Appropriation and Avant-Garde: John Heartfield in late Weimar Germany

Introduction: The first time that I came across John Heartfield’s photomontages of the 1920s and 1930s was, if I remember correctly, in history at school. It seemed that his work provided a glimpse of an altogether different Germany at a time when Nazism could all too easily pervade. His photomontages appeared to correspond with a Germany of progressive ideas, of resistance, and of truth, a Germany that was bravely fighting the pompous and retrograde mysticism of Nazi ideology with wit and sarcasm. A proud and tangible connection seemed to put Heartfield’s work into the wider context of German anti-fascist opposition.

We would discuss Hitler’s rise to power and the wholesale failure of large parts of German cultural life to comprehend the inner nature of fascism let alone reject the atavistic, anti-modern romanticism inherent in its manifestations. Looking at a flood of black and white photo documentary images adorning text books to illustrate historic events like Hitler’s election campaigns or the Reichstag fire in 1933, Heartfield’s photomontages seemed to cut through the outer layers of representation and reveal what appeared to be the true nature of Nazism: Hitler swallowing gold and spouting rubbish or Goering with a blood spattered executioner’s axe in front of the burning Reichstag. Yet because of the lack of the structural homogeneity of a news reel photograph and because of the inclusion of hard hitting text in his montages Heartfield’s work never seemed to achieve the same status of ‘historic evidence’ as a photo documentary image. What appeared to be a uniquely fitting way of describing the processes behind Nazi propaganda was itself somewhat discredited as a construction and no less propagandist, or so it seemed. ‘Political Photomontage’ was the label that once applied would neatly stick with his work in a wider context. Further investigations could be conducted under the pretext of ‘Graphic Design’, ‘Dada’, ‘Montage’, ‘Collage’. The limited gamut of debates about John Heartfield’s work over the last 60 years has brought about a predictable contextualisation and often over-simplification of his art:

Heartfield the painter threw away the brush and took up the scissors; but he did not do this as the result of an artistic whim or the playful snobbery of being different at all costs. His aim was to utilise, in the interests of the revolutionary working class, the power of photography to convince; he wanted to utilise the irresistible effectiveness of photography against those who had hitherto misused it , against the exploiters.01

From the first exhibition in Berlin dedicated to the practice and called ‘Fotomontage’02 in 1931 to an exhibition in 1992 at the Barbican Centre in London, readings have primarily focussed on the political nature of his work in opposition to the context of art as an autonomous system.

When Abigail Solomon-Godeau writes in 1990 that ‘the work of John Heartfield retains its crucial importance in any consideration of critical practice insofar as it fulfils the still valid purpose of making the invisible visible and integrally meshing the representation of politics with the politics of representation’03 she also gives expression to an astonishing continuity in the debate since the 1930s and Sergei Tretyakow’s ‘ A photographer who wishes to grasp the social significance of a phenomenon will seek for methods to underline the essential feature, thus correcting the objectivity of the camera, which regards with indifference the just and the unjust.’04 ; and again Hans Hess in 1969: The bourgeois notion of absurdity gave way to the Marxist notion of dialectics, and in that clear light both action and reaction became comprehensible. In fact the idea of absurdity was itself part of the bourgeois fog which was clouding the minds of poets. It was an ideological excuse for inaction on the basis of the incomprehensibility of the world. Once the world was seen to be comprehensible the fog dispersed, and John Heartfield was able to fulfil the great task of art – to make the invisible visible.05

John Heartfield’s photomontages functioning as an exemplary practice of critical, tendentious intervention, a blueprint for work that takes sides, that does not seek to obscure but reveal the inner qualities of phenomena, the very essence of reality. Yet outside the mainstream of debates and practices of the left ‘it has to be asked where’s the Heartfield ? [...] The neglect is almost as famous as he is.’06

It is my intention to place the early work of John Heartfield into the wider context of late Weimar Germany’s burgeoning mass media. I shall seek to project developments in the artistic Avant-Garde of the 1920s against the backdrop of an unprecedented transformation of visual culture in general and printed media in particular. Investigating commercial and artistic strategies brought about and accelerated by dramatic changes in the production, distribution and consumption of photographic imagery, I shall focus on appropriation as a key element for constructing narratives in a modern context.

The Photomechanical Revolution Until the early part of the 20th century etchings and line drawings were widely used to illustrate the pages of newspapers and books. Photographs often provided artists and illustrators with a reference to actuality, yet shortcomings in camera technology meant that photographic sources would only rarely be adequate as a basis for reporting an event. ‘Thus there were no photographs of the sinkings of the Maine, or of the Titanic, or the Lusitania, which were described by millions of words and drawings.’07.

Although photographic production occurred on an industrial scale in the late 1800s, the ability to photo-mechanically reproduce images had not yet been put into place. After the invention of the halftone screen in the 1880s it took another 30-40 years until the process was sufficiently mastered to create the conditions for the shift from word to image that characterized mass-market magazines and papers after WWI. Photography was set to become the ‘dominant illustrative system of the Twentieth Century’ 08.

The advances in printing technology not only brought about an increasing demand for photographic images but they also signified an important departure in the construction of meaning. The hitherto unseen verisimilitude of photographic representation in the reporting of news was tempting enough to be seized upon and utilized. With the inclusion of photographic images the process of disseminating information gradually shifted from the primarily text-based, linguistic system to a pseudo-familiar visual code that established a layered multi-referentiality, offering accessibility for everyone, yet complexity of meaning. The shared code of photographic representation, seemingly situated outside and above cultural conventions, classes and conditions, coupled with the means to mass-reproduce it, constituted a new and modern language in itself.

However its apparent democratic simplicity could not fail to betray the added intricacy that linked word and image combinations in the making of meaning. ‘In other words, and this is an important historical reversal, the image no longer illustrates the words; it is now the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image.’09 With the shifting balance between word and image, the text becomes the product of an image conditioned by a caption: ‘The objectivity of a photograph is only an illusion. The captions that provide the commentary can change the meaning entirely.’10 Stories of the same image reproduced in entirely different contexts with different captions producing widely divergent meanings abound (Freund, 1974).

While photographs were largely used up until WWI to supersede earlier illustrations, the propagandistic needs of the war effort brought about a new prospect: when the first images of enemy hinterland started to appear, the power of captions was beginning to be comprehensively explored. After a slow start, authorities in Germany realized that a mechanism should be instigated to condition and channel the flow of news back to the Heimat, including photographic images from the front. In keeping with the propagandist mission of the Imperial German War Press Department only a few noteworthy images filtered through. According to the photohistorian Bernd Weise, a certain maturing of attitude towards the printed media can be attributed to the selective media-coverage of the war: Both the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and the Munchner Illustrierte Zeitung explained to their readers that images of atrocities of war had to be kept back for military reasons. Even so, the more the war press department became a cover-up instrument, the less the public believed in the objectivity of the press.11

It could be argued that the widening gulf between first hand accounts by those who were directly involved with the war effort, and the streamlined official stories in the illustrated press back home would facilitate an increasing popular scepticism towards photographic representation in the media. Yet the growing appetite for the photographic visualisation of narratives was to counteract the loss of credibility in its constituents.

With the downfall of the old Imperial order, WWI brought about not only a comprehensive shift of power in Germany but also a dramatic transformation in the production and dissemination of its media. In other words: not only did the political world crumble by the end of WWI with the abdication of Wilhelm II, civil war, widespread hunger and destitution, but it did so amidst a fundamental revolution of its means of representing it.

The proliferation of the photographic language with its emphasis on the visual also changed the context within which information was laid out. The need arose to re-arrange the surface and create graphic juxtapositions, typographic effects and a general re-grouping of content to suit the overall balance. With it emerged the demand for a new type of professional, who could master the heterogeneity of the parts and mould them into a new, modern whole: the art director, the graphic designer, the picture editor:

The photomechanical revolution had added a powerful range of imagery to the arsenal of the printed press. It had also transformed the whole practice of the graphic arts by radically enhancing the ease of copying, enlarging, reducing, and thus combining graphic elements of all kinds, including photographs. This created both a fluid, polymorphous field of imagery and a new profession -what we now call the art director, who shapes and manages the process.12

John Heartfield’s training at the college for applied arts in Munich 1909 until 1912 and his subsequent employment as a graphic designer for a commercial printing company in Mannheim placed him in exactly that modern context well before he moved to Berlin to become a leading figure in Dada. Heartfield’s eventual mastery of photomontage owes much of its technical perfection and its uninhibited use of modern printing technology to these years of ‘apprenticeship’. In fact, many other leading figures of the Avant-Garde would maintain strong links to the developing graphic design and advertising industries throughout their involvement with the artistic movements from the end of WWI until the early 30s: Major contradictions arose between the European Constructivists’ ideological conceptions of the future and their artistic practices in the present. Often, the same aesthetic principles used for socialist projects were employed in the posters, advertising, and typography designed for capitalist industry. The German leftist Avant-Garde in particular was caught between its admiration for the Russian-Constructivist vision of communist society and its commissions from Weimar businesses. 13

By the time Richard Huelsenbeck had returned from Zurich in 1917, where he had been impressed by the art of the circle around Tristan Tzara and Hugo Ball with its emphasis on chaos, fragmentation and randomness he found a group of practitioners in Berlin who were well versed in the applications of modern printing technology and the mass-media. The constituents of Dada were in place: a willingness to embrace modernity; an awareness of the power of the mass-media with its headlines, advertising campaigns and marketing strategies; a rejection of old art, easel art – produced in unique originals- that only reflected the status and wealth of the bourgeois connoisseur and a disgust for the hated, authoritarian militarism of the German Empire with all its trappings of culture, church, and fatherland. New visual narratives would be applied against the backdrop of the modern urban experience in all its fragmented simultaneity. However, the momentum of modernity would be ridiculed as well as utilised:

While they were applauding the newly rationalised man – associated in their minds with the machine, the engineer, and the Soviet artist Vladimir Tatlin – they were also satirising man-as-machine idealism, particularly as it had been played out in the carnage of World War I.14

Photomontage and the Proliferation of the Image

According to legend, George Grosz and John Heartfield ‘invented’ photomontage at five o’clock one May morning in 1916 (Ades, 1996). Yet Raoul Haussmann and Hannah Hoch also lay claim on its discovery on a journey to the Baltic coast, with Haussmann later insisting on his sole authorship (Lavin, 1993). Wieland Herzfelde, Heartfield’s brother and life-long collaborator, corroborates his brother’s role but adds:

It is true that George Grosz has recorded that Heartfield and he invented photomontage in 1916; but this name was only attached to the invention some years later. In April 1920, as co-editor of dada 3, Heartfield named himself for the first time ‘Monteur’, or more precisely ‘Monteur Dada’. This was an outspoken rejection of the bohemian-cape-and-flowing-tie school of painters, and a sign of identification with the mechanics and electricians who wear blue overalls.15

In retrospect it seems improbable that one or the other group or individual could be solely responsible for a technique that finds its roots in the photographic practice of the Nineteenth Century. For a long time photographs had already been cut up, painted on and pasted together in a variety of ways (Henisch, 1996). The practice of constructing new photographic narratives out of dislocated and heterogeneous elements was not exclusively an achievement of the Avant-Garde. Fabricated images became positively fashionable with composite picture postcards and seaside souneniers in the late 1800s.

Still, Heartfield and the Berlin Dadaists were certainly successful in realising the potential for disruption and fragmentation that became a recurring feature of their work when they made their first ‘interesting photo-pasting-montage experiments’16 Mass-media provided the raw material, all they needed to do was de-construct, collect and re-assemble. Hence, Dada montages were characterised and distinguished from earlier experiments by their mechanistic utilisation of a modern visual culture, which was continuously replenished by photo-mechanical reproduction. The exploration of the subversive potential that lay in the accumulating multiplicity of cultural artefacts was one of the foremost achievements of the circle around Grosz and Heartfield. They also acknowledged that a photomontage did not need to consist of separate photographic elements that were brought together to form a new whole. Instead the inclusion of a caption or text in an image could achieve the same confiscation of meaning, transforming the photographic image without disrupting its surface. Heartfield would describe ‘[...] these works as photomontages too, on the basis of the selection of the photo, its arrangement, or because of the way in which the text was printed or drawn in the picture.’17 It was this modern interpretation of the significance of selection and arrangement, and of text and image as an evolving system, which placed Heartfield in a unique position to take advantage of the booming Weimar print media.

At the same time when John Heartfield, George Grosz, Hannah Hoch and others were freely experimenting with the new found possibilities of the photo-mechanical revolution, photojournalism was experiencing a dramatic transformation, too. ‘The great period of news photography began after World War I, [...]’18 A whole industry based around the gathering, editing and reproduction of news was quickly taking shape. To feed the ever expanding market for the visual in the 1920s and supply cheap photographic material in large quantities to the growing staple of illustrated titles, numerous photo agencies and picture libraries were set up. ‘From 1919 onwards, some 50 new picture agencies were set up, and there were a further 120 or so press photographers. In the 1920s about 60% of the photographers and 40 of the photo agencies were based in Berlin alone.’19 Many of these came from abroad and soon began to monopolise the market:

These large photo agencies, which had arrived in recent years from London, Paris and the USA, had succeeded in all but ousting the small press photographers thanks to their financial strength and their greater versatility in obtaining and marketing their photographs. Many newspapers and periodicals -not only the publishers, but also the printers who produced the illustrated supplements- obtained most of their material from these agencies, which is why they achieved such a dominant position. One of the largest foreign photo agencies had more than 900 full-time photographers on its payroll in all the major cities of the world. These press photo agencies supplied the publishers on a RM. 150-250 subscription basis with some 600 photos each month, which meant that each photo cost between 25 and 35 pfennigs.20

The large corporate agencies were best positioned to serve the mass-market in high numbers for their day to day operation, with the demand for more specific and unusual coverage satisfied by the bourgeois ‘star-photo-reporter’.

Each of their photographs was signed, indicating the attention that was now being paid to the photographer’s personality. [...] The majority of them were middle class, had university educations and had turned to photography because of the economic difficulties that Germany faced after the War. 21

At the same time novel approaches to the taking of images, brought about by new, small and fast cameras were introduced and led to sensational picture stories which secured individual photographers fame and fortune.

Despite this unprecedented proliferation of the visual, stories about the plight of the disadvantaged were rare. In fact, the vast majority of photo features in the early 1920s were targeted at a middle class readership. The bourgeois power over the image, exercised through the biased repertoire of photoagencies and publishing companies was only seriously challenged with the formation of a media concern by Reichstag deputy and KPD-member Willie Munzenberg in 1924, the ‘Neuer Deutscher Verlag’(NDV). To supply the illustrated pages of its flagship publication ‘Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung’ (AIZ) with photographic images that were concerned with the working class, a photographic competition was announced that led to the setting up of an independent worker-photographer movement. Within 5 years NDV’s AIZ would reach the fourth largest print run in Germany and provide a platform for an autonomous photojournalistic culture. The bourgeois press on the other hand, once challenged, was quick to realise that its own position could be strengthened by incorporating ‘progressive’ ideas and not alienating the working class readership. Magazines were set up, of which the ‘Illustrierte Beobachter’ of the Nazi-movement gained most notoriety for openly copying style and tone of the AIZ., including the use of photomontages.

The comprehensive commodification of the image in the 1920s provided the climate necessary for John Heartfield’s working process to function. Without the build-up of readily available stock of photographic imagery, the construction of alternative narratives in his photomontages would have been slow and impractical. Only the abundance of photographic fragments could make the juxtapositions and combinations possible that were of crucial importance for his work. With the supply of images originating from magazines, periodicals and corporate photoagencies, and the independent resource of the worker-photographer-movement, Heartfield could turn out photographic montages with relative ease. A modern photographic infrastructure allowed him to mould his medium into a flexible, highly topical and hard-hitting weapon of class-warfare. The Hungarian photographer Wolf Reiss (Janos Reissmann; 1905-1976), who collaborated with Heartfield from 1928-1931, has described in a much quoted passage the working process: ‘[...] He burrows in the photo-libraries for hours, for days, looking for a suitable photo of Hermann Muller, Hugenberg, Rohm, whoever is needed – or at least a suitable head, for the rest can be managed.’22 And Wieland Herzfelde recollects:

Often, when he received a commission, it emerged that he had already collected suitable material for the montage. It was typical for Heartfield’s mode of work that he collected, with a view to future use, all sorts of pictures from photo libraries, books, magazines and even newspapers (despite the coarse screen), and also assorted press cuttings. Without this it would have been impossible to produce at times a photomontage almost weekly.23

Dada had defined the way in which artefacts from popular visual culture could be dislocated to construct autonomous narratives of considerable complexity. Modern mass-media provided the constituents that could be raided and re-combined at will. When finally moving away from the ‘arbitrary’ and the ‘unresolved’ that characterised DADA, Heartfield had internalised appropriation as an intrinsically modern phenomenon.

Strategies of Appropriation

To appropriate, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is ‘taking to one’s own use’24, to make a thing one’s own. And, according to Robert S. Nelson, ‘”Appropriate” also has more sinister connotations, implying an improper taking of something and even abduction or theft. Taken positively or pejoratively, appropriation is not passive, objective, or disinterested, but active, subjective, and motivated.’25 He then goes on to argue that ‘appropriation is fundamental to modern advertising and to the abstracting and expropriating strategies of capitalism itself, which Marx attempted to describe in Capital’.26 And, as Walter Benjamin reminds us in ‘The Author as Producer’:

For we are faced with the fact -of which the past decade in Germany has furnished an abundance of examples- that the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication can assimilate astonishing quantities of revolutionary themes, indeed, can propagate them without calling its own existence, and the existence of the class that owns it , seriously into question.27

At the heart of this astonishing phenomenon stands the strategy of capitalist appropriation: by assimilating progressive impulses, ownership can be claimed and debate de-fused. A welcome side effect is the commodification of discontent. Subversion can be re-defined as trend-setting and a whole industry can emerge to supply the necessary accessories. It should be added, of course, that appropriation is by no means exclusive to the strategies of consumer capitalism although it plays a central role in containing oppositional structures as well as extending its own base. The concept of appropriation as an act of motivated displacement and acquisition has come to be seen as instrumental in illuminating some of the processes behind the evolution of cultural and political meaning. Extending the definition to include appropriation as a device that can facilitate the construction of narratives in general means to include thewhole spectrum of cultural production.

To apply what is effectively one of the key-terms in the debates of Post-Modernism (Owens, 1982), to the work of John Heartfield is of course no less an appropriation in itself. It is in fact the very fluidity of its exchanges that defines appropriation as a key aspect of modern mass-media culture. And it is one of the most striking features of Weimar Germany’s cultural production that ownership of meaning, signified by a mutual exclusiveness of artefacts, was beginning to disintegrate before being reinstated by the ideologies of Nazism and Stalinism. To talk about appropriation in the context of John Heartfield’s work means to acknowledge the role of photo-mechanical innovations and the extraordinary proximity of the Avant-Garde and commerce in Weimar Germany. For it was in the wake of the mass-media revolution that modernism with its promises seemed most attractive for artists and engineers, for Dada and the Bauhaus, for capitalists and communists alike.

In her book on the work of Hannah Hoch, Maud Levin describes the media culture of the twenties as follows:

One of the predominant features of everyday life during the Weimar era was the experience of modernisation. Almost no chronicle of the period failed to note or recall the sensations of life being speeded up and profoundly transformed.[...] In Germany in the 1920s, modernity meant experiences of speed, technology, consumerism, economic flux, fragmentation, urbanism, industrialisation, and rationalisation.28

Levin then argues:

Above all, the relationship between modernism and the avant-garde was mediated by the institutions of the mass media. The magazines and newspaper publishers, radio stations, film studios, and book companies that proliferated during the Weimar era signalled a completely new formation of production and spectatorship.28

Or, as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy wrote: ‘We may say that we see the world with entirely different eyes’.29

The global context for the paradigmatic shift in the production of meaning in Weimar Germany was a general fetishisation of production itself. With the principles of ‘scientific management’ introduced by F.W.Taylor and realised in Ford’s River Rouge Plant in 1927 a new and seemingly unstoppable industrial dynamism had emerged and attracted attention right accross the political spectrum. Italian Fascists as well as Russian Bolsheviks paid tribute in equal measure to the unprecedented scale of modernisation. In an uncanny alliance between two antagonistic systems, tractors in the factories of the Soviet Union were manufactured according to the principles of Fordism when workers at Ford plants were enjoying some of the highest wages that would ultimately allow them to purchase the product of their labour. With it emerged the model of a society were mass-production and mass-consumption were inextricably linked as the shared industrial utopia of both capitalism and communism. (‘Lenin’s Vision Became Reality’, AIZ 13, Number 21, 24 May 1934).

With the emergence of a highly affluent visual culture in Weimar Germany the production of meaning could become more fluid and accessible. In a process of ever changing combinations and arrangements an ever greater number of readings could become available and ultimately contribute to the demise of monolithic and hierarchical meaning (up until the regression into Nazism and Stalinism). Illustrated magazines played their part, often encouraging the readership to take on an active role by inviting them to cut up and re-combine images, or to come up with a caption for an image as part of a competition. Private scrap-books were very popular as a platform for constructing alternative and personal narratives. ‘[...] the new photographic vocabulary spread with astonishing rapidity, becoming common property not only in the sophisticated avant-gardes but of the mass vernacular. Photocollage was ubiquitous throughout systems of high and low culture by the mid-1920s [...].’30 Seen against this backdrop, John Heartfield’s work looses none of its poignancy yet it can be understood as part of a widespread culture of re-signification that occurred in Weimar Germany. Appropriation as a strategy of cultural production was widespread: ‘Because about ninety percent of the advertisements were produced in-house, a feature photograph from BIZ (Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung) could reappear, some time later, as a photograph in an advertisement.’31 Here, the image functioned as the carrier of meaning, that could be emptied of its content and re-filled at will or at least attached to other signifying systems. John Heartfield’s use of photographic reproduction was similar: by cutting up images of ruling potentates and removing them from their chosen environment over which they could exercise control, he could effectively ‘overpower’ his political enemies. Placed in a new and isolated context, they could be stripped of their pretensions and invested with an alternative meaning which could be prescribed by Heartfield through the use of juxtapositions, captions and metaphors. (‘Adolf, der Ubermensch’, AIZ 11, Number 29, 17 July 1932; ‘S.M. Adolf’, AIZ 11, Number 34, 21 August 1932;)

A successful transplantation of meaning, however, depends on allusions to a shared code between author and readership. This code is never stagnant but mutates and evolves around its own historicity. In other words: the immanence of the ‘ideal meaning’32 which the author seeks to communicate depends on a shared vocabulary which in turn is culturally and historically conditioned. The more intricately a system of appropriations and counter-appropriations is structured, the more difficult it seems to extract a singular message. Hence, most of Heartfield’s photomontages carry additional translation in order to anchor meaning so that it can be read as intended. The fragmentation and emancipation of meaning that had been encouraged by the early Avant-Garde through strategies of appropriation, through dislocation and juxtaposition was superseded by a strategy of didactic codification. Like many of the other artists who had been instrumental in shaping the process of photo-mechanical montage (Klucis, Lissitzky, Rodchenko et al.), Heartfield was highly critical of the open-endedness of meaning that was inherent in the structural heterogeneity of the montage. The multiplicity of autonomous meaning was regarded as bourgeois and synonymous with the fragmentation that, according to Marxist analysis, characterises late capitalism. Instead Heartfield increasingly favoured the fixed and tendentious nature of the hermetically closed message (’15 Years of the Soviet Union’, AIZ 11, Number 44, 30 October 1932; ‘A New Man – Master of the World’, AIZ 13, Number 44, 1 November 1934; etc.). It is this move that signifies a shift from the ‘radically subversive decentralisation of the (bourgeois) subject (my trans.) ’33 back to the hierarchical structures of a system of prescribed signification. By the time Socialist Realism was affirmed in 1934 as the most adequate model for artistic expression within a Marxist dialectic, the regression was completed with the appropriation of a 19th century system of representation.


The impact of the semiotic revolution that was brought about by photo-mechanical innovations has out-lasted attempts to reinstate monolithic meaning. On the contrary: it is the lack of a grand narrative that characterises much of contemporary cultural practice today. According to Hal Foster, describing in 1985 what he considered oppositional Post-Modernism:

The artists active in this work [...] use many different forms of production and modes of address (photo-text collage, constructed or projected photographs, videotapes, critical texts, appropriated, arranged or surrogate art works, etc.) and yet they are alike in this: each treats the public space, social representation or artistic language in which he or she intervenes as both a target and a weapon. This shift in practice entails a shift in position: the artist becomes a manipulator of signs more than a producer of art objects, and the viewer an active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular. (my italics) .34

And so the trajectory reaches back to the Avant-Garde, John Heartfield and the attempts to sustain the project of a progressive, modern and yet critical cultural practice amidst a dramatically evolving mass-media environment.


01: Reissmann, Wolf. (1969). Joanna Drew (ed.) John Heartfield: Photomontages, London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, p. 12. An exhibition catalogue, published jointly by the former East German Akademie der Kunste and the Arts Council of Great Britain only one year after Heartfield’s death on the height of East-Germany’s idolisation of his work. Contributions are interesting as they mark a significant shift of position within the official marxist aesthetic away from the ultra-orthodox Zhdanovian stance. See also 22.

02: Evans, David. (1992). Anna Lundgreen (ed.) John Heartfield: AIZ / VI 1930 – 1938, New York: Kent, p. 9. David Evans’ book on Heartfield’s work for AIZ is the most comprehensive to date with superb reproductions of Heartfield’s montages. I have used it as the main reference to Heartfield’s AIZ-work. For a more thorough-going investigation of the mass-media environment in Weimar Germany, I have referred to Maud Lavin’s book on Hannah Hoch. Particularly interesting about the ‘Fotomontage’ exhibition was the broad commercial cross-section of applied art.

