The artist Vika Kirchenbauer engages in something that is probably rather akin to the idea of critical art – including all the obtrusiveness and potential inherent in such a concept. Accordingly, she effectively refuses to be categorised according to disciplines or institutions and their internal pigeonholing logic. Whether or not that is possible, the moving image does happen to come with a set of defining qualities. An attempt to describe her work with film could be: thorough, pioneering, well-researched, methodical and, as already alluded to, profusely critical. Her formal decisions function well as a counterpart, sometimes almost as an antithesis to the concept of conventional cinema. But that’s hardly anything special.
It does feel special however, when she declares herself a prototype for example, during a video performance (YOU ARE BORING!, 2015) in which it seems as though she might collapse at any moment. Clearly it’s the artist’s alter ego saying that, but it still exudes something sceptical and fragile, even fatalistic. The spoken text in the video is hilarious while simultaneously venturing onto thin ice. Because, regardless of all the exaggeration and irony, it all comes down to radical power structures in the end: about shaming and exclusion, insecurity and selling-out, the rejection and discrimination of people as a habit of society and the bourgeois museum art scene – and not just pure construction and a bit of aesthetic ornamentation. Perhaps that is why the rooms in this and her other video performances are so empty, and effectively naked. While the performers in the video analyse, present and portray themselves for 15 minutes, one of the phrases sticks. It refers to their relationship to the observer and their expectations of the artwork: “Whatever you want, darling. Because we know that you have either the economic or educational capital to consume us… ideally both.” Vika Kirchenbauer acts out of conviction, a particularly convincing sceptic. In other words, a sceptic of conviction.
After her autobiographically inspired experimental film from 2012 (LIKE RATS LEAVING A SINKING SHIP) became successful in the film festival world and generated ongoing attention for the filmmaker, she made a cut and has been challenging the front-of-room bias of the cinema space as much as the mechanics of the art scene. With reference to the societal normalisation of body image and behavioural patterns, her work signals departure:
Rats are glorious deserters. And we must admire them. “You’ll sink, I won’t. But thanks for everything!”, they say, and jump right into the ocean. Rats don’t want to be captains, trying to keep the cause afloat. But swim in open water.
The “thing” that the ship is steering towards, the dominant, the agenda of a running operation, still remains to be seen – in many regards. Just like the consequences of running away. With awards at numerous festivals and presentations of Vika Kirchenbauer’s visual work in 40 countries it proves that while the boundless ocean may be vast, it still cannot do without ships. Today her work is predominantly shown in an art context, as installations or as parts of a performance. Freedom of movement stimulates her, the sensitivity of a laboratory-like ambience for every carefully arranged symbol. The white cube is therefore a natural choice, as it feels different to the comfort of a cinema seat. However, beyond format limitations and presentation spaces, the visual aspect remains at the forefront of Vika Kirchenbauer’s projects. Even when she writes, then it is the act of seeing, of perceiving, perhaps even that which Susan Sonntag once described as observation, the most crucial of pivot points.
One of her texts for example, was published in a curious format on a large sheet of sturdy paper that had been folded numerous times. One of the sides features her essay, which tells in several chapters of aloof but humanised drones, engineered viewing structures and their connection to transparency, war, voyeurism and love: INFRARED DREAMS IN TIMES OF TRANSPARENCY – THE LOVE LIFE OF DRONES AND OTHER WESTERN CYBORGS. Two drones, MALE and FEMALE, are therein imagined as a pair of lovers. On the other side of the paper, an illustration is depicted in distinct lines, almost mechanical. The poster design is by Amrei Hofstätter: a complicated, psychedelic diagram in lurid colours. Scheme and construction, dominated by two large staring eyes: circuit eyes. They even continue staring when the entire picture is turned on its head. And there are gigantic controlling hands. Rockets have been attached to them and shoot up into the sky, recalling the stained glass of church windows. The sky radiates garish rays of light, which might be sunbeams, or the epicentre of explosions. One of the many faces is a deathly grimace.
Amrei Hofstätter’s visual work was made in reaction to the already completed essay. A substantial human exchange did not occur in this case. The connection was brought about by the editors Martin Müller and Inga Seidler (MARRIED PRINT), between two artistic-theoretical positions in order to exemplify a relationship: both visually and philosophically. Such interactions between artistic positions are, whether human borne or not, nevertheless real and significant – and are perhaps ultimately inevitable, even within contexts that are considerably less devised. Things just circulate. Calling it a cooperation would therefore be a bit of a stretch. But, as Vika Kirchenbauer would no doubt agree, that is clearly an economic term which relegates inspiration to second place. But is it possible that today’s economic concepts actually comprise a kind of enforced inspiration? That is the intrinsic dilemma shaping her work; such as when she speaks of the “Experience Economy” of contemporary capitalism. To Vika Kirchenbauer, the act of cooperating, whether for art or for company, means striving to economically and socially legitimise one another, aligning one’s individual positions and collectively setting off on a productive course together. Her work succeeds at making this complex field tangible and yet stimulating – artistic merits in a late capitalist reality. But that’s not nearly all.
