Concatenations

  • Concatenations
    Rainer Fuchs, 2008

    Peter Kogler’s computer-generated projects for indoor and outdoor spaces as well as his contributions to major exhibitions like the Venice biennial (1986), documenta IX (1992) and X (1997) have earned him international repute, primarily as an artist working with space and time-based media who progressively turned away from the traditional image and its static-material parameters. However, an examination of his early, lesser-known works puts this impression in perspective, showing that their aesthetic principles still hold fundamental relevance for his more recent media-based, site-specific works. Concatenations of plane and space, image and object, human figure and architecture, representation and abstraction, always in the context of new media, have characterized his work from the very beginning. For Kogler, the medium is not necessarily the message but a mixture of various traditional and innovative techniques and processes whose respective meanings form and shift in interplay.

    The artist developed his work in an environment of New Painting in the 1980s, turning against the latter's reactivation of mythical and archetypical potentials. While a dynamism of expressionist and cubo-futurist styles still resonates in the jagged figurative details of his cardboard objects and charcoal drawings from the early 1980s, Kogler countered the cult of heroic neo-expressionist painting of the day conceptually and media analytically by referring to mass culture and technological imaging processes. 

    Kogler’s early performances and films already show that the reception of Modernism meant something different to him than the revival of a sensuous emotional need to express or an unreflective desire for bright and colorful pictures. At a time when the burgeoning New Painting was displaying a propensity to quote from the history of expressive gestures, Kogler decided to cite from the history of conceptual, language-based art in his Duchamp performance (1979) in the lobby of the Vienna Akademie der bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts): Sitting on a chair, he read from Robert Lebel’s biography of Duchamp while brushing shaving cream horns onto his forehead. He was referring here to the horns on Michelangelo’s Moses, or to Man Ray’s famous portrait of Marcel Duchamp, which in turn was reproduced in Lebel’s book. “What we see is the reflection of a reflection of a reflection. The repetition of Duchamp’s performance (also present in the form of a photograph), which in turn is grounded in an ironic art-historical reference, produces a perfectly solipsistic cycle which lacks a centre that might hold a promise of authenticity. The artist imitates Duchamp, who himself is only present as a performance photographed by another artist.”#1# Stefan Berg’s analysis of this Koglerian chain of references not only reveals the artist’s affinity to the Duchampian concept of art as a game of definitions, but even pushes it into the frame of contemporary language and sign theory propounded and disseminated by Derrida as “Différance”. For Derrida, language as a system of signs proved to be a parade-ground of the ephemeral and relational structures of meanings which have always been codetermined by meanings preceding them and inevitably rub off on those that follow: “Whether in the order of spoken or written discourse, no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present. This interweaving results in each ‘element’—phoneme or grapheme—being constituted on the basis of the trace within it of the other elements of the chain or system. This interweaving, this textile, is the text produced only in the transformation of another text. Nothing, neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.” #2# Reacting to the belief that meanings are essence that is directly producible and perceivable, Kogler was referring to the process of meaning production itself in his performance, thereby thematizing the very conditions for producing art as art—but with a richly suggestive humor, and not in a dry and programmatic manner.

