Hight and Low

Friday 20. March 2020

Not Just Overnight – Mirja Lanz 

Magdalena Kunz and Daniel Glaser spent five years working on their trilogy High and Low  (2000-2005). Now the mammoth project is finished and its presentation flexible, despite its size. The whole comprises three relatively independent cycles: Babelsberg, Flying High and Overnight, each of which consists of  a series of photographs, a kinematic image and objects.  

Actors and Characters 

People appear in all three cycles of High and Low”, and they always seem to be involved in something that is getting out of control in connection with them. In Babelsberg anarchistic figures trash their own production. In Flying High the law of gravity is defied; the only credo that seems to have survived is that of the film La Haine: `Jusqu’ici tout va bien.’ And in Overnight, the most narrative of the three series, the symbols of power collapse at dawn after an all-night party. Human interaction in High and Low has ground to a halt; the collective dynamic has obviously disintegrated. Essentially, we only see individuals in isolation since each one has been photographed singly in the studio and subsequently inserted in the overall composition, as in a collage. A virtual artificial reality is juxtaposed with the intense, personal work of the artists with their models. This explains the strange mood communicated by each of the scenes. The actors have a powerful life of their own that stubbornly persists despite the staged action.

Image as Stage 

In addition to the representation of people, the production of images using the potential of digital photography is probably the most conspicuous constant in all of the cycles of High and Low. Whether we see an apocalyptic scenario, a flight without gravity, or an airport runway at dusk crowded with people, it usually isn’t quite what we think it is or guess that it might be. The involvement of the image-makers is especially apparent in the Babelsberg cycle; the title defines, as usual, because the line between the (staged) stagers and the staging becomes more and more confused. Hence, a colossus, whose muscles can be admired from the back in the painting of the same name by Goya, has evidently emancipated himself in the image. The giant stares insolently not only at the spectators hut at the image-makers as well, whereupon the coor-dinates shift — to the unpleasant disadvantage of the latter. The apocalyptic vision threatens to get the better of its makers; the scene collapses on to a thicket of spotlights and tripods. 

The expanded photographic moment 

Wilde photography in the Babelsberg cycle no longer the property of simultaneity because of its serial presentation, the factor of time is clearly present in the kinematic images and two other cycles of photographs. Using digital technology as their laboratory instead of the darkroom, Magdalena Kunz and Daniel Glase, don’t abandon photography as a base. The air is the thinnest, and space the most unreal in the cycle Flying High. People and objects fly or fall, or rather, thou contours blur and multiply as if it were impossible to control movements and moments, despite their meticulous construction. The small, highly detailed scenes in which people are involved dissolve into poetic and even abstract motifs that merge into one another in the kinematic; version. Actually these are not moving picture in the conventional sense of the word; rather, an important property of film has been transferred to photography: the image makers determine how much time a viewer spends on each individual moment, which substantially alters the reception of the image. 

Mirja Lanz studied literature and art history in Zurich. She winks as a freelance writer. 

The Babelsberg Matrix – Christoph Doswald 

Self-referential strategies of medial construction in the photo installations of  Magdalena Kunz and Daniel Glaser.  

It is quite possible that we already perceive the world through several mirrored layers of a mediatized reality, a simulated simulation as flaunted in Larry & Andy Wachowski’s Hollywood hit The Matrix (1999). However, that film made history not only because it explores our notion of reality but also because the launching of the Matrix Trilogy went hand-in-hand with cinema’s first comprehensive attempt to fuse film, computer games and online advertising. As media critic Charles Martig puts it in a grandiose spectacle, the Matrix Trilogy brings to the screen the fundamental tension between the destruction and creation of images and ventures much closer to the core of Descartesian scepsis than, say, Spielberg in Minority Report.”‘ 

