Friday, 06.08.99

The fitting title of the first exhibition on my agenda is Face to Face to Cyberspace, staged at the Museum/Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, a suburb of Basle. Designed by Renzo Piano in 1997 as an elegant, flat and airy pavilion-style structure, the museum houses the sizable collection of Swiss Galerists Ernst and Hilda Beyeler. Works by Cézanne, Picasso, Rousseau, Mondrian, Klee, Ernst, Matisse, Newman, Bacon, Dubuffet, Baselitz are displayed alongside 25 tribal objects from Africa, Alaska and Oceania. The staging is unambiguously modernist in counter-pointing the work of the genius master with the irrational and threatening 'otherness' of the tribal shaman. It promotes narratives of art as a unifying force that can underscore the 'search' for meaning arcross the globe regardless of material circumstances, creed and culture. Yet unwittingly this juxtaposition exposes underlying strategies which situate the unique art object in the realm of ritual and cult as a prerequiste for its appreciation. As Walter Benjamin put it in The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction :

We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual - first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognisable as secularised ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of the beauty. 01

With astonishing naivity the audience is lead to believe that it is perfectly acceptable to tear pagan artefacts away from their context in order to legitimise modernist painterly strategies. The booty of colonial travel is yet again on display, quietly celebrated and eulogised by an affluent, sophisticated public. Connisseurship today, it seems, can once again draw from this extraordinary gamut of cultural tropes without being exposed to ridicule. Surely, a more critical approach could have amplified concerns about form and content by examining the role of the fetishised cult object per se. Does the status of the celebrated object indeed depend on its ability to unsettle the familiar ? What happens after appropriation has institutionalised the cult object ?

I make my way to the exhibition entitled Face to Face to Cyberspace which seeks to plot the representation of the human figure over the last 100 or so years . In bringing together works from Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Picasso, Dubuffet, Bacon, Giacometti with paintings and photographs by Close, Warhol, Boltanski, Trockel, Ruff as well as various computer installations this project would seem immensely ambitious in scope. Yet the attempt to chart a recent history of representation and abstraction in portraiture from high modernism to computer-based models doesn't lack appeal, if only for its suggested linearity. To be sure, the discourse between painting and emerging technologies has brought about shifts in the politics of representation. It would be difficult to sustain that painting's move into abstraction, beginning in the late 19th century, should have occurred regardless of photography's success . It only seems plausible that the advent of cheap verissimilitude in image production would have had to lead into painterly expression. Art, according to Walter Benjamin, 'at the time [...] reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art.'02 A process which, according to the organisers of Face to Face to Cyberspace, brought about 'the liberation of face from the mimetic function of the portrait'03. Why shouldn't we make similar assumptions as to the impact of digital technology on art and photography ? That indeed seems to be the proposition that underscores this exhibition project.

My expectations raised I duly proceed through to the Prologue. The linear trajectory which Face to Face to Cyberspace seeks to establish, is reflected not least in the narrative structure of this exhibition. I had hoped one would have been allowed a glimpse at the latest exploits in digital art prior to, perhaps, tracing its roots but, alas, the technology section is in the basement which can only be accessed after paying homage to classical modernism first.

The main section begins with Dubuffet's 1946/47 portraits which, according to the organisers, have never been shown together before. This, I realise, has already made my trip to Basle worthwhile. Dubuffet's work has great appeal due to its refusal to commit to anything other than its own materiality and substance. After the laboured juxtapositions of Beyerle's permanent collection this ensemble, in its unassuming clumsiness, its witticism and bold gusto comes across like a breath of fresh air. Bacon and Giacometti are next and round up the encounter with modernist strategies before I can descend into the basement where we are presented with a Warhol 1986 Self-Portrait, alongside a 1993 Chuck Close, a 1982 Gertsch and Christian Boltanski's Dead Swiss. Hidden in side rooms we can discern a mere handful of works which draw on and are conditioned by digital technology as the title of the exhibition suggested. Is this it, I ask myself, since I had come to expect some sort of interplay between the technologies of representation (Photography, Silkcreen, Video, Computer Aided Design) and painterly strategies.

The choice of work seems patchy at best and downright uninspired at the worst. Just whyVirtual Head by a company called Echtzeit (Realtime, my trans.) should have been invited to this exhibition escapes me. Their research is based on mapping the human face in order to rebuild it digitally and send it through the wire for tele-conferencing; as if high bandwidth isn't going to render this line of work obsolete even before it has resulted in a working prototype. To get excited about the 'unique experience to have your face electronically reconstructed'04 takes some doing, especially since the clunky installation doesn't even work properly due to technical glitches. And considering Nicholas Necroponte's research at the MIT - Media Lab throughout the 1970s one can't help but think that someone is trying very hard here to re-invent the wheel.05 The Virtual Head would have been far more interesting had it been able to enter into some sort of dialogue with its human alter ego just like a living mirror image whose movements are strangely out of sync. But as so often when technology and art are thrown into the arena, techno-fetishism takes over from critical curatorship. Except that the notion of the avatar 06 has long since entered the mainstream with virtual popstars, virtual newsreaders and, of course, virtual models.07

Before I leave, I sit down in front of one of two iMac computers which have been provided to create identikit-style pictures with a software package similar to that used by the police authorities. This, of course, is great fun but before I can construct the face of a particularly dangerous looking criminal I am being made aware of the queue that has formed behind me. Everyone is eager to have a go.