03: Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. (1990). ‘Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of Supply-Side Aesthetics’ in Carol Squiers (ed.) The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography, London: Lawrence & Wishart, p.75. Earlier she agrues: ‘In this regard, the writing of Brecht, the practice of Heartfield, and the prescriptions of Benjamin can no longer be looked to as the vade mecum of critical practice. For if we accept the importance of specificity as a condition of critical practice, we are thrown into the specifics of our own political conditions and circumstances in the sphere of culture.’

04: Tretyakow, Sergei. (1969). Joanna Drew (ed.) John Heartfield: Photomontages, London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, p. 7.Originally published in 1936 in the first monograph on Heartfield’s work by Tretyakow and regarded by Heartfield as the best study of his work. Tretyakow had also functioned as Heartfield’s guide during his visit to the Soviet-Union in 1931-1932.

05: Hess, Hans. (1969). Joanna Drew (ed.) John Heartfield: Photomontages, London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, p. 11. sic.

06: Kahn, Douglas. (1985). John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media, New York: Tanam Press, p. 3. Historical context of Heartfield’s work is well covered in Kahn’s book.

07: Szarkowski, John. (1989). ’6. Photographs in Ink’ in Susan Weiley (ed.) Photography Until Now, New York: The Museum Of Modern Art, p. 194. Only in the early 1930s would camera technology provide adequate equipment to facilitate true reportage-style and ‘candid’ photography.

08: Szarkowski, John. (1989). ’6. Photographs in Ink’ in Susan Weiley (ed.) Photography Until Now, New York: The Museum Of Modern Art, pp.182-189. Szarkowski’s account of the history of photography is very useful here as he narrates from an american perspective and contextualises the ‘straight photography’ of Evans, Weston and Strand with the European Avant-Garde.

09: Barthes, Roland. (1977 ) [1961]. ‘The Photographic Message’ in Stephen Heath (ed.) Image Music Text, London: Fontana, p. 25

10: Freund, Gisele. (1980) [1974]. Photography and Society, London: Gordon Fraser, p. 115 – 163.

11: Weise, Bernd. (1997). ‘Photojournalism from the First World War to the Weimar Republik’ in Klaus Honnef, Rolf Sachsse and Karin Thomas (eds.) German Photography 1870-1970, Cologne: Dumont/Yale University Press, p. 54. An indispensable work for the study of photographic reproduction and print-media in Weimar Germany. Peculiar are the various spellings of ‘Berliner Illustri(e)rte Zeitung’. It should be ‘Illustrirte’ as one glance at the actual BIZ masthead confirms.

12: Galassi, Peter. (1998). ‘Rodchenko And Photography’s Revolution’ in Magdalena Dabrowski, Leah Dickerman and Peter Galassi (eds.) Aleksandr Rodchenko, New York: Museum of Modern Art, pp. 109-110.

13: Lavin, Maud. (1993). ‘Mass Media, Modernism, & the Avant-Garde’ in Maud Lavin (ed.) Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Hoch, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, pp. 47-68. Levin’s work is hugely important for an investigation of the photo-mechanical revolution and practices of the Avant-Garde.

14: Lavin, Maud. (1993). ‘The Berlin Dada Photomontages’ in Maud Lavin (ed.) Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Hoch, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, pp. 14-16

15: Herzfelde, Wieland. (1969). Joanna Drew (ed.) John Heartfield: Photomontages, London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, p. 6

16: Ades, Dawn. (1996). Photomontage, London: Thames and Hudson, p. 19. Very useful for reference with regards to other than political uses of photomontage.

17: Herzfelde, Wieland. (1969). Joanna Drew (ed.) John Heartfield: Photomontages, London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, p. 7. See also Roland Barthes’ ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, in Image Music Text, Fontana: London, 1977

18: Szarkowski, John. (1989). ’6. Photographs in Ink’ in Susan Weiley (ed.) Photography Until Now, New York: The Museum Of Modern Art, p. 194. A view shared amongst many photohistorians is that the German illustrated press played a crucial role in bringing about ‘modern’ Photojournalism and establishing it abroad after Hitler came to power.

19: Weise, Bernd. (1997). ‘Photojournalism from the First World War to the Weimar Republik’ in Klaus Honnef, Rolf Sachsse and Karin Thomas (eds.) German Photography 1870-1970, Cologne: Dumont/Yale University Press, p. 62

20: Weise, Bernd. (1997). ‘Photojournalism from the First World War to the Weimar Republik’ in Klaus Honnef, Rolf Sachsse and Karin Thomas (eds.) German Photography 1870-1970, Cologne: Dumont/Yale University Press, p. 64

21: Freund, Gisele. (1980) [1974]. Photography and Society, London: Gordon Fraser, pp. 117-125.

22: Evans, David. (1992). Anna Lundgreen (ed.) John Heartfield: AIZ / VI 1930 – 1938, New York: Kent, p. 32. Wolf Reiss’ account is taken here from David Evans, who quoted from: “Als ich mit John Heartfield zusammenarbeitete”, 1934, reprinted in Marz, John Heartfield, pp. 188-91. some confusion arrises over Reiss’ various name-changes. Without doubt the quoted passage is from the same ‘Wolf Reissmann’, aka Janos Reismann, in the Arts Council Exhibition catalogue from 1969.

23: Herzfelde, Wieland. (1969). Joanna Drew (ed.) John Heartfield: Photomontages, London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, p. 6.

24: . (1962). The Britannical World Language Edition of the Oxford Dictionary Vol.1, Part 1, London: Oxford University Press, p.88

25: Nelson, Robert.S. (1996). ‘Appropriation’ in Robert S Nelson and Richard Shiff (eds.) Critical Terms for Art History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 117-118. Nelson classifies ‘Appropriation’ as a fundamental strategy in cultural production throughout history. He situates ‘Appropriation’ as contingent upon the successful production of myths.

26: Nelson, Robert.S. (1996). ‘Appropriation’ in Robert S Nelson and Richard Shiff (eds.) Critical Terms for Art History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 119-120. Sic.

27: Benjamin, Walter. (1984) [1934]. ‘The Author as Producer’ in Marcia Tucker, Brian Wallis et al. (eds.) Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, Lincoln – Massachusetts: David R. Godine, pp. 297-304. Delivered originally as an address to the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris on 27 April, 1934. Reprinted in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), pp. 220-338.

28: Lavin, Maud. (1993). ‘Mass Media, Modernism, & the Avant-Garde’ in Maud Lavin (ed.) Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Hoch, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, pp. 47-68. See also Maria Makela: ‘Particularly renowned for its innovative photographic spreads was Ullstein’s Der Querschnitt (Cross Section), a cosmopolitan monthly read primarily by Berlin’s artistic and literary avant-garde [...] By pairing, for example, a photograph of a yawning tiger with a close-up of an orchid blossom, one layout in the March 1926 issue called attention to the startling similarities between the feline’s cavernous mouth, [...], and the interior of a bud just about to bloom.’ in The Photomontages of Hannah Hoch, Walker Art Center Minneapolis, 1993, p.60.

29: Galassi, Peter. (1998). ‘Rodchenko And Photography’s Revolution’ in Magdalena Dabrowski, Leah Dickerman and Peter Galassi (eds.) Aleksandr Rodchenko, New York: Museum of Modern Art, p. 113. Moholy’s statement originally appeared in ‘Painting, Photography and Film ‘, published by Albert Langen Verlag, Munich, 1925. p.29.

30: Galassi, Peter. (1998). ‘Rodchenko And Photography’s Revolution’ in Magdalena Dabrowski, Leah Dickerman and Peter Galassi (eds.) Aleksandr Rodchenko, New York: Museum of Modern Art, pp.113

31: Lavin, Maud. (1993). ‘Mass Media, Modernism, & the Avant-Garde’ in Maud Lavin (ed.) Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Hoch, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, pp. 47-68

32: Barthes, Roland. (1977 ) [1973]. ‘Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein’ in Stephen Heath (ed.) Image Music Text, London: Fontana, p. 75. Barthes investigation of the Brechtian aesthetic is particularly useful in its implications towards the realism-debate between Bloch and Lukacs.

33: Buchloh, Benjamin H.D.. (1993). ‘Die Malerei am Ende des Sujets’ in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Peter Gidal and Birgit Pelzer (eds.) Band II: Gerhard Richter, Texte, Stuttgart: Edition Cantz, p. 13. Buchloh investigates here the significance of Weimar Germany’s Avant-Garde practice, in particular photomontage and Dada, in relation to Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas’. According to Richter himself, there was no awareness of the work of Heartfield et al. when ‘Atlas’ was conceived.

34: Foster, Hal. (1998) [1985]. ‘Subversive Signs’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 1066. Foster elaborates on his definition of a Post-Modernism of ‘Complicity’ or an ‘Oppositional’ Post-Modernism. He cites the work of Martha Rosler, Sherrie Levine, Dara Birnbaum, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Allan McCollum, Jenny Holzer, Krzysztof Wodiczko et al. as exemplorary for the latter.


Adam, Peter. The Arts of the Third Reich, London: Thames and Hudson, 1992 Ades, Dawn. Photomontage, London: Thames and Hudson, 1996 Adorno, Theodor; et al.. ‘Letter to Benjamin’ in Ronald Taylor (ed.) Aesthetics and Politics, London: New Left Books, 1977 [1936] Barthes, Roland. ‘Change the Object Itself: Mythology today’ in Stephen Heath (ed.) Image Music Text, London: Fontana , 1977 [1957] – ‘Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein’, Image Music Text, 1977 [1973] – ‘The Death of the Author’, Image Music Text, 1977 [1968] – ‘The Photographic Message’, Image Music Text, 1977 [1961] – ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, Image Music Text, 1977 [1964] Benjamin, Walter. ‘A Short History of Photography’ in Alan Trachtenberg (ed.) Classic Essays on Photography, New Haven,Conn.: Leete’s Island Books, 1980 [1931] Benjamin, Walter. ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’ in Guenther Busch (ed.) Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt am Main: Edition Suhrkamp, 1977 [1936] Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Author as Producer’ in Marcia Tucker, Brian Wallis et al. (eds.) Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, Lincoln – Massachusetts: David R. Godine, 1984 [1934] Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Hanna Arendt (ed.) Illuminations, Glasgow: Fontana, 1992 [1936] Brecht, Bertold. ‘Popularity and Realism’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1938] Buchloh, Benjamin H.D.. ‘Die Malerei am Ende des Sujets’ in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Peter Gidal and Birgit Pelzer (eds.) Band II: Gerhard Richter, Texte, Stuttgart: Edition Cantz, 1993 Buchloh, Benjamin H.D.. ‘Parody and Appropriation in Francis Picabia, Pop, and Polke’ in Artforum 20, no.7 (March 1982), 28-34 Burger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press Evans, David. Anna Lundgreen (ed.) John Heartfield: AIZ / VI 1930 – 1938, New York: Kent, 1992 Foster, Hal. ‘Subversive Signs’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1985] Freund, Gisele. Photography and Society, London: Gordon Fraser, 1980 [1974] Galassi, Peter. ‘Rodchenko And Photography’s Revolution’ in Magdalena Dabrowski, Leah Dickerman and Peter Galassi (eds.) Aleksandr Rodchenko, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998 Greenberg, Clement. ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ in John O’Brian (ed.) Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism; Volume One; Perceptions and Judgements, 1939 – 1944, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986 [1939] Greenberg, Clement. ‘The Beggar’s Opera – After Marx: Review of A Penny for the Poor by Bertolt Brecht’, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986 [1939] Grosz, George and Herzfelde, Wieland. ‘Art is in Danger’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1925] Grosz, George. ‘My Life’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1928] Grosz, George. ‘My New Pictures’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1921] Henisch, Heinz K. and Bridget A.. The Painted Photograph 1839 – 1914, University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996 Herzfelde, Wieland; Farner, Konrad; Strub, Heidi. John Heartfield: Krieg im Frieden – Fotomontagen zur Zeit 1930 – 1938, Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1973 Herzfelde, Wieland. Joanna Drew (ed.) John Heartfield: Photomontages, London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1969 Hoch, Hannah . ‘A Few Words on Photomontage’ in Maud Lavin (ed.) Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Hoch, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1993 [1934] Hodge, Gavin . ’26 mins Video’ in Zygosis : John Heartfield and the Political Image, : Editions a Voir, [n.d.] , 1992 Huelsenbeck, Richard and Hausmann, Raoul. ‘What is Dada and what does it want from Germany ?’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1919] Huelsenbeck, Richard. ‘En Avant Dada’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1920] Huelsenbeck, Richard. ‘First German Dada Manifesto (‘Collective Dada Manifesto’)’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1919] Kahn, Douglas. John Heartfield: Art and Mass Media, New York: Tanam Press , 1985 King, David. ‘Introduction’ in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1997 Lavin, Maud. Maud Lavin (ed.) Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Hoch, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1993 Lukacs, George. ‘“Tendency” or Partisanship?’ in David Fernbach (trans.) (ed.) Essays on Realism, London: Lawrence & Wishart , 1980 [1938] Lukacs, George. ‘The Ideology of Modernism’ in John and Necke Mander (transl.) (eds.) The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, London: Blackwell, 1963 [1957] Lunn, Eugene . Marxism and Modernism : an historical study of Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984 Makela, Maria. ‘By Design: The Early Work of Hannah Hoch in Context’ in Maria Makela and Peter Boswell (eds.) The Photomontages of Hannah Hoch, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center Minneapolis, 1993 Nelson, Robert.S. ‘Appropriation’ in Robert S Nelson and Richard Shiff (eds.) Critical Terms for Art History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 Owens, Craig. ‘Representation, Appropriation and Power’ in Scott Bryson (ed.) Beyond Recognition, London: University of California Press, 1994 [1982] Pachnicke, Peter; (et al.). Peter Pachnicke and Klaus Honnef (eds.) John Heartfield, New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1992 Selz, Peter; Herzfelde, Wieland; (et al.). Photomontages of the Nazi Period: John Heartfield , London: Gordon Fraser / Universe Books, 1977 Siepmann, Eckhard. Jurgen Holtfreter (ed.) Montage : John Heartfield : vom Club Dada zur Arbeiter-Illustrierten Zeitung / Dokumente-Analysen-Berichte, Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1980 Smith, Terry. ‘Modes of Production’ in Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (eds.) Critical Terms For Art History, London/Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. ‘Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of Supply-Side Aesthetics’ in Carol Squiers (ed.) The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990 Szarkowski, John. ’6. Photographs in Ink’ in Susan Weiley (ed.) Photography Until Now, New York: The Museum Of Modern Art, 1989 Tagg, John. ‘Evidence, Truth and Order: Photographic Records and the Growth of the State’ in The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, London: Macmillan, 1988 Trotsky, Leon. ‘Literature and Revolution’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1924] Winkler, Heinrich August. Klaus Honnef, Rolf Sachsse and Karin Thomas (eds.) German Photography 1870-1970, Cologne: Dumont/Yale University Press, 1997 Wolf, Konrad; et al. Joanna Drew (ed.) John Heartfield: Photomontages, London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1969 Wood, Paul. ‘Realisms and Realities’ in Briony Fer, David Batchelor and Paul Wood (eds.) Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism – Art between the Wars, London: Thames and Hudson, 1996 Zhdanov, Andrei. ‘Speech to the Congress of Soviet Writers’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1934]

Introduction: The first time that I came across John Heartfield’s photomontages of the 1920s and 1930s was, if I remember […]

18. Oktober 1977: Gerhard Richter’s Work of Mourning and its New Audience.


In Mourning and Melancholia, Sigmund Freud describes mourning as


The reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on. [The work of mourning sets in when] reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. (…) Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypocathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it.(…) The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.01

In 1999, eleven years after Gerhard Richter’s 18.Oktober 1977 paintings were first exhibited, their cathectic energy had, perhaps, become exhausted – so much so that the presence of these extraordinary pictures was no longer regarded a necessity in Germany. The fifteen canvases commemorate the imprisonment and death in 1977 of members of the radical Baader-Meinhof group, who were convicted of acts of terrorism in what was then West Germany. It should come as no surprise, that Richter’s work of mourning, which so beautifully expresses the painful and tragic complicity of perpetrators and victims, should have become dislocated and removed, both literally and figuratively, from the place where the incidents occurred. And why not? A generation after the terrible events of 1977, the leaden years of the Deutscher Herbst (the German Autumn, as the terrorist period is known) seem more distant than ever.


When the great German painter sold the series to the MoMA in 1995, many spoke of a significant loss for Germany, since 18.Oktober 1977 was regarded then as a work of national significance. Unfortunately, German institutions were neither able nor willing to match the $ 3 million offered by MoMA. Originally on loan to the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt until December 31st, 2000, Richter’s paintings were shipped to New York ahead of plan on the 3rd of May 1999. The time to let go of a powerful political document had indeed come early. A question, remains, however. Now that these difficult paintings, which are so firmly grounded in recent German History, have American residency, how will their American audience receive them?


I.          Distance:

The title 18.Oktober 1977 mystifies. Will visitors to MoMA know what makes this date so special, worthy of receiving homage in a series of paintings? Will they understand this body of work as a nonspecific attempt to attest to the transience of existence, very much like On Kawara’s installations and date paintings? The power and resonance, which emanates from a simple date can amplify our sense of community and social experience. Beyond the margins of our own dominant culture, however, a date is just a date: suggestive in its anonymity at best and meaningless at worst.02


It is the extraordinary elusiveness of the Oktober paintings that puzzles; they have an elusiveness that contradicts the matter-of-factness of their titles. They evade our attempts to take control and extract a narrative, make references, or create allusions. The references and allusions on which the works depend are corded –off, shrouded in a grey fog, they seem distant and opaque. Richter’s signature blur dissolves the spatial relation between viewer, painted surface and pictorial depth, undermining our confidence in the certainties of perception. Viewers may try to step closer to the surface of each canvas in search of clues. Yet their only discovery may be the painterly materiality of the grisaille, which bathes these works in a luscious shimmer. Or viewers may step back, tilting their heads and squinting, trying to impart more clarity to these images, until gently pushed on by an eager crowd. Or, perhaps, they might just stand back in awe and let the solemnity of these pictures radiate diffuse, quasi-religious sentiments of suffering and retribution. It is their impenetrable presence that seems to spoil efforts to investigate what lies behind these theatrical works with their un-dramatic titles. Yet to conclude that Richter’s Oktober paintings remain incomprehensible for their new audience is perhaps premature. Are the canvases nothing but a beautifully crafted testimony to an encounter with death? What information can viewers gather by solely concentrating on these paintings? And where could they start?


Richter refers to the Oktober paintings as a cycle, without a beginning and an end. The point of departure depends on the spatial environment since access might occur at any point in the cycle, as could the exit. The arrangement of the work in the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt offered no guidance as to the proposed direction of one’s gaze. The seemingly random succession of works compounded the difficulty of unearthing the linearity of a tragic narrative. We could start with the sentimental Jugendbildnis (Youth Portrait), which portrays a young woman, or with the ambiguous Beerdigung (Funeral) or even with the silentPlattenspieler (Record Player). A look into Richter’s Catalogue Raisonné with its rigorous numerical archiving system reveals perhaps some sort of intentionality as to the sequence of the work. Following his system, the starting point of the Oktober cycle could be the three-part painting simply called Tote (Dead), which shows in profile ‘three times the head’ of a dead woman ‘after they cut her down’.03 We could then move on to Erhängte (Hanged) - a near abstract representation of an interior space with a figure that seems to be hovering by a window and the two Erschossener (Man Shot Down) paintings, where we discern a male figure lying on the floor with his left arm extended. Next would be Zelle (Cell), a fiercely smudged view of a room with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, Gegenüberstellung (Confrontation) 1, 2, and 3, in which a female figure appears through a mist of grey and – in a film like sequence – smiles and turns away, then Jugenbildnis (Youth Portrait) and Plattenspieler (Record Player). Completing the cycle are the Beerdigung (Funeral), and, finally, the two Festnahme (Arrest) pictures, which are exceedingly difficult to decipher: two versions of an urban exterior, depicted from a high vantage point with a few buildings and the silhouettes of parked cars.


To be sure, the titles of these paintings could provide some anchorage and steer the inquiry away from a purely phenomenological reading since they seem to suggest that there is a meaning, a hidden agenda. But no further clues are given, and the images appear strangely emptied. Names such as Confrontation or Man Shot Down help to ground the scenes somewhat, but they ultimately mystify and confuse even more: although evocations of a narrative are there, the evidence is hidden from view, covered by layers of grey.


The allusions Richter conjures up but declines to analyse in his Oktober paintings rely upon the mediation of the camera. By copying photographic originals, which had been widely available in German news media at the time, he manages to partake in, what Roland Barthes calls, photography’s noeme, its ‘having-been-there’. He effectively subverts Barthes’ dictum that ‘painting can feign reality without having seen it’.04 Richter’s Oktober paintings are explicitly grounded in the gaze of the camera; they draw on its putative testimony: they have seen the unspeakable, they claim to bear witness. However, as a promise made but never kept, historicity is called upon but never fully realised. Through the use of photographic signifiers, a certain facticity is palpable, yet the work remains obscured. Viewers may gaze but they can never grasp; they may only catch a glimpse of some terrible truth, from a distance. It is as if an extraordinary aura shields these paintings from a penetrating, critical gaze. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin describes the phenomenon of distance as a pre-requisite for aura. For him the definition of aura as a

‘unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be’ represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception. Distance is the opposite of closeness. The essentially distant object is the unapproachable one. Unapproachability is indeed a major quality of the cult image. True to its nature, it remains ‘distant, however close it may be.’05


Richter, then, seems, creates with photographic and painterly means an aura of existential profundity, which conditions the reading of these paintings in a very particular way. The impressions of weight and solemnity that have been ascribed to the series are in part contingent upon that aura. In addition, the institutional framework inevitably amplifies the auratic quality of these canvases by staging them as unique master pieces contrary to the status of Richter’s source material, that of mass-mediated news photographs. Significantly, however, those photographs, which were so much part of the collective German psyche some twenty-five years ago, are all but unknown to a large audience outside of Germany.


No doubt, Richter’s Oktober images are carriers of an unspeakable truth. But contemporary viewers may have to look elsewhere to uncover what the paintings alone fail to communicate. The contrast between evasive Grisaille, and suggested historical facticity creates a sense of unease, which invites speculation on a dark episode but fails to spell things out. The knowledgeable flaneur may look at Record Player picture as just another Richter photo painting, executed with the same mocking virtuosity as, say, his Loo Roll series from 1965. Germans and some viewers, however, know that these images are different: Record Player, the record player; and that date: 18. Oktober 1977. One feels compelled to exclaim: Don’t you know what happened?



II.        Deutscher Herbst:

At 5 minutes past midnight on Tuesday October 18 1977, stun grenades detonate outside the cockpit window of Lufthansa Boeing 737 ‘Landshut’, emergency exits burst open and men with blackened faces leap forwards, storm the plane screaming, shooting. Within minutes ‘Operation Feuerzauber’ is over.


The Lufthansa jet was parked on the runway of Mogadishu International Airport. It had been hijacked four days earlier on its scheduled flight from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt by a group of Palestinian terrorists in an attempt to press the release from prison of four convicted members of the Baader-Meinhof organisation. Under the cover of on-going negotiations with the hijackers about the imminent release of the prisoners, a special commando unit of the West German Border Police (GSG 9) had managed to close in on the plane and attack. At thirty-eight minutes past midnight, the first news bulletin on German Radio acknowledged the successful raid in the Somali capital. All eighty-six hostages had been freed, and three of the four terrorists were killed in the operation.


The spectacular showdown with the West German state apparatus had not gone according to plan. The hijacking of the Lufthansa jet had been conceived of as the push that would finally force the German Government to its knees since it had shown no willingness to release the prisoners in exchange for the kidnapped president of the Federal Association of German Employers, Hans-Martin Schleyer. But this plan exposed the delusional character of the Baader-Meinhof project itself. The state was not going to give in, and the struggle of the ‘Six against the Sixty Million’ (as novelist Heinrich Böll characterised it)was nearing its tragic conclusion.06 What followed in the ‘Night of Stammheim’ has been extensively examined, yet doubts remain. Three of the Baader-Meinhof inmates on floor seven of the Stuttgart-Stammheim high security prison were found dead or dying, and a forth lay injured, a few hours after the Mogadishu raid had taken place. Prison officers, making their rounds with breakfast rations, discovered the bodies of Gudrun Ensslin – hanged with a loudspeaker cable and Andreas Baader, shot in the back of the neck. Jan-Carl Raspe had severe head injuries from a gunshot wound and was barely alive. Irmgard Möller had multiple stab wounds. Raspe died the same day and only Möller survived.07


Just how large quantities of explosives and guns had found their way into the high security prison in Stuttgart and into the cells of the Baader-Meinhof was never answered conclusively. In spite of immediate strenuous efforts by the West German authorities to dispel any suspicion over the violent death, the many inconsistencies in the police report gave rise to unnerving speculation: murder or suicide, state execution or final act of defiance?


The next day, Schleyer was found dead in the boot of a car after a terrorist communiqué, revealing his whereabouts, had been published in the French daily La Liberation. He had been shot execution style since, with the deaths of the Stammheim inmates, there was no longer a case to be negotiated.


