There are three conventional ways of discovering Beat Streuli’s latest major installation, La Voie publique (2011), and its 35 images more than three meters tall, covering the entire length of more than 100 meters of a tunnel wall in the area of the new train station still under construction in Ghent, Belgium. The first is that of the pedestrian walking along the section of the sidewalk reserved for them near the wall, and as a result practically on top of the images. So much so that if this pedestrian cannot resist taking a step back to contemplate them, they risk ending up on the cycle path, which has a larger section of the sidewalk allotted to it. And bikes do fly past on this path, more or less constantly and at varying speeds, receiving-one would imagine – varying impressions of all these images, as the cyclists can only glance at them distractedly. The third way of seeing them is to go past them in a car, bus, or tram, in a lateral movement too fast to appreciate them, but which may encourage the desire to return and take one’s time with them. The result is one last way of considering La Voie publique: from the perspective of the pensive passerby, trying to find her or his own speed and the right distance for coming and going alongside all these images, in order to see their variety – the groupings, associations, sequences – as the obstinacy of a non-intuitive art of seeing. Ironically, this turns out to be an almost dangerous position, as one ends up caught between the nearly silent incursion of the bicycles and the always too sudden arrivals of other vehicles.
For more than 20 years, Beat Streuli has been scrutinizing humanity. With patience, modesty, and an apparently inexhaustible obsessiveness. A patience that recalls that of the great photographers – both street photographers and photojournalists – through his power to accumulate images. And modesty associated with the lack of individuality of this mass of images: not one ever really becomes a photograph, despite the large format he uses. On the contrary, each image is destined from the start to enter into sequences, series whose arrangements remain, as a rule, more or less variable, each time fitting into the context of the shoot and the exhibition space, or perhaps the mysterious dictum of some associative inspiration. As if, at that moment, among all these constantly captured faces and bodies of the world – as anonymous as they are singular – the unlikely remembrance of some image called attention to itself as something to be combined with some other image, by an “attraction of montage” that does not impose a meaning so much as the charm of drifting and – depending on the composition’s appeal-a hypothesis offered to the gaze every time. Of course, these sets of images are born first of particular circumstances, this voyage and that commission in some part of the world, for some exhibition in a gallery, museum, or public space. These images in series comprise his reserve of images from which he may always draw. So some images reappear, moving from one time and place to another, relating as need be to other images according to renewed assemblages of human presences, forms, rhythms, colors, and intensities, thus accentuating the diverse character of Streuli’s art, which comes from his preference for the most vibrant corners of contemporary urban spaces. His work thus seems to be the constant editing and re-editing of a humanity moving toward itself, captured more or less frontally or at an angle in the viewfinder of an attracted but distant telephoto lens. In such a way that every image-whether taken close-up or at a distance, with its graduated levels of sharpness and blur barely distinguishing it from everyday perception and finding itself mixed in with other images in varying quantities-presents more than anything a kind of surprised unaffectedness through which a discreet but invaluable parity between art and life is affirmed. Here, Trevor Smith sees Streuli as motivated by the “concern that contemporary art has not delivered the images within which many people can recognize themselves; that the long view of history will probably discern more about our time through pop music, advertising, and film than contemporary art.” He quotes Streuli: “I want to have installations that are big and beautiful just as the movies are, or great billboards, and without selling stupid products.” And he titles his essay Everyday Arcadias.1
This title, with its promise of utopia, is all the more resonant in that Streuli’s work is not limited to the already quite varied effects of serial photography such as he pursues it. The diversity of movement that seems to flow out of it – through a series of exhibition contexts within which the spectacularity that they offer to the passerby, in often unexpected public spaces, acquires its own mediating value- is accompanied by two other kinds of actual movement via projection. The first is the slide show, which Streuli took up early on (with Allen Street in 1994, the period in which I discovered his work while I was working on James Coleman’s projected images2 ). This movement owes a great deal to the detours of montage, as well as to the insistent dissolves that carry the images into time. The second kind of movement involves video, which Streuli has been using regularly since the mid-1990s. With it he finds a position that contrasts with his technique as a photographer immersing himself in crowds, accumulating shots from one glance to the next, working like a seismographer focused on capturing the slightest tremors in his material. Unlike photography, video presupposes a fixed and continuous point of view from a camera that lets this life material come to it: the frame that is chosen – in which this material presents itself, varies, and develops with the intangible gentleness of a sustained slowmotion effect – quite simply allows for a greater awareness of that life, and for its incorporation into the sustained variation of its metamorphoses, its constant disappearance and reappearance.