Profound doubts about the materiality and veracity of images are not unjustified. Now that the criteria of journalism have also begun to lose their integrity, any vestiges of faith in the visual information disseminated by the mass media have dissipated. And since immediate reality has come to represent the imitation of mediatized reality, the distinction is even more blurred. This is the territory staked out with powerful visual and linguistic eloquence in the photo installation Babelsberg, created by the Swiss artist couple Magdalena Kunz/Daniel Glaser. The installation consists of 10 tableaux presented as a diorama, a tradition familiar from the 19th century as illustrated by the Bourbaki Panorama in Lucerne. The latter ranks among the most famous representatives of these grand monuments to a nation’s heroes and myths and it served as inspiration for two legendary works of 1993 by Jeff Wall (Restoration, a direct commentary on the panorama, and Dead Troops Talk, a late 20th century rendition of soldiers after an ambush)’. As in its 19th century predecessors, Babelsberg also tells a story, the story of a heroic act. The implication or rather the reflection of heroism in the title itself is consistent with the subject matter of the picture, i.e. the development of a staged picture story. The BabeIsberg film studios are situated in Potsdam, now a suburb of Berlin. They started operations in 1912 with the Asta Nielsen film The Dance of Death and went on to play a wavering and not always unsullied role in German history. It was there that Luis Trenker acquired glory as a rugged mountain hero, that the propaganda flicks of National Socialism were fabricated, that the war was invested with glamour and — after it was over — that The Murderers Are among Us starring Hildegard Knef was filmed. The photo installation Babelsberg is a profound and relentless study of these mechanics of simulation. 

Open Windows, Flying Sheets of Paper 

The picture space that Kunz/Glaser invent is defined in the first picture, the overture to the series. It is divided into two planes: an interior in the foreground and the space of a painted stage set in the background, a zone that embodies the transition from immediate to mediatized reality. Encouraged by the title, we conclude that we are in a film studio. Bits and pieces of lighting equipment are seen in the foreground, apparently for flash photography as indicated by the generator standing on the floor to the right. It is evidently important for us to realize that the picture is staged, that it is a product of deliberate pictorial construction. This is underscored by the desk to the left, where we see the two protagonists of the action, a man and a woman. The woman is busy with a clutter of papers, while the man, possibly exhausted by his work, has collapsed on the tabletop. Doors or windows must be open somewhere in the room because a draft has sent the sketches or notes made on single pieces of paper flying through the air. 

We can only speculate about the content of the note or the plot of the narrative. The sketches drawn in white chalk on an infinite black horizon are the first tentative clues to a possible narrative: a man with a muscular body standing to the left and drawn in duplicate to his right, his head resting on the table, along with short stage directions (“feet planted on the ground”, “laughing”). The stage set that opens up behind the two sketches is just as vague and indeterminate: an ochre colored desert plain shortly before nightfall or possibly at dawn, the silhouettes of two woolly pigs and in the twilight depths of the horizon, the hazy outlines of a city. 

This staged backdrop in semidarkness is the setting for the entire Babelsberg series. And as in a real film, the two protagonists introduced in the ‘credits’ reappear in the ensuing pictures. Knowing that the protagonists are the artist themselves is helpful and also enhances the legibility of the series, for it might be understood as self-ironic reference to their own profession as picture makers: shades of Life the Movie, as Neal Gabler titles his phenotypical analysis of the indistinguishability between medial and lived reality’. Even the vitae of the artists themselves must be bathed in an aura of myth because only intriguing, mystical artists are good artists — we’ve known that ever since Giorgio Vasari penned and published his compendium of artists’ biographies in the mid-16th century’. Until the 1970s the paradigms of political and religious worldviews still played a role in the design of our lives but today our value judgments bear the imprint of models drawn from the media: advertising, music, film, in short, popular culture. Popular culture is characterized above all by visual phenomena; a culture of words has given way to a culture of images. The star cult, a firmly established constituent of any artistic career since Andy Warhol, is manifested in artistic self-representation — sometimes affirmative, some-times self-reflexive, sometimes ironic. Warhol, who used himself as the subject of his work time and again, summed up the extremes to which self-representation can go, “A good reason to be famous, though, is so you can read all the big magazines and know everybody in all the stories. Page after page it’s just all people you’ve met. I love that kind of reading experience and that’s the best reason to be famous.”‘ 