On Oktober 25, in a state funeral, Schleyer’s body was put to rest in his native Stuttgart. And finally, on Oktober 27th, 1977, the bodies of Baader, Ensslin and Raspe were buried in a communal grave also in a Stuttgart cemetery. A tragic episode came to an end with two funerals that could hardly have been more different. Both funerals, however, were taking place in close proximity to one another: one, a widely televised grandiose display of a country in mourning, with its pomp and circumstance (Federal President Scheel apologised publicly to the family on behalf of the Government for not having saved Schleyer’s life); the other, a demonstration of defiance, deviance and anger with many of the hundreds of funeral guests and sympathisers, masked in balaclavas, and the whole crowd was under surveillance by thousands of armed police officers. Had it not been for the intervention of Stuttgart’s mayor Manfred Rommel, the second funeral might have taken place on a municipal rubbish tip as demanded by an outraged public.


The murdering and bombing spree of the Baader-Meinhof group, which was the Red Army Faction (RAF), did not come to an end in the October days of the ‘German Autumn’. Indeed many more assassinations and bombings followed until in April 1998 the last generation of the RAF published a communique declaring the project was finished. The events in October 1977 marked a traumatic incision in West German post-war history. What had begun in the late 1960s as a student protest against the Vietnam War, the latent re-nazification of West German public life, and neo-authoritarian tendencies in the cultural and economic establishment, reached a watershed in the Night of Stammheim. Both sides had increased their stakes in a lethal confrontation: RAF terrorists had shown their willingness to kill indiscriminately, confusing those in positions of power (Schleyer) with those, according to their own ideology of class warfare, at the receiving end of the state apparatus (the ‘innocent’, mainly working class, holiday-makers in the Lufthansa jet). The Social Democratic Schmidt-Government on the other hand had equally accepted the possibility of a massive loss of life, resolutely determined not to give any ground and release the prisoners. In this final stance we can thus discern the elements of an emblematic failure: the tragic admission of a deadly reality, the end of hope for a utopian project, a sense of loss.


The departure of members of the radical left into illegality and ‘armed struggle’ in the year 1970 had still carried with it the vague hopes of a sizeable portion of the younger generation.08 The subsequent audacity and courage with which they managed to evade the police, often in high-speed car chases, had earned the Baader-Meinhof group a status of iconic notoriety. Yet the state apparatus had been challenged in earnest and began to hit back. The police and the judiciary received big budget increases, electronic surveillance was added to the state’s arsenal and countless far-reaching emergency bills that restricted civil liberties were passed in parliament. The idealistic liberalisation of German politics, initiated by Chancellor Willy Brandt in the early 1970s, had given way to an increasing heavy-handedness in the wake of terrorist activities. By the year 1977 the mood had changed: the heady days of Brandt’s ‘more democracy’ campaign which was supported by many of West Germany’s cultural and intellectual elites, were over. Numerous West German intellectuals, writers, scientists09 and film-makers who had willingly campaigned for Willy Brandt’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) found themselves on the receiving end of the ‘state-monopoly of force’. He or she who failed unequivocally to denounce terrorist activities was eagerly branded a Sympathisant. The sentiment of the silent public majority, kept up to date by the newspapers and magazines published by an agitating Springer-Press, was belligerent and uncompromising. Language itself helped to identify possible deviants: Baader-Meinhof Group or Baader-Meinhof Gang, for or against, Terrorist or law-abiding German?


And yet, the unfathomable events of the Deutscher Herbst made possible an experience of collective grief and mourning. The funerals in Stuttgart, two days and a few miles apart, had to be seen as two halves of the same whole. For a few moments, it seemed, the entire nation was horrified, aghast at the irreversible certainty of death itself. Both, victims and perpetrators had to pay with their lives for their antagonistic positions in a socio-cultural conflict that was in actuality situated outside their personal spheres. The ideological struggle that had made personal what was essentially public, had turned out to be a tragic failure. Yet the project of a more open, democratic and progressive society in West Germany had failed in its wake, too. In a traumatic funeral rite, the hope for an ideal and the possibility of change had come to an end.






III.       Allegory and the Work of Mourning:

The British critic Amanda Sebestyen concluded in a 1989 review of the first London exhibition of 18.Oktober 1977:

‘You could know none of this [the historical context] from the ICA’s presentation of these pictures, or from the most painful scrutiny of the exhibition catalogue. In Germany, just to commemorate those who have become non-persons was probably enough – the facts that had been suppressed remained in the minds of the watchers. But in London these pictures have been locked in an art historical deep-freeze’10


It seems as if these paintings can only make sense to a non-German audience when the exhibiting institution provides a second text, some sort of historical Überbau or superstructure. Only then, at a second glance as it were, can these impenetrable works be opened up and access to a concise reading be made available. As much as the initial reaction to the Oktober cycle may well be one of bafflement, the Überbau can easily provide the necessary support structure. With none provided, however, the historic significance of 18. Oktober 1977 will inevitably get lost in a haze of intangible unease.


If 18.Oktober 1977 can only truly be realised through a supplementary text; if these paintings otherwise become free-floating adding up to no discernible narrative, though they might suggest fragments of one – we are, according to Benjamin, faced with an allegory. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama he posits that the allegorist functions as a translator-mediator who provides access to an otherwise closed off meaning. The uncertain sense of historicity, or aura, is only opened up by the making available of hints and clues, which, together with the work itself, connect to a -however fragmentary- reading. The work itself is

…incapable of emanating any meaning or significance of its own: such significance as it has, it acquires from the allegorist. He places it within it, and stands behind it; not in a psychological but in an ontological sense. In his hands the object becomes something different; through it he speaks of something different and for him it becomes a key to the realm of hidden knowledge; and he reveres it as an emblem of this.11

In The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism Craig Owens observes that allegory occurred when ‘one text is read through another’. He continues: ‘Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them. He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter.’ Owens identifies further traits of allegory, such as its capacity to ‘rescue from historical oblivion that which threatens to disappear’ and its ability to function ‘in the gap between a present and a past which, without allegorical reinterpretation, might have remained foreclosed.’12


It would be wrong, however, to conclude that Richter’s series is intrinsically allegorical. This would be the case if the Überbau of the Oktober paintings was made available or at least accessible within the work itself. Richter is no allegorist; on the contrary, he obstructs the making of meaning, offering no more than a distant hint of historicity. Due to their refusal to communicate, Richter’s images can be accessed only through an allegorical discourse, which is solely dependent on the institutional context in which they are displayed.


During the first North American tour of the Oktober cycle in 1990/91, extensive information displays had to be provided to help the public overcome the opacity of Richter’s paintings and understand their historical grounding. For example, the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Open Ends, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in November 2000, offered some much-needed clues. Just how will these paintings continue to fare in future exhibitions. As time goes by, the need for an Überbau will no doubt increase. Since their status as signifiers of a specific historicity will fade inevitably, the significance of the Oktober paintings may well come to rest in a realm of universal abstractness, where they can conjure up quasi-religious sentiments about human injustice, suffering and death. Walter Benjamin even went as far as stating that ‘allegories become dated, because it is part of their nature to shock.’13

But what if these extraordinary paintings transcended the traumatic events of the Deutscher Herbst? What if, in their new surroundings, they were to take on a new role? Perhaps they could continue to realise their allegorical essence and become emblematic of the kinds of tragic breakdowns that inevitably occur before rebels become perpetrators and innocents become victims. Perhaps, dislocated as they are now from their original telos, Richter’s Oktober paintings could continue to release cathectic energies and be transformed into non-specific work of mourning. In a society that is marked by ever-more-frequent outbursts of violence, by murder and state executions, this role could not be more appropriate role. Could Richter’s work not mourn the loss of humanity, the absence of mercy and the depth of hatred that so often scar our condition? Could we all not mourn, together, the fate of the anonymous death-row inmate, or the senseless killing of loved ones as we have been mourning our failings in the Baader-Meinhof trauma?


If the 18.Oktober1977 paintings succeed in opening up to a new audience, Gerhard Richter’s great work of mourning may be, contrary to Freud’s assertion, on-going. In that case we shall not begrudge the loss of such significant works but will celebrate that which makes us understand and reach out to one another: a shared sense of what it is to be human.























01 Freud, Sigmund. (1984) [1917]. ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ in Angela Richards and Albert Dickson (eds.)  On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis  (Volume 11 The Penguin Freud Library),  London: Penguin, pp. 251-253


02 At times, due to the metaphoric significance and sheer magnitude of the event, a date can become emblematic on a truly global scale.  The trauma of September 11th 2001 has become ingrained in our collective subconscious irrespective of cultural boundaries.


03 Richter, Gerhard. (1995). David Britt (trans.), Hans-Ulrich Obrist (ed.) Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting – Writings 1962-1993,  London: Thames and Hudson, p.175


04 Barthes’ use of this term goes back to the Greek word noema, meaning: an enigmatic concept, obscure and subtle speech. Barthes, Roland (1993) Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard London: Vintage Books, p. 76, p. 92


05 Benjamin, Walter. (1992) [1936]. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ‘ in Hanna Arendt (ed.)  Illuminations,  Glasgow: Fontana, pp. 236-237


06 See Heinrich Böll’s article ‘Will Ulrike Gnade oder freies Geleit?’ in ‘Der Spiegel’, week 2, Hamburg, 1972 which caused great controversy since he criticised the state for its failure to offer a more conciliatory approach towards the Baader-Meinhof group. Ever since, he was one of the most prominent public figures to be branded a ‘Sympathisant’, a sympathiser of terrorists.


07 Ulrike Meinhof had been found dead in Stammheim some eighteen month earlier, hanged from the wire mesh cover of her prison cell window. A team of coroners returned a ‘death by suicide’ verdict which was angrily rejected by members of the radical Left. Another key member of the group, Holger Meins, had dieed of starvation during a hunger strike in prison in 1974. Bakker Schut, Pieter H. (1997) Stammheim, Bundesvorstand Rote Hilfe, Bonn: Pahl Rugenstein.


08 In an opinion poll in March of 1971 Germans were asked whether they would give shelter to a member of the Baader-Meinhof Group for one night. Five percent said ‘yes’, and nine percent were undecided. In the 16-29 age group, ten percent said ‘yes’, and eleven percent were undecided. In effect 20 percent of Germans in the 16-29 age group would at least consider aiding the Baader-Meinhof Group. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann: The Germans- Public Opinion Polls, 1967-1980, Westport 1981


09 Electronic surveillance measures at the home of the leading West German physicist Dr. Klaus Traube in 1976 gained most notoriety, when uncovered almost a year later in ‘Der Spiegel’.


10 Sebestyen, Amanda. (1989). ‘The uncivil dead (New Statesman & Society 01.09.89)’ in Ulrich Wilmes (ed.)  Gerhard Richter:  18. Oktober 1977  -  Presseberichte,  Köln: Walther König, p. 88


11 Benjamin, Walter. (1998) [1928]. ‘Allegory and Trauerspiel’ in  The Origin of German Tragic Drama,  London: Verso, pp. 183-184


12 Owens, Craig. (1992 ) [1980]. ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’ in Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman, and Jane Weinstock (eds.)  Beyond Recognition – Representation, Power, and Culture,  Berkeley CA / London: University of California Press, pp. 52-54


13 Benjamin, Walter. (1998) [1928], London: Verso, pp. 183-184





 Prelude In Mourning and Melancholia, Sigmund Freud describes mourning as   The reaction to the loss of a loved person, […]

Messing with Punctum: Cinemagraphs and the Uncanny

This essay investigates cinemagraphs and their increasing use in social media and advertising. Following on from a brief survey of current commercial practice, the article draws connections with Roland Barthes’ historic reading of photographic production and interpretation, albeit situated within twenty-first-century technology. The essay argues that the principle device of cinemagraphs, the looping of localised motion within an otherwise still image—this juxtaposition of the animate with the inanimate, or the dead with the undead—when executed well, alludes to a now historic framework of photographic interpretation, yet with often uncanny results. When read in the context of an increasingly transhuman culture, of data-base politics, artificial intelligence, and robotics, cinemagraphs perhaps provide a glimpse of “The Uncanny,” in a way that is rather well suited to prevailing Zeitgeist. The text argues that this is not dissimilar to the reception of mechanical automata in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when situated against the then backdrop of the first industrial revolution.



The recent popularity of cinemagraphs in social media and advertising owes as much to a certain novelty factor as to an underlying fascination with the uncanny, particularly in the context of what Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2014) call the “Second Machine Age.”

In Camera Lucida, Barthes (1993, 92) describes “all those young photographers who are at work in the world” as “agents of death.” He posits that punctum represents the unique stigmatum within the photographic image; that which mechanically preserves what “could never be repeated existentially” (Barthes 1993, 92).

But no doubt, as Rubinstein (2015) put so eloquently in his recent essay “What Is Twentieth Century Photography?” our post-photographic culture has put paid to all that.

And yet, I want to argue, cinemagraphs’ principle device of localised, looped motion within an otherwise still image—this juxtaposition of the animate with the inanimate, or the dead with the undead—when executed well, alludes nolens volens to a Barthesian framework, albeit with uncanny results (Royle 2003).

When read in the context of an increasingly transhuman future, of nanotechnology, deep learning, artificial intelligence, and robotics, cinemagraphs perhaps provide glimpses of the uncanny, particularly well suited to our transhuman condition, and much in the same way as mechanical automata did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and against the backdrop of the first Industrial Revolution.

While it is perhaps fanciful to imbue with epistemological validation a medium that is so clearly bound up in the transactional economies of social media, cinemagraphs nonetheless seem to connect with some long-defunct notions of photographic theory, albeit in a post-photographic context.


What Is a Cinemagraph?

The graphic interchange format (GIF) was introduced in 1987 by internet provider Compuserve with the stated aim to make the most of limited bandwidth, due to primitive modems used for web-access at the time. The GIF standard allows effective, lossless compression, albeit with a reduced gamut of no more than 256 colours. In addition, GIFs support transparent background colours, metadata, and multiple images embedded within one file.

This combination of attributes has made possible a whole range of uses on the web, from ubiquitous memes to banner ads and animations. What came into use, as a work-around for slow transmission speeds, has become one of the most widely supported image file formats on the web due to its versatility.

Even the advent of broadband hasn’t diminished the popularity of GIFs. In a belated acknowledgement of the GIF standard, Facebook started offering GIF support in 2015. Newer formats, such as portable network graphics (PNG), have not yet succeeded in replacing GIFs, mainly due to their lack of animation support.

Cinemagraph was a term invented and trademarked in 2011 by American fashion photographer Jamie Beck and graphic designer Kevin Burg for a particular type of GIF animation.

In Burg’s words (Lin 2014, n.p.), a cinemagraph is a “living photograph. It’s a photograph that has a living moment inside of it.” As to the term cinemagraph, Berg explains: “We were just playing with Greek roots. We were researching how they came up with the term photography” (Lin 2014, n.p.). He states that “calling it a GIF didn’t seem to work either, because a GIF can mean so many things. This is a specific thing with its own criteria. Its own medium,” a nod to a “cinematic moment, married to a photograph” (Fitzpatrick 2013, n.p.).

After Beck and Burg let the initial trademark registration lapse, a rival company, Toronto-based Flixel secured the cinemagraph trademark in 2014 for “compositing the photographs or the video frames into a seamless loop of sequential frames in such a manner that motion in part of the subject between exposures is perceived as a repeating or continued motion, in contrast with the stillness of the rest of the image” (Trademark File 2014, n.p.).

In other words, cinemagraphs are hybrids between full-motion videos and traditional photographs. Assembled with image editing and compositing software, they combine still images with frames of the same subject that show limited movement in a small part of the composition. The moving part of the composition is then masked in such a way that the rest of the image across the whole sequence appears still and motionless—apart from the moving element. The movement within the image will repeat in a more or less obvious manner, depending on the skill of the art-worker, and on subject matter. Saved as a GIF, the cinemagraph can then be uploaded to various web platforms, just like any other GIF. For more complex sequences, which require true colour, or larger files, motion formats can be used as well.

First introduced during a collaboration covering New York Fashion Week, Beck and Burg quickly gained considerable commercial exposure, after publishing their first cinemagraphs on Beck’s Tumblr blog. According to Beck, “the name Cinemagraph went generic overnight. I tweeted what we named it, and it went crazy from there” (Lin 2014, n.p.).

According to Time Magazine, cinemagraphs create “moments that are quiet and contemplative, elevating the humble GIF into something much more refined” (Lin 2014, n.p.). Adweek proclaims that “subtly animated Cinemagraphs are practically hypnotic” and goes on to say that “you’re going to start to see a ton of these on Facebook”(Sloane 2015, n.p.).

As Burg notes, “People can’t stop staring at them, isn’t that what advertisers want?” (Sloane 2015, n.p.). And so it would seem, Beck and Burg have since set up their own studio specialising in cinemagraphs and have produced campaigns for many global fashion-, automotive-, and consumer-brands. Other photographers and marketers have swiftly followed and now routinely offer cinemagraphs as part of their commercial portfolios.

Cinemagraphs have been used in campaigns for brands such as Heineken, Toyota, Mercedes, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Diesel, Chopard, Cartier, Tiffany, Donna Karen, DKNY, and Balenciaga. And the list keeps growing.

According to Rich Tong, head of influencer platform Fohr Card, and former fashion director at Tumblr, a series of six cinemagraphs Beck and Burg produced for Oscar de la Renta in 2011 achieved 55,000 notes and more than 2,000,000 impressions (Indvik 2011). Michael Aaron Flicker, president of marketing agency XenoPsi, points out that cinemagraphs tend “to have more virality, with 71% higher organic reach than still photographs,” and he concludes that “when done well and used effectively, Cinemagraphs are an enchanting and beautiful tool for telling a brand’s story” (Flicker 2016, n.p.) He goes on to say that “auto-play looping” make cinemagraphs “easy to consume, but hard to ignore” (Flicker 2016, n.p.).

According to Mark Homza, cofounder of Cinemagraph provider Flixel, a “Cinemagraph banner ad for Panasonic’s Lumix range of cameras was clicked 60% more than the static version” (Marshall 2015, n.p.). Cinemagraphs, Homza maintains, achieve up to 80 percent better click-throughs than static banner ads (Marshall 2015).

Increasingly gummed up by the entropic goo of social media, yet compelled to stand out from the crowd, brands are naturally drawn to cheap, easily sharable media formats that deliver above-average participation figures. In an online world, at the same time saturated and perpetually hungry for more disposable visual content, on platforms and blogs, across social media and corporate sites, the amount of liking, sharing, and clicking-through matters a great deal. Amalgamated in sophisticated “dashboards,” which show the ebb and flow of customer “engagement,” these data provide marketers with a notional sense of success and validate “share of voice,” albeit within the echo chamber that is social media marketing.

Cinemagraphs have certainly succeeded in complementing the online marketing tool set, yet it remains to be seen to what extend the novelty factor will eventually wear off. Media technology evolves at breakneck speed, and the next big attention-grabbing format is never far away.

But before fully immersive, artificial intelligence enabled artificial reality and virtual reality consign cinemagraphs to the quaint end of the hype-cycle, it may be worth analysing more fully just why the combination of still image with looped animation may be quite so hypnotic as claimed.


Messing with Punctum

Can we speculate that Barthes might have taken an interest in cinemagraphs, especially the obsessive-compulsive repetitions of often-banal detail within them—this juxtaposition of the animate with the inanimate, or the dead with the undead?

Did Barthes not claim in Camera Lucida, his late, elegiac, and mournful text, full of emotional depth and introspection, that a photograph represented a “micro-version of death” (Barthes 1993, 14)? That, to fully understand the traumatic irreversibility of time, one need only look at photographic images?

In Barthes’ view there was always a “defeat of time in them: that is dead and that is going to die” (Barthes 1993, 96). It was this irreducible essence, which provided the connection between otherwise unrelated photographs: the highly personal—a photograph of Barthes’ late mother for example—with the public or historic—a photograph of Queen Victoria or a picture of an empty street in Atget’s Paris. Whichever way you looked, photography was ultimately about one thing and one thing only: time, its passing, and ultimately death. This insight represented a considerable departure from Barthes’ earlier writings on photography, particularly the deft way in which he had previously, and rather more rigorously, one might add, unpicked the semiotic tapestry of photographic codes and signifiers.

Barthes’ decidedly more phenomenological approach in Camera Lucida comprised in the main of the idea of studium, whose constituent parts spoke of cultural, historical, or scientific context, and punctum, a uniquely touching and poignant detail, which connected with the viewer on a more profound and emotional level. Barthes frequently referred to punctum as a stigmatum, or wound, which betrayed with “lacerating emphasis” the passing of time itself (Barthes 1993, 96). In Barthes’ eyes, it was punctum that actually validated the photograph’s existence; it punctures the surface of the image and, in doing so, captured the essential nature of the medium.

Barthes’ narrative proved immensely impactful for a generation of students, theorists, and practitioners. As Geoffrey Batchen argued in his 2009 collection of essays on the subject, Camera Lucida is quite possibly the most widely read book on photography. In a roundabout way it could be said to have influenced artists as diverse as Gerhard Richter, Christian Boltanski, Tacita Dean, Fiona Tan, and more recently Taryn Simon, who all created vast collections of everyday portraits, which owe much of their allure to Barthes (Dillon 2011).

Without doubt, Camera Lucida successfully energised post-1980s photography scholarship; not least in terms of the backlash it generated: in particular the criticism that Barthes had succumbed to a rather sentimental, and essentialist interpretation of a medium clearly capable of considerably more complex subtexts. This, combined with the conspicuous absence of any acknowledgement of potential ontological entanglements brought about by the impending onset of the post-photographic condition, led to the eventual cooling if not wholesale dismissal of Barthes’ ideas. Batchen (2009, 21) asked the obvious question: “Has the photography pursued by Barthes perhaps already gone, transformed into a mere ghost of its former self? Can we any longer feel the affect that so transported Barthes as he looked at certain photographs?”The answer must surely be a regretful but nonetheless resounding “No, we cannot.”

Rubinstein, in his 2015 essay titled “What Is 21st Century Photography?” argued convincingly that the “four horsemen of the photographic apocalypse: Index, Punctum, Document, and Representation can no more account for 21st century digital realities.” He goes on to say that “even if some parts of this form of photography are still visible, they are in a state of advanced decay” (Rubinstein 2015, n.p.).Rubinstein maintains that photographic image making must, in order to stay relevant, move away from an obsession with objects and instead focus on processes, in particular those processes that are largely hidden from view but which nonetheless underscore the information economy of the twenty-first century. He posits that the “demise of the industrial age is curtains for the spectacle of representation: visual surveillance is replaced with predictive policing, industrial processes replaced with trading algorithms, armies replaced with remote controlled killer robots and perspectival geometry replaced with the…topology of the computer screen” (Rubinstein 2015, n.p.). Rubinstein (2015, n.p.) concludes that “these changes do not mean that suddenly, what we see in front of our eyes does not matter, but that many more things that matter are outside our human field of view. The question is, what becomes of photography when the locus of power shifts from the optical nerve to the fibre-optic cable?”

So it is against this dialectical backdrop—with the beautiful ruin of Barthesian punctum on the one hand and Rubinstein’s twenty-first-century photography on the other—that I want to try and situate cinemagraphs and thus attempt a contemporary reading. Despite the fact that Barthes’ late theory of photography is today an all but burnt-out shell orbiting in zero-gravity, like a remnant of a once-exquisite vessel, forever adrift in discursive space, I want to argue that perhaps it can provide a starting point for analysis, albeit one which leads beyond the essentialist Barthesian conclusion. I want to suggest that Barthes’ notion of the centrality of time can still be used to unlock our understanding of cinemagraphs. The trajectory of this argument, however, will inevitably arc toward a reading much closer to Rubinstein’s outlines of a photographic practice fit for the twenty-first century—one which at once represents as well as reveals the anxieties, power-relationships, processes, and transactions that characterise what Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2014) call the “Second Machine Age.”


Cinemagraphs and the Uncanny

As technologist Kevin Kelly (2012, n.p.) argued: “You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots”—if you have a job at all, one might add.

The Second Machine Age represents a profound shift in the way capital, labour, and profit are organised. Where the first machine age brought about a slow, many decades-long transformation from a largely rural, agricultural society to an urban manufacturing economy, the dawn of the Second Machine Age leads to disruption on an altogether grander scale and in a much shorter time frame. According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2014), the benefits of this disruption are shared much more unequally than was the case before. In the “winner-takes-all” markets of global platform-capitalism, larger parts of the population are subject to greater economic uncertainty than ever before. As a consequence, the authors suggest, the Second Machine Age is poised to lead to a breakdown of the societal contract, which stipulates that the opportunities enjoyed by the next generation will always be greater than those of the previous (Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014).

As the fields of computing, artificial intelligence, bio-tech, robotics, and nanotechnology advance with ever greater speed and sophistication, from natural language processing to fine motor skills, from face-recognition to deep-learning, self-driving cars, and grey goo, the sound of music emanating from Silicon Valley and captivating us so thoroughly, is not the pleasant soundtrack of just another elevator pitch but the relentless drumbeat of the march of the machines: big data, dashboards, metrics, and all. In the wake of this uncanny procession, physicality becomes contingent, a mere mirage of the new underlying lingua franca of zeroes and ones.

Against this collapse of objecthood, Rubinstein’s thesis of the four horsemen of the photographic apocalypse seems entirely on point, his call for twenty-first-century photography legitimate and urgent. I want to suggest that, despite their often banal and commercial nature, the new medium of cinemagraphs can indeed be seen in this context.

