Arkipelag TV is updated with new videos in every issue of Art Orbit
Arkipelag TV is a project initiated by Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. He met with Alexander Kluge to discuss the conditions of TV-making. Art Orbit is happy to publish the conversation between the curator - who is creating an infiltration of TV-programmes by means of unannounced video-clips - and the experienced TV-maker - who feels like a gardener in the foreign soil of television.
by HANS ULRICH OBRIST
HUO: You regularly do programs on RTL and Sat 1.
AK: For ten years our programs have been airing on RTL and Sat 1. Those are the two main private stations which have been around from the very start, one run by the Kirch group from Southern Germany, the other one from Northern Germany by Bertelsmann and CLT. As a neutral, independent third party one can only take the stance of an unarmed independent. That's why our cultural shows are on at 11 p.m. on both channels. I didn't choose that, it means that I am competing with myself, but the more important aspect is that if I am not present in both competing systems, I am not present at all. And that is true for the entire remaining field of independent third parties.
We are not just representing the cultural magazines here, but also an investigative journalistic position which is part of the classic public sphere. Here, this position is represented by Stern, Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Neue Zürcher Zeitung and it would be the same if we included Le Monde or The International Herald Tribune. That's what we call the publisher's principle: the idea that the press knows responsible authors who are accountable for what they write.
HUO: Could one say that this third space circumscribes a kind of independent gap in the sense of Hakim Bey's "temporary autonomous zones?"
AK: The objective is autonomy. Such a zone is full of conflict and initially not at all autonomous. There is a conservative interest in the classic public sphere at a time when this public sphere is being destroyed. The classic public sphere of our cities is an achievement that has really only been functional for a very short time and that is now severely threatened. The cities starve to death, the public is in danger of being scrapped.
HUO: Isn't the public sphere more and more related to time? John Latham speaks about time-based art.
AK: If you were a filmmaker or a writer and wanted to create an autonomous event of seven seconds or one minute in length, you would first have to produce a continuum of about 45 minutes within which it could exist. When you make a picture you not only need a frame, but a house or a museum where you can hang the painting. First you have to organize open areas within the mass media, spaces where participation is still possible. When it is the tendency of the media to replace the public sphere with commercials, when everything is about selling an audience to the retail business, then the arts have to take precautions to ensure moments of authentic communication (what people express with their lives and what the arts call a message).
"These days you can't choose how you want to express yourself anymore."
HUO: Fellini said that the spectacle has always already begun and that there are always moments before and moments after, and that film, not least of all, deals with showing those moments.
AK: That is absolutely correct. The event is only possible in a flow. You need a full circus show and for a long time nothing happens. Then you have a trapeze act, during which the artist either doesn't fall or the catastrophe does occur, he falls...
HUO: To come back to your two shows: why do you operate within the parameters of existing television stations? Why don't you start transmitting on your own? Is it a kind of a Trojan horse?
AK: For that, you'd need the Greeks and Troy and a Trojan horse; I mean, the Trojan horse in itself is entirely meaningless. The central notion is that the arts alone, separate from the rest of society, are not capable of expression. They would somehow become purely academic.
HUO: In the midst of things, in the center of nothing?
AK: Basically, you have to venture forward again and again, to get in the midst of what people are interested in. You have to seek out the remote and wild places for art to renew itself. We set out as filmmakers in the GDR imitating the French New Wave. We were two years late. We advocated the idea of auteurist cinema and then carried it out in a slow manner, as things are done in our country, so we did it rather thoroughly and now we have reached the phase of auteurist television. With his series Heimat, Edgar Reitz created a unique 26-hour film. He was like a cousin when I was working on cultivating those independent broadcasting times on RTL or Sat 1: we are both gardeners in the foreign soil of television. We are both incredibly suspicious of the medium of television.
HUO: How did the transition from writing books and auteurist filmmaking to the daily practice of making television happen in your work? Is it actually a transition, or are these parallel activities? Are you in fact concerned with the different manifestations of the same thing?
AK: We don't perceive a contradiction between writing books, making films or producing a television program. These days you can't choose how you want to express yourself anymore. When I think of the library of Alexandria and of the fact that, although it burnt down, people continue to sort the letters of the alphabet according to that tradition, then that makes certain expressions of modernity, even of interventions on the textual level, possible. I don't pay attention to target audiences and therefore I often hear that I am a ratings killer, somebody who fundamentally doesn't care whether one person is watching or an entire soccer stadium.
"Instead, regardless of craft, you have to charge all forms of expression that lead to the community, to other people, with meaning."
HUO: So, is it a question of le temoin, the witness?
AK: "Sending messages in bottles": it means that I don't make what I want to say dependent on somebody else declaring his interest first. On the other hand, I am no Cassandra who doesn't care whether her messages are heard or not. As soon as you judge communication a little more rigorously, there is a possibility that the message will not be democratized. It does not matter whether "consent unfolds" (Heiner Müller); I have to say what I believe to be right. And beyond that I have to at least make an effort to say it with all possible means, on horseback, on foot, or crawling. I have to spread out the statement among all the means of expression available to us at present. Leibnitz, the Futurists or Beuys would not have said it any other way; you cannot limit yourself to one area of specialized craft. Instead, regardless of craft, you have to charge all forms of expression that lead to the community, to other people, with meaning.
HUO: This interview with you will be published in the catalogue of Stockholm Cultural Capital '98 as part of the ARKIPELAG project. Instead of a single, major large-scale exhibition, Stockholm, quite interestingly, decided for a heteroclitic project. About 30 artists and curators have been invited to each realize a small-scale project in a space of their own choosing somewhere in Stockholm.
When I first visited all the possible locations, I was mostly interested in the minute doll houses at the Historiska museet. These "micro houses" were very important for Swedish cinema and influenced, for example, Bergman's set design. My first idea for an exhibition was to mount a television micro-screen in these doll houses and then install a huge macro-screen in a public space. These macro-screens, while ubiquitous in Korea and Japan, are still unknown in European cities.
The project was to invite artists to produce video clips that would be shown simultaneously on the micro- and macro-screens to different publics. This initial project remained unrealized for budgetary reasons and became instead a project only for television. Artists have been invited to make very short clips for Swedish television over the course of 1998. The clips will be shown in the intervals between existing TV programs, as a supplement or a perturbation, hopefully both at the same time.
AK: This deconstruction is aimed at the notion of programming. Similar to the telescope or the telephone, television enables us to see or hear things we never dreamed of. When you look at the details, a concrete scene between people is really something incredibly unlikely, something subtle that requires extended description. You need the entire stream of consciousness of a Joyce to arrest situations between people, because the micro-structure is an uncannily rich narrative, and rich in narratives, and narratavizable. And in between there is this program which doesn't narrate much, but regulates like a school teacher who paralyzes the vitality of a class. In contrast to that, we are concerned with the dramaturgy of the break between classes.
HUO: A syncopation, perhaps...
AK: Syncopation in music is exactly the same. Again and again we are faced with this dual task: we first have to create the space, deal with the timeframe and produce it and then we have to politically adapt to such programming niches by doing the opposite of programming. Not realistic, naturalistic...
"Ten years of watching TV have taught us that viewers are extremely sensitive to breaks."
HUO: In our last conversation you said that it's not about naturalism, but rather about a small dose of reality. Could you develop that?
AK: I would explain it with the example of the time problem. We all know the mechanical time of a television program which is basically derived from peoples' working hours and the petty mercantile uses they make of their leisure time. For the Greeks, Chronos stood for time that leads to death, time that consumes itself. Chronos is a gigantic god who devours his own children. His antipode in the Greek pantheon is Kairos, "the fortunate moment." Kairos is a very small, dwarf-like god with a bald head. But on his forehead he has a tuft (of dense hair). If you catch the tuft, you're lucky. If you are just a moment too late, your grip on his bald head will slip and you won't be able to hold on to him. This character, Kairos, is the "happy time" that is hidden in the time of people's lives, in their working time, in everything they might do. He is an object of aesthetic activity. With Chronos on the other hand, you can only become a watchmaker.
HUO: The time-machine...
AK: Artists can't really stop the time-machine either. And it's not even worth describing it. Kairos is the element through which we live, and to recreate this principle in the center of TV-Chronos, even if only for seconds, is our sole purpose. And it is no different with texts. Hidden in a long text, there are perhaps three lines that count. A small amount of Chronos is still very dangerous: his canine tooth can crush you, while at the same time a very small dose of Kairos will suffice, as it is a counter-principle, a completely different kind of time.
HUO: What possibilities do you see for a project like the one we are doing in Stockholm, where this kind of time, this flow of before and after doesn't exist, where instantaneous clips infiltrate the program?
AK: That's incredibly important, because what you achieve is the opposite of a program. Those one minute clips can soar through the program like comets. If we were to talk about something like Noah's ark today, where the best qualities are preserved, it would not be one ship, but a multitude of small boats. The one-minute comets, soaring through the program, can interrupt it. Ten years of watching TV have taught us that viewers are extremely sensitive to breaks. Anything that occurs outside the program and takes them by surprise will act as a zapper trap, meaning that they pause in their zapping, they wait, they pay attention. Years ago Rudi Klausnitzer, a former program director for Sat 1 and now a theater manager in Vienna, came up with the idea that the evening program should be showered in the manner of shooting stars by 60 to 80 one-minute spots every night. A meteoric shower...