From photography to the successive presentation of photographs, culminating in video: this is the variation to which Streuli subjects the images of so many inhabitants of the world. In a groundbreaking essay3– inevitably and copiously rehashed, whether deliberately or not, by many others -Jean-François Chevrier put forth the inescapable cultural references accompanying this act (Poe, Baudelaire, Engels, Vertov, Benjamin, Brecht; others may add Simmel, Canetti, Kracauer, Balázs, Lewis Mumford, Richard Sennett) and their transplantation into a renewed landscape inside of which photography approaches cinema (Chevrier stresses the influence of Godard, which Streuli has acknowledged). “For Streuli, ‘the man with the movie camera’ absorbs ‘the man in the street’ by transforming the flâneur. The observer inserts himself into the movement captured by the recording device. He doesn’t penetrate the crowd to take its portrait. Rather, he tries to grasp its rhythm, its modulation [ … ] His solution hangs on one method: a method of photography and montage that allows his work to fall between the instant of photography and the duration of cinema, by associating the sequential modulations of a movement with the suspension of gestures and attitudes.” Chevrier points out how this leads Streuli to disrupt “the pathos of the fragment by reducing the tension through which a certain discontinuity attempts to constitute itself as unity.” This unity is both the ideal of a selfconsistent photograph and the entirety of a film (as long as one does not break up the virtuality of its constituent images). Consequently, Streuli’s videos, no matter how long they are (from around 20 to 45 minutes, projected in a loop), have neither beginning nor end; they are flows whose unruly continuity is another way of expressing and bringing to life the pure contingency of intervals that inherently assert themselves between photographs. This is why these photographs are themselves interchangeable, and why their intervals are always potentially variable, free in their meaning, rich with forms and forces-a plastic force at work in each image and from one image to the next, bearing witness for humanity to its elementary beauty, its elementary reality, its endless variations. It is also too simple to just compare these lacunae between photographs to the continuities inherent in the video works, since these works are seen on anywhere from one to three screens, thus showing, between their respective continuities, lacunae of a different sort which may, however, seem analogous. In an interview the last section of which is entirely devoted to ideas ofintervals, of “between,” of interventions and intermediaries, Streuli says this about his slide projections: “Above all, they allow me to work on the borderline between the static and the cinematographic image. This pivotal position makes one fully conscious of the structures inherent in the two media; what’s more, the succession of images reveals by indirection the spaces that surround my ‘characters’- the actors of my photographs – and it emphasizes the intervals that slip between two movements, two moments suspended in time.”4 The effectiveness of such research is that the borderline never stops changing its level of reality or its domain of application depending on the medium adopted in turn, and on the variations in the dispositif5 that each medium privileges. This is where the complications of Streuli’s work reside, beneath its veneer of apparent simplicity. To such a point that the image that seems the most appropriate for trying to bring together in one place the various aspects of his art would be that of the sea, as it is both inconceivable for the mind’s eye and resistant to the perceiving eye; an image in which each wave forming within other waves would be immobilized in its turn through the use of a freeze-frame, or accompanied in its slow motion so that another wave may come into being, uniformly and indefinitely.
How can one try to accompany and express the effect of this wave of humanity compiled by La Voie publique (where one may recognize at least two characters from an earlier installation, but seen from a slightly different angle)?
The first thing to notice is the length of the composition, and the time it takes for an average gaze to assess its scale: more than 100 meters, which means enough time to forget little by little what one has already seen, enough time to feel the desire to go back and get a better sense of the details. So much so, that the memory of space never stops converting itself into a memory of time. A stratified, confused time, constantly turning back onto itself, for it is above all the flâneur’s time, the work itself having no time of its own, as one can traverse it first in one direction then in the other. This arrangement is typical of Streuli’s work: a series laid out lengthwise. But never, apparently, with such a mixture of purity and excess. Previously, a surprising installation designed in 2008 in the Jordanian desert stretched itself out over 160 meters, but the images, all attached to each other, were also stacked in two layers, giving the confused impression of a crowd more than a procession. Similarly, for an exhibition at the Grand-Hornu in Belgium (2008), one of the installations layered six strata of images from floor to ceiling, on a wall 44 meters long. In all the variety of dispositifs that Streuli has adopted, based on the site and on his inclinations, none has ever shown such a linearity as that seen in La Voie publique, of a sort comparable to a film: as one walks by the outlines of its frames, one thinks invariably either of train windows or of a strip of film images.
