A dialogue between Michael Haerdter and Bull.Miletic in Unfinished: Scars of the Past / Face of the Future, Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, 2007. All rights reserved.
The world has, once again, reached a turning point. For quite some time we have become aware of appalling changes and transitions that our cultures and nature, our worldview and daily lives are subjected to. Our Modern Times started off with the Great Revolution, setting new leitmotivs: mobility and change, progress and acceleration.
Accordingly, the making of art has undergone a far-reaching metamorphosis. Moreover, artists of the modernist avant-garde have been among the most sensitive—and critical—witnesses of those changing times from the early 20th century on.
In many ways, the team of two young artists, Bull.Miletic, belongs to this outstanding category. Their work may best be labeled by the notion of transition. When living and working in Berlin in 2004, the artists actually realized a project titled Übergang, i.e. transition. Bull.Miletic’s crucial artistic ambition is directed toward investigating the phenomena of time and space, past and present, their medium being video and audio, images and sound, including their interaction and interchange. In a word, the realm of the in-between. This applies as well to Bull.Miletic’s personal identities bridging between the Norwegian and the Serbian cultural backgrounds.
* * *
MH: Please, tell me of the convictions and motivations that your past and present projects are based on.
B.M: Firstly, thank you very much for your nice introduction. Our projects are exactly based onthis transitory nature of moving images and sound, as well as their inherent ability to represent familiar surroundings unfamiliar. Much of what we do can perhaps be seen as an attempt to visualize an unconscious optical and acoustical field of perception. Being particularly interested in the relationship between physical and mental space, our motivation is to examine our surroundings (architecture, objects, landscape, urbanity) as containers of emotions, memories and political decisions.
MH: The modern societies live in a cold war against complexity and change, as the physicist Hans-Peter Dürr put it. They are indeed notoriously conservative. We know by experience that life is transient and the world bound in constant transition. That may be the reason why we banish knowing it, sticking to the illusion of permanence and continuity, if necessary by means of contracts, laws and insurance policies. Our seeming certainty, however, appears as more and more fragile, if not obsolete.
Your work, the projects of Bull.Miletic so far—which I want you to inspect with me more in detail—seem to be under the spell of a complex world in constant change. Your statement on representing “familiar surroundings unfamiliar” makes me suppose that you choose and develop your artistic media consciously to this end—let’s say with critical intent. On the other hand, it may well be that you experience the world, young artists that you are, just obviously as manifold and ambivalent, even as irrational, disharmonious and on the move, in other words: naturally as it is. Well, give me an account of your perception of the world and your ways and means to translate and represent it in your art.
B.M: Your remark about complexity and change resonates well with our own ideas about artistic practice. Yes, perhaps we are critical—but also fascinated. For us, art practice is a continuous process of research, which influences how and what we see in our surroundings. The nomadic life style we’ve embraced contributes to our fluid perception of the world where perpetual mobility allows us to critically approach the idea of transition or in-betweenness from within (by living it). Through our artistic research, we have been investigating how time-based visualization of built environments relates to experiences of physical and mental representation of space. We are concerned with the language of time-based media and its relationship to the changing forms of our culture’s temporal and spatial consciousness. To directly answer your question, our work does not merely reflect upon our impressions of the world but rather isolates fragments of the world for closer “inspection,” including the mentioned illusion of solidity. We see our projects as a process of transformation, where the camera investigates the environment on the basis of a pre-configured mechanism as opposed to somebody’s “point of view.” Through the form of video installation we observe a potential trajectory for the visualization of time as space, and as a constellation where past and present coexist as interchangeable variables.
MH: One of the most remarkable aspects of the mentioned metamorphosis in the arts is their adoption of, as it were, scientific methods. You speak of art as a continuous research, of your examining isolated fragments of the world on the basis of a pre-configured mechanism: With that, I am immediately associating a laboratory situation where scientists, bent over electronic microscopes and computers, are investigating sorted out details of the organic or inorganic creation in order to decode their secrets.
