The interior of the Kunsthaus Langenthal is one of former bureaucratic opulence; high ceilinged wood panelled chambers line spacious central corridors. Each of the 23 artists (or artist couples) participating in Video-Installationen - Szene Schweiz had one room or connecting space in this former town hall to occupy with their work. The curator Ursula Wittmer selected artists representing different linguistic and ethnic groups from both the indigenous and immigrant populations of Switzerland and artworks displaying a wide range of approaches to the video medium.
What was remarkable in this exhibition was the diversity of formal and technological manifestations the video apparatus could take. In one of the elegantly appointed chambers of the former Gemeindehaus Pipilotti Rist reconstructed a woman's bedroom. Set into a vanity mirror a mouth sized LCD screen repeatedly received kisses from electronic lips. An image of an attentive eye by Käthe Walser was rear projected, in an architectural pun, onto a bull's-eye window of the central stairway. Chérif and Silvie Defraoui illuminated a circular pile of salt on the floor of their darkened 'room' with ephemeral images of water and mystic icons.
As the plasticity of the component technologies of video were explored in this exhibition the medium's relationship to television and, indirectly, to cinema was diminished. Documentary approaches were absent and where fiction was suggested the continuous loop of the video precluded both closure and a point of narrative departure. But, despite the absence of cinematic and televisual forms of narrative, text, both written and spoken, figured prominently in the more successful works in Langenthal. Words, however, were used less for their denotative meanings than for their connotation as language, for signifying the paradigm of communication.
Marie José Burki's simple installation 'Volume' (1989) juxtaposed circular time of a video tape 'loop' with the linear format of a reference book. In a small empty room Burki had cut out of one wall, at head height, a rectangular recess approximately 10 centimetres deep. Inset behind this recess was the screen of a large (70 cm) video monitor displaying the turning white pages of an encyclopaedia whose body of text was illegible but whose subject headings could be made out, from Gouvernement to Négatif, to Sensabilité and to Sujet. When the linear time of the tome appeared to be coming to an end the video, almost inperceptibly, dissolved back to the beginning of the alphabet; after Temps came Eternité.
For Walter Benjamin to read a book is to engage in intellectual activity without encvountering a sensorial experience (or Erfahrung in German). Subsequently, according to Benjamin, the reader consumes information but does not experierence wisdom. Burki has symbolically reduced the information contained in an encyclopaedia to the few words legible on the flat video screen. It is not the information on the pages, the facts, that Burki wishes to emphasize but the movement of the pages turning resonating through the architecture of the room. She supplants a textual 'volume' of information with spatial and aural 'volumes' of experience.
The act of travelling illustrates Henri Bergson's statement that "Il n'existe pas de choses faites, mais seulement des choses qui se font...", the idea that nothing exists a priori but all is in the process of becoming. A passing landscape is witnessed by a traveller to be in a continual cycle of appearance and disapperance. YACH's (Yegya Arman and Christine Hunold) installation 'The Flies Are Looking for a Silent Place' (1994) evoked the state of transition that constitutes a road trip.
A series of nine operating windshield wipers produced a complex mechanical rhythm marking the relative time experienced by the occupants of a moving automobile. These devices noisily lined both sides of the first floor corridor and were punctuated by three manipulated VHS video cassettes interspersed along the walls. Radiating from the centre of each black cassette was a rotating second hand, suggesting both the elapsed time of the video recording during the journey and the playback time of the video in the exhibition.
Despite the reference the cassette/clocks made to the medium, the actual presence of video in this (video) installation was modest. Three tiny LCD monitors were almost lost among the other elements on the walls. Their 8 cm screens displayed a montage of the artists' own footage of traffic and clips of car chases appropriated from television. This imagery was graphically overlaid with traffic symbols and text which recalled a road trip. White arrows crawling across the imagery were interspersed with German text scrolling down the screens recounting a problem known to every car traveller, the accumulation of dead flies on the windshield. These flies are the metaphorical by-product of temporal existence, the ever accumulating corpses of past experiences.
YACH's little screens in 'The Flies...' referred to electronic screens not only in their televisual incarnations but also to their manifestations as information displays in airports, bus termini, train stations and, more recently in the vehicles themselves. Recorded or recalled, this electronic information becomes a series of signifiers indicating different stages in the state of transiton from one place to another, semiotic reminders of " les choses qui se font."
The only installation in Video-Installationen Szene Schweiz with explicit narrative content was Alexander Hahn's 'The Bernoulli-Itinerary' (1990-1991). However, the structure, three horizontal screens with a smaller vertical screen to the left of them showing a digitalised image of a man reading from a book, suggested a university lecture or poetry reading rather than the conventional narrative format of television or cinema.
The dry, amplified voice of the man reading, emanating from the back of the vertical monitor, told of a phenomenon observed and first recorded in 1803 by the Swiss philosopher Christoph Bernoulli. In the waters off the southwest coast of Spain there exists an organism that becomes phosphoresecent when agitated thus causing the sea to glow on a stormy night. The narrator recounts the story of a seaman clearing corpses floating in the water after the battle of Trafalgar. The dead body of one sailor expelled a flood of luminous liquid when pulled aboard the ship leading the seaman to believe he had witnessed the shimmering spirit of the sailor leaving its body. Hahn crystallized this event by figuratively removing the four cathode ray tubes from their casings and suspending them head high in the sombre room. These were attached by electronic umbilical cords to the picture circuitry contained in four plexiglas boxes on the floor beneath them. The radiant glass screens appeared to float like phantoms in the darkened space. Black and white images of the sea, of bodies and of glowing insects flickered across the curved horizontal screens like the surface of Bernoulli's undulating luminous sea.
Benjamin claimed the storyteller was a human repository of collective experience. The traveller, often a seaman, is one type of storyteller who, according to Benjamin, recounts his experiences of exotic lands, "the lore of faraway places." Hahn evoked the pre-technological archetype of the storyteller with an installation made from sophisticated contemporary materials: plexiglass, aluminium with electronic imagery and sound. The electrons carrying Hahn's imagery excited the phosphorous surface of the monitors hypnotizing and seducing the viewer with a sensorial experience. Benjamin posited that when the listener's senses were aroused they would be more receptive to the storyteller. He wrote, "The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory."
What is pervasive about video installations is their time element, what Bergson referred to as the "continuité d'écoulement", their continuous flow. Unlike language, video cannot be broken down into a system composed of discrete units. However, the installations of Marie José Burki, of YACH and of Alexander Hahn combined language with an eloquent use of video technology to suggest the experience of passing time. The constructed time of the text (Burki), of the metaphor (YACH), and of the narrative (Hahn), made the viewer aware of the unmeasurable duration of real time as it unfolds.