In January, DIETER FROESE presented his installation Unpruäzise Angaben/Not a Model for Big Brother's Spy Circle in the CITY ART MUSEUM BONN.
Anyone visiting this exhibition was confronted in various ways with the border between art and reality and its political aspects. Old hat? A well-worn theme that was done to death in the Seventies? Or has the problem made an all too drastic switch from art to daily life?
The problem of the interaction between fiction and reality in the electronic media community has been commonplace for a long time. The new artificiality of art in the Eighties is here more a symptom than criticism or analysis.
The BONN ART MUSEUM is being rebuilt and renovated. The new direction has brought a breath of fresh air into this still very makeshift building. Preparations are being made for the major MACKE exhibition that's on the cards. These circumstances heighten the intensity of DIETER FROESE's video installation. Almost all the museum's collection is closed or cleared out. Technical staff walk round with tools, drill can be heard. There are thick cables on the stairs, video cameras with long leads being carried up and down over three floors. Mountains of monitors, as if they've been thrown out, are piled up in the spaces. There's a still greater number of imitation cameras and monitors. Is this an exhibition being put together? Wasn't there enough money or has a sponsor cried off?
None of that. FROESE is employing the principle of the fake camera, an everyday pan of surveillance reality. Alongside perfectly functional surveillance cameras, most manufacturers include completely identical dummies in their range: the same deterrence for a fraction of the price.1) The real aim of surveillance is not so much the accumulation of a not particularly useful flood of information as inducing the feeling that there's always the possibility you're being watched. Surveillance has the character of a modality, it suggests a particular reality.
FROESE's dummy lenses are careful copies of the real thing. As empty shells, they make it clear that mostly we only see the outside of electronic technology. How many people know what's going on inside their own television set or which cables bring them a program? A brand new TV is first unpacked at home. An empty impression is left behind in the polystyrene foam and cardboard. FROESE shows how the contents are more new packaging. Even with the wiring diagram, the riddle of the box is basicly insoluble. The reality of what is seen is as unresolvable as the question of whether we are actually appearing on the screen of an unknown surveillance monitor or whether it's only a fake camera keeping tabs on us.
In the installation, the cameras and microphones are linked via an almost incomprehensible system by which the transfer of image and sound degenerates into an irritating labyrinth of information covering three floors.
However, FROESE is not only concerned with video and surveillance but also with art and artists. As the title indicates, the installation is not only a demonstration of the relation between observation and irritation. It also reflects on the relation between artists and the outside world and the conflict between art and power. Amongst the monitors connected to the closed-circuits systems are others playing two videotapes. On the first tape, people try in vain to escape the surveillance cameras range of observation, a chase recorded in slow-motion.
On the other tape, we see the same people being interrogated in front of a white wall illuminated by a spotlight. All those questioned are artists, FROESE's friends. Why do you make art? Do you intend to change the system with your art? Do you earn a living from it? The questions arc answered with diffidence, irony, dourness. These are the questions every artist knows but no one can answer. Other questions make one think of the Communist witch-hunts during the MC CARTHY era: What is the significance of the color red in your paintings? Do you speak Chinese? What code system do you use?
Making art means imparting something of your intimate inner life to the outside world. Not as a clear pronouncement but as a more or less coded imprecise indication. The art too has the character of the modality and that makes the artist suspect.
After the presentation of his videotapes, DIETER FROESE was available for questions from the public. An artist friend took up the discussion with the video camera. Unintentionally, there were obvious parallels with the staged interviews. Not that the spectators posed such indiscreet or aggressive questions as the voice on FROESE's tape but the conveying of art is also a system of looking and being looked at. Only the division of roles remains open. Who is observing whom here? The visitor sees both sides, the camera and the monitor. He is both surveiller and surveilled. In the reality he is mostly in the latter position.
An extreme definition of the concept museum would be a place for the contemplation and surveillance of art. As mentioned before, FROESE has been lucky with the renovation in Bonn. He could alter the empty museum into a true observation machine for the art viewer. In this context the museum guards almost seemed like relics from the past. Will, perhaps, the museum's new building be fitted with its own surveillance system?
Such an elaborately organized exhibition also demands a certain involvement on the museum's part as well. But it was worth the trouble: because one seldom finds solutions for the often divided twin-concept of video art (whose function is to indicate a branch of art) which combine both components in a plausible way.
This exhibition was proposed by KATHARINA SCHMIDT, the new director of the CITY ART MUSEUM BONN as a project within the program. With the acquisition of the OPPENHEIM collection, the museum has taken charge of the most extensive cache of video in West Germany. However, until recently, there was little to see. As usual because of technical, personal or space problems, video was banished to the broom cupboard. But an important foundation has been created for a brighter future with the production of an extensive catalogue of the collection and the sorting out and revising of existing tapes. A suitable space for the OPPENHEIM collection has also been planned for the museum's new building which will be ready in 1989.
During her long career running a video gallery in Cologne, INGRID OPPENHEIM (who was killed in an accident last year) was an important stimulus to the development of video both in Germany and abroad. The center for video art in the new museum will be named after her. But something is already happening with video. The collection is being constantly updated and gaps in the historical aspect will be filled up in the future. For a year, there has been a meeting once a month where artists talk about their productions. In 1986, KLAUS VOM BRUCH won the DOROTHEA VON STETTEN prize with a strong video installation in the BONN ART MUSEUM. He, too, is one of the artists who took his first steps in video in INGRID OPPENHEIM's studio.
KLAUS SCHRENK, who made an important contribution to the realizing of DIETER FROESE's exhibition, has set himself the target of giving video a place in the new museum's permanent collection. He thinks that instead of a strict division of the various branches of art, there must be an endeavour to integrate videotapes and installations into the general art context after 1945. Certainly no simple assignment.
I am extremely curious about the architectural and technical presentation of the video collection in the new building. In international terms, there are few examples on hand. It is an area begging for good solutions.
1) Anyone not believing this should, for instance, send off for a brochure about Panasonic's model WV-1400 D.
If you'd like to quote something: Daniels, Dieter. "Post-Kaufhaus CCTV." Mediamatic Magazine vol. 1 # 4 (1987).
Translation: Annie Wright