About Media Culture with a question mark

Speech, ZKM, Center for Art and Media Karslruhe - Institute for Visual Arts

Imagine: the figure of a man. A sculpture in fact, made by Belgian artist Panamarenko. He called his figure Aviator Pepto Bismo. Two meters high he stands; at the ready, it seems, to fly at a moments notice. Twelve propellers, fastened to his shoulders will carry his weight for graceful lift off on a private trajectory through the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. You may be sure that Panamarenko calculated the persons' weight and added the weight of the heavy military coat, the black leather gloves, the aviator cap and the neatly fitting goggles. We can also be sure this Aviator will never fly. As all of the intricate technological contraptions designed by the artist are nothing else but make believe. His impossible machines have many a story to tell. The stories are ours to invent, his machines a trigger for our imagination. And that's the beginning, not the end, and the beauty of it.

I have been invited to come up with a personal statement at this festive occasion, while addressing the theme of Media Culture (with an exclamation mark). I'm invited to show "enthusiasm, concern, revulsion or something else" in relationship to the theme. Time to admit I've started with my example of Panamarenko, on impulse. It somehow felt appropriate to come up with the example of a machine that in a technological sense does not work, yet in its "art" sense does. Or at least it does for me. It is pure make believe. Suggestion (of something), rather than its demonstration. So that possibly the word I need in relation to the subject on hand, media culture, is "something else", it is: "suspicion".

Meaning simply meanwhile, that I'm all for it, and in whatever shape or form. As long as it does not stop at demonstration. Demonstration of how clever we are. How far we've gotten to technologically create virtuality, leaving the beholder without a clue in sight as to what we want to say with it. And to whom we want to address ourselves, and to what effect.

Allow me to clarify. Where I come from is yet another world of make believe. This world is theatre. In the mid sixties I started a place called Mickery, in Amsterdam. The deal with our public, if unspoken, probably was that yes there was a building called theatre. That, yes, you'd buy a ticket to get in, and that yes, something of a certain duration would be offered to you, enforced upon you, done with or to you, but that for the time it would take, we'd forget about a label.

In its twenty five years of existence it showed many a version of make-believe, from all over the world. Some of the productions shown, or produced in place, clearly kept to the age old rules of the craft. Others stretched our preconceived ideas on what theatre also might be to the hilt. By the time we put an end to the adventures just about any technology available had, sometimes incongruously, popped up in theatre projects. Two underlying themes seemed to have guided us in this. In the seventies many experiments were realized as "studies in manipulation" whereas the eighties carried the code "making theatre beyond television". Both themes shared projects which involved themselves with a clear stand about how our society in our view developed. How, we found, we where increasingly manipulated in real life. How real life increasingly capitalized on "make believe", if not in the same way I proposed the term when speaking of Panamarenko. I think we were hell bent to give comment, rather than confirm.

My background thus hardly makes me suspicious of application of technological developments. For that, proof, if need be can be found in the number of people who saw me only as a gadget freak, rather than an effective producer. There were those frantically begging for "just something with one actor and a candle". (Indeed sometimes I wonder whether it is slowly the time again for that.)

My suspicion however has to do with those moments where technology seems to have taken over and is shown for its own sake. The demonstration of the technological high wire act, where we've fallen in love with what technologically can be achieved. And that is that. Possibly Panamarenko shows how we may fail in what we want, giving space to dream of what we might be. His comment rather than his confirmation.

In more ways than one, we might speculate whether ZKM, Centre for the Arts and Media technology, provides the fabulous dream factory that may incorporate all. On the one hand we have the presentation of what great artists in their time created, on the other mixed expressions of new artistic generations, of which of course new technological developments are to be part. You'd be an idiot not to attempt to apply your wits to all the facilities on offer.

At the same time, if it were true that the ambition of ZKM to is be the Digital Bauhaus of the Millennium (as Art, das Kunstmagazin will have us believe), we must remind ourselves of the admonitions that Gropius in the twenties gave his students. Warning them that when all was said and done it was not technology that would keep a building standing for all time, but the social, political and cultural forces emanating from the buildings environment, the forces brought to bear on the technological feat.

