Texts Without Verbs

An E-mail Interview with Michael Kunze and Susanne Prinz

(Silence. In the distance columns of smoke.)

SP: To start off, a basic question: Can you also keep your balance without drugs?

MK: That depends on the test conditions. I played a game once that was something like "blind man's bluff". Because I always wanted to win, I adjusted my blindfold so that I could see a little. At some point it became obvious that I was always at the right place at the right time. All of my playmates agreed that the cheater had to be punished. They blindfolded me with a scarf so tightly, that there was no possibility of cheating. I was supposed to run ahead until some quasi-divine voice said "stop". Before we started, my playmates moved the sofa exposing a trap door underneath that led to a 500 meter deep chasm (our room was in a bizarre building resembling a bridge). So I ran towards the abyss under the sofa. As I stepped into the void, strange things happened: The fluid motion of my hopeless step became an unexpected lightness in which the moment of the beginning of the fall began to stretch into infinity. Because I happened to have a newspaper with me, I used the time to check up on the news. In the moment the sun began to shine through the page around the contour of my own shadow, the wind started to blow so that it was impossible to keep the loose pages in order. Politics, Sports, Business, Arts, Television program, everything flew all over the place until the newspaper was transformed into a confused tent that I ripped down with one circular swipe of my hand. Along the arc I had thereby traced in the sky, the newspaper floating about ordered itself into symmetric rows which extended my outstretched arms into wings. I touched the horizon at the moment of its shortest illumination. From there the horizon buckled and the earth dis- integrated in slow motion. I could suspend myself in the air and still circle endlessly.

SP: For years you have dealt mainly with complicated and apparently contrived work. The pieces are all named after times of the day, like "Fourth Noon", "Morning", "Forenoon", etc. What is the meaning of this and is there a specific time you are dealing with here?

MK: For the last ten years I have tried to give a meaning to a normal day of work which goes beyond the uniformity and insignificance that we all might experience on such days. The days succeed one another almost imperceptibly and suddenly become years and those years then shrink to become new spans of time. Without taking notice of the many small steps that make up the larger steps we find that everything has changed and we ask ourselves: What happened? You begin to remember things that seem very recent, but are far off and unreachable. The easiest way to divide up time seemed to be to use the well known differentiation of the times of day (morning, forenoon, noon, afternoon, evening). These in turn make up the special phases of work, of a life, of a mood or of a possible story. For humans the easiest way to mark the day is by the rising and setting of the sun. Subdividing the day into different parts is the easiest way to divide an arbitrary sequence into moments that are more than just countable. It is a pattern that is similar for all events, large or small. Whether or not you want to tell the history of the universe or a blonde joke is ultimately irrelevant.

SP: The concept of the sequence of the times of the day is therefore to be seen as a framework that holds your work together, but at the same time without determining it?

MK: The subdivision of the units of time is arbitrary and external to the extent I am not able to predict their course: After I was able to name an involved composition which was of fundamental interest to me "Morning" (the diffi- culty of getting out of bed; the bright light; an idea that hasn't yet formed; a medieval kind of fantasy that origi- nated during sleep, etc ...) I had to admit that this composition wasn't repeatable - and in that moment at the beginning of the unplanned day it already had a form that went beyond the morning. The forenoon that had thus set in already demanded concrete decisions: The earth needed touching, names would have to be named. In the meantime I am trying to complete the four year long midday break by postponing the promised recuperation peri- od to a later date. Whether or not I make it until the evening depends on whether or not a meteorite is waiting for me tomorrow on my way to the patent office. The competition would be pleased, however the premature cosmic unification could mean the end of everything. In order to arrest such unforeseen developments, which still play a role, I try at least to act as if everything remains the same: The canvas panels always have the same format, even if they are sometimes the parts of a larger canvas. The number of figures is likewise always the same and even the way certain narrative lines disperse and are transformed into silent semantic traps is repeated so often that it appears as if absolutely nothing moves at all. This is soothing and frustrating at once. That too has its own long story.

SP: What brought you to choose painting as a medium, and for that matter an apparently anachronistic version of work-intensive, large formats with scenic architectures rich in detail? Why make this your main medium of expression when it reduces your photography and assemblages to mere supplements, subsidiaries?

