Written by Dirk van Weelden 2002
It was cold and windy. The sky was cloudy, but the light was bright above the Dutch city of Delft. A procession of horses and carriages had left from The Hague. It was not an everyday sight, nineteenth century gala uniforms, sabres on saddles, footmen marching all the way beside a purple hearse. Military standing everywhere along the route. Marines. Army. Air Force. Behind them the people. It was deathly quiet.
The procession halted in Delft, on the square next to the church where the Dutch royal house inters its prominent members in a vault. Thousands of people stood for hours exposed to the weather to see the guests arrive. To see how the coffin with the body of Prince Claus, the husband of Queen Beatrix, was borne slowly and solemnly into the church.
Afterwards, a television reporter asked a woman in her forties, who had stood waiting on the church square the whole day, what she thought about it. She shook her head and bit her lower lip.
Then she said, “I hadn’t expected it to be so impressive. It all seemed so unreal.”
The people who took their positions along the route in Delft found themselves in a completely mediated zone. Everything, from the stupidest incident to the official ceremony, was picked up by dozens of television cameras, by photographers and radio reporters, by newspaper journalists. The burial of the prince consort is a national event, which means in the first place a television event, repeated all day long on all the channels and discussed in all the newspapers.
The people standing along the route knew that their physical presence provided insufficient access to the national occasion. Yet they stood there, flesh and blood, skin and hair, electrified by the feelings of shared grief intensified by the silence; but the actual funeral, the journey of the hearse, the faces of the Queen and her family, the words of the speakers, the sound of Mozart’s Requiem in the church, all that was only to be seen on television. Of course the crowds of spectators, their faces and emotions, were also extensively shown on television. Only there, on television, did everything blend together and the horses and carriages, the weapons and the flowers, the tears on the royal faces and on those of the people outside merged to become a national event.
The woman standing on the church square in Delft was so accustomed to experiencing national events in television form that the ‘small’, physical version confused her. She was immersed in an intense sensual experience. Much richer than television can offer. She smelt the horses, she heard the voices of the troopers, she saw a stream of details that cameras miss, she had to wait for hours and had the feeling that the silence of the crowds around her and the advancing coldness made death more present.
But precisely that which gave her the feeling of familiar reality, that was lacking. There was no commentary that would put names to faces and assuage feelings by naming them in generalised terms. With no commentary there were no sentimental historical facts, no interpretation or grasp on events. There was no accompanying music, no majestic camera swerves from the rafters of the church, no linking between locations. And because there was none of the familiar rhythm that a national event has, she stood forlornly, or should I say defenceless against a continuous stream of indeterminable, but impressive minutes, whereupon, after many hours, the hearse with the dead body of the prince finally arrived.
She stood for hours looking at the church where the funeral service would take place, but she was not allowed inside. The whole audio-visual tableau that would have given her access to the reality of the funeral at home was now cordoned off from her. She was left to her own devices, to her limited senses and the passing of time. But that it had seemed unreal was no reason to complain. Oh no, it had all made an enormous impression. The feeling of unreality was for her precisely a hallmark of intensity, of significance.
The realistic version of the world is the version made by newspapers and television; supplemented by chats in waiting rooms or at the market, by press photos, radio and internet. Thanks to these media we are able to feel ourselves part of a meaningful and comprehensible world. And not only that, we can appropriate the meanings proffered. The media’s stylised facts and generalities supply us with the moulds to pour in our attention, desires and fears. We recognise each other’s casts, even though we tinker about with them and adorn and combine them. As long as the result remains compatible with that of the others then it’s all right. In this way we gain a sort of common reality-currency, which we can exchange with others, with strangers if necessary. People thus become a family, an occupational group, inhabitants of a region, Dutchmen, Britons, art lovers.
The realistic version of the world gives our inner life and our social life a certain rigidity and reliability. That goes for our intimate and private domain, but it also counts in a professional and political respect. Nothing is better to communicate than the realistic version of the world. Clarity, mutual linkability of the parts, standardisation, repetition, maximum recognisability, these are the characteristics that optimum communication and the realistic version of the world have in common.
The realistic version of the world has the media as an ideal means of conveyance, but can also exist outside the media, in the conversations, thoughts and fantasies of people who are well trained by the media and are able to continue and imitate the same patterns all by themselves. Even in a lonely hiker who is surprised and pleased to see a deer in the depths of the woods and writes a poem about it. However much the hiker might be convinced that he is expressing his own experience in original verses, it can happen that the poem consists entirely of shards of glued together ‘reality-currency’, evoking nothing but an echo of the clear, general, maximally recognisable and accepted way in which deer are communicated about in reality. A gap then seems yawn between noting ‘a real deer’ and a physical deer/shock/woods experience and what all of this might mean.