HUO: A sequence of irritations that penetrates the indifference?
AK: And maybe it is not only an irritation but also the opportunity to peek through, in the same way that children can immediately detect gaps.
HUO: A question about digital television: so far, digital channels are being watched by very few people. Does this non-Audimat situation create a laboratory, an openness for experiments?
AK: The digital channels reveal an immense contradiction within the economic powers that are now forming an alliance to set up a 'closed shop market.' If corporations like Bertelsmann and the Kirch group form a monopoly together with Deutsche Telecom, then that's a reality. Yet they do it in an entirely virtual area, on the pay TV channels where there is no interest from any audience yet. Once that changes-and they will make it change, because such powers are capable of building freeways where no car drives-they will be able to destroy the public TV stations too. And because they will be unable to fill all this space aesthetically, they will exploit it, ruin it and create a desert. They have always done things like this on a virtual object, on something useless. The last time, ten years ago, all the political media alliances happened in the symbolic form of the debate about the German Television satellite. It has never broadcast anything since and circles earth as a ruin. But any group with power or legal claims in the media world of the Federal Republic defines itself through this ruin. There is this famous story of the alchemist Boettcher who wanted to make gold and happened to invent porcelain. This is analogous to the gigantic media conglomerates that are completely indifferent to what they produce and that construct their alliances-that is to say, their power-in the unreal in order to achieve later something real. Hence the system world I talked about earlier. We have to be able to orient ourselves, navigate on this hostile ocean or terrain and at the same time build something that isn't ruinous. We have to create an oasis in the desert. The oasis consists of a large terrain and water and a small piece of life. In this small piece of life there are a few happy moments.
"For the first time the directorial principle of mainstream program television, where viewers sit in front of the screen like a school class, is being disrupted."
HUO: Lately there have been more and more television stations founded by artists: Fabrice Hybert received the Lion d'Or for his Odor TV at the Venice Biennial. He transformed the French pavilion into a television production facility for two weeks. Pierre Huyghe is presently collaborating with the Consortium to run a television station in Burgundy which broadcasts regionally. It seems as if artists, after decades of mostly unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate existing programs, are now taking television in their own hands, finding their own structures of production and broadcasting.
AK: The reciprocal action of television and the Internet can lead to freedom of trade. A process comparable to the dissolution of the guild system in 1789 when freedom of trade was suddenly established. For the first time the directorial principle of mainstream program television, where viewers sit in front of the screen like a school class, is being disrupted. The one thing about program television that's absolutely incompatible with any concept of art is that all decisions have to be made by program directors, whereas art is autonomous. It may be dependent, but it knows no superiors. During the early phase of the Soviet Union the arts blossomed thanks to Alexander Bogdanov's cult-of-the-proletariat movement. Artists elected their own department in the ministry of culture. All that is unthinkable in television today, even on a station like Arte. If they had Mozart today, they couldn't work with him, although he was a very adaptable man.
HUO: For Venice, Fabrice Hybert made this wonderful drawing which evoked flexible broadcasting structures. A tent equipped with a transmitter. Anybody can produce his own television anywhere, the distinction between producer and consumer is blurred.
AK: If these different, artist-run television stations collaborate, they create a public. I can tell you from experience that the audience immediately picks up on any authentic tonality. The homogeneity of program television is intrinsically hostile to art. If all that's authentic and true, if all material is robbed of its autonomy, there can be no art. Therefore the synthetic principle of television and radio as we know it has to be disrupted with the consent of the audience.
HUO: Another question is how you integrate participatory elements into your shows. McLuhan speaks of hot and cold media, cold media being participatory media with few details, like paper, while hot media offer little possibility for participation, for example television. In this context the question of black and white footage is very interesting. The fact that in the middle of color TV your shows appear in black and white causes a disturbance.
AK: If some of the images are not in color, the imagination is stimulated much more. Between either black and white or full color, it is also possible to use color selectively. We disturb the gaudiness by taking some of the color out. The viewer has to constantly leave colors and impressions out of consideration to arrive at his own understanding. Which leads us to the question of the economy of balance. This is one part of the economy of labor that doesn't obey the laws of the market. It is an economy, a subjective community, within which a human being can get along with himself. And there are cases in which a person spends 90% of his energy holding still, trying to get along with himself. This can devour a person's entire energy so that, even though he is upset, rebellious, revolutionary, he just sits there completely silent. There is the case of the person who keeps an ax handy to chop the TV set to pieces. As soon as you address this question of sedation, people answer actively. That is why this subjective, inner dynamic is possible. If it isn't just used by a handful of intellectuals, it becomes a virulent force. ~
Translation: Olav Westphalen