And yet, can we really view the repetitive loops of animated detail inside a cinemagraph without also being reminded of Barthes’ preoccupation with punctum and the passage of time itself? In a cinemagraph, time seems stuck in a never-ending cycle of creepy, mechanical monotony. Like an old record stuck in a groove, unable to let the music play, the cinemagraph is a photograph that remains forever unresolved. As with Schrödinger’s cat, at once dead and alive, the cinemagraph forsakes closure; any sense of completion is lost in a state of perpetual, hypnotic suspense. But there is nothing mechanical about cinemagraphs; no cogs, wheels, and springs, no needles jumping in a groove. Instead there is only cold, binary code. Barthes’ sense of punctum, that lacerating wound in an otherwise smooth surface of photographic representation, thus transmogrifies into something more akin to a stuck programming loop.

Whether it is that lock of hair, forever pendulous in an invisible breeze, whether it is the fabric fold of a garment fluttering against an otherwise immobilised, lifeless figure, or some other poignant detail: let us not be fooled. Cinemagraphs do not reference some sort of punctum on steroids, some amplification of Barthes’ ideas by means of animation; punctum on a loop, so to speak, so that the Instagram generation may finally “get it” after sufficient repetition, and thirty years late. No, cinemagraphs merely appropriate punctum in the same manner that Instagram filters appropriate the nostalgic gamut of an allegedly more authentic age of Polaroids and Super 8. In the process, punctum is finished off, its original meaning forever-suspended in endless, uncanny repetition.

In his magisterial survey on the subject, Royle (2003, 1–2) argues that the uncanny “appear(s) to be indissociably bound up with a sense of repetition or ‘coming back’,…the constant or eternal return of the same thing, a compulsion to repeat.” This, he argues, goes hand in hand with “feelings of uncertainty, in particular regarding the reality of who one is…. It is a crisis of the natural, touching upon everything that one might have thought was ‘part of nature’: one’s own nature, human nature, the nature of reality and the world.” Royle attributes the uncanny to a “peculiar commingling of the familiar with the unfamiliar,” something which can be felt “in response to dolls and other lifelike or mechanical objects” (Royle 2003, 1–2).

Just like those ingenious mechanical contraptions made during the golden age of automata in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cinemagraphs, too, evoke the uncanny by dint of their apparent syntheses of robotic otherworldliness with life-like familiarity, of the dead with the undead. And both mechanical automata as well as cinemagraphs can be characterised as “self-operating after they have been set in motion” (Franchi and Güzeldere 2005, 27).

Yet, while mechanical automata are driven by the very constituents of the First Machine Age, the levers, gears, springs, cams, and crankshafts of industrialisation, the cinemagraph is constituted by code, the substrate of the Second Machine Age. Where the former represents an actualised expression of the anxieties and imaginations of the steam-age, its awestruck preoccupations with the magic of clockwork mechanics supposedly underpinning life itself, the latter speaks of a rather more contemporary disposition of foreboding and apprehension, one which only superficially alludes to something mechanical. What unites both is the lingering sense of dread and unease they evoke.



In Camera Lucida, Barthes’ reading of photography invites us to reflect upon who we are; it suggests that aside from all cultural context, punctum can unlock a portal that connects with time itself, thus amplifying our transient sense of humanity. Cinemagraphs on the other hand allude to our new destiny as hybridic cyborgs, undead zombies, whose external Gestalt betrays their internal, immaterial substrate of zeroes and ones. Whatever animated, punctum-esque detail we are looking at, there is nothing human left in these images. Instead we are witnessing an uncanny, post-apocalyptic, and transhuman state of trance, where (artificial) life is eternal, suspended in obsessive-compulsive repetition. The idea of what it is to be human, once upon a time captured alluringly by Barthes’ punctum, is vanquished in the process: our fleeting sense of being in the world, of a beginning and an end. The result of this dissolution within cinemagraphs is a medium, which combines the banal with the profound in the most startling manner. No wonder, the creators of the first cinemagraphs attest to their hypnotic quality.

It would therefore be shortsighted to attribute the recent surge in the use of cinemagraphs to novelty factor alone. On the contrary, I would argue that cinemagraphs have been successful, precisely because they do seem to operate in a discursive space that is cognisant of twentieth-century photo history. But above all, cinemagraphs tap into some fundamental anxieties that underscore our forced march toward the Second Machine Age: anxieties of disruption, upheaval, and alienation. Perhaps, there is, once again, a spectre that is haunting humanity; yet this time, it is the spectre of a disenfranchised, transhuman future.

In the spirit of Rubinstein, and with more than a mere nod toward Barthes, cinemagraphs may just be, in their own, insignificant, banal, and exceedingly commercial ways, expressive of this crisis.



Barthes, Roland. 1993. Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Vintage Books.

Batchen, Geoffrey. 2009. Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. London: MIT Press.

Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. 2014. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Dillon, Brian. 2011. “Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.” The Guardian, March 25. Accessed July 13, 2016.

Fitzpatrick, Tommye. 2013. “The Business of Blogging: Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg.” Business of Fashion, June 13. Accessed July 14, 2016.

Flicker, Michael Aaron. 2016. “Why Brands Should Embrace Cinemagraphs for Storytelling: Four Ways Marketers Can Use Cinemagraphs to Bring Their Brands to Life.” Advertising Age, January 5. Accessed July 15, 2016.

Franchi, Stefano, and Güven Güzeldere. 2005. “Machinations of the Mind: Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence from Automata to Cyborgs.” In Mechanical Bodies, Computational Minds: Artificial Intelligence from Automata to Cyborgs, edited by Stefano Franchi, and Güven Güzeldere, 15–149. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Indvik, Lauren. 2011. “How a Blogging Duo Is Changing Fashion Photography with Animated Cinemagraphs.” Mashable, October 5. Accessed July 14, 2016.

Kelly, Kevin. 2012. “Better Than Human: Why Robots Will – and Must – Take Our Jobs.” Wired, December 24. Accessed 12 July, 2016.

Lin, Joseph C. 2014. “When Photos Come to Life: The Art of the Cinemagraph.” Time Magazine, February 19. Accessed July 14, 2016.

Marshall, Jack. 2015. “Marketers Experiment with Cinemagraph Ads.” The Wall Street Journal, March 23. Accessed July 15, 2016.

Royle, Nicholas. 2003. The Uncanny. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Rubinstein, Daniel. 2015. “What Is 21st Century Photography?” The Photographers’ Gallery Blog, July 3. Accessed July 14, 2016.

Sloane, Garett. 2015. “Here Is the Captivating Ad Format Facebook Hopes Will Wow Its Users.” Adweek, February 10. Accessed July 14, 2016.

Trademark File. 2014. “Cinemagraph 85703768.” Trademark File, August 15. Accessed July 15, 2016.





This essay investigates cinemagraphs and their increasing use in social media and advertising. Following on from a brief survey of […]

The Dilemma of Media Art: Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA London


One year after the 1967 Summer of Love and at a time of considerable political unrest throughout the United States and Europe, “Cybernetic Serendipity—The Computer and the Arts” opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London to much critical and popular acclaim. This paper outlines the conceptual framework of this seminal exhibition and looks at some of the accompanying press reception in order to address a key question: how media art deals with its own historicity and the underlying socioeconomic forces that render it possible. Presented 35 years ago and still paradigmatic for the ever-shifting boundaries between art, technology, commerce and entertainment, Cybernetic Serendipity epitomizes some of the complicated dynamics that delineate the gamut of media art today.

The coming together of digital communications technology and art in the second half of the 20th century has attracted a considerable amount of debate. Throughout the early years of what is now called media art, a sense of great optimism about the possibilities of the new medium prevailed. As recently as 1997, during the halcyon years of the technology boom, a sense of genuine excitement was palpable among theorists and practitioners. Hans-Peter Schwarz, one of the founding directors of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany), described media art as an “explosive charge” at the gates of traditional artistic establishments [1].

A few years later, in the aftermath of the dotcom bubble, Schwarz’s explosive charge turns out to be a dud. The art establishment has not been blown to pieces; on the contrary, if anything, the enthusiasm for all things digital has suffered a considerable setback. But perhaps the time has come to debate the evolution of computer art with a greater sense of historical and critical distance. It is my intention to contribute to this debate with a review, 35 years after the event, of “Cybernetic Serendipity—The Computer and the Arts,” an early landmark exhibition of computer art at the ICA in London. Often regarded as a key event in the institutionalization of media art, Cybernetic Serendipity has been the subject of a growing number of papers [2], to which I would like to add a critique of the concept, realization and media reception of this important show. By identifying some opportunities missed in the wake of this exhibition, I want to raise a number of key issues concerning media art in general.

Happy Accidents

One year after the Summer of Love and at a time of considerable political unrest throughout the United States and Europe, Cybernetic Serendipity opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London on 2August 1968 (Fig. 1). Under the curatorship of Jasia Reichardt, then associate director of the institute, the exhibition brought together work from a total of “130 contributors, of whom 43 were composers, artists and poets, and 87 . . . engineers, doctors, computer scientists and philosophers” [3]. One of the ICA’s most successful projects, Cybernetic Serendipity drew an audience of between 45,000 and 60,000 [4].According to Reichardt, the exhibition “had visitors of all ages, all types, all nationalities, all classes” [5]. The exhibition closed on 30 October 1968.

The title of the exhibition suggested its intent: to make chance discoveries in the course of using cybernetic devices, or, as the Daily Mirror put it at the time, to use computers “to find unexpected joys in life and art” [6]. It was structured into three main areas; the first was dedicated to computer-generated graphics, film, music and poetry (see Figs 2–4). The second section provided a showcase for cybernetic devices, such as interactive installations, robots and painting machines (see Fig. 5). The third area was a “learning zone,” which dealt with the history of cybernetics and the demonstration of uses for computers (see Fig. 6). The list of contributing artists included Bruce Lacey, Wen Ying Tsai, James Seawright, Nam June Paik, Jean Tinguely, John Cage and Lowell Nesbitt, who exhibited a series of opaque, monochrome paintings of IBM computers. Presentations by General Motors and Boeing concluded the exhibition.

The level of logistic complexity involved in organizing, mounting and maintaining the show was unprecedented. Instead of handling traditional artifacts, the administrators and curators at the ICA found themselves in charge of extremely fragile computer soft- and hardware, which proved difficult to set up and run. Interactive systems in neighboring exhibits interfered with one another, and sound insulation proved a major problem. Compared to traditional projects, the difficulties involved in keeping the exhibition in working order were greater by several orders of magnitude. Owing to the unprecedented cost involved in mounting Cybernetic Serendipity, the need for corporate involvement was considerable, possibly stifling a more critical approach. After some initial reluctance on the part of industry, funding, benefit in kind and participation was secured, most significantly from IBM, Boeing, General Motors, Westinghouse, Calcomp, Bell Telephone Labs and the U.S. Air Force research labs. All in all, the resounding success of the exhibition seemed to vindicate the project.

The media reception of Cybernetic Serendipity was on the whole extremely favorable. In a review symptomatic of much press coverage, the Evening Standard enthused: “Where in London could you take a hippy, a computer programmer, a ten-year-old schoolboy and guarantee that each would be perfectly happy for an hour without you having to lift a finger to entertain them?” [7]The Guardian agreed that it “lured into Nash House people who would never have dreamed of attending an ICA exhibition before” [8].Cybernetic Serendipity promised fun for the whole family, not just an elite of art connoisseurs. “Children, scientists and the simply curious could spend fascinated hours in this world of computer art” [9]. The press celebrated the exhibition as an event that “guaranteed to fascinate anyone from toddling age to the grave” [10].Even the writer in The Lady felt compelled to urge that “one must go to the present exhibition at the INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ARTS . . . not to understand in the least what is going on but to experience that particular tingle which is inherent in an act of threshold-crossing” [11]. Art critic Jonathan Benthall declared that Cybernetic Serendipity would be remembered as a “landmark,” not least due to its “breeziness and catholicity” [12]. Others agreed: “For breaking new ground, revealing new fields of experiment, seminal importance, sheer hard work and enormous organization, the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity . . . is arguably the most important exhibition in the world at the moment” [13].According to Brent McGregor, “the status of the event was such that Umberto Eco came from Italy to view its wonders” [14].

Aside from the almost unanimous consensus that Cybernetic Serendipity was worth seeing, two recurring themes can be identified in the reception and presentation of the exhibition.

The End of Art?

Mario Amaya, in the Financial Times, pondered: “I am left with the sneaking suspicion that much of this exhibition has little to do with art as such. In fact, the show seems to be telling us more about what art is not, rather than what it could be” [15]. More to the point, Michael Shepard in the Sunday Telegraph found that “this exhibition . . . serves to show up . . . a desolation to be seen in art generally—that we haven’t the faintest idea these days what art is for or about” [16]. Robert Melville from the New Statesman went even further: “The winking lights, the flickering television screens and the squawks from the music machines are signaling the end of abstract art; when machines can do it, it will not be worth doing” [17]. According to Leslie Stack, the ICA’s information officer, “people will not know what has been created by the scientist and what comes from artists” [18]. Reichardt related an experiment, carried out under the auspices of Michael Noll at the Bell Telephone Laboratories, in which a sample audience attempted to distinguish a genuine Mondrian painting from a computer fake of a Mondrian painting: “59% of the people who were shown both the Mondrian and one of the computer versions preferred the latter, 28% identified the computer picture correctly, and 72% thought that the Mondrian was done by computer” [19].

Computers Are Fun!

Lingering doubts about the merits of “artistic” experiments with computer hard- and software aside, many observers emphasized the sheer fun that could be had by putting art and science together. Nigel Gosling remarked that “this exhibition . . . could have been mounted with equal validity in the Science Museum, and discussed with equal . . . understanding by a science correspondent” [20].The ICA’s Leslie Stack declared:


@extract = We want people to lose their fear of computers by playing with them and asking them simple questions. . . . So many people are afraid that computers will take over, but in this show they will see these machines will only do what we want them to. . . . Happy accidents . . . can happen between art and technology [21].

The Daily Mirror duly delivered a populist note: “Computers don’t bite, for it is a joyous exhibition” [22].Mario Amaya seemed to capture the atmosphere of Cybernetic Serendipity, describing it as “a veritable Luna Park of sideshows, display booths, and fun-houses, inviting visitors to touch, push buttons, talk or sing into microphones and television screens, or listen to speakers and earphones issuing sounds and information” [23]. The Evening Standard characterized the exhibition as “a kind of homage to electronics, with the emphasis on fun rather than art or technical achievement” [24].Katharine Hadley commented that “if the exhibition’s artistic achievement is controversial, for the sheer enjoyment of playing with some of 1968’s most ingenious computer toys, Cybernetic Serendipity is unrivalled” [25].Michael Shepard of the Sunday Telegraph described “the most sophisticated amusement arcade you could hope to find around, an intellectual funfair without parallel” [26], while John Russel from the Sunday Times saw “computers at playtime” [27].

Dissenting Voices

Overall, the praise for Reichardt’s undertaking seems almost unanimous and the near absence of critical debate equally striking. Could it be that the ICA’s “happy accidents” flourished so well because they were staged in an atmosphere of breathtaking naïveté? Only a few lone voices seem to acknowledge the more serious and inevitably unhappy accidents that litter the history of cybernetics. “Do not be fooled,” cautioned Michael McNay of the Guardian in a rare critical review of the exhibition: “Norbert Wiener . . . knew better. He published the first treatise on the new science not very long after the holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet he felt able to predict for cybernetics a destiny as fateful as for the atom” [28]. McNay correctly points out that “these words do not appear in the promotional literature for the exhibition, but in their shadow the jokes take on a pallid look” [29]. The writer in New Society put it more succinctly:

@extract = The conclusion is a rather sinister one for those who believe that cybernation is not a neutral development, but an instrument of a growing technocratic authoritarianism, which deserves the critical resistance and not the consoling fellowship of our artists. When we ignore the total social context in which they work, and begin to accept the after-hours fun and games of IBM technicians as art, we are not all that far from admiring the aesthetic surface of thermonuclear mushroom clouds and ballistic missiles [30].

The fact that Cybernetic Serendipity enjoyed tremendous popularity in the late summer of 1968 in London, while, in the words of its curator, “the same venture in Paris would have needed police protection”does indeed raise some important questions [31]. Critics might argue that, in the United Kingdom, the subversive momentum of 1968 never unfurled in the same way, with the same force, as it did in continental Europe or the United States; that Britain’s pathetic “revolt” hardly left the campus of the London School of Economics. Still, at a time of heightened global political awareness, not least in the wake of the American war in Vietnam, it seems extraordinary that the ICA did not deem it necessary to make any statements other than that “computers can be used for pleasure” [32]. Does this total lack of critical engagement with the socio-economic sphere point to a wider dilemma in media art?


Technology, Art and Politics: From Norbert Wiener to the Millennium Dome


Far from being the first exhibition to showcase art and technology in the postwar years, Cybernetic Serendipity was one of many high-profile events staged towards the end of a first phase of innovation and experimentation. But perhaps more successfully than any other exhibition at the time, Cybernetic Serendipity, with naïve enthusiasm, managed to capture a snapshot of art, entertainment, science and politics, all mixed up in a curious amalgam that came to be known as media art.

In the decades immediately after World War II, an increasing curiosity and competence began to emerge among artists, focusing on technology as a new means to facilitate exploration of and interactions with the physical environment. An interest in the use of industrial materials, chemical processes and state-of-the-art engineering practices characterizes many artistic experiments in the 1950s and 1960s.In the wake of these explorations, artists appropriated modern materials, equipment and scientific know-how, often in partnership with business corporations, research institutes, technicians and engineers. The utilization of scientific know-how, however, did not simply lead to a re-valorization of the art object and the materials that could be made of it. On the contrary, the integration of technology engendered a growing interest that went beyond a strictly object-oriented approach toward practices that focus on process, ideas and (inter-) actions. Concomitant with experiments in participation and interaction, with happenings, performances, land art and conceptual art, media art is often regarded as a conclusion of the de-materialization of the art object [33]. What better way to conceptualize the art object than to program a machine in a grammar of pure electronic differences [34], zeroes and ones?

Back in the 1940s, Norbert Wiener’s new science of cybernetics evolved from military experiments with feedback loops [35]. Wiener devised a tracking mechanism for anti-aircraft guns, feeding information about the predicted flight path of an enemy plane back into the system so that the gun could change its position accordingly. The whole contraption, including the gunner, could be defined as a goal-driven, dynamic system that responded to environmental changes in order to achieve predetermined objectives. The anti-aircraft gunner as part of an integrated, nervous—if not downright twitchy—system (Wiener’s “hunting” [36]), an early cyborg of sorts, constitutes a striking image for the emerging theory of cybernetics (See Fig. 7 for an exhibit that provided a prescient connection with cybernetics in the case of “Joey”).

Owing to its broad remit, cybernetic thinking lent itself to an extremely wide range of interdisciplinary practices and scientific discourses. Cybernetics promised to constitute nothing less than an integrative lingua franca, which biologists and mathematicians, economists and anthropologists were invited to take up and use [37]. By the mid-1950s, artists and composers also began to explore and engage with cybernetic thinking. Unlike mechanical technology, however, electronic hardware could only be obtained and manipulated in collaboration with industrial corporations. Engineers, whose help became indispensable, began to develop an interest in the work of artists.

When E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) formed in 1967, it was founded on the strong belief “that an industrially sponsored, effective working relationship between artists and engineers will lead to new possibilities which will benefit society as a whole” [38]. Indicative of the pitfalls that lie ahead when art, technology and entertainment are married under industry patronage, the E.A.T. project climaxed with the commission to build the Pepsi Cola Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair. Literally an inflatable edifice of smoke and mirrors, E.A.T.’s dome merged the psychedelic with the corporate, resulting in an experience akin to imagining Richard Wagner on acid. Gene Youngblood’s call for a “practical utopianism” by means of “perpetual fog banks and krypton laser rainbow light showers” [39]adds an almost tragicomic footnote.

In the British art scene, it was perhaps one individual, more than any others, who contributed to the spread of cybernetic thinking. In a letter to the editor of Studio International published in July 1968, Roy Ascott claimed precedence “as the artist responsible for first introducing cybernetic theory into art education in this country (Ealing 1961) and for having disseminated the concept of a cybernetic vision in art through various art and scientific journals in recent years” [40].Ascott’s Groundcourse, a unique program of study at Ealing School of Art (1961–1964) and later at Ipswich Civic College (1964–1967), incorporated innovative methods, such as behavioral psychology, chance operations and interactive collaborations. Groups of six students functioned as integrated units of self-regulation, who had to react to environmental stimuli according to predetermined parameters. Ascott’s 1964 show Diagram Boxes and Analogue Structures, at the Molton Gallery in London presented “a cybernetic model of art as an interactive system” [41]. For Ascott, the participatory nature of his art suggested a model in which environment, artist and audience were all part of the same system. Tellingly, however, Ascott’s innovative practice was not considered suitable for Cybernetic Serendipity.

Nonetheless, the exhibition’s pseudo-progressive message, wrapped up in a fun-fair of blinking, hooting robots, hit upon an impressionable sociopolitical and cultural environment. For the first time since the end of the war, Britain was experiencing a rapidly rising standard of living and the emergence of youth culture. Labour’s election victory in 1964 had put a modernization program at the top of the political agenda, and the prime minister’s call for a technological utopia is unforgotten. Outlining his vision of a modern Britain, Harold Wilson described a country “forged in the white heat of this revolution” where there would be “no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry” [42]. If Britain were to remain a player on the world stage, it would have to embrace modern technology, modern practices and modern thinking.

Against this backdrop, Cybernetic Serendipity fitted in extremely well, as it offered a lighthearted view of the modern world without raising too many (if any) objections or stirring fears. Rather than focus on the technocratic, threatening or plainly vacuous elements in Wilson’s vision, the exhibition merged science and technology with great entertainment and a dash of art. Staged when computers consisted of large, centralized mainframes guarded by a caste of stern programmers, Cybernetic Serendipity succeeded in injecting an overdue element of fun into the information-technology sector. Perhaps for the first time, it could be considered “cool” to be involved with computers. Especially for the young and impressionable, Cybernetic Serendipity provided a sense of excitement, much needed if Britain was going to compete successfully in the new age of digital computing.

According to Roger Beard in a 1968 issue of Technical Education & Industrial Training, the National Computing Centre (NCC), a government agency set up by in 1965 to encourage the growth of computer usage in the UK, “might well take a leaf from the ICA’s book” [43]. Beard attested to a widespread lack of “computer appreciation” in society and endorsed the ICA exhibition as “required viewing” since it achieved “in an instant” what the unwieldy, technocratic NCC could only dream of: a “re-definition” without which it was “undoubted that the computer will remain in an exclusive . . . field which the bulk of the next generation will no more understand than we do” [44]. Judging from the public reception of the exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipity certainly succeeded in increasing “computer appreciation.” More interestingly, however, it did so by transforming the austere “modernist computational aesthetic” [45], with its mainframes and technician programmers, into a new kind of cool, entertaining and decidedly postmodern spectacle.

Over 30 years on, Britain’s trendy media and IT industries were once again at the heart of government drives to promote an image of cutting-edge art and technology as national assets. Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” project and a plethora of new art and technology initiatives put New Labour’s new millennium into sharp relief. From dotcom start-ups around London’s Hoxton Square to the newly built Wellcome Wing of the Science Museum, the alliance between computers and art was portrayed once again as integral to the notion of a modern nation with a bright and prosperous future.

New Labour’s Millennium Dome project, however, came to epitomize the fallacy of “irrational exuberance” [46] and empty political rhetoric, a bubble that burst soon after the millennium fireworks had gone off. Packaged as a family-friendly exhibition of digital wizardry and sponsored by corporate business, the Dome project failed to recoup its cost and remains, to this day, a liability to the public purse. The magic formula that combined, in one big spectacle, science, entertainment, art and politics seemed to have lost its pulling power. However, in science museums, educational establishments and media art institutions around the world the spirit of Cybernetic Serendipity lives on. Interactive theme parks and digital teaching aids have become standard fare, except that, after over two decades of exposure to digital consumer products, the visiting public is perhaps less impressionable. If you own a PlayStation 2, why get excited about an interactive museum display unless you get blown away by more bang for your buck?

Cybernetic Serendipity, Supervening Social Necessity and Database Politics

Contrary to the assumptions made in Cybernetic Serendipity, science and technology are not self-sufficient, immune from outside influences, political pressures and economic interests. On the contrary, technological developments are symptomatic in character, and the socio-economic conditions that drive scientific progress must be understood if technology is to be brought to bear within artistic practice.

Why is it, for instance, that Charles Babbage’s proposals for an analytical engine in 1833 were only realized some 100 years later in Vannevar Bush’s Differential Analyzer? According to Brian Winston, technology is far more implicated in the social sphere than is usually acknowledged. He proposes a model that illustrates his point:

@extract = In this model, the “accelerator” is the supervening social necessity transforming the prototype into an “invention” and pushing the invention out into the world—causing its diffusion. But there is also a “brake”: this operates as a third transformation, wherein general social constraints coalesce to limit the potential of the device radically to disrupt pre-existing social formations. I will refer to this particular “concentration” of determining social factors as the “law” of the suppression of radical potential [47].

The success of an invention or a prototype, according to Winston, depends upon its perceived threat to institutional politics and associated business interests on the one hand and its perceived benefit on the other. Only if an unequivocal supervening social necessity becomes apparent can the invention enter into the phase of diffusion. Powerful factors, however, jeopardize the success and dissemination of the invention for some time. Winston argues: “Understanding the interaction of the positive effects of supervening necessity and the brake of the ‘law’ of the suppression of radical potential is crucial to a proper overview of how telecommunications technologies develop” [48].

