PRINT January 2002

Tom Holert on Katja Davar

IT’S A SIMPLE ENOUGH PROPOSAL TO USE A BALLOON to get ideas off the ground. The rainbow-striped craft in Katja Davar’s computer animation Remote Host, 2001, does just that—although it’s not obvious at first sight. Touching down in a landscape of meticulously penciled ugliness, her vessel bounces from valley to valley and becomes enveloped by hovering banderoles that read IS IT TOMORROW YET? or UNKNOWN ECHO. Eventually leaving the grim, Tolkienesque planet, the unmanned ship floats off into deepest space, recalling the proto-Surrealistic visions of Gustave Dori or Jules Verne.

Davar’s short, silent documentary of an imaginary stopover by the “remote host” is almost sickeningly cute. In fact, it can give you the creeps. But that’s where the trip really starts. The London-born Davar, who studied at St. Martin’s, the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and the Kunsthochschule für Medien in Cologne (her current home), throws the complex history of her balloon into the mix. Its “happy” design cites the logo of Smalltalk, an object-oriented programming language developed by Alan Kay at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the early ’70s. The intuitive graphic interface later became a major source of inspiration for both Apple’s OS and Microsoft’s Windows, not to mention the CIA, which bought a large situation-analysis system.

When illustrator Robert Tinney was asked to draw a cover for a 1981 issue of Byte magazine dedicated to Smalltalk, he used the image of a colorful balloon departing from the ivory tower of hermitlike programming and ascending to what he described as the “heights of popular appeal.” Translating the nerdy optimism of this future past into her own system of references, Davar exposes the disproportionate relation between the program’s enormous impact on the global transformation of computer-related labor and the posthippie, fairy-tale mode of its PR aesthetic.

The artist’s reconstruction doesn’t end with this reflection on the representation of techno-social power by a certain iconography of cuteness. Looking closely at the balloon’s basket, one finds the features of the world’s first commercial communications satellite, called “Early Bird”-another telling euphemism.

Davar is interested in the narratives of progress and their attendant packaging. She travels the paths of forgotten or failed projects once set up to invent the future while remaining wary of the twined fascinations of nostalgia and futurism. In her own idiosyncratic way, she is embracing the “skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life,” as Donna Haraway once put it—with the slight difference that Davar’s version of the “interrelation” between technology and the body balks at promising any liberatory effects. Her work, which ranges from elaborate embroidery “paintings” of 3-D wire-frame computer drawings to sci-fi- and fantasy-inspired illustrations of impossible creatures stuck in repetitive, robotic actions, promises other stuff-not least the criticism of an aesthetics of promise and seduction.

TOM HOLERT, who elsewhere in this issue interviews curator Robert Storr on the occasion of MoMA’s Gerhard Richter retrospective, is a Cologne-based writer and former editor of the pop-culture magazine Spex and the journal Texte zur Kunst. He coedited Mainstream der Minderheiten: Pop in der Kontrollgesellschaft (Mainstream of minorities: Pop in the control society. 1996) with Mark Terkessidis. with whom he cofounded the Institute for Studies in Visual Culture. Currently he is collaborating on another title with Terkessidis on “war as mass culture,” scheduled for publication in fall 2002 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne.