Ludger Derenthal

Engineers of the Temporary

M+M: On Film

Only briefly, for a bare minute, the parquet wooden wall, located in the foyer of an administration building, slides open. Now, it offers a view onto a room-height animated film running on ten display screens, which transports the astonished beholder into an artificial jungle world. Then the gap, approximately one meter in width, closes once more, and everything is as before, as though this vision had never even existed. By granting spectators such a compressed duration for viewing, the piece Spalt oder Irgendwo da draußen (Gap, or Somewhere out there), installed by M+M in 2002 in the entrance area of the Munich Re Group, converts the temporality of beholding into its theme. Our view into the world lying behind the wooden wall remains necessarily fragmentary, leaving the passerby behind with his curiosity unsatisfied. With this limitation of viewing time, M+M are able to pointedly invoke a constant of cinema: That a film — whether viewed in a movie theater or on a television screen — must to be seen from beginning to end. The length of time the viewer is to be exposed to the work is predetermined by its creator. The roaming glance that contemplates a photograph or a painting, the circumambulating gaze that circles a sculpture, the act of leafing backwards or forwards through a book: All of these liberties must, ostensibly, be renounced in the case of film.

Film — photography’s younger brother — is stamped by the linear progression of time like no other medium of artistic expression. In many films, the depiction of narrated time is accorded a crucial role, and the compression and distension of time are among the tried and true devices for generating suspense. Even attempts on the part of filmmakers to evade the linear progression of time by inserting ellipses, ruptures or temporal leaps, by introducing retrospective narrative devices, or even by beginning at the end of the story and proceeding in reverse: all unavoidably make reference to this principle, even if only ex negativo. Its basis is to be sought in the stated objective of the inventors of cinema, namely to supplant the human eye with a mechanical apparatus capable of objectively registering elapsing time. The point of departure for the originators of film was photography, whose instantaneous photographs had already been used to decompose the temporal continuum into increasingly abbreviated segments. The serial photographs by a Muybridge or a Marey, depicting trotting horses and running humans, are documents of the dissection of time. In their succession, the individual images seized precisely determined, extremely short sections of the temporal continuum, which could be reassembled later and rendered perceptible to the human eye once again by means of the zoetrope, and later the cinematograph.

If cinema, in its an analog form, continues to assemble the individual images of the filmstrip into an operational continuum, then the digitalized variant is derivable from the same formal principle only theoretically. The works kurz vor fünf (shortly before five) and in front, hence, demarcate a media-historical threshold. For our cultural conditioning still prepares us to distinguish the working principle of the series from its respective material bases. Ten or twenty years from now, once the filmstrip has vanished entirely from everyday use, and only the CD-ROM and other digital storage media remain as bearers of visual data, the working principle of both series will have to be reinterpreted. In the large-format photographs of the series kurz vor fünf, the short films produced by M+M themselves are dissected into their individual images. The templates for the images of in front were supplied by television news broadcasts. From a distance, the images can be read as abstract formations determined by their color coding, while close up, the storyline can be followed along as in a flipbook whose pages have become detached. The interface between film and photography is enacted here in works conjoining the qualities of both media. As in cinema, a story can be narrated in images. The film is unified in the mind of the observer, and here, more so than in cinema, whether or not the story exerts a narrative pull depends strongly upon each viewer’s preparedness to familiarize himself with the story and to expose himself to it. For the quality of a photograph, determinative in equal measure for these works, lies in the degree of freedom it grants the viewer. In terms of the history of media, the precise moment of the invention of cinema is invoked here in these images. Just as with the serial photography of Muybridge and Marey, the individual images are set into motion, hesitantly and spasmodically, by the viewer’s own powers of visualization.

The works of M+M, which occupy the threshold that separates photography from film, evoke earlier connective links in awareness of the history of the media. In so doing, they render these links accessible once again to a contemporary public, thereby making them especially apropos for display in a museum for photography. The large-scale film installations, to be set up in the ruinous former Kaisersaal of the museum, take up an additional constant of film presentation on the analytical level. The subdivision of the projection onto six screens in a rectangular configuration with Johanna-Zyklus (Johanna Cycle), and on four screens set up in a square with Dance with me, Germany, to be suspended from the open roof truss, offers viewers a multiplicity of perspectives of the respective film. No matter from which angle, and whether standing within or outside of the projection areas, the beholder must himself recompose the stories narrated here, themselves related in ways that depart from the dramaturgical conventions of traditional film. The beholder must choose his own beginning, middle, and end, establish his own sequence of events. Demanded here is the spectator’s own participation, through which he can discover in the Johanna-Zyklus a drama of jealousy, an investigation of identity and split consciousness. And through which, in Dance with me, Germany, he can enter the life of a suburban youth of Turkish origins who seeks his own path within the field of tension constituted by private and public violence.

