In front of their screens even die-hard apologists of a digital culture are sometimes overcome by a feeling of being mentally transported to a kind of parallel universe. Critics of "cybernetic totalism" such as Jaron Lanier, who in more optimistic times coined the term "virtual reality", are now taking a decisive stand against the new techno-orthodoxy. Indeed, they claim that the computer has evolved into a life form "which purportedly understands humans better than they understand themselves" and with the invention of programs that help us connect with the world and other people, structures have been created that, by manipulating our cognitive experiences, directly change our experience. "Information" however, says Lanier, is "an alienated experience" – and consequently experience is the only thing "capable of reversing the alienation of information".
Whatever we think of such profound changes, we need only watch television or pick up an iPad to see that space-time, which could be considered the backbone of our experience of the world, is increasingly starting to become unstable. Reality vaporizes in the digital sphere, becomes abstract; a construction by machines for machines. Art is also responding to the dominance of a technological environment, in which things that are huge distances away can be summoned at will in the form of images and streams. It is accompanied by the body and by space. Thus in Venice we come across several installations and environments that take on the irreducibility of space and its "imaginary" qualities.
Where am I?
The experience of being in such interlocking spaces is as confusing as it is elementary: we don't know where we are. Particularly in the British Pavilion we see a fusion of strange places and past times. Mike Nelson's installation, consisting of numerous interlocking spaces, puts our sense and perception of space to the test. We become disoriented. Where am I? is the question, not: Who am I? The feeling we are suddenly somewhere else, have suddenly been displaced or translocated, goes so far that we can no longer trust even the proportions of objects and spaces. Thus we wander from room to room, increasingly finding ourselves in an alien world. If the aroma of such rooms is familiar, we slowly realize that we are in a reconstructed caravanserai, a trading post and warehouse, like the one Nelson built eight years ago in Istanbul in a 17th-century building.
Reality becomes imaginary, imagination real
What is decisive is not that we suddenly find ourselves in a fictional space, a kind of illusion, and that the ensemble seems in places like a movie set. Rather, what counts is that the installation creates a real space and not just an image, a chimera, or a series of symbols that we walk through. Although it is alien, the space is really there, yet at the same time has hallucinatory elements. It seems two things have fused into one amalgam here, namely a reality that has become imaginary and an imagination that has become real. Especially when we enter a room within this environment in which a photo lab has been set up, we start thinking about the relationships between different types of representation. In any case, our spatial perception permanently alternates between reality and fiction, space and image. The real suddenly seems unreal, yet just a moment later we are besieged by something unreal using the power of the real. Thus in Mike Nelson's installation we encounter many kinds of spatial, historical and economical displacements.
The space blurs
The visitor is faced with a similar experience, albeit under very different conditions, in the Luxembourg Pavilion not far from the Accademia. Here Martine Feipel and Jean Bechameil launch a direct assault on our spatial perception in their in-situ installation "Le Cercle fermé". As though we were in an offshoot of the 16th-century Mannerist "Parco dei Mostri" in Bomarzo, our usually stable perception of the constructed space is brushed aside. As in the tower with its inclined floor and slanting walls in the park commissioned by condottiero Pier Francesco Orsini, in which the complete lack of orientation leads to sudden dizziness, in these aligned rooms too, any stable relationship to the space seems to melt away. We are immersed in a pure, white, abstract and simultaneously thoroughly concrete Arcadia full of subtle shivers. If, having just escaped the halls of mirrors and undulating walls at Ca' del Duca, we look at the watery mirror of the Grand Canal, the environment simultaneously reveals itself as a subtle commentary on the beauty of Venice's architecture and the veduta painting that glorifies it. As in the water, here too the façades of the proud palazzi blur into fleeting silhouettes that ebb away like waves. The space we are in is real, yet Venice is imaginary. The point where the two experiences merge is where the crisis of space becomes tangible.
Stepping out of the image
Wherever we look in everyday life today, we are bombarded by information and signs and symbols. Live and in real time, we can see Japan or China or navigate oceans full of data. That said, expanse is shrinking. Space has assumed almost negligible dimensions. Spatial distances that were once deemed utterly impossible to cover have been largely neutralized by telecommunications and the Internet. Even in art it seems expanse has assumed visual and semiotic form. Here again the effect of intermediary spaces to separate things is disappearing. "The sticky ubiquity of the news", notes philosopher Peter Sloterdijk soberly, "has led to countless people seeing the previously wide world as a dirty little ball. Those who haven't lived in front of the television know nothing of the sweetness of life in a world without boundaries."
In the media-dominated age, art finds a purpose in capturing and presenting space as a medium of experience. It returns from the electronic image as a set of compressed data back to the incompressible, to the space with its own sensations. Yet this has long since been infected by the imaginary. So art looks to a space that, unlike in the site-specific works of the 1970s to 1990s, is no longer a fixed place. Nonetheless, artists attempt to create concrete vicinities in the here and now in response to the fact that with digital communication, space has transformed into something artificial and become intangible. Thus art reflects the general dissolution of fixed locational references by means of tangible spatial arrangements, as fictional as they may be. In so doing, art incorporates the observer and sends him out on a search for a place where meaning is once again able to become fixed in one place. The device of incorporation is as simple as it is irreplaceable: That which can be experienced can only be experienced here. In the presence of this place and the magic of this space. When we leave one territory, we have to return to another. Or, in the words of new-age philosophy: deterritorialization means disengaging from familiar terrain. This must inevitably be followed by a reterritorialization.
Even in the German "egomania" we experience something like a translocation; yet here it is one in the religion-based theater of memory and in the ceremonial space of treating the artist as hero. Thomas Hirschhorn's "Crystal of Resistance" in the Swiss Pavilion negates the triviality of the outside world and replaces it with a "geode", in which images of a media-driven terror grow out of the floor or from the ceiling like crystals.
Yet unlike on the monitors that today signify the borders of our world, in the spatial translocations of art nothing is called up, combined, manipulated, backed up and deleted; no-one can escape the inflowing real at the click of a mouse. Everyone is caught in the middle of it – here, in this place, in this space, in the dirt, in the crystal, in the tumult, in the pain, in all the jumble of images and places whose meaning we at best have a vague idea of, and in the stories we direct without knowing what becomes of them. The uprising against the digitally shrunken world creates spaces in which we get lost in order to find ourselves.
Already published in our series on the 54th Venice Art Biennial:
> "Beyond fear and Africa" by Thomas Wagner
> "Distributing pigeons in the park" by Thomas Wagner
> "We are leaving the American sector ..." by Joerg Bader and Thomas Wagner
> "Along for the ride" by Annette Tietenberg
> "American gym session" by Thomas Wagner
> "Resistance – liquefied or solidified?" by Barbara Basting
> "Slings, slings over all" by Barbara Basting
> "The Last Supperhero: Tintoretto" by Annette Tietenberg
> "Overpainting the feuilleton" by Joerg Bader
> "Venezia, Piazza Tahrir" by Barbara Basting
> "Head for the caravanserai" by Joerg Bader