    In yet another performance at the Galerie nächst St Stephan in 1979 Kogler exemplified his critique of essentialism, aiming to represent indirectness and transitoriness, by working with light and incorporating his own body in the form of shadow: naked, with legs crossed in a lotus-like posture, he did a headstand in a metal washtub. Because this approximately five-minute “exhibition,” whose length depended on Kogler’s physical stamina, was performed next to a potted palm in the cone of light thrown by a construction lamp, a striking scenario resulted in which the shadows of the palm tree and the artist seemed to resemble each other. Kogler’s body thus mutated into an indistinct and alienated plant motif. “Kogler doing a headstand and imitating the palm tree next to him marks the beginning of a career that uses an inventory of motifs that are nearly always concrete and corporal (ants, tubes, brains) in order to show that these can be transformed into flat, meaningless, decorative and abstract symbols that yet do not so far disown their origin in the world of the concrete and the specific as to become completely arbitrary.”#3# The transformation of the body into an image representing something else and the entire procedure that plays on filmic projection suggest that intrinsically different elements are being blended together, but without concealing the method by which the illusion is being created. One can clearly tell that the body and its shadow are fundamentally different, and that the arbitrariness of symbols has become manifest precisely in this difference, which is precisely why Kogler’s headstand literally turns every form of naïve conceptual realism on its head. Light, on the other hand, not only makes the scene visible but can also be experienced as a meaning-producing medium because it elucidates the fact that meanings are not inherent in the things, concepts and symbols themselves but rather in their correlations, that they are as it were produced when things next to them are illuminated; moreover, that they are ephemeral and fleeting. In contradiction to a resurgent resonance theory (revived by the expressionist interpretation of Modernism), which implied an unclouded transmission of messages between sender and recipient, Kogler’s physical exertion exemplifies the meaning-altering and meaning-constituting effect of the in-between, which, as medium of transmission, is also a socially coded zone where messages are transformed. The black and white “style” that dominated most of Kogler’s early works executed in various media usually depicts the play of light and shadows that illumines the relation between individual and the masses in a field of tension between reality and media-generated illusion.

    Using light as a medium to transform the real into the emblematic was a path Kogler took in his first film as well. A camera mounted in a train compartment filmed the landscape passing by and gradually vanishing into the approaching twilight. This interpenetration of approaching darkness and the onset of artificial lights in the landscape becomes visible in the course of the film. With growing darkness outside, the camera needed longer exposure time in order to ensure sharp images. Its shutter priority now began to interfere in the recording process, superimposing onto the images the very conditions of their production. In this way, the fading natural light and the simultaneous glow of bright artificial lights in the landscape were not simply documented as film, but conversely the filmed twilight also documented the technological functions of the camera. However, this merely addresses one aspect of the film’s content. Traveling on tracks and through tunnels, the train followed a channeled route, making the camera both witness and communicator of a journey in the course of which the landscape turned into a sequence of seemingly abstract light-dark effects. Structures of elusiveness congealed into an image that was in itself moving. Kogler’s choice of twilight as a stage for artificial light in which the train’s goal-oriented journey turns into a place-less play of light and dark rendering any concrete orientation impossible is typical of his artistic practice of using opposites to produce disturbances. This film is thus the origin of Kogler’s repertoire of motifs for his subsequent works that deal with virtual spaces, ubiquitous non-sites, and their role in the viewer’s sense of orientation and perception. In metaphorical terms, the real tunnels through which the train passes lie on the same tracks that led to the pipes and virtual labyrinths in the pictures from the same period, and became a dominating motif in Kogler’s computer-generated works as well. Whether as pipes and tubes on wallpaper that turn the spaces they are in into seemingly endless hi-tech networks, or as scenarios of movement in computer- animated channels which we as viewers might have logged into or navigate our way through, they always have a precisely sited place-lessness, or a Here that is at the same time both a Nowhere and an Everywhere—a journey, as it were, through a landscape that is vanishing in the twilight. 

