Conversation between Paul Virilio and Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Paul Virilio: As theme for this conversation about the public view, I would like to quote a sentence from Maurice Merlau-Ponty: ‘The problem, what is the subject of the state, what is the subject of war, is of exactly the same nature as knowing the subject of perception.’

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: The Public View as title of the ‘Jahresring’ is to be seen before an active as well as in front of a passive background. The question of the public nature of art presents itself. Work in public implies active interventions as well as the exposure in view of the control instruments. The construction and/or destruction of the public nature is an important aspect of artistic practice. We ask whether the private aspect can continue to be separated from the public sector or whether that which is public becomes more a kind of negative form of the private. The monument has a function of reminding. With the invention of techniques of replication and the acceleration of pictures, the reminding function has been placed in question. How has the role of the monument changed due to the acceleration of public pictures?

Paul Virilio: The monument is primarily a signal, a sign, an appeal. A monument thus is not bound to refer to past, to an historical or other event. It is primarily a moment of stopping or pausing in the habits of everyday life.

The most important function of the monument to me seems that it causes us to pause, where the urban everyday life is a life of mobility, of mobilization, of forgetting, of habits, of repetition, of rituals, etc. The monument interrupts repetition. It is intended to awaken, to provoke. The monument can be architectural, such as all great memorials. One identifies the monument much too much with the colossal. I believe there are pictures that have the function of a memorial as well as there are paintings, sculptures, and architectural works that have a memorial function. To me this aspect seems to be an important element of the public image: the public image, however, is far more than just this monumental dimension. Indeed there is no private image anymore. In a certain way, every structured society organizes - Merleau-Ponty says that explicitly - first the perception. Tell me how you perceive and I tell you who you are. Tell me which collective public view you have and I tell you who you are. The education, the training of perception is done via rituals and the repetition of dance.

Through the religious ritual, through liturgy there is pageantry which provides the fundamental infrastructure for the people, the axis of the public. I would say there is only the public view. Every epoch reconstructs the perception of society. The state, the function of the state primarily is the organization of the world view. The state is the world view, the perception of the world. Even before the acts of command, the commands of organization, work, war, there is an alignment, a training of the view. In this sense, the perception of the Quattrocento really is the manifestation of a world view that continues into our time, but is dwindling, especially today. I believe in the end of the perspective of the Quattrocento and in the development of a new perspective.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Jean Gebser tried in his texts about the development of the history of perspective, which he conceived in 1932 and wrote in the 1940’s, to work towards an aperspective perception of space which succeeds the unperspective and perspective world. he was not yet able to realize the connection between this development and the speed of media and the resulting tyranny of real time, but already he predicted a new age of perspective.

Gebser differentiates between three stages of perception of space: the unperspective world includes the period of time from prehistory until the Renaissance and gives witness to a close bond between the inward and the outward. The opposing elements of the pillar and the cave are not yet connected to a single space construct. In the Renaissance, two dimensional thinking and seeing is expanded into three-dimensionality. Man begins to see himself as a subject. The background in front of which he appears is objectified. The perspective period seems today to have reached an end point. ‘Fear and being pleased as well as isolation and loss of individuality’ (Gebser) create the tension necessary for the transition. Gebser’s idea of the aperspective space remains rooted in the media of painting and of sculpture. Based on the simultaneous presence of different views he sees, especially in Braque and Picasso, a concretization of time. Paul Virilio: I try to explain a perspective which no longer is the perspective of real space, of an altarpiece or the stage setting of the Italian theatre, or the ideal Renaissance town, but rather the perspective of real time, the perspective of teletechnologies which are technologies of the ‘live’, of live transmission, technologies in which electronics dominate over optics.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: We have proceeded from the monument. Due to loss of individuality, its importance and function change. And ...

Paul Virilio: The monuments are mass media. The monuments are really the first means of mass communication. When the people from the Middle Ages go into a cathedral or a Protestant Church, they do so in order to obtain information. Thus the monument is the first means of mass communication and as a consequence a dematerialization then takes place in the book, then in the press, in radio broadcasting and on TV. In a certain respect, the audiovisual media are the heirs of the monument.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: The one who observes becomes the one who is observed?