MK: To question the medium of painting is relevant at a time when New Media proliferate. At first though, before I talk about my own interests, it is important to find definitions which avoid any polemic which tries to reduce painting to a mere technical method of producing images. Painting can, but does not have to mean, "brush on canvas." Painting can express itself as film, as photography, as an installation, as a change in a landscape or of architecture and above all again and again as text. For example, some video installations from Bill Viola are better described by categories specific to painting. This is also true of important aspects of Italian films of the sixties and seventies from Antonioni to Pasolini. Jeff Wall uses methods of pre-modern representative painting. Similarly, one can paint technically and at the same time till other fields: Gerhard Richter uses photographic technique in his abstract paintings, Polke's work is just the slight of hand of a surrealistic animator, and some minimalist painting is explicitly negated in favour of spatial concepts apparently without contradiction. One has to separate the concept of a medium from its technical basis in order to be more precise when comparing differences, even diferences within the selfsame medium.

SP (In a trance): And what aspect of painting are you dealing with?

MK (With a projection in the background): Whatever else it might be it isn't peinture. I see myself more than anything else as a composer of texts without verbs. Whenever I am looking for a moment of action for a complicated narrative and once again encounter a lapse of memory I describe a kind of phantom movement with my right hand. Instead of a writing utensil I absentmindedly use a hairy stick which makes a mark in different colours on a cloth suspended in an upright position as one might use in shipbuilding. This procedure is repeated until the impression of a slowly sinking water level emerges. This in turn clarifies the resistances where the narrative flow was dammed up and made the lapse of memory apparently unavoidable. Painting appears here as the sum of numerous forgotten associations. These summon through a kind of manic activity of redirection a new kind of torpor which lays open the floor of an anti-verbal ocean. The resulting picture can be seen as phantom text. Memory is detoured, but still reaches its proper goal. Painting today offers a perspective whose vanishing point is only perceptible to the viewer when he tries to cross his eyes.

SP (Disillusioned): Aha. And what role do the many photographs play which accompany your work?

MK: They belong to a growing collection of material I have collected over the years. They are mostly black and white photos all of which I have taken in remote parts of Greece. I am mainly concerned with documenting the current condition of a country wherein the origins of Europe lie, but which missed the phase of the enlightenment and only through "the latecomers" found a place again in the contemporary era: Non-Greek Europe looking for its origins freed the Greeks from Turkish domination - but left them without a transitional period leading to the modern age. The collision of an intellectual space with a geographic space has left behind visible scars. These scars look sometimes melancholy and lonely, but they also assume a presence which completely sublimates our personal desires and actions.

As far as the appearance of the photographs are concerned, I try to approach a certain kind of photography of the 1920's: A documentary approach that can go hand in hand with an idealistic perspective. Later, the two approaches separated into purely scientific photos and postcard photos. The soul of a place is lost through this separation. My technique is to take photos without a camera. I expose the photos with a certain method of blin- king. I develop, enlarge and fix in my head. The finished picture can be recalled though hypnotization and then reproduced.

SP: Disturbing for the photo industry. What about anachronism, which you often stress when dealing with pain ting?

MK: These days if one embraces painting and in the technical sense as well, then one must be aware that it is a purely artificial means of communication that has gradually disappeared from daily discussion over the last 100 years - and yet remains a topic of conversation even today One man's ballast is another man's freedom. Even if some discourses of the nineties would prefer to ignore the fact, all of the advances leading to the avant-garde movements of the 20th century originated in the discourse about the possibilities or impossibilities of painting, and for historical reasons: The competition, which ultimately begins in Greek antiquity, between an artificial mimetic apparatus and its prototype "reality" was revived in the early renaissance with the beginning of the use of perspective in painting and the parallel development of the empirical sciences. The simulation of reality and the ultimate surpassing of reality was and still is the central conflict of the enlightenment and the modern, right up to the current dream of a perfect virtuality The discovery that the vanishing point and consequently the illusion of space can be constructed is among the most independent and consequential advances of European culture, accelerating its global domination. Today a retreat beyond the competitive, illusory concept is unthinkable. Though the priority of the visual within this construct, painting attained its premier role and could serve as a rigorous mirror for most questions which tested visible reality allegorically. In this way painting can and must be seen now as more than just a corrective for new media. If you want to embrace painting in the technical sense today then you must confront these historical developments. It is the anachronism which gives one the necessary distance. If one is merely interested in a particular understanding of images as a given and has no interest in the origin of that understanding, then painting can be superfluous as a technical process.

