audio/video installation, 4:3 format, 5:30 min, Hubert Blanz, 2007
The title of this work Vergina Sun refers to the Star of Vergina, a symbol of a stylised star with sixteen rays. Independent Macedonia displayed it on its first flag (1992-1995), becoming a cause of controversy within the country itself and vehement dispute with Greece, which does not recognise Macedonia and also claims this star as its own national symbol. Greek´s objection finally led Macedonia to remove the symbol from its flag and replace it with an eight-pointed sun.
First drawn into the infinite depths of the cosmos, on looking closer the viewer discovers that what he thought were stars is a galaxy of street names of the Macedonian capital. The point of departure for the work is the map of Skopje from which all pictograms and textual indices have been removed. As a result the single images from this process bearing the Skopje street names only, clearly convey the specific urban grid of the town. Layering and animating various images of white text against a black background leads to the association with the cosmos. Streets names play an essential role in the soundtrack as well, which is a dense weave of Macedonian male and female voices calling these stars by name.
While related light processes are fundamental to every form of photographic representation, they are also among the most distinctive aspects of filmic production. Where there is no light, no image whatsoever can be generated; the absence of a light source makes it necessary to introduce or to produce one. Thus, technology which used the physical characteristics of light for producing and magnifying light – from the simple light bulb to (today’s computer operated) flash units – became necessary in the nineteenth century. Although still used in high-tech applied photography, this technology is no novelty in the sphere of artificial suns.
Different and new, from the point of view of its specific characteristics, appearance and use, is the role of light in digital media. Photosensitive layers and lighting are no longer used for representing things, nature, objects (including the human image), as they are most directly and compellingly employed in photogrammatic processes; images and information can now be produced through a mere “electric glow”. 1) While computer screens and displays make digital data visible and readable, they requisite the appearance of information codes in a form appropriate to their own categories and in turn produce a unique aesthetic of their own.
Alongside this fairly generalised account, there is yet another, almost unnoticed phenomenon: the light intrinsic to computers, to monitors. 2) Developments in what Peter Weibel calls the “light of technical media” have been advancing consistently ever since artists started probing the effect of images and the media of art: from the effects of light in early abstraction to video and computer art. This is where new artistic concepts emerge, concepts concerned with systems of information generation and visualization, which are altered, reformulated and combined in various ways. Art until then had mainly focussed on partial aspects of electronic media, stripping it of its functionality in order to view it as an isolated phenomenon. But, on the other hand, it also intentionally linked incompatible modes to produce aesthetic constructions.
Charles Sandison 3), for instance, is an artist who replaces traditional videos made with camera and set with images that are purely computer-generated in his video projections that he calls “data computer programmes”. In addition to borrowing digits and letters from the binary system, he also links the information layer with pictorial and conceptual subject matter. The result is something not intended by the medium, namely, a field of tension between rationality and magic. The “electric glow” from the infinite cosmic darkness of the subconscious penetrates to the surface.
Similarly, Hubert Blanz too links conceptual-emotive values in his work with (seemingly) rational-constructive ones. His electronic street map of Macedonia’s capital Skopje is a magical grid of stars, a manipulated street map, a flickering computer screen, an historical cadastral register, an identity forming archetype, a mathematical game of deduction; a filmic journey from a coldly calculated exterior to a deeply emotional inner world.
As in impressionist paintings, the process of transformation depends on the viewer: Vergina Sun is not simply a mesh of designations for street names and localities in a city but also the symbol for an erased identity, which now merely clings on to the letters and symbols of a standardised urban image. Here the city – the city map, an algorithmic wonder – emerges as an abstract lineament and not just as a vedute, a view. A city is the sum of the names of its squares and streets – or is it not?
Skopje is the capital of Macedonia, an independent state since 1991. With its 500,000 inhabitants and area of 225 km2, it is the country’s largest urban formation. Centuries of foreign occupation, invasions and wars, a complicated geo-political and cultural situation at the crossroads of the developments in the Balkans since the days of migration, have manifested themselves in the self-conception of the new state. Up until today, ethnic and religious problems are linked with historical and territorial implications. Even the republic’s very name is a matter of dispute: Greece claims the right to call its north-most territory by the same name. Once again, historical origin and founding myths serve both sides as justification. Similarly complex is the case of the state’s symbol, th e “Vergina Sun”.