The second thing that strikes an attentive passerby is precisely that: the distribution of figures inside 57 light boxes, 164 centimeters wide and 326 centimeters high, each outlined by their frame. Their progression is punctuated by the insertion of 12 narrower light boxes (81.5 centimeters wide), uniformly gray, spread out at unequal intervals along the total length of the work (in the station’s architectural scheme, these light boxes are supposed to light up in turn to indicate the presence of a train on the tracks, symbolized by 12 colors.) Conceived in this way, the dispositif makes it possible for the relationship between the 57 light boxes, into which the 35 figures are introduced, to present itself in consistently unexpected ways: one where each of the figure-bodies occupies only one light box, another where it encroaches upon a second, and a third where two figures taken together match up in various ways within two light boxes. Or yet another way, where three light boxes are associated in two sets, one set showing a group of people moving forward, seemingly forming a mass, the other apparently showing a motionless couple. The succession of these two series thus opens a space that is suddenly more continuous within the overall discontinuity, all the more so in that the direction of the gazes and the positions of the bodies in the first series seem to suggest a fictional acknowledgment by the man in the white shirt of a young woman in red who seems to be standing before him in a preceding frame.
The third effect is thus due to the carefully arranged variations between the bodies. Variations of postures, gestures, gazes, colors, of everything that a particular bearing, in the way that Balzac understood it, conveys of the “physiognomy of the body.” He also wrote: “Every movement has an expression that belongs to it and that comes from the soul.”6 As materialist as Streuli’s art may be, these are unquestionably emanations from body-souls communicating in this way with each other, with their enduring and specific human signature. What is unique to La Voie publique is that these forces are organized, more than usual, according to a kind of mise-en-scène. Take as an example the first 12 frames. First, the teenager in the white T-shirt who, behind his glasses, seems to be the only one in the whole series who looks at the camera. But this is an illusion: as in all of these captured portraits, the gaze drifts, at the uncertain frontier between exterior and interior (a softened painting effect; in the most unsettling cases, an appropriated Manet effect). Then, extending the forward movement of this body, shifting the focus of the gaze to the right, comes the dark-skinned man dressed in blue wearing headphones and holding some kind of white paper. This is a sharp contrast to the following shot showing a black man from the back, green shirt, turned to the right, with bluish stripes in the background. The young woman who follows him, her head covered by a headscarf whose gray matches her clothes, shields her eyes with her hand to look to the left, invoking an imaginary reverse shot somewhere beyond the frame. A young man and a young woman walk forward, he in blue, head lowered, she in red, looking straight ahead, their eyes hidden behind their sunglasses. Then, a sudden change of scene: image 7 presents a fragment of a blue bus framed by two narrow light boxes – increasingly, Streuli takes care to create spaces between the bodies, spaces for objects, empty spaces, structured breathing room.
What do these bodies that we discover bring us, as we move toward them, as they seem to come to us, some touched by the ambiguous traces of pauses that are internal to the fictive movement that brings them together? Not that “stare of equality” that Chris Marker sought among the women at the Bissau market when, in “the length of a film frame,” the “real glance” manifested itself in the recognition that a photograph was being taken.7 The distance maintained by Streuli’s telephoto lens aims, with unparalleled stubbornness, for something else: a democracy of appearance. To each one’s own image, in the restraint that it imposes, in the time it takes for a glance that one can make last, but that immediately finds itself caught up in the displacement that carries it away toward another image. Another nearby image, that is, for together they give rise to a democracy of the gaze. This is why it is so important for Streuli that his images be always the same format (at least for each series) within each of the chosen dispositifs, and that his large formats be something like the guarantee of that equality, conferring upon the human being a kind of monumentality. In sum, a democracy of beauty, to serve the beauty of a democracy. This is why so many bodies of different nationalities and from diverse ethnic origins inhabit these images: via independent series (the black teenagers of Allen Street); cross-referenced, structured series (the two walls meeting at a right angle and forming two external faces of a cube, designed for the Yokohama Triennale in 2005: on one side, 15 close-ups of men, on the other, 12 – the first group are Asian, the second, Arab); and especially mixed series. Worldsized democracy, through a certain equality within the image and before it.
