Bifurcation, Observation, Inversion
Stefan Heidenreich: Bifurcation, Observation, Inversion
Tonegawa is the name of a river near Tokyo which has a peculiar characteristic. Flowing towards the sea, its course becomes split. One river turns into two. Geographers designate this phenomenon as a bifurcation, a branching. This happens quite infrequently, for normally a river only leaves its old bed when it finds a new path. The bifurcation can only occur when the relationships on both sides are not only perfectly balanced, but this equilibrium is also an enduring state. Not only does it represent something which cannot be decided, but it represents this state of indecision on a continuing basis.
Observation proceeds from a viewer who directs his attention towards an object. "Every act of observation is the insertion of a distinction into a space which remains unmarked, and out of which the observer accomplishes the act of discrimination." 1 In contrast to contemplation, observation is directed outwards. Observation means more than simply accumulating data or presenting an unprejudiced attentiveness. Whoever observes takes up a position, follows certain objects and, when necessary, utilizes for this purpose technical aids or apparatuses.
Inversion means reversal. In a mathematical context, an inverse element always stands in relationship to a function. Addition and multiplication have different inverse elements. Inversion creates a sort of negative; however, this is not necessarily an absolute, but rather one of several possibilities. This means that the inverted element only partially negates its origin and is equivalent to it in other respects. In a figurative sense, one conceives of inversion as a reversal of the point of view, for example in the case that the attention is directed, not towards the outside, but introspectively towards the inside.
Bifurcation, observation and inversion are procedures which may be found in the work of Christoph Keller in two ways: on the one hand, as a process of artistic practice; and on the other hand, in that they themselves become the subject of a work.
In the case of bifurcation, this means that works often proceed in parallel on two tracks, inasmuch as they are works of art while at the same time existing in contexts outside of the artworld. Observation is affected by the same duplication. On the one hand, something is viewed, in the sense that attention is directed to a theme or an object. On the other hand, observation itself becomes the subject of a work of art when, for instance, it relates to archives and documents. Inversion comes to the fore as an artistic procedure when objects reverse a spatial interconnection, when instruments are functionally turned around, or when pictures are shown as negatives. Simultaneously, it may be found in objects when, for instance, a scientific practice takes on the appearance of a ritual, or an archive is broken up and its documents lose their site.
To take pictures for the 16mm film Starfighter in 1993, Keller worked with a high-frequency camera at the Film Institute of the Charité Hospital. Soon afterwards, he learned that the Institute was to be closed down. Medical films had been made there since the beginning of the last century. They are scattered in several archives.
The phase-out shows how archives and institutions not only make history but are also historical themselves. Their respective presents must keep them going. This is thrust into view quite drastically by the Charité films. The course of history reaches the Berlin hospital as a late effect of the political and social changes after the fall of the Berlin Wall and threatens to extinguish an almost one-hundred-years-old practice of the medical film. The reason is that the documents are no longer needed for the purposes of research. No one became aware up to that point, however, of their worth as historical documents. In other words—inverted with regard to the archiving function, the documents attain no bifurcation which is capable of reactivating contemporary observations.
It is exactly at this point that Christoph Keller intervenes with his works Medfilm and the film Retrograd. His approach connects historical awareness with the retrospective observation of a scientific practice. Both works focus on the bifurcation between science and history, between an investigative, utilitarian interest and a retrospective, historical one. The installation Medfilm presents a selection of productions from the Film Institute. For the film Retrograd, Keller transfers parts of the archive into a sequential and historical order by arranging them in reverse progression, i.e. retrograde, from 1990 to 1900. That which was once created in the service of science thereby attains another significance. Now it is no longer a document and no longer a training film, but instead a piece of historical evidence.
It is only a few years later that researchers at Humboldt University become aware of these archives which are their own and are threatened with disappearance. They begin likewise to read the films as historical documents. And suddenly, Keller's artistic works attain the status of precursors in this new investigative context.
At this point, art becomes a meta-archive in that it reevaluates documents and reflects them back as the documentation of an archive. Suddenly its subject is no longer solely an underlying investigative and developmental field, but instead the archive as a practice of generating, collecting and classifying data which itself has thereby become historical.