Babbage’s analytical engine could not have been built in 1833, due to the absence of a supervening social necessity. Only with the increasing complexity of the American population census in the late 19th century and the emergence of a modern business culture could an impetus emerge. Yet it had to come to the “Firing Table Crisis” in the United States and the ENIGMA blackouts in Britain during World War II for Winston’s “law” of the suppression of radical potential to be crushed by emerging supervening social necessity [49].The need for military processing power had become overwhelming. Towards the end of World War II, the first electronic computers were operational, ready to be fully deployed in the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. The military-industrial complex had become the main driving force in the development of computer science. Michael De Landa warns that,

@extract = we may easily dismiss the role that the military played, arguing that without the intensification and concentration of effort brought about by the war, the computer would have developed on its own, perhaps at a slower pace. And I agree that this is correct. On the other hand, many of the uses to which computers were put after the war illustrate the other side of the story: a direct participation of military institutions in the development of technology, a participation which actually shaped this technology in the direction of uniformization, routinization and concentration of control [50].

While it may be simplistic to maintain that computer-scientific activity took place exclusively for and within the military sector, Arthur L. Norberg and Judy E. O’Neill point out that throughout the Cold War a strong “partnership” was encouraged between the military and the academic community [51]. The main driving force for military-technological developments was the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which was founded in the aftermath of the Sputnik shock of 1957:

@extract = When the space program accelerated . . . in 1957, digital computers became an integral part of that activity as well. The more sophisticated the various military systems became, the greater the demands placed on their computing elements [52].

Responsible for coordinating the academic research effort in electronics and engineering was ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO). According to Norberg and O’Neill, three major branches in computer science benefited from the massive injection of government money through the IPTO”: computer graphics—”the fundamental concepts behind the remarkable computer graphic images we encounter every day emerged primarily from research projects funded by the IPTO’; artificial intelligence —”IPTO . . . was the largest funder of AI in the world for at least a decade and a half after 1962—providing an amount far greater than the total provided by all other groups”; and networking—”It is well to remember that the basis for this program to connect us to the ‘Information Superhighway’ is only the latest chapter in the story of invention, development, and implementation of networking, a technology begun by IPTO” [53].

Here, then, we have the “happy” ingredients of Cybernetic Serendipity’s success: funny-sounding robots (see Fig. 5), interactive computer graphics, simulators and systems that react to the environment; in a word, a re-packaged and sanitized arsenal of high technology, straight from the laboratories of the American military-industrial complex (see Fig. 8). And not a single mention of the real driving force behind computer technology of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s can be found in the exhibition catalogue or in most of the accompanying press coverage: the demands of the U.S. war economy. Concerning computer technology’s supervening social necessity of the late 1960s, Cybernetic Serendipity excelled only in its conspicuous silence (see Fig. 6). This glaring omission is particularly poignant at a time of heightened global tensions, war in the Far East and political unrest in most major Western capitals. Cybernetic Serendipity, without doubt, failed to address what needed addressing; it did not balance the potential for entertainment with the need for critical reflection. It created a huge amount of enthusiasm about technology without revealing its hidden agenda or indeed its true potential.

Clearly, an analysis of the aesthetics of media art must recognize and acknowledge some sort of critical framework; it must investigate how, if at all, art and technology can engage with the supervening social necessity of its time without playing into the hands of those whose economic interests bring about the evolution of technology in the first place. An emergent medium founded on technologies of modern warfare must problematize issues that established artistic media need not take up. But if scientific progress is predetermined by socioeconomic forces, as proposed by Brian Winston, where exactly does that leave media-artistic practice? Can media art hope to escape the gravitational pull of the techno-economic sphere?

Media art is implicated in the process of organizing and perpetuating technological innovation and commercial dissemination in a way that traditional media such as painting and sculpture are clearly not. At the same time, however, it is ideally placed to put to use, disrupt or re-represent the streams of data that connect the economies of the information age. In a regime of ubiquitous consumption of content, media art could help augment criticality by subverting, disrupting and revealing the “total flow” of corporate data and by allowing connections and associations to be made where these are otherwise denied or obscured [54]. Media art could help recover and “augment” self-awareness and the importance of point of view. When cybernetic systems from electronic banking to interactive doormats become ubiquitous, data emerges as the key currency enabling the ebb and flow of information. Abstract and pristine in mathematical structure, and traveling with the speed of light through nodes and networks, data must be re-represented for human consumption as a sensory stimulus, as image, sound, smell, touch or taste. Media art can problematize this process of re-representation; it can discuss how meaning is constructed, how social realities are revealed and how subjectivity can be undermined or re-affirmed. Sensory stimuli that re-translate bits of information back into human bandwidth do not need to dumb down, immerse and pacify the human recipient. Media art can recover “statistical representation as political performance” [55], it can introduce database politics as the site for critical practice, operating from within an all-encompassing “information paradigm” [56]. At a time when the interface between human and computer begins its evolution into an alluring, multi-sensory spectacle, not least thanks to willing media artists such as Youngblood, Cybernetic Serendipity does not address the need for such practice. On the threshold between modernist computing with its towering stacks of punch-cards and the rather more entertaining, corporate kind of immersive computing, the ICA exhibition presents art as the willing progenitor of the latter.


To be sure, the ICA exhibition represents an early landmark in the evolution of digital media. Paradigmatic for the institutionalization and commercialization of media art over the last decades, Cybernetic Serendipity anticipated the blurring of boundaries between art, science, technology and entertainment, between corporate interests and artistic integrity. Exemplary for the appeal of the great promises made early in the computer age, Cybernetic Serendipity epitomizes the dilemma much of media art faces today: its complicated relationship with the socio-economic environment, the difficulty of engaging with its own historicity and transcending mere techno-fetishism, and the all-too-familiar sense of a naïve, unbridled optimism with its inevitable pitfalls and false dawns.

If exhibitions must pull crowds, however, Cybernetic Serendipity was a resounding success. Completely unlike the dour and self-referential hermeticism of conceptual art in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cybernetic Serendipity pointed far ahead to the more recent phenomenon of interactive scientific theme parks and popular blockbuster exhibitions. The exhibition generated a sense of excitement about technology, especially amongst a younger audience, to a degree that can only be described as “unheard of” in the context of an arts institution. However, the widespread absence of critical debate in the wake of this exhibition represents a serious omission on the part of the organizers and points to a wider dilemma that media art needs to address in order to be taken seriously.



I am grateful to Steven Johnstone and David Evans for their suggestions and Jasia Reichardt for her invaluable help and generosity.

References and Notes




Hans-Peter Schwarz, “Discourse 1: Media Museums,” in Rebecca Picht and Birgit Stöckmann, eds., Media Art History (New York: Prestel, 1997) p. 11.


P. Brown, “30 Years On: Remembering Cybernetic Serendipity,” Outline, The CTIAD Journal 6 (Autumn 1998) pp. 3–5; Mitchell Whitelaw, “1968/1998: Rethinking a Systems Aesthetic,” ANAT (Australian Network for Art and Technology) (June 1998) <>; Brent MacGregor, Cybernetic Serendipity Revisited (Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh College of Art, 2002).


Jasia Reichardt, “‘Cybernetic Serendipity’— Getting Rid of Preconceptions,” Studio International 176, No. 905, 176–177 (November 1968).


The figures are somewhat contradictory. Jasia Reichardt counted “more than 60,000 visitors during the eleven weeks of the exhibition.” Reichardt [3] pp. 176–177. Michael Kustow, however, then director of the ICA, in an interview with the Guardian, cited a much lower figure: “In eleven weeks 45,000 saw it, it is now touring America, and with luck it will lose no more than £4,000.” In Terry Coleman, “Wild in the Mall: Terry Coleman on the ICA’s Financial Crisis,” Guardian (5 December 1968).


Reichardt [3] pp. 176–177.


David Clemens, “Scene,” Daily Mirror (9 August 1968).


“Fun by Computer,” Evening Standard (2 August 1968).


“Happy and Unexpected Discovery Closing,” Guardian (19 October 1968).


Katharine Hadley, “Serendipity with Cybernetics,” in Hampstead and Highgate News (9 August 1968).


Michael Shepherd, “Machine Mind,” Sunday Telegraph (11 August 1968).



“In the Art Galleries,” The Lady (15 August 1968).


Jonathan Benthall, “Lucky Computers,” The Listener (15 August 1968).


Shepherd [10].


MacGregor [2].


Mario Amaya, “Software in the Mall,” Financial Times (13 August 1968).


Shepherd [10].


Robert Melville, “Signalling the End,” New Statesman, (9 August 1968).


Leslie Stack quoted in Linda Talbot, “Meet the Friendly Robots,” Hampstead and Highgate Express (26 July 1968).


Jasia Reichardt, “Computer Graphics—Computer Art,” in Jasia Reichardt, ed., Cybernetic Serendipity—The Computer and the Arts, exh. cat. (London: Studio International Special Issue, 1968) pp. 70–71.


Nigel Gosling, “Man in an Automated Wonderland,” in Observer (4 August 1968).


Talbot [18].


David Clemens, “Scene,” Daily Mirror (9 August 1968).


Amaya [15].


Evening Standard [7].


Hadley [9].


Shepherd [10].


John Russel, “The Art of the Computer,” Sunday Times (4 August 1968).


Michael McNay, “Blind Idiots Need Not Apply,” Guardian (2 August 1968).


McNay [28].


“Aesthetic Gadgetry,” New Society (8 August 1968).



Reichardt [3].


Talbot [18].


Jack Burnham, “Systems Esthetics,” Artforum 7, No. 1 (September 1968) p. 31.; Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object (New York: Praeger, 1973).


Roy Ascott, “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?” Art Journal 49, No. 3 (1990) p. 241.


Norbert Wiener, “Introduction,” in Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999; originally published 1948) pp. 11–12.


The term “hunting” is used in mechanical engineering to describe pathological oscillations between two fixed points. The mechanism, due to its initial inertia, overshoots the target coordinates, but receives instant feedback resulting in an over-correction in the opposite direction and so forth. Wiener and Rosenblueth saw a connection between this and other mechanical phenomena and symptoms in patients with neurophysiological damage. For an early appraisal of these ideas, see Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow, “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology,” in Philosophy of Science 10 (1943) pp. 18–24.


Steve J. Heims, Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America—The Cybernetics Group 1946–1953 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993; originally published 1991) pp. 27–28.


Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg, E.A.T. News 1, No. 2 (June 1967).


Gene Youngblood, “The Open Empire,” Studio International 179, No. 921, 177–178 (April 1970).


Roy Ascott, “Cybernetics—Letter to the Editor,” in Studio International 176, No. 902 (July/August 1968) p. 8.


Roy Ascott, e-mail to the author (2000).


Harold Wilson, “Speech by the Rt. Hon. Harold Wilson MP,” in Report of the Annual Labour Party Conference (London: Labour Party, 1963) pp. 135–140.


Roger Beard, “Editorial: The Computer,” Technical Education & Industrial Training 10, No. 9 (September 1968).


Beard [43].


Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen—Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997; originally published 1995) pp. 18–36.


Allan Greenspan, Speech to the American Enterprise Institute (1996).


Brian Winston, Media Technology and Society—A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet, (London: Routledge, 1998) p. 11. For a diagrammatic rendition of Winston’s model, turn to Figure 7 on p. 14.


Winston [47].


For the production of so-called firing tables, a huge number of differential equations had to be calculated. Goldstine recalls that “a typical firing table required perhaps 2,000–4,000 trajectories,” and quotes from a working memo from the Ballistic Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, of 1 February 1944, stating that “‘even with the personnel and equipment now available, it takes about three months of work on a two shift basis to turn out the data needed to construct a director, gun sight, firing table. . . . The number of tables for which work has not been started because of lack of computational facilities far exceeds the number in progress.” Quoted in H.H. Goldstine, The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993 [1972]) pp. 138, 165–166. The “firing table crisis” eventually led to the development of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer).  The British equivalent of the “firing table crisis” was of course the crucial effort to crack the German Navy’s ENIGMA codes in the U-boat war. Alan Turing’s efforts in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park succeeded by May 1941, enabling British intelligence to read all U-boat messages within one day. Yet improvements in German encryption efforts led to a number of ENIGMA blackouts, when, once again, Allied intelligence could not decode German radio traffic sufficiently speedily to influence decision-making on the ground. Turing and his team decided to solve the increasing mathematical complexity of code breaking by building Colossus, an advanced electronic computer, which was completed in 1943.


Manuel De Landa, “Economics, Computers and the War Machine,” in Gerfried Stocker and Christine Schöpf, eds., Infowar (New York: Springer, 1998) p. 167.


Arthur L. Norberg and Judy E. O’Neill, “Introduction,” in Transforming Computer Technology: Information Processing for the Pentagon 1962–1986 (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000) p. 1.


Norberg and O’Neill [51] p. 4.


Norberg and O’Neill [51] pp. 151–197.


A compelling example of disruptive strategies can be found in Brecht’s “Epic Theatre.” Rejecting “culinary” consumption, Brecht favored interruption over intoxication; he juxtaposed more than he fused together in order to make the audience realize, recognize and respond, rather than dream and escape in theatrical pseudo-reality. See Bertolt Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre,” in John Willett, ed. and trans., Brecht on Theatre—The Development of an Aesthetic (London: Methuen, 1990; essay originally published 1948) p. 194.


Natalie Jeremijenko, “Database Politics and Social Simulations,” in Barbara London, ed., Technology in the 1990s: Natalie Jeremijenko, MOMA, (2000) [originally published 1995]; <>.


N. Katherine Hayles, “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers,” October 66 (Fall 1993) pp. 69–70.   

General Bibliography

Briers, David. “Star Dot Star,” Art Monthly 219, (September 1998) p. 50.

Burnham, Jack. Beyond Modern Sculpture (London: Penguin, 1968).

Burnham, Jack. “Art and Technology: The Panacea That Failed,” in John Hanhardt, ed., Video Culture (New York: Peregrine Smith Books, 1986).

Shanken, Edward A. “From Cybernetics to Telematics: The Art, Pedagogy, and Theory of Roy Ascott,” in Edward A. Shanken, ed., Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness by Roy Ascott (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001).

Manuscript received 22 June 2001.

Rainer Usselmann is the recipient of the 2003 Art Journal Award. He teaches theory and practice of photography and media art at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth, U.K.

Fig. 1.

“Cybernetic Serendipity,” exhibition invitation, front.

Fig. 2.

Andrew Rawlinson, computer poetry, 1968.

Fig. 3.

Plotter print-out. Computer Graphics by Peter Milojevic, McGill University, Montreal. Milojevic created his graphics program in Fortran on an IBM 7044, which was connected to a Calcomp 565 plotter.

Fig. 4.

Installation view. To the left, Sidebands by Hugh Riddle and Anthony Pritchett, 1968. These graphic forms are stills from a kinetic sequence using oscillographic techniques, which are used for frequency measurement. The system on display was originally developed to generate graphics for the television trailer of the BBC science fiction series “Out of the Unknown.”

Fig. 5.

Nam June Paik, Robot K-456, 1963. “A female robot known for her idiosyncratic behavior,” K-456 was first exhibited at the 1964 New York Festival of the Avant-Garde. A year later, Paik’s robot went on show in Wuppertal, Germany, as part of 24 hours, a Fluxus-inspired Happening.

Fig. 6.

“Highlights of the History and Technology of IBM Computers from 1890 to the Present.” The display was produced by IBM for an exhibition entitled “History and Technology of Computers,” which was held at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., in 1967. The IBM section won the gold medal as the most outstanding exhibit of that year at the 1967 “International Display World Competition.”

Fig. 7.

The Mechanical Boy, drawing by Joey. In 1959, Bruno Bettelheim published an account of “Joey,” a boy who thought of himself as a robot. Joey constructed machines in his bedroom and attempted to connect himself with imaginary wires to power outlets in order to perform basic bodily functions. Bettelheim argued that Joey’s autism was caused by his unloving parents. Joey’s drawing shows a man whose body is formed by electrical wires.

Fig. 8.

William Fetter of the aircraft manufacturer Boeing is credited with introducing the term “computer graphics” in 1960 for his computer generated “human factors” cockpit drawings. The renderings, based on U.S. Air Force data, were used to determine cockpit configurations suitable for human capabilities. Boeing Computer Graphics, two “50-percentile” pilots (i.e. average in functional dimensions) in a cockpit. Equipment used: Keypunch IBM 1400C reader printer, IBM 7094 computer, Gerber plotter.

ABSTRACT One year after the 1967 Summer of Love and at a time of considerable political unrest throughout the United […]

18.Oktober 1977: Gerhard Richter’s Work of Mourning and Its New Audience

The Art Journal Award, established in 2001, is awarded for a distinguished contribution (article, interview, conversation, portfolio, review, or any other text or visual project) published in Art Journal during the preceding calendar year. Rainer Usselmann is the 2003 recipient of the award. His essay, “18.Oktober 1977: Gerhard Richter’s Work of Mourning and Its New Audience,” which appeared in the spring 2002 issue of Art Journal, is a superbly historicized and theoretically sophisticated treatment of a very challenging and (for many American viewers) enigmatic body of work.

Usselmann offers the reader a dynamic consideration of the multiple temporal and geographic contexts in which Richter’s artwork resides by examining the political events that are their subject matter, the date of creation of the actual paintings, its reception in both Germany and the U.S., and the controversy over the work’s current location in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Through this investigation, the author raises key issues about the power and purpose of political art in the wake of postmodernism.

Committee: Valerie J. Mercer, Detroit Institute of Arts, Chair; Maurice Berger, Vera List Center for Art and Politics; Jacquelyn Days Serwer, Corcoran Gallery of Art; Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Harvard University

The Art Journal Award, established in 2001, is awarded for a distinguished contribution (article, interview, conversation, portfolio, review, or any […]


1 Einleitung


Im grauen London finden Gegensätze auf eine andere Weise Ihren Ausdruck. Das Wetter bietet sie jedenfalls kaum; dafür ist es zu gleich bleibend trist. Im diffusen Zwielicht eines nichtendenwollenden Nieselregens verschwimmen die Höhen und Tiefen, das „hier“ und „dort“, Ecken und Kanten verflachen, der Blick verliert seine Schärfe. Ein Schleier von müder Trübheit legt sich aufs Gemüt.


Das Verschwinden der Jahreszeiten wird allseits beklagt; lebt man in London, wird einem umso mehr bewusst, warum gerade ein strenger Winter dem darauf folgenden Frühling soviel Bedeutung verleiht, warum der Sommer sich vom Winter grundsätzlich unterscheiden sollte, und warum das graue Einerlei ein schlechter Ersatz für Licht und Schatten ist. An jedem trüben Tag begleitet einen die Sehnsucht nach kalt oder warm, nach hell oder dunkel, nass oder trocken. Allein, es bleibt beim monochromen Mittelmaß.



2  Stationen einer Meditation


Wer eine Reise tut, muss von dem Einen zum Anderen gelangen, von hier nach dort oder von jetzt auf gleich, von gestern nach heute oder von heute nach morgen. Eine Fahrt von hier nach hier ist gar keine, weil es keinen Weg zurückzulegen gibt; genauso wie ein Fußballspiel, welches jetzt angepfiffen wird und im gleichen Moment schon wieder vorüber ist, kaum der Mühe wert wäre. Auch käme der Handel schnell zum Erliegen, wenn sich die Kosten für Waren und Dienstleistungen überall auf der Welt gleichen würden. Und so geht es weiter: die Debatte zwischen Menschen gleicher Auffassungen ist eine langweilige Angelegenheit, genauso wie die Buntheit des Karnevals der düsteren Uniformität eines rechtsradikalen Aufmarsches vorzuziehen ist.


Auch stehen nach dem bekannten physikalischen Prinzip gleiche Flüssigkeiten in verbundenen Gefäßen gleich hoch. So hört beispielsweise der Wasserspiegel auf, in der Schleusenkammer zu steigen, wenn er das Niveau des Oberwassers erreicht. Ohne den Höhenunterschied zu Beginn kommt es gar nicht erst zu einer Fließbewegung. Anders ausgedrückt: die Konvergenz des Systems zum Ende dieses Ausgleichsprozesses setzt seine Divergenz zum Anfang voraus. Umgekehrt jedoch bedeutet Konvergenz als Ausgangspunkt nichts anderes, als das Nichtzustandekommen dieses Prozesses. Stille Wasser sind eben nicht nur tief, sondern fangen oft auch an, faul zu riechen, wenn nichts mehr fließt, wenn sich nichts mehr bewegt. Der sprudelnde Bach ist alle Mal lebendiger als der tote Arm eines flurbereinigten Flusses.


Aber bringen wir hier vielleicht die Dinge durcheinander? Schließlich handelt es sich bei den Eigenschaften des Wassers um physikalische Grössen, die sich auf etwas beziehen, dass man tatsächlich begreifen, ja anfassen kann. Genauso gibt es keinen Zweifel an der Entfernung zweier Städte, der zeitlichen Dauer eines Fußballspiels oder dem geringen Kontrastumfang des Londoner Lichts. All das ist erfahrbar, messbar. Das ist bei der erwähnten Debatte zweier Menschen schon schwieriger. Doch warum sollte man Attribute, wie man sie in der Welt der Dinge und Phänomene findet, nicht auch auf abstrakte Konzepte anwenden können, wie beispielsweise in Kunst und Philosophie, oder auch in der Sphäre menschlichen Zusammenlebens?


Handelt es sich nicht um Symptome, die alle entweder von einem Prozess des Wandels und Austauschs, beziehungsweise der Möglichkeit eines solchen Prozesses gekennzeichnet sind oder eben das Erliegen dieses Prozesses, sogar sein Nichtzustandekommen beschreiben?


In der Biologie spricht man von Osmose, wenn durch Diffusion ein Konzentrations-gefälle zweier Stoffe mit der Zeit langsam aber stetig ausgeglichen wird. Man spricht von Osmotischem Druck, oder auch Osmotischem Potenzial, um die Kraft zu beschreiben, mit der die unterschiedlichen Lösungen der größtmöglichen Diffusion entgegenstreben. Je größer das Konzentrationsgefälle beider Lösungen, desto höher das Osmotische Potenzial und desto höher der Druck, mit welchem das System den Konzentrationsausgleich sucht. Mit voranschreitender Vermischung beider Stoffe schwächt sich der osmotische Druck kontinuierlich ab, bis er schließlich ganz zum Erliegen kommt, wenn ein vollständiger Konzentrationsausgleich vorherrscht. Das heißt, wenn die Verteilung beider Stoffe an jedem Punkt des Systems gleich ist, tendiert das Osmotische Potenzial gegen Null. Die Diffusion der unterschiedlichen Systemkomponenten findet also nur solange statt, wie ein Konzentrationsgefälle gegeben ist – das Vis-a-vis zweier identischer Lösungen setzt keinen Austausch in Gang, da es keinen osmotischen Druck von der einen zur anderen Seite gibt. In dem Fall kommt ein Stoffwechsel gar nicht erst zustande und das System beginnt zu atrophieren.


Was passiert also, wenn Dinge immer ähnlicher erscheinen, weil der Kontrast zwischen Hell und Dunkel soweit abflacht, dass Schatten keine Schatten mehr sind und Lichter diese Bezeichnung nicht mehr verdienen? Wenn dem Blick die Schärfe fehlt, die so wichtig ist, um die Dinge zu erkennen, da alles in ein eintöniges Grau gewandet ist? Wenn wir vor Langeweile nichts mit uns anzufangen wissen, weil wir alle einer Meinung sind? Oder wenn der gesellschaftliche Diskurs mehr und mehr verflacht, sodass ein echter Austausch von Konzepten, Lösungen und Utopien nicht stattfindet, da es nichts mehr gibt, was auszutauschen sich lohnt? Wenn die Positionen der Parteien sich soweit angenähert haben, dass es sich nicht lohnt zu wählen? Wenn ein Ort so ist wie der andere, und wir uns fragen müssen, warum wir uns überhaupt auf die Reise machen? Wenn alle Geschichten vom Selben erzählen, und es keinen Sinn mehr macht, zuzuhören? Wenn der Kaffee überall gleich schmeckt und wenn ein Tag dem anderen gleicht, und ein Mensch dem anderen?


Wie kann ein kultureller, ökonomischer oder persönlich-zwischenmenschlicher Austausch stattfinden, ohne dass es etwas auszutauschen gäbe?


Genauso dürfte es schwer fallen, die Genesis von Sternen und Galaxien zu erklären, ohne auf die minimalen Schwankungen einzugehen, die kurz nach dem Entstehen des Universums bestehen mussten, damit überhaupt etwas zueinander finden konnte. Ohne Störungen der theoretischen, idealen Singularität – ohne Schwankungen und Ungleichgewichte in der kosmischen Supersymmetrie – wäre alles im Zustand einer ewigen Ursuppe verblieben. Denn bei einer absolut gleichmäßigen Ausbreitung von Partikeln und Kräften würden die aufeinander wirkenden Komponenten sich gegenseitig aufheben und ausgleichen, ohne dass es zu einer Konzentration von Himmelskörpern, wie hier bei uns in der Milchstrasse oder sonst wo im Universum, gekommen wäre. Vielleicht war am Anfang eben nicht nur das Wort, sondern auch und eben gerade die Asymmetrie, eine Art kosmische Unwucht, von der alles Weitere seinen Lauf nahm, den konzentrischen und überlappenden Kreisen gleich, die ein in das Wasser geworfener Stein verursacht; ohne diese Unwucht, ohne dieses Ungleichgewicht – und still ruht der See.


