Melita Zajc

Fast Cars, Hard Sounds

Media in Media or the Unbearable Closeness of Distance

"Using computers is like going to the movie theatre and having to watch the projector instead of a movie."
Brenda Laurel
“Maybe next time, maybe next time....” mumbles James Spader at the end of Cronenberg’s Crash. His wife has just had a car accident and his trembling fingers slip across her body searching for slits left behind by the incision of sharp metal. In vain. Maybe next time.

The fantasy of an old man? Or an ironic illustration of Vilirio’s idea about a man-planet; namely that our project of colonising the universe ended with colonisation of an infinitely more accessible planet - the human body? Both - inasmuch as this is a response to the current, widespread desire for pure, non-mediated, total experience. The popularity of the so-called sciences about man, the study of human genes and the brain, biology and cognitive psychology. The trust in the body as the pre-reflexive perceptive entity and proclamations about the end of representations. But also common experiences from everyday life, loud music, tattoos, piercing - all of these are various evidence of the same: after the post-modern obsession with distance and infatuation with the capacity of media to create the world, we are fed up with mediation. We want the world, we want others and ourselves. Right now and without mediators. We want fast cars with open roofs so that we can feel the movement; we want music so loud that even our ribs vibrate; rhythm that accelerates our heart beat; energy drinks that sharpen our senses and clear our minds; tight clothes so that we can feel our skin and what is beneath it. This and much more. Right now. For real.

Some-thing in-between

In one respect, Virilio is right. Our expectations that today we might be able to come as close to ourselves as is at all possible, are orientated towards the development of sciences and new technologies. Yet, in contrast to Virilio’s concept, Cronenberg’s Crash is not a general or an a priori condemnation. The uneasiness and resistance aroused by Crash, point to the ambivalence of our enthusiasm about new technologies. This ambivalence spreads out within the slight difference between McLuhan’s idea of media as extensions of man, and Freud’s assertion that with all available tools, man strives to improve his organs. The difference between technology as an extension (of a perfect body) and technology as a prosthesis (that substitutes deficient organs). When Cronenberg employs metaphorical displacement to turn prosthesis into the sign of the plentitude of the body, he irritates the guardians of good taste. But this very irritation is the signal that the process that turns prosthesis into an extension of man, is not a linguistic operation, but socially accepted and culturally predominant usage. The steel frame that holds together Rosanne Arquette’s leg and lifts up her breasts in Crash is not an extension but a prosthesis - because it spoils the view. And the view is spoiled because the mechanism is exposed to the eye. The reception of technologies is thus obviously located, even at first glance, in the realm of the visual.

Take, for example, modern computers. Usually we see them as personal computers, but they also control the mechanisms of video recorders and TV sets, of hi-fi’s, microwaves, automobiles, telephone systems, office equipment etc. The integration of all these devices into a global network is the next objective of technologists. The Internet for the masses. The condition, they say, is that the Internet, such as it is at the moment, is finally set free from its PC-centric straight jacket. It must become invisible. “If you want the Internet to be everywhere, it has to be visible nowhere”, says one representative of the electronics industry. His main objective: “to make technology disappear”. 1

Artistic use of media produces an entirely contrary effect: it draws attention to the presence of media technologies. Moreover, it exposes them and hence makes them visible. The comparison of the computer to the cinema projector is not meaningless. The theoretical basis of the use of media in the arts is the very realisation that the usage of media such as photography, film or TV, is predominantly based on concealment. While enabling us to watch profuse and diverse images, these media at the same time conceal the mechanisms that produce these images. In the cinema it is the camera and the motion picture track, the frame of the screen, blackness between frames, film development and laboratory work, cuts and splicings, sound track, even the projector - all are concealed. Avant-garde and experimental films, as well as other practices in visual arts, which thematize the habitual use of cinema, photography, television and computers, direct our attention to the very procedures and/or media devices that otherwise remain hidden in the customary employment of these media. And to the fact that this concealment is crucial for their common use.

As with any other relationship of concealment and exposure, the concealment is presumably motivated also in this case. The exposure has a motive as well - it should lead to the revelation of motives that guide concealment. The most notorious warning that comes from the arts but also from the “theory” of media, draws attention to political, ideological, economic and cultural reasons that lead to the disguisment of media devices and procedures. That is to say, it points to everything that is usually covered by the term “media manipulation”. The media-within-media motive reaches further. It thematizes those features of modern media by which the manipulation or fulfillment of various political, ideological, economic and cultural interests is made possible.

