Ways of looking
The noise works of Wim Janssen
for ‘Werktank’, 2011
(lees verder in het Nederlands)
With Static and Continuization Loop Wim Janssen made two works dealing with noise. Noise, you might remember from days long gone, is the moment when the image drops from the TV screen—or static appears on the radio. It is the grey screen populated by wriggling pixels that recalls the previous century. In the digital age there is no more noise. There are no more unclear signals; there is no more jumbled twilight zone, no interval, only well-defined images: black or white, on or off. By honing in on that forgotten byproduct, that side effect, Janssen says much about the forgotten essence, the effect of electronic media.
When you encounter static these days, it is inevitably programmed noise. Just like you can sometimes see scratches on digital film. Static and Continuization Loop are analogue translations of noise. They are not electronic images, but sculptures. Not exactly the same, but they act as if they were. They look monumental, but aren’t really. They are larger than a normal television screen, but smaller than a projection screen. Janssen opted for a human scale. That is also the scale of architecture and in that context (but only there) they can appear monumental.
And yet. Even if not monumental in scale, their effect still retains something monumental. Static consists of a mosaic the size of a room divider screen. The inlays of the traditional mosaic have here been replaced by little black and white one-centimeter squares. They are transparent and the collage is hemmed in between two plexiglass sheets. There’s something archaic about it. An ersatz electronic image constructed out of natural light. There’s something contemplative about it. The aggression of television translated into the stillness of sculpture. There’s something anachronistic about it. The volatile speed of the media image, fixated according to the laws of art. The craft involved (300 man hours) and the scale of the piece (over forty-three thousand squares) augment that monumentality-in-absentia. It is a relic from another time, but we’ll never quite know which one (the age of the mosaic? Of television? A post-electronic era?).
In front of the screen sits a rotating disc. It evokes distant associations with the Nipkowdisc, the 19th century invention, later used to generate the first television images. But the operating principle in this case is completely different. This particular noise is produced by polarizers. The rotating disc is covered with the same squares that make up the screen and turns at sixty rotations per minute. Depending on the position of the square prisms that the viewer looks through, the color of the prisms on the screen changes from transparent to opaque or something in between, which creates an illusion of movement. And thus the effect of dancing pixels is conjured.
The noise generated in Static points to another media era, its references ranging from video art (for instance the early experiments of Joan Jonas) to pop culture (think Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist). That citation of earlier moments in media history is even more amplified in Continuization Loop, which quotes a number of mo(nu)ments from media history. One continuous film loop made up of black and white frames forms the basis of the work. The film is not projected but in and of itself constitutes a screen of about the same dimensions as the one in Static; it is pulled into motion along 150 little wheels, mounted at the top and the bottom of the images. The end result of that film loop from the era of analogue film, populated by black and white—binary—images from the digital computer era, is noise, referencing the electronic age of television. Three citations of three different media periods.
Static and Continuization Loop are the opening pieces in a series dealing with the end of the image. Or a series that is not yet, on an image that is no longer. This raises the specter of nostalgia, but in actuality what is at stake is comprehension. Not so much of a technique, but of looking itself.
It seems like the world turned on its head. Normally media serve to transport us through the world fast and comfortably. Here we are dealing with the immobile: the static image that moves only by the aid of a spinning disc; the continuous loop that moves only in situ. Normally media provide information; here they evoke contemplation. Normally media frame and lend meaning to images. Here images lend meaning to media. Normally media are swiftly overwritten. Here much time was devoted to producing one image that strictly speaking does not last more than one second. Art here again takes on a conservational function, in sharp contrast with the logic of efficiency that governs the rapid succession of new media. The act of rendering concrete labor processes is of course very much in sync with De Werktank. It’s even referenced in the name of that organization itself: “work” tank rather than think tank. It’s present in the work-in-progress of Mekhitar Garabedian and in the failed works of Kurt D’Haeseleer and Ief Spincemaille.
These works get to the heart of media by employing side effects generated in the margins. Not movement, not information, and not meaning is what is of the essence, but rather immobility, contemplation, stillness—the effect itself, hence the medium itself. Media are not information machines, but machines generating experience. They produce a feeling of sense, a sense of information, an experience of connectedness. They mesmerize.
That return to the medium fits into an art historical tradition of materialist, or rather, experience-oriented art. The little black and white images in Continuization Loop recall the black and white frames in Flicker, Tony Conrad’s 1966 film, or Arnulf Rainer, Peter Kubelka’s 1957 work. They recall Zen for Film, Nam June Paik’s 1962 piece consisting of nothing but white. The rhythmic, musical structure evokes the work of Paul Sharits.
Staging is of the essence here. These images don’t just divulge their secrets at a mere glance. Not to the artist, who goes through a lengthy conceptualization process before engaging in an equally long manufacturing process. And not to the viewer either, who has to orient him or herself and move through the space. The first thing you see when confronted with Static is the plexiglass screen. Only by positioning yourself in front of the rotating disc does the noise appear. Without that positioning there is only screen and mosaic and disc. The staging transports you from curiosity (the riddle of the separate elements) to ecstasy (the pixels, the dancing image—the realization that they are, in fact, only experiences).
That interstitial space is key to the overall effect of a work. Kubelka employs it in the movement from wonder to understanding he creates by replacing the projection of his film strips with the actual strips displayed on the walls of the gallery space, which reveals their metric nature. Paik mobilizes it in the distance he creates by positioning himself in front of the screen, activating the space between viewer and image. It is the interval Conrad draws on when he paints on film frames and allows them to fade, hence move in time (as he did, for instance, in Yellow Movies, 1972-74). When Janssen replaces the screen in Static by a window to which the polarization mosaic has been applied in The Sky over the Port (2010), that interstitial space disappears; as if we’re viewing the world directly, straight through the television screen
Displacement, perspective, positioning, and looking is what Janssen’s work is about. It was already there in Slightly Displaced (2007), his graduation project, in which he concretized the virtual gaze of a gaming environment in actual, physical space. Not the actualization of the gaming environment was at the heart of that project, but the actualization of a way of looking. It was also present in Rid (2009) or Mountain (2009), in which Janssen translated 3D drawings into sculpture. Not actualizing them per se, but lending them sculptural form. The end result always remains a virtual image: contours the viewer knits into shapes by filling in surfaces. And here too movement in space—staging—generated new perspectives. What looks like a drawing from afar turns out to be a sculpture from up close.
These ways of looking lie at the core of Janssen’s practice. Different images are not the issue, translations of images are. Not imitations, but something that resembles. It is a game of trompe l’oeil, of camouflage and mimicry indebted to gaming and through gaming to the media, which ultimately points to the battle field: the territory all media ultimately occupy. That much we know from Virilio. And of course Janssen knows it just as well when he has two operators shooting each other with Super8 cameras in FPS (2006). The title of that work, made when he was still a student, is in and of itself a McLuhanesque remediation and stands for the frames per second of film as well as for the first person shooter of gaming.
And is that not also the strategy behind this noise? The slip into invisibility of the image; the turn towards the generic of the signal; the confusion of media; the camouflage—negation—of identity.
– transl. Yasmine Van Pee