The 2006 Sonambiente Festival of Hearing and Seeing, Berlin

Bernard Leitner, Kaskade (2006)

By Rosemary Heather

Shown at a number of locations in Berlin, The Sonambient Festival of Hearing and Seeing took place within the wider context of the 2006 World Cup. This was a circumstance that found its most tangible expression at the Brandenbrug Gate branch of the Akademie der Kunst. Situated next to the Gate, on the Pariser Platz, the Akademie also happened to be at the start of the so-called ‘fan mile’. Running along the tree-lined boulevard that connects the Gate to the city’s Victory Column, the fan mile saw audiences of up to 700,000 people congregate to watch live football broadcasts on giant TV screens and bleachers temporarily erected for the occasion.

Two basic assumptions framed the event. The first is that sound art is somehow intrinsically populist. Acknowledging that it sat at the doorstep of an uncommonly powerful global event, the Akademie offered fans the ‘Public Viewing World Cup Sound Art Lounge’, which bracketed screenings of each game with various sound art events, most of them themed DJ evenings. Presumably the idea was to offer fans a gateway to the appreciation of other types of sound-based phenomena. The second more interesting premise is that the festival would in effect provide the context to enable an experience of the city of Berlin as “an actual work of sound art.” By stating its desire to make a connection between “urban experience and sound experience”, the festival organizers reveal a preference for cultural sounds, as opposed to those found in nature – if one can put it like that? It is a distinction made if only for the purposes of shedding light on a deeper bias: that is, in favour of the synthetic character of urban sound experience and its innate connection to spectacle.

The idea that sound based art may lead on to thoughts about spectacle proves useful when considering the artworks presented by the event. It suggests criteria for evaluating the work that is otherwise lacking in the catchall category of sound art. This is especially true because, as a mode of art making that is about aural experience but is not music, sound art has long operated as a subgenre of modernist art practice. Dedicated to experimentation with volume and the spatial, durational and physical effects of sound, it falls within the larger modernist project of finding ways to give tangible expression to a medium’s formal properties.

Much of the work presented by Sonambinete adhered to this proto-modernist formula. Austrian artist Bernard Leitner’s Kaskade (2006), a sound installation in a kidney-shaped stairwell, provided one of the more stellar examples of this type of practice. Six tweeter-fitted parabolic bowls mounted in the 12-story stairwell created cascading effects of sound that changed according to where one was standing. As with the best of these types of experiments, the aural effects had tangible physical and almost visible correlates to create a physically embodied experience of the architectural space. However, most of the artworks in this mode presented by Sonambiente were far less compelling, if only because this type of experimentation seems irrelevant to those aspects of contemporary experience that the best sound-based art can offer a critical perspective on.

A large portion of the show was devoted to works of sculpture with a sound component, and this had the inadvertent effect of exposing the weakness of sound art as a category. For what may be good examples of audio art can also be just middling examples of artworks generally. Belgian artist Kris Vleeschouwer’s Glassworks, a+b (2005), consists of 10,000 glass bottles sitting on a mechanized industrial shelving unit. Connected by an ADSL line to five glass-recycling containers around Berlin, the shelving moves every time someone throws a bottle away, displacing the bottles in the gallery so that they smash to the floor. Although breaking glass always brings with it some residual excitement, the work never quite escapes the banality of its conceptual framework: people recycle and accidents happen, whether casually connected or incidental, both are unremarkable occurrences in everyday life.

Like Vleeschouwer’s piece, the German Robert Jacobsen’s Skulpturelles Theater Nr. 4 (2006) easily falls within the genre of kinetic sculpture. A drum and large symbol are balanced on either ends of a microphone stand that hang’s from the ceiling by a single chain. A small fan next to the symbol causes the sculpture to spin languidly but with enough velocity to activate a drumstick attached to its other end. Although there is a nice economy of materials used, and a kind of semantic equivalence between elements achieved, the sculpture is of a type that could have been made any time in the last 50 years. The historical particularities that gave kinetic pioneer Jean Tinguely’s work its playful and bracing relevance belong to his time; as mechanical devices are themselves an almost outmoded format of our interface with the world, art about machines are also look as if they are speaking to us from another era.