The first of these features is the possibility of using any media technology in ways different to the usual ones. The supporters of the way we currently use PCs also point to this. A person working with a PC deals with the complex mechanism and can exploit it only if he or she has certain, specific knowledge. Yet the comparison with the cinema projector is not quite adequate. Our presence behind the projector does not affect the film. In contrast, when using a computer, it is the user who shapes the product of the operation and can directly define the mode of use. The futuristic eulogies to machines, the project of Russian constructivists envisaging changes in art and everyday life with the help of new technologies, the principles of industrial design set down by Bauhaus, and other individual projects, such as those by Duchamp or John Cage - the use of technologies in art perpetuates the possibility of various other uses. It is palpable proof that the prevalent, everyday use is only one among many.

Another basic feature of modern media, thematized in art through the media-within-media motive, is the very moment of mediation. In other words, it is the fact that the world that unfolds before our eyes on the cinema or TV screen is not the world itself but images of the world and its representations; that there is no direct contact or firm connection between us and the world as seen on TV, in films and photographs.

The difference between the criticism of media manipulation and thematization in media–within–media, is most obvious right at this point. The criticism of media manipulation assumes that the gap between us and the world, as we perceive it through the media, can be eliminated by unmasking the manipulators. In this respect, artistic practices are no different from journalistic didacticism that swears to neutrality and objectivity. Both are based on the idea that it is possible – notice that the metaphor is no less hackneyed than the idea itself – to be one with the world. They thus presume that continuity and harmony between ourselves and the world are temporarily ruined through the evil workings of manipulators, but can be re–established on demand.

The media–in–media concept, on the other hand, portrays this very gap. By exploiting it, art anticipates the fact that there is no harmony. There is always something between ourselves and the world. A medium. A medium, which is not necessarily a mechanical device.

It's looking at you

To eliminate the gap which separates us from the world. To see oneself seen. Se voyant se voir, writes the poet.

This is a swindle. You can never see yourself from where I’m looking at you, answers the analyst.

Truth or deception? The two quite often stay opposite to each other in the sphere of the visual, where the world is perceived through images. Through representations offered by photographs, film, television and other media. To find the truth would mean uniting these images with what they represent. The critics of media manipulation do not object to the process of manipulation itself, what they miss, claiming objectivity, is the truth – yet to find the truth it does not suffice to unmask the manipulators and eliminate manipulation – what would be necessary is the elimination of media itself. Which is a project, quite similar to the one of phenomenologists. In The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau–Ponty claims the perception of the world is not governed by expectations, muscular and visceral emotions. In The Visible and Invisible he proposes to return to intuition and to what precedes every reflection. The elimination of representation thus.

It won't work, claims Lacan in his critique of Marleau-Ponty. The gap between the individual and the world, the division between subject and object, is on the side of the subject. It is not the division between the visible and the invisible, but between two principles of organisation of the visible. Between the function of the eye and the function of the gaze. Between the eye, which is on the side of the subject, and the gaze, which is on the side of the object. The look as an object. "The picture is definitely being formed in the bottom of my eye. The picture is, of course, inside my eye. Yet I, myself, am in the picture" 2 . My seeing is tied to a single standing point, while I myself can be seen from anywhere. The seen comes before that which is exposed to seeing.

This, in fact, can even explain why, in the process of introducing new technologies, including ones whose function does not belong to the realm of the visual, such an importance is attributed to the look, to what shall be visible and what not. The construction of the machines incorporates the look even before anybody can see the actual machine – even in places where nobody ever sees them. Think, for example, of how fascinating computers and other electronic devices are from the inside – with all this great patterns of silver dots on colourful plastic sheets. Yet, the machines are constructed by humans, therefore, no matter how impersonal machines are, the emphasis on the im–personality and object–ivity of the look gets lost in this example.

Exactly this is the emphasis provided for by animal mimicry. Roger Caillois, who did not by accident study both, mimicry and the imaginary, points out that the animal mimicry is not simply an adaptation to the environment. Mimicry consists of the processes that living things use to conform with the environment by deceiving the eye. This means that, in a way, they see us before we see them.

