Bernhard Rüdiger Conversation avec Pascal Beausse

Manhattan Walk : faire un pas de côté L'Histoire, le document, l'icône, et l'artiste comme non-reporter

octobre 2004 published in :
“Bernhard Rüdiger conversation avec Pascal Beausse; Manhattan Walk: faire un pas de côté, l’histoire, le document, l’icône et l’artiste comme non-reporter” ed. [EUX] Lyon, 2005.

Bernhard Rüdiger : A Conversation with Pascal Beausse

Manhattan Walk: a Side Step
History, the Document, the Icon, and the Artist as Anti-Reporter

Paris, october 22, 2004
Translation by Kirsten Murphy

Pascal Beausse To begin with, I’d like to ask you why you think of these transcriptions of walks in Manhattan as documents?

Bernhard Rüdiger That’s a good question. I think my trip to Israel and Palestine was an important trigger. The starting point of the project was the impossibility of taking photographs in Palestine; my inability to find a way of engaging the photographic medium outside the clichés of journalistic and holiday photography posed a real question, the question of what an image is. Because that’s all we’re interested in, in reality. The experience of being confronted with the problem of framing and being unable to escape the cliché, revealed important questions regarding the nature of images as such.
Israel and Palestine were also important because of a complex condition resulting from the political situation in the Middle East. In Jerusalem, I was living in an artist’s residence but I wondered why the city just outside was so different. It was a lovely house built in Arabic style, with a garden that looked out onto an overpopulated valley, the first houses of which were all in ruins. Below these were extremely dense rows of huts. Then I found out that this was the limit of Jerusalem and that the West Bank began on the other side of the street. It took time for me to understand these things which are not visible. In this sense, the trip to Israel and Palestine was very interesting. Limits become apparent through extremely subtle things which are not perceptible in the same way as a declared war would be, the war having been waged for a long time through this entrenchment in an insoluble situation. There is a war, but at the same time life goes on, so it’s difficult to grasp what one is seeing. One thing that led to the idea of using sound was the fact that, because there were mosques everywhere, a chaos of chanting rose from this valley opposite during prayer time. This constituted an extraordinary acoustic and religious challenge directed towards Jerusalem.
As I gradually began to understand the topography and history of the region, I was led to reflect on the reasons for my inability to photograph it. My photographs weren’t documents. The pictures I took only reproduced the clichés of photography without reflecting this complexity. So my interest in history and the difficulty of integrating historical testimony into an artwork underwent a profound crisis the result of which was this idea of intervening in the work process itself: “side stepping” by substituting a sound wave for the light rays which enter the camera. This produced a sonic chart, and that gave me the idea of doing a documentary work by recording my surroundings and making images from sounds. I wanted to obtain a document, on the simple scale of a recording, which I could still affect.
Like the framing of a photograph, moving in space while recording produces limits created by sounds. However, the transformation of sound into photography adds another limit. Sound is not perceptible when one looks at these rolls although it’s obvious something is going on. The viewer has the same difficulty identifyingthe image as I did confronted with the historical moment or rather the moment corresponding to my presence in those places.

PB You go from one limited medium to another one with different types of limitations; what you obtain is not just a document because it is the formalised transcription of a recording. You end up with an abstract image, while one of the only strengths of photography is its figurability.

BR Denying photography its figurability is very violent. In fact, people have difficulty calling my rolls photographs.

PB That’s what they are, though, as much because of the recording procedure as because of the technical characteristics and materials of the images themselves.

