»Without space helmet this might be difficult«

  • »Without space helmet this might be difficult«
    Kathrin Rhomberg, 2000

    A short scene from the science fiction film Alien II(1) depicts what might be the greatest cinematic image of utopian spatial architecture, capable of both movement and a life of its own: a group of heavily armed soldiers is making its way through the labyrinthine corridors of a tunnel system whose apparently stone walls call to mind the texture of twisted roots or coils of intestines; suddenly-barely perceptibly-the coils begin to wind around each other and to secrete a sticky slime. For reasons unknown, the electronic movement sensor reports enemy movement in the tunnel to the alarmed soldiers: the body frozen in inert form, the room-believed lifeless-lives.

    Since the ’60s, in various models explaining the workings of the world, the notion of the confrontation with-and experience of-space as a decisive determinant has increasingly moved towards the center of contemporary theoretical discourse. Foucault, for instance, claimed that the twentieth century could be characterized as the epoch of space.(2) Simultaneousness, and a continual juxtaposition of events no longer capable of being differentiated by the time factor (facilitated by a media network spanning the earth) have taken the place of the paradigm of «time» with its historical arguments and fetishes of evolution and transitoriness which so characterized the 19th century. Today groups and individuals find themselves «descriptively» located; a recurring terminology of space likewise replaces, linguistically, attempts at interpretation which are linked in time and development.

    Peter Kogler’s installations occupy space and make space their topic: the existing exhibition space, the surrounding space of thought, and the supposed virtual space. If we attempt to examine some of his work of the last few years in the context of the cinematic medium, the genre of science fiction film stands out. It, too, has-if not foremost, then at least latently-an abstract space as its dominant motif: the universe. Since the universe is, for the most part, empty space, in science fiction films greater significance inherently falls to the phenomenon of space than to the action itself. Therefore science fiction films are quite architectural films, even when they lack futuristic architectural models, since every object that appears in them is determined by the surrounding space(3)-a view of things that might (in both directions) just as easily be applied to an exhibition space. If one takes the exhibition space critically, removing it from its profane surroundings and dislodging it entirely from the chaotic pluralism of that outer world, one might compare its outer boundaries with the exterior shell of a spaceship. In both cases the exclusion of unrelated surroundings intensifies, through a kind of implosion, the dynamic of meaning in its interior. If one were to consider the exhibition space itself as surrounding space, within which every artistic statement is constantly forced to produce anew the impression of an interior, literally «importing» the latter(4), then here, too, there are close parallels to the universe in science fiction films.

    This empty, potentially hostile environment is countered in many cases by the film architecture and design of the science fiction genre, by spaceship interiors which display an extreme geometricality and structure through very clear architectural forms.(5) The interior shots of spaceships and space stations in science fiction films such as the Star Trek series; 2010: The year we make contact (Peter Hyams, 1984); Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972); or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001-A Space Odyssey (1968) may be seen as exemplary realizations of a kind of architecture labeled «implosive design» by Mark Wigley in an essay on Total Design: as «the concentration of design towards one interior point É implosive design means taking possession of a space and the submission of all details and surfaces to an overall vision É The result is a space void of gaps, cracks, or openings for other possibilities or other worlds.»(6)
     

    In Peter Kogler’s impressive spatial installation for his exhibition in the Secession in 1995 a similar intent makes itself manifest, a comparable will towards absolute control of the space. Despite the fact that the complex mesh of pipes of various diameters crossing each other at every conceivable angle produces the effect of an unruly confusion of verticals, horizontals, and diagonals, the controlling will behind it all remains constantly apparent. This impression depends, to a high degree, on the selection of the pipe motif itself, which is, in formal terms, the clearest and simplest of the modules familiar in Peter Kogler’s work. In the first place, the unbroken linearity of the pipes represents a time-honored architectural means of dividing and clearly structuring spaces; in addition, the plain functionality of the pipes as a means for the goal-oriented transport of matter defines the functional order of the space. Since a visible beginning or end to the mesh of pipes on the wallpaper is missing, the exhibition space appears as an isolated fragment of a larger body or environment of unquantifiable dimensions, unknown in its entirety and expanding in all directions: the exhibition space as a place of transition, as a junction. The photographs of the installation differ from the way the viewer experiences the space as they are only able to offer excerpts of it from a single perspective, thereby unintentionally evoking the impression of a disc lying horizontally or floating freely in space, into which one can look from one side. This view-strongly enhanced by the pipe/transportation motif-allows the viewer to make the association with the microchip: the exhibition space as a medium for data storage, as an information relay station.
    The relationship of the exhibition to the surroundings, which, in the case of the Secession, are everyday surroundings, comes close to the way spaceships and space stations relate to the universe in science fiction films. The design of the spaceships and space stations, clearly structured in organized, individual geometric sections, functions as a kind of answer to the inconceivable order of the empty universe, suggesting control by isolating itself from the latter through its own repetition and transposition into the available symbolism of an architectural sign language. Peter Kogler’s spatial installation works on a similar principle. The confusing mesh of pipes likewise seems to offer, symbolically, an answer to the chaotic pluralism of an exterior space characterized by the unchecked flow of information, not without, however, also simultaneously asserting the controlled management of this flow of information in the module of the pipe. In both cases the primary motif is that of an aesthetic mise-en-scène through the isolation of the controllable model from precisely that environment upon which it is intended to have its effect.
    Space, in either its symbolic or physical dimension, can be defined solely in relation to a subject. In the center of every space, therefore, is man, either as a presence or as an absence. The history of mankind may be told by the manner in which man in his evolution has defined the spaces he has claimed or occupied.(7) From the discovery and development of the first tools to the invention of weapons and means of transportation, the history of man’s progress is the history of the realization of «prostheses» for his own mobilization and thus for the expansion of his personal radius of action. Each expansion of his field of action also changes the structure of the human body and its possibilities. If we understand speech, for example, as a «prosthesis» for the advancement of knowledge because it makes social contact possible, then the spoken word may be described as a first step along the way to a global communications system.