Indeed, you do belong to the descendants of Einstein and his theory of relativity, which presented mankind with that sensational discovery of space and time being synthesized in a four-dimensional continuity... “Visualizing time as space,” in your words.
Even though Goethe already claimed that one should consider science as art—aren’t the two sisters well distinguished by their objectives, after all? Yours are built environments or—to borrow a sentence of Boris von Brauchitsch—urban battlefields and playgrounds and the vain desire to record the world in its entirety. Your wide field of action is not defined, as in the sciences, by searching objective facts. Your research is rather directed toward values. It is, in other terms, the battlefield of the society, of history and politics; it is the playground of the humanities and its components: imponderability, coincidence, openness and—indeed—the personal “point of view.” Tell me whether you agree with my analysis. And, if you do, please reflect on the ambivalence, which I discover in your making of art: the objectivity of your procedures and the subjectivity of your emotional approach.
B.M: With “art practice as a continuous process of research” we mean a research of our own process, not to verify anything but to discover something, not to decode any secrets but to pose new questions. This could be the architectural characteristics of a city, like now in Belgrade, and previously, in San Francisco and Berlin. The historical and political situations in these cities inform our decision about what and how to film. We often design special filming mechanisms in order to achieve a certain constructed objectivity. Perhaps there is a level of ambivalence here. We decide a certain pattern for the camera upfront and we also exercise great amount of control in the postproduction process, but we still intend there to be a considerable amount of coincidence and openness involved. We see the objectivity of our procedures as a means to frame a field of study. We design a pattern for filming but can never imagine the exact outcome; the familiar is made unfamiliar and we must revisit our original intention as something new. This is what we mean by a continuous research. Then again a new level reveals itself at the point of installation. As Jeremy Welsh put it: “The work plays out in ‘real time’ the research questions that form the basis of the project. ‘Art research’ as a term can only have meaning when research is immersed in art practice. No amount of discursive rhetoric external to the creative work could validate the project if it did not function within its own terms. It is not uncommon today for artists to spend long periods of time researching a subject in order to prepare for the making of a work, but it is perhaps less common for the working process itself to be considered research.”
MH: We are all descendants of Einstein, that is to say, of the discoveries and the lessons taught by the new sciences, whether we are conscious of it or not. An essential one of their insights has been and is the need to reject all former assertions of eternal iron laws able to unveil the secrets of the world. Now, we have rather to do with open questions finding no definitive answers. Here, on the other hand, lays a certain answer explaining the new affinity between science and art. I appreciate the statement on your artmaking process because it does not only confirm this view, it also provides evidence to the fact that the arts—and your art in particular—are in a privileged position in approaching our enigmatic realities.
To get my point straight, let me review your art practice from yet another angle: from the point of view of language. It is contemporary sciences’ serious Achilles’ heel that they have to invent a new rational language corresponding to their new findings. Within its own terms and at its best, art—your art—takes the opposite direction—as Jeremy Welsh explains it by distinguishing the research phase in preparation of a work of art, and the making of the work itself. Here’s my example:
Samuel Beckett (with him we are truly in the epicenter of the arts) once distinguished between the artist, in whom the work naturally preexists, and his alter ego, the craftsman, who “translates” it. Translating the work of art in order to give it birth constitutes the real challenge in artmaking. The poet strove all his life, successfully in the end, to master what he called “direct expression,” i.e. to reach immediacy in the coinciding of appearance and meaning. Doug Hall, quoting Walter Benjamin, defines this creative act in regard to your work as essential naming or participation.
I would like you to try and speak in your terms about your “translating craft,” or about “the Thing Itself.”
