L’idée vient en parlant
On text and dialogue in the works of Hörner/Antlfinger
The two voices – one male, one female – engaged in conversation belong to the human figures wandering through a nocturnal and grey landscape of hills. A romantic stroll under the full moon. The stereotypical movements of the stylized bodies and their monotonous voices reveal them to be artificial beings: virtual figures forged by the “Avatar Studio” computer program, a smithy for avatars.
The conversation begins with seemingly routine topics. Life with animals, with people, with the computer. How does an encounter with one such “being” different from that with another? What happens when a beloved pet dies? Or when a loved one passes away? Is spending all one’s time with machines a legitimate way of life? Are chat communities real social conglomerates? What role do groups and systems play in the “real” world? Do social utopias deserve to be taken seriously? And what about the paranormal – does it offer possibilities to infiltrate socio-political power systems? And, finally, which form of society is superior? The American-individualist principle – represented by Captain Janeway and the crew of the Voyager in the Star Trek series – or the Communist-collective form of co-existence – likewise represented in Star Trek, this time by the Borg? The conversation ends where it began, with a sense of feeling alien in encounters with animals.
It is easy to assume that the two avatars are the virtual representatives of their creators Ute Hörner and Mathias Antlfinger. In a process of intensive interchange since 1991, the two artists have developed all their projects collaboratively. Sociology, philosophy, media theory and everyday (artistic) life, as well as literature and film – the subject areas touched upon in avatars’ conversation, and often including references to science fiction, fairytales and myths – play an important role in many of their joint works. But when, and in what fashion, do they deploy a particular theme and motif? What part do they allocate to dialogue, to language and text? What development has their usage of words taken over the years? And what, finally, is hinted at by the sense of bleakness and isolation conveyed by L’après-midi d’un avatar ?
Dialogue as an instrument of research
Writing in 1999, Annette Tietenberg described dialogue” as the “specific artistic method” of Hörner/Antlfinger, which they use to “investigate the current social status of the artist”. There was evidence of this in their earliest work: Corporate Image Linked (1991), a video investigation into the prize awarded by AEG for ecologically themed art, and an exhibition entitled “Neubauüberprüfung” (1992) initiated by the HBV, a German trade union for commerce, banking and insurance. In either case, the interview is the tool of investigation. While the work about the AEG art prize focused on the objectives and motivation of the participating artists, jurors and corporate representatives, the exhibition staged for the trade union contained “Forty Conversations about Art and Work” with union staff members about the function of art within an organization becoming increasingly distanced from the traditional ideals as its image changes towards that of a services provider.
The artistic “analysis” was tackled in different ways in either project. In order to throw light on the AEG prize, visual and sound footage was ordered according to the groups of interviewees. Using monitors with headphones, viewers could learn about the disparate interests of art and business, and the resultant problems and necessities for artists. A large wall of photographs was the vehicle chosen for the later HBV project. Excerpts from the interview transcriptions were assembled along with photographic portraits of the subjects – wholly without regard to the inner-union hierarchy, and already provocative for that reason alone, not to mention the frank nature of the juxtaposed statements.
Fiction as aesthetic means in dialogue with the viewer
The mode of presentation has become considerably more complex in the TV puppet show Monokroms (1997). White glove-puppets – embodying the figures of Worker, Girl, Dog and Mrs. Spock – discuss questions such as how to preserve the integrity of the artist, the artist’s chances of social advancement, or the image neuroses of artists. The starting point is delivered by stories the viewer can call up over an interface. Dealing with everyday life, culture and entertainment, the subject matter ranges from Mao Tse-tung to popular entertainers. None of the conversations lead to a genuine solution, and the “interminable discourse” makes visible the “insoluble dilemma of a socially committed artist who always profits from the clichés he seeks to overcome.”
Hörner/Antlfinger had experimented with similarly complex interaction possibilities in possible selves (1994), their first computer installation. As if settling down for an adventure game, viewers take a seat at a solid desk in front of a monitor, and finds themselves transformed into a psychologist with access to the case histories of various (fictitious) artists. Via routes never totally clear to the players, they delve ever deeper below the surface of a confusing system (possessed of, in part, its own dynamic). As they do so they encounter caricatures of Buddhist monks, for instance, who are discussing the sense of “re-moulding” via LSD, or a young artist who, reciting the artist’s monologue from Pasolini’s Teorema, expresses his doubts about the necessity of having to constantly create new, never-before-seen art. Finally, a discussion on the “utopia of art”, which took place at the Dusseldorf Academy, is flashed onscreen. If in substance the debate has little to do with art, it has all the more to do with the menace technology poses to humankind (and artists).