Kann man nun von physikalischen Gesetzmäßigkeiten auf einen größeren erkenntnistheoretischen Zusammenhang schließen? Was bedeutet es, wenn Gegensätze und Unterschiede ihrer Gegensätzlichkeit und Unterschiedlichkeiten beraubt werden? Wenn alles Verschiedene immer ähnlicher und ähnlicher wird, und schließlich keine Unterschiede mehr existieren; wenn es kein Begehren, keine Neugierde mehr gibt nach dem Anderen, dem Fernen, dem Unbekannten, weil das Andere, Ferne und Unbekannte nicht mehr ist? Wenn kein Austausch mehr stattfindet von Ideen und Substanzen, weil nichts mehr auszutauschen ist, was es nicht sowieso schon in gleicher Form überall gibt? Wenn jedes Zeichen mehr und mehr seiner Umgebung gleicht bis es sich schließlich spurlos im Ganzen verliert? Wenn nichts mehr auffällt? Wenn alles in ein gleichmäßiges Grau übergeht?


Nach dem zweiten Hauptsatz der Thermodynamik verteilen sich die Dinge in einem geschlossenen System mit zunehmender Zeitdauer immer unordentlicher bis zu einem Zustand maximaler Entropie, also der größtmöglichen, zufälligen Unbestimmbarkeit. Wer schon einmal Tinte in ein Wasserglas gekippt hat, weiß, dass zunächst die schönsten blauen Wolkenformationen entstehen en mineature – leider dauert es nicht lange und die Tintengebilde im Glas verschwinden in einem immer gleichmäßigeren Schleier, bis schließlich nur eine monochrome Färbung übrig bleibt. Was jetzt auf den ersten Blick einen ordentlichen Eindruck macht – ein Glas mit Blau– ist nichts anderes als eine Verwischung allen örtlichen Ungleichgewichts, aller Gegensätzlichkeiten, und aller Konzentrationsgefälle, welche in den ersten Momenten der Vermischung auftraten. Im Endzustand sind alle Wasser- und Tintenmoleküle so verteilt, wie es am wahrscheinlichsten ist: mit maximaler Zufälligkeit. Gleichmäßige Unordnung ist statistisch gesehen eben wesentlich wahrscheinlicher als ungleichmäßige Ordnung und so wird es mit zunehmender Zeitdauer immer schwieriger, etwas anderes zu erkennen, als ein immer weiter um sich greifendes Einerlei.


Oder versuchen Sie mal, in einem Bildbearbeitungsprogramm in den „Rauschen“ –Filter zu gehen und maximales Rauschen zu erzeugen – Sie werden sehen, wie sich das Bild vor Ihren Augen gleichsam in seine Bestandteile auflöst. Wo gerade alles noch seine Ordnung hatte und Hunderttausende von Pixeln in Millionen von Farben wie von einer unsichtbaren Hand geordnet, ein jedes an seinem richtigen Platz, ein fotografisches Bild konstituieren, ist nun nichts als ein uniformes Bildrauschen in 6 Grundfarben zuzüglich Schwarz und Weiß. Die statistische Wahrscheinlichkeit, einen Bildpunkt in einer der 6 Grundfarben oder in Schwarz oder Weiß an einem ganz bestimmten Punkt anzutreffen, ist nun genauso hoch wie einen Punkt in einer anderen der 8 möglichen Tönungen irgendwo anders. Mit zunehmendem Rauschen wird so jedes sinngebende Muster, jedes Zeichen, jede außergewöhnliche Gruppierung von Bildpunkten – und somit jede erkennbare Botschaft – immer schwächer und schwächer, bis schließlich nichts als eine sinnentleerte Informationswüste übrig bleibt. Farbliche Unterschiede, ja Gegensätze zwischen einzelnen Bildpunkten sind zwar durchaus vorhanden; durch ihre statistisch völlig gleichmäßige Verteilung über die gesamte Oberfläche jedoch entzieht sich dem Bild jede Aussage: es ist gleichsam sinnlos geworden. Das Ergebnis ist ein gleichförmiges, inhaltsleeres Einerlei, welches sich aus der in höchstem Maße zufälligen Verteilung seiner unterschiedlichen Bestandteile ergibt.


Nach dem großen Rauschen ist eben alles irgendwie genauso wie alles andere und rechts oben sieht aus wie links unten und umgekehrt. Würde man das Bild in Baselitzscher Manier auf den Kopf stellen, so machte das in keinster Weise auch nur irgendeinen Unterschied aus. Der Bildinhalt und damit die Möglichkeit eines daraus entstehenden Diskurses – alles das und vieles mehr ist dem Bild abhanden gekommen.


Sind es nicht gerade die statistisch eher unwahrscheinlichen Zusammenballungen und Anordnungen von ganz bestimmten Bildpunkten in ganz bestimmten Farben an ganz bestimmten Orten, die in ihrer Summe erkennbare Elemente des fotografischen Bildes darstellen? Ein erhöhtes Vorkommen blauer Pixel im oberen Teil des Bildes beispielsweise signalisiert in seiner Summe „Himmel“ so wie die Ansammlung von Pixeln in vielen verwandten Rottönen weiter unten im Bild, als Gruppe und aus der Distanz betrachtet, den Blütenstock einer Blume abbilden könnte. Ohne diese und die vielen anderen unterschiedlichen Muster statistisch unwahrscheinlicher Gruppen von Bildpunkten kann es kein sinnvolles fotografisches Abbild mehr geben.


Kann man also zu dem Schluss kommen, dass unwahrscheinliche Unterschiede letztlich von entscheidender Bedeutung sind für einen funktionierenden Stoffwechsel physikalisch-biologischer, aber auch phänomenologischer und epistemologischer Art? Dass das, was sich abhebt von jenem, welches es umgibt, – sei es der Wasserstand in der Schleuse, die Konzentration zweier Stoffe in einem Glas oder einfach eine Idee oder Theorie – eher zu einem Austausch führt, als das, was von seiner Umgebung nicht, oder nicht mehr, zu unterscheiden ist? Dass Unterschiede, so unwahrscheinlich sie auch sein mögen, trotzdem immer da gegenwärtig sind, wo das Leben selbst ist – so wie letztlich das Leben selbst höchst unwahrscheinlich ist? So könnte man das Leben als Osmotischen Prozess von der Unwahrscheinlichkeit in die Wahrscheinlichkeit verstehen, an deren Ende der Stoffwechsel der Unterschiede in einem Zustand maximaler Homogenität – im Tod nämlich – zum Stillstand kommt.


Im Gaußschen Weichzeichner kann man das sehr schön darstellen und beispielsweise ein Foto bis zur Unkenntlichkeit verwischen. Zum Schluss bleibt nur ein opaker, eintönig-gräulicher Schleier, der das gesamte Bildfenster ausfüllt – und wieder hinterlässt das Bild, welches einem gerade noch vor Augen steht, keine Spuren mehr. Natürlich muss man nicht soweit gehen -  man kann auch mit einer geringeren Einstellung vorlieb nehmen. Doch selbst die schwächste Verwischung führt zu einer Abnahme von Kontrast, einer Verringerung von Kantenschärfe und somit zu einer gesteigerten Ambivalenz: weniger Erkennen – mehr Tagträumerei, weniger Klarheit – mehr Verschwommenheit und Verunsicherung, weniger Deduktion – mehr Extrapolation und Spekulation, weniger Rationalität – mehr Gefühl. Da wo eben noch eine Fotografie von einem Moment in der Zeit zeugte, den es tatsächlich einmal gab, wo uns gerade noch Roland Barthes’ Punctum berührte, wie ein Pfeil direkt auf unsere Seele gerichtet; wo sein Studium uns einlud zum Verweilen,  – da verschlingt uns dieses graue Nichts und löscht alles aus, was einmal war; vergangenheitslos, undifferenziert und im wahrsten Sinne ohne jeden Anhaltspunkt – das Zeugnis einer absoluten Entleerung. In Extremis bleibt tatsächlich nichts als ein eintöniges, endloses Grau, in dem die Geschichte unseres Abbildes unwiderruflich verloren geht.


Vielleicht liegt das stille Grau, dieses müde Einerlei, am Anfang und Ende einer jeden Geste, eines jeden einzigartigen Ausdrucks, am Anfang und Ende aller Unterschiede. Vielleicht ist es nur eine Frage der Zeit, bis eben alle Energie verbraucht ist und Allem alles Andersartige entzogen ist und nur ein gesichts- und grenzenloses, gleichmäßig verteiltes Grau übrig bleibt. Unterschiede, welche ihrerseits nur mit einiger Energie entstehen, verflachen und werden schließlich wieder ganz aufgehoben: Asche zu Asche, Staub zu Staub.


Im Werk Gerhard Richters, insbesondere in seinen unterschiedlich stark verwischten Photomalereien gibt es Momente, in denen der Künstler sich dieser gräulichen Entleerung annähert, ohne sich ihr aber total auszuliefern. Der graue Schleier ist allgegenwärtig, Abgrenzungen zwischen Farben und Formen verschwimmen und der Blick findet wenig Halt. Und doch bleibt meistens ein Mindestmass an verwischter Figuration – man hat das Gefühl, als schrecke Richter davor zurück, das Bildhafte gänzlich auszulöschen und den Schritt in den Abgrund einer totalen Kenosis zu tun. Vielmehr gelingt es dem Maler, in seinen Bildern die Bedingungen zu schaffen, unter denen es zu einer Entleerung kommen kann, letztlich aber nie kommt. Im Gegenteil scheint sich das Bildhafte vor den Augen des Malers doch immer wieder aufs Neue zu rekonstituieren, gewissermaßen in einem trotzigen Akt vitaler Energie, um dann wieder aufs Neue der unvermeidlichen Grisaille ausgesetzt zu werden. Als gestalterische Strategie eingesetzt, macht es dieses Spiel mit der Entleerung dem Betrachter letztlich unmöglich, das Bild dauerhaft und vollständig zweifelsfrei einzuordnen und zu begreifen. Der Grad der Entfremdung entspricht dem Maß der Verwischung: je diffuser und gräulicher die Bildoberfläche, desto ungreifbarer und entrückter ihr Gegenstand. Nicht zuletzt in Richter’s RAF-Zyklus erfährt diese Herangehensweise ihre beeindruckende Apotheose.


Gäbe es für solcherart Verwischungen eine Entsprechung in der Musik, so fände sie vielleicht im transzendental-sakralen OM oder auch AUM, jenem mystischen Urklang eines noch formlosen Universums, seinen Ausdruck. Bar jeder musikalischen Pointierung, jeder Phrase, jeden Kontrapunktes und jeden Satzes; entleert jeder Improvisation und Interpretation, erfährt im AUM das hoch komplizierte System musikalischen Ausdrucks seine konsequente Auflösung. Wo beispielsweise eine vielstimmige Bachsche Fuge direkt aus dem vollen Leben schöpft, mit all seinen komplizierten Regeln, Strukturen, Hoffnungen, Idealen und Konflikten, immer im ständigen Miteinander sich ergänzender und widersprechender Kräfte, da kommt im AUM jeder Musikalische Stoffwechsel zum Erliegen. Ohne jedes Thema, welches auf seine Ausarbeitung warten könnte, ohne jede Chromatik, ohne irgendetwas, was zu einer Entwicklung einlädt; ohne Hoch oder Tief, ohne Pianissimo oder Allegro Moderato oder ohne jegliche bewusst gesetzten kompositorische Dissonanzen, suggeriert das AUM auch und gerade die musikalische Entsprechung des bis zur Unkenntlichkeit verwischten Bildes oder, wenn man so will, des gleichmäßig mit blauer Tinte gefüllten Glases. Man könnte sagen, dass im AUM die Polyphonie Barocker Kompositionskunst in einer allumfassenden Monophonie seine vollständige, dialektische Auflösung (Diffusion) findet. Dem komplizierten Duktus der Fuge, welcher ein Höchstmass an studierter Wachsamkeit und Bewusstseinswerdung voraussetzt, steht im AUM die sakrale Entrückung gegenüber, das Verschmelzen mit der unendlichen Weltseele.



3 Schlussbetrachtung


Und doch scheint da eine gewisse Unvermeidbarkeit zu existieren, ein verführerisches Gravitationsfeld, welches von dem allumfassenden Einklang ausgeht. Es scheint gleichsam, als könnten wir gar nicht anders, als langsam aber sicher unsere Gegensätzlichkeiten aufzugeben und uns letztendlich der unwiderstehlichen Entleerung hinzugeben, jenem Zustand nämlich, in dem alles Bangen und Hoffen, alles Lachen und Weinen, und alles Streben und Hadern seine Ruhe finden möchte. Genauso wie das Wasser in der Schleusenkammer gar nicht anders kann als solange den Ausgleich zu suchen, bis Parität mit dem Oberwasser erreicht ist, oder wie die Tintenwolken langsam, aber unausweichlich, in einen gleichmäßig-monotonen, blauen Schleier übergehen – und so wie wir unsere Gesprächspartner solange von der Richtigkeit unserer Argumente zu überzeugen suchen, bis sie, so hoffen wir, schließlich nicht mehr anders können, als mit unserem Standpunkt eins zu werden.


Mögen diese Prozesse unvermeidlich sein, solange es Gegensätzlichkeiten auszugleichen gibt. Mit dem Eintritt in das vermeintliche Nirwana maximaler Stasis, mit dem Ende jeden Austauschprozesses also, entfernen wir uns jedoch unwiderruflich vom Leben selbst, jenem bunten Durcheinander, welches Alles, uns Menschen eingeschlossen, auf mehr oder weniger unterhaltsame Art und Weise vor sich her wirbelt. Jedes System, so scheint es, braucht zunächst einmal alle Gegensätze und Ungleichgewichte, um überhaupt als System funktionieren zu können und als solches erkennbar zu sein. Sind alle Gegensätze beseitigt, kommen die Metabolismen zum Stillstand und der Austausch zum Ende.


Vielleicht spielt es prinzipiell wirklich keine Rolle, welcher Art die Systeme und ihre konstituierenden Gegensätze nun sein mögen; ob es sich um soziale Systeme, physikalisch-biologische – oder Systeme des Verstehens und Erkennens handelt; was im Fluss ist und seinen Ausgleich sucht, muss sich so oder so seinen Lauf bahnen und seine Energie abbauen – es aufzuhalten, würde letztendlich bedeuten, Energie aufzustauen, die sich in der Zukunft wohl noch vehementer entladen muss – und je größer die Gegensätze, desto abrupter und machtvoller der Austauschprozess, durch den das System, einer Naturgewalt gleich, dem Ausgleich entgegenstrebt.


Wäre es aus diesem Grunde nicht einfach besser, wenn wir unser persönliches Nirwana weniger in der Vermeidung und Aufhebung von Unterschieden und Gegensätzlichkeiten suchen würden, sondern in deren Akzeptanz und dem neugierigen, besonnenen und intelligenten Umgang mit den Chancen, die sich daraus ergeben – auch den unvermeidlichen Austauschprozessen? Das kann lehrreich, produktiv und bereichernd sein, aber auch schwierig und schmerzhaft -  allein, haben wir wirklich eine Wahl? Solange uns, und der Welt um uns herum, die Energie innewohnt, die es möglich macht, die komplizierten, widersprüchlichen und ineinander verwobenen Systeme von Gegensätzlichkeiten in all seinen Ausprägungen aufrecht zu halten, solange haben wir aktiv Teil am Leben selbst – mit allen seinen unvermeidlichen Protuberanzen – ob wir es wollen oder nicht.


So ist auch London, seiner vielen verschiedenen Menschen und Kulturen wegen, eine energie-geladene, vitale Stadt – ungeachtet des eintönigen Wetters. Immer wieder bleibt einem gar nichts anderes übrig, als seinen Standpunkt neu zu beziehen, relativ zu etwas Anderem – einfach weil es vom Anderen so viel und an jeder Straßenecke aufs Neue gibt. Entgegen seinem grauen Äußeren bietet die Metropole jede Menge Möglichkeiten zu kulturellem, wirtschaftlichem und persönlichem Austausch und Wachstum. Da ist es schon zu verschmerzen, dass im grauen Londoner Licht auf den ersten Blick alles gleich trüb erscheinen mag.


Es braucht allerdings ein gehöriges Maß an Energie, die vielen Gegensätze und – in der Folge – die immer wieder einsetzenden Austausch-Prozesse aufrechtzuerhalten. Erscheint es auch unwahrscheinlich, dass der Stadt jemals die Gegensätze ausgehen, so ist es mit vielen der darin lebenden Menschen schon anders: wem die Energie knapp wird, den zieht es nach einiger Zeit aufs Land.



Rainer Usselmann, London, September 2009

1 Einleitung   Im grauen London finden Gegensätze auf eine andere Weise Ihren Ausdruck. Das Wetter bietet sie jedenfalls kaum; […]

From Stasis to Ekstasis: Creating Gradients of Desire.

Every time I drive my car, I cannot but marvel at the sheer complexity of traffic, its volatility, and lifelike behaviour. On a given morning, hundreds of thousands of individual journeys are channelled through an intricate network of roads and motorways. Like goal-driven, independent agents, people interact through their vehicles with other agents in response to changes that occur when other agents interact through their vehicles with them. Despite its highly differentiated structure, this system can produce states, which are surprisingly stable: traffic can flow smoothly despite high volume. In the process, everyone seeks to adjust their behaviour so that the probability of reaching his or her destination increases in time.


Yet, the system always seems on the brink; every journey is different, every driver drives differently, reacts differently to changes in the system, and there is a great variety of vehicles. In the face of this complexity, it is difficult to predict if or when the system is most likely to brake down; when it is best to change lanes in order to avoid a tailback, or when it is advisable to diverge from the chosen route. Often, a shockwave of slowing vehicles moves backwards, for no apparent reason, the deceleration of cars increasing in an inverse direction; or, at certain points along the way, one lane of traffic seems clogged up while, almost inexplicably, another is still moving. Yet, this state never seems to last very long. Eventually, traffic on the clogged up lane starts to spill over into the empty lane(s) until both lanes move with similar speed. This corrective behaviour can also result in over-compensation so that the lane, which was previously fast-moving becomes totally clogged up and the slow lane clears. Over time a pulsating effect can be observed when fast and slow lanes change back and forth.


Traffic must flow for everyone to succeed in reaching their destination and complete his or her journey. As long as there are gaps to take advantage of, as long as there is spatial differentiation, traffic will flow. However, when too many vehicles try to flow through ever decreasing space, a backlog builds and grows non-linearly until, somewhere behind, traffic comes to a complete halt. With no way forward, no fast lane to change into, and no gap to fill, the system brakes down. Vehicles are designed to move, roads are built to project that movement from point to point, and yet, occasionally, paralysis sets in and everything grinds to a halt. For moments, minutes or hours, the system cannot metabolise, it has, for all intents and purposes, turned into an organism that shows no signs of life. At this state, every part of the system seems to become undifferentiated. No matter how powerful the engine, what shape the vehicle, or how experienced the driver, no matter whether the vehicle is a bus, an articulated lorry or a sports car, in the state of paralysis, every constituent part of the system is the same in one crucial aspect: it has stopped moving. Sameness and stasis replaces difference and interaction. Differentiation within the system, while virtually present, cannot be actualised because one significant difference is absent: the difference between here and there. In the middle of a traffic jam, only the ‘here’ is actualised, ‘there’ is not an option; if it were, traffic would begin to move towards it.


After a while, however, spaces do open up, and once again, traffic begins to flow towards the attractive emptiness of an open road. Once again, structural differentiation within the system can emerge because a significant spatial difference can be actualised: the gradient between here and there. It has become possible again to move away from ‘here’ and towards ‘there’, and it is possible to do so in a great multitude of ways. It is possible once again to traverse that shared space in constant interaction with others who do the same differently for different reasons and on different journeys. It is possible to drive carefully or recklessly, to be respectful to others, or to ignore speed limits. As the system wakes from its paralysis it displays, once again, its baffling complexity.


Can I be myself without that which I am not? Can that which IS, be understood without reference to that which is NOT? Can some-thing be distinct from no-thing without differentiating both from one-another? We cannot, according to Mark C. Taylor, ‘assert anything without not saying something else.’ In affirmation, so it seems, we find negation and vice versa: ‘[…] to say A is not to say B.’01 George Spencer Brown posits ‘that we cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction.’02 Formless reality, George Bataille’s ‘Informe’03, is transformed from the non-specific to the specific by means of a distinction that engenders difference. Gregory Bateson famously defined information as ‘a difference which makes a difference.’04 One distinction brings forth another and another until it eventually ‘re-enters what it distinguishes’ and the act of recognition is ‘forced to encounter itself as one of its own objects.’05 Heinz von Foerster distinguishes between first- and second order observation, ie. between an observation and the observation of an observation. M.C Escher’s picture of a hand that draws the hand, which draws the hand, illustrates this concept of self-reproducing self-reflexivity. Without an original distinction implicit in the act of observation, however, there would be nothing to observe, nothing to identify, and nothing to discuss.


An I cannot constitute itself without its Not-I. The Not-I is that which surrounds the I: Not-I is what I is not. Becoming an I is to become distinct from the Not-I. Sustaining identity is to see Other-ness as indispensable. To be aware of the I is to be aware of the I and the Other. Being aware as an aware being authenticates I and Other in an act of reciprocal interaction. The perceived difference between I and Not I, or I and Other, is the condition of its existence. For Ranulph Glanville ‘the distinction of the self and other implies the distinction of the self, and the distinction of the self implies the distinction between self and other.’ That which we cannot differentiate remains beyond recognition; it defies comprehension. For us, nothing exists unless something can be distinguished, or made distinct, from that which it is not. Whether or not something can actually exist outside the gamut of perceptual distinctions has been the subject of much debate. In their seminal paper “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain”, Maturana, McCulloch and Pitts showed that perceived reality is conditional upon sensory observing interfaces. The experiment showed that, rather than registering the whole of its enveloping environment, the animal’s sensory system seemed to filter, omit and thus construct a reality. Unable to distinguish slow objects, the frog was able to detect fast movement only. In other words: In a frog’s world, there are no slow moving animals, only speeding insects.According to Ernst von Glasersfeld, the structure of observing systems is inevitably partial and constructed. Systems of distinctions, which are necessary to render observed reality observable, are built over and above an all encompassing whole without ever covering it completely. Yet without making a distinction, nothing can be differentiated at all.


Making a mark engenders a Deleuzian gradient of desire, allowing ‘the current to flow,’ communication to ensue, information to be exchanged and energy to be transformed. The line, which separates the circle from its surrounding emptiness, raises curiosity, invites speculation and demands explanation. Why does it exist? What is the relationship between interior and exterior spaces? Exactly what does the line divide? Jean Dubuffet, whose ‘Art Brut’ very much privileges the mark, describes the process of transforming the formless as such: ‘The point of departure is the surface one is to bring alive – canvas or a piece of paper- and the first stroke of colour or ink that one lays on it; the resulting effect the resulting adventure.’ For George Spencer-Brown, ‘a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart.’


Every time I drive my car, I cannot but marvel at the sheer complexity of traffic, its volatility, and lifelike […]

CAA Art Journal Award

New York, February 19th 2003

First and foremost, I would like to thank former Executive Editor Janet A. Kaplan and Editor Michelle Lee-White, without whom I would not be standing here today. Janet took the time to engage with a dense piece of writing that was submitted to Art Journal entirely on spec whilst Michelle made sure that I wasn’t going to win the Bad Grammar Award.


When I left last Sunday, London was on terror alert. Tanks and armoured vehicles had been deployed around Heathrow to discourage anyone from shooting down airplanes with surface to air missiles. For better or worse I had booked an Air India flight, only to be told by a Pakistani colleague that that was a bad idea; (Kashmir and all). It seemed, the timing of my journey was a little bit unfortunate, especially since New York had been put on Orange Alert, the second highest on the new colour coded homeland security scale. With war on Iraq imminent,  I almost packed a couple of rolls of duct tape but decided against it since I wasn’t sure what use sticky tape would be in a terrorist attack.


It was very reassuring to wake up on Monday morning in the midst of the worst blizzard New York had seen in decades.


Perhaps this is what the Chinese mean when they say to people they don’t like: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ For these are interesting times indeed. And it is not the weather we are worried about.


As we are gathered here in this great city to discuss and celebrate art in all its facets,  we will also, without a doubt, question if and to what extent the times we live in should find their way into our work. Can we as artists, writers, critics, curators and educators avoid taking issue with the world around us? Does art lose its autonomy when it engages with the socio-political sphere? Is it rendered meaningless, a mere ornament, if it doesn’t?


When Gerhard Richter decided to paint dead terrorists, he violated, according to Benjamin Buchloh, and I quote, ‘the prohibition against representing historical subjects in modern painting as well as the taboo against remembering this particular episode of recent German history.’ In other words: this was not the done thing. Richter broke the rules.


History painting had been declared dead long ago, David’s Marat, Goya’s The Third of May 1808 or Picassos’s Guernica all but distant memories of painting’s erstwhile possibilities. But more importantly, after a series of terrorist attacks in Germany throughout the 70s, culminating in the events around the 18th of October 1977, the general public in Germany was in no mood to be lectured about the complexities and ambiguities involved in terrorism. Things seemed far more clear-cut. You would certainly not think of describing dead terrorists as the victims of their own ideology.


And yet, Gerhard Richter did just that: he appeared to be inviting us to see perpetrators as victims, icons of an emblematic and collective failure. Rather than de-humanise or demonise terrorists, Richter seemed to be doing the very opposite:  granting murderers the dignity of a compassionate gaze. By stripping bare some core qualities that we can all relate to: personal hopes and dreams, aspirations and tarnished ideals, Richter invites us to recognize ourselves, our own humanity, in the ghost-like figures of the dead. If we manage to do that, if we manage to overcome our rage and mourn the murderer as well as the victim, we are already taking the first and decisive step towards reaching out and overcoming our divisions together.


