8. februar - 2. juni 2013

Sven Påhlsson work is shown on 12 flat screeens. Running High is a video film in which the flow of images is shown in very high definition.

Suggestions of signs

Sven Påhlsson in the Nøstetangen Room

For the first time, Sven Påhlsson is showing his new work, Running High, in the Nøstetangen Room at the Drammen Museum for Art and Cultural History. The work is shown on twelve flat screens, where the film’s wide-screen format is seen as one continuous frieze. Påhlsson’s work has been made possible through the use of innovative technology, allowing the creation of digital pictures with extremely high resolution, as well as a virtual pictorial space with infinite perspectives. This is shown in the film via one of the protagonists – a young, anonymous running man – moving in front of a reconstruction of a barren urban landscape and using a virtual camera to show numerous detailed microscenes that underpin our insight into the reality the artist is investigating. As with all Påhlsson’s works, there is considerable research behind it, not just in computer technology, but also in sociology and modern town planning. This is characteristic of his artistry, that research is necessary for him to be able to create visual filmic images that mentally influence the viewers and invite reflection on the important issues he want to debate. The technology serves the idea, not vice versa. On this occasion there is also an interesting interplay between the technology and the theme, because this work can be shown as different types of presentation and in different sizes. The image sequence is typical for contemporary image streams that can be put together and synthesised and continually remediated. In his new book, After Art (2013), art historian David Joselit reflects on the power of the image after object-based art’s time has come to an end. Contemporary images do not offset authentic impressions. In such times, there is more talk of images than of art objects. Pictures are no longer solely linked to an object’s visual and unchanging design, such as those we are used to seeing in painting, drawing and sculpture. In this new situation, the images have the quality of being made in a fleeting, mouldable medium, without any single, material existence. They are not physical one-offs that radiate an aura and which must be sought out and experienced in authentic encounters in unique places. Images in the time “after art” can exist in electronic fields where pictorial information is streamed, and they can be continually remediated. The fixed element of a work such as Running High is the gigantic collection of coded information that is produced by the artist, and this is the true phenomenology in a video work such as this. It can only be displayed in different physical and institutional frameworks, with their symbolic values and meanings; they can also change size and spread across large black areas through projection, which will in turn change the audience’s experience of them. And an infinite number of still pictures and cut-outs can be extracted and remediated in the form of digital photos or prints. The artist has full control of scenography and storyboards, but the virtual world that is created contains other potential directions for movement and flows.

Running High is a video film in which the flow of images is shown in very high definition and, as stated above, there are large amounts of information that must be processed for us to be able to see that long frieze in which a solo runner jogs through the “barren country”. The technology that allows the globalisation of production, marketing and use of goods, is also the technology that may well have its greatest use in the production and dissemination of images for consumption, news broadcasting and entertainment, as well as for aesthetic consumption. According to Fredric Jameson, it is characteristic of late capitalism’s cultural logic that the diachronic is repressed to benefit the synchronic. This is apparent in contemporary culture where the use of pictures is prioritised over the considered and reflective presentation of stories. And things get really interesting if we link technology and the medium to an understanding of time, for the point of synchronicity, that things are experienced contemporaneously via image consumption, is that time differences as a historic process tend to disappear from view. Typical of this are costume dramas in more recent films, where English and American literature from the 19th century is recorded using living actors (naturally) and used as entertainment, without there being any need to think about what makes that era different to ours and the material structures that created the social contexts, joys and sorrows, that we can experience without worries in good lighting, with magnificent colours, in beautiful surroundings and with atmospheric sound tracks. A diachronic approach to time, like history, entails an irreversible understanding of time. Something happens before something else, and that which happens later is a result of something that happened before. The political left has always been very occupied with making use of this perspective, as in their understanding of reality it is a necessary dynamic that has an effect in history by maintaining and changing conditions for production. Without this movement forward and its power to effect change, there is no hope of improving society. In this understanding, the dynamics appear dialectical, for some almost consistently in time and matter (history), it is particularly important to analyse the social phenomena that are depicted in a film.

In Running High, what is the result of a diachronic reflection on the processes that occurred before life in the tower blocks, the new towns in the UK, and most recently the infamous banlieues in Paris? Increased migration to the cities, cleansing of slum areas and the need to establish efficient “housing machine” are some of the reasons for the growth of major housing complexes. Imperialism and the north-south conflict are a few of the explanation why there is a mixed population in these areas. Changes to the rules for the free movement of goods, money and labour in the European Union, along with the opportunity to import cheap goods from Asia, help to explain structural changes to European industry and increasing unemployment among groups who have traditionally filled industrial workplaces. Immigration and refugee flows can be explained by conflicts rooted in colonial times, etc. All these historical processes create a need for cheap housing, where many apartments can be built on relatively few expensive square metres. These models assume that history is something that changes, that it is a dynamic progression that makes it possible to maintain a utopian dream that change will bring better times for those who are currently oppressed and short-changed. The functionalist background to the neo-brutalistic apartment blocks that Påhlsson depicts was utopian, with social welfare and good health as an objective when they appeared at the end of the 1920s. In a sequence a little way into the film, there is a kilometre-long row of large apartment blocks of the type that Andreas Gursky made memorable through his 1993 colour photograph Montparnasse, Paris.

