The Replicated Gaze

By Ines Gebetsroither


The camera moves in a spiral along the ceiling: it takes up its circular form by tracing out the seams between two elements of the ceiling; rectangular lamps emerge one after another like a schematic depiction of sunbeams or the spokes a wheel; parallel to this, the soundtrack evokes atmospheric, resonant “drops”— at least one of a countless number of associations.
The video Baumeister looks at the deserted interior of ORF’s Studio Dornbirn. Planned and built by Gustav Peichl from 1969 to 1972, its formal basis is the spiral, the figure consisting of a line running from the inside out that can also be found on the human body, in the navel or our ears. The form of the spiral in Peichl’s radio buildings indeed takes on a symbolic reference to the body and its functions. While often referred to as “technoid” structures, indeed as “technological devices,” they are highly organic structures in a literal sense; they are expanded and expandable bodily organs. Their function is speaking and listening, transmitting and receiving. The spiral form of the radio building is not just a symbol with a long history (the spiral in antiquity symbolized the world’s navel), but a prerequisite for its functioning, just as the form of the ear insures the operation of our sense of hearing.
Just as the architecture translates the function of listening, Claudia Larcher’s video makes a reference to vision. The camera is the eye that tries to capture the structure of space by tracing out its movements, repeating them. But seeing (just as listening or feeling) is not an objectivizing act. It is narrowly linked to the memories of the person perceiving. To this extent, it never generates a continuous space of experience. It rather produces images from superimpositions, transformations, and condensations.
In one of Larcher’s earlier works, Empty Rooms, the gaze of the camera departs slowly departs from the unparticipating observation of an interior which, as in the photographs in architectural magazines, is “freed” of people and everyday objects and culminates in a kaleidoscopic spatial image. If at the beginning the porous structure of a real wall is scanned millimeter by millimeter in a horizontal movement, the linear relationship between the camera and the space that the video seems to develop at the start gradually dissolves. Camera and what is filmed penetrate the recorded architecture and generate a layer of reality all its own. Edges become lines, the space becomes an image. In addition, there is a sound track that fills these images with evocations of (real? remembered?) events; we think we hear the screeching of a train or the crackling sound of fluorescent lights. Sonic experiences that have more to do with our own memory than with what the soundtrack actually contains.
In the video Baumeister, changing spatial relations also begin to shift at a certain point. The transition is marked by a brief sequence in which the concrete elements and metal pipes form a mobile diagonal pattern. The camera glides in a horizontal movement along the walls. If until now everything was kept in neutral tones or non-colors (gray, white, or black), now striking elements of color appear: deep-orange red wall elements or door sashes, a powerful yellow for a chair, etc. A view of an interior space opens, showing a recording studio with a blue swivel chair, an orange microphone, yellow blinds that have been pulled down. This all seems more like a stage set than a real interior. The architecture becomes a (moving) image, in a certain sense it is recast. This is once again repeated and confirmed by the sound track of Constantin Popps, which has departed from apparently abstract, at any event no longer clearly classifiable sounds and now consists of architectural descriptions. These are read by a woman’s voice (increasingly distorted) sampled from radio shows on architecture that had been produced at Funkhaus Dornbirn. So sound and image articulate with one another like gears, for example in the moment in which the space, which relies strongly on its technological functions (the camera repeatedly shows uncovered sockets or the warning “Caution, High Voltage!”) with a sound that recalls a jet engine.
Claudia Larcher’s work generates a continuum of space and time that does not actually exist in reality. This is not immediately visible, but is only revealed in moments when for example the metal track that the camera runs along suddenly ends in a void. The video thus documents the architecture not in the actual sense, but translates it into a language of its own, whereby it is very committed to the model. Essential here is the process of emergence: Larcher did not directly film the space itself, but photographs of the space taken beforehand. The gaze of the camera is not that of a moving camera, but an animation, in a certain sense a fake, replicated  gaze.
This method refers to an important theme in postmodernism, where it becomes impossible to distinguish between original and copy, model and replica, reality and imagination. As the theorist Craig Owens wrote in his 1980 essay “The Allegorical Impulse: On a Theory of Postmodernism,” “Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them.”1 In the work Baumeister, the filmic “replicas” superimpose figures of architecture. In each of these layers, the motif of the spiral is of central importance. In the video, the camera repeats the spiral form of the architecture: the architecture in turn enters into a genealogy of spiral forms. Bruce Goff’s design of a snail house (1950), Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic-Cinéma (1926), the Phaistos Disk, or the shell of the nautilus, an artwork of nature.2
A brief digression: it is certainly no accident that Spiral Jetty, the most well known work of the American artist Robert Smithson, is also based on this motif. It was created in 1970, around the time that Gustav Peichl was planning his radio studios. The famous work of land art was poured in a huge spiral on the edges of the Great Salk Lake in Utah and refers to the local myth of a watery vortex in the lake. Its site specificity is a key component of the work. In the film of the same name, Smithson tells of the emergence of the work and its meaning, from a helicopter tracing out the spiral form with a film camera. Part of the film was shot by Nancy Holt. It shows Smithson climbing up a hill and throwing several hands full of books and magazines from the top: this is a reference to a thought that seemed important to the artist. “The earth's history seems at times like a story recorded in a book each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.”3

A comprehensive, complete narrative has long been questioned, working with fragments of texts or images is imperative. In the aforementioned essay, Benjamin attributes an allegorical moment to photographic montage, for it is typical of allegory to “pile up fragments ceaselessly.”4 Accordingly, Claudia Larcher’s work can implicitly or explicitly to be understood as an indication of the technique of allegory. This becomes clear in a series of collages that, just like the videos, when they are digitally generated, are also based on the principle of montage. If in the former Larcher combines pieces of photographs and animates them in the video program so that the layerings are only visible as shifts in perspective in certain spots, in the analog collages layerings of page fragments from architecture magazines are legible. What are used are historical or current architectural magazines, for example Baumeister, or Architektur Aktuell. The title of the magazine and the date of the issue provide the title of the collage work in question and are thus a clear indication of the “original.” Each individual page forms a collage layer of its own, whereby the most various architectural components are assembled together: interior and exterior views, details, aerial shots, plans as well as inserts. The redundancy and yet fragmentary nature of all documentation and depictions of reality is revealed: but Larcher does not stop at critique, but documents this herself.

 


1  Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October 12 (Spring, 1980), 69.

2 This spiral series can be found in: Architektur & Technik: Die Bauten des Österreichischen Rundfunks 1970 – 1980 (Vienna, 1979), 17.

3 See http://www.robertsmithson.com/films/txt/spiral.html.

4 Quoted in Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse,” 72.