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"The Mass Media World is a Meta-Universe"

Birgit Sonna in conversation with Günther Selichar about the media machinery, its mechanisms, thresholds and surfaces

A conversation with Günther Selichar about his investigations into media machinery, the mechanisms of its genesis, its thresholds and surfaces

Birgit Sonna: Anyone looking at Günther Selichar's artistic development for the first time would probably be astonished by your multiple changes of perspective: you studied art history for a long time, were exhibited primarily as a photo artist, and you occasionally appear as a media theorist as well. How do you deal with artistic status within these interwoven interests?

Günther Selichar: The art historian is presumably evident in the long phases of background research and generally a great interest in theory. However, at the time when art history was more important in my life, I was already working and exhibiting as an artist parallel to that. Shortly before the end of my studies, the time came when I had to make a decision. On the side I was frequently writing texts and giving lectures expressly addressing the relationship between my work and media theory and politics. The point of departure was principally always that photography represents a fundamental stage of what we experience today in the media universe. Photography has meanwhile been integrated into a broader media spectrum, yet it undoubtedly continues to distinguish an important moment in this spectrum. 

So: Nevertheless, your exhibitions, especially in institutions specializing in photography, are still one-sidedly treated under the label of photography. Don't you find it problematic that media are still pitted against one another in this old-fashioned way, especially when the purported hype of photography is involved?

Se: I don't see myself as a photographer, but rather as someone who uses mainly the medium of photography, but at the same level alongside other media. I have always been interested in penetrating into supposedly foreign areas, because this results in a certain freshness, a distance that refracts the medium. It wasn't so important to me to meticulously develop a quickly recognizable signature. I think that in our generation the signature belongs more to an intellectual background leading to certain works. The modernist, superficial legibility of a signature just doesn't work any longer for conceptually thinking artists.

So: Although an adequate reception of this phenomenon has still not yet happened. The major part of the art audience is still oriented to a recognizable signature.

Se: Being able to be easily identified is unquestionably a helpful factor in the art market. If it is barely or not at all possible to distinguish a signature, the communication effort is significantly greater. With projects in public space, for example, which reach a larger audience, I think it is important to study the framework conditions. With interactive concepts, where the participation of the audience is crucial, it is easy to choose the wrong strategy, so that the aspired moment of setting something in motion does not even occur. So, depending on the context, it is necessary to think very carefully about the bait one throws out, and this is not independent from whether you are fishing for carp or trout.

So: How should we imagine your type of research? Is it more of a journalistic task or more a kind of field research?

Se: Both. Behind the works there is an interest in general media-related issues, how systems of transfer function, in other words the manner of using them or their technologies. I am intrigued by the possibility of also putting these analyses into practice at the same time. In the case of the "Suchbilder", when it is a matter of quickly implanting the project in locations outside the cities for an audience that is not distinctly delineated, then it is necessary to consider which ramps the people addressed could use to get involved, so that they come forward and take part in the sense of a joint looking, checking and documenting. With this guessing game with a prize contest, it was a matter of taking part in a process that could not be predetermined for all participants.

So: Did this process work with the "Suchbilder" the way you originally imagined that it would?

Se: I was quite ambivalently surprised by the efficiency of these possibilities. In the end there were many thousand visitors to the location and a large portion of them took part by concretely filling out the participation cards. Contests normally run for longer than two and a half weeks, which was why we had to prepare the audience to approach the remote locations with directions and instructions for playing through television, radio and newspaper announcements as quickly as possible. For example, if the announcements are made in a language that seems very hermetic, then there is a great risk that the audience will be cheated. Naturally this means moving precariously along a boundary between populism and elitist things.

So: This is what ultimately distinguishes the crucial moment of tension in your works in public space.

Se: It is a similar case with the interactive Internet project "Who's Afraid of Blue, Red and Green?", which has been online in various versions since 1995. Operating  it is ultimately very easy. The interface is structured so simply that it works with any web browser and the users only have to click on certain lines. Technical access should be as broad as possible, so that the decisive process is shifted into the realm of thought.