    In addition to the film with the train, there is yet another one from 1981 with an ant whose zigzag path across a newspaper page is followed by the camera; the ant wandering in the labyrinth of letters is always in the image center. Thus, the camera becomes both observer and alter ego of the ant, which in turn becomes a metaphor for the reader who seems to be lost in the labyrinth of mass media information, forced to scan the surface full of signs and symbols without any assurance that deeper and enduring meaning can be gleaned from them. Although the whole film appears to be nothing more than a casual and unpretentious observation, neither the naturalness of the camera work nor the motif itself are totally coincidental. The recording technique used here could be seen as a reference to Conceptual Art’s principle of delegated authorship, which even deferred this to the image-producing apparatuses by avoiding every form of staging and composition and leaving ample room for the unintentional and the coincidental. Similarly, the method of recording in the short film with the ant is delegated to the filmed subject—coincidental movements and all. And as far as the ant is concerned, even media theoreticians like Vilém Flusser held it to be an eloquent symbol for the reality of life, one that oscillates between virtual artificiality and the unchallengeable laws of nature. Speaking of the ant as metaphor, Flusser warned against the loss of genuine human needs and qualities which he saw threatened by a blind belief in technology: “The telematic society as a strange anthill: anthill because it is a mosaic-like structure where there is a cybernetic interplay of all its functions; and strange because the telematic ant will not work but remain in its own cell and spin out fantastic, technical images, ‘pure art.’ These will be brains coupled together with each other and artificial brains into dream-secreting superbrains. And yet, bodies will hang from them in an archaic manner: bodies demanding propagation and death. Killjoys.”#4# Because we could perceive the ant as a living being that is a synthesis of oppositions, it could also serve as a symbol for cataclysmic contradictions that threaten to subjugate a society trapped in a euphoria of progress. Kogler too saw an ideal motif in the ant. Its symmetrical body and ability to build and use labyrinths as systems of orientation and activity also reconcile those contradictions in human society whose relationship to each other needs to be redefined under the conditions of mediatization: namely, the organic and the technological, the individual and the collective as well as the ornamentally abstracted symbols and the tangible sensuousness of life. Apart from the brain, the ant, to be seen as the embodiment of oppositions, “[…] both as a conventional exemplar of organization and order, but equally as an annoying disturber of peace or as a threatening killer […],”#5# is a central motif in Kogler’s work. Both ant and brain have a common domicile and denominator in complex labyrinthine twists and windings. In this sense, labyrinths ultimately interlink the individual motifs throughout Kogler’s entire oeuvre. 

    The mediatization of art and society has been the focus of Kogler’s interest since the late 1970s, not only in his filmic works but also in his charcoal drawings and cardboard objects. By addressing this theme—at first without the help of technical and electronic media—he found a strategy for addressing the contradictions endemic to a communication industry that promises both consumer satisfaction and human warmth by encouraging anonymity and globalization in socio-political relationships: “The clumsy primitivity of Kogler’s discoveries makes their inner void all the more visible by mercilessly exposing how these repetitive patterns of visual objects, that initially appear so warmly hand-crafted and clumsy, thrive on their cool, calculated, machine-like repetition.”#6# Around 1980, Kogler reflected on the redundancy and devaluation, or conceptual redefinition, of the original and of authorship—as the logical outcome of reproducing media images—in original works that display a high degree of technical skill. By distancing themselves from the immaterial-virtual aspects of media-based images, these traditional charcoal drawing techniques combined with the materiality of paper and cardboard—through a kind of consciously feigned inaptitude— make the lost connections between themselves and social alienation perceivable as real phenomena. 
    Kogler lends physical form to Flusser’s lament against the dissipation of physical realities: “One characteristic of technical images is that they are capable of being repeated endlessly. They are not ‘originals’ like traditional images but are constantly reproducible stereotypes of a prototype stored in the artificial memory of a machine.”#7#

    Kogler not only combines divergent media but, by moving along the borderline between drawing and painting, between images and objects, first and foremost creates a pictorial unity between opposites through analogue “feedback,” later translated and reformulated in his digital-virtual images. The cell-like seriality and modular construction of the cardboard objects anticipates the rampant rhizomatic and network-like worlds of the organoid and technoid pipes and labyrinth systems so characteristic of Kogler’s subsequent computer-animated wallpapers and projections.