SP: If I understand you correctly, then you see yourself in a tradition which no later than the appearance of Greenberg's quasi evolutionary ideas completely disappeared from the discussion, one might even say it was repressed?

MK: As a representative of an orthodox, linear belief in progress Greenberg's views are diametrically opposed to my own. I don't believe in the purity of the medium, but in its impurity. Painting for paintings sake isn't interesting. Painting as literature, literature as photography, photography as Readymade, Readymade as film, film as architecture, architecture as music, etc. - that is interesting. And this chain should be possible with a single, constant discourse and not as juxtaposed parts of collection of different ways of speaking in the "multi-medial" sense. The more hermetic the phenomenon I am working on, the more exciting it is to burst open the boundaries of the medium. The more fixed an idea is, the more fluid its content should be. The maximum impurity at the apex of self reference is perhaps the first communicative word. As a result a trans-historic joumey through overgrown battlefields where young couples hold their trysts would suffice. There is no more foreign influence or intrusion if the modern ideal of 100 percent self determination has thought itself through ad absurdum. Therefore, at the end of the deconstruction of the work, there remains only the work - in spite of the post-modern trauma of dissolute, indeterminate identities. Against all the theories of Foucault the author could unexpectedly return now, enlightened by his presumed absence.

SP (In opposite light): How is it possible to deduce such a disposition which is so opposed to the purity of the medium?

MK: At the beginning of the development of modern there was a division in two directions which had great consequences. One of the directions became official, the other was thought of as unofficial and remained suspect. The official direction began with Cezenne and led through several seemingly logical successive reductions to the authorized avant-garde to which Greenberg refers. The other direction could be represented by Cezennes contemporaries Arnold Bocklit: and Hans von Marees, then the pittura metaphisica with De Chirico, Carra and early surrealists, to whom I would count ouchamp, then Picabia and Balthus, the Belgian variant of Magritte and Broodthaers. After the war the development continued here for the most part in literature and film with Camus, Antonioni, Pasolini, Ferreri, Polanski, Werner Herzog, Bergmann. In pictorial art the development becomes unfortunately more hidden, but one could name J. L. Byars, in part T. Schutte, Jeff Wall, M. Barney, etc. If you com- pare the two directions then it is immediately obvious that the Bcckiin-De Chirico-Pasolini direction is more difficult to get a handle on, less accessible and in no way linear in its development. A strange, slightly melancholy and cumbersome feeling emerges here. Instead of a streamlined message we get a dense, meandering, seemingIyendless text. An elegiac, speculative note, a propensity for the non-functional and the contradictory, for digression, the distrust of identity, the preference for the different, in short, to speak with Hegel, a tendency to Negation reveals this direction as the dark side of the modern, as a subsoil necessary to understanding modern art. What looks like a continuing rebellion against Wittgenstein's call for silence is perhaps but a continuation of an originally romantic notion that has undergone the criticism of naivety. (A bell rings.) Whether or not one sees the world al- ready or not yet as a given, the contrary standpoints depend on one another and therefore cannot cancel each other out. Just a moment! (From the stairwell one can hear the sounds of the primal forest.)

SP: That sounds as if you interpret cultural phenomena from the standpoint of a historic constellation. The discourse of the past decade has made some headway towards defining the role of gender and class - just to name the two. In other words, how do you explain your own situation, that you have partly Greek origins, went to school in Switzerland and now live in Berlin?

MK: One could call cultural influences like the ones you mention mentalities, in which different variations appear repeatedly in the same way Cultural studies a/so occurs within the bounds of these mental influences, not outside. These days a European has to decide between the dominant Anglo-American viewpoint and the continental European viewpoint. After spending many years under the influence of the dictates of pop it probably wouldn't hurt if Europe came to its senses.

SP: The tradition on which you rely includes the names of surrealists. How do you deal with this style which for better or for worse currently suffers from an image problem? Or are there possibilities of correcting an all too single-minded and sweeping condemnation of surrealism?