Paul Virilio: Here we come back to the sentence by Marcel Duchamp: ‘It is the spectators who make the pictures.’ The picture does not exist through the view or the hand of the artist who creates the picture, but through the view of the potential spectator. Marcel Duchamp’s sentence is mass media: it is not the painter who makes pictures, it is not the one who acts, it is the spectator. It is the one who looks over the shoulder. One never looks alone, one always looks together, that means a monumental, pictorial, or other work can only come into existence if there are two perspectives, the one being the view of the one who acts, the one who paints the picture, the one who constructs the building, and the other one being the view of the spectator who appreciates the picture. Therefore the view multiplies, there is no individual view. A collectivizing of the view takes place: this is probably the reason why some exceptionally important artists have disappeared from art history, because they have not found any spectators who looked over their shoulders, because they have remained alone in their view. They have created on their own and no one has come to look at their work and their picture, to discover. I am convinced that there is an entire Pantheon, a Louvre, a Pinakothek full of exceptional, unique artworks that have disappeared because this view has remained alone, has not doubled through the public spectator, be he an art lover, a bishop or art critic.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Klier’s ‘Giant’ shows the permanent presence of surveillance cameras as a scenario between Huxley’s Brave New World and Mussak. The movie lives in the tension field of a supernatural aura of removed pictures on the one hand, and the underwater character which threatens to drown everything on the other hand. The world of the cameras proliferatively goes from the outer space again back into the inner space. It resembles Escher’s endless loop, a stream of surveillance pictures from which no escape seems possible. Julia Scher even continues this idea by having her own company ‘Security by Julia’ and by actively using surveillance techniques. Scher uses the exhibition situation for the installation of cameras and other instruments of surveillance at strategic spots of the museum or gallery. Her work has an interactive character, the spectator is to be warned of our bodies being public pictures. He sees himself on the screen and thus becomes part of the installation. The system which creates its own pictures returns the view of the spectator: the artwork looks back.

Sam Samore uses the medium of photography like a voyeur. He gives order to series of photographs. Although everyday pictures of people reading their newspaper or sunning themselves come into being, I see the photographed person as a victim and I see an alien danger behind him. The people in his photographs are potential victims and potential perpetrators at the same time. The spectator generates chains of actions like a detective where there are none. All of a sudden there is a whole crowd of detectives, spies, terrorists: of horrid and hunted people. Also an artwork which I have recently seen at Hans-Peter Feldmann’s fits here. The combination of two positive pictures - a girl who holds her mother’s hand during a Sunday walk, and a picture of the Matterhorn - when combined suddenly fall into the incomprehensible. No doubt something terrible has happened to the child in the mountains.

Paul Virilio: The term ‘feedback’ is actually much better known than ‘viewback’. The term ‘feedback’ clearly shows that one looks together, that a single view does not mean seeing, but making blind. In a certain respect, the view is collective, it is never done individually or alone, never from a lonely point. Today, however, the fact is new that the spectators are not amateurs anymore, nor critics, nor discoverers, but spokesmen, intermediaries. The journalist is an example of that. The journalist who looked at the Gulf War for us has completely deceived us. The Gulf War is an exceptional moment of picture warfare. For the first time the pictures, the weapons of communication, not only provided an opportunity to create a way of seeing, a public view, but to officially blind, deceive the public with the help of the military.

What is bad is that the spectators are not passionate people or accomplices anymore, but intermediaries in the sense of people who exert a function to which they are not committed, a function which is that of a machine, or mechanical. The cameraman who films the war in the desert sand directly on the spot does not, such as Duchamp’s spectator, transmit something that he was told to look at, something that he was ordered to do by the information pool controlled by the army, or the boss of the editing committee.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Due to the disappearance of the accomplice, the question about the function of artistic practice posses itself anew.

Paul Virilio: In the new public view, that is, that of electronic mass media, lies a moment of making blind which will continue to develop. Since Renaissance artists had a kind of provocatory function: with a lot of skill and cunning they pointed out new things. Let’s take the Impressionists, the Cubists, Muybridge, or Marey, the artist has a function of revelation, a function which in my mind presents a contrast to information and enlightenment. Now with the public view of electronic machinery and direct live transmission, there is no work anymore, there is nothing but a camera-bearer. In this respect the Gulf War was particularly tragic since it has destroyed our confidence in the credibility of means of communication for good. One new well that there was biased interpretation, but that is not really bad. Every view is an interpretation. There simply was conscious manipulation and thus blind-making of the audience. The public view has turned into public obscuration, and that for six months, this is what makes the event so unique.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Gebser’s dream seems to have failed.

