Norbert Brunner/Michael Schuster

Steirischer Herbst 99

Conceptual photographer Michael Schuster and poet Norbert Brunner executed the project Dokumentarische Dialektstudie (Documentary dialect study) in 1979. In 1999, adhering to exactly the same specifications, the project was played through one more time. Before examining the character of such a repeat performance, let’s consider the original concept. As the complete title of the first version indicates, the “Documentary Dialect Study from the Fersental to Garmisch-Partenkirchen” follows the transmutation of the Tirolean dialect from the German-speaking southern Tirol in Italy across the Austrian northern Tirol and into southern Bavaria in Germany. Twenty-four locations were scouted out over the course of as many days and documented both photographically and acoustically. For the photographic documentation, equivalent sites were chosen for each town: From the church tower, an automatic camera shot the village square at two-minute intervals over the course of an hour; also from the church tower, a single frame was shot with a camera pointing east; inside the church, a photograph of the altar was taken during the Lord’s Prayer; from the center of the village, a 360-degree panorama was taken in ten shots; in the cemetery, a picture of a tombstone with the town’s most frequently occurring family name was taken. For the acoustic documentation, the Lord’s Prayer was recorded as it was uttered by the congregation in each church. These recordings could be heard on cassette recorders set up under each display panel. Finally, a phonetic transcription of the prayer accompanied each set of photographs.

What was the impulse behind such a rigorously schematic, quasi-ethnographic work? From the perspective of cultural history, the work recalls the increased interest in rural living in Austria in the ’70s, which resulted in an intensive engagement in film, theater, and literature with the conflict between rural lifestyles and modernization. But the quasi-bureaucratic use of photography suggests that, in the end, this project is less concerned with the actual variations within the cultural space than with the act of recording and the way in which it determines knowledge. The parallel set up between imagistic and linguistic techniques of representation reminds one of Martha Rosler’s formulation in the title of her 1974–75 Bowery series: “two inadequate descriptive systems.”

Repeated in 1999, the expedition through the Tirolean regions yields a second image of place through more modern technologies of representation. The prayer can be heard on a CD player; the originally amateurish, handwritten phonetic transcription gives way to a scholarly one; in place of the panorama made up of a series of photos, there is a seamless 360-degree pan with a turntable-mounted digital camera. The perfected representation seems to undercut the verisimilitude of the older one. But at the same time, it too is relativized as a moment within the history of technologies of representation. Though a change in the local speech over the course of these twenty years is only barely perceptible, a clear re-historicization can be discerned in the image of place. Postmodern traditionalism has “re-tirolized” the architecture and the design of the village square—wood has once again replaced iron and stone has supplanted asphalt—so the materials making up the village stand in opposition to the means of documentation. Much attention has been paid to the “artist as ethnographer” since the publication of Hal Foster’s Return of the Real, but the unsentimental, almost indifferent attitude taken by Brunner and Schuster toward their object has nothing to do with the projections of an idealized “other” attributed by Foster to this type of work. Precisely the repeat performance of their twenty-year-old piece testifies to their understanding of documentation as a genre subject to specific conventions.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from German by Diana Reese.