Gebhard Sengmüller & Franz Büchinger, supported by Fels-Multiprint – A Parallel Image (2010)
This case study will draw on a mix of semiotic and phenomenological methodologies in order to examine the physical and emotions relationships developed between the spectator and the art object in Gebhard Sengmüller, Franz Büchinger and Fels-Multiprint’s “A Parallel Image”. Without having experienced the work personally, I will have to rely on image and textual documentation of the work, provided by Sengmüller on his website. This will be compared to similar types of work that reside within technological, cinematic, literary, and art historicial contexts, and will be supplemented by a personal account of the work, by Caitlind R.C. Brown, who experienced it recently at Glow Festival in Eindhoven, Netherlands.
“A Parallel Image” by Austrian media artists Gebhard Sengmüller and Franz Büchinger is described as “an electronic camera obscura”(“A Parallel Image”). I would argue that it shares very little in common with the camera obscura though, other than its ability to create an image of its surroundings. In reality, it has more in common with early television history, and instead of simply reflecting or refracting an image of its surroundings, it breaks down the image into a transmissible signal and recompiles it onto another screen. In his writing on the project in an online brochure, Sengmüller describes how the device re-imagines early television signals. He notes that the history of analogue television signals has remained mostly unchanged since its development in 1880 by French engineer Maurice Leblanc, wherein the image is broken down into linear light impulses, which are then transmitted to synchronized sending and receiving devices (3).
He writes that this project “starts from the assumption that the development just described never happened… I attempt to develop a television format that is useless in its efficiency, but nevertheless technically entirely feasible. My format chooses a parallel transmission of every single pixels, which makes a technically elaborate synchronization in time between sender and receiver superfluous” (5). He notes that the structure of the device is ungainly and useless, much like first generation computer technology which requires entire rooms in which to operate simple functions. It is a large structure, that has generally been shown as the only object in a darkened room. It consists of two flat screens, separated from one another by several feet of tangled copper wire creating a complex mass between the two walls. One screen/wall is covered with photosensitive plates, and the other with small light bulbs. In images, it glows beautifully, with a wall of light warm orange light bulbs that are reminiscent of a 1930’s cinema marquee, and as visitors walk past the photosensitive screen, their shadow in tele-projected into the light bulb display.
Sadly, my own interpretations are drawn from still images, video and descriptions of the work, which are themselves sad shadows of the actual experience. To remedy that, I called on my friend Caitlind R.C. Brown, a visual artist who recently experienced the work in person at the Glow Festival in Eindhoven, Netherlands. She writes:
“Oh! It was a really fantastic piece. The strange thing about it, that you don’t immediately realize from documentation, is that when you’re on the shadow-casting side of the installation, you have no idea what the people on the light bulb side are seeing. I mean, you have a pretty good idea (because the mechanisms are all exposed, right down to a massive knot of wires at the base of the piece… that, and you’ve watched how it’s worked for other people) but the brightness and feedback are not for you – it’s almost like a puppet show!
It was probably one of my favourite piece though. So simple. So analog. And the exposed parts were fascinating to look at. People were a bit shy of it though… it was delightfully under-stated by comparison to some of the more spectacular pieces.”
Sengmüller is clearly fascinated with the idea of resurrecting technological apparatuses into a new context. By drawing on the history of “camera obscura” and the development of television signals, he draws an archeological attention to the technologies that were and that are now obsolete. Like the room-sized computers of the 1950’s, these objects are crucial in the development of our current technology, and clearly shaped our present. However, what is of more interest in this particular case, is that Sengmüller has invented a new technology for a time long since past. Similar to Walt Disney’s imaginary future technologies at Epcot, this project imagines what could be, however it does so in a context that is more like the Steampunk movement, returning to the past to re-invent it. It is a type of science fiction, that is useless in terms of current progress, but posits alternative paths of human development. In that, it does not operate much differently than Steampunk imaginings in literature, cinema and visual art, or even historical fiction and some genres of science fiction that posit devolved and apocalyptic societies. However, what really situates “A Parallel Image” as a unique exploration of alternative histories, is the fact that it actually works. It is no longer a fantastical imagining; rather the artist has conceptually reversed time, to create a technological artifact that credibly could exist in that time (although it should be noted that the use of photo-sensitive circuit boards would make invention in 1880 problematic), and proves it by creating a functioning model. By doing so, it becomes both an art object and a scientific one simultaneously. It is an invention no less difficult or exciting than the first microchip or iPhone, it simply has goals other than technological progress for commercial or functional gain.
There is an element of fetishization of technology that is occurring within the work; certainly, inventing obsolete technology in order for it to act as an art-object, rather than a functional tool, is fetishistic. It attributes an artistic aura and inherent conceptual power to the technology, much like an object is given superstitious power in fetish rituals. Sengmüller himself describes the “[t]echno-sculptural beauty of the installation” , and frankly, although he attributes it to “a side effect” (6), he deliberately draws on the nostalgic aesthetic of older technology, using bare copper wires instead of coated ones and miniature, warm-coloured incandescent bulbs instead of regular sized or modern LED ones. Although this is a fine intention, if a technological fetish was the only entry point into the work, I don’t think that it would be as successful as it seems to be.
It is the relationship between the body of the installation and that of the spectator, where a phenomenological experience of the work is engaged in addition to the spectacle of imaginary technology. The transmission of the viewer’s body from one side of the installation to the other is quite the feat of disembodiment. Like closed-circuit television, the viewer’s body is in two places at once, and it recalls the close-circuit connotations of voyeurism and surveillance. However, rather than being distanced from the viewer by the hidden and almost magical technology of the television monitor, video equipment and data transmission, here one’s body is separated from one’s shadow and spectators on the other side of the installation by a human scale. One could easily step around the sculptural form to see the other side, however the spectator will never be able to experience their own body’s transmission through the work due to the real-time nature of the signal. Unlike a video signal, there is no way of recording or delaying it, it simply goes from point A to point B, just like your real shadow. In addition, the mass of wire coiled at the center of the piece, reveals the system of transmission in the same way as a model of the human body reveals our systems of veins and nerves. It is a delicate and messy coil of wire that obviously connects one side of the installation to the other, and based on the common knowledge of electronic forms available to most viewers, I would suggest that most people would deduce that it is transmitting signals back and forth from chip boards (which are usually associated with computers and electronic signals) to light bulbs (which clearly require an electronic pulse to activate or deactivate). Here the delicate but tangible body of the installation is an echo of ourselves, and demands conceptual engagement with spectators as another body with which you can communicate. In this case, the spectator communicates with it by standing in front of the sensors, and becoming part of the work, where the two bodies of technology and spectator merge.
What is particularly fascinating about the idea of a shadow transmission is that the image projected on the other side is literally like a shadow, more-so than any other form of tele-projection. The image of your body is not being recorded, broken down and transmitted. Rather, the image is created by your body blocking the spotlight focused on the photosensitive panels. The absence of light activating the panels is recorded electronically, then transmitted to the other side, where bulbs turn off, re-creating your shadow on the other side. In some ways, it’s almost more like a Star Trek teleporter, dis-assembling parts of your body (after all, how do you detach your shadow from your body), and re-assembling them in a new space. In video documentation of the piece, the artist projects 16mm footage of an old Betty Boop cartoon onto the photosensitive screen. The result of this is a shadow-translation of Betty as she dances on the opposite side. It is a dream-shade of the film, without any of the detail that signals to the viewer that it is in fact Betty Boop specifically. In both the cases of Betty Boop and human spectators interacting with the work, the shadow projections take on a form that is less than cinema and less than television. They exist in a media that is more like Asian shadow puppet plays, a pre-cursor to the cinematic moving image.
Brown, Caitlind. Personal Interview. 20 November 2013. Web. 25 November 2013.
Sengmüller, Gebhard. “A Parallel Image: Installation (images)”. Gebseng. Gebhard Sengmüller. Web. 25 November 2013. <http://www.gebseng.com/08_a_parallel_image/schmiede_hallein_2009- 10/index.shtml>.
—-. “A Parallel Image: promotional brochure (pdf)”. Gebseng. Gebhard Sengmüller. Web. 25 November 2013. <http://www.gebseng.com/08_a_parallel_image/a_parallel_image_brochure.pdf>.
—-. “Promotional video”. Gebseng. Gebhard Sengmüller. Web. 25 November 2013. <http://www.gebseng.com/08_a_parallel_image/>.