Paul Virilio: That means that the automatic view has become a view which is supposed to make the television spectator blind. That is what is new. Since one was allowed to believe in transparency, the tele surveillance by Michael Klier seemed like a view of quasi-godly transparency. One has, however, realized that this quasi-godly transparency is a blindness, a weakness. But for this, the Gulf War was necessary. If one looks at the surveillance cameras, this certainly has a police dimension. But during the Gulf War, so much was said and shown in order to fixate the view, and this was for the first time organized by the army, by the Pentagon, and in secret agreement with the press. Let us take an example from today, June 8, 1991. The Nouvel Observateur publishes on page 1 an article with the headline ‘How We Have Been Lied To’. That is scandal. The journalist should have written ‘How You Have Been Lied To’, for it was his work, he hides.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: The picture apparatuses have been programmed for ‘live coverage’ and the eye of the camera is organized and programmed. Much of this was anticipated by you in the ‘Logistics of perception’ long before the Gulf War. During the war you quoted Kipling: ‘the first victim of war is truth’ and have associated that not in small measure with Ted Turner’s CNN.

All pictures which are outside the planned program are excluded or even prevented. It is this apparatus-imminent program for the production of pictures which offers a starting point for forms of resistance. The game is continued, if necessary against the picture apparatuses and their tendencies that are making themselves independent in order to thus rediscover the unexpected.

How do you see the role of photography?

Paul Virilio: I would like to quote Robert Doisneau: ‘Taking photographs means not to obey’. Photography, painting, literature, the press, they mean disobedience. Who obeys does not inform anymore. In some way art always is disobedient. The difference which you can make between fine arts and commercial or little art is today corresponded by the difference between the art that obeys and the art that does not obey. Great art does not obey. All others are arts that are of low quality, even pitiful.

This has been true for painting since the rise of Impressionism with respect to the trite, to realism. This is true for abstract art with respect to the figurative. This is true for hyperrealism with respect to the abstract. There is no art without a break and without disobedience. The contemporary technologies of public picture production and the public view, however, aim at making us compliant and obedient, not only the television spectators, but also the camera operators and those who act in the picture of this world. Be it journalist, film producer or video director, everyone has the same function, that is admonish, to awaken. A genuine monument does not tell us to obey, it makes us stop and pause, do not forget! I will give you an example. In the 1980’s I am driving through Berlin and arrive at the Berlin Church which is located in the city center and which is destroyed. And in the vicinity of this church I encounter a billboard with the inscription ‘Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Do Not Forget!’ The sign has the function of a signal. Here you see the ruins of Berlin, but do not forget the ruins of ... I would call that disobedience, because when I am in Berlin, I am thrilled by the pleasure, the alternative society, that is the 1980’s. And all of a sudden something tells me to stop! Wake up! That is the monument, the memorial. That is the moment when I am called. No view of the world develops without a break. In this respect Galileo is as important as Copernicus - not due to their systems but due to the change they caused to come about. They have destroyed one view of the world in order to replace it with another, and thus breaking is the fundamental in their work. They have placed the world in a different light, and not for me the great philosophers are not so much the Hegels, Kants, or Platos, but rather the men of change such as Heraclitus or Nietzsche. That is the capability for disobedience. That is, to be no Hegelian anymore when everybody loves him, to be no Marxist anymore when everyone loves him.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: What public does the artist want? Especially with respect to the public claim of a work, the question poses itself what you call disobedience.

The model of drawing back seems to be rather rare in today’s situation. The break presents itself more often in a free interplay with various contexts in which the artist consciously enters into relationship with his political, economic, and social environment and defines himself through these relationships.

The artist concretely lets himself in for a certain environment but reserves himself the liberty of leaping and the possibility for distance. It seems important to me to not raise this game of context and the political, economic, and social connection of art into a principle. The question about the public view must also do justice to the fact that good paintings continue to come into existence. The painting comes through the back door.