    In his science fiction epic 2001-A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick took the prosthesis theory into the medium of film with great precision: in the passage entitled «The Dawn of Man», at the beginning of which the discovery of tools and weapons is recounted, the man/ape triumphantly throws into the air the bone that has served him as a weapon in the killing of his opponent. In slow-motion, the camera follows the flight of the bone, peeling it away, through focus, from the blue of the sky only to replace it during its fall in a sudden cut with an image of a spaceship comparable in size and coloration which even seems to continue the movement of the falling bone for a few seconds. What the bone-weapon/bone-tool had represented to the ape, the spaceship represents for man thousands of years later: a prosthesis for the expansion of available space.
    In Peter Kogler’s project CAVE (realized in 1999 as a commissioned work by the Ars Electronica Center, Linz, with a sound concept by Franz Pomassl) the computer-generated, three-dimensional virtual space he designed-when seen with so-called «zoom function» from an external standpoint -portrays all the characteristics of a science fiction spaceship. The cube of the cave functions, not unlike the universe for the spaceship, as a schematic shell for the apparently free-floating object, which appears, through the reflection of light, as though it has been carved out of a monochrome dark mass. The viewers who are invited, as virtual users, to explore the interior of the virtual space find themselves confronted with the familiar Kogler-esque modules of ants, pipes, brains, and biomorphous forms. They are given a variety of options for their explorations. Either they navigate the labyrinthine corridors and tunnels inside the cave on their own by means of a 3D-mouse or they passively join a pre-programmed tour which «sucks» them through the model without the possibility of their determining the path taken. The exterior can also be explored, if desired; secured by the supposed gravitational field of the object, one can experience, virtually, what it would be like to glide along the side of an object floating in space.
    The structural compactness and autonomy of the virtual sculpture in the cave suggests an understanding of its potential as a prosthetic surrogate for the expansion of an individual’s experience of space. Its exterior appearance as a conglomeration of organic and technoid elements might additionally support the association with a transplantable body organ or implant, an implant whose function is the creation of singular spaces. At the same time, the virtual conquest of the interior and exterior of the space-body demonstrates the expandability of the conceivable world of images, contrasting the latter with the apparent confines of individual bodily experience. The boundaries of the body may be described as the boundaries of all that can be internalized. «The use, re-use, and rejection of images is one way to survive new environments and time constraints É Images are consumed like food. Prosthetic expansion is a form of nourishment. With the expansion of the body the environment is literally brought inside. Space is transformed. Architecture is what you swallow. Even the Gothic cathedral resorts to its own reproduction in digital archives É The experience of architecture can be recycled. The ÜauthenticY´ experience (of a place, a space, of architecture) is no less an image than its simulation.»(8)

