Today, economic, ecological and political crises push the world towards societal changes. In this era of globalisation, characterised by the unprecedented dominance of the visual experience, one may at one and the same time witness not only ever increasing complexity, but also the incessant interweaving of worlds that are physically perceptible from close up yet remote and digital at the same time.
The time-space ratio in contemporary society determines our physical reality as much as it is itself subject to increasing, paradoxical change. Physical time is measured in ever-smaller units according to an internationally recognised system. Originally defined by the Earth’s rotation, since 1967 the second has been calculated on the basis of atomic measurements; today it is possible to measure one billionth of a billionth of a second. Technological inventions from the nineteenth century onwards allow places that are geographically thousands of miles apart to be connected in increasingly smaller units of time, and permit the linking and transfer of local experiences around the entire globe. Under the slogan ‘Security through Diversity’, the high-security fiberglass cable company Hibernia Atlantic connects global financial markets and banking systems. Art critic, activist and professor of philosophy Brian Holmes remarks on the absurdity of this notion, stating that: ‘High frequency trading marks the rise of machines. As it moves toward nanoseconds, an asymptotic point appears: the speed of light. Imagine a flash-crash that lasts forever; a blinding eternity. By automating human beings out of the picture, interactivity is finally poised to grasp its elusive object.’
Digital technologies, economics-driven globalisation and political upheavals all accelerate our present. At the same time, they radically influence human lifestyles, migratory movements and transnational power relations. Despite our rising efficacy at surmounting distance and time, the world is fragmenting.
To the extent that both acceleration and constant changes in digital communication engender mankind’s alienation from material and physical perception, the permanent use of laptops, tablets and smart phones not only allows participation in the unlimited flow of knowledge, but also leads to the incapacitation of the user; the individual is thrown back upon the power of his/her own, sometimes merely apparent, reflective decision-making authority. Real-time and access to social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, available to some parts of the world's population via the Internet (1.8 billion people in 2011), are not only used for private and commercial purposes but have also become the new media of political activism. Individuals, now able to form groups, deploy these new constellations to take a globally visible stand on socio-political upheavals and/or traditional power structures (i.e. Tunisia, Egypt and occupy movements). The use of images, be it journalistic photos, Internet archives or indeed the artistic exploration of recent political events, such as in Tahrir Square, Cairo or the current situation in Syria, has an actual and real impact on the political upheavals of today.
In view of these phenomena, the production and distribution of pictures, as well as the artistic development of future models – along with their imaging methods – play an important role. How will the emerging forms of political, social and cultural realities relate to artistic designs and models that range from dealing with ‘reality’ to utopian and dystopian visions?
The distURBANces project, cooperatively initiated by the partner cities Bratislava, Budapest, Ljubljana, Luxembourg, Paris and Vienna, presents artistic positions that offer new perspectives on urban, technological and political developments. Initiated as a kind of tribute to the American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose novels situate the theme of simulacra (Jean Baudrillard) into artificial environments and artefacts, distURBANces was developed to question today’s urban-and landscape representation paradigm by focusing on the distortion and the perversion of reality in our globalised world. The exhibition shows how artists focus on, analyse and envision current developments, exploring questions such as: how does artistic photography today depict the acceleration of time in relation to space? What impact do the aforementioned changes have on people and their real habitat? How are the changes in human relationships to nature and the city reflected? Which utopias or dystopias do artists generate from the present situation?
The correlation of the coordinates of time, space and man in accelerated, digitised living environments evokes the invention of new image worlds. At the same time, current socio-political developments in urban areas – from surveillance and closed-circuit television to political upheavals – all play a role in the production of the artistic image. Visions and fictions are overtaken by reality. At the same time, certain representations take place on the virtual plane only. In digital image realms (i.e. cyberspace(s) and computer games), worlds are created in which human life appears merely as an increasingly complex simulation. In many instances of digital imagery, fiction can hardly be distinguished from reality. Time seems to stop; the present and future become one.
