Different media phenomena have figured in art’s preoccupations at different times. Of old, the phenomena would be those of myths and religions, whose main function consisted in vouchsafing communication in a society. Later the phenomena were nature, the modern city and new means of transport such as cars, trains or aeroplanes. In the late 1950s and ’60s, artists discovered advertising and commercial photography as a new subject; and for some while now, there has been a mounting artistic interest in cinema, in the medium of the film. Now one could be forgiven for wondering what the point might be of giving film a new context in what are traditionally spaces for the (static) visual arts. Cinema is alive, well and socially successful; its artistic credentials are undisputed; it has its own laws, techniques and traditions. Hardly appropriate, then, to speak of it as a genre in need of propping up with value enhancement exercises by the traditional fine arts. Yet in many aspects its properties as a medium in its own right are passed over in obscurity and will tend to remain so as long as our experience of its operation remains restricted to the accustomed cinema institution system.
The point being that the whole movie principle rests on an illusion of movement, produced by the quick succession of static images. This is the archetypal cinema illusion and from it all others originate. The generating of motion out of the static in film is a leap akin to the illusion of the third dimension created in two-dimensional painting. We are familiar now with the artistic treatment and analysis of that illusion in paintings by the classical avant-garde; but to make the illusion of motion itself the subject of a film ‘itself’ presents a considerable challenge. For, no matter whether the motion in the film accelerates or slows down, it must remain within the cinematic illusion unless the spotlight turns explicitly to that succession of individual, static images which produce the effect of motion in the movie experience in the first place. To be able to analyse the parade of individual images that precedes the perception of motion in the film, however, requires a certain shift in technique and rhythm in the cinematic projection.
Beat Streuli’s slide projections demonstrate this shift to a tee. Analysis of the medium of film becomes feasible. The large scale of the projection and the slow succession of the images may bring the familiar cinematic illusion to mind, but only to undermine it. The movement remains disjunct, each static image distinctly supplanting its predecessor; and for good measure each such move is underscored by the clanking of the slide changing mechanism. Thus the film reveals its artificiality, its technical, man-made nature. It loses none of its charm in the process. The street, the beach and the beautiful young figures seen in the slides invite long contemplation. The rhythm of the projection sequence does not detract from this agreeable attention. In fact, the onlooker’s interest is captured for the entire duration of the showing. The cinematic illusion is broken, the manufacture of motion exposed, but the fascination of the cinematic image easily survives the shaking, rattling exposure of its medium. The resilience of the cinematic image is the more impressive considering that the disintegrating cinematic illusion takes all the other associated illusions with it in its fall.
Thus, Streuli’s projections thread no continuous tale that would demand a specific, precisely defined period of time in the telling. The projections appear to be of indefinite duration – they could go on as they are, forever, with no end in sight. Any interruption can only be at will, unmotivated. At any rate, the length of time we spend watching such a work is no longer clearly dictated by the sequence of the film story. Now it is the spectators who feel entitled to break off their contemplation at any given moment, possibly to resume it later. The same indefinite timing happens to pertain in Streuli’s video pieces of people in the streets, in constantly changing groupings. The crowd changes and remains identical overall. It is possible to depart from it temporarily and to return to find it as it always was even if it consists now of a different set of individuals; it does not look essentially different. Nothing occurs that might, on this time-scale, substantially alter the life shown in Streuli’s scenes. If the viewer takes a break from contemplating that world it will not appear different thereafter. Now, for a visitor to an art space, the option of taking a break in the beholding can be a crucial behavioural factor.
The misgivings toward cinema, persisting at some subliminal level in our civilisation despite all the outward successes of the film industry, are evidently a consequence of the conditions in which a film is customarily seen, i.e., those of an uneventful visit to the cinema. It is an interesting process: the audience in a cinema is placed in a situation of utter powerlessness, paralysis, physical immobility. In a customary film showing, the only thing to move or to unfold in time is the image on the screen. The viewer remains passive. Dynamism of thought and language in the viewer are supplanted by the dynamics of the cinema screen. The viewer is immobilised, not only physically, but mentally also, by – to coin a phrase – a ‘gripping’ film and so is transformed into a mental automaton within whose head a programme predetermined from without runs its course. The typical mainstream film tells a narrative with a beginning and an end and a development between them that takes up a specific amount of time. During which the cinema-goer is taken out of his usual living conditions and environment, the course of his life interrupted, his control over his attention and freedom of movement gone.
In that respect, the closest thing to a visit to the cinema is the archaic, religious practice of pure contemplation. As we know, all the ascetic is likely to retain of the visions that transfixed him with their divine light is the isolated images which are subsequently canonised as icons; or again, individual words and phrases later repeated as prayer. But the whole remains, as the term has it, inexpressible. The cinema-goer of today is the ascetic of the twentieth century. He, too, pays for his visions with the loss of articulation. Individual aspects of the film can be discussed, but the film, as an entity, remains inexpressible. But then the dynamics of language, logic and rhetoric are not that unlike physical, bodily articulation; a specific variant of movement they certainly are. It is not by chance that Greek sophistry and philosophy developed in the act of walking, in the free movement of conversation, in the ability to turn away from an object, to detach oneself and then, later, to approach it again from a new angle, and so on. All these typical descriptions of the dynamics of the mind and of language in three-dimensional terms are much more than metaphors. The capacity for moving about freely in space, and coupled with that, to determine the time, rhythm and orientation of one’s attention as one sees fit, is an indispensable condition for the kind of thinking that is capable of expression in language to occur and then to develop.