BR They are photographs in every way but photographs without figuration.
During the period leading up to these works I was very much concerned with the icon. This coincided, in the years following the first Gulf War, with an interest in direct discourse. I was looking for the simplest and in a way most violent means of speaking about meaning. This period came to a close with the production of Pulicinella (Punch), a performance piece which nullifies form by using Commedia dell’Arte. But outside my own work, that was also the particular moment when photography began to play a major role in contemporary art. The photographs in Mortuary by Andres Serrano impressed me, in that what is represented really is a body. The work is at once a document and a constructed tableau. However the distance produced by Serrano’s extreme formalisation did worry me. I wondered, why formalise to that extent? I then began to better understand my interest in Jeff Wall. His idea of a construction of history through painting, and the glacial quality his images take on, became very important to me. As did a whole group of works that I had seen in the eighties, by Vancouver artists associated with Wall, including the illuminated river by Rodney Graham, and Ian Wallace’s work. I’m above all thinking of Graham’s lights on the river, of the idea of rendering objective something that already is objectivated and thereby obtaining a total abstraction. Jeff Wall’s work functions in a similar way, although he maintains an extremely violent form of figuration in which the effects of focus, luminosity and transparent film are pushed to unbearable degrees. All that came back to me in 1991, at the Venice Biennial when Serrano and other artists such as Robert Gober were using a certain form of hyperrealism. This hyperrealism had been Pop up till then but wasn’t any longer. It had become a very precious sort of documentary form: sculptural documents, very precious moulds, something exaggerated. I reacted negatively to that. It seemed to me that reality was being used to construct a sort of hyperreality, which places the real under our noses without ever bringing us to question it. This worried me very much.
So I became interested in the difference between an image, which is the absence of something, a phantom, and an icon, which is the permanence of something through its image. The sculptures I did at the beginning of the nineties, which are icons, which take up this idea of the icon, came directly from my interest in the idea of reality.
What precedes the New York rolls is therefore an interest in the icon and the permanence of the image. This later brought me to reflect on Picabia’s work from the period between 1913 and 1920, which I associated with Nam June Paik. What I liked about Nam June Paik’s work was its physical realism, the idea that the world is something absolutely concrete. This made me question the work of Gober, Serrano and Kiki Smith…

PB Who were then engaged in a form of mannerism…

BR Yes! A mannerism of reality. I reacted to this through my interest in the icon, in the idea of permanence and the capacity of an image to be permanent and stronger than what we see. Because of this I was brought back to Picabia by Nam June Paik.

PB What is left of the icon in your work? Serrano is involved in a baroque religiosity, Gober, in Freudian transpositions … Where do you situate yourself? The force of the icon was its theological basis. The myth of the acheiropoete image, an image not made by human hands, is crucial to the understanding of icons, and this seems a possible direction for understanding your use of them.

BR I agree. The word icon was coined by Aristotle in response to the question of imago, to invent a very earthly permanence for the image. Historically, it’s true, the icon is this thing that comes from outside. As it happens, in Jerusalem, during the same trip that preceded my experiments in sound by a week, like every tourist, I visited Christ’s tomb. It’s a church occupied by Orthodox monks; it really is occupied, like in a war. Because they have no room, they dig down - there are caves and galleries that lead to underground chapels. In one of these, there are three important Orthodox icons behind a very heavy, iron gate. You go down with a candle in hand but try as you may, you can’t see a thing. Everything is dark; there is nothing to see. For half an hour, I watched as people descended into the cave and performed the same operation. Until at last, I understood that it wasn’t you who looked at the icon but the icon that looked at you. The candle doesn’t light the icon but the person carrying it so that God can see him/her. This realisation was important because, in effect, the permanence of the icon is due to the fact that it functions backwards; it isn’t an apparition but a window through which something is looking at you.

This enabled me to understand all those bachelor machines I’d made after my work on icons - all those big structures which are really machines, actually quite cold things. They are electrical accumulators which is why I’m interested in Picabia. This machine-like aspect became clear to me. The passage from icons to machines was logical because with a machine we really are dealing with something much larger than ourselves, a deus ex machina.

In the New York rolls, the gaps and side steps in the work process: walking without knowing what sound will come up on the recording, substituting a sound wave for a ray of light, then printing it photographically through sound analysis, and using computer systems without knowing what images they will produce – all this is going in the same direction. It’s the result of this idea of the icon but also of a Dada attitude, a Dada influence that is historically very important to me. This is also because in the years that preceded the New York rolls I spent a lot of time looking at the bachelor machines, and Picabia rose more and more in my esteem in relation to Duchamp. Picabia, the bourgeois who refused to go to war like his colleagues had done because he wasn’t that stupid and who ended up in New York, met Stieglitz and then started doing technical drawings. These drawings are of god machines, in fact, one is called God – an attempt, and the others are bachelor machines, erotic, and reproductive. In this idea fundamental to Dada, there is a sort of gap, or side step that makes the work of art machine-like. This modernist idea is very important to me. 

