Mediamatic Magazine 3#4 Maurice Nio 1 jan 1989

The Art of Dying

In one animals confront us with our incapacity to become extinct. In the other an obscure machine confronts us with the obsession for storing information. Two installations by IVO VAN STIPHOUT.



Memory is a dark and delicate reservoir that cannot be exhausted at random. It has its own mechanism that can only be triggered off by certain signals. The voice of a friend, the smell of a fruit, the cry of an animal - you only gain access to the reservoir of memory by means of the most fleeting and precise of stimuli. And then you often don't know what sensation will possess you.
The unpredictable and intangible qualities of memory form the basis of the sound installation Zoo t which IVO vAN STIPHOUT made for the 'T LICHTE exhibition in Tilburg. Ten cross-shaped boxes, the fronts of which were covered with dark blue wool, were hung next to each at shoulder height. Each cross contained a sampler bearing the sound of an animal (so there were a total of ten different animal sounds). As you pass one of the crosses an infra-red sensor triggers off the sampler to play its animal sound.
The effect of the installation reflects the effect of memory: just as the passer-by triggers the sound, the sound triggers the memory. And then it's not simply a memory of the animal itself but also of the place where it lives (even if you have only read about it in books). At one cross I 'heard' the South American savanna, a couple of yards away I heard' the humid tropical rain forests of South East Asia (of course it can work in a different unexpected way: the sound of the hippo can, for instance, remind someone of 'that time in Crete'). The animal noises were also intended to remind us of the installation's source of inspiration, a zoo which used to be in the woods not far from where the exhibition was now being held.
If you check up which animal sounds were used in Zoo t, it seems that they all came from endangered species. The hamadiyas baboon, the griffon vulture, the Bengal tiger, the bullfrog, the emperor penguin, the red fox, the snow leopard, the rhino, the long-eared owl and the ape. As gladiators before the fight once shouted: those who die, greet you, these animals announce their deaths in a similar way. The whole installation is like a memory before the event, a premature in memoriam. This could give you the impression that Zoo ✝ is a moral warning about the impending ecological catastrophe, which in a sense it is, but some counter-movement enables it to escape from the care and concern of animal protection and the desire for conservation. This is because the work contains a strange but fundamental paradox. A person's physical presence is needed in order to bring the sound of the endangered species 'to life' (in fact the more people walk past the installation the more animal sounds are produced). The presence of a person?! Although this genius of survival is the very being that has ensured that the animals of Zoo ✝ will soon only exist in photos.
The next issue brings us to what I consider to be the essence of this installation. To what extent is it simply a memorial installation? Of course everything centres around the memory of these creatures. However, I also have the impression that Zoo ✝ is a kind of eulogy, an ode to the animals that are 'able' to die out. Maybe that sounds cruel
and cynical (after all they have been compelled to extinction) yet the essence of every existence is found in the nature of its demise. Like the countless gods who populated the Greek firmament, these animals are able to die. By contrast the human species ha absolutely no idea how to die, in a sense it is just as immortal as that one unfortunate GOD who created it in his own image. If it is possible to speak of humanity's fate then it is apparent in the powerlessness to end, in the powerlessness to die and complete the cycle.
This changes the mood of the sound installation completely. You can no longer interpret the animal sounds in Zoo t as simple cries of distress - they are bestial, sardonic, derisive fits of laughter that make short shift of the arrogance of immortality. Each time you pass one of the crosses you are reminded of the fact that the human species has survived the others and that at the very least deserves compassion.
The viewer is not mocked by animals in the interactive video installation IC, You Watch (also made for the 'T LICHTE exhibition) but by a gigantic black chip. Once again it concerns a kind of memory machine but this one can act in a more aggressive and personal way. The viewer's picture is frozen at a certain distance from the machine: a portrait is made without wiping the portraits of previous visitors. So the monitor is swarming with images. The viewer's picture is deformed and placed towards the background or foreground depending on the distance from the machine. The
greater the distance, the more deformed.
The first thing that strikes you about this installation is the violent way in which the portraits are dealt with. Once a portrait is made, it is subjected to endless computer manipulation. Without your even knowing or.wanting it (in fact you've been caught out by your own curiosity), you've handed over information which has begun to lead a life of its own.
The installation could serve as a model for the obsession to garner and store information. Without your even knowing or wanting it, you're included in.some file or other, you're connected up to some worldwide network, you're formalized and transformed into pure information. How depressing, what an insult to the power of the informal, to the power of what cannot be reduced to abstract data, the fleeting, the rarified and transitory. The whole undertaking is nothing other than a struggle against disappearance , a desperate
attempt to postpone the final act.
But you should immediately ask yourself: if this is what it is, postponing the final act,shouldn't we actually accelerate it?
Accelerate it not simply by handing over regular information, but by glutting the databank with our greed, and our desire, and our anguish, and our private jokes, and our unconscious (yes, that too), and our past... Or, in the case of IC, You Watch, it means: abandon yourself to those divine digital manipulations and shine with a
vengeance in the heavens of interactive godheads.
Here follows a discussion with the maker of the two installations. When you first worked with video what excited you about the medium?
At first the fact that you have direct control over the image. With film you're always left waiting for the end results. You can't just keep on experimenting, you first have to wait ages for the material to be developed and you're able to project it. With video you see immediately what you're doing . That was also the reason why I wanted to see what happened when I stood in front of the camera. Everyone does that when they start working with video. Everyone's amazed that you see yourself immediately 'on television'.
You experience a lot of resistance in making a film. If you don't want to think in film terms, you don't want to work on the basis of a script, a storyboard, etcetera, and if you're directly concerned with the image, then it's simply impractical to work with film. Anyway it creates a block against looking at an image that was created in such a laborious way. What's more I'm simply not the kind of person who writes stories and can invent a great film script.
So it began with pure recording. Now it all seems a bit like navel-gazing.
It was about discovering the medium, about playing with light and close-up. Sometimes we improvised. We recorded a number of scenes that we just made up on the spot. Each person was responsible for one scene which he shot immediately after the person before him so that in the end there were the weirdest transition points. It was important to be able immediately to check what you'd shot, to look at the material and react to it.
When did you stop working with pure recording and begin to experiment with the actual image?
I studied graphics before I worked with video and learnt about various different kinds of printing techniques. So to some extent I was used researching and processing images. For instance, making working drawings is matter of constructing layers. You can't make and print texts and illustrations just like that, you have to break it up into texts, offsets and half-tones, you have to be responsible for colour registration. You have to think about and analyze everything in advance. Everything goes separately to the photographer and the printer and must end up back in the right place. So I had learned how to analyze images and put the different components back together again.
When I switched to video, I just started looking for possibilities to be able to more of the image, to do more than simply record it. At first I even worked with hardboard and paint to give the image more layers. I made leaders where I sawed the letters out of wood so that I could film around them. It seems stupid now you can just take a computer, draw a letter and superimpose.
//What exactly is the relationship between your autonomous video works and your video
The first videotape I made was partly about architecture and partly about being dissatisfied with the place where I was living. This tape was from a skyscraper project which I had thought up for the RIETVELD ACADEMIE staircase in 1985. I had made a sculpture and at the same time I was researching skyscrapers. I'd found out how they were made, studied what was going on in the field of architecture...that sort of thing...but also the social consequences of architecture and this I made into a videotape. The tape functioned as a piece of research, as a way of giving the object depth. In this case there was a clear link between the object and the videotape.
Tapes such as Wind-Keying and Run Off Your Dream World are pieces of pure research which you can also see as autonomous works. At that time it was mainly about experimenting with the possibilities of computer and video techniques. On the other hand an installation such as Portraits doesn't have a separate videotape: the video image is absorbed into the whole thing . I began to make this installation in 1987 for the opening of DE BALlE in Amsterdam. I had this idea of making portraits of passers-by by means of colour keying and frame storing so that one portrait would be piled on top of another. Then Iwas commissioned by DE BALlE so I had the chance to realize that idea in the form of an electronic visitor's book. The installation consisted pieces of scenery that were geared towards DE BALlE'S architecture: a row of baroque, theatrical and crooked pillars that ushered the visitors in. I'd fixed infra-red detectors to the pillars so that when someone broke the infra-red beam the computer received the message to freeze the image.