So: Although you have to count on reaching a somewhat different audience on the Internet.

Se: Partly. At least in industrialized countries access is very broadly distributed. The question that one raises with the Internet today is more of a generational question, since younger people naturally tend to have greater technological skills. However, this doesn't mean that they automatically have a greater technological awareness as well.

So: You have said that you like to choose new strategies when the medium is still fresh for you. Which are the significant nodes in your work where you can distinguish that looking back?

Se: Over the years photography has proved to be a red line. Because of the documentary aspects, for me it is still an appropriate medium, even though specifically this point is constantly analyzed in the digital context and must be used with the greatest caution. The concept of the "documentary" is itself subject to constant change and is used in a much more satisfactory way in the field of film theory, because there the documentary builds on the premises of "construction" to begin with. During the work on the video "Granturismo", the production of which resulted in new framework conditions and problems of implementation, there was a high measure of frictional energy that was able to emerge from the unorthodox solutions. This unpredictability is something that I have principally always enjoyed, although it was always important to me to raise questions about the medium itself at the same time, so that the depictive always resonates along with it, too. Just as the pigment works refer to the basic module of painting, because pure, unmixed color powder is filled there, the Internet project also pertains to the visual surface of the medium used.

So: At the same time, the technological resonates in your concept, no matter how much your media works may assume the character of an abstract image.

Se: Mass media are technologically conditioned per se, and there is a veritable jungle of possibilities for implementation today. As Villém Flusser rightly stated, with all the alleged neutrality of technology, there is always something of the views of the programmers, the developers and their conditions in the apparatuses. In this sense, there is no technology free of values.

So: Not free of ideologies either?

Se: Certainly not. I am interested in bringing out these more invisible moments that are not manifestly apparent in conventional ways of dealing with mass media. Who would bother to look at a screen turned off in everyday life?

So: Yet there is something ambiguous about your "Screens, cold" in particular. We can view them approvingly as monochrome images, because you make use of the coordinates of modernism in them. On the other hand, you confuse the viewers, who are not aware of what is technological or art historical behind the images, and who at first see nothing but an obscure green or gray surface.

Se: In the end, I attempt to address the audience through aesthetic solutions, which contain a strong physical presence of the work. I am still convinced that the physical counterpart has greater significance, especially since physical experience is already in a fragile state.

So: What do you mean by that exactly, the "physical experience is already in a fragile state"?

Se: Because our life is increasingly virtualized and because we act more and more from a distance, what we do has been shifted to networks that are ultimately very detached. It is a physically less tangible, completely different space, in which we operate. Naturally we are still "here", but nevertheless much has dissolved into abstract processes.

So: The idea that our life is becoming thoroughly virtualized and losing the link to the corporeal, wasn't that completely exaggerated in the early nineties? In any case, the horror scenario has not been realized to the extent that was originally feared.

Se: Perhaps not entirely to the anticipated extreme, but one can already sense moments of virtualization everywhere. We have meanwhile become accustomed to a reception by means of the interface of the screen, to many automated and invisible technological processes. I think we can read from everyday actions that the body is increasingly docking into these developments.

So: I am still rather skeptical about this. Hasn't a counter-reaction to the superabundance of virtual offerings occurred instead, and haven't sensuous factors become important again? That is currently evident in the – in my view – strange hunger for painted canvasses. People are doing sports as though obsessed, and who knows, maybe eroticism has become stronger again, too.

Se: The latter is not the case, I think. We live more in a sexual than an erotic age. The circumstances have become very accurate and pragmatic; advertising and the surrounding subject matter it allows reach into the psychological magic box of sexuality with every imaginable strategy, thus trivializing it into an inflationary product component. Not even yogurt can be sold today without sexual allusions. In addition, feminist achievements in the advertising industry, in which the involvement of women is not insubstantial, are hardly depicted. The elaborate processes of people coming closer together, which are part of eroticism, are decreasing. Bodies today are simply much more quickly available and that contradicts a gradual process of coming closer, in which tension is increased by the fact that possible fulfillment is in the future.

