photo animated audio/video installation, 4:3 format, 8:08 min, 4-part, Hubert Blanz, 2006
Lost in Intermediate Space
The city as “real collage”
After the Industrial Revolution, the term “montage” became synonymous with the assembly and construction of machines or machine systems. However, when modernist artists and writers applied this term to their aesthetic and material reproductions of reality, they claimed to be reflecting upon state of the art technology. As Annegret Jürgens-Kirchhoff says in her foreword to Technik und Tendenz der Montage (1978), “In using the technique of montage modernist artists were not merely reacting to the technological and aesthetic innovations of their times, they were also trying to be consistent with their perception and experiences of a fundamentally changed reality, something traditional mediums had failed to do.” The author succinctly sums up how the montage has become a “revolutionary structural code” in contemporary art, indeed even a “paradigm of Modernism.” In his widely acclaimed, albeit provocative and therefore controversial book, Theorie der Avantgarde [The Theory of the Avant-Garde, 1974] literary scholar Peter Bürger sees the montage as a “basic principle in avant-garde art.” 1) The somewhat arbitrary principles of montage and assemblage techniques used in new image and text media seem to correspond with the world’s inner conflicts. Images of the environment, particularly of Western metropolises, look increasingly like montages and the city in them appears more and more like a gigantic collage of reality.
On the Iconography of Manhattan, the American Super City
A strong bond between the modern metropolis and photography has existed since their genesis in the Industrial Revolution. A close relationship between the city, the avant-garde and revolution had already existed in the Futurist circle around F. T. Marinetti, about 1910, when artists, sociologists and scientists realised that speed would fundamentally change the parameters of perception. The contagious spirit of swift change, speed in telecommunication, the sheer mass and velocity of the metropolis soon also affected the audio-visual media (newspapers, radio and cinema) and became discernible in such movements as New Objectivity, New American Realism (Ash Can School) or early Pop Art. It is not at all surprising that Manhattan’s high-rise buildings were and continue to be the favoured motifs of modern artists. Its audacious skyscrapers of steel, concrete and glass have inspired generations of artists, architects and photographers alike. From its very inception this American metropolis in particular has had an irresistible appeal for photographers and filmmakers. Alfred Stieglitz, followed by Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Weegee, Andras Feininger and finally Reinhart Wolf and Judith Dupré have contributed towards shaping New York City’s architectural iconography.
In the first half of the twentieth century, dynamism, traffic, the beat and throb, the rhythm, in other words speed and velocity, characterised the Fordian lifestyle, and with it the appearance of the modern metropolis, be it in architecture, photography or cinematography. In contrast, the city’s architecture and its urban planning mainly underscore the importance of spatiality, whereby digital technology and electronic media have led to a dissolution and vanishing of space and time in our perception. Meanwhile, reality and virtuality, being and appearance, fake and original are becoming almost indistinguishable in the computer-generated presentations of architectural projects. Today, HDTV and CAD have led to an increasing abstraction and dissolution of reality and therefore to a radically different sphere of rendering architecture and three-dimensional representation, namely, to virtual reality or, a term from sci-fi literature, the so-called cyberspace. 2) This type of hyper-reality is not manifested in the utopian “impossible worlds” proposed in sci-fi cinema alone but can also be seen in the practices of numerous artistic personalities or lateral thinkers in the creative architecture scene. Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid see their off-beat visions or unrealisable architectural fantasies as an attack on the traditional view of time, space and site.
Between Floating and Standstill
The multi-media installations of the Vienna-based media artist Hubert Blanz result from an intense preoccupation with urban (documentary, sound and source) materials, in the form of abstracted or disparate architectural elements, spatial structures, urban sprawls, agglomerations, connections and territorial networks such as expressways, metro lines and bridges. In these utopian as well as dystopian visions (of the future?) made of crazy spaghetti-like superhighways, highway junctions or monumental skyscraper façades we can discover real artefacts or fragments of photographed urban spaces like the pieces of a puzzle fitted together into visionary or utopian compositions. In Blanz’s hyper-realistic and yet unreal and bizarre photo-collages and scenarios of an urban over-civilization, even the real elements seem like inventions that have been cautiously “mounted” into a whole. It is like a randomly assembled surrealistic world of order and sub-order: a kind of sub or hyper reality that seems to be composed of slivers, of heterogeneous elements, alien fragments and poetic objets trouvés. A landscape that people from the twentieth century are familiar with, through which runs the rift in history and memory, and which is characterised by tragic laceration and violent fragmentation.