Opera for a Small Room, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, 2005

Addressing the disjunction in timeframes that are always a part of the historical condition is Opera for a Small Room (2005) by the Canadians’ Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Viewers look through the windows of to-scale built cabin into an interior filled from top to bottom with old fashioned record players, 24 antique speakers and almost 2000 long playing record albums. Over the course of 20 minutes, a scenario plays out. Animatronic activation of the record players, and light and audio elements evoke a tale about the opera-obsessed individual who retreats to this cabin to play music and reflect on his life. A voice distorted as if speaking through a megaphone, and dreamy as if lost in thought, provides the basic elements of a narrative. Orchestral and pop music, arias from operas, and ambient sound effects such as the thunderous noise from a passing train are layered together to create a fully immersive art experience. So persuasive is the mise-en-scene of this work that one has to stop and remind oneself that what they are watching is happening but is not actually there; no one sits in this cabin playing records. Existing in the imagination in some melancholy Canadian back wood, far from the urban milieu that creates opera and even history, the work sat in fact in an art gallery in Berlin. The Sonambiente festival provided no better example of our susceptibility to the seductions of virtual experience. Perhaps it was the work’s dislocation of locales and implied historical timeframes (record albums are a thing of the past) that helped to make tangible the synthetic nature of the world it creates. The artists had no need to avail themselves of futuristic metaphors to make visible the fantastic virtual character of the reality that comprises much of contemporary experience. Instead they made use of a slight historical time lag to give sharp focus onto the world of the present. Creating an awareness about not the content of that experience but the form that enables its expression is what made this work most relevant to the spectacle of the World Cup that was occurring all around it. In such a large and varied event as Sonambiente 2006, it might seem odd to say that one work more than all the others fully met the event’s ambitions to provide a critical context for a sports event with an unprecedented media reach, but this would only be to point out just how elusive critical reflection on the present can be.

This text originally appeared in The Senses and Society Vol 2, Issue 1.

Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz – An Exhibition

Fassbinder: “Berlin Alexanderplatz - An Exhibition,” 2007
Fassbinder: “Berlin Alexanderplatz - An Exhibition,” 2007. View of the exhibition at KW, Berlin. Photo: Uwe Walter.
Writing about Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1983 when Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s 14 1/2 hour film epic was first shown in the US, the New York Times’ film critic Vincent Canby noted that the – at that time – recent appearance of home video rental offered a way to negotiate the film’s unfeasible length, and also possibly presaged the creation of a new art form. Canby was right about this, but in a way that he could not have anticipated. The idea that video rentals could democratize and decentralize artworks, putting control into viewer’s hands has been borne out in spectacular fashion by the online video site YouTube, which invented not only new conditions for viewing but an entire universe of viewer-created content.

The question of whether the short videos that can be seen on YouTube can be considered art is entirely germane to Klaus Bisenbeck’s presentation of Berlin Alexanderplatz at the Kunst Werker in Berlin. A major force at the KW since its inception, and now also a curator at PS1 in New York, Bisenbeck is a controversial figure in the Berlin art world. This exhibition will do nothing to alter that reputation. All credit should be given to him for the scale of vision he brings to the staging of Fassbinder’s film. Although revered internationally, the German attitude to the director continues to be ambivalent. As a friend of mine said Fassbinder was “too gay, too political and took too many drugs” to really be a welcome addition to the pantheon of great German artists. Recognition of Bisenbeck’s achievement, however, can’t avoid mention of the obvious caveat about the way this exhibition reduces the conditions for viewing the work to the diminished scale of a contemporary audiences’ YouTube-like attention spans.

Originally made for German television in 1980, the film’s 13 episodes plus an epilogue, which have been re-mastered for 35mm, are shown as loops in 14 separate viewing booths. The film is also screened in its entirety in a small adjacent room outfitted with cinema-style seating. While this is intended to provide a context for the liberties the KW takes in presenting the film as an art installation, the intact screening of the film also makes the weaknesses of the latter strategy apparent. Perhaps this was intentional too? Certainly the exhibition is successful in staging a dialogue between the two formats of viewing. In contrast to the strong narrative pull one experiences when the film is seen as a whole, the installation caters to a more distracted form of reception. Temporarily constructed for the show, the 14 connected booths snake around the perimeter of the KW’s ground floor exhibition space, the last booth functioning like an exit into a central atrium-like area where the obverse screen of all the projections can be seen simultaneously. The effect is spectacular, the coherence of Fassbinder’s vision being blown apart into competing disjunctive fragments.

