Köstring, Patricia: Seeing how you see, 2013

Time and again, art offers the observer magical moments, and one of them happens like this: You pass a metal rod. LEDs – accurately arranged into two vertical rows – emit a throbbing flicker. In your field of vision, as a translucent fluctuation on the surrounding architecture, suddenly a word becomes visible, written with light. Or an icon. Perhaps ORTLOS. Or ATMOSPHÄRE. It briefly flashes up in the color of the diodes. Nothing can get in its way. It is there and at the same time not there because only your personal visual system, your perceptual apparatus makes it accessible for you.

In the beginning of the 1990s the artist Ruth Schnell started to develop her so-called light sticks. The works generated with these media are technically astounding, irritating, they interfere with our conventional ideas about seeing. The artist exploits the persistence of human vision: The photoreceptors in the retina cannot separately resolve individual images that appear in a frame rate higher than 20 images per second. That’s why we see a film as a film, the spokes of a wheel seem to turn backwards (stroboscope effect), or the ring-shaped movement of a flashlight looks like it forms a closed circle of light (phi phenomenon).

For the presentation on the light stick, words, icons, but also photographs abstracted down to a silhouette are divided into points which are displayed sequentially along the vertical gaps of the stick – the eye becomes an interface for a technologically advanced visual variant of telegraphy. A spectator in motion sees several, already past situations as a single present. Only the performative act of moving actuates this “present” and therewith the work as a collaborative process.

Ruth Schnell understands her artistic work, which is primarily based in the field of electronic image production, as an engagement with processes and modes of visual perception, and subsequently as an investigation of different concepts of space, but also of the body – those which are a part of our (pre-digital) cultural memory and those which are or will be generated through technologization or scientific findings.[1]

Formally, the works of the Vienna-based artist can generally be divided into media environments, projects with light sticks, video sculptures, dynamic video projections, videotapes, and works in a performative context. These are complemented by large-scale site-specific prints on walls and ceilings, almost reminiscent of drawings, where the computer work already took place before their actual materialization. Hence, they function without the use of electronic media and affect, above all, the spatial perception of the viewer through the modified scale of the employed images.

This development is owed to her interest in the moving image and her knowledge of the paradigms of art reception. As a student, she first enrolled in art history and psychology, but at the end of 1977 she switched to the Academy of Art and Industrial Design in Linz, founded just four years before, to study in the Visual Design department under Laurids Ortner, a member of the utopian architecture group Haus-Rucker-Co. She finished her studies in Vienna with Peter Weibel and Oswald Oberhuber.

The late 1970s to early 1980s was also a period of rapid transformations in the art world. Media art – the term is practically new; artistic work involves the 8-bit Commodore 64 personal computer or the U-matic video format. The new computers are still bulky and heavy, but they already process data for everybody. The digitalization of the world, its representation in zeros and ones, requires a new artistic language; those who learn to speak it (and those who teach it) still have Expanded Cinema, actionism, Fluxus, Happening, and the Social Sculpture in their minds. Many are futurists in their hearts.

For female artists, work with the young technological media opens up a new field, a still unexplored terra incognita, which hasn’t yet been connotated with the male imagos of “painter princes” and ingenious stone sculptors. Ruth Schnell takes courses with Valie Export, investigates the technological conditions and possibilities of her media and equipment, and soon starts an artistic alliance with her fellow student Gudrun Bielz, which would last many years and in most cases resulted in computer generated tapes transferred to video, stage environments, and video sculptures. These projects take the importance of cybernetic control mechanisms in art and in the world seriously, but they do not worship them. In this connection the author Friedrich Geyrhofer writes about Das Mu-Rätsel, a project consisting of video tapes and a closed circuit installation, which Schnell/Bielz realized in 1985 for a theater production: “While Gudrun Bielz and Ruth Schnell have made an animated film on the standard topic ‘Gödel/Escher/Bach’ for the steirischer herbst festival, they don’t fall for the dubious cult of a God-like thinking machine. Sure enough, cybernetics is the beginning of a new religion, which prophesies Star Wars along with its own apocalypse. In this light, Gudrun Bielz and Ruth Schnell appear like two atheists, who secretly celebrate black masses in the cathedrals of technocracy. The blasphemous catchword is: Demolition! Demolition of images, demolition of reality.”[2]

