Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#1+2 1 Jan 1990


Faust: Michfapt ein liingst entwohnter Schauer, der Menschheit ganzer Jammer fapt mich an.

Hier wohnt sie hinter dieser feuchten Mauer, und ihr Verbrechen war ein guter Wahn!(1)


Mnemosyne's -

Mephistopheles: Vorbei, ein dummes Wort. Warum Vorbeii1 Vorbei und reines Nicht, volkommnes Einerlei!

Was soli uns denn dass ew’ge Schaffen! Geschaffenes zu nichts hinwegzuraffen!
Das ists vorbei! Was ist daran zu lesen? Es ist so gut als war’ es nicht gewesen,
und treibt sich doch im Kreis als wenn es wdre. Ich liebte mir dafür das Ewig-Leere.(2)

Faust: - da seht ihr, dap ich verdammt bin, und ist kein
Erbarmen filer mich, weil ich anjedes im voraus zerstöre durch Spekulation.(3)

What is the value of memory? Why does the dying see their entire life pass 'in a flash' before their eyes? In this terminal moment of total recall memory itself vanishes. Perhaps this ‘flash’ is a final confirmation of the fact that one has actually lived. But then it is an affirmation no longer essential to life, and our culture associating this image not so much with memory and its functions, as with death: whoever sees their entire fife pass before them is, in effect, already dead.

The image of the Dying has a remarkable similarity to the editing principle of the video clip: 120 beats-per-minute. At each beat, at each feverish palpitation, an image. Not a static one, but an image which, within that split second, deflects into nervous spasms, staggers, zooms in and out, and appears to have no other purpose than to flash briefly across the contracted retina, as if the only thing that really mattered was not the quantity or content of the images, but their impact. These images have existed. This ephemeral touch has become a sign, devouring all meaning. Just as in the 'flashback' of the dying man, the memories are not relived anew but are a futile - cruel - sign that, following this solitary split-second, will no longer exist.

Art (these days) shows a singular resemblance to the 'flashback' of the dying. The images that our culture has established and used and piled up, are being reeled out again at a stupefying tempo. No longer as integrated parts of an ideological whole, but as ‘simulacra’: as token copies without context.

In former times - that is before I was born - painting functioned as ideology. Painting did not describe ideology, it was its icon. Nowadays painting operates in an historical vacuum. It has become an old craft, a medium that derives its significance for todays recipient, largely due to the venerable dust of centuries that clings to it so tenaciously. In current times, 'dusting off would be an act of barbarism; after all, the value of an antique art object is determined by the dullness of its patina. Likewise the price of a painting, is now evaluated according to its provenance and the number of square metres of painted canvas (4), not for its pictorial qualities or (apart from the canvas itself) its actual content: the significance of the medium threatens to engulf and submerge every other meaning.

As at the end of the last century, art is no longer inspired to fullfil the desire for images imbued with meaning, both intrinsically and from a generally accepted ideological point of view. For the moment art's sole task is to act as a referent. What the work of art represents, and how that representation came into being, hardly seems to matter anymore. What counts is the Rite, in which the work of art is no more than a prop, a host with the cloying taste of sanctity.

One of the few art-media that can escape, not from the ritual of art but from its meaningless cult, is the medium that makes use of modern means of communication. After all, as long as the acquisition of an 'original, signed' videotape or floppy-disc is not feasible, there is no danger of this art form succumbing to the blandishments and fraudulent aura that illuminate the old, traditional arts. Yet it must participate in the rites if it wants to be recognised as Art, and not as video game or Tv-commercial.

The relationship between art and media/technology is a problematic one, governed by paradox. The electronic media - because of their reproductive character - do not fit easily into the accepted canon of the fine arts, but to be Art they must be manipulated within that canon. The alternative here would be for the artist to manoeuvre the canon to suit their medium. No easy task since, within the entire field of factors that provoke Art, the artist is but a single contender. Another complicating factor is that of the strong connotations already attached to the electronic media which are, in essence, anti-Art. Up till now these media have been used primarily as instruments for the distribution of 'objective' information, and as disseminators of popular culture. This 'vernacular', it must be said, lies at the basis of what is generally understood to be 'high art’, but is - precisely because of this hierarchical relationship - sharply distanced from Art.

Could it be possible that media such as video and the computer, with respect to their 'craft'- application, will capture the same licence as did painting and sculpture in past centuries? That question can only be answered in the affirmative when one redefines Art.