This then must be the Epilogue of Face to Face to Cyberspace : from the lofty heights of classical modernism onto the flat plains of a techno-themepark, from the art of the author-genius to interactive teaching aids. To be sure, technology, if staged as a domesticated spectacle, will hardly undermine or even question artistic strategies for it cannot be taken seriously. But perhaps that is the real intention that underscores this exhibition: to contrast the timeless appeal of painting with the embarrassing ineptitude of 'Digital Art'. Yet to underline the status of painting by means of comparison with technological gadgetry is to miss the point entirely. Is it not legitimate to quiery the significance of digitality and its impact on art production ? Why then sustain the unsustainable: that art might exist in a timeless vacuum, self sufficient and answerable to its own points of reference only ?

According to the grid location I obtained off the web, I am only a few hundred yards away from the car hire company where, hopefully, I have a car waiting for me. First, though, I must cross the Swiss-German border which is a peculiar experience when done walking. Usually one sits in a car or on train or a boat when crossing borders. To do so on foot evokes a feeling of vulnerability, not that that would be borne out by the political realities. I'm not even being noticed, it seems, or maybe I am, without noticing it myself. Perhaps a pair of trained eyes has already locked onto my counterfeit on a video screen and now scans the search results of a face recognition programme in order to find whether I am a particularly dangerous criminal. In any case I make it across and, two minutes into Germany, find Küpferstrasse 7 where they are already expecting me. Everything is arranged, so I just need to pick up the keys and drive off, the first hundred yards on the wrong side of the road, into the Black Forrest and further on towards Karlsruhe.

Saturday/Sunday, 07.08./08.08.99
This is the heartland of German car manufacturing with the Mercedes-Benz works just down the road and a level of prosperity that is generally staggering. I read in a tourist brochure that the local council of Sindelfingen near Stuttgart boasts more public sport centres, swimming pools and leisure centres per head of polpulation than any other council in Germany. And one cannot but notice just how many Mercedeses, Audis and BMWs are in circulation here. Even the zebra-crossings are made of marble, or so they say.

Speeding down one of Hitler's first Autobahnen , the A 8 towards Karlsruhe, I realise just how fitting a sports icon Michael Schumacher is for this country. However civil in many other ways, when let loose on the Überholspur, the fast lane, there is no holding back the German motorist. Most cars here seem to be capable of 120mph and more. This, the democratisation of speed, curiously contrasts the all-pervasive attitudes towards healthy living and safety in Germany. Quite possibly, speeding on Autobahnen provides a state-sanctioned antidote to the anesthetisation of risk that is now characteristic in German Zeitgeist.

Again, there is no getting lost as I hurtle down the Autobahn . The ZKM or Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie seems to be signposted all over the place as if to signal the pride Karlsruhe takes in its famous institution. Housed since 1997 in a former munitions factory and enormous in size, the ZKM is many things at once: museum, research institute, university and municipal gallery. Going back to initiatives in the late 80s, its mission is to embrace the 'New' and open up discourse rather than celebrate closures:

The digital museum of the third kind will be anticipatory, not imposing perspectives of the history of art, but opening up a pool of possibibities from which art might emerge, working at the forward edge of contrary culture, as an agent of culture change, as a course of art practice rather than as a cultural effect.08

This, in the words of digital evangelist Roy Ascott, is the potential of technology: it can turn into a formidable force of cultural change if facilitated through forward looking institutional practices. However, whilst enabling the growth and development of new discourses it also discredits old, traditional ones. Or, more to the point, in the words of Hans-Peter Schwarz: 'Once again, a new art form rattles at the gates of the museum - not to get in this time like the other avant-garde of the 20th century, but to deposit an explosive charge [...].'09

I have come to see the exhibition called video cult/ures featuring pieces by Doug Aitken, Gabriele Leidloff, Marcel Odenbach, Sam Taylor-Wood, Pipilotti Rist, Samir, Karin Westerlund and many more. According to the programme leaflet, the exhibition title

is suggestive not only of the cult surrounding electronic images, but also of video’s role, since the 1990s. as an integrative “lingua franca” linking together the planes of space and time, fiction and reality, the critical discourse and the everyday, and combining different cultural accesses.10

On entering the cavernous, dimmly lit exhibition space one is immediately engulfed by the cacophony of competing soundtracks. Mary Lucier's imposing installation Noah's Raven , arranged in a semicircle juxtaposes images of nature with surgical operations on the human body. Gabriele Leidloff's piece Moving Visual Object replays fuzzy television images of Princess Di's funeral as if condemmning the audience to relive endlessly a moment of public grief, closing off any possibility of an early escape or a breaking-free from a traumatic event. (It was) just a job by the exiled Iraqi filmmaker Samir layers veils of images over and across a basic narrative of contrasting imagery: on the right half of a split screen one can watch an elderly couple watch television whilst on the left follow an Iraqi family living through the bombardment of Operation Desert Storm.. Sam Taylor-Wood's Killing Time shows individuals in a state of bored apprehension, as if waiting for something that is not going to happen, at times oblivious to the camera's gaze, at times confonting it. Whilst the piece Into The Sun seemingly acknowledges the specificity of the medium through a sometimes laboured deployment of stereotypical 'techniques', Doug Aitken manages to offset the detached coldness of the video image with his gesture of covering the floor with sand, thus perhaps alluding to the ephemeral quality of the image in contrast to the tactile reality of the physical world, a contrast which may or may not be particularly pertinent in India, the focus of his work. Pipilotti Rist's piece Sip My Ocean demonstrates, perhaps unwittingly, just how difficult any differentiation is between what my be called polpular culture on the one hand and 'media art' on the other. In what seems very much like a music video, the audience is immersed in highly seductive and colourful imagery of coral reefs whilst listening to a mellow and rather hip Trance soundtrack.

The sheer amount of visual narratives in this comprehensive show is quite overwhelming and I decide to have a break and perhaps send some e-mails. To my surprise I am told that it is not possible to go on the Internet or send e-mails anywhere in the ZKM. So much for life at the cutting edge.