Striving to act humanely with one another means for a start, learning from each other and then as a result, knowing something about one another. But even that doesn’t bring about a solution, leading instead to even more challenges. Because knowledge, as well as inspiration are concepts which characterise the field of art as much as love. And then everything gets mixed up together. In her essay, the one with the poster on the back, it says:
Love is a power game and the utopia of love overcoming power structures of oppression is at best a naive illusion. What ties romantic lovers together is a pact that while holding guns on each other they refrain from firing them. […] Just like in war, the knowledge about the other—or ‘intelligence’ about the other — constructs power; it is the currency that economies of love and war operate on. Nevertheless, the collection of knowledge about the other rarely extends beyond pseudo-factual proof of prior suspicion, most frequently deployed to confirm an identity already inscribed onto the other. (“INFRARED DREAMS IN TIMES OF TRANSPARENCY – THE LOVE LIFE OF DRONES AND OTHER WESTERN CYBORGS”)
Because art in her videos is exposed as being extremely awkward and intimacy offers no refuge, but represents instead a balancing act monopolised by new capitalism, the basic problem ultimately appears to be the question of destructive pessimism, as briefly touched on at the beginning of this piece. There doesn’t appear to be a way out of the logic that originates from the societies into which we are born. If some of her video performances weren’t as hilarious as they are, they’d certainly be more arduous. At the end, they are presumably both.
Sometimes there aren’t any disruptions and everything seems hard, irritating and chaotic and in an abstract sense, furious. A video made with Martin Sulzer in 2014 actually reads rather cheerfully: Firstly, cameras are attached to a couple of pigeons who then proceeded to fly over a demonstration, close to the German Bundestag. It becomes quickly apparent however that this is no escapist film. Particularly on a large screen, should Vika Kirchenbauer ever stray into a cinema again, KINGDOM COME: RITUALS (2014) lets loose an assault on the eyes and ears, a radical onslaught of audiovisual disorientation. In this particular instance, the cinema becomes both a component of and inner-view inside a drone, which because of its biological nature, also happens to be thoroughly unpredictable. And that results in the connection between bird and human.
A short time ago there was a kind of synthesis: romantic hopefulness meets destructive visuality. The video work within the context of her music / performance project COOL FOR YOU dissects human bodies with infrared cameras. Sensors measure temperatures and show traces of contact, keeping a protocol of body changes and noting any intrusions. In SHE WHOSE BLOOD IS CLOTTING IN MY UNDERWEAR (2016), two lovers tackle one another, biting and strangling. This is accompanied by mechanised ritual music and singing that appears to be played in reverse. High-pitched and deep voices merge, and frequencies are raised to ungodly heights – until it seems as though machines execute the melody. The whole piece becomes infused with an infernal quality. Distinguished with an award at Oberhausen, the video was actually created as part of a music performance. During it, the audience would be mirrored via infrared cameras and monitors, confronted with their own silhouettes, a technological reinterpretation, a technological “other” – just as Vika Kirchenbauer confronts the cinema with the concept of otherness in her work. The kind of “other” that refuses the screen and yet remains an image. The kind of “other” that doesn’t want to be understood, but wishes to be and remain opaque, unknowable and enigmatic.
I am very fond of Édouard Glissant’s ideas around ‘opacity’ and the right not to be understood. As much as his philosophy is informed by experiences of racism and close analysis on the psychological and social repercussions of colonialism, his ideas address even deeper and broader structures. I don’t believe in comparison as a rhetorical tool or political strategy, so without wanting to equate or universalize any of these distinct situations, I think he works out in great clarity the violence inherent in understanding, in measuring the other by one’s own scale. (Interview excerpt from Berlin Art Link)
A seeing, which, orchestrated and enforced by technical eyes, institutionalised power structures and cultural authorities, appears, in Vika Kirchenbauer’s work in reference to the poet and theorist Édouard Glissant, to be an invariably privileged vision and most likely detrimental. If looks could kill: a question that concerns both drones and lovers in equal measure. And wherever there is love, there is art. Vika Kirchenbauer’s perspective of the visual is at times ironic and at others fatalistic, suggesting a commonality shared among the mechanised view of the reconnaissance drone, interpersonal perception and the visual routine of the art world. Because the acts of seeing and knowing always imply accessibility – a domination of the visible counterpart which in its perceptibility becomes exposed and absorbed.
An argument that cannot be ignored whenever one shows something. The act of showing in itself, in the awareness of all these concerns, also demonstrates a necessary courage. In PLEASE RELAX NOW (2014), the first video piece after LIKE RATS LEAVING A SINKING SHIP, Vika Kirchenbauer blocked almost everything out. A kind of defiance in relation to the cinema and the audience is most evident in these pieces. Here, she appears as the hostess of the ultimate art experience: group masturbation in a gallery. Led by her voice, the audience is brought to a state of arousal, while her comments become increasingly provocative. However the presenter’s body looks remains unanswered, in the form of a blank space. The question of who is watching whom and who desires whom is entirely up for negotiation.
In all the following work there is even more to see, sometimes in 3D, and in the earlier work there is a supernatural amount. But the lines of view between people, or between performance and audience amount to nothing. The act of looking, whether human or mechanical finds no answer therein, is unable to create connections. Inherently, the acts of seeing and observing seem to have become a part of the alienation process. And if seeing is so difficult, how is the precise perception of human and interhuman? Seeing the filter and not through the filter requires practice. Exercise caution when dealing with one another. But nevertheless: Eyes open and get to it!
MOOD MANAGEMENT (2017)
DEATH COACHES LLC (2017, with Mysti)
SHE WHOSE BLOOD IS CLOTTING IN MY UNDERWEAR (2016)
GIVEN YOUR CONVENIENT ABSENCE (2016)
YOU ARE BORING! (2015)
CONVENIENT, SACRED, BLESSED (2015)
KINGDOM COME: RITUALS (2014, with Martin Sulzer)
PLEASE RELAX NOW (2014)
LIKE RATS LEAVING A SINKING SHIP (2012)