Paul Virilio: It is certain that science, technology, physics, and metaphysics cannot be separated from art. Art is a place where science encounters metaphysics. It is the concern of art to be the bond between these areas. I will give you an example: for Italian painting of the Renaissance period, there is no difference between the science and physics of that epoch and the paintings of an Uccello, a Piero de la Francesca, the writings of an Alberti or the architecture of a Brunelleschi. There is a unity between science and technology, faith, the metaphysical dimension of art.

By and large there was a unity between art and technology which was destroyed in the 18th century. I would like to use architecture as an example. The break between the art of building and the technology of construction is an invention of artillery in the 18th century. Artillery had such power that materials had to be invented which could not only withstand their own weight and load - that is natural factors - but also artillery. And thus it was the engineers of the Ecole Mezieres, the first big school of military engineers which formed during the revolution with Gasparin Ecole Polytechnique, who all of a sudden said about certain techniques of architecture: ‘Now we have a new technique, the reinforcement of the building so that it withstands the thrust, the impact. That is the task of the artillery man, not that of the bricklayer’. From then on there have been two worlds, a world of art, of architecture, and the world of construction technique, of military engineering. You can see up to what point this break later takes place everywhere. This is an aberration. For Marcel Duchamp, not those are artists who create bidets, but the spectators. This is closely connected with the memory as I have explained in my book about the bunker. In a certain respect they link to the great unity between the scientific, the technical, the metaphysical ideas and the ‘art of seeing’ as Huxley would say. Seeing is an art, not painting, not forming, not sculpting, not carving, not constructing. The first art is seeing. Seeing is collective. Seeing is never done alone.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: The genuine disobedience does not seem to exist.

Paul Virilio: It is hard to say what disobedience means for disobedience is actually surprising. It is not easy to describe a surprise. One encounters here an interest of mine, i.e. that for coincidence. It is hard to say which event will take place tomorrow. Art is based on disobedience, on break. It is, however, impossible to predict tomorrow’s coincidence. One can only see a past event that has taken place, one can however, not predict the event which will break our view of the world and change us. Today it is very important to be alert, to watch out for the ‘machine de vision’, that is for the new electronic machinery. The Gulf War has shown that there is a mode of control of the public view to an unprecedented extent. In this respect the Gulf War is symptomatic for the future view of the world. In exactly that way the break with Paulo Ucello manifests itself in fights in the great battle of the opposition of his knights. Every epoch of war is accompanied by change, mutation of perception. The function of the eye is the function of the weapon. In war one does not only experiment with bullets, rockets, grenades, cruise missiles, but one also always experiment with seeing. And the Gulf War has in respect to totalitarian view provided an exceptional public image of which none has spoken. Forty Iraqis, who at the moment of the ground offensive in Kuwait, standing heavily armed in the fox hole, were passed by a drone. A drone is a 10 foot long pilotless model airplane with a TV camera on board which records every event. It is a toy which can be remotely controlled over a 100 mile distance. In a truck there is a screen from which pilots remotely control the drone, operate camera, and record the enemy. And if it is shot down there are no losses. The forty Iraqi solders came out when they saw the drone approaching. In a circumference of 12 miles there was no one. They surrendered to the camera. That is the picture. That is the new signal. At the end of the war they gave in to a flying camera because they knew that someone watched them via that model airplane.

In a certain respect, the coincidence or the break or the disobedience will take place in view of the new technologies, of this new live view, of this total global view. One will have to be a parasite to find a break through this, and in that respect I very much liked the film by Klier, since he begins to ask that question in a prophetic manner. It has to be looked into much closer and much more thoroughly. How, that is the task of the artist.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: As a reciprocal result, an intimacy takes effect, a loss of sense for society. The fear of surveillance techniques and the expansion of the public view is paradoxically accompanied by an ever deeper, but at the same time futile, withdrawal into the private sphere. Which is only confirmed by an embittered despair about anonymous surveillance. This withdrawal in the course of time results in the loss of the ability to think in public dimensions.

Paul Virilio: Absolutely. The new optics is not bad as such. Bad or even shocking, is the function of control. In the ‘Machine de vision’ I mentioned that even industrialization was an element of breaking with art.