    But before he began to stage virtual spatiality virtually, Kogler used mechanical means to make his images more spatial. He used simple folds and conical protrusions to make his illusionistic representations seem three-dimensional. Images of skyscrapers and brick buildings seem to grow out of walls like reliefs, like architectural models, as it were. They develop a propinquity to a reality that they “merely” invoke with the help of wily manipulations. This means that they suggest a correlation between source material and its reproduction, between the signifier and the signified, that is reminiscent of visual and concrete poetry. In these practices, language is mainly represented visually on surfaces intended for language and image, calling into question the meaning of words and concepts. While words in visual poetry “do” what they mean, Kogler’s objects tend to appear “to be” what they represent. 
    In addition to the architectural motifs, one exemplary piece is the cardboard frame object with charcoal figures and drawings interwoven into a kind of relief, which, on first glance, looks like a Baroque frame for paintings by the Old Masters. The hybrid nature of this cardboard object becomes apparent not least in the interwoven figures which sketch out a figurative text, or a text-like figuration reminiscent of Derrida’s notions of “interweaving” and “textile”, whose never-ending stream of meanings it attempts to represent through the frame as a metaphor for an infinitely circulating quadrature of the circle. This picture frame elevates the framing conditions of art to its very content, confronting the viewer with inverted relations. 
    While its borders are covered with figures, the outer part of the picture, its spatial context, tips over into its inner space and becomes its content—both figuratively and literally. Thus, the frame does not cut the picture out of the real world, but rather places it in the real world. It is not a window onto an artificial-artistic world of illusions, but the link that connects art with the reality surrounding it. The concatenation of the figures in the frame thus becomes a reference to the catenation of frame and space, art and reality, text and context. 

    The frame appears in numerous early figurative depictions as a sort of overarching framing theme in Kogler’s oeuvre. For example, it appears in an irregular circle of black and white cut-out figures seated around a table against a black background in bird’s eye perspective, or in a quasi-serial reproduction of the white rat (Untitled, 1981). While the white bodies of these laboratory animals seem both disgusting and cute, they also remind us of the tortures they undergo in the name of research. As a basic factor in Kogler’s approach, this ambivalence destines the rats, like the ants, to be the subject of a coalition between contradictions. The animal “runs” around in “circles,” as if in a filmic loop that is divided into its individual parts. Its circular, closed path and the latent presence of movement in the image sequences returns in later projections, but in different media: filmed, computer-animated white rats now run in labyrinthine paths on the floor, on which we too can walk. Though precisely laid out, their paths are closed and without a goal. Their movements not only define the space as a labyrinth, but also establish that the viewer’s perception and his/her arduous attempts at interpretation and orientation are essentially futile. 

    These early frame pictures and objects show the influences of modernist cinema in the sequential and ornamental arrangement of the figures, in their frame and loop-like structures, and in their black and white contrasts and vanishing perspective. Filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), Dziga Vertov (The Man with the Movie Camera, 1929), Vsevolod Pudovkin (The End of St. Petersburg, 1927), Fritz Lang (Metropolis, 1927), Walter Ruttmann (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927), Friedrich Murnau (The Last Man, 1923) and Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary, 1919) played an important role in Kogler’s interest in historical connections between urbanity and mediatization, between social politics and mass aesthetics. The subject matter in the films by these authors comprises a broad spectrum, from esoteric mystic escapism to the mechanisms of propaganda in an atmosphere of revolution. Their montage-like, exaggerated expressions and symbolically charged depictions of the masses, the way their sets are distorted by the camera angle, provided several references for artists dealing with the current forward thrust of mediatization in the new information societies and their effects on the relationship between individual and society. Sylvia Eiblmayr referred in this context to “postmodern fear”, which in her view is suggested in Kogler’s morphed architecture. She also sees in them echoes of a “modern fear” that came from a critique of urbanity and civilization based in Expressionism, as partially visible in the examples mentioned above.#8# Such a cultural critique can also be discerned when Gilles Deleuze speaks of the connections between architecture and the masses: “And if the human body instinctively joins such ‘geometric groupings,’ if it becomes a ‘basic factor in this architecture’ […], it is because every difference between the human and the mechanical has made place […] for the powerful non-organic life of things.”#9# Deleuze seems to be referring here to the film critic and theorist Siegfried Kracauer, who established the connection between the ornament of the masses and capitalist rationalization as early as the 1920s: “Community and personality perish when what is demanded is calculability; it is only as a tiny particle of the mass that the human being can clamber up charts unhindered and operate machines. The system, which is unresponsive to differences in form, takes the initiative to erase all distinctive national traits and produces masses of workers that can be deployed in equal measure all over the world.”#10# “Mass ornament is the aesthetic reflex of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system.”#11#

