Blue Mountains    Jennifer Fisher/Jim Drobnick  
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Blue Mountains
Piece for Piece
 
  Blue Mountains: Itinerant Televisions and Monitored Luggage    

The monitors featured in Blaue Berge ("Blue Mountains") belie romantic and glamorous notions of travel elicited by recollections of Grand Tours and the Orient Express. Rather than the solidity of steamer trunks, the caché of designer luggage, or even the security of art crates or commercial packaging, these monitors are cradled in wrappings totally unsuited to their protection from the harsher realities of travel. The rugs, tarps and knapsacks swaddling the equipment are not items that convey insulating luxury or protection from the elements. They evoke instead the anxiety of modern travellers: robbers, unscrupulous customs officials and border guards, black market economies, trafficking, refugees, illegal immigrants. As much as "travel theory" celebrated the light-hearted nomadism of a certain elite group of culture-hopping Westerners, Blaue Berge points to the turbulent, anxious side of travel that often goes unremarked. Karen Kipphoff's packages of monitors, seemingly left unattended or lost in mid-journey emanate an aura of suspicion. Simple elements such as the banal electrical cords running between the monitors, assume ominous overtones. Like abandoned bags on a platform, the installation radiates uncertainty and insecurity.

   

Express Trains
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The luminous video monitors, whether snuggled into a knapsack or a suitcase, screen views of landscapes shot from a moving train along the route between Berlin and Bucharest. The videos were created during Kipphoff's participation in Balt-Orient Express, a travelling artists' project organized by Dan Mihaltianu, which included a slate of artists from along the actual Orient Express train route. Besides making artworks related to the experience of train travel, one condition required that artists share their accommodations with other artists associated with the project. In this way, an element of collaborative social exchange offset the outsider status of the "tourist," affording these roving artists a resident's view of the sites they chose to work in. A collective sense of place was thus incorporated into the dynamics of the route itself, as well as the points of origin along it. The artists' fixed homes were temporarily suspended in order for them to make the leap into travel mode where habitual locality gives way to more fluid belongings and emergent relationships.

   

De-Installing the TV
     

In contrast to her live video projections, Kipphoff's Blaue Berge presents edited and manipulated imagery that both contains the video image and mobilizes the video monitor as a sculptural element. Video art has recorded the mobile paths of artists since the Sony portapak of the 1960s and 1970s, yet the viewing context of these early works was usually a formal gallery situation with a fixed monitor. Likewise, distinct from the relatively permanent installation of the domestic television set, the video screens employed by Kipphoff are ensconced within various forms of luggage, and evoke an itinerant television. It is quite a different project to pose the televisual monitor as itself mobile.

In the context of Balt-Orient Express, where notions of "home" verses "migration" are foregrounded, the question of television connotes specific quotidian relationships and placements. Kipphoff proposes a low-tech mutability to television's high-tech, but customarily fixed, hardware. As television historian Lynn Spigel has pointed out, the installation of the television set reveals important aspects of TV's domestic ideology. During the 1950s television replaced radio, which had, in turn, replaced the fireplace as the central focus of family life in the living room. Later, television was installed at multiple loci throughout the home - as a kind of ambient "friend" in the household - whether at the foot of the bed, in the recreation room, or on the kitchen counter. As a form of technology, TV has always been a talkative medium, a form of company, that by its nature is incomplete without a viewer.

Kipphoff revises such notions of fixed installation, and instead, poses the TV set in its social aspect: as travel companion. While TV may keep us company at home, it is our luggage that we must attend to, that keeps our company during travel. The flickering images of generic European landscapes maintain the volition of a continual passage. If not the chatty friend of domestic TV, these video images make present the interstitial place of travel, a continual excursion of being in-between places. Recorded along the Orient Express route by the artist, the footage was remixed and reedited so that any specific sense of location was erased: no specific languages are heard, no defining individuals are presented, no recognizable landmarks are shown. These are not images that one can utilize like the typical travel video which provides proof of visits to tourist sites - these are images of perpetual motion, of uninterrupted travel.

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Installation/Communication/Transportation
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Blaue Berge inverts the visual conventions of television in three ways. The stasis of the monitor is rendered mobile by the luggage; the direct address of the television is subsumed by the literal flow of the moving train; and the linear transportation routes of departures and arrivals are dissolved into the circuit of the project's simultaneous interchanges. Of course televisual technology has developed into mobile forms such as cellphone and dashboard televisions, but this diminutive gadgetry is not what we find here. Rather, we encounter low-tech containment technologies, evidence of makeshift and probably habitual packing.

Kipphoff's travel equipment presents the video monitor as "ready to go." The installation elements remain still, while the screens frame images of continually moving landscape. To focus literally on the content of these apparently portable voyages is to carry a trip within a trip, in effect a mobile mise-en-abyme. However, Blaue Berge poses a more nostalgic longing, a meditation on vagrant hardware and the transportability of TV which is a communication technology, along train routes which constitute an older, transportation technology. Modern and postmodern technologies thus uneasily converge at the gallery crossroads.

     

Image Burdens
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The ubiquity of screens and images in practically all corners of everyday life, from the ambient televisions in bars and airports to screens in laptops and other miniaturized technologies, make it not unusual to see monitors while travelling. But the awkwardness of the monitors in Blaue Berge strategically utilizes antiquated equipment to summon up a sense of futility. Why, for instance, are the necessities one would normally transport in these pieces of luggage - clothes, toiletries, guidebooks, and so on - totally displaced by monitors? Why would anyone travel with such bulky television sets, especially in such a haphazard way? The deliberate, improvised quality of these packages, rather than focusing on the dream world of sophisticated technology, suggests instead ideas about the weight of visual production, what we would call, à la John Tagg, the cultural and psychological burden of images.