The radicalisation of the idea of direct transmission as the basis of TV dispositive in the TV DEATH project by Peter Weibel; the problematisation of perception in the videos of Dalibor Martinis; the analyses of the codes of viewers’ experience in the installations of Marko Kovaèiè and Brueckl/Schmoll; like the play of images in Home Stories by Matthias Mueller; pornographic images in Michael Brodsky’s photographs; the analysis of Austrian and American TV imagery in the works of Veronika Dreier, Hans–Jörg Mayer and Dara Birnbaum – the objects of analysis differ, the process remains one and the same. It is the staging of the experience that these profuse media procedures and devices strive by all means to expose their images to our eyes, so they must know quite well that we are looking at them. That they, in a way, see us before we can see them. That what stands between us and the world is the look. Media–in–media is another name for the concept of the look as an object.

How green is your soul?

The demarcation line that separates us from the surrounding world is not simply a matter of machines or mass media, nor has it been this way for ever. It has its history. This has been made very clear by Georges Vigarello in his study on the hygiene: the fact that people in the Middle Ages bathed less than we do today does not mean that they did not mind the dirt. On the contrary. They bathed less because they feared the dirt that would have penetrated their skin through the water.

Similarly, their notions of vision were equally more concrete, more bodily. For Aristotle, the eye was the recipient of rays emitted by objects, while Plato held that the eye was the very source that emitted the rays which travelled to the observed object and were reflected back. In the 12th century Grosseteste, connected both concepts: “It is the reception of the perceived form and energy emitted by the eye that produce the vision”. The common denominator of various theories, which philosophers and medical scientists have been evolving ever since the antiquity, is the idea of the materiality of the image perceived by the eye. Something material enters the body through the eye and in turn, it emits something equally material. When a person watches a green meadow, his or her soul also turns green.

Once the soul can no longer turn green when beholding a green meadow, this is a sign that something has changed. The continuity between the individual and the surrounding world has been broken, the void yawns in between. It was Descartes who mused about the colour of the soul, but the construction of modern subjectivity is not the matter of one person nor of one moment. It is a process that might still be going on in some parts of the world, while in Western Europe it is held to be the ultimate mark of the transition from the Middle Ages into the New Age. Secularisation on the one hand, the collapse of the feudal system on the other: what one is, is no longer determined by birth, people are free of religious and blood ties, they depend on themselves and on each other. Mutual relationships grow more imaginary, the visual acquires a special meaning.

“In order for the complacent soul of a young person to find outward expression – and it is best mirrored in the face – his look must be relaxed, respectful and concentrated” writes Erasmus in 1529. People become attentive of the impression they make on others, their image in other people’s eyes becomes decisive for them. In Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of Courtiers) from 1529, which was the essential reading of the period, Castiglione writes: “From the very beginning a courtier must devote all his attention to making a good impression of himself and must also know that it is dangerous, even deadly dangerous, if the opposite happens to him”.

People observe each other ever more intensely, they tighten self–restraints and the control of affections. The outward appearance and the internal world of the person are two different things. The difference between the look (the self–image an individual strives to create) and reality (“the real essence” of an individual) is affirmed. Leon Battista Alberti, the architect and author of Della pittura, a renowned treatise on painting which set the foundations of monocular perspective, is also the author of a book on behaviour (Della famiglia, 1434): “Always keep in mind that the biggest contribution to your success is your decision to be such as you would like others to see you”. Because “if we are like that to ourselves, we will appear the same to others” 3 Machiavelli complains that “in modern times the most successful are those who do not take truth seriously and use tricks to deceive people”.

Instructions on how to create as good an image as possible on the one hand, and indignation about the untruthfulness of the image on the other, are two symptoms of the same. The gap between the internal and the external of a person, between the truth and the illusion, has been one of the major topics of western European cultures over the past few centuries. The harmony between the two has constitutive significance for modern subject, yet it is ever problematical.

Je sais bien ... mais quand-meme. I do know, but still. Manoni’s pattern of fetishist concealment is an excellent description of the situation. We are quite aware that all we have are the representations of the surrounding world, of others and ourselves, yet we act as if these representations are exactly ourselves, others and the world itself. Even most furious critics of media manipulation carefully compose their texts, they might even take courses in public speaking and communication training.