MK: Surrealism is one of the last concepts in contemporary art to be considered taboo. On the one hand this is based on a healthy rejection of the kind of oali-esque poster aesthetic, on the other hand the taboo is based on a long established repression. This repression has in its turn to do with the divergence of the official and unofficial directions in art we are discussing. The difficulties inherent in the repression are apparent, for example, in the currently accepted view of ouchamp. The Readymade is too indistinct and too easily understood if you ignore the vast amount of surrealistic thought they allow for. The dramaturgy of an absurd encounter with objects which seem not to belong to one another is the surrealistic starting point of the Readymade. The encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine corresponds to the encounter between an urinal and a visitor to a museum. The poetic game of hide-and-go-seek, played here with cunning, the artful inversion of a singularity into a wealth of references and relations, the joy at the implosion of language, and the constant search for the unexpected - these are the surrealistic features of Ouch amps procedure. If you include his predilection for infinite self reflection, it seems almost miraculous that we could question the context in the midst of all this. If you stay close to speculative-literary aspects of ouchamps work, then you might find that the Bachelor-Machine is at much at home in Back/in's Villa on the sea as in a museum for contemporary art.

SP: You are suggesting a correction of our understanding of art-history. In as much as we are talking about repression, what possibilities do you see for the future?

MK: I think the boundaries have long since shifted, in a subliminal way, above all through the New Media. To lose yourself in a profusion of visual possibilities is to hollow out the taboo of narrative in late modern art. However, the mainstream discourse is still compelled not to pay too much attention to the rips in the fabric. It is still more comprehensible, more elegant and above all less dangerous to view the Readymade exclusively in terms of its context. That does not mean that you can simply retreat naively behind the taboo zone again. An approaching narrative is only possible if it has surpassed the taboo. I am imagining a picture which can combine the textual density of Jeff Wall with the worked surface of Balthus. Such a picture could dissolve the self-referential formulas of the late modern (form is content, the medium is the message, etc ...) and yet remain immune to dissolution through interactivity. The established contradiction between a conceptual approach and apparently direct access to the sensual and aesthetic can be overcome. It can be done without taking a detour through a forced anti-aesthetic that is then interpreted aesthetically because it cannot otherwise be understood.

SP: You name Jeff Wall as an exemplary story-teller. Some of his work, like Eviction Struggle or The Stumbling Block have a very clear political content whereas Vampire's Picnic is reminiscent of Hollywood cinema. Do both directions speak to you in the same way?

MK (With tunnel vision): A static picture has cinematic tendencies if supposed accidentals are only apparently in the foreground - i.e. if they are sublimated to a temporarily invisible superstructure. As far as the "political content" is concerned, I would be careful there. It can only be an aesthetic side-effect. Its relevance is decided by aesthetic trends. There are historic reasons for this as well: A yearning for the political, which was the cause of much polemic in the 90's, is just a basic problem of modern art. Pre-modern art, before the upheavals around 1800, was understood to be an integral part of political and social lite. As the modern concept of art based on autonomy developed, this social integration ceased to be a matter of course. Political irrelevance was the price of the new artistic freedom - the yearning for the political was bound to emerge from this paradoxical situation as a feature of modern art. The relationship to the political in the arts remains a sentimental one. That which prevents the realization of the dream is the very thing which gives the dream its sustenance. This perpetuum mobile of self-prevention is an artistic concept: Whoever wishes to be politically effective and seeks to achieve this with artistic concepts is being ineffective and also runs the risk of not being taken seriously. How people dispose of art that has a perceived political content was recently demonstrated in Afghanistan with the destruction of the Buddha statue. It is only possible to see a work in exclusively political and profane terms if you have no concept or understanding of art. This behaviour is naturally unimaginable to us, even "barbaric". We are too modern, too enlightened and too sentimental to understand it. Therefore we agree that western art is harmless anyway, and then it can be allowed a "political content". We are still on the same level as W H. Wackenroder who quoted more than 200 years ago, defying his own artistic religion: Art is but a "servant of the passions" and an "adulator of refined society" - however it may express itself. Plato is still waiting in the wings. The attempt to separate different contents on principal only fogs the picture. The arguments tend to become diffuse, r.hetorical and banal.
(End of the tunnel.)

SP: I see ... anyway, what size shoe do you wear?