It is easy to read the individual levels of this work, which are retrievable more or less by intention, as components of the complex consciousness structures of an artist polyphonically querying the sense (or lack of sense) of what he or she does. Brought into connection with new figures, the quotes bandied about by the monks become detached from their original contexts – one example being the excerpt from Timothy Leary’s Exo-Psychology (1977). The dialogue is now being conducted directly with the viewers: an appeal is being made to their cultural understanding. The language is no longer “committed” in the manner of the early interview works; it has become an aesthetic means, and allows the viewer to retrospectively experience – on both a substantial and formal level – the complex, and at the same time troubled, internal situation of the artist in search of his role within the “operating system of art”.
Held at Berlin’s NGBK gallery in 1999, the exhibition “Two Lives. Dialogues” then drew up a – dialogical – balance of ten year’s of artistic deployment of new media. The periods before and after the “digital revolution” were compared via e-mail interviews asking artists and academics in what ways using a computer had changed their life and work. Because visitors were able to communicate both with net beings – “chatterbots” – possessed of artificial intelligence and with fish swimming in an aquarium, they could judge for themselves the difference between encountering a virtual being and a living organism. And the ironic radio-play dialogues of the Fuzzy & Logic installation gave expression to a media artist’s fear of losing the “rather fine lead” over the rest of society once everyone else “has become a media artist, too”.
Visual language of myths, and construction of reality
The work produced by Hörner/Antlfinger after 1999 is distinctive from the earlier output due to the underlying “poetic” mood and the accentuation of the visual. Large-size projections now make a more directly emotive appeal to the viewer. The deployment of texts with more literary sources means that language takes on a new dimension likewise.
The introduction of motifs from the realm of fairytales and myths had become evident already in the installation Schneewittchen und Zwerge (Snow-White and Dwarves) which was the core of the “Two Lives. Dialogues” show. A large female figure protectively casts her flowing robe, Madonna-like, over seven Macs of the legendary SE 30 series which once embodied the “universal machine”. On the monitors of these machines we see dwarves who, as representatives of the artes liberales, are performing their particular showpieces. Past and future are present in equal measure in this “hermaphrodite composed of fairytale figure and sci-fi queen” with her relics of a technology that once represented the cutting edge and continues to be affectionately cherished.
A no less unusual synthesis of past and future is accomplished in the interactive computer installation Model Juvenile (2002). A pietistic orphanage, built in the German town of Halle by August Hermann Francke in the late seventeenth century, has been relocated to a big dark spaceship making its way into an uncertain future. The deep growl of the engine rouses menacing associations with Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), and something does in fact seem to have happened to the inhabitants – the orphans – we see in futuristic cells kitted out with notebook computers and sleeping berths. They lie motionless on the floor or slumped over their desks – sleeping, anaesthetized, dead? The medicinal herbs growing in the garden on the holodeck seem to offer no more help than the large pills – state-of-the-art psycho-active drugs – which are flying noiselessly through the endless corridors. Or are the latter to blame for the disturbing condition of the children? At the very top of the ship we see, towering over everything, a reconstruction of Siegmund Freud’s consultation room, looking more like an innocuous doll’s house with a wood-fire crackling inside a tiled stove. Only the drifting strains of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, to be heard as the camera pans through the cells, obtrudes on the lonely silence; a memory of earthly life, it offers a small measure of melancholy consolation as the text, like a decorative frieze, spreads itself over walls, windows and doorframes.
With the installation InfiniteLand (2004) the language of myth finally becomes a second level “running parallel” with and establishing diverse, often unexpected, references to the computer-generated image. Comfortably reclining on a 1970s sofa, the viewer looks at a broad billboard displaying an industrial landscape which, washed in subdued colours, looks stylized. Two virtual ravens – the viewer’s guides – are flying swiftly but serenely over the hilly territory divided up by straight sections of motorway. Television towers, factories, even nuclear power stations are interspersed with lines of electricity pylons, fields of wind turbines, or blocks of skyscrapers. On the horizon there repeatedly emerge new landscape formations, over which the ravens fly, then once again the landscape disappears. There are no visible signs of life. Yet, now and again oversized panels jut up from the landscape – images of the billboard currently before the viewer’s eyes. They show drawings from The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort’s 1970s best-seller. Wholly devoid of desire or eroticism, they seem like token reminders of the fact that something like “life” or the “progenitive act” may be taking place here. The subdued, lacklustre colours, the calm flight of the birds, and the idealized-constructed appearance of the “endless” landscape immerse the whole scenario in a melancholy, meditative tranquillity, a trance-like state reminiscent of a dream.