While I was thinking about the concept of reality, I was travelling between Israel and Palestine. This is a region where the most complex of wars is raging, from a European perspective. It is at the gates of Europe and so in a way, Europe is at war as well.  I’m not in a peaceful country, as I believed - the war is at the border or a little further away but this war is still my business. This made me think of Picabia who decided not to go to war but who spent his time in New York thinking about the war and the destructive machine. Dada, even the absurd expression Dada, would not have existed without the disorder, the terror, the disaster, and the mechanical monstrosity of the First World War. This is more or less where I got my idea of the machine, and yes, the icon was at its origin. That’s why your question is a valid one; icons have that mechanical aspect to them.

The side steps I take, the machines I use, and even the light waves are therefore related. When I look at the New York rolls and I think of Nam June Paik’s televisions and the light waves created by interference, it’s obvious I’m very much in his debt. I was very interested in the debate between Nam June Paik and John Cage, over the four minutes, thirty-three seconds’ silence and the blank film by Paik, Zen for Film. Cage was slightly bothered by this new direction in Paik’s work. I find that very interesting. For Nam June Paik, dust accumulates on the film simply because it is static. The successive projections, the accumulation of scratches and dust produce the film; it’s mechanical. It makes an image - a sort of fog in fact. You enter a movie theatre and you watch a black fog on a white screen, a sort of accumulation, contemporary to the spectator seated in the room, that sets all the particles of the world in motion. I was very much struck by this absolutely concrete realism.

In the sounds I record, there is a lot of dust, enormous amounts of noise. There is no object, no single sound. I am not detecting anything in particular; I am not documenting something chosen. I detect a noise in the city along with its background – a fog. Which brings me back to the icon, since I am given something to see which I can’t see myself when I listen to noise in the streets.

The first roll I made is the one recorded at the World Trade Centre. Historical circumstances caused an important change in the project: when I was preparing my trip to Palestine to do the recordings, Sharon took his walk on the Esplanade of the Mosques and travelling in Palestine became impossible because of the second Intifada. I waited six months and while I was waiting, I realised that there was something unresolved about what I intended to do. I wanted to go to a war zone, like a reporter. At that time, it was a war of positions, not an active war but a war all the same. The second Intifada began and I couldn’t go anymore. Why not find the means of going anyway if that was really my aim? I then saw that I was behaving exactly like a reporter. To come back to the question of the document, I was positioning myself as if I could make a documentary work but in reality that wasn’t what I was doing. If it had been, I would have gone in spite of the war; in fact, it would have been even better because there was action. I thought a lot about this refusal. I didn’t want to become a reporter because I considered it an uncomfortable but also a fundamentally indecent position. What would it mean to document as an artist a situation that exceeded unicity? In the presence of children throwing stones at a tank, what is the value of a recording or photograph of a tank? The human, historical reality would have exceeded by far the noises I recorded.

This brought me to reflect on editing. Either I came to terms with the process of editing and therefore with narrative, which meant coming to terms with the responsibility of writing history, or else narrative was not the path I had chosen. This meant questioning the very idea of the document. If the war was a war of positions and it wasn’t its action I was interested in (I didn’t want to write a narrative, since what had brought about this reflection was concrete reality à la Nam June Paik), then the war of positions was taking place all over the Western world. Palestine is just one limit, one border where war has broken out for obvious topographical and historical reasons. But this war of positions is everywhere. I therefore chose, in a rather arbitrary, Dada way, New York, as the economic centre and therefore the nerve centre of modern Western culture. I said to myself: if this war exists, then I can also document it in New York. That’s how I chose Manhattan, a centre of Western culture, also involved in a war of positions, in all its unconcern. I would go and record noise, a fog - images and landscapes that were fog - in the centre rather than at the border.