Imagined, Symbolized, Mediatized 

I litoughout the Babelsberg series, spotlights basically function as part of the stage set, possibly in emblematic allusion to the star cult. They are frequently painted elements of the stage set and rarely illuminate any of the figures themselves; significantly, they are trained only on the hands of the protagonists in the opening image. This curious paradox is but one of the many enigmas that lend the suspended animation of the series a sense of unsettling ambivalence. The narrative strands are also ambivalent and resist exposition. The narrative development of the production, which consists of 10 single motifs, is hardly transparent — if at all, then only as a matrix with infinite variations, as a biographical mirroring, but certainly not as a collectively rooted story. However, one thing is clearly identifiable: the constant medial change of role as the 10 images unfold, the heroic archetypes embodied by the actors: the pilot, the track layer, the astronaut, the hippie girl, the child, the old man, the lone wolf, the artist. Although the interaction between these depicted archetypes remains a matter of speculation, we do know that the plot thickens, as more and more figures people the stage set and the studio morphs into chaotic confusion — perhaps the spirits the artists have invoked are getting out of hand, perhaps the balance of this carefully constructed production is threatening to collapse. The lighting provides a few clues. Initially, the actors are literally in the spotlight but towards the end of the series, the scenes are bathed in an undifferentiated twilight. The final picture shows an empty (cleaned up?) stage — only to the right in the painted backdrop can we make out the vague shape of a seated woman wrapped in a dark cloth, her gaze directed at the empty horizon, at the place where reality’s dreams and yearnings might be located. 

Babelsberg is ultimately about the transfer from an imagined to a symbolic and finally to a mediatized reality, about the interplay of reciprocal realities that has become the hallmark of our daily lives. Here, however, the transfer does not take place chronologically as 

we would ordinarily perceive it in everyday life, but rather in the simultaneous and ceaseless interaction of imagined, symbolic and mediatized worlds and the mental peregrinations conjured by the border zones in all of these different aggregate states. Babelsberg creates imagery and images of a world in which an iconoclastic. Apocalypse is already embedded as an integrated circuit. There are no pictures left for people to believe in. 

Christoph Doswald, independent curator and art critic. Lives in Berlin and Zurich. In addition to several solo exhibitions, he has designed thematic presentations such as “Nonchalance” and “Missing Link: Mensch-Bilder in der Fotografie.” He has also edited monographs on artists such as Olaf Breuning, Daniele Buet-ti, Stefan Banz, Zilla Leutenegger, Remy Markowitsch. 

Montage in the Interface of Cinema, Painting and Dreams – Tan Walchli 

1 In Georg Lukacs sketched an aesthetic of the cinema in an article for the Frankfurter Zeitung. As he himself emphasizes, he was attempting to do something entirely new. Although debates on the educational and economic significance of the cinema were already raging by that time, no one had wasted a single thought on its possibly being a suitable subject of inquiry in the philosophy of art. As a rule, cinema was considered a natural extension of theater in a different medium. It is precisely in opposition to this distinction that Lukacs based his aesthetic of the cinema. He argues that we do not see real people in films as we do on stage; we see only pictures of them. A second major distinction that he makes refers to the way in which films link consecutive scenes: 

“The basic connective principle for the stage and acting is relentless necessity, for ‘film’ unlimited opportunity. Individual moments, which flow into one another through the temporal sequence of ‘film’ scenes, are linked only through the fact that they follow each other immediately and seamlessly. There is no causality that connects them; or, to put it more precisely: their causality is not subject to or tied to any content.’ 

It is easy to see why films possess such freedom: they can he edited by means of cutting and montage. These two techniques do not exist in theater. Although the curtain does perform a cut, it is used very little during a play. It is also possible to stage parallel scenes in different rooms, as, for example, in the Faust city that Max Reinhardt had erected in 1933 in the Salzburg Felsenreitschule (riding school). But even then, single scenes represent self-contained and continuous sequences of images. In short: the unity of space and time prevails on stage, while film, as Lukacs stresses, dissolves that unity. 

