Sven Lütticken

Joep van Liefland’s Media Archaeology

Black Systems

Since 2002, Berlin-based Dutch artist Joep van Liefland has installed more or less ephemeral franchises of his Video Palace in places ranging from parking lots to art galleries. Although no two incarnations are identical, most have included shelves of old VHS cases for films from a variety of exploitation genres, as well as monitors or projections that show either a montage of appropriated footage or one of Van Liefland’s own productions. In many cases, the latter present some mix of the porn and splatter genres and the language of commercials, exploring what Van Liefland calls “the media penetration of the social body”; in recent years, the two-parter Men and Depression has mimicked government health campaigns. Like a media archaeologist excavating the already lost world of VHS, and especially of small 1980s video stores with their wide array of trash, Van Liefland engages with phenomena which even the most eagerly slumming academics tend to shun. On the one hand, van Liefland could be seen as a Baudelairean ragpicker who celebrates the beauty of ephemeral trash; on the other hand, Video Palace's ludicrous praise for the exciting and glamorous qualities of its discount products also raises doubt about the "real" glamour produced by the more prestigious segments of the culture industry: Is it not equally phony, just blessed with higher production values? Perhaps the differences between the latest DreamWorks blockbuster or Mathew Barney film and the plastic debris collected on Video Palace's shelves are much smaller than they seem. Perhaps all the world's a Video Palace.

Usually, Video Palace installations are accompanied by posters and slogans that tirelessly proclaim the stunning quality of Video Palace products, its friendly service, its astonishingly low prices. The posters, films and drawings/collages on video cases show a love of genres and a proclivity for mixing them up and finding historical significance in apparent trash. In recent years, posters announcing The End (or part 2 or 3 thereof) have become common, one of them showing ruins on the Forum Romanum. Some of Van Liefland’s sleeve drawings are among his best pieces. One such sleeve from 2007 shows grain elevators of the kind that one might have seen in a Le Corbusier book, with the title proclaiming a development From Agriculture to Video Culture; another one from 2008, looking like DYI modern design, showcases the slogan “A-Kultur B-Film.” Exactly how A-culture relates to B-Movies remains a mystery—all the more so because the A derives from the logotype of Aldi, the discount supermarket chain, the suggestion of premium products thus collapsing. One of the more apocalyptic ones has a Greek warrior in a landscape with semi-abstract squiggles and the title The End, Part 3 (2008), while The Return of the Proletarian Flesh Eaters (2007) sports Marx’s face and the Godardian slogan “Cinemarx” along with the title. For Van Liefland, genres are historical sedimentations, ideology is at its most scintillating and fascinating in B-or C-grade productions, and from zombies to class war (or vice versa) is but a small step.

In VP installments such as VP #31: Black Systems, (2010) we seem to be witnessing something of a “formalist turn” in Van Liefland’s work. Some early incarnations of VP were extremely informal; even more than of gallery installations, this is true of one-off events that would take place, for instance, on nocturnal Berlin parking lots, with Van Liefland VJ-ing while audience members ate their Chinese takeaway food perched on some rim. Not much more comfortable is Van Liefland-designed furniture such as the 2006 VP Rocco Sitzecke (VP Rocco Sitting Corner), on the poster of which VP ambiguously presents itself as "Meester van alle klassen" (“Master of all classes”). Consisting of three cobbled-together benches, one clad with tinfoil, this construction is exhibited on a platform with lights and a large poster that praises its virtues: easy to clean, contemporary colors. This product brings to mind Russian Constructivists' attempts to create an alternative for plush bourgeois furniture that would lead to a more active and dynamic use of the body: VP Rocco Sitzecke would certainly make for a rather active and restless viewing experience. However, in this sub-IKEA version of Constructivism, this seems to be mere collateral damage of the furniture’s status as an image of furniture, as a Potemkin bench; sign value replaces use value. A similar twist can be seen in Van Liefland’s use of video cassettes.

In Van Liefland’s work, the Fall of the Magnetic Empire is commemorated in increasingly tight and monochromatic installations; if the early Video Palaces showcased VHS cases with tacky, colorful sleeves hawking C-grade videos, or Van Liefland’s own bricolage versions thereof, in recent years Van Liefland has increasingly focused on the naked VHS cassette – a black box seemingly absorbing all light, and giving little indication of the degraded miracles they contain. Increasingly, he has taken to using the mostly black cassettes as bricks, as building blocks, to form quasi-minimal structures. This is indeed the ruin of VHS video; devoid of cultural significance, its remains are used as spolia. Van Liefland clearly is not some crude, undialectical materialist who sees video only as rubble, who completely identifies the medium with its material substrate; and yet, as video images have migrated to other Bildträger, other “image carriers”, it is the image of the medium itself that takes center stage.