    This interweaving of architecture and human figure, of the individual and the mass, which Kogler had already made clear through geometric abstractions in his early work, is founded in such historical artistic and theoretical references. This transfer of architecture from the frame of the house in which the human being lives to the human body seems to correspond to its visible shift from frame to motif in the mentioned works. The anthropomorphization of the architectural culminated in house-like representations of heads and faces as the most salient features of human individuality and identity. And yet again, these motifs become charged with their opposite, namely, with anonymity and intentional distortion. At first strongly simplified, these creatures with clown-like facial expressions are a mixture of architecture and human countenance, which, as mural reliefs, are both picture and sculpture at the same time. Subsequently, Kogler began to apply this form of morphing in computer technology itself. The result was haunting, potato-like faces made of crudely pixelated structures. It seemed as if this mediatization was literally personifying and drawing these individuals, as if their appearance was emerging from precisely those data structures upon which the information society feeds every day. Indications for such comparisons can be found in media theory: “We do not at all need to imagine a human being that walks beneath holograms and for whom it is impossible to differentiate between his love for another human being and a programmed robot, for we ourselves are now partially such human beings.”#12# The mental deformation Flusser speaks of here seems to have found a contemporary likeness in Kogler’s spooky physiognomies, one that is not merely charged with cultural pessimism but one that celebrates an apotheosis of ugliness with undertones of irony and humor against a perfect surface of media images and figures. The digital abstraction of the head finally culminated in grid images in whose geometric all-over the very last vestiges of individuality vanish. These depictions of horrific vacui-like labyrinths, like picture puzzles of lost identities, use their ornamental beauty to test the eye, disorient the viewer, and thereby allude to the manipulative and seductive strategies of new technologies.
    This skepticism towards unambiguousness and the penchant for labyrinth-like ornamental structures used as symbols for a hyper-complex reality that goes hand in hand with it is a part of Kogler’s concept of hybridization as described above. We can see a variation on these interlinked differences today when Kogler hangs various different pictures in a pictorially structured space.
    One such space is central to the exhibition at the MUMOK, one that is both a space for presenting artworks and at the same time itself an artwork: a net like a spider’s web seems to make the surfaces of the walls vibrate and dissolves the structural orthogonality of the architecture. The room thus becomes transformed into an all-over collage in which the pictures seem to float. Because these pictures originate from different work phases, together and in conjunction with the space they produce a scenario of synchronicity of the asynchronous—yet another form of concatenation.

    Fußnote Nummer 1 fehlt!

    2 Jacques Derrida, Positions, translated by Alan Bass (London / New York: Verlag?? 2002), p. 26
    3 Stephan Berg, see note 1, p. 9

    4 Vilém Flusser, Ins Universum der technischen Bilder, (Göttingen: Verlag?? 1989), 2nd edition, p. 112

    5 Stephan Berg, see note 1, p. 11 
    6 Ibid., p. 10

    7 Vilém Flusser, Lob der Oberflächlichkeit – Für eine Phänomenologie der Medien(probably written in 1983), eds. Stefan Bollmann, Edith Flusser (Mannheim: ?? 1995), p. ??

    8 Silvia Eiblmayr, “Form Follows Fear Follows Fun,” Peter Kogler, eds. Stephan Berg, Silvia Eiblmayr, Noelle Tissier. See note 1, p. 15-17, p. 15

    9 Gilles Deleuze, Movement Image – Cinema 1 (Stadt??: Verlag??, Jahr??), p.??

    10 Siegfried Kracauer, Das Ornament der Masse, in: Das Ornament der Masse – Essays (1920-1931) (Frankfurt / Main: Verlag?? 1977), p. 50-63, p. 53 (Translated here by Nita Tandon)

    11 Ibid., p. 54 

    12 Vilém Flusser, Lob der Oberflächlichkeit, see note 7, p. 41