Speaking the Thing Itself: Image Poetics in Whir

by Doug Hall

In his essay, 'On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,' Walter Benjamin claims that while Man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden symbolized the transition into historical knowledge, it also expressed the loss of another kind of knowledge—one that allowed an intimate and true relationship between objects and the words that represent them. Inspired by the Kabala and its interpretation by the Jewish scholar, Gershom Scholem, he was referring to a language that came to Man directly from God, that allowed an essential, pre-historical relationship to the world of things. For Benjamin, civilization is, among other things, a story of the collapse of this essential naming (a mystical relationship between name and object that is participatory and immediate, knowing no distinction between subject and object). In an article that appeared in Semiotica, Christopher Bracken writes: "Language is not an act of mediation through representation, but 'a matter of mediation through immediacies' (Benjamin). The form assumed by this paradoxically mediated immediacy is participation. The name 'participates' directly in the thing, while the word participates indirectly in the thing through the name. The name is an immediate mediation, and the word a mediate immediacy. Neither word nor name 'represents' [my emphasis] anything, but together they move matter, as if by magic."1

In Benjamin's account, language as "mediate immediacy" has been replaced in historical times by a language that represents. It is the language of judgment in which the objective world is held at a distance as something to be critiqued and analyzed. In my interpretation of Benjamin's paradoxical and, often obscure argument, the problem with the language of judgment is that it can only speak "about" something. While it "communicates," it is incapable of speaking the thing itself. As a result there are things in the world —I would argue they are those that we care most about —that must remain nameless or beyond the limits of language and, therefore, knowledge. (This recalls the final statement of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.")

These brief remarks on Walter Benjamin's theory of language serve as an introduction to my thoughts on the work of bull.miletic. Part of my interest has to do with a sense that their work (throughout this essay I will to refer to bull.miletic in the plural) uses technology to establish a "mediate immediacy" between us and the technological objects that have emerged from historical knowledge. The irony, of course, is that they utilize the apparent neutrality of technology—its ability to amass data and present it, seemingly, without judgment or comment—to reveal technology as both the source of our alienation and the means by which we might establish a more essential relationship to its objects. They achieve this by extracting from the vast plain of unformed data its poetic potential. Their poetic language is constructed by utilizing mundane objects in the form of images that collide with one another. Handled carefully by the artists, images rub against one another with just enough friction to produce new and unsuspected consonances—ones that maintain themselves momentarily, holding in abeyance a strong compulsion for the image/objects to decompose into chaotic dissonance. My claim is that such a poetics in which images are placed into dynamic constellations can provide us with flashes of insight and recognition that circumvent the limitations of conventional language. Much in the way a poetics based on words distorts language's usual meanings through figuration, a poetics of images applies figuration to the objectively familiar so we can access emotions and feelings beyond their representational grasp. These structures give meaning to transitory events in our lives by identifying or naming them. It's a non-verbal naming: a recognition that is both concrete—situated in the world of objects—and transitory.

In my interpretation, a poetics based in non-verbal naming has the following characteristics: It is experiential rather than expository and, as a result, is taken in somatically and sensationally before it's dissected intellectually. It is non-didactic and, indeed, it might even be difficult to say what a work composed in this way is about. In other words, such a work would be made up of combinations of images that were self-referential and defied—even discouraged as being inappropriate—linear analysis or judgment. Admittedly, this is an odd sort of naming. It's a naming that refuses to name but provides, instead, a fluid and sentient medium in which to comprehend, momentarily, those aspects of our lives—those most important events or emotional states—that "we can't speak about." Our word, "love," for example, is an attempt to represent one of the most complex of these emotions. But it's a word that is expressively dead and inadequate for the task. Representations of this and similar emotions call for another "language" or medium of address—one that is analogical rather than specifically representational. It is a "language" that must compress the gap dividing the objective world from ourselves so that. rather than holding experience at a distance, it knows no boundaries. It becomes us so that we might become "it"—if even for just a moment. Mediated, the unnamable becomes immediate and, fleetingly, part of us.

Now I'd like to return to the subject of this essay: the work of bull.miletic and most specifically their single channel video, Whir, which I first saw in San Francisco shortly after it had been completed in 2002. From this early encounter to the more recent, repeated viewings, I've been fascinated by the work. This essay is, in fact, little more than my attempts to understand and express more fully why I've found the video so compelling and relevant. In Whir, there is no plot or traditional narrative. Rather, we experience a sequence of sounds and images that have been extracted from the disinterested expanse of our constructed world. Unmediated data may be neutral. Here, however, one feels as if the artists have pushed our heads beneath data's bland surfaces to reveal things that are both sinister and surprisingly beautiful. I'm not referring to the beauty located in pastoral order and tranquility. I am on the opposite side of the spectrum where one finds the terrifying beauty associated with disorder and the potential loss of human control. This is, I believe, the central theme of their video. One might, hesitatingly, identify it as the technological sublime.