Another work by the artist duo Schnell/Bielz, the video sculpture Punching Ball (fig. 5) from 1989 shown in the Aperto exhibition of the 44th Venice Biennale, consists of a monitor, rubber expanders, steel springs, a video player, and a video. These elements are combined into a simulation of interaction. First, the monitor is freed from its static position; suspended with rubber expanders and steel springs it becomes a punching ball hanging in the room. A video shows the globe. As it rotates it passes through a looped process of dissolution and reconstitution. When the visitor hits the punching ball, the dynamic of the image evokes the illusion that the stroke affected the image. “The visitors’ wish for an apparent reaction to their intervention, where everything changes with one stroke, is ostensibly fulfilled. What they have really changed is the directional movement of the case. They manipulate the shell.”[3]

At the dawn of the digital revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, the type of questions arose which must be asked in art at the turn of eras: What is space, what is movement? What is a reality made of, which manifests along these and other coordinates? What does “simulation” or “interaction” mean? How do these new technologies influence our understanding of that which is, how can a virtual space be felt, filled, and dynamized with all the new knowledge?

Also Ruth Schnell concluded accordingly: “In the discourse of new media, the key term Virtual Reality has taken on an almost magical meaning, not least because a certain notion of reality hasn’t lost its common understanding yet. […] What is real actually? Is it the ideas and/or the sensual experiences? There isn’t an actual reality as the only authoritative one. […] The idea that the concept of reality is based on social negotiations, that it follows certain patterns and codes, which, on top of that, are gradually dissolving, is not generally established yet.”[4]

The imperative to question the understanding and perception of reality, this virtual reality check derived from the self-conception of (digital) media art, is in the case of Ruth Schnell’s artwork accompanied by an analytical view on the constitution of the political and social present and the cultural factors affecting it, which transcends the boundaries of the artworks themselves.

Schnell’s works tackle topics inherent to culture, such as “the trivial as a construct in film”. Or the anamorphosis, an often marginalized basic exercise on perspective from the Renaissance, where only one eccentric viewpoint or medium like a reflecting cylinder enables one to decode the distorted content of an image. The result is anamorphic installations like Babel (fig. 12) or Co-Verzerrung, which transfer this technique to moving video images.

By addressing war, exclusion, distributive justice, and equal rights the artist draws attention to our conditio humana in many of her projects. The works amalgamate these contents by asking how and from which standpoint in the here and now one sees – in the vastness between the real and hyperspace.

For example, the aforementioned light stick projects weave a fabric of thematic representation. In the Lichtbilder series a bar consisting of 32 LEDs is embedded in a MDF tableau covered with several layers of translucent epoxy resin, a shiny monochrome image carrier. The generated words – as if a thread of beads on a chain – tell of role models (Nennen Sie mich…, 2003), gender asymmetries (Womens’ Statistics, 2002), world market statistics (Blut für Öl, 2004); themes that become condensed associations through sequence and rhythm.

Two fundamentally different modes of viewing collide here: While art reception in the classical understanding is organized in a hierarchical order – the creator and his or her work, then the associated static, contemplative spectator – and asks for targeted viewing, perceiving the words made of light requires the exact opposite way of seeing. Transformed into a temporal sequence of high frequency impulses, the coded signs can only be read when the spectator abandons familiar patterns of reception practiced through the act of reading. What is needed here is a free-floating gaze, an observation in passing.

Very large versions of these LED works, where words like panoramas of light pierce twenty meters into nocturnal urban landscapes, were created for the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (Retinal Mission in the framework of the project Missions of Art of the Akademie der Künste, 2005, fig. cover image) or next to the new harbor in Bregenz (Floating Signs, 2011, fig. 1).