So: I have the feeling that the optional predominates in general in the category of desire.

Se: In the special training and trimming of bodies in the last decade, there is also an indication of how virtualization progresses. Basically there is the abstraction of modeling the ideal body, globalizing certain notions, in fact. In the free market of free-floating bodies reliant only on themselves, there is pressure for all involved to participate, otherwise what is optional remains a fiction. I take the level of presentation seriously, because the unmediated encounter with art works is still the decisive level. There is a kind of carelessness towards the work that can be noted in certain curatorial methods, in presentation forms that extend the visual and acoustic overkill of the media world into exhibition houses and suffocate the individual work. I feel this is a trap, because the object speaks a language of its own.

So: When you work in the most diverse areas of media, you try to proceed as professionally as possible. What does your network need to look like?

Se: I almost always work together with specialists from the relevant fields. In the end, the projects are always the result of different production teams, in which I attempt to check my ideas at every stage of production, like a director. As an individual person, we cannot qualitatively and economically cope with the high tech, multimedia environment that surrounds us. There are many techniques – especially also reception techniques – that have to be learned to be able to pull out any meaningful information at all from the tangle of information that is offered. The question has to be asked constantly, what do the reported things refer to: are the references still comprehensible, or are they already so aloof that the information value is close to zero? Because there are so many different surface forms, one must keep an eye on several media in parallel to be able adequately observe the whole. The mass media world is a gigantic universe, a meta-universe so to speak, which raises problems of cognition to a more complex level. For this reason, the machinery behind the information should constantly be made transparent. It is a huge harbor, in which large and small ships sail around, and they all have their own criteria for transport. Investigating the transport techniques together with the criteria is an important moment in my work.

So: That means that you distill central elements from the tangled weaving of information. How would you define the essence?

Se: We are surrounded by narrative, concrete, very calculatedly optimized messages and prompts. I am more interested in the "abstract" elements of this media machinery. It is a kind of archaeological work that brings forth certain mechanisms of emergence or even thresholds, over which images run and are refracted. I concentrate essentially on things that are not in the foreground in the conventional routines of application.

So: Can you give us a characteristic example of this?

Se: This is demonstrated in the photographic works of the "Sources", where microscopic methods are used to access the "language" forms of these technologies, which would otherwise be hardly or not at all visible. It is similar with the screens that are turned off, because one loses sight of the surfaces when the monitors are illuminated from inside. There is nothing else to do but to fade out the image, in order to be able to show this skin at all. With "Exposures", too, the most recent works, something completely paradoxical happens in terms of both the normal act of seeing and the photographic process: basically one could never see the light sources in this way, because the glare effect would be too strong. With an unusual perspective and the use of a certain technology, I can examine the apparatus for what it does not usually show us.

So: As in a dialogue, that naturally also has repercussions for the apparatuses that you use.

Se: It is a matter of permanently processing the means that I use myself. If something is forced into a language, a transformation process is associated with this and there is the problematic issue of translation. If you feed a film image into a television system, for example, an image that is actually photographically generated is translated into a completely different principle. This has not only a formal impact on the images and the context of viewing them, but naturally also affects the content level. In the auteur film there is a qualitative distinction between the space of the cinema as the final screening space and that of the television. The financial and ideological power of Hollywood has led to a blurring of these spaces, and after the initial cinema utilization the further utilization of the films by means of video cassette or DVD is extended into the living room. If you were to send someone who has previously only consumed films through the TV set to the cinema for the first time, this person would probably be deeply shocked by the physical quality of the original medium of film.

So: At a level that is not immediately evident, you simultaneously raise the question of the political factors, the ideologies behind the media system.