Within the scope of his investigations, Keller discovered in 1998 in the Federal Film Archives an earlier-dated attempt to erase politically incriminating documents. Near the end of the Second World War, the Nazis destroyed films which they had made for research in eugenics. In 1993 children came across the remains of films while swimming in the Stössensee, a lake in Berlin. Divers were able to recover 160 rolls of film, of which altogether three could be projected. The work Stössensee documents these meager remains. One of the film fragments shows a naked man who performs movements upon command. In the representation of the naked man and through its origin in a Nazi medical film project from the nineteen-forties, this work depicts the "naked life" according to which Giorgio Agamben developed the concept of the camp as a bio-political paradigm of modernism.2 Archives are neither objective nor neutral with regard to their entries. "The archive is first of all the law of that which may be said, the system which dominates the appearance of statements as individual events." 3 Thus each archive defines the objects of its input. To some extent, this occurs without indications concerning contents when, for example in the case of the Charité Hospital, the productions of an institution are preserved in a more or less dispersed state; and to some extent, there are clear rules regarding contents. This was the case, for instance, with the archive of motion sequences which, starting in 1962, was set up at the Institute for Scientific Film in Göttingen under the directorship of Gotthard Wolf and Konrad Lorenz. In scenes lasting approximately two minutes each, the motion sequences of various animal species were recorded. The behavioral researchers thereby continued that which Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge had begun with the serial photographs around 1870. Their works are today regarded as milestones of photography. The collection of the Encyclopaedia Cinematografica, on the other hand, is threatened with the loss of any basis for existence if the individual film exhibit shifts from the status of a document which teaches something (from the Latin docere) into that of a monument which simply admonishes (from the Latin monere). "The reason why it is now possible to attempt to describe scientific film archives as monuments lies in the fact that their history has just ended," writes Keller.4 That which happens with institutions of knowledge is exactly equivalent to the inversion into a historical-monumental aspect which Robert Smithson has observed with the industrial buildings falling into ruin along the Passaic River in New Jersey.5 Situated along the border to dysfunctionality and possessing a status as ruins, they seek to acquire a new classification.
The work Archives as Objects as Monuments ultimately condenses the encounter with archives, their formats and contents into a vocabulary of concepts and cases in alphabetical order which partly describe individual projects and partly reflect theoretical and conceptual statements.
Keller discovers his own artistic form of collection in the so-called "grids." With that term, he designates tableaus in each of which pictures devoted to one motif are arranged grid-like in equally-sized slots. As a rule, the pictures come from generally available sources in the Internet. Shifts of color or inversions into a negative often distort the pictures and thereby detach them from a purely illustrative function. For in contrast to formally comparable configurations, for example in the case of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Keller is not concerned with creating visual typologies. Instead the juxtaposition of images in the grid condenses into the connectivity of a cultural, social or political background. The tableau HAARP arranges the antennae of the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, a military research project of the United States, in such a manner that, in the juxtaposed grid, the poles become criss-crossed in a new pattern. There is a similar effect in the Chemtrails-Grids, which present photographs of evaporation trails in the sky. In the background stands a conspiratorial suspicion, widespread since the nineteen-nineties, that the climate is supposedly being manipulated by additives in the kerosene which fuels jet engines. American-Embassies displays pictures of the American embassies around the world which have been expanded into fortifications.
Inverse-Observatories-Archive, a series of grids in light-boxes and black-and-white pictures, shows photographs of observatories as monuments of skygazing. Built for private or scientific research, most of these buildings date from an era when, with the end of the colonies and the cooling-down of the war, the heavens and the stars had been discovered as a new beyond.
In the video Tour Solaire, the monument of research is transformed into a ruin. From the abandoned tower of an astronomical institute outside the gates of Paris, the view extends into the center of the city and thereby resembles the perspective from the station onto the surrounding ocean in Tarkovsky's film Solaris. A zoom brings the observer back into the tower; the view focuses on details of decay and presents an intimate encounter.
The work Message to the Extraterrestrials belongs to the Inverse-Observatories and Tour Solaire. It turns a telescope around by using it as a projector to transmit a series of images into the heavens. The message to the beyond turns into self-observation, inasmuch as it imagines a view onto oneself in an external perception. Thus the transmission to the extraterrestrials becomes an inverted ethnography.
The work Expedition Bus and Shaman Travel is situated at the same bifurcation between observation and self-observation, between scientific methods and methods which are foreign to science. A VW-bus has an external mirroring surface. Inside in a double projection, photographs of shamanistic practices are displaced from an archive of ethnographic films. The double projection arranges the pieces in reciprocal relation so that they provide commentaries upon each other. Inasmuch as the continuity of the scenes is sometimes disrupted, sometimes preserved, the observer finds himself compelled to switch from the state of simple viewing into reflective gazing. He cannot simply observe the photographs of the shamanistic practices in a neutral manner, but is instead thrown back upon himself as an observer. The expedition becomes a journey of the self. The filmic documentation Deux Cieux ntitled follows a small group of people into a stretch of forest in Brittany, where they practice shamanistic rituals around a menhir. In a manner comparable to the films of Jean Rouch, the camera remains quite close to the participants and observes the ritual without itself taking up their position.
In a more archival than documentary manner, almost like a film version of the grids, Hypnosis Film focuses on the way in which hypnosis is depicted in the cinema. The sequence of a hypnosis session thereby becomes a commentary on the procedures and history of film. Just as in the juxtapositions of the grids, the series of segments condenses into a form of filmic self-observation. The cinema, itself characterized by a psycho-technically optimized visual aesthetic, encounters its own most particular techniques in hypnosis, and demonstrates this by placing the camera in the position of the hypnotized person.