Reproduction, the similar object - Andy Warhol has shown that very clearly - was an element of breaking with unicum, the unique worth of an author, with the original. I claim that today we are experiencing the industrialization of seeing. It is no longer the objects which are reproduced in series and become serial, it is attempted to industrialize the common view. This is very good as long as this common view is not industrialized.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Like the CNN where the view of the Gulf was industrialized.

Paul Virilio: CNN was equal to the industrialization of the view of the world. I have seen it like that since August 2nd. This is a very crucial element which one should regard with skepticism. One cannot defend oneself against the industrialization of seeing without simultaneously being against the means which are used.

Another aspect of an obviously paradoxical nature is the question of freedom with the life technique, with real time transmission. A priori real time resists the freedom of interpretation. It happens too fast. During an accelerated recording such immediacy comes into existence that a man can no longer analyze freely. He is paralyzed by the speed, he is passive. How can real time become active? How can immediacy become active? Those are great questions. At the moment there are no answers, at the moment the tyranny of real time is governing. Real time causes anguish which makes me passive as a spectator. The succession of pictures happens too fast. I can not make use of my freedom of interpretation. The freedom of acting, yes, I can aim my camera at this or that. But I do not have time for interpretation. And this as a last consequence endangers democracy. Democracy means dividing decision. And here the decision does not even rest with the camera operator but with the speed of the electronic circuitry and that is the speed of ‘feedback’.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: In the practice of the artist is the possibility of choice, the possibility of distance, of deceleration and interpretation. Therein lies his enormous importance. Paul Virilio: An artist is primarily an interpreter. But when there is no time for interpretation because technology is faster, what happens then? This is an aesthetic question and this is a political question and an ethical question.

Those are great questions which have not been answered yet. In this respect the Gulf War has been extremely negative. With it the tyranny of real time has inevitably started, the tyranny of a picture that escaped the entire world.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: In your essay ‘The Public Picture’, you draw parallels between the tyranny of real time which we experience, and the tyranny of the strongly developed wish for light at the time of the French Revolution.

Paul Virilio: One is subject to an overexposure. The real time overexposes us, it dazzles us. In a certain way we have not learned to wear sunglasses against the live glare. Sunglasses should be invented so that we are not dazzled by real time, that is the task. I am greatly amazed by the increased use of dark glasses. That provides a special look behind which I think something deeper is hiding and that is vulnerability of the view, to want to retire into one’s shell, to shut one’s self off, as if dark glasses were a kind of mask, a protection from view. Such as hard hats protect against shocks and thrusts, dark glasses could protect against the view.

The most interesting glasses I know are those of the Eskimos. The Eskimos make a kind of protection of view from a powderhorn in order not to be dazzled by the snow, those are glasses that have a very narrow viewing slit in front of the eyes.

Not as protection against sun, snow or light reflection, but against electricity, electronics, flashbulbs, changing lighting, we will soon need glasses for watching TV; furthermore, there are glasses for relaxation. Here the metaphor somehow forces itself upon us of those who in or in front of the other’s eyes are victims. For this reason I think that ‘The Public View’ is a very good title.

Behind the public view, the question of the public picture also poses itself. And there, as a city dweller I must say that the public space, the square, the meeting place, the theater hall, remain in - as I would like to call it - polar inertia and are in the process of being replaced by the public view. That means that the material, geographical, and geometrical aspect of the place, the square, the scene is increasingly replaced by an iconographic dimension of the public view. The public view in real time replaces the public place. The representation becomes more important than the actual event.

We are living in an epoch which is as important as the transition from the Middle Ages to Renaissance. This means that everything which used to serve to form a view, the entire public view of the past is presently being hollowed out, depleted. And a new public view has not yet been created. The view has burst like a glass. One is not sure anymore of what one sees. Therefore, also the doubt in the aesthetic of seeing. Aesthetics can only develop if there is a more or less common view of the world. At present this is, however, not the case. Our seeing is done separately, individually. An aesthetic of seeing does not exist in reality. Here we are faced with a basic change, a mutation of life. We are in the process of changing the world.

Paris, 8 June 1991

less common view of the world. At present this is, however, not the case. Our seeing is done separately, individually. An aesthetic of seeing does not exist in reality. Here we are faced with a basic change, a mutation of life. We are in the process of changing the world.

Paris, 8 June 1991