continues, we are experiencing the liberation of the artistic media in the sense that it is no longer an ideological choice, but pure pragmatics, when an artist chooses to work with electronic or digital means. It is also a liberation from the idea that, in art using technical means, the technical always constitutes the core meaning and purpose of this art; any technology can now again be recognised as an artistic technique, and only that. These considerations form the basis of the brave and radical step taken by the fifth media_city seoul biennial. It deals neither with media technologies, nor with technological paradigms in art. The biennial presents artworks that excel in the articulation and dis-articulation of time; in the exposition and the elucidation of light; and works that reflect on the aesthetics of communication in post-medial and post-digital times. They provide not only metaphors, but conceptual tools for understanding the cultural condition of our age.


II. Remark. This is not a 'new media show'. The particularity of new media whithers when the digital information and communication technologies become natural infrastructure, just like running water, the sewage system, electricity, or the telephone network; the modernity of new media is the modernity of the early 20th century.


III. Note. Upon entering the open field of the exhibition, we see many possible paths and intersections between the different artworks, the themes that they articulate, and the stories that they tell. The following is therefore only one trajectory that should – and will – be complemented and over-written by other views and other experiences in the gallery spaces. It is as much a suggestion for reading the individual works, as it is a sketch for approaching the exhibition and its themes as a whole.


IV. Julien Maire's "Exploding Camera" is a media sculpture that deploys LED lights, a disassembled video camera and a video monitor to reflect on violence, destruction, and the construction of mass media images. It portrays the fatal dialectics of construction and destruction in the politics of media representation. At its heart is the mechanism of translating the carefully choreographed and filtered light from LEDs and light bulbs into electronic signals, which in turn appear as mimetic images on an electronic screen. The work deconstructs the electronic media image and turns the exhibition space into an experimental stage reminiscent of a battlefield.
In his work, Julien Maire deconstructs and poetically re-invents the technologies of audio-visual media. He creates performances (Digit, 2006) as well as installations and kinetic film assemblages (Demi Pas, 2002). The hypnotic abstract image machine of his Low Resolution Cinema (2007) both exposes, and transcends the construction mechanism of images produced by electronic media. Maire's unique media aesthetics is critical not in a bland, but in a both subtle and fundamental way.


V. Zin Kijong addresses, in his work, the manipulation of images and the construction of synthetic worlds by the broadcast media. His make-shift simulacra are obvious fakes, tilting the authoritative (and authoritarian?) voices of mass-mediated realities into an all too banal scenario. Dramatically, what first appears like childplay, projects a world ridden by war and ecological desaster – and the culture of lies that sustains it – into the spaces of childhood, fragile and open to whatever counts as life on the screens.


VI. Daniel Pflumm's is a world of logos, brands, and visual advertising formulas, driven forward by the hypnotic sound of techno music. Carefully poised between fascination, analysis, and critique, Pflumm's video collages confront us with the stock images of a turbo consumer culture which we have become so used to that it takes his exaggerations of speed, repetition, or radical displacement, to re-sensitise us to their ideological workings.


VII. Alexei Shulgin and Aristarkh Chernyshev's "Super-I" is a work from their Electroboutique, which is a conceptual and curatorial project that reflects on the status of media art as commodity, and on the commodification of generic, mediated experiences. In their collection of pixelated video mirrors, generative minimalist screens and LED text displays, we witness something like a surreal encounter between Andy Warhol, Nam June Paik and Jenny Holzer – not on a disecting table, but in a McDonald's-style art store.
The "Super-I" goggles are a technologically enhanced 'lens' through which to see the world. The different programmes of visual transformation and abstraction that it runs through are based on standardised videographic interpretations of images that we know from video art, MTV, and TV advertising. The mediation of the video apparatus, however, is here not turned onto pre-recorded stock material, or to live-material coming from a normal camera. The camera is itself placed on the head-mounted display, and "Super-I" shows us what we would also see without it, only differently, namely in wrong colours, abstracted to outlines, in a solarised glow, or as a fully ASCII-fied world.
In his finely ironic manner, Shulgin has, over many years, offered us conceptually precise and aesthetically original artworks that highlight the points of transformation at which art becomes possible under the condition of technology. Here, he and Aristarkh Chernyshev make us look at the world through video-coloured glasses and immerse us in a consumer culture that appears to show its true face in the humorous visual Super-deformations.


VIII. Michael Bell Smith designs maps and schematic views of specific places which, like in an augmented reality simulation, he overlays with additional graphic information. He thus creates narrative contexts which take their cues from the analytical visual language of planning, scanning, and of surveillance. Paradoxically, the visual techniques of abstraction and control here do not objectify, but dramatise the scenes and instill a distinct sense of unease about what they show – and more importantly, about what they cannot show.


