PRINT April 2006


Nothing is more instructive than a confusion of time frames.
—Alexander Kluge, The Devil’s Blind Spot

JOACHIM KOESTER WORKS along the borders between documentary and fiction. Typically he begins with an obscure story bound up with a particular place, a sited tale that is somehow broken or layered through time. Then, usually in a photo sequence or a film installation, he works to piece the story together, but never to the point of resolution: A historical irony persists, one that can be elaborated further; or an essential enigma remains, one that can be used to test the limits of what can be seen, represented, narrated, known. Like others involved in an archival approach to artmaking (such as Tacita Dean), Koester often accompanies his images with texts, but these serve less as factual captions than as imaginative legends of his own mapping of spaces, his own “ghost-hunting” of subjects.1

Frequently the spaces are far flung and the subjects long gone (they include late nineteenth-century explorers, early twentieth-century occultists, and post-1968 radicals). Koester is especially drawn to adventurers whose quests have failed, sometimes disastrously so (but then what counts as success in the category of utopia?). For example, Row House, 2000, considers the story of the Canadian Arctic town of Resolute, which begins with the search for the Northwest Passage, passes through the politics of the cold war, and deteriorates with the discordant claims of government planners, Inuit, and other residents in the present. Clearly, the borders that Koester works are also political and economic.

In two works Koester has treated Christiania, an abandoned military base in his native Copenhagen proclaimed a free city by anarchist squatters in 1971. In Day for Night, Christiania 1996, he photographed different sites with a blue filter (used in film to shoot night scenes during the day), split the titles between military designations and squatter names, and so remarked the transformations of Christiania at the level of image and language alike. Then, in Sandra of the Tuliphouse or How to Live in a Free State, 2001, a five-screen video installation produced with Matthew Buckingham, Koester used black-and-white photos drawn from archives and color footage shot on location to present, through the voice-over of the fictional Sandra, a range of ruminations on Christiania, the fate of armor in the age of gunpowder, the rise of heroin, and the decline of wolves. The piece is perspectival in a Nietzschean sense, with the audience forced to sort out the various viewpoints on the fly. Both works juxtapose the utopian promise and the grim actuality of Christiania (Dean again comes to mind), and both are structured through a particular kind of montage—internal in the case of the split-captioned photos of Day for Night, immersive in the case of the installation space of Sandra of the Tuliphouse. Such montage is the formal analogue of the parallactic model of history that Koester advances in all his work—a combination of times within the space of each piece. “You can really grasp time as a material through this simple act of comparison,” Koester writes; nothing is more instructive than a confusion of time frames.2

In other works focused on adventurers Koester also uses temporal frames to highlight historical ruses. For the photographic sequence From the Travel of Jonathan Harker, 2003, he retraced the journey of the English protagonist of Dracula through the Borgo Pass, only to find, in fabled Transylvania, suburban tracts, illegal logging, and a tourist hotel called Castle Dracula. Among actual explorers, Koester has taken up the Swedish scientist Nils A. E. Nordenskiöld, the first European to venture deep into the Greenland ice cap. Nothing is more Northern Romantic than a fascination with explorations gone awry (the emblem here is Caspar David Friedrich’s Sea of Ice, 1823–24, also known as The Wreck of the Hope), and Koester’s recent exhibition at the Greene Naftali Gallery included another piece about a polar expedition, the 2005 film installation Message from Andrée (first seen at that year’s Venice Biennale). “On July 11th 1897,” Koester tells us, “Andrée, Fraenkel, and Strindberg took off from Dane’s Island, Spitsbergen, with the intention of circumnavigating the North Pole in a balloon.”3 Yet the balloon soon crashed, and the explorers vanished on the pack ice; only thirty-three years later was a box of exposed negatives found. Some contained images, but most were “almost abstract, filled with black stains, scratches, and streaks of light”; out of this “visual noise” Koester produced a short 16-mm film, “pointing to the twilight zone of what can be told and what cannot be told, document and mistake.” As Koester reinscribes it, then, “the message from Andrée” is fundamentally ambiguous: An archival photo of the balloon just underway suggests the late nineteenth-century dream of the expedition—that the world can be readily mastered à la Jules Verne—while the film, like a message in a bottle worn away by exposure, points to the implacability of natural accidents as well as, perhaps, the indecipherability of historical events.