Departing from dual concept and image worlds related to the harbor, arrival, staying (also being allowed or having to stay) Floating Signs, one of the winning projects in the art competition for the redesign of the harbor, creates a subversive, critical microcosm of a notion of space characterized by geopolitical interests and expressed in territorial zones of separation.

The light installation consists of a 4.5-meter-high, slender stainless steel column with built-in super-bright white LEDs. The light strip has a height of two meters and is visible through a slit. The work is inspired by the idea of the lighthouse as an orientation point in the night. It signals those arriving or taking a stroll on the waterside promenades, welcoming all people moving toward the harbor with ephemeral typefaces and visual codes in light. Like the selection of the words and icons, the dynamic of the representational process is a also part of the artistic concept. The slow, regular intervals simulate the typical trademark of lighthouses (the long beam with short interruptions).

The critique of war, territorial control, and demarcation as the cornerstones of power fields in global politics is even more explicit in three other works: The cross-media project Combat Science (fig. 7a to 7d), realized in cooperation with Vienna’s Volkstheater in 2008, was both an interactive spatial environment and staged installation art at the same time. The setting consisted of the theater space, the audience, the actors who performed both live and in scenes on screens in the space, a small book with the dialogues of the evening, and documentary film material about the First World War. The subjects of science and war and the question of how modern warfare began and the role that science played were addressed against the backdrop of the spectacular fates of the chemist Clara Immerwahr and her husband Fritz Haber, the Nobel Prize winner and architect of German gas warfare in the First World War. The pacifist Immerwahr shot herself immediately after the first German gas attack – which took place near Ypres in 1915 under the supervision of her husband – with his gun. Later, neither patriotism nor his merits as a scientist were of any help to Haber: Due to his Jewish ancestry and because he spoke out against firing Jewish employees, he had to end his professional career in the “German Reich” and emigrated to England in 1933.

The LED series All targets defined (fig. 2) works with video stills from news footage about crisis regions around the world. The tableaus are conceived as diptychs. While the left side of the respective image carrier displays glossy yet grainy motifs of war images from various camera perspectives, the other panel contains an LED bar featuring geopolitical terms, figures, data, and facts. Here Schnell presents moments before the final blow, images from surveillance cameras on Europe’s outer borders, views through the telescopic sights of NATO jets in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The color of modern warfare, apparently, is not blood red rather the greenish tone of images through night-view devices.

It is no coincidence that the All targets defined series was presented in a solo exhibition in the Viennese gallery Grita Insam in 2006 together with a redesigned version of the projection Territorism.

The first version of Territorism, conceived for public space in 2002, was a dynamic video projection for the Kunsthaus Bregenz (fig. 4a to 4c). The observer sees a tank, a huge toy tank, which a man’s hand shifts to and fro along the Kunsthaus façade as if on the ground. A second hand enters the picture, seemingly at rest. The movement of the hands is not restricted to the façade of the Kunsthaus: The “game” also spreads over to the neighboring Landestheater; the movement patterns of both hands merge the two architectures together.

Five large-scale projections border one another with millimeter precision to create the illusion of a single sequence of movement. The projections are accompanied by scratching noises (which the toy makes on the ground) and a voice mimicking detonations and volleys of shots from a machine gun, like a child playing a war game.

The sound and image could not be perceived together as a whole. When the viewer was close enough to the sound source, he or she was deprived of the over-dimensional imagery in its entirety. But when at a distance from the building where the image could be perceived as a whole, it was beyond the range of the soundtrack.

“Ruth Schnell sends a probe through the parallel worlds of the virtual and fictional images of our perception and thoughts, confronting us with the question of their readability and perceptibility. She confronts us with the character of the visible in our everyday – but at the same time and as a mirror image – with the quality of our own experience,” wrote curator and cultural scientist Cathrin Pichler about the video projection.[5]

The scheme transforms the façades into the territory of a game without opponents and rules. Observers experience the image events from the over-dimensional ego perspective of a computer game; the body of the protagonist remains just a fragment – perhaps it is one’s own, or perhaps that of another?