That Old Thing, Aura

Van Liefland’s Video Palaces can be seen as canny interventions in an absurd economy: the art-world economy of limited-edition video art, in which video’s potential for making unlimited copies is curtailed. In choosing his references in a very different video economy, one far removed from the spotless white spaces in which rarified video art is showcased, Van Liefland’s work both uses and casts doubt on the art world’s dependence on artificial scarcity.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin makes a remark that effectively undermines his suggestion that the new mediums of photography and (especially) film will necessarily diminish the aura of artistic works. As is well known, Benjamin posits a linear development in which new technologies of reproduction lead to an increase in “exhibition value” to the detriment of “cult value,” the latter depending largely on the aura of the unique work of art, its singular position in time and space. But is this process of secularization, of de-auratization, really linear? As Benjamin admits, Hollywood’s star system creates a new, artificial aura by carefully constructing the big stars’ “personalities,” leading to a “cult of the movie star.” Essential for this cult was limiting the stars’ availability—the studios knew that too much exposure posed the danger of profanation. Like certain cult images that are only removed from their shrine during important festivities, the great stars were shown to the public only under carefully controlled conditions. One did not see Garbo in an endless stream of B pictures, but only in a few choice productions. Such films were first shown in the most prestigious of “first-run” theaters, only gradually trickling down to other cinemas. Whereas Hollywood created scarcity and aura within a medium of mass reproduction largely through crafting the star’s persona and maintaining his/her distance from the audience, the art world has developed a different way of imparting aura to film and video.

Hollywood and its equivalents in other countries sought to control the film medium’s capacity for reproduction. Reproduction was good insofar as it benefited the system; it had to be handled with care, and the erosion of aura had to be carefully regulated. This control has become extremely difficult, as the hysterical tone of some anti-piracy campaigns and various high-profile lawsuits show all too clearly. The prestige of major new productions creates a desire for access that can be easily satisfied by contemporary technology. In an age in which small digital cameras allow for new films to be “rephotographed” in movie theaters in order to be distributed on cheap DVDs or online, it is hard to keep the migration of moving images—their physical movement—under control. In art, video pieces are often distributed in an extremely limited number of copies. From the late 1960s to the 1980s, the art world was marked by an experimentation with various forms of video distribution, from rental systems to limited-edition copies; with the establishment of the video installation in the late 1980 and 1990s, access to video art became ever more exclusive, as such installations were usually produced in only a handful of copies. Boris Groys has argued that “the video installation secularizes the conditions under which films are screened by giving the viewer the possibility to move freely within the space where the film is being shown, and to leave this space or return to it whenever he wishes.”However, “secularization” is characteristic of video and especially of DVD technology in general; we can now dis- and reassemble films on our laptops. Contra Groys, one could therefore that the video installation represents a throwback when compared with the wider video/DVD culture, since the limited availability of video instance results a restoration of aura—and therefore in resacralization.

The limited edition having become the norm, this principle was increasingly also applied to single-channel videos. Some artists went so far as to withdraw their single-channel works from distribution by organizations such as EAI or Montevideo once they became successful in the gallery circuit. However, this situation has created a widespread (but shadowy) distribution of viewing copies, intended as documentation for art-world professionals. They often get recopied or kept against the “agreement” imposed by the gallery. Curators, critics, and historians (and artists) assemble entire libraries of viewing copies that perform a function similar to that of a DVD collection of feature films, though the status of these viewing copies is quite different, as their legitimacy in relation to the “official” gallery pieces remains dubious. Van Liefland collapses different economies onto each other by introducing cheap, mass-produced tapes into the art world’s economy of scarcity, collecting them in installations in which de- and re-auratization seem to bite each other’s tail. One could imagine an experimental “high art” version of Van Liefland’s Video Palace, with video art tapes from the late ‘60s to the early ‘90s. As a repository of trashy mass culture whose capacity to produce aura is dodgy at best, Video Palace might be one way of returning to earlier distribution models that differ from today’s culture of exclusive editions, many of which were proposed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As the material disintegrates, the relics of videotape could stimulate a rethinking of current modes of distribution, and to once more make videos more widely available, over the counter, and sold at affordable prices.