The two photo sequences in that show—one concerned a notorious figure of the occult, the other a celebrated philosopher of the Enlightenment—were also broken allegories that query the significance of historical traces in the midst of continuous transformations. In Morning of the Magicians, 2005, Koester documents his search for the home of occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) and his followers outside the Sicilian town of Cefalù. Closed in 1923 by order of Mussolini, the Abbey of Thelema was abandoned for more than thirty years, only to be rediscovered by the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who, supported by sexologist Alfred Kinsey, exposed the original murals evocative of the tantric practices, sexual rites, and drug use of the Crowley group. This layering of “pieces of leftover narratives and ideas from the individuals that once passed through this place” is almost too good to be true, but it also produces a narrative “knot,” and Koester conveys this obscurity with shots of the exterior overgrown with brush and of the interior marked by graffiti (it proved difficult even to find the house). The occult is thus the subject here in a few senses of the word. First come the actual practices of the Crowley group, which, if the murals are any indication, ranged from the magical through the ribald to the hokey (three images show the “Room of Nightmares,” where stoned initiates were placed overnight “to contemplate every possible phantom that can assail the soul”). The occult also interests Koester as an instance of an obscure activity within official culture. And, finally, there is the occlusion that comes not only of “the individuals that once passed through” (including Anger) but also of the modernity that continues to encroach (once a fishing village, Cefalù has become a “booming beachside town”).

This multiple occlusion was again the deep subject of the third work in the show, The Kant Walks, 2003. Immanuel Kant lived in Königsberg, and at the end of his life the great philosopher of reason suffered from hallucinations; subsequently his hometown was also wracked by irrationalities: Brutalized by the Nazis in the Kristallnacht of 1938 and bombed to rubble by the RAF in 1945, it was annexed by the Soviet Union and renamed Kaliningrad (after a Stalin associate). In his photo sequence Koester seeks to evoke these intertwined histories through a tracing of the daily walks taken by Kant, yet here again the path was not easy to discover. “One has to place two maps on top of each other, that of Königsberg and that of Kaliningrad, to find the locations today,” Koester writes, and then his own route was further disrupted by old bombs, postwar constructions, and official amnesia. The Kant Walks suggests a terrain vague of different orders of social space in collision; especially telling is one photo of a Soviet cultural center constructed in the early 1970s on the site of an old castle. The castle tunnels made the new building unstable, so it was simply left, unoccupied, to deteriorate. Koester calls these symptomatic places “blind spots”: “Detours, dead ends, overgrown streets, a small castle lost in an industrial quarter, evoked history as a chaos, a dormant presence far more potential than tidy linear narratives used to explain past events.”4

Even as modernization obliterates history, it can also produce “points of suspension” that expose its uneven development—or, perhaps better, its uneven devolution into so many ruins. Such are the “blind spots” that intrigue Koester. An oxymoron of sorts, the term suggests sites that, normally overlooked, might still provide insights; and, as Koester captures them, they are unsettled, an unusual mix of the banal and the uncanny, evocative of an everyday kind of historical unconscious (his image of the Kaliningrad center is a good example). Walter Benjamin once remarked that Atget photographed his deserted Paris streets as if they were crime scenes, and Koester has a forensic gaze too, though the crimes in his unpopulated images are the familiar ones of junk space, state suppression, and general oblivion. He uses the indexical nature of the photograph to seize “the ‘index’ of things” both as they emerge in time and as they fall back into it. Such is his double interest in “how history materializes” and how it decays into enigmatic precipitates.5