Practically all the works of art presented in this exhibition operate within the old paradigm of Art. They are either sculptures or ‘moving’ paintings which in most cases - and this is quite striking - are concerned, in one form or another, with the problematic links between history and the present day. One intriguing aspect of this is that the implementation of state-of-the-art media portrays one of the oldest conceptual themes of art: memory. But here the memory manifested is a tragic one.

That of an irretrievable past, constantly receding from us - not only in time. Memory refers here to another life, fundamentally different from our own, and thus leaving us bereft of roots to nourish. In this respect current art reflects that of a century ago, at the lasten de siècle. The image on the monitor functions as the vision of the Dying: as an afterimage of a time gone forever. This is partly due to the paradoxical character of the media - with the possible exception of the instant video image (without tape) - that what it represents is by definition already past; the 'has been’ of the content of the image overrides the 'being' of the image, or of the medium, itself.(5)

Yet even without reference to this specific characteristic of the media, the preoccupation of media-art with history and memory is remarkable. It is as if the media, which are predestined to become the eventual storehouse for the pictorial heritage of thousands of years of Western culture, consume this heritage at an alarming rate. To be rid of it? Out of helpless nostalgia?

The varied forms that the fascination with history assumes, visualise differing interactions between the present and the past, in which one and the other are alternately questioned; all of which seems to point to a state of tension between the two.

The representation of todays reality as a distant, elusive memory is given substance in tapes and installations that show images of stark, tangible reality in an entourage of pictorial quotes from the past. Through this approach the present itself can become a quotation, and thus likewise be assigned to the past. Here we come up against a crucial psychological and philosophical problem of our time: the ‘here and now' - as time marker, as the centrepoint of time - has itself become problematic. Just as the absolute zero of temperature only exists as an axiom, so the present exists only virtually, as an abstract reference, without tangible reality.

Given this, reality itself becomes virtual, incorporeal, a model that we know only through its illusory form, and to which we can only refer by means of illusory forms, not by representations.

One of these illusory forms is the dream, and its associative construction can serve as example to reality: a reversal, as in the work of Lydia Schouten, who interweaves a dreamlike irreality with 'documentary' images, quotes, culled from the ‘reality’ of advertising and television. She uses these references - unlike many of her American colleagues - not to criticise their absurdity or deception, but more as a form in which reality appears to us. That the varying stylistic and conceptual elements in her work have a largely consistent effect, underlines the fact that Schouten sees a close affinity between these versions of dream and reality. For, what is the fundamental difference between the memory of a dream and that of a 'real' event? The dream is a pictorial house-of-cards, and as 'construct' no more real (or unreal) than any other reality, the moment it has past.

Hooykaas and Stansfield likewise use dreamlike structures to present their conception of the links between reality and memory. Their Museum of Memory can be read as an orientation expedition into memory to find and expose reality. Or, in the context of their new work Radiant. A Personal Observatory: reality is an unattainable network of possible images without time or place, which only exist when they briefly flash into the observers memory. This, too, is a reversal of the current hierarchy between dream and reality, whereby reality exists as nothing more than the dreamer’s conception.

The confusion between the observer and their memory is perhaps most acutely expressed in the work of Giny Vos: the dead creature looks back at the captured images from times - past - when it was threatened with extinction. It is fairly simple - and vertiginous - continually to change the connection between object and subject within this image, without it affecting the content of the image as a whole. It makes little difference in present terms whether the recollection of dying refers to the dead, or that the dead remembers dying: in both cases the living witness is an outsider.

Another approach to history could well be called the ‘history machine'. A device which, like a relentless millstone, grinds time and all its incidence into memory. The mechanism of this process is so disturbing because it is in principle a Perpetuum Mobile, an autonomous movement that continues regardless of what it is motivating. Another metaphor for time-without-present; an eternal past. The combination of video and computer enables artists not only to imply the possibility of a history machine, but also to literally construct one, as Bill Spinhoven does with his time stretcher. In such a machine the visible reality, the reality that only a milli-second ago flashed before the eyes - in the mind - of the observer, is instantly converted into memory in its most blatant form: an intrinsic reality, interpreted and transformed into something that appears to have no coherent connection with its source, the present. It is estranged - deceased. In a similar vein Jeffrey Shaw processes his 'input' into a maelstrom of images, disconnected from reality outside the machine. His millstones, rotating against each other, and the image-flour they produce, could be interpreted as a pseudo-realistic variant of the classic paria rhei to which Ricardo Fiig listahler pays homage in an equally classical-poetic manner.

