PRINT September 2001

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh

THIS YEAR'S VENICE BIENNALE WAS IN MANY WAYS A SHOWDOWN between new electronic technologies (in particular that of digital-video projections) and the media of painting and sculpture, with the latter on the defensive, if not in manifest retreat, from their traditional stronghold in this most venerable of biennials. Spectators frequently found themselves standing in line to enter claustrophobic spaces, halfway between movie house, darkened living room, and Skinner box. Here, the called-for response is neither individual contemplation nor simultaneous collective reception. Exhibition value—the condition of the secularized modernist work as fully emancipated from cult value and myth-has been replaced by spectacle value, a condition in which media control in everyday life is mimetically internalized and aggressively extended into those visual practices that had previously been defined as either exempt from or oppositional to mass-cultural regimes, and that now relapse into the most intense solicitation of mythical experience. Paradoxically, the more noisily this electronic apparatus voices its totalizing claims, the more it expectorates its retardataire humanist, if not outright mythical or religious, themes and messages, a fusion of which the American Bill Viola remains the undisputed master (with Mark Wallinger, the representative to the British pavilion, a close second).

An exception to the rule was the work by Pierre Huyghe, the representative to the French pavilion (organized by Xavier Douroux, curator of Le Consortium/Le Coin du Miroir in Dijon). In his contribution, Huyghe fused a contemplative reflection on the legacies of reflexive modernism and institutional critique with a rumination on the inextricably intertwined condition of architectural space and electronic media.

With translucent glass walls partitioning the pavilion into three segments, the illuminated ceiling of the center space might have appeared merely a horizontal glass-and-aluminum curtain wall: a grid reciting all its historical subtexts, from quintessential episteme of modernist painting, to subsequent model of radical democratic, egalitarian spaces within utopian architecture, to final deterioration into a spatial matrix of enforced administrative order. But once spectators adjusted to the dimly lit space, they discovered two large remote controls at their disposal, forcing them to recognize that this particular variation on the modernist grid served as the audience's hypertrophic screen for a participatory performance of Pong, the first Atari video game. The grid had been recruited into the services of technological entertainment, and the game had acquired the scale of public architecture, as though both needed to clarify the extent to which public spatial experience is now fully contained within electronic media culture. Thus the modernist promises of emancipatory inscription and ludic self-realization returned here in a nightmarish hybrid where spectatorial participation only furthers the subject's seemingly inexhaustible submission to the mechanisms of the societies of control.

The second segment served as projection space for a video of a model of two skyscrapers (a strange amalgam of Mies van der Rohe's Lake Shore Drive Apartments and typically French HLM banlieue housing projects) displayed in an artificial snowstorm that imbued these extremes of architectural alienation with a romantic and ironically naturalizing ambience. Their lights seemed to switch on and off according to an incomprehensible rule, at first recalling the unified but random flicker of the bluish illumination issuing from televison sets in apartment buildings at night. Eventually the rhythm of illumination accelerated and became regularized, turning the apartment towers into the board of some unknown game.

The third segment was devoted to another looped video projection. In a maneuver reminiscent of the ruses of Marcel Duchamp, Huyghe and artist Phihppe Parreno have acquired the rights to an outdated Japanese cartoon character named AnnLee. In this installation AnnLee—a fragile japoniste homunculus—hesitantly traverses a lunar landscape in machinic monotony. The rhythm of the landscape's perpetually opening crevices and craggy protrusions appeared to be digitally determined by the droning voice of Neil Armstrong, delivering a celebratory monologue from outer space on the occasion of the first moon landing. (In fact, the sound track was the synthesized voice of Armstrong reciting a text written by Huyghe, with passages from Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth.) Just as obsolete as AnnLee, the tragicomic cartoon character withdrawn after only a brief period of design deployment, Armstrong's voice articulates the obsolescence of a triumph in which the perfect fusion of power and technology have taken ultimate control of all forms of cosmic eschatology.

If the first elements of the installation addressed the intertwined condition of architecture and the spaces of media culture, the last (also in this third spatial segment) engaged the classic artistic discourses of design and illumination: a set of sprawling hanging lamps, expensively produced in (Venetian?) milk glass, whose slowly pulsating luminosity was—as in the architectural models-dimming or brightening according to an unknown principle. Strangely reminiscent of modernism's beguiling synthesis of the organic and the machinic (as in Duchamp's Nine Malic Moulds in The Large Glass), the set of lamps hovered like a life-support system over a white poly concave seating cluster by American Modernist designer Elsie Crawford. The context of Huyghe's work made these biomorphic and seemingly only decorative camp structures-at once “futuristic” and “fifties”—appear as the very site where the rule of design inscription takes control of perception and somatic desire becomes designer object.

The dialectics of progress (the sole objective of which, one should remember, is the maximization of profit and intensification of control) and obsolescence is certainly central to Huyghe's project. But the artist's deployment of obsolete devices inside the most developed forms of visual and spatial domination differs drastically from artistic practices that simply collapse the aesthetic into design strategies (e.g., that of Jorge Pardo), in a camp gesture eliminating differences that had once opposed radical negativity to design's mediocre seductions of everyday life. Huyghe's work, by contrast, mobilizes an allegorical counterforce, a sudden temporal and spatial break from the apparently invincible spell and hermetic closure that the languages of media technology, architecture, and design have established in the service of spectacle and commodity production.

Benjamin H.D. Buchloh's Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, the first of two volumes, was published last spring by MIT Press.