I began walking in New York. I was helped by Piet Mondrian’s paintings from the forties, when he began making streets and creating regular structures by using coloured tape, unrolling tape like walking in the streets of New York. This image of unrolling helped me to solve a fundamental problem in my work, one I had left aside for two years simply because I really couldn’t find a solution. I thought of my images as landscapes and I had in mind a landscape format that would have put the viewer in a contemplative, non-participatory position – a bit like in my photographs of electric light bulbs in the last show at Michel Rein’s gallery. Because of Mondrian, I began to think that walking in the streets of New York is like dancing. There was a nonchalance in New York during the forties that Mondrian revealed as something troubling. So the title, Manhattan Walk, has a double meaning: it’s a dance step and it’s me walking and recording a fog of noise. The idea of the roll appeared more clearly in my mind. It is not a landscape but something unfolding in space. The rolls are eight, ten or twelve metres long by a bit more than two metres high - a sort of landscape but one that requires the spectator to walk. The unfolding of time, which I think is very visible in these rolls, is important because it enabled me to get away from the notion of landscape which bothered me because of the contemplative dimension it has taken on in the history of painting.

PB You did this walk in Manhattan in 2001, just before the attacks of 11 September, in the place where iconoclasm is on the upswing, where this iconoclash between two cultures, so close in their religiosity, has crystallised. Of these two schools of thought which confuse the political and the religious, it would be difficult to say which is the most attached to or rejects more violently the image and which is the most skilful in its manipulation of images.

BR That’s true - and it was visible even in the baroque of the Whitney Biennial in 1989, where Gober and the others were showing, that very strange moment where a new idea of the image was appearing in American art, this “baroquism” which is a response to the same question.

PB Today, one sees many artists taking refuge in the baroque again, like Barry X Ball for example, or in something approaching mannerism, or again in an iconoduly which attempts the redemption of the image through art. What is more, these phenomena are fairly loaded with a return to the aesthetics of high art, an art that was linked, in the Modern period of the classical age of art history, to a religious and political programme at an ecstatic moment in a civilisation of the image. This civilisation was then engaged in an orgy of representation, of pleasure in the mastery of luxurious, precise and at the same time paradoxically superficial images, sumptuous images without content. For your part, in a manner different from Nam June Paik, you reveal the secret, the basic language of the media. You integrate all these different phases of the status of the image in the history of Western civilisation and yet on a material level, the means you use produce a tension between the different aesthetics to which you refer. Your use of materials provokes a reconsideration of the foundations of art by producing an interweaving of sculptural paradoxes, while with necessary precaution, rejecting seduction.

BR That has always been true of my work. When I teach, I tell my students: “One of the biggest difficulties in teaching is that the reason you’re here is that you have a bump on you head. One day something fell on you and now you have this bump; I can’t get rid of a bump - that’s not my job. I’m here because I have a very big bump myself!” And this bump which I got in my youth, is due in part to Goethe’s idea that “In the beginning was Action”.  I was very much struck by this idea. When Faust makes his bet, it begins with a translation of the Gospel according to Saint John: “And in the beginning was the Word”. In questioning the origin of the Word, Faust calls into question God’s existence. So he says, “In the beginning was Action”. This has been a constant in my work. Thanks to this idea, I have been able to use forms radically, violently different from one another, sometimes even in parallel at the same time. 

One of my fundamental beliefs is that a human being can only look at the world from his own viewpoint. He can’t fly like a bird - he has no overview. The idea of perception of the world is a complex question. Every day, I open my eyes in the morning and the miracle that makes the world still exist takes place again. One day, I’ll close my eyes and the world won’t be there anymore. Put that way, it’s very straightforward but this is a very complex thing! In the end, the fact of inevitably, necessarily seeing the world from one’s own point of view is something primary, something elementary but it is also conducive to the way I imagine the relation to the viewer.
The viewer can only find himself confronted with something he had not conceived of, thought or imagined. I apprehend art myself in this way. I’m very surprised that someone was able to imagine such a thing. Always, be it with classical or contemporary art, when I come across a work that touches me, there is deep surprise and I say to myself: “This object is incomprehensible.” And to me this is a mystery; a work of art is a violent thing because it doesn’t reveal itself: it is violently foreign to what one can imagine.
This has been a constant in my work. In my own exhibitions, I am not afraid of constructing, or rather I tend to construct, eloquent contradictions. This means that the works do not necessarily correspond to one another and the viewer is not reassured in the exhibition space. He/she doesn’t enter a space of a clear nature in which similar experiences are repeated so that everything can be brought back to a common denominator that will confirm a reading. Rather he/she enters a space where the encounter with each work in the exhibition will oblige him/her to reposition him/herself.
It’s true that the mannered rhetoric we’ve been discussing, in flattening out the image, reassures the viewer in his perception of reality, and I’m very critical of this. Simply as a human being, over and above the fact of being an artist involved in visual problems, I find it very worrying that we stuff ourselves with reassuring images. Even when they evoke horror or pity, they are reassuring through the very fact that they enable us to say “there, that’s horror, that’s pity, that’s beauty, that’s the human condition today”… The artists of the beginning of the nineties, who often adopted this kind of attitude, clearly provoked a very violent reaction in me. I decided never again to put myself in an attitude of seduction. Even if some forms in my work can be seductive, at some point, what counts is knowing where the form will lead us. For my generation - I grew up in Italy in the eighties where cynicism was a form of survival in the violent social and economic revolution caused by neo-liberalism, I never could adopt that stance. I think even irony, although absolutely necessary and salutary.…