Fiiglistahler already enters the realm of a third approach to memory: the mythical. This too, is given form in a number of works presented at the exhibition, with such titles as: Palinuro, Venus Nte/Praecox, Pompeii and Alberts Ark. The myth is an inverted history machine. After all, the mythical story is not restricted to any historical arena and history has no hold on it. The myth represents an eternal present, a timeless reservoir, not so much of images but of metaphors, that can survive an almost endless series of metamorphoses. In myth, memory is permanently actualised: Prometheus becomes Faust becomes Einstein.

None of these approaches are new in themselves, but through the intrinsic possibilities, offered by the electronic media, to reproduce in a fraction of time the entire catalogue of memory images and pour them over the recipient in an order exclusively dictated by the programmer: by the randomness and omnipresence of references, memory is astutely robbed of its primary function. Meditative reflection, which reconnects it to the present and which is so strongly linked to the contemplation of traditional art, dissolves into what Walter Benjamin called Rezeption in der Zerstreuung or, freely translated, 'Viewing to Distraction'. I do not think that, after fifty years or more, we should regard this concept as initially applicable to the viewer, as Walter Benjamin did, but rather to the media itself. The distraction of the observer stems not so much from the fact that he watches with countless others, but is a direct consequence of the bewildering confusion of images, of the deluge, that engulfs them and casts them adrift.

Viewing appears to induce a certain ennui. The eyes see too much and become heavy, if the fatigue with what has been achieved quickens the desire for the unachievable...(6)

Dutch media art is no island of national identity in the midst of the international art market. On the contrary; in spite of references to cultural icons, such as windmills and Van Gogh, the work of the fourteen artists presented here, all of whom live in The Netherlands, can rightly be regarded as a sample of the enlivening effect which the artistic use of current electronic media is having on the international arena of art.

I also feel that the conceptual affinity of these otherwise differing works reflects an enigmatic problem that is absolutely pertinent to current Western art; that of time, that pecks at my spine.(7) In all these approaches to past and present there appears to be an incurable break between the two.

In the realm of the one, the other does not exist, except as an impossibility, that emphasises the loneliness of the present position. It is this desolation that I see visualised, in a rich panoply of forms, in the proposals for this exhibition. That these works of art do not escape a certain schizophrenia is unavoidable since, on the one hand, they can be read as traditional works of art and, on the other, as challengers of the final frontier between Art and non-art. This equivocal position could mean that we are witnessing an end-game, the jin de siècle of ideology-bound art.

The fissure between history and the present becomes perspicacious when portrayed by art, either by glueing the two within the provisional space of the image, or by showing its absoluteness by interchanging - via the media - the one with the other. In both cases it seems justified to conclude that the alliance between art and modern media can be a fruitful one because this combination, more than any other, can show the borderlines of both the current definition of art and the applicability of state-of-the-art technology within art. And by revealing these borders it can open up the possibility for a scenario as yet unwritten - a picture of Art to come.

Crisis in a culture inevitably leads to a crisis in art, and when that culture is built on history, art must once again reformulate its relationship to this mother of all arts. A redefinition of art must take into consideration a number of archetypes that are fundamental to the human motivation for producing images. One of the oldest and most deeply rooted of these archetypes is Mnemosyne: memory. Seen in this light, the flashback of the dying serves a vital purpose.

(1) J.W. Goethe 'Foust, Erster Teil' in; Werke in Zwei Banden, München 1981, p.675. Foust: An unaccustomed shudder seizes me. The woes and lamenlalions of mankind. Take hold and grapple me. Here she lives behind these clammy walls. Her crime an innocent delusion, p.848: Mephistopheles: Ml over? What a wordI Why so? Just gone? Bure nothing? How absurd! Why recreate Creation endlessly. Simply to sweep it into vacancy? Ml over now. What's that supposed to mean? It is as il these things had never been; Yet the wheel turns, and returns, none the less I should prefer eternal emptiness.
(3) Thomas Mono, Doktor Faustus, Frankfurt am Main, 1982, p.502. Faust: - you see here that I am damned, and there is no mercy foe me, for all I touch in anticipation, I devastate by speculation.
(4) The Japanese broker who switched over to ancient paintings explained: ...a very much higher price per nf than even the most expensive site in Tokyo.
(5) see also R. Barthes on photography, e.g. in: Khélorigue de l'lmage 1964.
(6) Jan Romein, Op het Breukvlak van Twee Eeuwen, Amsterdam 1967, p.228.
(7) Hugo Clous, Sonnetten I, Amsterdam 1988, p.7.