Thoughts on the video Environments
The video Environments (1998) is a subtle document of a change of epoch. It uses two media, image and language, to convey information about something that is beyond these images and this speech, something that cannot even be demonstrated, experienced, using the medium of video, as it is based on a completely new status of productivity and community. However, the video is an eloquent witness, is the sensitive register of an immense transformation of our symbolic order, because it shows the one material, which is nearing its end in overtaxed exhaustion, in telling, succinct tableaux—the CITY; and gives the other material—SPEECH—the chance to describe itself, hesitantly yet excitedly, in its handling of the innovation of the Internet. The fact that the act of speech, the act of communication on the Internet has advanced to become the new “queen of productive forces” (Virno), i.e. that activity without a resulting “work” is replacing old, product-oriented activity and forming a virtuosic space that makes many things (again) possible that the urban space of built cities fails to deliver: this is one of the explicative statements of Environments.
But let us take a closer look, let us consider the separate components. Karl-Heinz Klopf travels to 14 cities, he carries out interviews in these cities with 37 people who mostly come from the creative industry sector or university circles; but he also films trajectories through the city, car rides and configured views and perspectives in interiors. The interviews form the speech track of the film. Each speaker has pictures of the city in which he/she was interviewed assigned to them; the statements are only ever to be heard in fragments, which are scattered throughout the whole video. The names of the person and the city are faded in alternately. The second part of the project is a publication of the complete speech track of the video in the exact order of the fragments, supplemented by a few stills from the visual material. In using this approach, Klopf has adopted the format of television reports, but radically undermines it, bringing about a subtle revaluation of the material itself, of the empirical—the picture of cities, the sound of people speaking—and a form of montage that follows documentary continuity without assessment or analysis.
The first impression that the video conveys is a kind of phenomenological ambivalence. It is as if the respective speakers (who are “only” present through their speech, even though they are in concrete locations in the city, i.e. are still in old spaces) are invoking the very different space of the Web—though this cannot be seen—with this speech alone—and at the same time want to deprive the images of the physical city of their meaning. This impression is strangely reinforced by the very brief fade-ins of the speakers, which do occasionally occur: although the interviewees are shown as bodies and in a concrete space, the pictures make their potential sojourn in the non-materiality of the Web all the more tangible by rapidly disappearing again. This ambivalence may be a constitutive element in the experiencing of present-day reality.
I would like to trace the aesthetic ruse in the work of Karl-Heinz Klopf in three steps: by interrogating the interview as an aesthetic practice, the presentation of the virtuosity of Web communication as a video document, and the travel motifs of the artist.
The interview as an aesthetic practice
The interview, developed as a communication technique of the mass media, is used to question “special” people—experts, victims, representatives, stars...—for the purpose of gaining information, reporting, to provide the opportunity for self-promotion, self-positioning on the part of the interviewee, or, more generally, the opportunity of a “self-discursivation” of society: of finding a way to manage in a culture marked by a lack of orientation, a loss of tradition and ruptures of identity by means of endlessly speaking individuals, talking heads. Starting with video art, but– with the “Return of the Real” as a point of departure—increasingly employed in various versions in recent years, the first thing that can be said is that, when art uses the interview as an aesthetic practice, it at first only adopts the technique as such and ‘merely’ produces a change in the structural conditions: 1. The institutional and production frameworks do not apply—the artist unites both in his/her authority to act. 2. People are chosen who are otherwise excluded from the discourses sanctioned by politics and the media. 3. The interview is not provided with any regulative commentary from outside, speech itself is left as the medium of the statement in its own right, speech is legitimised as speech. 4. The space of the reception is mostly not that configured by mass media, but the special “white cube” of the artistic sphere.
The second thing is that it is not the interview alone that is defined as material and act: the conversation, combined with images or made part of an installation, is extended, resemanticised, given a new meaning by statements that come from an intermediate space – that between image and interview, between the interview and other elements of the installation. This is also how Karl-Heinz Klopf proceeds. The interviews are combined with a visual track that corresponds to the physical address of each speaker, but where the city as such begins to show its own endangered life. It makes the ‘unshowableness’ of the Web become all the more tangible as something latent, the more it becomes obvious that, although it is perhaps not a case of “This: the Web—will destroy that: the city,” the Web is obviously empowered, beyond what is possible for the city, to make much available that the urban cannot. But what is it exactly that the interview brings into play? A first answer could be the following: a video like Environments makes it obvious that contemporary art is absorbing the general social and economic movements of the past few decades, is turning to comparable phenomena and shaping them like those that, within the system-worlds and life-worlds, have transformed these latter. The phenomena of discursivisation, of cooperation, of flexibilisation, for example. These phenomena however do not establish themselves comprehensively in and using the old mass media (cinema, radio, television, the recording medium of video), but as an effect of the cooperative data networks. The change of epoch per se can be seen in connection with the evolution of the Internet; the old media only play a contributing role. In this regard, Environments, too, is “only” a document, but one that is completely equipped with all the symptoms that can make the new development and the transformation tangible for the viewer. So what is it about?