Hubert Blanz has named his audiovisual animation after this controversial symbol, whose ambivalent and different attributions make it a rather open image. Ever since the sixteen pointed symbol came to light in 1977 during an excavation in Vergina in northern Greece, its interpretations have been multitudinous: sun or star, with sixteen or twelve rays, symbol for the Hellenist dynasty or of the Slavic majority in today’s state. Whatever the case, it undoubtedly stands for Macedonia’s difficult history and its equally difficult search for identity.
The Vergina Sun is also the title for Hubert Blanz’s computer generated filmic work based on a systematic representation of Skopje’s network of streets. All symbols on the actual map have been erased, what remains are street names: a coded system of letters, their phonetic translation verbalised by passers-by of various ethnic origins. A story without a narrative thus emerges, a densely woven fabric of reflections and associations, a grid of superimpositions and a vague and undefined space full of instabilities and conjectures. Although this space full of stars and the murmur of voices represents the absence of a narrative or literary images and symbols, it is nevertheless like a picture puzzle that oscillates between the past and the present.
The incandescent code-like graphisms refer both to the infinity of the cosmos and to the inscrutable range of medial space. Manfred Fassler advanced the claim that medial space does not necessarily denote communication and functional spaces but rather the fact that “auxiliary social spaces” must exist which demand of the recipient an ability to “interpret abstractly configured visual scenarios” 4), or that the initially unrecognisable space in which data is generated, processed and altered is transformed into “perceivable impressions of planes or surfaces”. In this sense, Hubert Blanz’s digital or manipulated map of Skopje is not merely a graphic pattern composed of data but a perceivable space in which the viewer – as a social, emotive agent – is confronted with the most various levels of knowledge and contents.
The fascination of witnessing an enigmatic process in a magical space gradually turns into an anxiety about being part of a metamorphic process that defies every rational explanation. The continual attempt at decoding the system behind the ghostly lights is replaced by a disinterested amazement, with a desire to simply wait and see what happens. The maelstrom of filmic processes sweeps the viewer into a journey between the microcosm and the macrocosm, between calculations of earth-bonded information and transcendental spirituality. Thirty years ago, in their short film Powers of Ten 5), Charles and Ray Eames took us on a similar journey from banal everyday strategies to structures of scientific theory and back, from conventional scaling to interstellar immeasurability and back again to microscopic nano-worlds. Transforming a simple scene into a system of codes and structures – depending on how the process of perception can be used and on the means employed for this – is a didactic measure borrowed from the history of perception.
Digital media-based artwork repeatedly shows how such strategies can be charged with emotional values. The artist pair Jeroen de Rijke and Willem Rooij set their films in such social spaces, indeed, these spaces become the very subject matter of their filmic plot. An atmosphere of insecurity, of nervous contemplation, independent of the narrative thread, pervades: “From a proper distance, history and geological history are shyly probed, in the search for ways to depict them,” 6) says Veit Loers of their film Of Three Men, which is mainly about stillness, waiting and empathy. And about the knowledge of the connection between them in the depths of our consciousness as well as the possibility of making these spaces experienceable for others. The place where dark and still spaces open, a place where the outside world can enter through a small chink, cannot remain hermetically or inexplicably closed. In that very place where Vergina Sun seems to explode like a Nova, it also begins to extend beyond the digital grid and to reclaim new light spaces.
1) “electricity itself,” one could say here in McLuhan’s words.
2) The Austrian photographer and media artist Günther Selichar has addressed this theme in his series Screens, cold (Hubertus von Amelunxen, Robert C. Morgan, Urs Stähel, eds., Günther Selichar. Screens Cold, Vienna, 2001).
3) Cf. ein-leuchten, catalogue, Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, T-B A21, Vienna, 2004, p. 110.
4) Manfred Fassler, Mediale Interaktion, Munich, 1996, p. 49.
5) This filmic masterpiece from 1977 by the doyens of furniture design puts in perspective the claim that “only since the recent past has it become possible [for us] to undertake virtual journeys to the real world via the Web, to visit at least the images of the real world”, Florian Rötzer,
“Hubert Blanz”, Eikon 58, 2007. Mainly “the nose dive from greater heights to a place that continually zoomed in closer” (F. Rötzer) is discussed here in full length.
6) Veit Loers, Jeroen de Rijeke/Willem de Rooij, After the Hunt, New York, 2001, p. 28.
Translations: Nita Tandon, Vienna