The history of West European culture in the last couple of centuries can be described as an oscillation between the accent on the one and on the other. Between Baroque infatuation with anamorphotic painting and spatial illusionism, obsessive development of techniques and mechanisms aimed at deceiving the eye. And between efforts of the 19th century to ensure more absolutes for ourselves and the world. Psychology on the one side, and on the other – concern with the optics and laws of human vision, which led to the end of classical painting and set the foundations of modern media such as film and photography.

Between the projects of the dissidents of the surrealist movements, Artaud, Bataile, Leiris, who, despite their differences, shared a common trait – faith in artistic activity which is capable of counterbalancing experience and perception with pure concepts. And between the rebellion of situationalists and performance artists of the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s, who were ready for the radical resistance to the discourses of power through the use of their own bodies and action to (self)destruction.

At that time, new technologies were introduced in art in a new and systematic manner. In some cases, the endeavour was initiated by the very industry, say, the Bell telephone corporation, whose engineers first cooperated with artists such as John Cage, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, and Robert Rauschenberg assisting in various projects, which led to the subsequent establishment of the foundation called Experiments in Art and Technologies – E. A.T. The cooperation reached it peak in creation of the Coca–Cola pavilion at the Expo 70 world exhibition in Osaka.

In Europe, in Germany in 1963 already, Nam June Paik had his first exhibition in television. Two years later he moved to US where he created the first video synthesyzer. At that time, Bruce Nauman was already using video as part of a gallery installation and to record his performances. Soon, in US, but also in Europe (for example in works of Peter Weibel, or Gabor Body), video and media art, as we know it today, got its shape.

For several reasons. On the one hand, people were acutely dissatisfied with broadcast television. On the other hand, traditions of painting and sculpture arrived at another critical cul–de–sac. Many artists reacted against the production of art objects, creating new kinds of art, either variations on performance, theatre, and dance, or mechanically reproducible art forms such as photography, film and video.

For video itself, most decisive was the fact that the magnetoscope and soon later the relatively inexpensive television equipment were available. The work with these machines was diverse, definitions such as “art video” and “social action video”, “synthesizer video” and “conceptual video” hardly cover the varieties. What is of main interest to us is the fact that the authors, either dissatisfied with broadcast television, or concerned with electronics research and development, were fascinated with technology and were using it to reshape the society and the experience. Thus, on the one hand, new cultural spaces were being created, such as experimental TV laboratories and TV programmes, or The Kitchen, a kind of free–form gallery and electronic–arts performance center in New York, established by Woody and Steina Vasulka in 1971.

On the other hand, artists aimed at creating new forms of experience, “something that would start people’s minds working in a way that was different from the way your mind normally functions” (Bill Gwin), or “new model of consciousness within the material” (Woody Vasulka).

Rave Party in a Museum

In the sixties and seventies, the word for fascination with technology was video. In the nineties, it is techno.

In the past, a whole century was needed for the cultural obsession to change. Later, the time needed shrunk to a few decades. The euphoria of the eighties about simulacrum and fiction more truthful than life itself, did not even last a single decade.

Bonn, Köln, Düsseldorf, Jülich, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Dresden, Chicago, Vienna – in 1996 all of these cities hosted exhibitions of works of art which in one way or another thematised studies from the field of biology and artificial life. Yet, no matter how exciting may appear efforts to approach more closely oneself and others from the field of the sciences, art cannot but treat these topics from a distance.

Therefore, curators and representatives of the so–called new art ranging from Rotterdam’s Manifesta to the Viennese Depot, approach the issue of (non)mediation from elsewhere. From the point of experience. No wonder, since the problem of addressing the observer is the most enigmatic point of presentation of the art. The exhibiting of individual works of art and isolated objects is being replaced, once again, with the staging of art projects and ambiences, installations, performances, happenings. Experience instead of observation. Yet the accent nowadays is not on the visual, as in the times of video arts’ expansion, but on the aural. Galleries and museums are being turned into the ultimate site of rave parties, the DJ is the ultimate artist of the nineties.