Where the actual experience and the realistic version of the world collide or leave each other in the lurch, that’s where you experience unreality. That’s exactly what happened to the woman on the church square in Delft. It made so much of an impression that it all seemed unreal. Isn’t that what you wish a night with a new lover to be like? And how can you better typify the moment surrounding the first cry of your child? And what do traumatised soldiers say about the horrors they saw? That it seemed like a dream, a painfully lucid dream, since it didn’t feel like reality.
It is not so that music, art, literature and cinema derive their rationale from it, but they are certainly based on the dream that their works are able to induce in viewers a similarly intense experience. Only rarely does this happen. What hopefully does always happen is perception coming in touch with the unreal. For that can also happen in a sneaking, whispering, casual, quasi-everyday manner. A good example of this is the film that Marlene Dumas has contributed to Loud & Clear. It makes it clear immediately that the unreal is not the same as fiction, madness, fantasy or something supernatural. In a restless and smudgy projection surface with brightening fields of colour, a window opens. It is a blurry, slightly slowed down video film, in which a camera enters the room of a sleeping girl. The title is My Daughter and the viewer has every reason to assume that it is the artist who is making use of her role as mother to make this film. Realistically seen, nothing happens. The camera steals up on the sleeping body, zooms in on her buttocks, her hand, her hair and makes a few brief explorations of the room, which results in a close-up of a human skull. Then it comes to an end.
It may well have an extremely everyday subject (in fact it is a variant on the home movie), but, crazily enough, the film is not realistic. The first thing one notices is that, in its colouring, the image looks like a living drawing. The face of Dumas’s daughter seems to be drawn with the same smeared lines of ink as in Dumas’s drawings. That the little girl is sleeping and thus not stirring makes this association even more powerful. What we also see is that there is a difference between making a drawing and making a video of someone sleeping. Not only an aesthetic difference, but also a moral one. That the maker of the video is the mother of the girl gives the image an extra voyeuristic charge. We see in the peaceful but unstable hand of the mother the attempt to search for something of herself, something of the impenetrable innocence and beauty of childhood. That this has to be done in such a secretive way colours the gaze with something forbidden, makes the intimacy ominous. You think of the power of a mother, the power of a camera, the power of art. But despite the skull it is just as much a dreamy, loving, aesthetic film. Its colours and the attention to the hand hanging down (which could be a hand from a drawing by Leonardo), for example, continually refer to works of art and the way of seeing that they invite.
Nothing invented, nothing acted, no representation of madness or fairytale-like intimations of the supernatural, and yet thoroughly unreal. The way in which a sleeping girl would be staged with a camera in the realistic version of the world would look nothing like this. Here there is no obvious purpose, no dominating meaning. The image emphatically presents itself much more sensuously, more amorally, more ambiguously than in a realistic version. In the realistic version the indeterminacy would ultimately be resolved, that is to say, connected without too much friction to a simple and comprehensible message, which may or may not remain implicit.
This unreal version makes it difficult to make connections or to summarise, and a message or report is miles away. Surprise, poignancy or a vague sense of alarm are indeed evoked, but not in a communicable format; that is to say, according to the conventions of reality. Communication stalls, as viewer you remain stuck with something that is not decipherable without remainder and yet keeps its hold on the viewer, not only sensorily and aesthetically (it is thrilling to see), but also as a process of ‘reading’, thinking and associating. The unreality emerges, much more than the viewer is directly aware of, thanks to Sakamoto’s music. Any idea of a domestic idyll is dispelled by the tense, threatening repetitions of the used instruments. It makes you think more of suppressed violence or restrained hysteria. My Daughter shows very well how much the unreal is simply a part of our world, but also that a careful, subtly made film is needed in order to make this experienceable.