’18. Oktober 1977’ appeals to an idea of humanity that rejects ideology, indeed one that goes beyond all ideology, an idea that connects perpetrators with victims for what they share not what divides them. It is fair to say however, that this position was and still is, and not just in Germany, extremely controversial if not downright unthinkable.


In my text, as published in Art Journal in 2002, I wonder whether Richter’s work of mourning can outgrow its German roots, now that it is located in New York. Only time will tell. I am sure however that we, as practitioners and theorists in the arts, will have to continue to address and reflect upon these issues in our work too if art is to retain currency and meaning.


In times such as these, we need art more than ever to brake the rules, to think the unthinkable and put ourselves in touch with what it means to be human.


Thank you very much.


Rainer Usselmann

New York, February 19th 2003 First and foremost, I would like to thank former Executive Editor Janet A. Kaplan and […]

Flow and Presence in Bill Viola’s ‘The Passing’

II.        Introduction:


When, in a 1998 article, Peter Lunenfeld described video as ‘simultaneously exhausted and energized’01 he gave expression to the extraordinary success with which audio-visual media have been transforming a whole gamut of cultural production over the last decades. From the museum’s white cube to the dingy dungeons of underground clubs; from nose cones of smart bombs to You’ve Been Framed; from Driving School  and Police Stop!   to the Rodney King tape and Jamie Bulger’s abduction02; from Sojourner’s Marsian panoramas03 and the Web Cam phenomenon to Video Nation - the sheer gravitational pull of video imagery seems both, irresistible and crushing. Marc Mayer concedes in a 1996 exhibition catalogue that


[…] video’s theoretical and practical possibilities are so inconceivably vast, its versatility so immeasurably profound and of such perplexing unorthodoxy, that even after a quarter of a century, the medium’s defenders are still struck with vertiginous awe as if glimpsing the sublime. 04

Yet there seems to be little time to remain struck with ‘vertiginous awe’ in the face of video’s tantalizing possibilities since the medium is itself becoming engulfed in a much wider and further-reaching re-framing of representational politics: the shift towards digitization. The availability of cheap processing power, coupled with the unlimited flexibility of digital data, as it flows with the speed of light from one node to another, has already brought about an uncanny convergence of previously separate media. This re-framing can be witnessed in particular in its implications on film, photography, music and the graphic arts. With the increasing convergence of digital media, video is set to become but a significant part of a much broader drive towards a more ‘spectacular’ culture and its manifestations in, what is euphemistically called, Media Art..05 Hans-Peter Schwarz from the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie  (ZKM) in Karlsruhe anticipates nothing less than a paradigm shift:


[…], a new art form rattles at the gates of the museum  – not to get in this time […], but to deposit an explosive charge, which could […] break down or at least make holes in the firm walls behind which the museum protects its treasures […]: the art of the digital communications media.06


From the early days of video art as a potentially subversive practice07 to the total absorption of audio-visual media into 1990s’ consumer culture, traditional institutional politics are coming under increasing pressure. Whilst video art in the 1960s and 70s could be understood as an oppositional gesture, critiquing the signifying practices of the television medium, the 1980s and 90s 08 have brought about an unprecedented ‘cult surrounding electronic images’, one in which video plays an essential part by ‘linking together the planes of space and time, fiction and reality, the critical discourse and the everyday.’ 09 Today, it seems, video art no longer operates from the fringes, away from the mainstream of cultural production, but as ‘an integrative “lingua franca”’ 10 of visual culture per se. In its poignant pairing of high technology with ubiquity, video, embedded in the broad text of Media Art, contradicts the selective and highly ‘competent’ curatorship, which traditional institutional practice necessitates. Exactly how could  video art be exhibited without transforming the white cube into a communal television-viewing facility, a commercial theme-park or the secular chill-out lounge of a dance-venue?


The trend towards large-scale video installations, which is evident in a recent series of ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, has to be seen as a counter-movement, as an answer to video’s full-scale immersion into mainstream culture. An affirmation of a canon of ‘great masters’ in video art would then be inversely proportionate to its lost autonomy, its lost independence.11 Perhaps by celebrating the ‘unique’, the ‘extraordinary’, the  ‘overwhelming’, or simply the sheer scale of a select few works, institutional practice seeks to re-affirm the object of art and the role of the artist.


Having won numerous awards and fellowships, Bill Viola is, without doubt, amongst the most established and celebrated artists at work today; he is, to be sure, an undisputed member of that canon of ‘great masters’.12 Bill Viola’s pieces are known to operate on a grand scale and with an astonishing degree of technological sophistication, often rivaling that of commercial film-production. Whilst his latest work is characteristic of a certain tendency, which Elaine King, in a 1998 review of Viola’s work, aptly described as a propensity towards ‘Wagnerian theatricality’ or even ‘showiness’13, some of his earlier pieces seem more ‘subdued’. One of these more ‘subdued’ pieces is called ‘The Passing’.


In choosing to discuss one particular text in preference to any other possible choice, I acknowledge the near tautological dilemma, which is immanent in all critical writing: selection foregrounds interpretation and the interpretation of culture from within culture cannot be situated outside culture. My choice, then, has to be explained as contingent upon a certain number of presuppositions, which may or may not be extracted from material parameters accessible through the work itself. This project of significant signification, as it is constructed around a number of specific notions and projected onto the work and its interaction with the surrounding culture, could be described as the work’s discursivity.14 Any imbalance, disturbance, interruption or even absence in the semiotic economy of the thing itself and its immersion in the here-and-now, renders an exchange possible, facilitates discursivity. According to Saussure, this economic metaphor depends on a measure of difference, which is necessary for the resumption of an exchange: for difference implies process and process implies difference.15 Sameness on the other hand levels the flow and terminates the exchange.16 With no osmotic potential  manifest in the work, and no exchange between the work and its exterior meta-texts, any discursivity  that could emanate from or be projected back onto the text must stall, leading to stasis and closure. A question, then, has to be formulated as to how we can assess the potential for discursivity   inherent in a given text.


To make available and assess the potential for discursivity  in ‘The Passing’, I intend to describe origination, format, technology and the distribution of this tape first, before I proceed with a discussion of medium-specificity and its ideological superstructure.17 Tracing a lineage of deterministic criticality, from Greenberg via Fried, Krauss and Williams to Frederic Jameson I propose to query the notion of ‘total flow’ and its validity in a context of contemporary sensibilities. ‘The Passing’ could be regarded as almost emblematic in this debate since it seems to be situated exactly in between  critical positions. It is through ‘The Passing’ that Viola literally passes on to a television audience his subjectivity 18, transmitting images of deep personal traumas, experiences, and visions.In doing so ‘The Passing’ not only exemplifies the very possibility of publicly broadcast video-art but also, and at the same time, its narcissistic overtones. In addition, ‘The Passing’ seems to stand out as one of only a few low-key, single monitor pieces in Viola’s recent decidedly theatrical and sculptural video-oeuvre.19 This then will serve to highlight the intriguing dialectic inherent in video art as it moves between institutionalized cult and mass-mediated mainstream.


In my conclusion I will argue for a revised notion of ‘total flow’ to facilitate discursivity   in contemporary video art.




II.I       Description:


‘The Passing’ is a single monitor, monochrome video tape, which was commissioned by the public German television station Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen  (ZDF)  as part of its Das Kleine Fernsehspiel  20 slot and jointly funded with the American National Endowment for the Arts in 1991. The 54 minute tape premiered on October 14, 1992 at 10:40 p.m. on ZDF and was broadcast in Britain on Channel Four to coincide with a survey of Viola’s work at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery, in December 1993.


Viola shot the sequences for ‘The Passing’ between 1987 and 1991 at or near his Long Beach home as well as on various locations in the scenic American West 21(Plates 5, 6 and 9; pp. 31, 32 and 35). Employing sophisticated night-sight, infra-red, and ultra-low-light imaging technology, many of the desert shots appear to be taken in total darkness. Interspersed with the landscape footage we can discern, more or less clearly, a catalogue of persistent images: a bearded man (Viola; Plate 1, p. 27) in close-up, an elderly woman in a hospital bed (Viola’s mother Wynne Lee Viola; Plate 4, p.30), a child (Viola’s first son Blake; Plate 3,p. 29) playing on a beach and at a birthday party, a new-born baby (Viola’s second son Andrei) and a man floating under water, tangled up in white sheets of fabric (Plate 7, p. 33). The faint likeness of a young woman (His wife Kira Perov or perhaps Viola’s mother?) is revealed briefly before it disappears from view again. A freight train emerges slowly from a tunnel (Plate 2, p.28) with screeching wheels before it heaves past and into the night.


The repeated recurrence of some of these motifs places ‘The Passing’ firmly in the context of Viola’s oeuvre as a whole, albeit on a less monumental scale than usual. Amongst the various meta-forms, which Viola seems to employ, his insistence on the water metaphor (Plate 10; p. 36) and the juxtaposition of ’old’ (death) with young (birth), stand out as particularly noticeable.22 Similar parallels to Viola’s other, more sculptural pieces, can be found in his masterly manipulation of audio and the centrality, which it occupies in this tape. As is the case in many of his other works (sic.), sound seems absolutely indispensable to ‘The Passing’, too. For it is the tape’s overwhelming score of steady breathing that conditions the audience irrevocably towards the pre-text ‘sleep’. Every now and then, however, the breathing seems to fade and we can hear muffled and strangely drained sounds, which appear to be choreographed to coincide with the stream of images. Cleverly manipulating amplitude and wavelength of the recording, Viola creates sound-scapes, which amplify the spatio-temporal element in his work. Water sounds heavy, gelatinous and enveloping; children’s laughter seems to literally drift past, a constant drone accompanies the hospital scenes and then again: breathing, slow and steady, only occasionally interspersed with the bodily sounds of saliva and swallowing. Overall, the sound is instrumental in creating and constantly re-affirming the spatial intimacy, which seems to enshroud the viewer. We are literally invited into the enticing sensuality of Viola’s dream-world and placed as close to the physicality of those who are involved in it, as the medium permits. It appears as if we are made to feel that we have indeed become a part of Viola’s extended family of man.23


In ‘The Passing’ Viola develops the narrative of a sleeper (Viola himself), who is slowly falling a sleep and waking up just to finally drift away again. As his mind ebbs and flows along the no-mans-land of consciousness, that in-between-state, where the physical being seems to dissolve into a repository of intermingling sounds and images, the audience is there to bear witness.


The tape’s blurred, luminous and auratic timbre entices the viewer to accompany Viola on his passage into the semi- and sub-conscious, yet the title of the piece does not just seem to allude to a passing between different states of consciousness, it also evokes the grander narratives of life and death. For it could be argued that the making of ‘The Passing’ coincided with a period of personal crisis and trauma in Viola’s own life.24 In a 1997 article and interview for Art News, Viola, together with author Hunter Drohojowska-Philip, attempted to retrace his life in the years between 1987 and 1991. A compelling autobiographic narrative emerged, which, if taken into account, could establish a valuable pre-text to the work in question. After years of successful work as an established video artist, numerous installations which ‘increased in length and complexity, and visual pyrotechnics, the demanding exhibition schedule began to take a toll’25 To find ‘relief’26, he and his wife traveled for five months through the American South-West. Yet nothing seemed to work: ‘I had a creative block and couldn’t get the images to work [...] It was a difficult time’. 27 The death of Viola’s mother two years later and the birth of his second son Andrei within nine month of her death, ‘focussed [his] investigations in a very real way’.28 Viola finished ‘The Passing’ that same year (1991) and a further nine new installations in the following 12 month.


The making of ‘The Passing’ coincided with the introduction of the 8mm videotape format in 1988, which opened the production of video to the home-user. In its wake, a new wave of ‘reality-tv’ programming arrived and subsequently became an integral part of public broadcasting schedules. Shows like Cops, America’s Funniest Home Video’s, America’s Most Wanted  and I Witness Video  appear and firmly establish the use of video/camcorder footage as part of popular TV formats around the world. With the availability of cheap and good quality recording technologies, the balance of video usage shifts from the purely passive mode of absorption (video-rentals, MTV) towards a more involved mode of production-consumption. Firmly embedded in the ‘spectacular’ consumer economics of the late 1980s and 90s, the camcorder revolution begins to have an impact on the domestic photo-album as the site of ‘social memory’.29 Sean Cubitt, in his interpretation of ‘The Passing’, acknowledges:


There are elements of The Passing  that read as images from a family album, albeit an unusual one, in that it includes what is most often excluded from the family’s set of recollections – images of dying and death – along with toddlers’ first steps, birth and holidays.30

As video diaries begin to supplant family snapshots in their role of affirming individual identity by embedding it in social ritual, the currency of the ubiquitous video image is further augmented through the stream of images released in conjunction with the use of high-tech weaponry in the 1991 Gulf War. 31


To be sure, the practice of video production and consumption changed dramatically. 32 With the increasing availability of 8mm tape and home-video camcorders, the technology necessary to make video more widely accessible, had finally arrived. 33 Bill Viola’s ‘The Passing’ was made and publicly broadcast at a time of significant changes to the video economy as a whole; changes, which subsequently decentralized and dismantled the mediums exclusivity and yet affirmed its role in the powerplay of capitalist politics.



‘The Passing’ is available for viewing from the Film and Video Umbrella in London, éditions à voir in Amsterdam and the Electronic Arts Intermix in the US.






II.II      Interpretation:


We have now established a number of discursive spaces, within which ‘The Passing’ can be seen to operate. Its historic specificity can inject meaning and significance into the web of possible readings, which might be spun around its textuality. The process of inscribing significance by opening up or making available a work’s discursivity  is now leading to specific readings in specific contexts. ‘The Passing’ can begin to function as a ‘significant’ text, which highlights a particular point in the development of a genre, a significant period in the life and work of its author and the broader historical context of its time. It can be seen as symptomatic for a notion of change, both in socio-historical as well as in strictly autobiographical terms. Its origination in the late 1980s and early 1990s places it at an important juncture in video art practice and visual culture on the whole. If the discursive space, within which ‘The Passing’ operates, can be identified as a particularly significant (made meaningful through signification) moment in time, in its art-historic, autobiographic as well as socio-economic associations, we can perhaps regard ‘The Passing’ as a point of departure. It could be seen as a moment when video-art as a genre moved towards more theatrical, sculptural and installation based work, due to the widespread availability of cheap video-recording technology. As Dave Beech so aptly observed:

Video art used to be routinely shoved into the corner of the gallery on little monitors. Now, with the development of the looped tape and the use of large-scale video projection, it has learnt how to give painting and sculpture a run for their money. Video projection is to the 90s art what shop display was to the art of the 80s: a trademark by default. 34


The 1990s public, it seems, does not any longer ‘come to museums looking for more television to watch’.35 Instead, artists are ‘now poised before the prospect of creating a categorically different species of video monster, a monstrous theater that television cannot emulate.’36 To be sure, Bill Viola’s work, as it developed from the making of ‘The Passing’ to his more recent pieces (sic.),  can be seen as symptomatic for just such an attitude. This, then, imbues ‘The Passing’ with significance that cannot be derived from the web of discursivity , which resideswithin  the work and its formalist attitude, but from its relation to the exterior  historicity of its own medium.37 The currency of the video-diary format, as an increasingly popular means for the production of social identity, must equally be seen in the context of socio-economic developments, which actually provided the means necessary for such a shift (sic.). ‘The Passing’, with its fly-on-the-wall disposition and its unashamed display of private emotions and traumas, fits quite neatly into the narrative of 1990s image production-consumption. For we can easily discern an acutely personal sensibility in its audio-visual narrative, eager to be shared with as large an audience as possible. In keeping with the modus operandi   of the video-diary genre, we can safely deduce that the title of the piece implies ’the passing on of the artist’s mother and the passing on of genetic and cultural material to his infant son, […] the passing of time, […] and a passing between dream and waking.’38 All, one might add, intensely private moments, which are nevertheless shared with a potentially large community of television viewers. Pierre Bourdieu, in his sociological analysis of popular photographic practice, examines the currency of the ‘ordinary’ in domestic image production.

Unlike fully consecrated artistic activities, such as painting or music, photographic practice is considered accessible to everyone, […] and those involved in it do not feel they are being measured against an explicit and codified system defining legitimate practice in terms of its objects, its occasions and its modalities; [...].39


The same could, perhaps, be said about the inherent nature of the video-diary format, since the opening of video production to the average household went hand in hand with the introduction of the 8mm format. To be sure, the implication of the ‘private’ and ‘personal’ in ‘The Passing’ does point towards an aesthetic of ‘The Everyday’ as opposed to the institutional regimes of competence and connoisseurship.


If ‘The Passing’ can be understood to operate in the gap between an increasingly sculptural tendency in video art on the one hand and, to phrase it with Benjamin, its widening ‘secularisation’40, manifest in video’s mass-mediated assimilation in television culture, on the other; if ‘The Passing’ can be situated exactly between these two emergent positions, what does it say about the nature of video art and its possibilities in the early 1990s in general and the medium-specificity of ‘The Passing’ in particular? Or, to ask with Rosalind Krauss: within what  discursive space does video, as a medium, operate today?


When Theodor Adorno criticized Benjamin’s notion of the art object as cult object and instead expressed his own idea of how art’s autonomy  could be achieved through the ‘uttermost consistency in the pursuit of [its] technical laws’41, he foreshadowed the up-coming debates around medium-specificity, which subsequently attained currency in Greenbergian modernism. In a controversy, which found its continuation in the writings of Michael Fried, Raymond Williams, Rosalind Krauss and Fredric Jameson, the object of art itself is at stake. For apart from notional differences, a certain consensus seemed to imply that the dialectic within a work of art could be traced back to the materiality of its component parts. An investigation into the specificities of the medium and its different genres could unearth technical laws, which would govern the practice of artistic expression. Only through a complete understanding of the technical laws, which are understood to govern this or that particular medium, could a discourse be opened. This implied that a given medium had to be firstly comprehended in its essence and its qualities before any critical engagement could commence. According to Clement Greenberg, in Towards a newer Laoocon, the ‘purity’ of a work of art was primarily contingent upon its adherence to and acknowledgment ‘of the limitations of the medium of the specific art’.42 By emphasizing the ‘medium and its difficulties, […] the purely plastic, the proper, values of visual art come to the fore. Overpower the medium to the point where all sense of its resistance disappears, and the adventitious uses of art become more important.’43 Defending the increasingly untenable Greenbergian notion of ‘purity’ in art, Michael Fried, in his 1967 Art and Objecthood, distinguishes between the ‘theatricality’ of ‘literalist’ art, from art, which succeeds in suspending  its own objecthood. Fried writes:


[…] the presence of literalist art, which Greenberg was the first to analyze, is basically a theatrical effect or quality – a kind of stage presence. It is a function, not just of the obtrusiveness and, often, even aggressiveness of literalist work, but of the special complicity that that work extorts from the beholder.44


If theatricality was to be avoided at all costs, it had to be done through a strict adherence to the medium’s specific properties, which – in the case of painting – were defined by the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. Any attempt to emphasize properties, which were considered foreign to the essence of the medium would lead away from a suspension of objecthood and instead towards ‘theatricality’. For Fried, ‘the success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theatre.’45


The currency of the Greenbergian debate, to be sure, extends beyond its repercussions on modernist painting and sculpture. Since it puts forward the essentialist position that a medium possess quantifiable properties, which can be recognized and identified, it continues to underscore, well into the 1970s and 80s the debates around video-art and television. The classification of essential determinants is here seen as an important part of the critical discourse around the work itself. If video-art was to be taken seriously, its basic properties had to be defined in relation to television and visual culture as a whole. Despite post-structuralist approaches towards the ‘textuality’ of a work, its suspension in a process of endless signification,‘that pure and random play of signifiers that we call postmodernism’46, some agreement as to the essence of video and television seems to transpire.  Vito Acconci, an early practitioner in video-art, described the television experience as a ‘wave of sameness, about to enter everywhere’47 which could either be seen as threatening or reassuring. He observes:


Television broadcasts the same programme, all over a particular country, at the same time. […]. When a TV set, in a particular household is turned off, that world is lying in wait, the world-within-the-TV-set ready to erupt, to flash on ‘in the middle of things’ (the plot has already been going on without us). ‘It’ is always there, though we might not be yet, we might not be watching. But people in some other house are already watching [...].48


The idea that television could be seen as a never-ending stream of images, ubiquitous and ever present, a parallel universe of audio-visual representations, can also be found in Raymond Williams notion of television as ‘planned flow’.49 Television, then, does not have a beginning or end, it just flows in a continuous, time and space defying gesture. According to this definition, television does not engender the kind of agency which facilitates interruption, the means necessary to render Brecht’s theatre epic  in order to counteract the illusion of immersion in the audience. Television is totally enveloping in its spatio-temporal signal, since it pronounces the suspension of time in the moebius-strip of endless transmission. Television’s essential quality, so it would seem, is its eternal proximity. Sean Cubitt talks about ‘the here-and-now-ness of the broadcast event’50 while Fredric Jameson asserts: ‘it seems plausible that in a situation of total flow, the contents of the screen streaming before us all day long without interruption […], what used to be called ‘critical distance’ seems to have become obsolete.’51 Donald Kuspit characterizes television as ‘simply a flowing fantasy’52, in which the autonomous self of the viewing subject dissolves since it ‘can no longer make that distinction between absence and presence.’53


In theorizing video, critics have tended to subscribe to the idea of ‘total flow’ as the basis for an understanding of the specific properties of the new medium of video art. Yet with the inclusion of the camera into the loop of ‘total flow’, some additional points need to be made since, ‘unlike the other visual arts, video is capable of recording and transmitting at the same time – producing instant feedback.’54 Rosalind Krauss, in Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism, presents the subject as captured in ‘the prison of a collapsed present, that is, a present time which is completely severed from a sense of its own past.’55 In it, she argues, the ‘consciousness of temporality and of separation between subject and object are simultaneously submerged.’56 With this ‘vanquishing of separateness’57, video’s discursive space is one of autistic closure. It does not suggest absences, imbalances or interruptions, for its instantaneous feedback mirrors the world onto itself in a tautological state of perpetual presence. This inherently solipsistic position, according to Krauss, can be identified as Video’s essence. With the suspension of spatio-temporal coordinates, video cannot refer to anything ‘other’, anything external,  but its own failure of referral. Sigmund Freud, in a 1914 treatise, identified the ‘introversion of the libido’ as the state when the subject seems to have ‘withdrawn his libido from people and things in the external world, without replacing them by others in phantasy.’58 Freud describes this as a position in which ‘the libido that has been withdrawn from the external world has been directed to the ego and thus gives rise to an attitude which may be called narcissism.’59 This finding, according to Krauss, lends currency to both, an analysis of the individual’s forming of subjectivity, as well as the structural integrity of the social body as a whole. In a heavily audio-visualized environment, the attitude of narcissism, then, could be identified in the individual as well as the group, or society as a whole.


The compelling accuracy of this critique and its discourse of closure, suspension and solipsism is reflected in many fascinating early pieces by video artists of the 1960s and 70s.60 However, with the success of MTV, the introduction of cheap camcorders, the growing popularity of rapid-editing techniques, and a trend towards theatricality in an increasing number of video installations, video art’s locus  seemed to gradually shift away from the formalist  attitude (i.e. the  preservation of the medium’s specificity) that is implied in Krauss’ critique. The formalist attitude would insinuate that ‘pure’ video art, would inevitably have to privilege the notion of technology over aesthetic concerns. Video, inasmuch as it is seamlessly embedded in the total flow of television, could only continuously refer back to its own self-referentiality. When staged, however, as a spatio-temporal singularity in the heroic guise of a sculptural installation, video-art interjects once again the trusted theatricality of the Cartesian subject. For it can then be experienced in a number of spatio-temporal propositions in relation  to the viewing subject. By literally walking through, its discursive space can be tested along the well-known taxonomy of subject-formation and affirmation.61


It must now be evident that Bill Viola’s ‘The Passing’ could not register as a ‘pure’ video tape in the strictly formalist sense of the word, neither can it be classified as ‘sculptural’. Too many different strands of ‘story-telling’ seem to compete with one-another. There is footage, which shows the sleeper in his bed, there are images of the playing child, landscape shots, underwater scenes, the elderly woman and so on. The film-like editing of these different streams of narrative further dilutes the sensation of ‘real time’, which is so central to video’s perceived locus . Any sensation of video time’s suspension is, without doubt, destroyed in the construction of a distinct narrative, which does  feature beginnings and endings. Since here is the artist, who has presumably just gone to bed and is trying to fall a sleep, yet the tape is only 54 minutes in length, unlike Andy Warhol’s film Sleep  (1963), which ran for a full 6,5 hours. Hence, what we are experiencing in ‘The Passing’ could only be described as fictional, or compressed time. This emergent fictionality of ‘The Passing’, its constructed and contrived character, seems to be further emphasized by the use of high-tech gadgetry, which dramatizes screen content by injecting more theatricality into the piece as a whole.


And yet, Bill Viola’s ‘The Passing’ does  offer some points of reference which places it quite firmly in the context of video-art’s discursivity  or, what was described earlier as video’s locus. Without doubt ‘The Passing’ epitomizes a narcissistic attitude, which had been correctly identified by Rosalind Krauss in the mid 1970s as characteristic of video art’s position. For what could be more narcissistic than the opening up of one’s own private family album to a large audience of television viewers, to share in the joys and grief of lived human experience? Bill Viola’s narcissism, however, goes further, since what we are shown not so much represents the anxieties and trauma’s of his family as a whole, but strictly his very own emotions, narrated from the perspective of the dreaming male subject.