IX. Joyce Hinterding and David Haines' "Two Works for Wilhelm Reich" is an audio-visual and sculptural installation that combines copper wire-covered tubes, which function as Ultra Low Frequency antennas, and the projection of a computer animation showing the night lights of a city, seen from a distance. The electromagnetic waves picked up by the antennas are played back as sound that fills the space and functions as a live-generated soundtrack for the barely flickering city view. Both elements of the installation reference the possibility of life, structure and intentionality in something that might, in fact, just as well be unstructured noise. We realise that we cannot really see a city, we only see light dots surrounded by darkness in a configuration which we associate with the shape of a human settlement, hovering in front of us like a will-o'-the-wisp. Similarly, any structure or information that we may 'recognise' in the humming and crackling radio sound, might in fact be meaningful messages sent out by someone, or pure static.
As in other examples of their work, the artists engage the possibilities of a communication with forces or levels of existence beyond the human sensorium. They create the enigmatic fiction of another world, or another layer in the world, an interface to the dreamtime of the electromagnetic spectrum, which resonates with the para-scientific convictions of Wilhelm Reich who believed in the necessity to tap into, and dialogue with, such forces in and outside the human body.


X. Herwig Turk's "Measuring the Invisible" is an installation that combines three separate works, all of which deal with the regimes of truth and representation in science. For several years and together with the scientist Paulo Pereira, Turk has been exploring the aesthetics of objects, spaces and experiments in scientific laboratories and has developed very precise and almost 'objective' artistic responses to his experiences.
Although the images of the "referenceless" series look like photographs, they are purely synthetic digital images created from filters and effects in graphics software. Turk juxtaposes these images with explanations by scientists in which they elaborate what these images show. To present these interpretations is no banal, satirical gesture that would simply make fun of the short-sightedness of experts. Rather, it points to the fundamental and inescapable relativity of evidence and knowledge. Every form of mediation articulates this fundamental split.
The two-channel video installation "uncertainty" reflects on the relativity of the observer position vis-à-vis the object of observation. Importantly, the exhibition visitor is brought into this relationship not as an outside onlooker, but as another actor and participant in the construction of an experiential fact. "DNA film" is a sequential visualisation of a DNA string into video images which appear to us as highly abstract and purely aesthetic, optical patterns. However, depending on the observer's skills of decoding the information, these pattern images may very well be a precise, lucid and obvious visualisation of specific structures or phenomena.


XI. Yunchul Kim's "Hello, World" is a closed-loop feedback system. It transforms digital data into acoustic signals which are transmitted through a metal pipe system, picked up again by a microphone and translated back into digital data and displayed as text on a monitor. This text, 'Hello World', is traditionally the first piece of text a programmer will learn to output from a computer system. The sculptural shape of the standing block is constituted by the pipes whose shape and length determines the speed and precision of the signal transmission on their inside, confronting us with an almost sublime image of the materiality of mediation, and the temporality of transmission. While a distinctly sound-based work, the installation is mainly experienced as a quiet sculpture, since the acoustic transmission is happening inside the pipe system.


XII. Herwig Weiser's installation "Death before Disko" consists of a thick, transparent plexi glass tube hanging in a space, an online computer and additional loudspeakers mounted on the wall. The tube is equipped, at either end, with two large speakers turned outwards, and small stroboscopic lights turned inwards, pointing at a sphere spinning in the middle of the tube. The sphere is covered with a section of dark, ferro-fluidic liquid and small mirror plates which again reflect the lights not outwards, but inwards. On the sound level, the machine processes data taking from NASA space observations and transposes them into high-pitched crackling and a strongly physical sub-bass vibration.
Yet, the openness and transparency of the construction is deceptive. Herwig Weiser is interested in the division between the visible and the invisible aspects of technology and creates works that display the mechanisms, yet obscure the technical processes that drive the machines. The system of 'Death Before Disko' is both self-generating and self-absorbing; it is a machine that produces and, at the same time, consumes light. Though spectacular, it is not demonstrating anything, but rather comes across as autistic – an attitude which alludes to the fact that the machine might actually have a subjectivity, and a sense of its own machinic otherness.


XIII. Yuko Mohri and Soichiro Mihara's installation "Vexation" is a music composition machine. It articulates the playback of variations on Erik Satie's famous 'Vexations' composition for piano, with the environmental noises and acoustic properties of the exhibition space, both of which are combined and used as the basis for a new, machinically generated variation which translates the acoustic output back into a musical score, that is in turn played back as a piece of piano music. And recorded again by microphones in the same space, which sends it into the next cycle. The work is fundamentally interactive in that it continuously transforms by integrating new sound events in each consecutive iteration. While the original composition gets lost in variation, the aesthetics of the piece is determined by the resonant drift of sound, space, and one or the other manipulative visitor.


