PRINT Summer 1997


without addresses

CLICK ON the projects icon on the Documenta Internet server ( and the first thing you’ll see is the page “Surfaces & Territories.” From there, it’s just another click to reach Joachim Blank and Karl Heinz Jeron’s work, without addresses—a blue street map of some nonexistent city lacking buildings, street names, or any other points of reference. Blank and Jeron are artists and programmers who have been involved for a couple of years in the construction of International City, one of the best-known and most important servers and providers in Berlin. Their site without addresses is one of the online projects developed specifically for the Internet component of Documenta under the auspices of curator Simon Lamunière. Lamunière attempted to commission projects that would explore any number of themes privileged by the Net, which he loosely grouped under the headings “Surfaces & Territories,” “Groups & Interpretation,” and “Cities & Networks.” Of the eight projects developed, without addresses is at once the simplest and most complex. And given the conceptual underpinnings of Documenta X—the nebulous constellation of ideas developed by Catherine David that almost no one understands and for which only unofficial lists of artists were available prior to the show’s opening—it's not difficult to see the irony in Blank and Jeron’s online image of a city without addresses.

When a user accesses without addresses, a small window with the simple command “Tell me who you are!” pops up just above the city map. Inputting a name or term initiates a search program, familiar to Net users, that randomly selects another site on the Web containing a matching word. However, the site the program selects is scrambled: images are altered in size; texts from the site are turned into script and overlap the images. With a little luck, a handwritten text about the user will suddenly show up on the screen (or at least that's what the programmers promise once the technical difficulties of the site are ironed out). More likely, though, the system, in a calculated misunderstanding, will make the “wrong” pick and choose a text that has nothing to do with the visitor signing on other than the coincidence that it contains a matching word.

Each new insertion is represented on the map with an orange, then yellow dot; clicking on one of these dots calls up a handwritten note, including the name or term that has been inserted. As more people participate, the city map becomes populated with visitors. The more interesting the visitors (and recognizable names are found every now and then), the more interesting the trek through the unknown city. But even unknown names may yield interesting information. On the other hand—and this is the risk (as well as the point) of the exercise—the whole thing can be a complete bore, just like any other gathering of people.

Of course, Documenta itself runs the same risk. Here, too, only a rough map seems to be given in advance, providing an itinerary that leads from the central train station through Kassel to the park. David refused for some time to give the “exact addresses”—that is, to announce the works of art—in advance. Where the names were leaked, it was hard to gauge how much weight their presentation would be given. And through the emphasis on “100 Days—100 Guests,” David’s lineup of critics, historians, and philosophers, Documenta will likely be a productive experience only if the visitor is fortunate enough to be there at a moment when something interesting is going on.

The concept behind without addresses is similar. The title refers explicitly to the chapter “No Address” in Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs. In his book, Barthes describes the problem of orienting oneself in Tokyo, where addresses in the traditional sense do not exist and one must depend on visual memories. The residents of the city have compensated by developing the distinct skill of sketching places and directions on small pieces of paper—a process that turns “the exchange of addresses into a delicate communication in which . . . an art of the graphic gesture recurs”—that makes it eventually possible to find one's way in what Barthes calls this city of “anonymity.”

However, owing to the fickleness common to online projects, it never becomes clear on the without addresses map where the visitor has and hasn’t already been. This should become possible after an update of the project, which was announced weeks ago but, as of this writing, has not yet taken place. The update is supposed to convert the itinerary of the single visitor as well as those of others into a visible mark, so that a net emerges corresponding to the most traveled connections between the dots.

Like without addresses, Documenta will also function according to which points along the way become known as being worth visiting. If the virtual city in without addresses becomes so stuffed with addresses that an impenetrable traffic jam results, the site can simply be cleared and the system restarted. Though one might get the impression that the curators would love to have the same option, it won't be so simple to clear the screen at Documenta.

Christoph Blase, a Cologne-based art critic, contributes to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Kunst-Bulletin, and Blitz Review.

Translated from the German by Sascha Lehnartz.