In this work we can read an artistic strategy of Ruth Schnell that comes into play when the starting point is a spatial ensemble, there to be staged:

The architecture on hand is employed as a screen, and its three dimensionality becomes tangible through the projection. Simultaneously, projection mirrors or, as in this case, multiple projections and the scaling of the projected event suspend spatial order: Architectures that do not belong together are entwined with one another; the search for the ideal viewpoint leads to participation in the construction of new spaces, which emerge between virtual reality and physical, Euclidean experience.

In the project Gegen die Zeit (fig. 3a, 3b) – realized in cooperation with Kike García Roldán at the Johanniterkirche in Feldkirch in 2001 and then displayed as a new version in 2008 in the so-called Aktienkeller, an extensive historical tunnel system in Linz – real space is again remodeled through moving projections of a hand. A woman’s arm with a scrubbing brush traverses the surfaces of the tunnel walls and ceilings. You hear a scrubbing noise that coincides with the movements.

In an ambiguous interpretation between “erasing traces” and “critique of reproductive work”, the interplay between architecture and projection creates three-dimensional image distortions. The projection as such is not conceived as a frame but as a cropped moving image. The simulated continuous movement is performed by a computer-controlled mirror in front of the projector. As the duration of the video loop differs from the movement interval of the mirror, the relationship between the projected sequence and its movement in the space is never the same.

Media art always designs or stages images of the human body as well. They are translations of the question what “body” means today. In art history the image also bears the evolution of the body image, the ideal of beauty, the taboos, the fragmentation. In media art the body becomes an avatar, cyborg, an actor in one’s own real-time movie, an interface – analogous to the ideas of the body brought forth through contemporary imaging methods or also concrete technical possibilities to manipulate organic life.

It is interesting to observe here how Ruth Schnell, over the course of her artistic development – which, of course, also correlates with innovations in the technologies she uses – changes the entry situations into a virtual reality: Increasingly, cyberspace lies in ambush, subtly mixing with the experience of reality. Ruth Schnell’s “acting bodies”, her bodies as screens apparently owe their movement to the processing power of the computer and seem to play their game in Euclidean space with time, presence and absence, and those systems which are a prerequisite for how we perceive the world.

The art observer as a protagonist, observing his or her own image, or the body as an interface for an interactive scenario – two large interactive environments from the 1980s and 90s introduce these topoi which are prototypical for media art as interstitial concepts: the first, Tür für Huxley (fig. 8a, 8b), developed for the 1989 Ars Electronica in Linz; the second, Body Scanned Architecture (fig. 9), Schnell’s contribution for the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995. The works share the game with illusions, the analytical recourse to illusory techniques in painting, and the search for experiences of space that emerge “through Schnell’s use of media as doubling machines and elevating the realism of the trompe-l’œil”.[6]

The “Door for Huxley” opened to visitors of Ars Electronica in 1989. A closed circuit installation in technical terms, here, too, a scheme unfolded with artificial architectures and simultaneity. Closed circuit installations, characterized by the simultaneity of an event and its appearance, have been sending the observer into the virtual space of the image since the end of the 1960s. A closed system is generated, a non-mirrored mirror image or a (self-) surveillance situation, often also a displacement of temporal perspective. Examples from the media art archive include Dan Graham’s work Time Delay Room (first in 1974) or Bruce Nauman’s Live-Taped Video Corridor from 1970.

Tür für Huxley is actually three doors, two of which are built from bits and bytes. Real space materials include: a door (closed), a platform with stairs, a guidance system, a large-scale video projection with a computer animation, live camera and videotape, real/live sound, sensors, and a reproduction of a painting by the surrealist Dorothea Tanning. The visitor is registered by sensors when walking down the stairway. Thereafter, projected doors open and close; the depictions in virtual space vanish upon approach; the observer is staged as a monitor of oneself or as a voyeur at the keyhole.