2 There was another famous film theoretician who also considered cutting and montage the essential techniques of the new visual medium: Sergej Eisenstein. However, unlike Lukacs, he did not hail them as a great innovation. Eisenstein observes that artists were already making widespread use of these devices in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Obviously they were unable to present various scenes or images one after the other, as in film, but they did mount them next each other. The individual elements of a picture were not situated in a spatial continuum but were linked by means of a technique that was certainly comparable to a film cut. Hence, Eisenstein concludes that film is the “highest state of painting.”‘ This, of course, raises the question as to what the highest state of painting is. To put it differently: what was the significance of montage in medieval and renaissance paintings? The undeniable complexity of such inquiry is illustrated by the examples that Eisenstein frequently cited: the paintings of El Greco and, in particular, his various versions of the city of Toledo. Art history has long agreed that the views El Greco painted are montages. There is no actual vantage point anywhere around the city from which one could see it as he painted it. But while Eisenstein interprets the resulting paintings as expressionistic, inasmuch as they supposedly express El Greco’s inner personality, the findings of more recent research reveal that a complex, detailed technique of representation underlies the artist’s vision. For example, in El Greco’s View and Plan of Toledo (c. 1610), a precise argument lies behind his decision to place the Tavera Hospital on a cloud in the foreground: he wanted to highlight the importance of the building — a perfectly understandable objective since the painting was commissioned by Pedro Salazar de Mendoza, an avid amateur cartographer, a student of Toledo’s history and, significantly, the administrator of the hospital. Salazar had, incidentally, set himself the task of finding out where the cell of Toledo’s patron saint Ildephonsus (603-676) might have been located. This Ildephonsus also plays an important role in El Greco’s painting, for the Virgin Mary, who appears surrounded by angels in the sky above the city, is holding the vestments that were to be bestowed upon Ildephonsus for his zealous devotion. El Greco establishes the connection by having the Virgin hover directly above the montage of the cathedral of Toledo in which Ildephonsus was buried.

Only by taking this background into account can one understand what motivated El Greco’s composition. Suddenly we realize that a single line unites the hospital (Salazar’s place of work) with the cathedral (Ildephonsus’s burial place) and the heavenly Virgin. Thus did El Greco establish a link between the three figures, declaring Salazar a successor to Ildephonsus and thereby turning him into a saint in his lifetime, who is rewarded by the Blessed Virgin. 

3 In El Greco’s montage, the spatial composition of the painting also represents a sequence of historical events. But what kind of a story is he telling? It is certainly not a picture story that shows different scenes from the life of a particular person, a common device in medieval painting, which El Greco also used, as Ei senstein observes. In The Martyrdom of Saint Mauricie (c. 1580), for example, the protagonist is seen three times: before, during and after his decapitation. But the distinction made by Lukacs applies as well, for the device is closely allied with theater. The sequence of the scenes depicts the life of an individual and is therefore, as on stage, subject to the causality of necessity. Entirely different aspects are operative in the View and Plan of Toledo. Here, the artist has constructed a story that mutually relates two figures who were born 1000 years apart. And there is something else worthy of note. The historical connection is established by placing Our Lady Queen of Heaven at the end of the line that links Ildephonsus and Salazar. Her dominion, which will dawn on Judgment Day, also stands for a historical moment, namely the end point of the story, through which it has become possible to relate the other two to each other. 

Against this background, it is possible to define the function fulfilled by El Greco in his visionary painting: his artistic achievement is also that of a chronicler. Thanks to his understanding of historical events, specifically the life of Ildephonsus and the work of Salazar, he is able to interpret the history of the city and to honor its exceptional dignitaries and their achievements. Of decisive significance is the fact that he has drawn his conclusion from the end of the story, namely, from the point of view of Judgment Day. In this respect, El Greco’s depiction is visionary: it does not have to accord with his contemporaries’ opinion of the story. The assumption is that his interpretation will only enjoy justification in the future. 

This clearly illustrates the difference between montage and the procedure of telling the story of one individual by placing consecutive scenes side-by-side (in painting) or one after the other (in theater). The scenes reveal decisive moments in a person’s life and we see the other individuals involved in the events; by contrast, montage shows a collective story (e.g. that of a city). The individuals shown in relationship to one another need not have lived at the same time; in fact, in most cases, they have never even met. 

In addition, montage generates a specific mode of representing the figures. If — unlike in El Greco’s View and Plan — montage is used to portray historical personalities, then they too must be seen from the vantagepoint of Judgment Day. They are therefore portrayed in a manner in which they could not have been seen in real life. For example, they might be shown in conspicuously distorted poses or involved in seemingly meaningless activities — for which there is also a more precise explanation. The visionary gaze of the artist, who is telling a collective story in retrospect, as it were, does not see the individual protagonists at specific moments in their lives but rather sees the larger picture and hence represents the sum of their achievements. In a sense, a figure’s entire life is distilled into single pose. (A similar pose may occur in theater as well but only at a specific moment, namely at the end of the play when the hero has died.) 