PB But irony and cynicism differ in that cynicism belongs to the arms merchant, the capitalist, whereas irony is part of the artist’s language; through its strength of vehemence, its capacity to put established convictions and order at risk, to create a crisis for the authorities that contribute to the production of slogans…
Aren’t you trying to produce a secular icon? What you show us functions as a dialectical object; something that presents itself as an enigma, but which doesn’t overplay its secretive dimension, as in the archetype of the art work which eyes us from the heights of the so-called “mystery of creation”.

BR I agree with that analysis. I think you can use the term secular icon for my work in that way. I’m not religious. It’s too bad there are no more gods. It would be such a good solution to all our problems! But I think the very condition of Modern Western art from the Renaissance on is just a series of advances and revisions of the question. From the moment we began to think perspective could rebuild an order of the world to the dimensions of Man, the question has been posed throughout Modernity – with very critical moments of revision, reactive counter-reform, and great flights of invention. It’s true I situate myself in this type of perspective. And I think there is an attempt, which I would almost call desperate, to create an image that has permanence, a secular image, that is to say, one that the viewer can come to terms with, and which has as its origin perspective and not a god or a mystery, or again fatalism - one has to recognise this is the driving force behind a lot of art from the nineties on. You can’t ignore the fact that much of today’s art is essentially fatalist!
To come back to the document, I think its use places us in an interesting perspective, that of our relation to history.

PB It’s true there is a fashion, even a religion of the documentary today. All of a sudden, certain critics and artists will have nothing else. But many of these zealots of the document have no notion of documentary form or style, although these are essential to the understanding of the interest and specificity of its use in art. Their documents contain a certain idea of morality in their tautological concentration on the subject of the image, on the information communicated by the object. Which is certainly paradoxical when one considers that artistic activity consists essentially in finding forms for ideas. The documentary seems to be functioning as a sort of politically correct refuge for those who refuse to take into account art’s intrinsic polymorphous freedom.

BR It’s worrying. For example, in the Documenta 11 by Okwui Enwezor - in this type of big exhibition, even when they are well thought out, and already in Catherine David’s documenta, which laid the foundations by referring to important historical sources in the sixties to define the use of the document. Paradoxically, one is confronted with a lot of images, but images in the true sense of the term, that is to say ghosts. I’m surprised that this fashion for the documentary has produced a strange perversion of the poetic idea of the artist.  An artist’s poetics no longer consists in the construction of a relation to reality through a document, but in a distancing from reality through the fantasy of reality.  What these images show us is the phantom of reality. People who are no longer there… We could use Benjamin’s idea of the aura and think about how it devastates art works - because there is nothing left but images. And we’re back to an extremely anti-modernist idea of the image-as-phantom. I sometimes even absurdly start imagining that Füssli was a genius of realism, in relation to the current attitude towards reality where only carcasses are shown, and not even carcasses but ghosts, veils. What do we see in these veils when we visit these big exhibitions? Going from room to room, I see the same floating phantoms. And I say to myself there’s been a fundamental perversion of the idea of poetics in art, that is to say, of aesthetic construction and therefore of the ethical relation to reality. There is an emphasis being placed on a sort of ethics that says “I show reality, therefore reality is.” But this comes down to a sophism. Because reality is not because I show it, reality appears because I show it. So, if reality appears, why won’t we let it simply be? What are we looking for in these apparitions of ghosts?