In Body Scanned Architecture the moving observer becomes the interface between real and virtual space. The visual setting and entry point into the virtual world in 1995 was an opaque acrylic glass panel, which hung freely in the Austrian Pavilion, designed by Josef Hoffmann in 1934. The visitor moved around, and this movement made the events in cyberspace visible, like a spot in the dark. Exactly there, and only there where he or she moves. In the parallel virtual space architectural elements are scattered across an imaginary storage hall. A virtual camera moves by them. The image of the moving observer, captured by a camera and digitally transmitted into the virtual world, lays over the 3D elements like a skin. On the projection surface one sees architectonically distorted body images of the observers, which permanently change through an interplay of various movement parameters in real and virtual space. The real space becomes a space among spaces, it co-exists with other spatial constructions, it becomes discernible as a construct among others.

Part of the concept was the selection of the elements for the virtual architectural topography. They quote architectural forms like those developed and used by Friedrich Kiesler and Josef Hoffmann and a 3D model of the Hoffmann Pavilion.[7]

This artistic strategy of questioning modes of perception by interconnecting real and virtual spaces while playing with perspectives of observation is further elaborated in the video montréal2000 (fig. portrait) from the year 2000 – this time with other, very simple means. While in Body Scanned Architecture or Gegen die Zeit the human body and its movements in space are projected on architecture or on a virtual architectural assemblage and the resulting distortions are used to reveal the interconnections between the spaces of action, in montréal2000 this is achieved with a film that reflects on the face of the artist. The bodies in motion – actors from an encrypted porno film on a pay channel – are not disclosed, only the corresponding sound. The video was recorded in a hotel room in Montreal.

“In montréal2000 the fascination with the duplication of the film in a film, of a screen in a screen becomes the departure point for a complex chain of perspectives, imaginary, real and virtual spaces: hotel room, hotel room porno, watching, filming oneself while watching, and, in turn, allowing this film to be watched. The directional movement from the intimate into public space is subverted: Since Schnell circumvents the pay channel principle, she gets to see a distorted image, one to be self-constructed. The film as such remains hidden for the observer of the observer.”[8]

The Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov wrote the following in 1918: “I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. Now and forever I free myself from human immobility. I am in constant motion, I draw near, then away from objects, I crawl under, I climb onto them. I move apace with the muzzle of a galloping horse, I plunge full speed into a crowd, I outstrip running soldiers, I fall on my back, I ascend with with an airplane, I plunge and soar together with with plunging and soaring bodies.”[9]

Vertov’s films and theoretical writings are about establishing a cinematography of facts, about reality through montage, about the organization of the visible. The kino-eye creates a new order and a new perception of the world – “Attention viewers: this film is an experiment in cinematic communication of real events,” reads the subtitle in Vertov’s otherwise unsubtitled documentary silent film Man with a Movie Camera.

“He who films reality is eating his soup properly, for he was served it in the same way. One who works with films, images of reality, and mixes them with artificial, computer-generated images provides an idea of the artificiality of reality. The digital manipulation of film images speaks of the changeability of images and reality.” Peter Weibel wrote this in the catalog for the Ars Electronica 1986 about the computer/video work Plüschlove (fig. 6) by Ruth Schnell, realized in 1984 in coproduction with Gudrun Bielz. The video shows love scenes from two suspense classics – Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra – in a montage with real images and images digitalized and modified on a Commodore 64. Love in a thriller – a promise of classic languish on the brink of horror, and precisely this formalized interpretation of love, which just fits so well in one’s own formula of passion, is dissected in the montage by Schnell/Bielz.

Hitchcock and suspense – time and again they manifest in the work of Ruth Schnell as references to montage techniques and to the involvement of the viewer through a sophisticated dramatic arc. As in, for example, the previously mentioned works Tür für Huxley and Plüschlove, but also in the video installation Der andere Beobachter (fig. 11) from 1992/93. Der andere Beobachter employs a number of screens arranged in the space, which results in a fragmentation of the projected image, an impossibility of finding the right perspective to view the projection. A giant eye is projected; on the iris flicker electronically manipulated Hitchcock film quotes. The film screen looks back. The other observer – in this case it is also the machine itself. The image’s depth of focus fluctuates; in its search for an anchor point of its focus, the projector itself seems to have become the eye.