4 In his essay of 1913 Lukacs not only sets film off against theater but also remarks on its affinity with another literary genre, that of fairy tales, and with still another phenomenon: dreams.’ The association with dreams was common in those days. In an essay of 1921, for example, Hugo von Hoffmansthal called cinema a “substitute for dreams.” Significantly, however, Lukacs recognized that the essence of film lies in the editing and the montage. If we go back even further than El Greco, we find that these procedures were not new to painting. Their origins come from dreams, more precisely from Dante’s great oneiric vision, La Divina Commedia (1308-21). For the first time, towering figures from entirely different eras were united in a collective story that converged on Judgment Day. And Dante tells the story by acting the protagonist of his own dream vision, which allows him to wander through the underworld where the dead are waiting for the end of the story.’ Dante’s Commedia illustrates in detail several aspects of montage that were adopted in painting and later in film. In particular, the figures we encounter in Dante’s dream show us the sum of their entire lives. They do this, orally, by speaking to him. But we are also informed visually about the course of their lives through their positions in the various realms of the underworld and, especially, the physical punishment to which they are subjected. In addition, Dante plays an audacious role as a visionary writer of history: the author of his dream, the hero of his meanderings, it is he who passes judgment on the personalities he encounters along the way. The path that he follows from one figure to the next is comparable to the line in El Greco’s View and Plan of 

Toledo that links the Tavera Hospital with the cathedral al and the heavenly Virgin Mary. 

5 One might argue that, in the history of film, montage has rarely been deployed in the way it was once used by Dante, El Greco or even Eisenstein. Indeed, many masterpieces of film history actually seem to contradict Lukacs’ analysis because they still turn to theater for inspiration. It might therefore be more accurate to say that film paved the way for new possibilities that Lukacs and Eisenstein ignored. The mystical vision, for example, though fundamentally distinct from the view of the visionary chronicler, does have something in common with ancient tragedy, whose mode of representation would, according to Walter Benjamin, contribute substantially to the even greater popularity of film. As Benjamin explains in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Aristotle’s term, techne, aptly describes the potential of film. So it really is no coincidence that montage has settled down in those fields where it was first developed and perfected: in the poetic dream and the figurative arts. 

Tan Walchli is a freelance journalist, writing on culture. He is based in Zurich and does research into the theory of art and design. Two studies have been published to date: Aura and Glamour, both by Revolver in Frankfurt a. M., 2004. 

Conversation – Magdalena Kunz and Daniel Glaser talk with  Ilaria Bonacossa

Magdalena Kunz (1972) and Daniel Glaser (1963) are a young Swiss duo who have exhibited in Europe and internationally and who have been invited to present their work in numerous film festivals. Their latest production, a trilogy titled High and Low, is the result of five years of intense labor. The three parts of the trilogy, Babelsberg, Flying High and Overnight, are based on a photographic project and take shape in a series of photographic images, kinematic images and objects, each independent and at the same time modules of the overall project. 

Ilaria Bonacossa: You have now been working together for quite a long time. Which issues are central to your work? 

MK: For us, art is a place to think about the past, the present and the future, or just to think, to take stock, and it’s a place of complete freedom. It has room for everything.’ 

IB: Babelsberg was filmed in the famous Berlin studios of the same name where, incidentally, Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis was shot. The characters in Babelsberg gradually seem to escape from their kinematic reality and finally overrun their creators. 

DG: Maybe it’s the story of Victor Frankenstein, a present-day Prometheus who creates an artificial human being. It’s about creators and the creatures they create. The monster expects its creator to take responsibility and offer support, before it reacts in desperate aggression. It doesn’t want to kill its creator; it just wants him to suffer the same terrible pain, to experience the same agonizing loneliness. 

MK: The world that is staged in the kinematic image is on the edge of the abyss. The series of photographs that goes with it express the madness of our work, which has actually led us to the edge of the abyss our-selves—it has almost burnt us out. Our own characters, the ones we invented for the production, literally run us down. 