I am fundamentally opposed to this attitude. This is what guided me in my work on the New York rolls; I think the poetic position of the artist isn’t the sweetening of a bitter pill but resides in the construction of a complex relation to a real phenomenon, so real that we can’t even see it. We can’t see a war even when we are in the middle of one. We can’t see a human condition. I think, if art has a role to play in relation to its history, it’s in this poetic condition. I build bridges, I dig tunnels, and I build structures so that reality will appear to me. So I build; there is a way. There must be a form of construction of reality.

In these latest big exhibitions, and in a general attitude that has become apparent today, it is certainly this ghostly nature that is more and more obvious and I think there lies a real ethical question. If reality is just a phantom, we are approaching the attitude of the modern school of thought that gave birth to neo-liberalism. It’s the idea of reactivity. Everyone wants red shoes so we make red shoes. But anyway, we’re not really interested in shoes; we can change factories, countries, etc. The origin of this school of thought is to be found in a view of reality as purely phantomic. It’s disconcerting to see the way the notion of ethics is being touted, often in documentary works, which, in the end, deny reality, which only produce the absence of the object. One of the really beautiful shows I saw while making the New York rolls, was Rodney Graham and Bruce Nauman at the Dia Foundation. For me it was one of the most intelligent exhibitions from those years. It responded precisely, in a very subtle reversal, to this question of the documentary. I think Rodney Graham’s work contains an interesting reflection on this question. The cowboy film with the solitary hero crossing the prairies, reveals itself to be an empty machine. The film’s very grains turn out to be phantoms. And the absence of narrative, the trap he sets for the viewer who immediately expects a narrative because of the lonesome cowboy cliché - it’s very interesting.
Bruce Nauman’s piece was a film on a monitor in which the construction of a corner piece  was shown in real time. What one sees is the corner post of a cattle fence being driven in. Inexorable real time, framing cropped to the minimum, showing only the mechanical actions required by the construction; Nauman, the farmer, controls the machine. A few of the old neighbour’s tips are transmitted. In this film real time does not permit vision, only the real action seems to count. These are attitudes which are very different from mine because there is an emphasis on a certain hollowness, an emptiness, but I find them very interesting.

As to the ethical question of the participation of the artist in the general movement of a society that is distancing itself from reality, that wants to forget reality because it is incredible and difficult - this has been true for all time - I think there are moments at which artists are engaged in an attempt to free themselves from this basic human condition, the denial of reality, and others when they participate in the celebration. Later, they get called “academic”, or “mannered”, but always later because it becomes apparent only at a distance. I often have the impression that I’m seeing the Parisian salons of our century, where the role of establishing a relation to reality is being denied.

As an artist, one must reclaim the idea of the document, defend it and come to terms with it, without fearing to take on the notion of history with a capital “H”. Working from my own perspective, with no global vision of history, I have only a partial perception of the world but I accept this. As an artist making an artwork, in a situation where I accept the responsibility of speech, I must of necessity declare my viewpoint on reality. Otherwise, I’m not saying anything about reality. And sincerely, in view of what the Western world and Western culture are, I don’t know what art would be without this notion of reality. Not necessarily of realism which is something else again.

My interest in the documentary, in questions of editing (although they are not posed directly in my work because I don’t go into the idea of narrative), the importance I attribute to questions of framing, editing, and therefore construction, have their origin in an ethical questioning of the function of the artist. If I am an artist, I must come to terms with the history of my time. Otherwise, the work does not exist; it’s just commentary. And I refuse the position of commentator. For someone like myself born in the sixties, this has become very clear in daily life  -  the world is evolving through this catchall notion of neo-liberalism which is, in fact, a very worrying distancing from the concrete nature of the world. Undoubtedly, our historical condition has brought artists, or at least some of them, to reflect on this questions – the perspective of an ethics of form. I think they are a driving force in my work.

Interview by Pascal Beausse