The claim of the show’s press release is that presenting the film in this way allows the viewer to decide “how they want to approach it”. The assertion ignores the fact that viewers’ have always been able to decide how they approach an art exhibition, but the KW is merely speaking in lingua franca of the contemporary art world when it emphasizes the viewer’s ability to participate in an exhibition as one of its main attributes. As English literary theorist Terry Eagleton notes, the current culture’s preoccupation with audience interactivity originates in reception theory’s insight that, “readers were quite as vital to the existence of writing as authors.”1.

Reception theory gave the world the idea that readers and viewers have an active role to play in the creation of meaning, but the question remains: What meaning can result from presenting Fassbinder’s film in this way? Fragmenting the German director’s massive cinematic accomplishment into bite-sized pieces would seem to play to our culture’s worst atomizing tendencies. Take the time to watch an episode from beginning to end, sitting in a viewing booth on one of the cushions provided, and your patience will be rewarded; Fassbinder’s greatness as a director ensures that. Presented with so much choice, however (leaving aside the possibility of watching each episode in full, laboriously going from booth to booth in chronological order to undermine the show’s premise) the urge is to flit around and sample the film, suggesting that the point is to experience its ambience rather than meaningfully engage with its content.

View the work as a momentary series of encounters, and the static quality of Fassbinder’s dramaturgy becomes apparent — but then he never was a director interested in naturalism. Enter a random choice of rooms in quick succession and you get the impression that all of Berlin Alexanderplatz takes place while the characters sit around talking to each other in one bar or another. The presentation makes the film’s typological connection with the genre of the soap opera apparent. Regardless, viewing the film in this way also gives it the fascinating quality of a parallel universe. Each screen is like a window proving a figurative glimpse into Berlin’s past, a world comprised of the extraordinary history of the city and the artworks and literature it has inspired.

The precedent for Bisenbeck’s show is Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993). Gordon’s premise was that presenting Hitchcock’s famous film as an installation (slowing the projection down to a speed of 24 frames per minute) would reveal the film’s unconscious: the ulterior world it created beyond any of individual element of the director’s intention. Considered from this angle, Bisenbeck’s installation works exceptionally well; he compounds the brilliance of Fassbinder’s work by abstracting it. In the process, the prismatic reality he created is made apparent, not only in this film but in Fassbinder’s body of work as a whole.

1. After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Penguin Books, London, 2003. p. 53.

By Rosemary Heather

Curated by Klaus Bisenbeck
Kunst Werker Institute for Contemporary Art
Berlin, March 18-May 13th, 2007

This text originally appeared in Bordercrossings # 103

Rodney La Tourelle: In the Absence of Unambiguous Criteria

Rodney LaTourelle, In the Absence of Unambiguous Criteria, 2007
Rodney LaTourelle, In the Absence of Unambiguous Criteria, 2007
For his show at Program Berlin-based Canadian artist Rodney LaTourelle created one of his so-called walk-in paintings, a site-specific installation he has created in a number of cities internationally. Occupying two-thirds of the venue’s store-front exhibition space, the maze-like structure came complete with ceilings and three small, all but hidden, vestibules with a built-in seat that was big enough for one person. Leaving the construction’s steel studs visible on the outside like the frame on the back of a canvas, visitors to the exhibition could navigate the work’s three interconnecting hallways, each one painted with alternating bands of colour; of three sets in all, these vertical stripes comprised the work’s fictive dimension. Using natural light from the venue’s exterior windows, which the structure abutted, and ceiling-mounted florescent lights at each section’s opposite end, LaTourelle created the tactile conditions for shifting perceptions of colour, light and self

By Rosemary Heather

Rodney La Tourelle, In the Absence of Unambiguous Criteria was presented at Program, Berlin, Winter 2007

This text was orginally published in Von Hundert, Berlin, Spring 2007

Anri Sala: Air Cushioned Ride

Anri Sala
Anri Sala, Air-Cushioned Ride, video/film, 6 minutes 4 seconds (2006)