The above sets cinema radically apart from the arts traditionally termed ‘high’. The reader can relate actively to the book, determining freely where and at what rhythm to read. Likewise the beholder of the classical painted picture is at liberty to move about in the exhibition space, view the picture from various standpoints, approach it or indeed, look away; the picture will not change but remains passive and identical to itself in its original place on the wall. Even if we realise that all pictures are ‘mortal’, finite things, our culture endows them with an indefinite, intrinsically eternal duration. Since a traditional picture, at least, will not run away from its beholders, it is they who acquire a freedom of movement and attention in relation to it. As already pointed out, in the cinema the situation regarding time is reversed; the time for the encounter is linked to a given, finite narrative. Beat Streuli’s projections and video works are interesting especially because they place these two contradictory expectations of an image’s concomitant time into a new equilibrium. The images relieve one another and do not remain where they are, and yet there is a sense of always being confronted by the same image – of forever returning to one’s point of departure. True, something new, radically different and altogether unexpected may happen at any moment in his slide or video show to separate present from past unequivocally – but de facto nothing of the sort occurs. Everything remains the same. Both the story in the film-maker’s sense and history as such appear to have been annulled finally and utterly.
There is the crux: this is the means by which the duration of images becomes the explicit subject. The stability of the traditional painting can no longer be taken for granted. The nigh-cinematic manner of projection elicits an attitude of expectation of some event, thus continually undermining such stability. But, since that expectation is never rewarded, pictorial stability is restored and now itself becomes the event. Simultaneously a new balance is struck between the power of the artist and that of the beholder/spectator. The artist retains something of the film-maker’s power over the viewer’s imagination and attention, we anticipate the unexpected even if we no longer believe it will ever happen. But then again, the viewer regains some of the power she/he always had over a static picture. For the viewers can turn away from the picture, take a walk through the museum or gallery or have a cup of coffee. On their return they will find the street still there, in essence unchanged.
The light, emanating from the images themselves rather than being projected onto them from an outside source as it is onto traditional paintings underscores this sense of constancy of identity. It was media art in the shape of video or film installations that brought night or at least dusk so noticeably into the traditional art space. The even, visitor-friendly lighting of the modern museum has gone out. The light in which a picture is seen is no longer the symbolic possession of the beholder. Just as the beholder loses absolute control over the timing of his attention, so he forfeits his right to govern the light in which he sees things. Now, things themselves are beginning to dictate the manner of light in which they are to be seen. Shining into the face of the beholder of a work of media art, the electric light of which electronic-media images consist is the manifestation of all the might of modern technological civilisation. To contemplate media art is above all to contemplate electric light, much as in past ages, efforts to observe the sun and the stars were a striving to perceive the third, divine light in order there to behold truth and eternity. Thus Streuli’s projections and videos, too, show not merely humdrum humanity ‘as found’ when illuminated from outside but rather a radiant humanity that emanates its own, artificial light.
The continual recurrence of the slides in Streuli’s projections or that of the crowd in his videos are assuredly not merely a formal, sequential means of assuring a new balance between the motion picture and the traditional, static picture. That would be incongruous with works so reminiscent of the Nietzschean myth of an utterly atheistic world governed by the constant return of the same. Such a world no longer needs eternal pictures that might render the essence of beauty visible and definitive for all time. If the world is only one of appearances, then it is also one that is constantly reproducing and repeating itself. The world that has no substance is incapable of substantial change. The quest for immortality that is the inner motor of all art no longer prompts the attempt to bestow eternity to the singular. The artist does not struggle against the flow of time in order to preserve a moment, for he is convinced that the moment to come will not look essentially different from that which has just passed. Time no longer proves an enemy, but a friend. Now the swimming is along with the current, calmly, because one expects to see nothing other than what one has already seen. Mechanisation, globalisation and standardisation suspend history; it is supplanted by the eternal recurrence of the same, which incorporates all possible individual deviations in the most agreeable way.
The monotony of the modern, globalised routine becomes the promise of a new immortality. To standardise a human being is to make her/him replaceable, exchangeable and thus immortal. It is a view of mankind that recalls Ernst Jünger and his analyses of the new, mechanised man of modern times as delineated, for example, in his book, Der Arbeiter, Jünger portrays this new human, the worker of the title, as devoid of any but standardised feelings and experiences. He has no individuality vulnerable to the forces of time – enough in itself to make his lifespan a matter of speculation, since, like a car, he could be exchanged for another of the same model at any time. Andy Warhol notoriously praised Coca-Cola for its tasting the same from any bottle and all over the world. The young, beautiful girls whom Streuli shows again and again with such affection, convey the same pleasant impression of unlimited exchangeability. As Streuli himself regularly affirms in interviews, he prefers to photograph very young faces and bodies as yet unmarked by individual fate. These young people, also a favoured subject of contemporary fashion photography, have a quality of pure potentiality and so something indefinably identical, like Coke bottles yet to be opened. Precisely the monotony and uniformity of modern urban life bewailed so bitterly by so many in the modernist era is now regarded as offering the only opportunity to gain a general comprehension of what makes up the world. In Streuli’s slide projection, Bondi Beach, the ocean breakers come in one after the other just as the young bodies of the bathers replace one another on the screen continually. In just the same way, the cars supplant each other in the projection that runs parallel, Parramatta Road. Here the eternal recurrence of the same deconstructs the famous opposition between the Identical and the Other. In each case, something else is at issue, but this other resembles that which has always been at hand.
In his art, Streuli invokes a new, redeemed humanity that has rediscovered immortality by dint of repetition. Whenever the individual may come into the world or for that matter, depart from it, – he will not have missed anything there. The bodies of the young girls present the eye of the beholder with the eternally identical sight. It is this subtle analogy between the viewer’s sojourn in the projection area where the eternal recurrence of the same is put on stage and the sojourn of every human being in ‘real life’, that makes Beat Streuli’s works so engrossing. Here the inner unity between life and art is mooted anew – as we know, the oldest Utopia of them all.