The project, which focuses on different curatorial aspects in every city, presents a total of twenty-six international artists who follow different thematic lines, from an analysis of real life in its socio-political environment, or mankind’s abuse of nature, from utopian and dystopian visions to the development of model worlds. In dealing with real, virtual, staged or simulated worlds, many artists explore the phenomena of artificial and mediated reality within a semantic context of heightened visualisation. With regard to the increasing reliance upon the virtual in everyday life, these artistic practices of mixed reality – in which the fictional world is depicted as indistinguishable from the real, and the real one as close to surreal – tend to dissolve the membrane between the real and the virtual.
In Peter Bialobrzeski’s series Paradise Now, for example, the shift from natural to artificial, from real to surreal, is enhanced by fragmented views of ‘urban’ nature, offset by theatrical lighting on the periphery of the artificially illuminated infrastructure of large Asian cities.
Ilkka Halso’s series Museum of Nature uses digitally constructed images to examine the topic of rescuing nature. What appear to be idyllic scenes of untouched natural landscapes are revealed, at second glance, to include architectural structures meant to protect the areas from development, degradation and pollution. In these settings, nature is presented as a commodity and the metaphorical vision in Halso’s photographs poses the urgent question: is the only way to preserve the environment from destruction today to turn it into an artwork or a piece of merchandise?
Also exploring notions of the constructed landscape and its relationship to the commodity in his photographic and video works is Robert F. Hammerstiel. In his series Trust Me the artist presents crisp images of flora and fauna – albeit the artificial kind. As Petra Noll has written about the work: ‘the plants “pose” in all their beauty, offering themselves as merchandise promising happiness, and are yet no more than an ersatz nature, a decorative mass product.’ Similarly in the series Waste Land, computer-generated landscapes and scenes are complicated by their unmoored nature, as houses float in the skies and trees are uprooted, suspended in air.
Under the name ‘diSTRUKTURA’ Milica Milićević and Milan Bosnić present a series of photographs, Face to Face, replicating the romantic representation of nature in an unprecedented contemporary social and ecological context. Part of a statement by the artists draws attention to this ambiguity: ‘In our efforts we are trying to build on an extended view of Nature – as sublime, pseudo or synthetic nature in urban constellations – aiming to define the various relationships, both real and virtual, that create the realities of modern-day life in which art has the significant function of pointing to and defining, without any utilitarian means, the evolving drama around us.’
Another artist duo playing with the extension of such views is Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, otherwise known as ‘Semiconductor’, who have chosen to employ the moving image in order to explore and call into question our relationship to the material nature of our world. In their videos and animated movies, and by means of innovative language, Semiconductor proffers images of physical worlds in flow, of cities in motion and of shifting landscapes so that the spectator is immersed in a hybrid reality, a kind of fictionalised world that becomes an idiosyncratic experience probing the limits of our perception.
A similar aspect of disturbing strangeness typifies the work of Virginie Maillard. In her series of photographs, Anamnésie Land Maillard recalls both the artificial and the fictional inherent in places that the artist de- and reconstructs with the help of the spectator. By introducing significant concepts in the form of words written in neon, which are subtly integrated into the motif of the photo, Maillard creates associations between the designation and presentation of places. In this metaphorical space, the spectator has to choose between items, the thing (in the Foucauldian sense) or the word. The ensuing tension, in as much as it interferes with the temporality and spatiality of the narrative, serves to disclose the dichotomy of languages and their relationship to memory.
This critical notion of landscape and urban-scape is also present in Justine Blau’s mixed media photographic work, including the series The Circumference of the Cumanán Cactus. In her sophisticated photo installations, Blau expresses a utopian vision of a contemporary ‘Arcadia’ by assembling different images of touristic landscapes, downloaded from the Internet. With a distinct sense of play, the artist not only challenges the shift from the natural to the artificial vis-à-vis our relationship to nature, but equally, in a masterful political and media-critical manner, unsettles our received notions of topography.
In the series Fake Holidays, Reiner Riedler depicts scenes from man-made tourist attractions, many of which have been built up to represent ‘wild’ nature (for example, a river fed by water pumps on which vacationers can ride on water tubes). These idyllic landscapes have been arranged for consumption; what is being ‘sold’ here is the idea that modern man should surround himself with natural beauty in order to rejuvenate and recover from the toils of contemporary life. That these spaces are just as sterile and constructed as an air-conditioned office cubicle does not seem to occur to the vacationers.