The romance of the truck stop may sound like worn-out material for an artist to draw on. The idea would seem to evoke a familiar landscape ¬- one that is, let’s face it, from the last century. In Air Cushioned Ride (2007) the Berlin-based Albanian artist Sala makes the territory his own. A car-mounted camera slowly circles a row of 18-wheel vehicles, a scene that is set against the dazzling blue big sky of some nameless open country. Along for the ride is a soundtrack that alternates between two songs, on a country music and a classical music station, respectively. For the show’s opening, Sala had this composite tune arranged for live performance. Producing a full-bodied replication of the work’s soundtrack was a combined and rather large group of authentic-looking country/western and classical musicians. It was a novel accomplishment and something of a technical feat. What it added to the piece as a whole is less certain. The artfulness of the adaptation is its weak point proving that, in conceptual practice at least, antipathy to technique remains steadfast. Sala’s film, on the other hand, is entirely artless and so that much more successful. Initial assumptions about the time and place of the work give way to the realization that the scene you are looking at is not necessarily in the proverbial mid-western US. Country music and long-distance trucking are Americanisms that are at this point merely part of the general condition of things in the West. It is this fusion of old world and new that the artist neatly encapsulates on his soundtrack. By articulating an idea about the universality of placelessness, Sala achieves an absolute contemporaneity. Bypassing the easy clichés of pop culture, he carves out a concrete piece of the present.

By Rosemary Heather

This text originally appeared in Flash Art, July-September Issue, 2007
Anri Sala is represented by Johnen Galerie, Berlin

Collage: The Shock of the Newspaper

"I think photomontages function like dreams," says Kirstine Roepstorff.
Kirstine Roepstorff, Pink, 2004, Courtesy Galleri Christina Wilson

In his famous text Collage, written in 1959, Clement Greenberg talks about the “shock value” of the technique. Somewhat shocking in itself, the remark harkens back to a time when mere artistic innovation could have the power to be troubling. Little did Greenberg suspect that the alarm was justified. By introducing fragments from the outside world to the surface of the painting – real things like bits of newspaper, or oil cloth – Cubist period Picasso and Braque helped to predict the demise of old world aesthetic standards, a protracted process that art continues to undergo to this day.

An avant gardist himself in his critical practice, Greenberg was contemptuous of the then commonplace idea that the extraneous elements used by the Cubists represented the necessary corrective of “reality” in the face of the growing abstractness of Analytical Cubism.” Scoffing at the suggestion that things glued onto a painting’s surface were any more “real” than those depicted within the picture plane, he went to all but extraordinary lengths to prove why this might be true, and invented a theory of modernism in the process.

At the time, Greenberg’s argument that the cubist technique of “depicting flatness” – a painterly method of self-cancelling 3D illusionism – represented the salvation of the medium did have some persuasive value. In the 1950s, the class divide between high and low regimes of taste was readily apparent. It was a cultural climate that gave credence to one of the American critic’s more outlandish ideas: the notion that medium-specificity adhered to rigorously enough could make painting immune to the influence of the wider culture. But as with any self-regarding elite, whether persons or art practices, an insularity practiced to this extreme is in itself a kind of death knell.

What I am referring to here is not of course that perennially popular– and maybe finally over – conversation about the Death of Painting, but rather the connected event of the death of necessary skill or technique in art practice.

This was the future that was augured by collage. After all, when Braque stuck, as Greenberg says, “a very un-cubist graphic depiction of a tack with a cast shadow” onto his 1910 painting Still Life with Violin and Pitcher, he was not only placing it there as a reminder of the medium’s illusionistic past, he had also discovered an entirely new category for the practice of art, one that would go on to almost swallow the discipline whole: the readymade.

Although Duchamp’s innovation in this respect was roughly contemporaneous – and it was the French artist who made the possibility explicit – the Cubist choice of the still life as the genre best suited to their radical form of artistic experimentation looks, from the perspective of today, like nothing so much as the readymade’s foreshadowing.

Contrary to Greenberg’s argument, so elegantly rendered, about continuity of the aesthetic ideals that his version of modernism ensured, collage represented the first puncture hole in the visual arts’ commitment to the principles of classical culture. The moment of deflation that is collage, the implications of which Greenberg tried so hard to resist, was nothing so much as the noise of real life rushing in. Listen for it now and you can still hear the whooshing sound.

By Rosemary Heather

This text was commissioned for Fleur du Mal, 2007 (Daddy III. A project of Peres Projects, Berlin). Guest edited by Kirstine Roepstorff, Fleur du Mal can be purchased here.