The view obstructs pure perception, the eye lies. Images – untruthful and corrupted, loaded with meaning, embedded in the social relations of domination and suppression – no longer provide satisfaction or pleasure. The way out of the predicament caused by the gap between ourselves and the world – as it seems today – takes us away from the look and towards voice. Towards experience of the audible as the ultimate non–mediated experience.

This kind of experience, exclusively auditory, is the sensation known to the blind. The issue of orientation in space, which is the crucial deficiency of the purely auditory experience, is in fact already solved, thanks to – once again – invisible technology, namely Global Positioning Satellites. In The Navigation System for the Blind, the person communicates with the network of satellites through earphones, so the places and objects encountered on the way “explain” what they are: here is the library, here is the library; here are the stairs, here are the stairs, and so on. The system has many advantages. For example, each route can be “walked” from home, as a test. But it also has disadvantages. It could happen that the system is set up so as to emit advertising messages and the person could thus be guided from one shop to another 4 . In such a case, the sound would be no less corrupt than images on TV, posters or billboards.

In 1952 Guy Debord, the notorious critic of the society of the spectacle, the co–founder of the Situationist International and the advocate of art which is based on feelings and passion, made a film dedicated to the Marquis de Sade. The film stages the dialogue quite peculiarly, as did Sade – in his books or in the events described in these books, the speech is decisive. With speech alone he stimulates erotic experience.

In 1966 Gilles Deleuze published a delightful 5 book entitled Masochism. In this book the Marquis de Sade (after whom Kraft–Ebbig, the renowned researcher of sexual perversities, named sadism) and Sacher Masoch (after whom the same author named masochism) are placed side by side – in order to show how these two persons have appeared as a pair ever since the times of Kraft–Ebbig by pure mistake. The masochist cannot be the partner of the sadist nor the other way round.

The reason for this, as Deleuze shows, lies in the fact that Sade and Masoch use voice differently. They speak differently. The method used by the Marquis de Sade to establish the relationship of domination and subjection by means of voice, and thus achieve erotic effects, is different from the method used by Sacher Masoch to achieve the same objective. The situation is indeed the same: in both cases the objective is erotic effect, in both cases this effect raises from the relationship of domination and subjection, and in both cases such relationship is established by the voice. Only that in the masochistic dispositive the speech is educational, in the sadistic it is demonstrative.

The effects of the voice depend on its use as well. Just as it is impossible to separate technical devices from their social use, also voice is loaded with meaning, embedded in social relationships. In short, voice is not any "natural" link between the speaker and the listener. Like the visual, the aural is subject to meaning, interpretation, mediation.

Thus, the idea of creating art not in terms of objects but in terms of experience often coincides with interchangeability of one and another. Sound and vision. To put language into what is essentially a visual form, as Gwen claims, but also the other way around. To make pictures by audio frequencies, and to get audio frequencies out of pictures.

Deleuze extends his emphasis to the very last experience that might elude mediation: erotic experience as a non-mediated, physical experience. By showing that erotic effect raises from the relationship of domination and subjection, Deleuze actually points out two things. Firstly that our understanding of sexual relationships as the most personal, intimate and non-mediated experience, is in fact a mystification. Secondly, that every social relation is eroticized, since social relations are based on domination and subjection. The effect of proximity in erotic experience is not the result of experience being excluded from social relations, but of the fact that constitutive elements of the experience are fundamental social relations, namely domination and subjection. We are closest to ourselves when believing that we are most distant.

The same holds for media and technologies. And it is no by mere chance that our reflection on our relationship with ourselves, others and the world, be it in science, art, or everyday life, always includes media. Media are seen as an obstacle which prevents immediatedness, for example in reflections on media manipulation. Yet, on the other hand, they are also seen as stimulants and intensifiers of immediated experience, for example in modern techno culture (chiefly music, but also art and sciences). Mass media and new technologies stand in-between and at the same time bridge the gap that separates us from others and ourselves. They are the agents of closeness and markers of distance. Because distance carries the greatest closeness.

This is the major point in Crash and other Cronenberg's films, as well as in the films of the Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo I and II, Tokyo Fist). Either with the help of media technologies or simple tools - their heroes are closest to themselves when most beside themselves. This exactly is the theme of the arts when the motive is media itself. The unbearable closeness of distance.