Se: The fact of manipulation and propaganda is more precarious than ever, whether in the area of politics or economics. The democracies and their public space have reached a critical point, the development of mass media standards started too late. Information is a commodity and purchasable and that's it. This short-sighted view has led to miserable quality developments and massive conflicts of interest, as we have long been able to observe not only in the USA, but also in Italy, especially in the last decade. For me, the "Berlusconitization" of Italy was both a field of research and a warning signal right from the start. Public space has been privatized there in every respect. Works like "Screens, cold" or "Who's Afraid of Blue, Red and Green?" can certainly be read at this level as well. On the other hand, they have been received  along the lines of abstract art, media art and reductionist photography or even show up in the marginal zones of painting. I have always enjoyed this diversity. Because of their emptiness, "Screens, cold" are naturally also projection surfaces.

So: Don't you also try to fool the viewer through the motif process of emptying? For some "Screens, cold" may function as a meditation surface, others see themselves exposed to a large, black hole.

Se (laughs): ... the projection surface of boredom! Certainly, I have had the most diverse reactions: some see "Screens, cold" from the perspective of calmness and concentration, as concrete art is viewed, for instance. Others see puritanical iconoclasm in it. I prefer to think of Gerhard Richter's statement: "And what is good about a picture is never what is ideological, but always the factual."[1]

So: Nevertheless, with certain works like the video "Granturismo" I can't help but feel that you have purposely smuggled in a cynical aspect.

Se: Sarcasm may be there in the case of the video, because we have leaned far out of the window with a type of realization that corresponds to that which is often criticized. Using an everyday car trip we try to show methods that are employed every day, but no longer appear cynical because of the routine. It is only because of the specific treatment that one grasps the cynicism of the method that is found in the inflationary generation of what is "sensational". But of course it also raises the question of whether it is more cynical to experience a lethal accident in your living room chair from the perspective of a Formula-1 helmet camera, or to show an ironic simulation in a short film, to which this lust for sensation is only metaphorically inherent.

So: "Granturismo" is cynical in an ambiguous way, though: by having insects burst against the windscreen like bags of color, you sarcastically allude to Abstract Expressionism at the same time.

Se: There are many things I appreciate about geometrical or very reduced abstraction, but it never goes so far that one could derive a religion or comparable attitude from it. It is also in these terms that my reference to Barnett Newman in "Who's Afraid of Blue, Red and Green?" is to be understood. One can still trace affinities formally, but the actual reference basis has completely changed. Like "Screens, cold", this block of works moves along the borderline between media document and an allusion to the history of abstraction in modernism. Abstract Painting has largely become redundant, an enrichment couldn't hurt.

So: Does this kind of painting critique also play a role in your new version of "Who's Afraid of Blue, Red and Green?" ?

Se: Yes, I could never stand the religious pathos in Newman's work. I actually find him most radical in the cycle "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?" (1966/70), in which it is a matter of the three primary colors of his medium, painting.

So: To what extent do "Exposures" mark the dividing wall between public and private?

Se: This dividing wall has become permeable. Part of the active role of mediated being is also that we operate in a society, in which mediated self-awareness becomes normal. Anywhere a television camera or a microphone shows up, people gather around trying to stick their nose in. Something like a media slogan of "the public grin" has become a method of collective self-assurance and significance enhancement. Now our existence is only affirmed via the detour of mediated communication. In order to gain entrance to the media machinery, however, you have to accept their game rules, which is evident in the increasingly professional, actor-like appearance of the protagonists. The active part in this mutual process is at least as dubious as the passive one. To get into the realm of rampant talkshows and "publicize" themselves, many people are willing to drop their inhibitions into an abyss. With celebrities who end up in the wheels of boulevard journalism, it is a matter of an awkward interplay between user and used. "Exposures" attempt to address the ambiguity of being exposed, which increasingly determines our relationship to the media. The passive form is found among the paparazzi, when human beings are veritably hunted down for a photo. The flash machines make the hunt easier, because they illuminate moments of life, of which there would be no picture at all without technological aids. Seen from the side of the person being hunted, one is, in fact, exposed. Artificial light sources from both the amateur field of the videographical and the field of professional studio lights are the theme of "Exposures". In a sense, the spotlights are our artificial suns. Anyone who has ever sat in a television studio knows how you can perspire under an artificial sun.