During a three-month residency in New York City, Hubert Blanz photographed all the streets in a district of Manhattan, i.e. “house by house” and “street by street”, from bottom to top and always from the same camera angle. His expedition began in the Financial District in Lower Manhattan, ended on 115th Street and was like a painfully meticulous audio-visual land survey. Adhering strictly to the pedestrian’s or frog’s-eye-view, Hubert Blanz photographed each skyscraper along this route and simultaneously recorded the sound on a video camera, which he later arranged and skilfully combined into a musically choreographed “soundtrack”. This shows how sound and the preoccupation with the environment via different media is an integral and essential part of Blanz’s work. Like the still photographs, all the sound material is also recorded on site and synchronised analogically with the filmic movements. The soundtrack tries to harmonise the transformed visual material into a unified image of sound and space, one that has the ability to change and revitalise even a “dead” and sterile space. This is how Blanz breathes life into the images of emptiness, into uninhabited or hybrid spaces in his audio/video installations.
Even the camera lens Blanz uses for all his photographs is always the same: a rather small normal aperture or a slight wide-angle make the perspectivally distorted buildings seem to rise endlessly into the sky. We may think we are familiar with most of the skyscrapers in Manhattan’s grid until when we see them so extremely “tilted”. In addition, the motifs are either in rows or aligned serially to make them look like film sequences. Blanz’s pictures neither begin at the bottom nor end at the top. The light, as unreal as in a full moon night, suggests the endlessness of cosmic space. At times, clouds reflected in the glass façades function as clear references to vectors or lines of orientation, axes or focal points, like vaporous, shadowy figures drifting across the physical and material surface of the buildings. In other cases, the clouds seem to divide the photographs into a light and a dark zone. By cutting out the background, Blanz has literally banished every sign of ground, earth or horizon from the very core of his images. On another, metaphysical, level and as a result of “dramatic” exaggerations, the rising and towering buildings convey a sense of void, as if they were afloat. This absence of gravity and statics awakens in us a yearning for what we have lost, namely, human scale. Gigantic and effervescent are “the Cathedrals of Commerce” (Lewis Mumford) or the new Towers of Babel; immoderate their scale, outsized in every sense. Literally a Brave New World! America took technology for what it was: as an appropriate medium for advertising and staging itself commercially, ideologically and politically in order to underscore both its power and affluence. A “New Babylon” was seen in the spires of the towering buildings on Wall Street. Describing New York on his first visit to the USA, Erich Mendelsohn called it a city of the future. “However, the idea of endless growth, of non-stop, befuddles even American logic and the purity of architecture is twisted into romantic decoration, into a romantic vision of an even greater America.” 3)
But let us return to Hubert Blanz’s interpretation – or “reinterpretation” – and ironic alienations of the high-rise cult in our society. Nothing has remained of the splendour or romanticism of Art Deco’s past grandeur or of the streamlined Modernism. To the contrary: the banality and uniformity of Late- and Post Modernism now dominate New York’s cityscape. Within the four-part photographic installation with metrically aligned house fronts, empty and intermediate spaces function as neutral buffer zones between different building styles but they in no way water down the arbitrariness of urban planning and zoning nor its capitalist greed. Linking the various stereotypes of “International Style”, these pictures reproduce a kind of standard repertoire of American Late Modernism. Although the subject is taken from a meticulous catalogue of Manhattan’s streets and cityscape, the place itself remains uniform and interchangeable. Not “all the same”, but the total collapse of difference, the obliteration of distinguishing characteristics is typical for every mass culture and mass architecture in its blunt banality. In a world of modern consumerism where the possibility of differentiating between reality and phantasm, as in Plato’s cave, between the real and the simulated is lost forever, everything turns into a copy, into a “simulacrum”. 4)
In the animated photo series Four Elevators from 2008, the photographer Blanz transforms his visionary urban spaces into geometric structures, just like an architect, artist or skilled craftsman would design his vision. His crystal clear and sharp compositions comprising geometric building façades, convolutions, windows, roof-scapes, etc. and Piranesiesque constructions with their illogical spatial structures result from a plethora of hybrid details and snap-shots, making it unnecessary for Blanz to reinvent the model of perspective. The camera does it for him. Composition of picture, light and space result from an inter-linking of all the arbitrary elements in a distinct articulation and precise survey of real architecture. While the buildings are verticalised, the film images remain horizontal. An echo, a duplication of the original content of the fragment is preserved in this seeming verticality, or rather, the relations are suddenly reversed. Verticality and picture format are overlapped, duplicated and reinforce each other.