MK (Deaf): Shoe size means circumference of the earth. A quick recapitulation of what we have discussed would look something like this: Art is the abyss under the sofa. You learn to fly reading the newspaper. A day is not a day. Painting is crystallized memory loss. You take photos in your head. Surrealism is the state of being lost. Popvocabulary is a backdrop, also for counterproposals. History is magnetism. The present is undated. The future is an invisible kernel. It is all about a text which addresses everything but is about nothing. You could try a prognosis or two here. It might be that modern museums will have the same fate as churches once did. You will enter, see a collection of curious objects and muse on the fact that there was a time when people took these things very seriously and fought wars of faith over them. (As I said, not barbaric, but sentimental wars.) We will perhaps explain this by saying, back then, in the twentieth century, there was a concept called "art" that caused a lot of confusion in its role as a relict of earlier, religious times. Many people back then who experienced, consciously or unconsciously, their emancipation from a higher spiritual authority as a loss of "meaning", clung to this concept of "art". There was supposed to be something to rescue here that was beyond rescue. You might say: The technological detachment from nature had not progressed far enough in the twentieth century to recognize this fact. Warhol's Brillo boxes would be seen as an example of a beloved reason to argue the fine points of the concept of "art". Just as we are incapable of understanding how the miniscule interpretive differences in medieval philosophy over ostensibly meaningless Bible passages could lead to endless debates and the creation of fractions and parties, future generations will have difficulty understanding the discourses that, say, a painted national flag presented as art could provoke. These things would be discussed in history courses. It would not be about looking at works of art, but about historical evidence of a certain worldly and engaged exchange of opinion. This exchange could only function on the basis of a certain historically determined faith, which was lost during the twenty-first century. The secularisation of the modern museums...

SP:Hey, who invented the first deep-freeze pizza?

MK (Still deaf): Why not? ... would go hand in hand with the fading of all the holy qualities of the concept of "art" which were supposed, after the fact, to draw an enchanted border in the here and now. The maximal extension of this concept is followed by its indeterminacy. Currently, we may be at exactly the point where the tendencies begin to diverge. Naturally, the world would not be suddenly without pictures because of this. On the contrary, that would be the start of truly untroubled progress. A visual production driven by advertisement, fashion and music, which even today is distancing itself from the discourse on all fronts would completely dominate the production of images. The ordinations of art would no longer hold any promise. Essential aspects of the production of modern art based on this concept would disappear: Namely, its need to communicate, its possible subtlety and its truth. It wouldn't be possible to perceive anything that can't be understood immediately. It could be that in the future a few stray monks would stay the course and insist on a reflective, not to say reverent contemplation of the medium, but they would be without a church. It is useless to deplore this development, nor to resist it with moral indignation. The phenomenon "Image" remains a phenomenon. It mustn't produce texts, it is itself a text, albeit in an absolutely non-informative sense. The opposite of ideology is perhaps only affirming and lively for the ideologist. The secularisation of the context of art could bring clarification. At first, however, the discovery of the deep-freeze allows a more generous use of the calendar. If we wish, we can forget that it's a holiday.

SP:Is there a rule for differentiating a Sunday from a Monday?

MK: That is the crucial question wherein the lines of argument begin to fray. The ideal is a welcome interruption. (With a revolver to his head:) The prospects discussed are possible at a time when technology allows the realization of completely different dreams. What spokesmen like Ray Kurzweil or Bill Joy are pronouncing (or what you find in the internet under "transhumanism") has left the level of the difficulties with calendars behind it for good, or maybe not: This is clearly about immortality. Utopia, until now the realm of artists and philosophers is today something for nanotechnology, AI research and biotechnology. Humans in their current form are merely an inter- mediaryon the way to completely new, as yet barely understandable intelligent life forms. These will emerge from the combination of isolated biological units with artificially intelligent units. From the first wooden leg to the pacemaker right up to the total virtualization of the body: After natural evolution moves on to artificial evolution for the purpose of acceleration, a new, immaterial being will be created which functions by means of a transmittable data stream. The drive to break boundaries becomes the boundary itself - an incomprehensible categorical command that blindly penetrates the DNA without which there would be nothing (except for the fatal objection that even nothing is something). The in itself unreachable goal of this project would be the saturation of the universe with an intelligence that knows no transfer of matter and recognizes no code. Our previous anthropomorphic ideas of science fiction would have to be corrected: A future human would never enter a spaceship to travel to a planet where he might be able to plant potatoes. Life in the far future would become invisible and the mind guiding it would reproduce itself without a substrate which might cause resistance. The phenomenon "language" would disappear. It is possible that the extremes I have gone to here have some cosmological relevance that is already determining the world we believe we see. Speculation always has to return to the conditions which determined it, and therefore the next round might be called: Translating Hegel into Chinese.
(Several shots are fired. Plaster falls from the ceiling.)

SP: I think I must be going.

MK: Where to?

(No curtain.)

Texts Without Verbs, Cologne 2002, p. 81