IB: In the second part, Flying High, it looks as if the images and the human figures have lost their weight and as if their pigment had been sucked into the black wet plastic bag that gives life to the installation. In the absence of gravity, they seem abandoned, flying in turmoil. What is happening to these figures? 

DG: We’re not interested in what’s happening but rather in a state, a condition. When we were working on the cycle, I described the image to somebody on the street. She said that my description matched the way she felt at the moment. She had just broken up with her partner. That’s an interpretation based on a personal situation. On the other hand, the fathomless space also creates a state of suspension that can feel euphoric. Just think of bungee jumpers or parachutists or paragliders. 

IB: In the last episode of the Overnight series, a surreal party seems to be taking place on the landing strip of an airport. The characters here become clone, of themselves and move as if they had emerged from a hyperrealist nightmare. As the last part of the series this work pushes the viewer towards a state of growing entropy, disrupting all categories of conscious perception and control. 

MK: Babelsberg and Flying High are situated in non places. Place, as such, has been eliminated; it’s not real. The imagery that we use represents externalized thoughts, dreams, feelings, hopes… An unreal atmosphere also dominates the mood in Overnight, but it’s important that whatever does happen is happening in civilization. There is a lot of asphalt, land that has been leveled, where the people congregate. It’s a runway but we could easily have staged the whole thing on an empty turnpike. 

IB: Are your photographs digital or is the mounting of the single images computer generated? Do you re-work the single shots digitally? How much of what we see is true and how much is artificial? 

DG: The last things we’re interested in are computer-generated worlds. You may have noticed that we use documentary devices. We wanted to find genuinely truthful moments, moments that really mirror the people that we were taking pictures of. So we were primarily concerned with uncovering parts of their personality rather than imposing roles on them. The computer was only a tool, an aid in composing the images. 

MK: There are so many new possibilities thanks to digitalization, it’s fantastic, amazing. The digital dark-room is an incredible tool, an extension of photography and cinema. 

IB: Your work is a special case in the art world since it functions mainly like a diorama or through kinematic images, through images in slow transformation. High and Low relates to the viewer in a cold, detached way. You completely avoid the process of seduction and identification typical of commercial movies by excluding the viewer from the narrative development. There seems to be something artificial in your work that creates virtual realities for the public. 

DG: Art is a detour for dreams to find their way back to reality. No, I think that our images lead people toward reality and not away from it. 

MK: In fact, anything else would be a complete misunderstanding. 

IB: I feel the notion of narrative is very important in your work; you tap into the mechanisms of the film narrative but only in order to subvert them from the inside. You tempt your viewers, you draw them inside the story and as soon as they are hooked, you frustrate their desire for comprehension. 

DG: There are no stories in our images except those seen or invented by the viewers. And, of course, it’s the viewer that counts. You see a dream image, your dream image. It’s like interpreting a dream. Everybody has to interpret their own dreams; nobody can do it for you. It’s only your own personal interpretation that produces meaning. 

IB: High and Low evolves in a very specific way; it’s so slow and takes shape in layers like a pearl. It seems that the exact formal appearance of the work has emerged in the process and was not fully predetermined, is that true? 

MK: Absolutely. 

IB: The articulation of your work seems to represent your thought processes. What is the relationship between your photographs and the installations? 

DG: I see the entire installation with the series of photographs, the kinematic images and the objects as spaces for free association, daydreams and contemplation. Our goal is for these spaces to give you, to give viewers, a chance to do that. 

IB: Your images have a narrative and descriptive character showing some similarities with how comic strips are constructed…. 

DG: The photographed images and the kinematic images and the objects: each element in the trilogy complements and extends the others. That enlarges the context and thus the mental space for meaning and interpretation. But the images also stand alone; the extension of the motif already takes place within the breadth of the wide-format image. 

IB: Large images suggest they can be read quickly from a distance but at a second look they start changing, so that it’s deceptive when expectation shifts towards recognition, when narratives and metaphors are unpacked—it only makes them even more elusive. Your “landscapes” are so densely populated that it takes hours to see them properly. Every time you look at them, you discover new things. You have to spend time with them; they have to be unpacked. 

MK: Viewers are thrown back on themselves. As mentioned, we don’t supply a story. 

Translation: Catherine Schelbert