It is in the sleeping state that, according to Freud, ‘the primal state of distribution of the libido is restored – total narcissism, in which libido and ego-interest, still united and indistinguishable, dwell in the self-sufficing ego.’62 And thus ‘The Passing’, for its lack of compliance with a strict ‘code’ of, what amounts to, technological determinism, does share in one of video’s most striking features: its narcissistic condition.

II.III    Conclusion:

The discursive space of video-art must now, at the turn of the millennium, take into account the spectacular economies of new and digital media. ‘Streaming’ video allows the distribution and broadcasting of audio-visual content over the Internet, enabling access to an unprecedented audience at little or no cost. Cheap web-cams, digital video cameras, which are connected to the web, can transmit images non-stop to anyone, who has access to the Internet, an audience that is growing at a phenomenal rate. Commercial search engines already exist, which allow the internet user to locate particular streams of images emanating from one particular web-cam. Tens of thousands of digital video cameras constantly feed into the closed circuit, which is the World Wide Web, producing a continuous flow that is as total as it is ever-present. Like closed circuit television, streaming digital video on the internet ‘collapses the present’, ‘submerges consciousness of temporality and of the separation between subject and object’, leading to a ‘vanquishing of separateness’(Krauss, 1976), albeit on a much bigger scale, one might add.


In this emerging condition of perpetual suspension, of continuous flow on a global scale, the world is captured in the reflection of its own image. In this never-ending global flow of live footage from thousands of digital web-cams, we, according to some, are faced with a Hegelian totality, in which ‘the real becomes image and the image becomes real, the world becomes a work of art and our condition becomes transparently virtual. In the realized eschatology of the virtual kingdom, nothing lies beyond.’63 In this condition, new ways have to be found, which can shape the flow and its ‘eternal presence’. It is here that Bill Viola’s ‘The Passing’ offers a glimpse of how the flow could be configured. In opting out of the seductive theatre of the media-museum, which again privileges the Cartesian object, ‘The Passing’ provides the model for an interface, a template that not so much structures the flow, but points towards the possibility  of structure. Total flow cannot be sustained by the individual for long, since its subject-hood, no matter how fragmented, depends on the relational dialectic of a before  and after, a here  and there.. The all-engulfing ‘now-ness’ ultimately threatens the subject with its dissolution; total flow implies closure, stasis and paralysis. In the age of digitality, only the partial blocking and the partial flowing can let a signature emerge. The function of the interface is precisely that: the blocking of some information and the passing of other.


‘The Passing’ could then serve as the model for a contemporary practice in which the work is the interface, which channels and frames the various strings and streams of the ‘total flow’.  Soon perhaps, we might see more projects in the vain of ‘The Passing’, in which various ‘flows’ are transmitted simultaneously, only held together by an ‘ordering’ interface.


III        Notes:


01: Lunenfeld, Peter. (1998). ‘Bill Viola’ in Art / Text, no.61 (May/July’98): pp.  80-81

02:’[…] video surveillance tapes are regularly used in criminal trials, the most notable being the shopping-center tape of Jamie Bulger being abducted. And the apparatus of surveillance can be used in favor of the oppressed as much as the oppressor, as when in 1991 George Holliday used his new Sony minicam to record LA policemen beating black motorist Rodney King.’ In: Falcon, Richard. (1998). ‘V for Video’ in Sight & Sound, ns8 (Mar.’98): p. 25


03: One of countless sites on the Internet devoted to images from the 1997    ‘Pathfinder’ mission to Mars can be found at Smith, Peter (1997): ‘There once was a mission to Mars […]’, (Dec 1999)


04: Mayer, Marc. (1996).  Karen Lee Spaulding (ed.) Being & Time: The Emergence of Video Projection, Buffalo, NY: The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, p. 17


05: For an exhaustive definition of Media Art , see Roger F. Malina on the first prize-giving for interactive media art during Ars Electronica 1990 which can be found in: Hünnekens, Annette. (1997). Der bewegte Betrachter. Theorien interaktiver Medienkunst, Cologne: Wienand Verlag, p. 182


06:Schwarz, Hans-Peter. (1997).’Discourse 1: Media Museums’ in Rebecca Picht, Birgit Stöckmann (eds.) Media Art History,  New York: Prestel, p. 11


07: The early spirit in 1960s video art is fittingly captured in Nam June Paik’s famous declaration that ‘television has been attacking us all our lives, now we can attack it back.’. Paik’s citation is taken from: Falcon, Richard. (1998). ‘V for Video’ in Sight & Sound, ns8 (Mar.’98): p. 24


08: For a comprehensive survey of video art histories, see: Sturken, Marita. (1991). ‘Paradox in the evolution of an art form: great expectations and the making of a history’ in Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (eds.)  Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, New York: Aperture, pp. 101 – 121


09: ZKM. (1999). ‘Video Cult/ures, exhibition leaflet’ in Dr. Ursula Frohne and Dr. Konstanze Thümmel (eds.)Video Cult/ures, exhibition leaflet, Karlsruhe: ZKM, p. 2


10: Ibid., p.2


11: ‘[...] the popularity of corporate media, as seen in the example of MTV, was due in large part to the mass media’s appropriation of avant-garde techniques pioneered by independent video- and filmmakers. While video as media intervention was largely ignored, video installation would find its place in the museum in a grand manner, with such large-scale exhibitions as Nam Jun Paik, Image World, Dislocations and such artists as Viola, Nauman, and Hill gaining widespread recognition.’ In: Hanhardt, John G. and Villasenor, Maria Christina. (1995).  Christina Villasenor (ed.) Art Journal, v.54, no. 4 (Winter 1995): p. 24


12: For a chronological overview of Viola’s life and work see: Viola, Bill. (1995).  Robert Violette (ed.) Bill Viola: Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House (Writings 1973 – 1994), London: Thames and Hudson, pp. 287 – 291


13: King, Elaine. (1998). ‘Bill Viola: Fire, Water, Breath’ in Sculpture, v.17 no 6 (July/Aug.’98), Washington D.C: , p. 17


14: Rosalind Krauss used the notion of ‘discursivity’ to analyze the complex cultural systems within which the reading of a photograph or its lithographic reproduction remains suspended. Krauss asks: ‘ And the photograph? Within what discursive space does it operate?’ In: Krauss, Rosalind. (1996) [1989]. ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces’ in Richard Bolton (ed.)  The Contest of Meaning,  Cambridge MA / London: MIT – Press, p. 288


15: The notion of difference  is, of course central in structural linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure’s work marked a shift away from language (langue) as a referential naming system towards an understanding of language as a system of differences . According to Saussure ‘in language […] there are only differences.’ In: Saussure, Ferdinand de . (1974)[1907-1911].Wade Baskin (trans.)Course in General Linguistics, Glasgow: Fontana / Collins, p.120. Leading on from Saussure’s work, Jacques Derrida reflects on ‘[…] the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse […] that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences.’ In: Derrida, Jacques. (1978). ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences’ in Alan Bass (trans.) (ed.) Writing and Difference, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.280


16: The idea of ‘flow’ as contingent upon a gradient of intensities or identities can be found in the work of Gilles Deleuze. In Anti-Oedipus  Deleuze defines ‘flow’ as contingent upon an economy of desires: ‘Desiring machines […]’ are ‘[…] flow-producing machines […]’ and ‘Desire causes the current to flow […]’ in: Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. (1996) [1969].’The Desiring Machines’ in Robert Hurley, M. Seem and H.R.Lane (trans.) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London: Athlone Press, p. 5


17: Dimitris Eleftheriotis proposes an alternative discourse around video art, one ‘[…]which escapes the intellectual ‘traps’ of technological determinism, symptomatic technology and ideological determinism, and establishes strong conceptual links between technology, aesthetics and politics.’ In: Eleftheriotis, Dimitris. (1995). ‘Video Poetics: Technology, Aesthetics and Politics’ in  Screen, v.36  (Summer ’95),  London: , p. 100 Based on Heidegger’s 1954-55 lecture ‘Die Frage nach der Technik ’, technology is seen here as a mode of revealing, as both poetic and scientific. Whilst this argument cannot be properly investigated here, I might add that the model of discursivity, which I propose, can actually accommodate Eleftheriotis’ Poesis.


18: See Sean Cubitt’s exhaustive text on aspects of subjectivity and sociality in Viola’s ‘The Passing’ which I shall refer to subsequently as: Cubitt, Sean. (1995), page-number.

Cubitt, Sean. (1995).’On Interpretation: Bill Viola’s The Passing’ in Screen, v.36 (Summer ‘95) ,  London: , pp. 113-130


19: For a comprehensive list of Viola’s works, see: Gehr, Herbert. (1999).  Rolf Lauter (ed.) Bill Viola: Europäische Einsichten / European Insights,  Munich: Prestel, p. 360


20: ‘The small television feature’ (my trans.) The ZDF commissions work for this slot on a frequent basis as part of its public broadcast remit. Das Kleine Fernsehspiel  can thus be regarded as a niche, within which the dynamics of commercial television are temporarily suspended. Although funding is not tied to achieving particular viewing figures, the production of decidedly artistic material is still relatively rare and usually delegated to the sister station Arte, based in Strasbourg.


21: The locations were: Anza Borrego Desert, California; Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah; Colorado Lagoon, California; Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah; Death Valley National Monument, California; Joshua Tree National Park, California; Rhyolite, Nevada; Salton Sea, California; Tumacacori National Monument, Arizona. In: Gehr, Herbert. (1999).  Rolf Lauter (ed.) Bill Viola: Europäische Einsichten / European Insights,  Munich: Prestel, p. 215


22: Parallels to the audio-visual narratives of ‘The Passing’ can be found in: ‘The Stopping Mind’ (1991), ‘Heaven and Earth’ (1992), ‘Nantes Triptych’ (1992), ‘The Arc of Ascent’ (1992) and ‘Deserts’ (1994). Recurring images include shots of a man floating under water, a woman (his wife Kira Perov) giving birth, an elderly woman dying (his mother Wynne Lee Viola), children playing (his son’s Andrei and Blake) and the mythic scenery of the American desert landscapes. The fact that all of the above were produced after ‘The Passing’ suggests a certain lineage in his recent oeuvre.


23: I am alluding here, of course, to the 1955 photography exhibition with the same title at the MoMA, New York and curated by Edward Steichen. The Family of Man, that ‘corny exhibition’ (Elliot Erwitt), signified an attempt to reduce the material complexities of human endeavor across a vast gamut of different cultures to the linear narrative of a shared ‘humanity’. For further reference, see: Szarkowski, John. (1989). ’7. After the Magazines’ in Susan Weiley (ed.) Photography Until Now, New York: The Museum Of Modern Art, p. 254


24: The validity, however, of any autobiographical data should be viewed in strictly critical terms. An investigation of personal circumstances must not foreclose a thorough-going analysis of a given text, yet it can constitute one of many discursive spaces (sic) , within which a work can be seen to operate.


25: Drohojowska-Philip, Hunter; Viola, Bill. (1997). ‘The Self-Discovery Channel’ in Art News, v.96 (Nov.’97): p. 209


26: Ibid.


27: Ibid.


28: Ibid.


29: Bourdieu, Pierre. (1996) [1965]. ‘The Cult of Unity and Cultivated Differences’ in Shaun Whiteside (trans.) Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 30


30: Cubitt, Sean. (1995), p. 116


31: In Michel Foucault’s analysis of the regime of discipline and knowledge, surveillance and visibility are necessary to underscore structures of power. In the Panoptikum , according to Foucault, power articulates itself most efficiently for it allows an invisible, small group of people to subject a much larger and visible group to a rule of punishment. The parallels to modern warfare with its smart bombs are striking since the destruction of the enemy is based on the enemy being visible. A visible target can be destroyed whilst the own troops are safe due to their invisibility to the enemy. (Stealth etc.) In: Foucault, Michel. (1977) [1975].  Alan Sheridan (trans.) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London: Allen Lane,


32: For a useful chronology see: Falcon, Richard. (1998). ‘V for Video’ in Sight & Sound, ns8 (Mar.’98): p. 26


33: In its impact on the medium at large, the introduction of 8mm video is comparable, perhaps, to the introduction in 1888 of the Kodak Box and its impact on photography.


34: Beech, Dave.(1999).’Video after Diderot’ in Art Monthly, no 225 (April 1999): p. 7


35: Mayer, Marc. (1996), p. 27


36: Ibid, p. 30


37: Yet these readings can only be seen as exemplary for the structural economy between the work and its exterior meta-texts. In selecting some and rejecting others, the process of critique completes the work as the site of discourse.


38: Cubitt, Sean. (1995), p.115


39: Bourdieu, Pierre. (1996) [1965], p. 7


40: Benjamin, Walter.(1992) [1936].’The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ‘ in Hanna Arendt (ed.) Illuminations, Glasgow: Fontana, p. 237


41: Adorno’s critique was written in response to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.. In an exchange of letters Adorno rejected Benjamin’s assertion that art was necessarily grounded in ritual by stating that the art-object was ‘inherently dialectical; within itself it juxtaposes the magical and the mark of freedom.’ In: Adorno, Theodor. (1977) [1936]. ‘Letter to Benjamin (London 18 March 1936)’ in Ronald Taylor (ed.) Aesthetics and Politics, London: New Left Books, pp. 121-123


42: Greenberg, Clement. (1986) [1940]. ‘Towards a newer Laocoon’ in John O’Brian (ed.)Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism; Volume One; Perceptions and Judgements, 1939 – 1944,  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 32


43: Ibid, p. 34


44: Fried, Michael. (1998) [1967]. ‘Art and Objecthood’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990,  Oxford: Blackwell, p. 826


45: Ibid, pp. 830 – 831

The debate, which accompanied Art and Objecthood  cannot be covered here. For further reference, see Artforum, Summer 1967


46: Jameson, Fredric. (1999)[1991]. ‘Surrealism Without the Unconscious’ in  Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,  London: Verso, p. 96


47: Acconci, Vito. (1993). ‘Television, Furniture and Sculpture – The Room With The American View’ in Nicola Hodges, Ramona Khambatta and Katherine MacInnes (eds.)  Art & Design – World Wide Video,  London: Academy Group, p. 27


48: Ibid

49: ‘In all developed broadcasting systems the characteristic organization, and therefore the characteristic experience, is one of sequence or flow. This phenomenon, of planned flow, is then perhaps the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form.’ In: Williams, Raymond. (1974).’Programming: Distribution and Flow’ inTelevision: Technology and Cultural Form, London: Fontana, p. 86.


50: Cubitt, Sean. (1991). ‘Timeshift’ in David Morley (ed.)Timeshift – On Video Culture, London: Routledge, p. 35


51: Jameson, Fredric. (1999)[1991], pp. 70 – 71


52: Kuspit, Donald and Rapaport, Herman. (1995). ‘Television and the Unconscious- Donald Kuspit: An Interview’ in Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl, Hans Breder and Herman Rapaport (eds.)The Luminous Object – Video Art / Video Theory, Iowa City: University of Iowa, p. 191


53: Ibid, p. 188


54: Krauss, Rosalind. (1976). ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’ inOctober 1, 1976, Cambridge, MA: MIT – Press, p. 52


55: Ibid, p. 53


56: Ibid, pp. 58-59


57: Ibid, p. 56


58: Freud, Sigmund. (1984) [1914]. ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’ in Angela Richards  and James Strachey (eds.) On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis (The Pelican Freud Library Volume 11 ),  London: Penguin, p. 66


59: Ibid, p. 67


60: The artists, whose early video work comes to mind include Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, Nancy Holt, Bruce Nauman, Lynda Benglis, Peter Campus, James Byrne, to name a few.


61: See the exhaustive discussion of subject-formation and art in: Foster, Hal. (1996). ‘Whatever Happened to Postmodernism’ in Annette Michelson, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster, Dennis Hollier and Sylvia Kolbowski (eds.)  The Return of the Real, Cambridge MA / London: MIT – Press, pp. 209-226


62: Freud, Sigmund. (1976) [1917], p. ?


63: Taylor, Mark C. (1999).  Mark C. Taylor (ed.) About Religion – Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture, Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, p. 5







III.II    References:



Acconci, Vito.  ‘Television, Furniture and Sculpture – The Room With The American View’ in Nicola Hodges, Ramona Khambatta and Katherine MacInnes (eds.)  Art & Design – World Wide Video, London: Academy Group, 1993


Adorno, Theodor.  ‘Letter to Benjamin (London 18 March 1936)’ in Ronald Taylor (ed.) Aesthetics and Politics, London: New Left Books, 1977 [1936]


Barthes, Roland.   Richard Howard(trans.) (ed.)Camera Lucida,  London: Vintage Books, 1993 [1980]


Baudrillard, Jean.  ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ in Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (trans.) (eds.)Simulations, New York: Semiotext(e), 1983


Benjamin, Walter.  ‘The Author as Producer’ in Marcia Tucker, Brian Wallis et al. (eds.)  Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, Lincoln – Massachusetts: David R. Godine, 1984 [1934]


-  ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Hanna Arendt (ed.) Illuminations, Glasgow: Fontana, 1992 [1936]


Bourdieu, Pierre.  ‘The Cult of Unity and Cultivated Differences’ in Shaun Whiteside (trans.) (ed.) Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996 [1965]


Bürger, Peter.   Michael Shaw (trans.) (ed.) Theory of the Avant-Garde,  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986 [1974]



Cubitt, Sean.   David Morley (ed.)Timeshift – On Video Culture,  London: Routledge, 1991


-  ‘Populism and Difficulty: Television and Video Art’ in Julia Knight (ed.) Diverse Practices – A Critical Reader on British Video Art, Luton: University of Luton Press, 1996


Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix.   Robert Hurley, M. Seem and H.R.Lane (trans.) (eds.)  Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London: Athlone Press, 1996 [1969]


Deleuze, Gilles.   Paul Patton (trans.) (ed.) Difference and Repetition, London: The

Athlone Press, 1994 [1969]


Derrida, Jacques.  ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences’ in Alan Bass (trans.) (ed.) Writing and Difference, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978


Feuer, Jane.  ‘The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology’ in Ann Kaplan (ed.) Regarding Television, Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1983


Foster, Hal.  ‘Whatever Happened to Postmodernism?’ in Annette Michelson, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster, Dennis Hollier and Sylvia Kolbowski (eds.)The Return of the Real, Cambridge MA / London: MIT – Press,



Foucault, Michel.   Alan Sheridan (ed.)  Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,  London: Allen Lane, 1977 [1975]


Freud, Sigmund. Angela Richards  (ed.) The Interpretation of Dreams (Volume 4 The Penguin Freud Library), London: Penguin, 1991 [1900]


-  ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’ in Angela Richards and James Strachey (eds.)  On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis (The Pelican Freud Library Volume 11), London: Penguin, 1984 [1914]


-  ‘The Libido Theory and Narcissism’ in Angela Richards and James Strachey (eds.)  Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (The Pelican Freud Library Volume 1), London: Penguin, 1976 [1917]


Fried, Michael.  ‘Art and Objecthood’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1967]


Fry, Roger.  ‘An Essay in Aesthetics’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.)  Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1909]


Gehr, Herbert.  ‘Film, Art and Videotape’ in Rolf Lauter (ed.) Bill Viola: Europäische Einsichten / European Insights, Munich: Prestel, 1999


Greenberg, Clement.  ‘Towards a newer Laocoon’ in John O’Brian (ed.) Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism; Volume One; Perceptions and Judgements, 1939 – 1944, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986  [1940]


Habermas, Jürgen.  ‘The Emergence of the Public Sphere’ in Anthony Giddens, David Held, Don Hubert, Steve Loyal, Debbie Seymour and John Thompson (eds.)  The Polity Reader in Cultural Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994 [1989]


Hanhardt, John G.. ‘Film Image – Electronic Image – The Construction of Abstraction, 1960 – 1990′ in Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl, Hans Breder and Herman Rapaport (eds.)  The Luminous Object – Video Art / Video Theory, Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1995


Hünnekens, Annette. Der bewegte Betrachter. Theorien interaktiver Medienkunst,  Cologne: Wienand Verlag, 1997


Kandinsky, Wassily.  ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.)  Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998 [1912]


Krauss, Rosalind.  ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces’ in Richard Bolton (ed.) The Contest of Meaning, Cambridge MA / London: MIT – Press, 1996 [1989]


Kuspit, Donald and Rapaport, Herman.  ‘Television and the Unconscious- Donald Kuspit: An Interview’ in Sharon Helmer Poggenpohl, Hans Breder and Herman Rapaport (eds.)  The Luminous Object – Video Art / Video Theory, Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1995


Lacan, Jacques.   Dennis Porter (trans.)The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge, 1992


Lauter, Rolf.  ‘The Passing’ in Rolf Lauter (ed.)Bill Viola: Europäische Einsichten / European Insights,  Munich: Prestel, 1999


Lyotard, Jean-Francois.  ‘What is Postmodernism?’ in Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (trans.) (eds.)  The Postmodern Condition, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984 [1982]


Mayer, Marc.   Karen Lee Spaulding (ed.) Being & Time: The Emergence of Video Projection, Buffalo, NY: The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, 1996


McLuhan, Marshall.  ‘The Medium is the Message’ inUnderstanding Media,  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998 [1964]


Saussure, Ferdinand de .   Wade Baskin (trans.) Course in General Linguistics, Glasgow: Fontana / Collins, 1974[1907-1911]


Schwarz, Hans-Peter.  ‘Media-Art-History’ in Rebecca Picht and Birgit Stöckmann (eds.) Are Our Eyes Targets ?,  Munich: Prestel, 1997


Sturken, Marita.  ‘Paradox in the evolution of an art form: great expectations and the making of a history’ in Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (eds.)Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art,  New York: Aperture, 1991


Taylor, Mark C.   Mark C. Taylor (ed.) About Religion – Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture, Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1999


Viola, Bill.   Robert Violette (ed.) Bill Viola: Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House (Writings 1973 – 1994), London: Thames and Hudson, 1995


Williams, Raymond. ‘Programming: Distribution and Flow’ in Television: Technology and Cultural Form, London: Fontana, 1974



III.II    Journal Articles:



Archer, Michael. ‘Video Lives’ in Art Monthly, no. 228 (July / Aug. 1999)


Baker, Kenneth. ‘Experience before Intellect’ in Art Newspaper, v.8 (Dec.’97)


Beech, Dave. ‘Video after Diderot’ in Art Monthly, no 225 (April 1999)


Cubitt, Sean. ‘On Interpretation: Bill Viola’s The Passing’ in Screen, v.36 (Smr‘95)


Darke, Chris.  ‘Feelings along the Body’ in Sight & Sound, v.4 (Jan.’94),


Denk, Andreas. ‘Bill Viola – Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, NewMetropolis, Rijksmuseum, World Trade Center, Felix Meritis – 12.09. – 29.11.1998′ in Kunstforum International, no. 143 (Jan./Feb.’99)


Drohojowska-Philip, Hunter and Viola, Bill.  ‘The Self-Discovery Channel’ in  Art News, v.96 (Nov.’97)


Duncan, Michael. ‘Bill Viola: Altered Perceptions’ in Art in America, v.86 (Mar.’98)


Durden, Mark. ‘Unseen Images. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; Exhibit’ in Creative Camera, no. 327 (April/ May ‘94),


Eleftheriotis, Dimitris. ‘Video Poetics: Technology, Aesthetics and Politics’ in  Screen, v.36  (Summer ’95)


Falcon, Richard. ‘V for Video’ in Sight & Sound, ns8 (Mar.’98)


Hanhardt, John G. and Villasenor, Maria Christina. ‘Video / Media Culture of the Late Twentieth Century’ in Christina Villasenor (ed.) Art Journal, v.54, no. 4 (Winter 1995)


Heartney, Eleanor. ‘Bill Viola at the Guggenheim SoHo’ in Art in America, v.85 (Oct.’97)


Judson, William D. ‘Bill Viola – Allegories in Subjective Perception’ in Christina Villasenor (ed.) Art Journal, v.54, no. 4 (Winter 1995)


King, Elaine. ‘Bill Viola: Fire, Water, Breath’ in Sculpture, v.17 no 6 (July/Aug.’98)


Krauss, Rosalind. ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’ in October , 1 – 1976,  Cambridge, MA: MIT – Press, 1976


Kuspit, Donald B.‘Bill Viola: The Passing’ in Artforum, v.32 (Sept. ‘93)


Kuspit, Donald B.‘Deep TV: Bill Viola’s Via Negativa.’ in Artforum, v.33 (May ‘95)


Lacan, Jacques. ‘Television’ in October,  40 (Spring 1987),  Cambridge, MA: MIT – Press, 1987


Lunenfeld, Peter.‘Bill Viola’ in  Art / Text, no.61 (May/July’98)


Meigh-Andrews, Chris. ‘Unseen Images. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; Exhibit’ in Art Monthly, no. 173 (Feb.’94)


Nicastro, Nicholas. ‘The Passing’ in Film Comment, v.29 (Jan./Feb.’93)


Pollack, Barbara. ‘Bill Viola’ in Art News, v.97 no4 (Apr.’98)


Rutledge, Virginia; Viola, Bill. ‘Art at the End of the Optical Age’ in Art in America, v.86  (Mar.’98)

Usherwood, Paul.  ‘Bill Viola. Durham Cathedral, England; Exhibit’ in Art Monthly, no. 201 (Nov.’96)


Zurbrugg, Nicholas.  ‘Jameson’s Complaint: Video-Art and the Intertextual Timewall’ in  Screen, v.32 (Spring ‘91)




III.III   Video Tapes:



Viola, Bill. Bill Viola (prod./ dir.)‘The Passing’, 54:00, colour. Amsterdam: éditions à voir, 1991


II.        Introduction:   When, in a 1998 article, Peter Lunenfeld described video as ‘simultaneously exhausted and energized’01 he gave expression […]