Paradoxically, photography mirrors the world mechanically and correctly but it cannot reproduce a true image of reality. In his portraits of New York’s streets Blanz shows us three salient features of photography, firstly: trompe l’oeil by means of perspective; secondly, the eye makes a subjective selection in the process of photographing; thirdly, a photo can only offer us a detail of what the eye sees, for the camera crops a detail from a larger field and thus tears the image out of its context. But Blanz forces open the spatial boundaries of the viewpoints by sweeping them into a dynamic “flow of images”, as in a Chinese scroll. In reality, Hubert Blanz intentionally alienates, emphasises, masks or covers the restrictive effects of the detail or field of vision. This shift in criteria is a compositional strategy in which optical tricks and trompe l’oeil perspective characterise the picture’s inner framing, or rather its enframing as we know from the history of illusionist mural painting. Blanz evokes the illusion of our material world (that is based on deception, delusion and is caught in a mesh of fiction and reality) using nothing but perspective, photogénie, cinégraphie.
Metaphysical Urban Experience
The exaggerated verticality of the buildings that seem to shoot up to the sky at the upper edge of the picture conveys an exceptional sense of endlessness and eternity. We do not immediately discern what is above and what below or why this picture that is ostensibly from our world seems to lack gravity or why it is afloat. The initial sense of disorientation makes us feel dizzy, sway or afloat. Without a firm ground below us, we are in a kind of maelstrom that sucks us into a waxing continuum. What we have here is an effective suggestion of space created when the image is as if punched out, or one could say cut out from the continuum of the all-encompassing cosmos. As an effect of spiritual equivalence, that is, the correspondence between this world and the other world, the viewer is lost in the intermediate space between Heaven and Earth. The paradox between reality and truth, between knowledge (rationality) and illusion (appearance) even led to the disintegration of the severe, hierarchical and rigid medieval view of the world. “In the Modern Age, the comprehension of space and the ability to represent it,” wrote Hans Blumberg, “is one of the most basic prerequisites for the cosmological sense of construction. Perspectivity becomes much more a way of life than a way of thinking when the passion for reflecting upon one’s own location can be termed as such. […] Art is concerned with the reasons by which we differentiate between the appearance of things and their true form and tend to extrapolate from the former to the latter.” 5)
1) Peter Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde, Frankfurt am Main, 1974, p. 97.
2) This poignant keyword was coined by the Canadian sci-fi author William Gibson. He immortalised it in his 1984 novel Neuromancer.
3) Erich Mendelsohn, Russland – Europa – Amerika. Ein architektonischer Querschnitt, Berlin 1928 (reprinted in 1989, Basel/Berlin/Boston), p. 118.
4) Writing about Plato’s fear of simulacra, Gillles Deleuze claims that the process of differentiating between original and copy, and furthermore how this should be conducted characterises all of Platonic philosophy. Also see Gilles Deleuze, Logik des Sinns, Frankfurt am Main, p. 311-24.
5) Hans Blumberg, Die Genesis des kopernikanischen Welt (Vol. III), Frankfurt am Main, 1981, p. 619.
Translations: Nita Tandon, Vienna