Meanwhile, Van Liefland’s actual installations recycle the remains of a defunct economy of unlimited editions, which now—due to the transition to DVD, Blue Ray, and online video-on-demand—become oddly auratic themselves. The VP installations are problematical in the best way: they articulate and problematize structural contradictions that they cannot resolve. The Video Palace installations show cheap-looking videos in interiors that refer to stores whose tackiness seems far removed from the aura produced by the exclusivity of the white cube. The result is a montage that stimulates a questioning approach to both contexts – to the art world and to that lost world of video stores, which now takes on a tacky discount aura of its own.

Visual noise

A recent self-published booklet by the artist consists of full-pages photos of the “spines” of black video cassettes from the VP # 31: Black Systems presentation at Art Basel. Many of the spines are completely empty; others contain traces of labels, or complete but empty labels; some labels contain faded, handwritten titles such as Indianer Jones [sic] – Der letzte Kreuzzug. On one tape, the label is made up by a sticking plaster and the badly misspelled title Die nakte Kanohne. Another label contains the tantalizing 1-  Of Death. But these incidental inscriptions do not dominate; rather than on writing, the emphasis is on texture and tonality. Labels are stained and splotched in various ways; the remains of glue and paper result in grey tones. Price tags and logotypes make from bright colourful accents, places more or less randomly; many tapes are also numbered, but of course there is no system to be discerned in their shelving here. The rigid structure of the stacked tapes is offset by the countless imperfections resulting from various attempts at identifying and ordering them – attempts that here conspire to turn them into so much visual rubble.  

Van Liefland’s recent black-and-white silkscreen blow-ups of VHS cassettes are an integral part of the latest VP installations. Silkscreens such as Untitled (Vid.-I) (2008) or Untitled (Vid.-VII Ng) (2009) show either the cassette’s back or its front, rather than the spine. Occupying the whole canvas, the silkscreened images consist of several parts – which may in fact be based on photos of different cassettes, the result thus being a montage. As employed by Warhol, Rauschenberg and others since the 1960s, photo-based silkscreen prints are one of the most telling uses of mechanical reproduction in modern and contemporary art: the silkscreen process was ideal for turning a medium of unlimited editions into one of limited editions, the artists making a number of markedly different prints on canvas (as well as, in larger editions, on paper). Silkscreens are thus perfect from re-auratizing the products of mechanical reproduction. In Van Liefland’s case, the fact that the image is composed of several parts allows the artist to manipulate the screens in different ways, resulting in subtly different tones and grains – there is a refinement at work here that seems closer to Willem Oorebeek than to Warhol. Although this use of the silkscreening process results in painting-like objects that are perfect commodities for the art market, easier to sell than entire installations, these objects are also strangely unreal, strangely distant. According to Benjamin, aura is distance: the distance that comes from something being unique in space and time, not instantly accessible. Van Liefland’s silkscreens seem to exacerbate this by turning the cassettes into studies in grey and in moiré, visual noise. It is telling that other recent screenprints by Van Liefland, called White Noise, show TV static – “snow.”

The entropic ruins of dead media may themselves become images, but these images are in turn entropic – just as the images that were once stores on the VHS tapes, and which in many cases are now barely there. The plastic cases themselves can survive for much longer; plastic makes for notoriously durable and non-biodegradable ruins, but Van Liefland’s silkscreens place them in a faded and distant cultural past. As video culture continues to recede in time, these works seem a tomb also for those informal Berlin parking lot experiences, which take on an auratic quality as they recede in time. Van Liefland does not consider any development in his work to be a final supersession of previous stages; elements from previous work may well return in the future. There are no finished projects within the world of Video Palace, which is, after all, based on the undead persistence of the past. And yet, for this observer and at this moment, Black Systems also appears to function as a monument for irretrievable moments in time, for disintegrated social constellations, for onetime denizens of ephemeral Video Palaces now separated by immeasurable distances.

This text contains elements from previous writings, in particular “Viewing Copies: On the Mobolity of Moving Images” in e-flux journal no. 8 (09/2009), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/75

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 231.

Boris Groys, “On the Aesthetics of Video Installations,” in Stan Douglas: le Détroit (Basel: Kunsthalle Basel, 2001), unpaginated.

Some artists have now taken to putting their videos on Youtube, or to publishing their pieces on mass-distribution DVDs in addition to “gallery versions”, but the economy of artificial scarcity remains a pillar of the art world.