The medial interconnections in terms of which M+M conceive their works go far beyond the yoking together of photography and film. Autobahnschleife (Motorway Loop) deploys a structure of some complexity. The point of departure is a small sticker that can be affixed to the interior front windshield of a car or motorcycle. Deep motorway-blue in color, it bears inscriptions on its right and left margins reading: “A 27 Vittorio Veneto” and “M+M Autobahnschleife” (M+M Motorway Loop). Initially, these inscriptions appear puzzling, yet the logo immediately supplies the required context, displaying a highly abstract roadway receding into the depth of the visual field — the kind of image displayed by signs at the entrances to motorways. But in place of an overpass spanning two roadways, an ellipse is joined to the motorway on its right side, a fundamental modification of the customary emblem. The ellipse apparently refers to the motorway loop mentioned in the inscription. The inscription on the plastic backing film again specifies the provision already legible on its front side: “Road tax sticker allowing use of the Motorway Loop A 27 Vittorio Veneto following its completion.” That the loop is actually already driveable would appear unlikely. Surely, the sticker is cheeky reference to the future. Yet in March 2000, the Binser Engineering Firm drew up a construction design that was published in an “Explanatory Report.” There, under Point 1, we read under “Purpose / Conceptual Formulation” a statement as plain as it is plausible: “In the course of the construction of the motorway A 27 near Vittorio Veneto, it becomes necessary to construct an additional lane near motorway kilometer 15+664,34, taking the form of a 360° loop and connected to the existing motorway.” Following this are descriptions of the planning guidelines and structural design, as well as engineer’s drawings and computer simulations. An exhaustive chart of the construction timeframe, finally, specifies that work is to commence on the 1st of March 2001, with completion expected on the 13th of December 2002. Perhaps this structure, then, is already navigable? In fact, the photograph on the cover of the explanatory report encourages this assumption. The view, seen from an elevated perspective, shows a lush, sunlit mountain valley; the houses scattered across the slope on the left suggest a southern, Alpine landscape. Following the shape of the valley, the grayish-white strip of the four-lane motorway, raised high on pylons, intersects the image diagonally. The loop, with a few cars driving along it, is visible, and accomplishes a wonderfully precise looping curve across the steeply falling valley, swinging out from the motorway before finding its way back again. The slightly grainy photograph, probably a simple snapshot taken by the engineering office, corroborated by the volume’s technical drawings, leaves little room for doubt: This audacious construction must have actually been erected, and can now — assuming a driver’s vehicle bears a valid sticker — be navigated.

As so often since its invention, photography here certifies the actual existence of a state of affairs. It has virtually become a platitude that the widespread dissemination of digital photography has heightened our awareness of the potential for deception and falsification inherent in the photographic medium. Yet all of us remain prepared to accept a photographic image as a document of reality. In their interventions into systems, hence, M+M continually resort to photography, even isolating, for example, photographic stills from their films of actions, as in Abgabe/Eingabe (Output/Input), in order to heighten the degree of authenticity of their documentations. The temporal frame of the action of the blood donation documented here, and already condensed in the film, flows in the photograph into an instant whose powers of persuasion depend upon the image’s iconic qualities. Meanwhile, the temporal interval compressed in the photograph becomes extended once more in the act of contemplation.

Both in their filmic activities as well as in their deployment of photography, M+M attempt to render visible the various temporal dimensions conjured by the media. In this, they are apparently close to the teachings of the philosopher and “original freethinker” Sam Kurthes, invented for the novel Ultrachronos by Helmut Krausser, an author prized by M+M. Its ideological core is constituted by a long seminar by Kurthes, in which the signs of disintegration of familiar worlds are diagnosed as a crisis of our habitual experience of time: “Time is a network of fine knots that tie each second to the fact that transpire in it. But sometimes there are apparently inexplicable phenomena, the emergence of erosions, cracks where things which had previously been separate flow into one another. (…) Why? Because events are no longer decided by a subject, time no longer recognizes the subject as the bearer of decisions. Chronos becomes detached from individual consciousness.” With their test procedures and documentations, M+M, as engineers of the temporary, contribute to the annulment of the flow of time. The clone-like being invented for the video installation Gutes Morgen Dr. Mad seems almost emblematic of this dissolution. Bald-headed and goggle-eyed, with a potato-shaped body, it floats in a timeless, weightless dream world pervaded by blue bubbles. The being’s inventor, Dr. Mad, is imprisoned in the case opposite, which shows his clinical, chilly office. Here is the classical engineer’s cell, from which the world is manipulated. It may not seem terribly farfetched to imagine our artistic duo in place of this scientist, continually in search of creations capable of annihilating the passage of time.

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