Virtuosity of Internet communication as a video document
From the point of view of critical cultural theory, the Web is the reflection of a post-Fordian economy, not because it shows itself to be submissive as a concrete market, but because its structure paradigmatically displays one of the most substantial characteristics of this economy. Being active on the Internet means the production of “communication by means of communication,” i.e. a form of production that cannot be separated from its production, an act that is fulfilled not in a work, but in itself. This act is the act of speech, of language, or to be more precise, of written speech, the textualisation of discourse. The writing, the text, are not a complete work in themselves insomuch as they constantly extend, change, confront their opposite, remain a performance, do not develop into a finite statement. The Web makes manifest the potentiality of language, of “arbitrary speech,” is its practice and its poesis. Moreover, the activity of speech requires “the presence of others,” needs an audience, and is thus always public behaviour. And it shows itself to be something that has “basic familiarity with contingency,” i.e. with the unforeseeable, the unplannable. What happens in the Internet is the demonstration of a political order, it follows the impetus of communication, of speech and negotiation, but is still subordinated to the economy; communication becomes spectacle, becomes a commodity. The Internet and its techniques of open discourse, of exchange, of participation, are the product of the logic of the culture industry, in which it is very necessary to “leave a certain space for the informal, the unplanned, the sudden appearance of the unforeseen, of communicative and creative improvisation; not to promote human creativity, naturally, but to achieve satisfactory levels of company productivity.” Most of the professions that have a say in the video Environments would speak for this view: the jobs of graphic designer, software developer, creator and director, writer, artist ... that here mostly invoke their experiences with the new medium as a great event. In this one reading, the Internet, as a cooperative medium, generates a virtuosic space of communication that is the model for post-Fordian economic programmes.
On the other hand, the dominant medium of the Internet—speech, writing—can enable everyone who moves in the Web, owing solely to his/her arbitrary ability to speak, to take part in the “public intellect” of the Web, an intellect that is much more universal than the state or the market—or the city. The urban experience today can no longer really be equated with exciting density, a peaceful encounter with strangers, an inspiring complexity; the effects of the control of the public space, the loss of substantial communities, the social tensions and the potential terrorist attacks are too strong. Cities become a “non-home” that barely offers any security or protection anymore. The Internet, on the other hand, may be in the position to create new environments that define themselves solely according to universal speech, the “concrete appropriation and rearticulation of knowledge and skill.” The video is about this as well.
The 14 cities in the video are physically experienced cities, as is the journey to visit them. The cities are far apart from one another: Tokyo, Mumbai, Berlin, New York. The movement towards them and within their often immense size follows a concept of travel that includes the encounter with the “strangeness of its face” (Kracauer) in the experience of a city, a face that one does not want to leave up to the mass-media image or economic statistics alone. Arriving in the city henceforth means taking up the quest for a possible contact, a closeness and a recognition of the Other, of the alien. What is interesting is neither the affective nor the objectifying connection to the Other, but its sober documentation—that is, the confirmation, the witnessing and also the questioning, beyond the mere appearance, that this and that happened here and there and why. For example, in the video By Way of Display (2003), the event is the way a legal drug is sold in Taiwan. Environments, however, is an encounter with an environment, a world, that does not know any precise location, but has established itself in no place—or better, in every place. The Web is everywhere, omnipresent. However, and the video says this as well, its actors are not just in this zone, but always also in precisely locatable places that are often widely separated from one another, in particular cultural and personal milieus, in particular or singular environments. It is only from these places, with their history and their stories, that the Internet is humanised to become the environment that also promises a re-humanisation of our physical locations. From that point of view, the city as such is also upvalued and its future reappearance intimated.
1) See: Foster, Hal. The Return of the Real: Art and Theory at the End of the Century. Cambridge: The MIT Press: October Books 1996.
2) Adapted from Victor Hugo’s well-known phrase about the epochal change in early modernity, which speaks of the supplanting of faith (the cathedral) by knowledge (the book).
3) All the phrases designated as quotes in this section are from the book by Paolo Virno, Grammatik der Multitude, Vienna 2005.
Published in: Karl-Heinz Klopf – From/To. Bielefeld/Leipzig: Kerber Verlag, 2007.