“Democracy is, properly speaking, the symbolic institution of politics in the form of the power of those who are not entitled to exercise power – a rupture in the order of legitimacy and domination. Democracy is the paradoxical power of those who do not count: the count of ‘the unaccounted for.'”8 This may be one way to better understand the choice of subjects photographed and presented by Streuli for 20 years all over the world, each displaying the discreet pride of his or her own appearance. He has spoken of his predilection for adolescence, that confused time of uncertainty and self-assertion that gives faces and body movements their own distinct aura, one whose image has spread throughout the planet through globalization, an aura caught between the search for individuation and the inevitability of homogenization.9 It is the power of those who do not yet count, so numerous that they cannot be counted, that Streuli depicts in his portraits. Despite the photographic gloss of these images, their kinship with the masterpieces of painting has been emphasized, especially Renaissance painting with its portraits of those who truly did count. But it would be too simple to reduce so many images to one characteristic, as essential as it may be. With an art of nuance that is itself worthy of consideration, Streuli has been able to maintain his all-inclusive preference for youth while appropriating that choice for a higher level of inclusiveness. He says, for example: “When I see people around my age with a comparable level of presence, I’m more than happy to include them in my ‘album.'”10 This is true of the man with salt-and-pepper hair focused on his papers in La Voie publique. And, to a lesser degree, of many others who are identifiably adults. One could mention several other examples throughout various sets of images and installations. A series such as Torino 02 (2002) even furnishes an exemplary paradigm in the space of four images: old woman/young man/young woman/adult man. Video pushes that tendency further. Of the three motionless women, waiting for something, who are the basis for the essentially unique motif of Praza de Galicia August 03 (2003), those appearing on the left and right screens are worried adults, while in the middle, the woman with large glasses hanging over her flowery blouse betrays an apparent anxiety about growing old. As for the much longer videos, they seem to allow all the young people crowding the streets to pass through the frame endlessly, along with the others who comprise with them an anonymous mass. Such is the democratic art of Beat Streuli, from the intimacy of the gallery to exhibitions in public spaces: between choice and non-choice, an inevitability accorded to the period whose pulse he lets beat – with the shifts that an instinctive passion for composition permits – so as to help himself freely to all the images it offers.
1 Trevor Smith, Everyday Arcadias, About the World, Beat Streuli – Bondi Beach/Parramatta Road, Sprengel Museum Hannover, Hannover 1999
2 Raymond Bellour, Les morts-vivants (1996), L’Entre-Images 2, P.O.L, Paris 1999, p. 266-263.
3 Jean-François Chevrier, “Physiologie de l’image,”Beat Streuli. Projektionen und Fotografien. NYC 1991/93, Kunstmuseum Luzern, Lucerne/Lars Müller, Baden 1993, n. p.
4 Interview with Martine Béguin and Jean-Paul Felley in the catalogue of the exhibition Allen Street (New
York 1994), Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, St. Gallen/Le Consortium, Dijon 1994, p. 28.
5 The word “dispositif ” does not have a satisfactory English equivalent, insofar as one must especially avoid the confusion that too often arises when it is translated as “apparatus.” In 1975, when Jean-Louis Baudry used it in a cinema studies context (in his text “Le dispositif: approches métapsychologiques de l’impression de réalité”), his aim was to take into account the cinematic environment as a whole – from a Freudian perspective, without any critical partiality-an environment that fully incorporates the spectator’s psyche, and that is considered an equivalent of the dream state. In Discipline and Punish (Surveiller et punir) that same year, Michel Foucault used the word, demonstrating its growing acceptance, to describe the series of machinic systems for which Bentham’s Panopticon was the historical prototype. Bellour makes free use of this double meaning and its consequences to designate the cinematic environment as well as visual and audiovisual installations belonging both to the history of art and that of techniques (translator’s note).
6 Honoré de Balzac, Théorie de la démarche et autres texts, Pandora/Le Milieu, Paris 1978, p. 45, 75.
7 Chris Marker, Sans soleil; http://www.markertext.com/sans_soleil.htm (September 4, 2011).
8 Jacques Rancière and Davide Panagia, Dissenting Words: A Conversation with Jacques Rancière, trans. Davide Panagia, diacritics 30.2 (2000), p. 124.
9 Interview quoted by Béguin and Felley, p. 27; interview with Alessandra Pace in the exhibition catalogue Portraits 98-00, La bella estate, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea/ hopefulmonster, Turin 2000.
10 Béguin and Felley, p. 115. Beat Streuli was born in 1957.