VOORPUBLICATIE SONIC ACTS 2015: Kurt Hentschläger’s Sublime Landscapes 3.0
He investigates human perception and the impact of new technologies on individual and collective consciousness. Between 1992 and 2003 he worked collaboratively with Ulf Langheinrich as the artist duo Granular Synthesis. Kurt Hentschläger’s latest audiovisual installation, Measure (2014), reflects on nature as filtered through communication channels and media. In the tradition of eighteenth-century panoramic landscape paintings, the piece offers a broad view across a partly filmed, partly manufactured landscape. Measure was shot in late 2013 and early 2014 in the Vallée de Joux, one-hour’s drive from Geneva into the Jura Mountains, as part of a new artist programme initiated by one of the oldest Swiss watch-making companies, Audemars Piguet. Mirna Belina interviewed Kurt Hentschläger in the autumn of 2014.
Mirna Belina: You say ‘Measure is about nature and how we perceive it in today’s age’. Why this urgency to redefine nature?
Kurt Hentschläger: Measure is partially a reflection on what the so-called civilised world now perceives as nature or natural. The paradigm started shifting during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and continues to do so with ever increasing rapidity. The integration of digital technology demonstrates that in just two decades we can restructure the ways our species organises, interacts, creates, and feels about the world, including (what’s left of) nature. There is a sense of exponential empowerment, and with it the assessment of exponentially accumulating ‘man’ power. Throughout human history, original, unmapped and uninhabitable nature has, across most of the planet, been transformed into managed and cultured ‘real estate’. I don’t think anybody feels the urgency to consciously redefine nature, but clearly our traditional idea of nature has changed as it shrinks and becomes more of a memory than an omnipresent reality. Change is a fact of life, so I try not to be sentimental about any of this, but the scale of change in my lifetime alone is undeniably mindboggling.
Does ‘real nature’ exist at all?
What is real nature anyway? Is nature what existed before we became a conscious species? Is nature what surrounds us at any given time? Are cities, farms, industrial areas not just part of today’s nature? We deem something unnatural or artificial when it’s newly introduced. Once mass adopted, it quickly becomes a ‘natural’ part of our lives. I saw a movie recently depicting the early 1990s in the US with a group of people gathered around one cell phone. Twenty years later, we all carry phones as if it was never any different. Nobody feels that it’s unnatural in any way, battery life still sucks, et cetera, but phones are now physical extensions of ourselves. Moreover, we sense and frame the world through our smartphone cameras. It is two worlds that we try to bridge with these devices, the physical world and, dare I – vintage inclined – call it the cyber territories. The now ubiquitous camera enables continuous documenting of the world around us. It creates an omnipresent media veil of sorts, augmenting and distancing reality at the same time. It’s nothing new really to look through a camera lens, but the regularity with which we look through a device, relying on it to memorise for us, and how we trade images and sounds now as effortlessly as we converse via language, has taken a quantitative leap. Our impression of nature (of anything really), from the way we grow up looking at it, is always based on a set of cultural concepts and perceptual habits rooted within a culture. Subsequently, as our culture changes, so do our habits and how we formulate a worldview. Thus, even when we look at a stretch of pristine land, in our media-informed minds nature is no longer an untamed, undisturbed terrain, but a managed, protected and framed area of property.
What about the idea of nature as the ‘sublime’?
I am interested in sublime landscapes, experienced by individuals. Much has been said about the nature of the sublime and more about the various ways to define it – from the object-related perspective to ideas of mind and emotion, from the notion that it frustrates the distinction between cause and effect, to the sublime as manifestation of the divine. I’m intrigued by the conundrum of the sublime, its apparent ambiguity and ephemeral nature, congealing in the processes of the mind. Talking about the sublime always seems fraught with contradiction, as really the concept of framing it prevents its emergence. To have an experience of the sublime in many cases requires physically bringing yourself to certain locations, exposing yourself to phenomena – and also potential danger – and so for some time at least suspending your analytical faculties.
How does the term ‘Anthropocene’ resonate with Measure?
‘Anthropocene’ is a label applied to the planetary reach and scale of changes brought about by the scientific, industrial and cultural accomplishments of civilisation. Measure is a comment on the increasingly technical, mediated way of experiencing the world today, arguably at the peak, if not (self-inflicted) end of the Anthropocene. Untainted nature has become the exception to a city and urban sprawl perspective, access to which requires an effort, if not an expedition (if one wants to truly escape any vestiges of civilised comfort). On our behalf, legions of documentary filmmakers are documenting species, ecosystems and landscapes on the brink of extinction, conscious that they might be gone in a year or two. The footage emerging from these media expeditions is edited to serve up a ‘best of’ to produce the most spectacular and acutely condensed viewing experience, a meta-reality perspective if you will. While the disappearing original environment gets a last in-depth scan, it also marks our pragmatic and romantic farewell to the planet as we know it. The current tempo of nature’s transformation is breathtaking. Of course the Anthropocene and human meddling are marginal in the eons of planet Earth.
When working on a piece, do you start with a familiar image that becomes artificial or with an abstract idea that is embodied in the image? I am thinking about your ‘re-animated’ works like Range (2008), Cluster (2009–12) or Hive (2011), but also about Measure.
Generally, this body of work began from a feeling of absence and longing. About five years ago I realised that I had all but stopped venturing out into open natural landscapes. I was travelling a lot, mostly through airports connecting cities around the world. That had become my natural habitat. As somebody who grew up halfway between the city and the countryside, I always miss being ‘out there’. Part of what I love now about living in Chicago is that it is close to Lake Michigan: a large body of open water and wide skies. The sense of absence of open nature, of living in a city all the time, made me decide to embark on a conscious re-visiting of natural and non-natural landscapes. In this case the work started with a clear image of myself being outside, with a camera, as an older person and artist. Incidentally appropriate opportunities fell into my lap during those years. For example, in 2012 I was invited to do a commission for Ironbridge in the English Midlands, one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution, which is now a very bucolic World Heritage Site. It’s a place that has come full cycle, from a wilderness in the early eighteenth century to an industrial centre exploited for all its resources, then sinking into oblivion as industrial needs became greater and production moved to more suitable places, and now the whole valley feels like an idyllic park. It is a tastefully maintained region – cute, one could say – that is humane and attractive to tourists. All these experiences have informed Measure.
Are you also rethinking the idea of a digital landscape in Measure?
The ‘digital’ isn’t really my concern. It’s an obvious game changer, but in the end, technology in itself does not create anything. People do. What did happen though is that ‘the digital’ enables a malleability of everything. Our aesthetic tools have become more potent. In Measure, the malleability shows up in regards to time-based elements, which in both filming and post-processing are dynamic and fluctuating, yet the final edited flow appears perfectly natural and in real time. In Measure some manipulations and added layers are obvious, while others blend in as seemingly natural. I feel the whole question of the fake, the processed or the manipulated, is now irrelevant. Whether we realise the artifice when looking at something or not, doesn’t matter – we simultaneously believe something to be real and not real now. It’s a consequence of our media education of the last hundred years. I would say Measure is a layered fabric – constantly moving while going nowhere.
A longer version of this interview is included in the book The Geologic Imagination, edited by Arie Altena, Mirna Belina, and Lucas van der Velden, on occasion of the 2015 Sonic Acts Festival. For sale at: www.sonicacts.com/store.