Shortly after the opening scene of Whir, we see the following sequences: Out of blackness fades the soft focused interior of a gently swaying subway car. We are inside the car, looking obliquely across the aisle at empty seats. It’s not a New York subway. It’s too clean and impersonal. Nothing is visible through the darkened windows except an occasional light that streaks by. A technological sound intrudes into the scene. It’s quickly recognizable as the digital ring of a cellular phone. The volume increases. There’s nobody to answer it. Cut to a close-up of a pale bluish light that fills the screen. The surface of a television screen? The camera pulls back and stops. Pulls back again and stops. As the camera retreats, the image pulses in the same rhythm as the cell phone alert; when the sound of the cell phone pauses, the reverse zoom also pauses. The camera feels disembodied and mechanical. This continues for several seconds until a device—the source of this blue light—is revealed. It appears to be some sort of video machine, but all of this happens too quickly for us to be certain. Maybe it’s a research tool in a science lab; or something used in surveillance. Cut to a red/orange light—perhaps a warning light—that nearly fills the screen and pulses in the same cadence as the now silent cell phone. Surrounded in black, it diminishes in size as if the camera was once again pulling back. It becomes a dot centered in the black field. The red dot begins to move around erratically. The black field has become an unidentifiable surface—maybe a paneled wall or the surface of a table—over which the light roams like a laser beam searching for a target. The camera sweeps toward the roving circle of light and as it does there is a fast dissolve to another circle. This one, also centered in the screen, is fuzzy as if we were looking through a fish eye surveillance lens in the door of a cheap hotel room. We can make out, in muted colors, the back of a figure who seems to have just turned and is walking down the corridor. She (it appears to be a woman) is moving in moderate slow motion. As she steps into the light in the middle of the corridor, we can see the red of her shirt and her blond, almost white, hair. We never see her face—she has only the most general identity—but we remember these few details as if we were witness to a crime and might be questioned later. As she reaches the far end of the corridor, she fades out, like data erased from a hard drive, leaving behind the empty hallway that quickly fades into the next scene, a communication tower shrouded in streams of fast moving clouds or fog. These last sequences take place in eerie silence that’s made more profound by the technological sounds that preceded them. They comprise no more than two and a half minutes of the video that, over the course of twelve minutes, proceeds through similarly organized constellations of sound and image. What my words are incapable of conveying is how haunting and oddly satisfying these and other image sequences are. The cadences, the quality of the images themselves, the use of sound, both natural and manipulated, reverberate in us with associations that feel situated below the thresholds of language and sense. They reach us through our stomach and brain stem, not our cerebral cortex. Yet the world as depicted is ordinary—terrifyingly so. Or at least the scenes are composed of the most mundane experiences and objects. But the feelings that arise from them are anything but ordinary. Nor are they easily categorized.

I can’t leave Whir without mentioning how the artists treat light, which is one of the video’s central characters. Here, light is seldom seen as natural but is emitted from diodes, television monitors, neon signs, electronic message boards and the like. Even in those instances where natural light illuminates the scene, it burns too hot. It’s acidic and corrosive. Furthermore we, the viewers, receive their light not as illumination seen through an open window but as a glow from a television monitor. The artists accentuate its artificiality by employing techniques such as fading into and out of white rather than black or the next scene as is traditionally done. If Vermeer, the great artist of The Age of Reason, portrayed light as a source of rationality and order, then Bull.Miletic give us light that is counter-rational and dis-ordering. They, of course, are not alone in this. Not only does a similar treatment of light appear in much contemporary film and video (Blade Runner is an obvious and extreme example) but one finds it in literature as well (the light of madness in Camus’s The Stranger2). Ironically and decisively, in the case of Whir, the sources of this disorienting light are those same technological devices that were intended to bring the world closer and render it more comprehensible or provide us with celebratory environments, like Times Square, where we go to alleviate our boredom.

I’ll finish this essay by reiterating, from a slightly different angle, my earlier insistence that Whir utilizes an image poetics that brings temporary consonance to the disorientingly dissonant world of technological objects. Their video is part of a tradition in contemporary media art—one it inherited from modernism—that is less concerned with communicating or telling a story “about” something and is most interested in “speaking the thing itself.” It is, I believe, in an attempt to speak the thing itself that the unnamable—in the case of Whir the vast technological field of our own making—can be felt and experienced beneath its glittering surface. This is the politics of their work and what gives it urgency and relevance. Media based works are uniquely suited to provide a technological poetics because of their ability to move with time and pulse to the rhythms of our bodies and our machines; and because they can be self-referential, constructed as both subject and object. This is not a poetics that’s based in judgment or even analysis, but rather, it is located in description. Bull.Miletic order their collections of data into complex phrases in which one can discover both a celebration of technology’s potential and a lament for its inevitable failure. These are the dual sides of their project: the utopian (potential) and the dystopian (failure). What is interesting is not that these poles exist in their work since countless artists over the past century have wrestled with the same dichotomy. What is unique is that the artists navigate the territory between the poles in ways that allow us to experience it as a non-dichotomous Moebian landscape of phenomenon and experience. In the case of Whir, they do this with no overt editorial comment. What they give us is very different from the finite landscape that we inherited from seventeenth century cartographers, which, until recently, had served as an adequate representation of a rationally ordered world. It is this new technological terrain, both exhilarating and the source of great anxiety, that is the subject (and object) of Bull.Miletic’s videos and media installations.

  1. Christopher Bracken, The Language of Things: Walter Benjamin's Primitive Thought, Semiotica 138-1/4, 2002, p 324.
  2. See the last paragraph of Part One of The Stranger, leading up to the narrator’s stabbing of the Arab on the beach. Here, rather than illuminating and bringing clarity, light obfuscates and is a source for madness.

From "Bull.Miletic: Slow Seeing," Künstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin, 2004. All rights reserved.