A man’s voice accompanies these images, reciting prima vista “Der Seherin Gesicht” from the Germanic creation myth Edda. The text, which is spoken slowly, sounds “fresh”, as if it were new, as if it has just been found or invented. Chosen by a random generator, the motorway-partitioned compartments of landscape appearing on the horizon (like the cards or pieces in a game, sorted into groups of pylons, nuclear power stations, skyscrapers, etc.) are constantly re-combined. Thus, the (virtual) world over which the two ravens fly is permanently being re-created, underscored by the words describing the mythological dawn – a kind of “computer creation game”.
Over an interface in the form of a cushion the user is able to intervene in this creation scenario and control the flight of the birds. The viewer is part of the game, participates in the construction of the visual world he sees. New references are constantly established between text and image. Again and again, the fundamental discrepancy between the computer-generated industrial landscape and the mythical creation evoked by the cited text is annulled, for example when the text refers to the poison “dripping through the roof” just as the ravens happen to fly over an oil refinery. This involuntary updating of the Edda by the image makes it part of a major metaphor about the construction of reality in a world which can no longer be experienced “authentically” but instead thrusts itself upon our senses over a wide spectrum of technological tools of communication. Playing the part of the viewer’s avatars, furthermore, the two birds, interpreted as Odin’s ravens bearing the names “Memory” and “Thought” (Odin acquired them in exchange for one eye), raise the question of the role played by the viewer’s own visual recollections, of the cultural and social influences and clichés that influence his grasp of reality.
Hörner/Antlfinger pursue similar tracks in They Read / Sie Lesen, their latest work in public space. Here, however, text is intertwined not with a world of virtual imagery but with the concrete social environment of the urban fabric. In the course of “Werk 04”, a sculpture symposium held in Heidenheim, the duo mounted LCD displays at fourteen public locations. At first glance the screens are blank – the viewer must first put on a pair of “UBIK spectacles”, which can be purchased at various outlets in the town. Quotes from the fields of art, literature, and philosophy, all concerned with questions of perception and of the construction of reality, then become visible on the LCD displays. The positions range from André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto to Lewis Carroll’s Behind the Looking Glass, from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaux to Heinz von Foerster’s “Truth is the invention of a liar”.
Since the text passages move forward from one day to the next, the references and contexts are constantly changing in a manner similar to InfiniteLand. For instance, the impact of Martin Kippenberger’s title Ich kann beim besten Willen kein Hakenkreuz entdecken (“For the Life of Me I Can’t See the Swastika in This”) is wholly different when we read it in the glass showcases outside the town hall rather than the art museum, where it arouses other associations. The surroundings give the text a new meaning, and the text does the same to its surroundings. And the references that come about remain in permanent flux, just as the viewer, wearing the special glasses, learns to see the town through different eyes while playing a game of discovery.
If “Infinite Land” addresses the basic question of the construction of reality in a world that now conveys itself to people only technologically or culturally, They Read / Sie Lesen places a focus on the construction of social reality, which is constantly being re-accomplished in the process of viewing. And so with the piece of paper that accompanies the “UBIK spectacles” we read the following statement by Hörner/Antlfinger: “At first we could only read the texts on the practice screens. In less than a week, however, the UBIK spectacles were allowing us to see things around us that had previously been concealed. If things go on like this, we will soon be able to see everything clearly even without artificial assistance.” Although Ute Hörner and Mathias Antlfinger themselves know best that the hope they express is bound to remain an utopian vision, it still articulates the secret human yearning for authenticity, the wish to be able to see the world without the filtration of technical devices and cultural stereotypes. Perhaps that explains the peculiarly bleak mood of the avatars’ walkabout described at the beginning of this essay. Yet the most recent works by Hörner/Antlfinger do make reality of the utopia of authenticity – if only for the brief aesthetic moment produced in the viewing by the coincidence of re-created and perceived reality.
 Heinrich von Kleist, “Über die allmählige Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden. An R. v. L.”, in Sämtliche Werke, Band 3, hg. von Klaus Müller-Saglet, Frankfurt am Main 1990, p. 535.
 Annette Tietenberg, “Von Menschen, Märchen und Medien oder Wer ist die schönste im ganzen Land?”, in Hörner/Antlfinger, Two Lives. Dialogues, Berlin 1999, p. 9.
 Ibid., p. 10.
 Ibid., p. 6.
 The term “UBIK” is derived from Philip K. Dick’s eponymous novel of 1966. The title They Read / Sie Lesen refers to John Carpenter’s science-fiction film They Live (1968), in which the protagonist John Nada stumbles across a pair of special spectacles which reveal to him that the surface of the apparently real world is merely a disguise for the authentic, black-and-white, surface. The world is governed by extraterrestrials and is full of (written) commands and instructions to the human subconscious.