Andrej Osterman’s Grow Up! series also engages in formal experimentation with the medium of photography and manipulation of the image. He places ambiguous objects, like plastic toys, into certain landscapes and therefore comments on inevitable interlacing of urban and natural environments. Although his view is often very common, it obtains certain surreal connotations thanks to conscious and deliberate traces of imperfection in the manipulated images – therefore his photographs indicate somewhat utopian or dystopian interpretations (Miha Colner).
In a similar vein, and via his invention of novel hybrid landscapes, Thomas Wrede also focuses on the strangeness of places in the series Real Landscapes. Wrede sets up, by means of the enigmatic aura and aesthetics of large-sized photographs, an opposition between different scales, sizes and spaces. What appear as aerial views are in fact shot from the ground, single houses (and even a drive-in theatre) are situated in the middle of nowhere and dimensions and perspective are toyed with in such a way that microstructures of sand are transformed into vast geological landscapes.
In Lotte Lyon and Paul Horn’s photographic series Neufundland, the viewer is also presented with images that seem to resemble landscapes – perhaps a vast ochre sand dune or a lush tropical rainforest. However these places are actually illusions constructed out of models, sometimes with the help of the simplest of found objects. In some of the images, the constructed nature of the scenes is immediately apparent, but in others, one must undertake a very close inspection to uncover the illusion. Such a suspension of disbelief asks viewers to become complicit in the conceit, allowing these quite simple ‘sets’ to become impressive nature-scapes.
In radical contrast to these examples of the aesthetics of digital production, but articulating similar displacements, the large format photographs by Pétur Thomsen entitled Imported Landscape denounce the power of Iceland’s energy policies by revealing the destruction of nature caused by the construction of three hydroelectric dams. Charting the transformation of the landscape between 2003 and the present, the photographer positions himself in this political debate on the side that opposes the project, who argue that the environmental damage incurred is enormous and that the construction has already destroyed one of the most important nature reserves in Europe. In view of the stream of images that we consume on a daily basis, sitting in front of our screens, these ‘realist’ visions take on an artificial and fictional nature. Have we lost our connection with nature for good?
In the urban sphere, the organisation of public space is subject to the laws and regulations of the state. An increasingly significant portion of this space is being privatised; it thus becomes subject to the laws of property. Regulations manifest themselves in house rules and security services; by contrast their commercial background appears, for example, in the form of advertising media. Leopold Kessler, a German-born artist currently living in Austria, explores the topography of cities by examining issues of urban life and their control systems such as parking signs and streetlights in a series of ephemeral interventions and performances (Privatized/Paris).
In Ahmedabad no life last night, Frédéric Delangle focuses his camera on the sheer urbanity of the fourth-largest city in India. His pictures of the city at night – in five to ten-minute time exposures – lay bare what he calls the ‘skeleton’ of Ahmedabad, in which the daily chaos, pollution and crowds are transmogrified into abstract nocturnal structures. In these images, Delangle captures a real, contemplative moment of calm, serenity and abstraction before the hustle and bustle of modern life returns at dawn but a few hours later.
The work Excursions in the Dark reveals a conceptual approach to the city of Cairo and settings of the revolution. In it, Kaya Behkalam explores (post)-revolutionary Cairo after midnight in response to the 2011 revolution. Similar to Ahmedabad, Cairo is a megacity with a population of approximately 16 million inhabitants. At night it is quiet and the architectural structures and the graffiti on the walls speak directly to its residents. In full awareness of the political upheavals, the images bear witness to a language proper: the revolution has inscribed itself in the iconography of the city. Behkalam makes an allusion to unconscious connections between architecture, collective dream landscapes and political upheavals.