In recent times Ruth Schnell has also been investigating the technical image as a reality construct. Schnell’s analytical view wanders into the body, as it were, and reveals the technical image as a hypothesis on the visible. Like the image in art, what one sees requires a translation and decodification. Drawing from these thoughts, the permanent installation Mirrors of the Unseen (fig. 15) was made at the Landeskrankenhaus Hohenems hospital. The motifs that unfold across five stories on the ceilings of the corridors and patient rooms, executed in UV print on foil, refer to the visualization methods used in the medical branch. You are presented structures of life – images of cells, blood platelets, and the body’s own bacteria abstracted through scaling, image processing, and rearrangements. The ornamental formations meander like a drawing over the ceilings and seem to transcend the borders between the intimacy of the patient rooms and the corridors open to all.

As the eye follows the lines and plexuses, the ornaments become form, a view into a cosmos of the invisible. In this manner, the viewers can experience themselves as observers or as part of the image. The work makes explicit reference to the visualization techniques of perspectival painting in the Renaissance, to its views and room openings performed as a trompe l ́œil. The artificial architectural views of the Renaissance mostly expanded into the sky or Arcadian landscapes, whereas here the observer looks inward, in a work that is conceived as media art but does without a computer.

The work Camouflage (fig. 10) is also digital art with analog media. In September 2012 a row of ten flagpoles ­– which usually carry those of different states and the EU –welcomed visitors at the Silvretta-Bielerhöhe bus parking lot with ten quartz-green banners. Where red, white, blue, yellow, black, and green in various constellations otherwise symbolize unity with Europe and the region’s hospitality, the viewer saw – nothing at first. Only upon a closer look did the ten monochrome camouflage-colored banners appear against the color palette of the mountains, the Alpine flora, and the Silvrettasee lake.

Ultimately, national flags are associated with (recognized) territorial claims. The work Camouflage neutralizes these claims by removing the insignias from the flags and consolidating them into one color.

The name Camouflage is inspired by the military technique. At the artificial reservoir with its wall, an intervention by civilization, also an architectonic symbol for the reclamation of nature, the work – whose coloration also appears like a vertical continuation of the lake and its movement – consummates a symbolic (re-) integration of culture (techne) into nature (natura).

Published in: Künstler - Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst, no. 103, Munich 2013

[1] In her study “Medialität & Kybernetik” the media theoretician Katharina Gsöllpointner names the following scientific fields as constitutive for an environment that, in her view, identified technologies, sciences, but also the arts as the engine of societal progress: “cybernetics, information theories, biotechnologies, constructivist theories, system theoretical approaches, etc.” as well as multiple interdisciplinarities between natural science and the humanities.

[2] Friedrich Geyrhofer, “Der blamierte Computer,” Wiener 11 (1985); Douglas R. Hofstadter’s cult book Gödel, Escher, Bach about artificial intelligence, logic, patterns, and the “strange loops” of self-referentiality from 1979 was published in German language for the first time in 1985.

[3] Gerhard Johann Lischka, Peter Weibel (eds.), Kunstforum International: Im Netz der Systeme, vol. 103, September/October 1989.

[4] Ruth Schnell, “In/different spaces”. The lecture was held in 1999 in the framework of the project Differenz at the Institute of Art History, University of Innsbruck. Published in: Differenz (Innsbruck: Institut für Kunstgeschichte der Universität Innsbruck, 1999).

[5] Published in: Ruth Schnell, Territorism, exhibition brochure from the Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2002.

[6] Peter Weibel, “Ruth Schnell oder Der Körper als Schnittstelle zwischen Virtuellen und Realen Räumen,” in Ruth Schnell – on the occasion of LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA (Vienna: 1995).

[7] The two Austrian architects also represent here the course of time in the 20th century: The avant-gardist Friedrich Kiesler emigrated to the USA in 1926, while Josef Hoffmann came to fame in Austria as a sympathizer of Austro-fascism.

[8] The author in Triebwerk 2 (Vienna: 2001).

[9] Annette Michelson (ed.), Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (London: 1984).