    The folder text to the CAVE project reads a little like a warning against possible side-effects: «The strong perspective impression of space stood in the foreground, the illusion of movement or speed and various forms of disorientation which can lead to psychedelic experiences. In addition to these there are special effects such as ÜcrashingY´, for example, or amorphous spaces, inverted graphics, special light simulations and partly transparent textures that allow for dizzying views through to lower-lying levels.»(9) The warning issued by HAL, the malfunctioning computer in the spaceship on mission to Jupiter in Kubrick’s 2001-A Space Odyssey, which was meant to prevent the astronaut Bowman from getting back on board the spaceship through an emergency hatch from his shuttle, sounds, by comparison, a good deal more laconic: «Without space helmet this might turn out to be rather difficult.»
    Peter Kogler’s wall projections for the Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) in the framework of the Wiener Festwochen 1999 carry the dematerialization and thus the abstraction of the spatial mise-en-scènes another step further than was the case with the CAVE project. Once again here, in projections on two walls standing at right angles to each other, are variations of his pipe modules, appearing now in a mesh pattern, now in a horizontally-meandering strip that covers the walls, or in their most radical formal reduction as vertical light beams stretching the length of the projection surface. The physical boundaries of the room-apparently generated by the projection-are extremely unstable and never clear. If the two lit-up walls suggest the dimensions of a room defined by the addition of opposing walls of identical length, width, and height, the image-producing projectors nonetheless enlarge this possible space and make it more flexible than that place described between the projection source and the projection surface. The dynamic of movement in the projected images produces a further irritation. Where vertical light beams at some distance from each other move along the wall towards a corner of the room, and, once there, are not stopped in their movement by running up onto one another and coming to rest, but instead appear to continue out beyond this supposed barrier as, indeed, they continue beyond the viewer’s limited (by the walls) field of view, the illusion of a space with specific boundaries can no longer be maintained. Instead of the doctrine of a three-dimensional room defined by its boundaries, a space is asserted here that is carried into the abstract: the room as an idea, the room as a theorem. The rooms Peter Kogler addresses in his installations are virtual rooms, psychedelically charged by virtue of the inherent, disorienting feeling they produce of space. Differentiations between up and down, outside and inside have become irrelevant. The room only becomes three-dimensional in the context of a morphing communications system, worldwide and constantly encircling the planet.
    As a continuation of his work with video installation as his medium, Peter Kogler has again designed, for the Kunsthaus Bregenz (on the top floor of the building) another space as idea. Again, the projections covering the walls generate a second space that reaches beyond the architectural edges of the exhibition space; its dimensions are seemingly without end. In the pulsating, abruptly interrupted rhythm of countless transmutations and displacements of the (radically abstracted) pipe modules all attempts by the viewer to find security in perspective and through identifying location are doomed to fail. If, in Kogler’s project for the Wahlverwandtschaften, the viewer could still consider himself a neutral and objective observer of a theatrical mise-en-scène which could be watched from the bleachers opposite the two projection walls and thus to a certain degree from the edges, from outside, a similarly objective viewer status for the installation in the Kunsthaus Bregenz seems impossible. Enclosed on all sides by the pulsating movement of the projections and the sound(10), with no assurance of a fixed, given, and unchanging position within the installation whatsoever, distance can only be maintained with utmost difficulty. The uninterrupted fluctuation of the room dimensions creates a visual suction by which the viewer can no longer remain unaffected than the form of the module itself apparently can. The original formal motif of the pipe loses its contours again and again in indifferent and organic-looking forms. Through the computer-generated dissolution of the once fixed, clearly defined, and controlled form of the pipe into organically-spreading meanders, the movement-formerly only intellectually intrinsic to the original motif-now begins to work dynamically on the outer form as well and thereby on the room it occupies. Peter Kogler’s exterior wall projection for the Kunsthaus Bregenz introduces another of his familiar structures in similarly constant change. Through the amoeba-like flow of continual formal variation a biomorphous shape thus markedly blurs the architecture of the building by opposing the seemingly static architectural body with the image of constant metamorphosis projected upon it. The body frozen in inert form, the room-believed lifeless-livesÉ

    Footnotes:

    1 Aliens (original title), 1986, directed by James Cameron.
    2 Compare Foucault, M., Of Other Spaces, Diacritics 16, 1986, pp. 22-27;
    cited in: Soja, Edward W., Postmodern Geographies, London/New York,
    1989, p. 10.
    3 See Weihsmann, Helmut, Gebaute Illusionen. Architektur im Film, Vienna, 1988, p. 16.
    4 With regard to the exhibition space as exemplified by the Secession see: Wigley, Mark, Was geschah mit dem totalen Design?, in: Meyer,
    Christian and Mathias Poledna (ed.), Sharawadgi, Cologne, 1999.
    5 The design of film spaceships with their clear and almost minimalistic formal vocabulary clearly and significantly contradicts, however, the images
    transmitted by television in the Ô60s and Ô70s of the Apollo missions, in which functionalism and claustrophobic constriction defined the spaceship interior.
    6 Wigley, Was geschah mit dem totalen Design?, op. cit., p. 287.
    7 See McHale, John, The Future of the Future (1969) and McHale, John, The Ecological Context (1970), cited in: Wigley, Mark, Evolution-By-Prosthesis, in: Lechner, Andreas and Maier, Petra (ed.), stadtmotiv*, 5 Essays zu Architektur und Öffentlichkeit, Vienna, 1999, pp. 158 f.
    8 Wigley, Evolution-By-Prosthesis, op.cit. p. 189.
    9 Maresch, Pascal - ars electronica futurelab, information folder for the
    CAVE project, Linz, 1999.
    10 Sound installation by Franz Pomassl, who previously generated the sound for Peter Kogler’s projects for the Wahlverwandtschaften (1999) and the CAVE (1999).