In his works, Karl-Heinz Klopf explores the theme of urbanity and its media representation. His artistic strategy consists in developing formats and codes that make the nature of cities readable. Klopf has described his motivation and working method as follows: “In engaging with my environment, which has always been urban and has always fascinated me, I focus on the permanently felt, simultaneous inter-penetration and presence of various substances of place and space. These are physical, medial and mental substances that occur at the same time and at a very high density, forming a dynamic conglomeration.”
This interpenetration of different place-related substances is to be found in the work Studio (2000). This computer animation, conceived jointly by Klopf and Sigrid Kurz, is shown as a wall-sized projection in a white box. The viewer sees an architectural space being drawn from constantly new angles, but the picture remains fragmented and cannot be completed even in the imagination. Each depiction is accompanied by a time code; the countdown is running and the drawings become more and more complex. While the computer-generated film is accompanied by construction-site noises, e-mail messages appear at short intervals in red, blue and yellow text over the architectural drawings. These messages are the personal impressions of cities by people who remain anonymous in the animation. They contain references to earlier e-mails exchanged with the addressees, such as “Hong Kong was everything you said it would be . . .” or “As we talked about megastructure . . .” and questions like “Are these issues urgent?” or, right at the end of the film, “Due to a computer crash I lost your cities list. Can you send it again?” These references imply a certain prehistory. The opening of the animation showing the title Studio and the address “Wien. Waschhausgasse.” reveals Klopf and Kurz to be the addressees. The architectural drawings thus represent the construction of their own studio. The senders of the e-mail messages act like satellites transferring information to the artists in Vienna. But in the same way that the clues as to the real form of the studio remain fragmentary, the e-mail messages are also able to describe only a part of urban reality. The studio in Vienna as a site of artistic production becomes the equivalent of cities and their creative potential. If one considers the bundle of drawings (1999–2000) as preliminary studies for the animation, the particular quality and dynamics of the film, in which space and time enter into a real connection with one another, become particularly obvious.
The collection of statements on the state of urban situations that is found in Studio is also present in the Web project expand.at (2000), which Klopf and Kurz produced around the same time. The title already suggests the extended context and larger scale of this project: expand.at is conceived of as a work in progress and consists of three parts, "Splaces", "Words" and "Issues". "Words" is a platform for interviews with and essays by associated artists, urbanists, theorists and curators about urban projects and situations. These form a collection of specialist texts that contextualise the work of the two artists. Within Issues, Kurz presents the editing project on film, media and art that she has worked on since 1997, which has also appeared in booklet form and is distributed outside of the established channels. She is concerned here with the central theme of how spaces of action can be defined and expanded. Finally, Splace by Klopf is an imaginary story in, about and between cities and architectures, which uses a navigation system to take the user to certain settings at particular points in time. The (urban) architectures presented here are stills, including ones from his videos Splace (1996) and Environments (1998). Splace is a neologism combining the terms “space” and “place,” and refers to the superimpositions and ambivalences of spaces and places.
The video of the same name, Splace, is about Tokyo and its inhabitants. While visually the architecture of the Japanese capital is shown both in panorama and in detail, at the sound level one hears statements about life and work in the city. The artist’s visual documentation of the urban architecture is supplemented by a subjective interpretation given by the people interviewed. The film adds a third, media space to the public and private spaces of the city of Tokyo. But it is only with the web-based Splace that viewers have the ability to select their own paths through the space.
The reception of Tokyo in Splace leads to another work by Klopf. The project Streets, ongoing from 1996 to the present, brings together photographs that the artist has taken on his many trips. The photographs are views from the windows of hotels and occasionally of exhibition venues in which the artist was at the time. They show streets, houses and squares, rarely animated by people, trees or bushes. The photographs also show the outlines of graphic signs on the windowpanes that recall pictograms. These are reduced maps that the artist has made of the streets and squares around the respective building. The impulse for this work came from a period of research in Tokyo, when the artist felt this kind of orientation map to be necessary, so their appearance is also influenced by Japanese typology. The series of photographs presents places that cannot be exactly identified because only details are shown. And the maps also give no concrete clues, as they have been greatly simplified and use the same visual language. The drawn plan and the photographic “plan” overlie one another as two levels of information that serve to structure the space, but remain abstract because they cannot be specifically located.
However, the forms of pavements that Klopf examined in his project Mind the Steps (2005) for the 9th Istanbul Biennial does lead to their being locatable. Istanbul’s topography creates great differences in height, which demand special solutions for pavements. To compensate for the steep incline of the paths alongside houses, unusual and often improvised steps have been created. The steps are so varied in form that—if taken from their context—they would look like abstract objects. In appearance, they could just as well be stage sets or displays. This is why Klopf did not just highlight them as objects using stage spotlights, but also invited various music and performance groups to perform at them during the opening. The improvised, individual and imaginative construction of the steps is a special feature of the Turkish metropolis that is not generally known. Klopf sees it as a metaphor for the built Istanbul. The steps as a characteristic architecture of everyday life become a sign for the city of Istanbul, beyond its famous architectural landmarks.
Klopf has already addressed the way cultural characteristics of cities develop mainly from microstructures in his film By Way of Display (2003). Here, too, he is concerned with the development of his own forms with strong spatial presences that also produce a representative effect. The film is about “urban tactics,” taking the betel nut culture in Taiwan as an example. The marketing of betel nuts and their consumption mainly by lorry drivers have affected the appearance of the streets in a particular way. The estimated 100,000 betel nut stands and shops can be picked out from a long way off by their “peacock signs” of colourful neon tubes and their many flashing lights. Glass and mirrors heighten their brightness and provide the backdrop for the so-called “betel nut beauties” who, dressed in constantly changing costumes, sell nuts, cigarettes and drinks to any cars that stop. The glittering appearance of the buildings and the striking, imaginative clothing worn by the young women guarantee the continued success of the informal and flexible betel nut business. At the same time, these offensive strategies have developed systems for disappearing. For example, the display boxes are portable or are put on rails so they can be quickly rolled into the houses. For the presentation of his film, Klopf also came up with an equally ephemeral construction of packing cases and an open glass box with which he achieves a second layer of display.
These spatial interventions in Istanbul and Taiwan outside of official structures are examples of anonymous, self-organised and creative actions that strongly influence the appearance of a country or a city. Klopf examines such phenomena to describe the potential of the places as performative spaces. The opportunity for presentation offered by the places themselves also becomes important to the structure and presentation of his own projects. Orientation, networking, transfer of information and the development of codes, as well as the creation of formats and displays, are important factors allowing the reception both of urban structures and the artistic work.
Published in: Karl-Heinz Klopf: From/To. Bielefeld/Leipzig: Kerber Verlag, 2007.