//You developed this idea of storing portraits in the installation which
was recently shown in the CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY of Brabant//.
In fact the plan was only to exhibit Portraits once but there was so much demand that it's since been shown five times. This meant that I had to patch it up and repaint it each time. And it also involved a lot of soldering. What's more the installation was far too big and unwieldy. At a certain point I couldn't stand how amateur it looked and the form of the machine so I had to make a new and better version. First of all I wanted the machine to be easy to control and transportable, it had to be able to get itself going and not go wrong too quickly. I also wanted to get rid of the compulsiveness of that row of pillars. I made new detectors that could measure the distance between the viewer and the machine so that you no longer needed the pillars, you no longer had to walk through something and be directly confronted with a single object. All this resulted in the installation IC, You Watch.
Yet IC, You Watch appears to the complete opposite of Portraits. Portraits freezes the pictures of passers-by in a more or less passive way, while once the pictures have been recorded IC , You Watch processes them.
At first it was simply a matter of accumulating of portraits and recording each visitor but the association I was thinking of and which was not well expressed because the installation seemed so humorous was how threatening recording, preserving can be; the fact that your picture has a continued existence and everyone can see you even though you left a long time ago. I wanted to make that more emphatic in IC, You Watch. I designed the installation in the form of a man-sized chip. A chip stores information, your information. You become completely synthetic and that's what you see in the monitor: once your portrait has been made and you're no longer standing in front of the machine, it becomes more and more clear that you consist of abstract digitalized blocks.

You can translate the threatening in many different ways. Why did you opt for the almost 'crude' solution of a hie-sized black chip? One would have expected some neutral abstract box.

Because I still have the tendency to stylize things, to make things figurative. Portraits was too figurative, too literal, too much theatre. I decided that the next time I would make something that's completely open, a simple steel case with all the cables hanging out which suggests nothing other than a machine. In the end I dismissed this idea as well (which in fact is completely impractical:everyone would start fiddling with your equipment) and have done more than just putting everything in a box. I looked for an intermediate form. It's not a matter of a purely figurative sculpture nor the simple stacking of equipment. Some ambiguity must remain.

Does this doubleness also exist in your sound installation Zoo ✝?
It applies in a different way. The form of those ten boxes is clearer in that case. I created the sense of ambiguity by making the boxes in exactly the same way as ordinary speakers, using the same cheap materials so you can't quite say whether you're dealing with ten crosses or simply ten speakers.

When I see your installations, I always have to think of that fanatical Mormon enterprise: the genealogical stock-taking of humanity, the registering and storing of all living souls in the world. In some way you also encounter this obsession with storing information in Portraits, Zoo ✝ and IC, You Watch.
I'm very much involved with that. I find it alarming that everything's linked up, the fact that everyone knows everything about each other, that I don't know what people knowable me, and that things ultimately depend on machines and not on human thought. The installations reflect something of that absolute information and mechanization.
On the other hand I find the notion of sending a box of data out into space fascinating. I'm interested in storing data that people will later encounter as the remains of this era. For instance it would be great to make something with the idea of storing images and sounds which will only become available later, to make something that will only begin to work in a hundred years time, that relinquishes its image in a hundred years.

translation ANNIE WRIGHT