B.M: In our opinion, the artworld still largely struggles with the myth of the genius artist “in whom the work naturally preexists.” Working as an artistic duo we are often faced with a demand to specify that genius within our collaboration. We can hardly relate to this concept, as our work represents an alloy that cannot be reduced to individual contributions. As the nature of our work is research, meaning a continuous process of questioning, it is perhaps easier for us to identify our practice with the term participation from your earlier quote. You can say that while the scientist brings the result to the audience, we bring the audience into a “transitory lab.” Thus in this project, sound and image may seem as disparate elements at first, as the sound itself is of an altogether opposite character from the image. The three identical video feeds have an internal time/frame relationship, which is based on a temporal distance of 7 seconds, also known as “seven-second delay” in broadcasting industry. 7 second delay refers to the practice of intentionally delaying broadcast of live material to prevent profanity or other undesirable material from making it to air. Algebraically speaking, the structure of the video in the installation can be expressed by the following formula:
V1:V2:V3 = V1:(V1+7”):(V1+14”)
Furthermore, the audio has an internal time and tonal relationship, which consists of 88 descending keys on a grand piano, in a diatonic scale, at 60 seconds intervals. The tonal distance between the notes is one scale step:
The conceptual space between the sound and image is further emphasized by the medium and duration. The audio is played from a CD, which runs separately from the DVD players. The total running time of the video is 54’12’’ and the total running time of the audio is 88’00”. Both are played in an endless loop and the piano keystrokes associated with the images will change accordingly. The relationship between video and audio is thus opened up to redefine itself over time, transpiring in the mind of the viewer at the moment of perception.
MH: The world’s not what it seems to be: That apparently simple statement is a truism for some. Yet, we shall not forget that for the large majority of the people it is still dynamite as it challenges the long-standing belief in the rational order of the world, as it denies the common sense that we doubtless stand on solid ground. Some spirits of the 19th century began dreaming of a different world—e.g. think of Baudelaire’s “paradis artificiels,” his artificial paradises. The spectacular development in the field of technologies, not least, finally granted that dream a real chance to come true.
A large part of the 20th century’s bloody history may indeed be defined by the vain attempt to create a pretendedly better world. In one way or another, we all are actors and/or victims of that delusion. Meanwhile, the world is truly about to change, direction and goal however unknown.I firmly believe that the advanced and critical arts—your category!—are called upon to try and shed some light into the darkness of our ambiguous reality. This means nothing less but to inform and guide one’s audiences as an artist. I would like you to reflect on your projects’ quality and ability to take your viewers along on the highly sophisticated research trip of your “transitory lab.”
B.M: If the installation is a place where phenomenological aspects of questions around spatial existence can be re-addressed, Unfinished focuses in particular on human spatial understanding and impression. By exploring experimental strategies for mapping a social space within its physicality, perception, and memory, this research is the basis for developing new mental and physical coordinates within a subjective topography. As Zoran Eri} mentioned in his text, “spatial forms can be seen as social structures,” and accordingly, as Henri Lefebvre first observed, Our occupation as visual artists entails an interest in the process of knowing by seeing, particularly through the medium of moving images. Needles to say, we are deeply influenced by the works of Michael Snow, Walter Benjamin and Dziga Vertov, among others. Maybe, by naming the “optical unconscious,” Benjamin opened up our particular field of study. Similarly to the microscope or the telescope, film can magnify or make miniature—“evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than to the naked eye.” Vertov proclaims the supremacy of the “kino-eye,” which is able to penetrate deeper into the visible world. By being thrown out of our habitual patterns we may discover our immediate surroundings as something new and unfamiliar. It is about becoming aware of what we already know but which is so obvious that we are not aware that we know it. With our video camera we are searching for that revelation, a nameless knowledge if you want, by discovering and replicating multiple dimensions of time. This research is the artwork, the thing itself revealed while observing it.
MH: That is a great clarifying reply upon my challenging request, I gladly welcome it! I had hoped for such a reaction of yours when choosing a statement by the young Beckett—from his essay on Marcel Proust, written in 1930—when he still planned to become a novelist in the tradition of bourgeois narrative literature. (Doing justice to him, we have to add that in this ambition he later on failed: He rejected the conventional hero, even the individualist ego, see Not I. Not as a genius, but as the anti-bourgeois outsider he considered himself to be, Beckett grew into being one of the most outstanding witnesses to our changing times).