Or, as Billy Kluver, one time scientist at the Communication Science Division of Bell Telephone Laboratories stated in the early sixties: "Those of us in the technical community who were worried about technological change, believed that artists' ideas, approaches, and concerns could influence the way engineers approached technological day to day social problems. Our collaborations we hoped could lead to technological development in directions more beneficial to the needs, desires and pleasures of the individual." He was working at the time with Jean Tinguely who wanted to build for an exhibit in the garden of the MoMa, New York, a huge machine that would violently destroy itself in front of an audience. Kluver and Tinguely created indeed the monstrous contraption which did self destruct: comment, I would suggest, rather than confirmation. Not an end, but a beginning. Food for thought on our real life situation.

Last year Frans de la Haye, a Dutch top industrial designer, off handedly old me about technological developments taking place unseen right now. He was working on a model for what was referred to as the paperless office. A high rise building had been bought, originally all floors used, but once the experiment was on its way, slowly but surely floor by floor vacated and sold, until only one level needed to be used. Here we could find a skeleton staff peering at computer screens, day in day out. Other employees would work at home and be electronically connected to the mainframe. Of all present and prospective clients voice prints had been made and stored so that instantly they could be recognized, their socio-, political profile slapped on a screen, with, for good measure, their and the firms, latest Emailed correspondence. An automated telephone switchboard would connect with the relevant staff person, anyone, anywhere, to deal efficiently with the business at hand.

Make-belief of a personal approach could be maintained; make-belief of an internal, personalized environment for staff, when not peering at their screens, had been created. On the premises a lavish canteen where top luxury food was provided could be found, its one remarkable design feet being that the space was deliberately made too small so that meals had to be enjoyed standing while rubbing shoulders with a colleague. The closeness was to suggest the human factor. Through physical closeness that is.

Food for thought on a real life situation. My description can be confirmed, but what I'm longing for is the comment on a development. If I were still with a Mickery I would want to offer such a situation as a Study in Manipulation. Taking the technological aspects one step further so that they could provide the comment, rather than the status quo.

The office just described, that too is, Media Culture very much with an with an exclamation mark. And it needs to be addressed. It is but a tiny example of designs for virtual reality. My suspicion then is that we may accept it as real, that we may be seduced by the technological wizardry involved, having joyfully experimented with all the goodies on offer, but leaving it at that.The focus on application; that we will settle for confirmation, and not seek to apply our wits to create provisions for the next step which may, while we're still able to discern the difference, also provide a critical comment on where we as human beings might be going.

For that the ZKM may provide the ultimate laboratory, yet all will depend not on its incredible facilities, but on the people working or teaching in it. In the same article from Art, Das Kunstmagazine, from which I quoted, there is the expressed suggestion that "ZKM will catapult a stagnating artscene into the next thousand years". Here too, as in comments offered by Catherine David at the occasion of the Documenta X Theater Skizzen, the suggestion is there of a crisis. What crisis, I asked.

As one of the 100 guests of the hundred days of this Documenta I was able to offer a comment at the start of the theatre marathon, suggesting, if crisis there was, for sure it was clear that theatre, as well as any other creative activity, needed a context. But, I suggested: "it also needs content. It requires that the maker has an urgent and even obsessive need to make the statement he or she offers the public. There must be a profoundly thought-out reason for any given theatre piece to exist. It must have deeply felt roots. And there's the misunderstanding. Without all this you don't get a crisis. You just get bad theatre." All of which reads, translated to the matter on hand, that here too the risk is a real one. The very real danger of just the technological demonstrations without context or conviction, rather than all a creative statement also needs to be art. Whatever that may be. But we must believe we will always know the difference and recognize it when we see it.

So to end, until my suspicions are unwarranted, I'll choose once again for an ostensible electronic contraption, that does not work technologically. I'm referring to the magnificent antenna installed by Ilya Kabakov in Muenster. For Media Culture (with an exclamation mark) it provides the ultimate communication etched against a blazing expanse in thinnest metal capitals reading: "My dear one! When you are lying in the grass, with your head thrown back, there is no one around you, and only the sound of the wind can be heard and you look up into the open sky - there, up above, is the blue sky and the clouds floating by - perhaps this is thing that you have ever done or seen in your life".

Karlsruhe (D)


ZKM, Center for Art and Media