So: In terms of our media society, Andy Warhol was actually a visionary.

Se: Absolutely! As much as he analytically recognized the mechanisms, he also drew the consequences from that and elevated himself to a superstar. Andy Warhol's work is media art in the proper sense, his entire habitus was adapted to the setting of the media world. He photographed celebrities and purposely moved at the parties that were reported on every day in the media. Twenty-five years after the publication of his book "Andy Warhol's Exposures"[2] and remembering his remark, "In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes"[3], one has to note that this is really the case, but at what cost? In light of the status of the English yellow press, it was perhaps only logical that the book was published by a British publishing company.

In the meantime, there is such a need for publicity on the part of the audience that hundreds of thousands of people from the audience are cast for the most absurd shows. One hand washes the other – from this perspective television is the most hyperdemocratic medium, where there is room for everything and the programs are defined more and more by the audience.

So: At which point did you start to deal concretely with the dissolution between public and private space?

Se: In principle, I have always been dealing with this phenomenon, but my approach changed after the first years. In the beginning, I tried to get a grip on the material directly by photographing images from television, newspapers or cinema and placing them in different contexts. I wanted to refract the context and create a new one. After some time, I had the feeling that I should pay more attention to the preconditions of these inflationary images. To come back to talkshows again: when someone does not grasp how his wretchedness is being instrumentalized when he carries out the worst relationship conflict in front of millions of viewers, then the private sphere is erased. In this sense, public space has become a giant funnel for private fantasies, which can easily be blown up in the media into scandalous public ones, although or specifically because they depict commonplace misery.

So: At the same time, though, public space is also vanishing.

Se: Through the Internet public space is being privatized again, because you can sit at home in front of the monitor. The agora, the classical public space of discussion, is increasingly replaced by parking lots.

So: And advertising surfaces! To what extent does your Internet project in the version for New York's Times Square refer to this dilemma?

Se: Times Square basically represents the maximum extent, to which a square surrounded by high buildings can be "furnished" with advertising. This location is a symbol of neoliberal market ballyhoo, of advertising, in which it is a matter of clear messages, of quickly conveying contents and of representation. Every available surface is used for sales messages, every square centimeter of a building facade is worth money. Just opening up a space in this materialist jungle for artistic works following a different principle is important, even though the proportionality of the possibilities between artistic intervention and commercial space is like a battle between unequal partners. I hope that the work, which will be shown on one of the large screens, will separate itself to some extent from the figurative images and concrete text messages, because its impression is more reduced than its surroundings and it is arranged self-referentially. It makes holes that can be filled by the participating audience without anyone demanding from them that they have to bare themselves, their souls, in an embarrassing way. And it will also be important to furnish the potential collaborators with an awareness that their contributions are worth thousands of dollars that could otherwise be earned with advertising. Unfortunately, we have to live more and more with these extreme framework conditions.

Vienna, Café Schopenhauer, August 2003

[1]Benjamin H.D. Buchloh: Interview Gerhard Richter. In: Gerhard Richter. Exhibition catalogue of the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany (Ostfildern Ruit, 1993), p. 95.

[2]Andy Warhol and Bob Colacello: Andy Warhol's Exposures (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1979).

[3]M. J. Cohen: The Penguin Thesaurus of Quotations (Penguin Books, 2000).

Published in: Martin Hochleitner (Hrsg.), Alexander  Horwath, Marc Ries, Dieter Ronte, Marie Röbl, Birgit Sonna: Günther Selichar. Third Eye. (Linz | Salzburg: Oö.Landesgalerie |Fotohof edition  37, 2004).