XIV. In Markus Hansen's series of portraits, "Other People's Feelings", we see, at any one moment, two separate photographs, one of different people, and the other always of the artist himself, trying to emulate the emotional state of the other person. Striking a similar pose, donning similar clothes, and most importantly, seeking to mimic the other person's facial expression, Hansen appears to be performing the other. The brightly lit and neutrally staged still images are projected in fixed pairs and for a short while, long enough though to surprise the onlookers about the similarities, and to allow them discover the differences between the faces.
We witness an almost shockingly intimate, though indirect dialogue between the artist and his models. This is not a mere exercise in mimikry, or a reflection on the desire to become a different person. Like in other of his works, Hansen explores the textures of memory, self, and identity. He stages time as a recursive dimension, collapsing events that have happened separately into the same moment. The tension, or putative harmony, that arises is rooted in our assumptions about a clear division between self and other. In this silent facial communication, the artist raises a fundamental and undecidable question about identity and difference: is this an exercise in the emulation of otherness, or the simulation of sameness?


XV. Rafael Lozano Hemmer creates interactive works and environments which stage encounters between the visitors and a world or context that they would normally not be in contact with. Lozano Hemmer's projects provide dialogical interfaces that mediate between the actions of the audience and an outside system or order. He often uses visual metaphors like the shadow or the mirror, not to construct mechanisms of identification, but to initiate critical reflections on one's own position, and on social difference.


XVI. Cristina Mateus' video "Tell Me Things" offers the blurred images of a generic modern city as seen from the window of a bus or tram on an overcast and rainy day, the distracted gaze turned upward slightly, brushing the trees and roofs on what might well be a circular trajectory, taking us past the same indistinct facades over and over again. The soundtrack's minimal and dryly harmonious electronic music enhances the sense of an unfocused drift which is linear only because of the continuous forward movement of the camera eye docked inside a vehicle.
A meandering narrative unfolds in the subtitles, fleeting fragments of an inner monologue or one-sided conversation about love, desire, and the impossibility of the very immediacy and intimacy that the text itself creates with the viewer. We experience the displacement of intimacy, similar to that which we are frequently forced into when we overhear a private phone conversation, held in public on a mobile phone, during which the person on the phone completely ignores his or her surroundings, speaking about feelings and events that would normally not be shared with strangers. In Mateus' installation, we are those strangers, neutralised in the void behind an absent-minded gaze.


XVII. Teresa Serrano's film "Boca de Tabla" shows a middle-aged woman walking around in a house in which she seems to be alone with memories that are associated with objects and souvenirs the camera passes only fleetingly. The media of mirror, telephone, and computer, together with the architectural interfaces of doors, windows, staircases and corridors, are combined to hint at a maze of thoughts and impressions that the woman seems to be passing through like membranes.


XVIII. Tania Ruiz Gutiérrez's "The Cage" presents a powerful metaphor for a double enclosure in time and space. We see the image of a tiger moving about behind bars, maybe in a zoo. The image is strangely distorted, as though moving away from us into a tunnel that is making a continuous bend to the right, the virtual camera, and thus our own gaze, following this image at a constant speed. Around the central image, traces of the video images that have just passed through the tunnel are mapped onto the walls and ceiling. We are passing through a closed, loop-like space, a torus, whose shape and logic are really only understandable when it is seen as a model, from the outside. On the inside, we are confronted with the claustrophobic circularity of the space and the inescapable necessity to endure the passing of time.
"The Cage" deals with the experience of cyclical time in a deeply empathetic manner. In her previous work, Ruiz Gutiérrez has frequently addressed the circularity of time, and has found intriguing ways of representing alternatives to linear notions of time. Thus she has created multi-layered video images of disjunctive, multi-temporal cityscapes (Market Road, 2000), or the generative video installation "La Plaza II" (2004) that shows the passage of 18 characters across a sun-lit square, each caught up in its own loop and trajectory. She confronts the everyday experience of time passing, with the drama of temporal deformation, and eternal repetition.


XIX. Manon de Boer's film "Presto – Perfect Sound" elucidates the radical disjuncture of time which is brought about by digital recording techniques. It shows a montage of video recordings made of a violinist who plays a music piece for a CD publication. It is standard practice today to splice the final soundtrack together from snippets of different takes of the same piece. However, de Boer splices the related video images accordingly, resulting in a subtle, yet painful cut in the time-line of our experience. The discontinuity which our ears can be fooled not to notice, is irritating and disconcerting for our eyes.


XX. In Thomas Köner's video work "Pneuma Monoxyd", the artist transports us into a dream-like world of blurred and layered black and white images, recorded in different cities and at different times. Like the shadows of a faulty memory, dark clouds hover over the scenes, taken – perhaps – on an outdoor market and in a shopping street, flipping into solarised and negative states, articulating and disarticulating moments that may or may not be related. The soundtrack reminds us of the faint rumblings of a distant thunder storm, long underwater echoes of crackles and thumps over a slow-moving and harmonious drone of electronic noise.
Several of Köner's works from recent years have dealt with the temporal dimension of sound and images as a machine for creating and diffusing memory. The collaging of different moments relates to the layering of experiences, in a layered structure of time. In "Pneuma Monoxyd", light – and its near-absence in this projection of darkness – is not only the material in which the artist sculpts electronic images, but it is also the volatile medium through which the experience of time itself is created and warped.


(Berlin / Seoul, 30 June 2008)

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