Tobias Rehberger

SINCE THE BEGINNING of his career, German artist Tobias Rehberger has made the creative input of others integral to his practice. He has constructed living-room-like spaces based on his friends’ notes and sketches for a “relaxed and meditative environment” (for the project Fragments of Their Pleasant Spaces [In My Fashionable Version], realized first in 1996 and again in 1999); once he even arranged for craftsmen in Thailand to make full-size, functional versions of high-end cars on the basis only of rough pencil sketches he provided (Nana, 2000). More recently, Rehberger built a thirty-six-foot-long boat based on one constructed in the 1980s by the father of fellow contemporary artist Danh Vo in order to flee Vietnam (Gu Mo Ni Ma Da, 2006). In his exhibitions, Rehberger usually presents such objects in distinctively colorful, highly polished environments—giving a sculptural, aesthetic dimension to a conceptual framework otherwise steeped in the notions of interpretation and translation. With his latest project, On Otto, 2007, recently on view at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, Rehberger pushed these ideas further than in any of his previous works, outsourcing not only the execution of the project but also almost all of the creative decisions necessary to it to a group of professionals from the Hollywood film industry.

In fact, this is not the first time Rehberger has shown an interest in film and in the models governing its representation and reception. In the thirty-six-minute video Anastasia, 1997, he explored the medium from the inside, presenting an antinarrative work to address the optical effects that ultimately bring about the illusion of motion on a screen. (The piece consists simply of a progression through the color spectrum, which happens so gradually that spectators can “view” the changes of color only by closing their eyes for several minutes.) And in JP 005 (Model for a Film), shown in 1998 at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Rehberger challenged the medium’s display conventions by designing a cinema to be occupied by only one person at a time. Indeed, the latter work—a luxurious room in the style of ’70s interior design yet clearly indebted to the immersive mise-en-scènes of John Eberson’s “atmospheric theaters” of the 1920s—was, Rehberger says, a point of origin for On Otto.

For this new project, Rehberger radically deconstructed not film but the creative process behind it, totally fragmenting the typical system of production in order to consider cinema as a codified cultural phenomenon—taking up an advertising poster, in fact, as the beginning of the project rather than its promotional coda. Thanks to the large budget and the cultural appeal provided by the Fondazione Prada, the artist managed to recruit a number of well-known figures from the world of film as collaborators, including actors Kim Basinger, Willem Dafoe, Danny DeVito, Justin Henry, and Emmy Rossum. The artist asked French animators Kuntzel + Deygas to design the title credits using the poster as their only guide; the film’s sound effects were created by Randy Thom (whose first big breaks were recordings for Apocalypse Now [1979] and The Empire Strikes Back [1980]); Ennio Morricone composed a musical score. Subsequently, moving through the various other stations in the process, from editing by Sylvie Landra to set design by Jeffrey Beecroft, Rehberger solicited a 106-page-long hypothetical script by Barbara Turner. In most cases, he offered no instructions except that each person should plan his or her contribution in light of what had been completed to that point by other collaborators. This freed the participants in the project from the restrictions normally imposed—by, say, a film director’s hand—and generally meant they could devise creative responses to the proposed project just as they wished.

Once the end of this unlinked chain of production was reached, the constituent parts of On Otto—including videos, sounds, sketches, and the storyboard—were housed within an installation consisting of four large pavilions designed by Rehberger, each one made using the acrylic materials and the fluorescent colors familiar from the formal register of his previous work. The first of these irregular structures was dedicated to an exposition of the film’s titles, sound, music, and editing; the second to the actors; the third to the cinematography, scene design, costume design, and storyboard; the fourth to the script. But the pavilions did not function solely as shells hosting multiple components both closely interrelated and independent. They were also earnest proposals for a new kind of architecture for cinema: a pointed rejection of canonical formats and the authoritative perspective of the frontally positioned screen. Indeed, the pavilions succeeded in abolishing the sensation of confinement that occurs when there is only one object—the silver screen at the front of the auditorium—to look at, since the images were projected from several points simultaneously, and sometimes onto transparent partition walls viewable from both sides. As significant as this liberation of film in physical space, however, was the psychological experience Rehberger provided, as spectators responded to a film with no end and no beginning: On Otto rejects all linear sequences. Indeed, as Rehberger points out in the catalogue, the work’s title can be read backward—as “Otto No,” an allusion to the manifold routes viewers can take in and out of the work—at the same time that it offers the possibility for homophonic wordplay, as “On Auto” reflects the “quasi-automatic” (in Rehberger’s words) aspect of the routine professionalism in each contributor’s work.

The conceptual scaffolding of the project overall also seems implicit in the poster for the film, which includes a still from Orson Welles’s stunning sequence in The Lady from Shanghai (1947) set in a fairground hall of mirrors—a scene whose cinematographic language was quoted several times by Rehberger’s collaborators. (To briefly describe the poster in toto, a boy—perhaps Otto—sits in an empty cinema, holding a fish toward the screen, on which there is the black-and-white image from Welles’s film: A woman with platinum hair lies on the floor, eyes wide open in fear. Near the middle of the poster, a hand-drawn red circle links the projected film and the auditorium, as well as the actress and her teenage observer.) The influence was apparent in games of refraction throughout the installation. For instance, Beecroft’s production design presented a “crime scene,” comprising a circular installation of mirrored walls pocked with bullet holes, with the outline of a figure covered in blood lying in the middle. But the mirror effect also came across forcefully in the pavilion devoted to the actors: A star-shaped bank of screens converged in the center, showing each player in solitude within a traditional theater, watching Welles’s film in its entirety. In keeping with On Otto’s rejection of filmic conventions, the actors were thus recast as regular cinemagoers—nonactors, in other words, whose constructed public identities and professional roles were thereby destabilized. Still, we had some sense of them switching back and forth between simply watching and acting, flickering in and out of their professional and private lives; in a vertiginous twist on the reflective qualities of the mirror, we watched them watching while knowing that they knew they were being watched. Rehberger here used the actors almost as sculptural elements that distilled many of the open-ended perspectives that spun out from On Otto, crystallizing his objective of reassessing the art object as a point of encounter between author and spectator.

If On Otto began as an experiment, scrutinizing whether and how the decisions made by all involved in a project might come together in a more or less unified work, the final installation’s complex nonlinearity instead uncovered the discrete operation and autonomy of various professional fields. In the 2004 essay “Montage/Sampling/Morphing: On the Triad of Aesthetics/Technology/Politics,” the German cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen writes about how the emergence of the technique of montage early in the twentieth century allowed the artist to regard him- or herself as “an engineer, a foreman, an architect,” and the artwork to become a “construction site [that] functions on the basis of the division of labor.” Such a conclusion is certainly merited in the case of On Otto, but its mode of production goes beyond even the most advanced artistic strategies Diederichsen discusses: The work is perhaps better called a deconstruction site, so to speak, of film. Rehberger undermined any assumption of the medium’s seamlessness in order to expose the incongruities between its various components, stripping cinematography of all its illusionism in the process. The artist’s multilayering of visual and acoustic aspects seemed like a play on the idea of the “director’s cut.” Not only did he subvert the role of director to give equal importance to the work of the other contributors to the project, but, in the final analysis, he also subverted the role of the visitors to his exhibition, each of whom ended up with his or her own fragmentary, illogical, and open-ended “spectator’s cut.”

Diana Baldon is curator in residence at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.