The coupling of advertising agencies and artists in Loud & Clear takes place by means of music. Listening to a soundtrack, the artist makes his or her contribution to the project, and then the advertising agency reacts to the completed work. You could say that each DVD shows a relay, beginning in the sovereign hills of music where meanings are scarcely to be found, via the unrealities of art to the pseudo-reality of advertising. Advertising agencies are masters in the art of communication. The best of them play their game at the extreme limits of the communicative conventions from which the real version of the world is constructed. The sensuality they appeal to is distanced from the obvious, straightforward way of seeing, listening and reading that characterises the bulk of visual culture. They prefer to appeal to what you could call the viewer’s visual intelligence. In inventiveness, subtlety, aesthetics and daring, their work easily matches an awful lot of art, yet there always remains a fundamental difference and various facets of this are shown in the Loud & Clear series of DVDs. Ultimately an advertising agency will make its work be part of the real version of the world. Albeit with some reluctance or disdain. However much beauty, humour, ambiguity or confusion it may evoke, the work is ultimately only successful if it makes itself superfluous by leading to a strong and unambiguous communicative effect. Unsolved confusion, lasting ambiguity, unresolvable ironic content, painful ‘senseless’ emotions, these are the things that characterise art but which are harmful for the communication that advertisers want to achieve. In Loud & Clear the advertisers do not have to convey any commercial message or to evoke a form of desired behaviour. But their work does constantly mark the meeting-point between the unrealities of art and the real, audio-visual version of the world. This can be seen very strikingly in what *S.C.P.F. does with the work of the combination Caroline Berkenbosch and Pipilotti Rist. We hear a slow and wistful melody played on a melodion. You could call it childish or clownish, a forlorn song. You also hear birds and the wind. And cars. The camera is located in the reeds and bushes. It is early spring or autumn. The sky is bright blue. The camera moves wildly, as though the ‘narrator’ is crawling and rolling over the ground. Through the bare branches the camera scrutinises a provincial road with cars passing. The camera is hiding, you might think. The images evoke shyness. The viewer has to guess the reason.
*S.C.P.F.’s advertising man chose three locations where he set up a large monitor and played Rist’s video. In a pedestrian street in the city, between shops and houses, in the morning. Beside a sandbox in an infants’ school playground, in the afternoon. And in the entertainment district of a big city in the evening. Each time he filmed the scene from a distance and let the shot stand. The children, of course, crowd round the monitor. But in the street the passers by hardly grant the monitor demonstrably standing in the way a glance.
The advertising man also shows an image of solitude. He removes the art video from its protective context and puts it in the street. The camera was shy and had to conceal itself. The video monitor stands defiantly in the way. Here loneliness is caused by indifference and incomprehension, by lack of communication. You hear the same song, the same birds, but now it is background music.
The advertising man registers the friction between Rist’s video and the world which supplies the measure of his communicative success. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether he does this out of sympathy with Rist or as a form of ironic-critical commentary. Whatever the case, he allows Rist’s dream-like, shy and ambiguous images to clash with the problem of communication in the real version of the world.
The addition that Jon Matthews and Nirit Peled made to the video by Aernout Mik which was made to the music of Gudni Franszon is downright nasty. Zone, a film about..., the screen keeps saying, referring to the title of Mik’s video. Then we see the back of a head being scratched long and thoroughly. It is an international gesture of speechlessness and ignorance. Matthews and Peled show us a great many backs of the head and a whole lot of ways of scratching it.
Mik’s video is supported by repetitive, sombre music. A dubble bass and wind instruments evoke associations with a primitive ritual. Hardly a jolly party. Rather an exorcism or preparation for a war. A sense of oppression also dominates the image. Trucks are standing around a square in a modern area of the city. In the zone thus created, fifty adolescents are hanging around, girls and boys of thirteen, fourteen. It is not a realistic shot of a schoolyard. Uprooted trees and bushes are lying around, as well as cardboard boxes, some of them on fire. The children behave sometimes like tramps, sometimes like children. There is a sense of boredom, but the gaze of the slowly swerving camera also registers deprivation, disorientation, pent up and stifled energy. The camera’s gaze is cool and insistent. It is as though you are looking at a group of laboratory animals. One unavoidably thinks of a spectre from the future, a post-catastrophic zone.
Measured by the standards of the realistic version of the world, this film about children hanging around, getting bored and lighting fires, says next to nothing. The commentary of Matthews and Peled is an eye-opener in this sense: it collides so frontally with Mik’s video that it is instantly clear that the quality of Mik’s video cannot be found in the degree to which the film is about something, that is, its communicative contents. Matthews and Peled sharpen the viewer’s gaze (willingly or not) for the disturbing effect emanating from the unreality in Mik’s video. The mixture of arbitrariness and pattern in the behaviour of the children, the threat coming from the fire and the uprooted bushes, the references to the dangers and dejection of a life on the street in the images of these far from needy children; all of these play a part, without clicking together into a clear, communicative story. Matthews is asking in vain.
Art can be festive and funny, optimistic and sexy, but it always derives its strength from evoking, giving form to and manipulating the unreal. And there’s something fishy there. It’s where artists and spectators encounter the nameless, the uncomprehended, the untamed, the lawless, the senseless violence of the universe.
Art is a way of exorcising, investigating and celebrating man’s fundamental non-conformity to nature as well as to the world of his own making. What is unfathomably funny and unutterably sad is that this non-conformity is the cause of all magnificence, ingenuity and human grandeur, but also of man’s monstrosity, cruelty and clumsiness. If art can connect us with this insolubility then it has some truthfulness; herein lies its success as unreality.
The more intensely this unreal stance penetrates the realistic version of the world the better. Loud & Clear is an adventurous homage to this.