The Cloudbuster Project investigates the triangle of art, science and knowledge which has been expelled from the canon. In 1953 the psychologist Wilhelm Reich built an apparatus which with the help of the orgon energy which he had postulated—but which was never scientifically acknowledged—was supposed to be able to induce rain. Keller restaged the experiment on the roof of the P.S.1 in New York. During the project, there was a continuous downpour which, as a meteorological anomaly, made it all the way to the front pages of the major newspapers.6 That which was intended as the reenactment of an experiment deemed to be unscientific appeared as an artistic endeavor to have the intention of overcoming the borders between science and non-science. The work Wünschelruten Testfeld (Scheunenversuch) ("Divining Rod Test Field, Barn Experiment") is situated in the same dynamic field. The visitors to the exhibition were invited to use simple instruments made of wire to locate and map artificial water channels arranged beneath a wooden platform. The staged examination of a scientific experiment performs a ritual of rationality and a concomitant, inverted self-observation. Here Keller's work comes close to the approach with which the French sociologist Bruno Latour observes scientific practice when, for example, he watches geologists taking soil samples in the jungle in order, subsequently as speakers, to transfer them into the circulation of scientific insights.7 Both view science as the ritualized practice of a process which does not simply create objective knowledge, but first constitutes itself as a social act.
The bifurcation of art into other fields attains in some cases a point at which Keller's biography could also have split into two aspects. Something which was conceived of as a work of art could just as well have been expanded by the artist into a commercial enterprise. We are speaking here of Helioflex, a system which uses several moveable mirrors to bring sunlight into dark apartments and shadowy back courtyards. Registered in 1995 with the Patent Office, the first prototypes were produced in 1997. The website Helioflex.de regularly receives even today inquiries as to whether the product can be delivered. Social and discursive practices bifurcate in the Helioflex-System. On the one hand there is an entirely private longing for light which is connected with an urban, social utopia. On the other hand, there is the encounter with an administrative procedure which first assigns a status to the invention. The invention requires registration in the archive of the Patent Office which thereby, if it were to be compared with artistic institutions, becomes a museum of visions.
Keller's investigations are not limited to invention as a procedure, but also extend to the institution as a site. In the entrance hall of the Patent Office, one of the first Rundum-Bilder (All-Around Photographs) was created. Keller received his first patent in 1995 for this pictorial procedure. The filmstrips are characterized by a special relationship to the dimensions of time and space. The spatial and temporal horizon which may be experienced every day is shifted, inasmuch as the film, during the exposure time of approximately twenty seconds, is guided past a slit. The interweaving of the dimensions may be compared with the Lorenz transformation, with whose help Einstein describes, in the Theory of Relativity, the interdependencies of time, space and movement. The customary photographic perspective bends into a motile time-space.
A series of further works focus on manipulations of perception and self-perception. Continuous Present, standing in relation to Dan Graham's past continuous pasts, confronts the viewer with an image which depicts his own movements with an artificially reduced tempo. Psychological-Optics restages classical experiments involving optical perception, and Roto-tv exposes the viewer to a rapidly rotating, continuously channel-changing television program. The early work Starfighter Video shows a rapidly approaching jet and thereby exposes the viewer to a borderline experience which recalls the often-described shock of the first cinemagoers upon being faced with Lumière's film „The Arrival of a Train in La Ciotat."
The exhibition Tunnel + Lightbox installs the functions of observation and inversion in a gallery space. An inverted object runs through the main space of the gallery Schipper & Krome, Berlin. It consists of connected panels of hard masonite which have a total length of seventy-five meters and form a tunnel in the form of a stretched coil. The viewer makes his way through this tunnel but, while doing so, sees only the interior side of the object. For he cannot enter the actual gallery space. Through the tunnel, one reaches a chamber with a view onto a back courtyard. There a light-box built into the window illuminates the space with daylight—the artistic realization, so to speak, of the utopia of rerouted rays from the sun achieved by the Helioflex-System.
Visiting a Contemporary Art Museum under Hypnosis documents an imaginary visit to an exhibition. The artist allows himself to be hypnotized in order to present to view, while in this state, the visit to an exhibition. In response to the questions of the hypnotist, he tells of his course through the museum and describes individual works. Here all three elements come together: the inverse element, observation and bifurcation. The artist encounters himself as a hypnotized observer, whereupon he issues an inverted report, so to speak, concerning art.
The oeuvre of Christoph Keller is characterized by a standpoint with regard to the world and perception which conceptually takes up subjects, procedures and ideas, then transfers them aesthetically into the artistic space. His attitude as an artist goes further than that of a post-producer who simply uses and discards the objects and forms of the world.8 Inasmuch as Keller observes and rearranges something, he simultaneously reflects the process of observation. Keller views as sites the objects, statements and practices which he focuses upon in his artworks. They are places, not in the sense of topographical locations, but as cultural or intellectual topoi, as discursive positions. Through the transformation into an artistic environment, they have not been removed from their own respective surroundings of validity and function. In the work of art, they each experience a respectively specific shift. This procedure may be considered to be aesthetic in nature, but not simply as an aestheticization of phenomena, surfaces or images. Observation, bifurcation and inversion thereby represent aesthetic processes in an extended sense. They open an artistic view onto statements and practices which are foreign to art and which are mirrored, reevaluated and rearranged by this point of view. Keller's artistic procedure thereby aims neither at superficial criticism nor at formal appropriation. Instead his method of artistic transformation connects two bifurcated movements. The work injects an exterior aspect into the space of art and, conversely, presents a specifically artistic view back onto that external reality.