Video's tendency is to derealize and dematerialize events, to transform experiences into flickering pixels. The monitors of Blaue Berge, on the other hand, force us to reconsider video's imagery as a phenomenological and physical presence. The awkwardness of hauling around somewhat delicate electronics, especially those types of monitors not normally associated with portability, highlights their fetishistic and totemic characteristics. What lies behind this compulsion to document a train ride and laboriously carry its flickering images? The endeavor of trying to control memory (and one's history) is made palpable and ponderous. The psychological value of the images seems out of balance with the physical effort required to drag the monitors from one place to another. It attests to a kind of obsession, an imagephilia, whereby a sense of dislocation is appeased by the continual viewing of the images of one's travels. However, as Blaue Berge seems to demonstrate, whatever succor may be provided by this activity is counteracted by these images becoming an unwieldy burden that can easily overrun and dislodge all other modes of belonging.

   

Moving Mountains
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There is a circular reasoning inherent to the notion of travel, i.e., round-trips, commuting back and forth, the bi-directionality of railroad tracks. The circularity of Blaue Berge extends this to another level by, in a sense, integrating travelling with the images of travel. A solipsistic loop is created whereby both the production and consumption of the images are rendered commensurate: the videos were made during travel and are shown "in travel." The parallelism of the two traditionally separate activities gives some cause to ponder the necessity of the repetitiveness, the compulsion to reiterate. In Blaue Berge, there is no origin or destination. The typical narrative of "the journey" - with its quasi-Aristotelian logic of embarkment, transit, and return - is confounded. The video camera surveys the land interminably. Farmhouses, countrysides, industrial buildings, cityscapes follow in no consistent order and blur into one another via jumpcuts and overlays. The video resists the urge to order the world, to organize the experience of travel into a comprehensible vision. By remaining chaotic and excessive the images undermine the tendency to effect mastery over the terrain and instead reveal the impossibility of a coherent, consumable narrative. Here travel is perpetual, an act of constant displacement, rather than one of "finding oneself" or arriving at moment of peacefulness. The absence of structure tells us that Kipphoff is not a guide, she provides us with no map or overall understanding. The documents of her journey are more on the level of the oneiric, whereby ordinary images of stores, buildings, platforms and landscapes are juxtaposed, mediated, and electronically altered into a disjunctive dream-state of travel vistas. Without the assurance of home or clear direction, the videos posit a perpetual limbo, a ceaseless liminal state. The term "moving" has two senses, that of travelling and of being emotionally affected. Travel, as Blaue Berge demonstrates, cannot be reduced to mere functionality, but is an activity irretrievably haunted by aspirations and emotional longings.

     

Lost and Found Horizons
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The "blue mountains," like the proverbial greener pastures or utopian Shangri-La, are but one of the fantasies that permeate the cultural imaginary of travel. Whatever transformation may be sought in the process of travel, desires and hopes usually overwhelm actuality. The blue mountains, as it were, are always in view, lying mistily and alluringly on the horizon, but never quite within reach. Much of the mythology of the Orient Express, for instance, resides in European fantasies of sumptuous and mysterious Eastern empires. The reverse - Asian and Eastern European perspectives on Western culture - hardly enter into European consciousness and consideration. Blaue Berge opens this topic up for contemplation, especially in light of recent geo-political dynamics unleashed by the end of the Cold War and the attempts to reconnect a divided Europe. Can a united community be generated out of a continent fractured by ethnic, national, economic and cultural divisions? Can the trauma of separation initiated a half-century ago and intensified by numerous instances of Cold War suspicions and animosities be assuaged by the mere crossing of borders? The disjunctive images and precariously wrapped monitors in Blaue Berge implicitly raise these issues. While the installation capitalizes on the travel now possible along routes that have been blocked for two generations, it also cautions against quixotic optimism about instantaneous communality and international understanding. Kipphoff's video travelogue not only reflects upon fractured notions of landscape and geography but also upon the persistent fractures in psyche and sentiment. Nations have been reconnected, barriers dropped, yet the gaps and wounds remain in personal experience and cultural memory. Excursions alone are not enough to effect the healing process, although they do symbolize a vital first step.

   

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Jennifer Fisher is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art and Curatorial Studies at York University, Toronto. She edited Technologies of Intuition (2006), and her writings have appeared in anthologies such as Foodculture (2000), The Senses in Performance (2007), and journals such as Art Journal, Border/Lines, n-paradoxa, and Visual Communication.

Jim Drobnick is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Theory at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto. He edited Aural Cultures (2004) and The Smell Culture Reader (2006), and has appeared in journals such as Angelaki, High Performance, Performance Research, Public, and The Senses & Society, where he is now reviews editor.

Drobnick and Fisher are the founding members of DisplayCult, a collaborative framework for interdisciplinary studies in the visual arts. Their curatorial practice includes CounterPoses (1998), Vital Signs (2000), Museopathy (2001), Linda M. Montano (2003), and Aural Cultures (2005), among others. CounterPoses and Museopathy were published as catalogues (both 2002), and their essays can be found in Trespassers & Captives (2000), Image and Inscription (2005), and Dispersions: Aernout Mik (2005).

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