True to Dziga Vertov’s “kino-eye,” let us now turn away from the long shot and turn to a close-up of your work. I am fascinated by your work-in-progress Heaven Can Wait. Because, first of all, the revolving restaurants represent a perfect visualization of space as time or time as space in your translation (sorry!). Secondly—aren’t those turning globes, virtually floating between Heaven and Earth like closed units seemingly from outer space, truly observing their surroundings “as something new and unfamiliar?” Thirdly, because your project convincingly demonstrates the abolition of linear perspective in favor of a spherical perception of the world. Finally—no! It’s your turn to speak in more detail about your individual projects. Some consideration on Heaven Can Wait? And, maybe, in particular about your present work Unfinished, which is concerned with Belgrade’s transitional character.
B.M: Seattle’s Space Needle—which usually gets the credit as the world’s first revolving restaurant —is a standing monument of the allegorical paradigm you are referring to. Either way: Space as time or time as space, it does not matter how you say it. The point is that space is made up of time and movement, which simultaneously grants the space within time. Working with moving images, our field is in the mental and physical perception of these phenomena. Or as Siegfried Kracauer put it so well: “Spatial images are the dreams of society. Wherever the hieroglyphics of any spatial image are deciphered, there the basis of social reality presents itself.” Our intention is to discover how architectural forms (our surroundings), as Siegfried Kracauer acknowledges, can be seen as the result of a deeper concern.
It is good that you brought up Heaven Can Wait. This project has come to represent the corner stone of our artistic practice, embodying, as it does, essential questions underlying our entire artistic production. Similarly to Heaven Can Wait, the confluence of visual and acoustical material is important in Unfinished, and here we approached it conceptually in a particular way. “it is not only the physical space of the city that is being produced but also the social space.” The material practices, which ultimately can be seen as a reproduction of social life, are particularly evident in moments of transition. With our “transitory lab” we address the society as it is constructed spatially, questioning the spatial organization of the city, a system that makes a difference in how the city works.
Following Zoran’s text a step further, he refers to the process of analyzing the social space of a transitional society. The title Unfinished: Scars of the Past / Face of the Future refers directly to this transitory presence in the physical residue of Belgrade’s monumental architecture as well as its largely improvised recent urban planning. In our “transitory lab” there exist some important physical relationships, which we already addressed, but there is also an aspect of fluidity in the visual material that we haven’t mentioned so far. Namely, the method of filming, which allows the very point of view (i.e. the position of the camera) to be connected visually with all its consecutive viewpoints in a vertical 360-degree panorama. Each sequence is connected in a seamless transition to the next, incorporating not only the foundation on which one “stands” but its entire vertical plane. This unveiling of visual clues in the convergence of the seamless continuation and repetition (three times) makes up the never ending pattern of the video loop: The ground, the front view, the sky, the rear view, and again the ground, and so on. The connectivity draws the borders of every particular space, confirming its existing spatial and visual relationships, as it has been perceived in our unconscious through navigation and mental mapping. The work is indeed critical for the observant, but it can also easily be overlooked. Such openness to the reading of our “transitory lab” is precious to us, keeping a conscious distance from a more didactic approach.
* * *
This dialogue is a fragment, necessarily and intentionally. A moment of reflection in a continuous stream of consciousness, an interval of meditation on the present world and on a work in transit. It will serve as an introduction to an artwork which has to be perceived in its own fluid terms: through the eye. As an experience of immediate understanding, of “knowing by seeing.” It’s not a common experience to come across artists whose outstanding work-in-progress, whose highly personal practice in their art appears at the same time to swing in keeping with our puzzling planet, observing it, catching—as it were—aspects of it in its permanent pace by means of their curiosity, empathy and skilful technology. I am grateful to be acquainted with Bull.Miletic and their fascinating art.