In The Kant Walks Koester evokes the Situationist practice of “psychogeography,” but Robert Smithson is the more important reference for him (as for many other artists today). In some ways Koester travels to Kaliningrad and elsewhere as Smithson ventured to Passaic—in search of inadvertent monuments in which “history or time [becomes] material.”6 This allegorical attention to “the index of things” again recalls Benjamin as well as, perhaps, W. G. Sebald (a key figure for Dean); but in this allegorical mode Benjamin tends to redemptive hope and Sebald to melancholic resignation, and Koester is relatively free of both. In this regard he is closer in spirit to Alexander Kluge.7 Kluge also works along the borders of documentary and fiction, and he, too, is drawn to blind spots in which the turns that history has taken, and might still take, are sometimes revealed to us.8 For Kluge these spots appear when the devil is napping, and so leave the door open, if not to the Messiah (as Benjamin hoped), at least to the possibility of change. This is how Koester intends his work to serve as well—as “a scene for potential narratives to unfold.”9 But in Koester as in Kluge the blind spots remain the devil’s, and so whatever change may befall us is not necessarily for the better.

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin Professor and Chair of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press, 2004).


1. Joachim Koester, “Lazy Clairvoyants and Future Audiences: Joachim Koester in Conversation with Anders Kreuger,” Newspaper Jan Mot 43, 44 (August 2005), unpaginated. For more on this archival approach, see my “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall 2004), 3–22.

2. Ibid. This internal montage is not a function of digital manipulation; hence the image retains its documentary effect (even as that effect might also be questioned). The result of the juxtaposition is a kind of “third meaning” that also interests associates of Koester’s such as Pierre Huyghe.

3. Unless otherwise specified, all citations are from the texts written by Koester to accompany the three works in the Greene Naftali show.

4. Koester continues: “Nowhere in Europe are the traces after World War Two more visible than in Kaliningrad. Hauntings from a war that shaped lives and destinies for generations to come. Including my own—like many, affected by the ‘third generation syndrome,’ I have always felt as if I was pulled towards an empty space: ‘that which has not been said.’”

It might seem that this kind of archival art is part of “the memory industry,” but in fact it underscores the difficulty of such memory. Given its concern with histories in tension with official history, it has more affinities with new historicism—with which it may share a sometimes problematic attraction to anecdotal stories.

5. There is a connection here to the often banal photographs that appear in Surrealist novels; see Denis Hollier, “Surrealist Precipitates,” October 69 (Summer 1994). In novels like Nadja, Hollier writes, “indexical signs leave doors ajar through which the demain joueur, the gambling tomorrow, does or does not make its entry,” 126.

6. Koester, “Lazy Clairvoyants and Future Audiences,” n.p.

7. At one point in The Devil’s Blind Spot, Kluge has this internal dialogue, which, with the necessary transpositions, might apply to Koester as well:

— And what do you mean by this metaphor? Why are you, a Germanist, acting as an historian?
— It shows the parallelism of events. As one epoch overlaps with another.
— Imperceptibly?
— Well, none of the contemporary witnesses noticed it (Alexander Kluge, The Devil’s Blind Spot: Tales from the New Century, trans. Martin Chalmers and Michael Hulse [New York: New Directions, 2004], 132).

8. There is another rub here for this kind of archival art. “If you go to a show now you will have to adjust to the work each time,” Koester remarks in his conversation with Anders Kreuger. “You need to find the manual for the show, and sometimes it does need a manual, and I don’t see anything bad about that.” The defensive tone at the end underscores the problem that Koester attempts to bracket here, a problem that Kreuger identifies as a gap between research and presentation, but that might also be understood in terms of an enigmatic sign or story that is simply too arbitrary or too involuted to become significant. Archival art is all about epistemological curiosity: Here is a story (or fragments thereof), it says; here is what it might tell us about our (in)abilities to see, represent, narrate, understand. But often the effect is rather an epistemological dilemma: Do I (the viewer) want to enter this archival story and work on its puzzle? Must I? The prospect can be intriguing, but it can also be off-putting, for “nothing in the world,” Koester acknowledges in the interview with Kreuger, “is more boring than participating in a game when you don’t know the rules.” At least he is aware of the problem and sometimes almost thematizes it (“the narrative is embedded or enmeshed in all those blots,” he writes in the text accompanying Message from Andrée). “I’m looking for an audience,” Koester tells Kreuger. “An audience that I don’t necessarily have.” (I am indebted to Mignon Nixon for her insight into this dilemma.)

9. Koester, “Lazy Clairvoyants and Future Audiences,” n.p.