In her series Warnings from the Stage Olya Triaška Stefanovič not only employs her own camera as a tool for image creation, but also sets up a game of deception between the actual visual representation of empty spaces on the one hand, and political collective visual memory on the other. She plays with the imagination of the viewer: are the empty stages just neutral non-ideological spaces, or do the spaces, devoid of actors, nevertheless still serve past political ideologies? Stages are, after all, places where we exhibit actions and behaviours, where reality meets fiction and simulation – platforms for encounters between real and fictional characters and representations.
In Busan Project, Spanish artist Dionisio González invents new urban structures inspired by his photographs of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo. Instead of the oft-seen dramatic depictions of these megacity favela milieus housing millions of people, González presents alternative survival strategies. By means of digital image editing, he superimposes the usually so densely nested thicket of urban, developed structures with modern twentieth-century architectural design. Through this creative and de-and reconstructive approach, he has featured a number of locations in the world including Halong Bay in Vietnam and Busan in South Korea.
The series Waste Union by Gábor Arion Kudász shows landscapes that are vast still lifes on the edges of populated land and open areas, with all the material things that may well be seen as signs of the negative effect of humanity on nature. The absurdity of his pictures stems from the subject itself and the manner of representation. Waste Union is a document of utopia. It is not an image of the future, but rather a pile of ruins – a view of the distorted present (Gabriela Uhl).
Can photography, via digital design, simultaneously document what it envisions? In reality, as viewers we are confronted with images penetrated by artistic fictions. If, however, these fictions possess ‘good intentions’, where do they lead us? To ‘disturbance by fiction’?
High-Rise, Niklas Goldbach's video created in collaboration with Paul Plamper, is a play on that very notion. Based on J.G. Ballard's science fiction novel of the same title, the cooperation builds a scenario for Berlin in 2013: a star architect has built Europe’s tallest residential building in the German capital, which is home to the social utopia he plans to create: the Neokommune K13. Nothing is wanting in this autarchy, a completely self-sufficient closed system. But the high-rise becomes a pressure cooker of neighbourhood enmity and rampant, uninhibited class warfare. In the blink of a camera’s eye, this modern super-community regresses into a biotope of primitive life forms.
In Thibault Brunet’s series Vice City the topic of reality and its imitations is developed through different antagonistic photographic practices oscillating between reportage and painting, cinematographic and plastic art. By taking the role of a photographer instead of a player in the universe of video games, Brunet’s work becomes an act of resistance to the usual behaviour of the avatars inspired by dominant American political popular culture, for although the cityscape photographed inside the video game Grand Theft Auto is ontologically a real photo shoot, it is transferred into a virtual world.
While Brunet takes out the futuristic elements of his virtual urban-scape, in Dark Lens Cédric Delsaux aims to show the science fiction dimension of megapolis suburbia today. To capture the mixed feeling of anxiety and strangeness characteristic of this environment, he introduces a number of characters from the Star Wars movies, thereby conferring upon his photographs, as he writes, ‘a naïve and metaphysical dimension’. Delsaux’s postmodern aesthetic relies on distancing and humour in its approach to representation, and it deactivates the real and the virtual as operative categories. While the actual suburban space echoes the emptiness and lifelessness of a futuristic set, the integrated fictional characters seem to bring it (back) to life. The limits between the real and the model have dissolved.
Also pushing the boundaries of fantasy, imagination and how spaces are depicted, Aldo Gianotti’s work A Rewinding Journey inserts a surprising figure into various scenes, showing the disharmony between the rational logic of contemporary society and unbridled visionary thinking and fantasy. As the artist describes it: ‘The protagonist of the video, an astronaut – a fantastic stranger from outer space, displaced in a surrounding that works with different logic and speed – starts a journey to search for a place where he is allowed to exist. . . . In a narrative way the connection to an inner space of imaginativeness starts to function again: in the fulfilment of a child’s dream of being an astronaut.’
In her work, Jasmina Cibic similarly plays with our expectations of the generic appearance of certain typical ‘modern’ spaces in today’s world such as the interiors of airplanes. Her photographs show site-specific interventions where unexpected elements, fantastical creatures and staged scenes disrupt our expectations and challenge the viewers’ understanding of the ‘non-places’ that pepper our contemporary urban landscape. Behind these images is a consideration of the ideological use of public and urban space, as well as its commercial and representative functions in our globalised world.
Life in the 24/7 digital online mode not only changes the relationship of man to nature and the fragmented world, it also affects artistic image creations. In addition to digitally created images, plastically formed model realities can also serve as a starting point for generating images. This simultaneous questioning of the interplay between model and image is a theme in the works of some of the exhibited artists. By rebuilding personal perceptions and memories, Daniel Leidenfrost and Josh Müller reconstruct their own reality, which they then proceed to photograph or film. The resulting photo/video depicts a reality which has not, as is often the case, been ‘manipulated’ by digital processing subsequent to shooting, but indeed one step earlier, at the very moment of creation. As a fictional representation of a fictional reality, the photo or film becomes a non-fictional reality and is therefore quasi ‘more real’ than the depiction.
Daniel Leidenfrost uses his memory of places and situations that somehow seem strangely familiar. As a first step, he records these memories by sketching them. He then proceeds to take photographs of the models, which he himself has assembled from the simplest of existing materials. The makeshift, slightly improvised nature of the models does not come through in the photos, which, more than anything else appear to epitomize perfect, flawless settings.
In similar vein, Josh Müller’s video la construction du ciel conveys a scene familiar to many air travellers: airplanes standing on a foggy airfield. A slow pan reveals that – with the exception of a disturbing soundscape – nothing happens here: no take-offs or landings. It is a reality that somehow seems off, which has a disturbing, unsettling effect in these usually so hectic surroundings. The secret of the model world is not revealed until the closing credits of the video begin to roll.
While Müller’s desire for distant lands remains unsatisfied, Blau’s previously mentioned installations already question them. Hyperreal, seemingly exotic, colourful landscapes present utopian paradise-filled worlds. Upon closer inspection, however, these turn out to be self-made illusions: collages of tear-sheets from glossy magazines, photographed in the studio. All three artists have in common the fact that their models are completely devoid of people.
Similarly, the video datatown by the young artists' collective collectif_fact offers a 3-D animated night-time drive through a Geneva suburb, which has, with the exception of selected signs depicting the urban space (neon signs, road markings, etc.) been deconstructed to appear like a sheet of black ‘carrier foil’. As in a computer game, spectators drift through a world that hides behind a colourful system of characters and gives the impression of a futuristic city, despite the fact that we know it actually exists.
distURBANces challenges accepted perceptions of our relation to ‘the real’ in a world marked by constant transformation, where virtual environments determine an everyday life that seems closer to science fiction than reality. Contemporary artists contribute to a paradigmatic shift that at the same time frames their work. According to cultural geographer and philosopher Augustin Berque’s Les raisons du paysage, this change in paradigm causes images of landscapes to ‘acquire physical rather than a merely mediated reality’. Through aesthetic and artistic research, the exhibited artists address the ethical question raised by Berque as to ‘who has the right and the power to construct reality’. Their investigations should at least allow us to become attuned to the interplay of reason and the sensual in our constructed perceptions of reality. As denoted by the environmentalist Jennifer Cypher and the anthropologist Eric Higgs, the selected artworks, whether dealing with real, virtual, staged or simulated worlds, embody the concern that, ‘the boundary between the artificial and the real will become so thin that the artificial will become the centre of moral value’.
Paul di Felice and Katia Reich in collaboration with Gunda Achleitner
Paul di Felice Ph.D *1953 in Differdange, Luxembourg
is an art critic, Senior Lecturer in Visual Arts at the University of Luxembourg and Director/Curator of the European Month of Photography Luxembourg. He lives in Luxembourg.
Katia Reich *1969 in Hamburg, Germany
is an art historian and Curator of the European Month of Photography Berlin. She lives in Berlin.
Gunda Achleitner*1979 in Wels, Austria
studied of Art History, Ethnology, and Cultural Anthropology. She works at the Municipal Department for Cultural Affairs of the City of Vienna, and is curator of the European Month of Photography Vienna, where she and lives.
Translated from French and German by
Paul di Felice, Agnès Prum and Joan Barbara Travers Simon