How does the phenomenon of time work through the world of a digital image stream? Is the story over, while for the lonely long-distance runner time continues as evenly and relentlessly as the pace of his run? There was uproar when Francis Fukyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man was published 1992, because without further historical continuity through a dynamic, dialectical process it would be difficult to imagine a freer, fairer – BETTER – new world. In the digital flow of images, the images have incredible power, something David Joselit also points out. However, this electric flow has a movement, but technically there is nothing to say that this is directional, irreversible time. The mediation of images allows the remediation of images. Images that have been presented in one time can be put into and mixed into the mediated stream of images, regardless of their starting point. The runner in Running High could just as well be moved to a pastoral landscape in the English or French countryside, or a beach in the Mediterranean. Changes such as these change the images’ meaning. The only way to retain diachronic understanding when encountering the synchronic stream of images is to find out where the pictures come from and track their circulation after they have entered distribution networks, whether they be commercial television channels, websites or in films shown in art museums. It goes without saying that this is an almost impossible task, one that becomes more and more difficult every time an image is clicked on, downloaded, re-photographed or scanned and placed in the flow of images. David Joselit is painfully clear on this, but it is this he prescribes in his book: “The after in my title, unlike Danto’s use of the prefix post in his preferred term posthistorical, is meant to indicate both the reverberations of images as they spread (as in the term afterimage) as well as the patterns of circulation that emerges after images enter networks. Indeed, I believe we need to write histories of image circulation, of which After Art is a modest contribution.”[1]

What is the experience of time shown in Påhlsson’s film? It is an even, eventless “telling”, or perhaps more the opportunity for a story. If it is to be a story, the agent is a solo long-distance runner who we see jogging through a backdrop constructed of famous pictures of apartment block ghettoes in European metropolises. There is no beginning, no middle, no end to the run. In the virtual world, no calories are burned, the heart does not need to beat or work hard, and joints and muscles are not loaded, so thinking about tiredness is entirely without meaning. The film’s phenomenology provides no physical response in the viewer. The “runner” jogs in a loop; the energy has nothing to do with the human body, the energy is electrically sourced and electrically maintained. The figure starts to run when the power is turned on, and stops running when the power is switched off. The experience of the film presumes that that the viewer is alienated from the events of the film.

The scenography has a certain diachronic index; we can see that the buildings are starting to age and that there are no signs of life in the apartments. All the lights are off, the dustbins, parked cars and piles of waste, and road or construction barriers are the only props in the scene. It must be late at night, when everything is still, well before dawn, which comes towards the end of the film. The areas appear to be a permanent intermediate point. But there is little to indicate rehabilitation, little to indicate change, little to indicate that the story is continuing. This applies to the buildings that have reached a stage of normality in their wear, but are not ruined. There is little to indicate that the story is happening through the running figure. His time is that of clocks and the flow of electricity. Time passes, but there are no human agents to interrupt it. Great-grandfather, grandfather, father, uncle, brother – have been and are unemployed. Is it possible to find a job? Or will life now and in the next generation remain an existence in this place, in the apartment, on social security? It sounds passive and negative, but it is not the first time that art can be said to be indicating such pessimism. Courbet’s, Daumier’s and Millet’s realistic depictions of the life of the French underclasses in around 1850 can be interpreted as meaning that poverty is inherited. In the UK they have talked for many years about children who grow up without parents or grandparents who have had paid work. Children are growing up with no relationship to “work”; none of their relatives go to or come home from a job.

Does the film show signs of a change in this logical continuity and the lasting conditions that are described? The dustbins and waste materials testify to an activity, consumption. The rubbish needs to be collected. New inhabitants have arrived, in large expensive cars. The signs on the rows of SUVs indicate that new inhabitants are in place, but with another starting point to those who have traditionally lived in social housing. The cars and country of origin also provide an indication that there are dynamics and an economic vector in the picture that can lead to them leaving the apartment blocks as quickly as they arrived, just to underline the continuing conditions for those who were there and will remain there. Otherwise it is the lasting, digitally eternal jogging and the provisional, lasting areas of fallow land, that indicate that history as we are used to understanding it is over. Power supplies will last as long as transformers and cable terminals and the maintained, large power stations are not subjected to sabotage or vandalism. However, the parked planes and helicopters are on the ground and there is no indication that they will be taking off. They represent an economy that is not found in the ghettoes. The runner is a sign, indicating a typical Western young, white man, in jogging clothes with a hood and running shoes. A uniform that covers most things, from young people going training and young people hanging around, to young people occupied with drugs and criminality. The uniform covers a lot but says little, apart from anonymising the person wearing it. So is the runner someone who has wandered in, lost, from the richer suburbs, the elegant city centre, or does he belong here? The easy jog indicates that he’s at home here. The film gives no indication of where he comes from or what he intends. It is rather the opposite, the indication is that he is not going anywhere, as perhaps he has nowhere to go. He is thus trapped by a lack of opportunities.

The title of the film – Running High – is an expression that is linked to waves of feeling, strong affects that are experienced when encountering something exciting or frightening. It is similar to the expression “runner’s high”, which applies to runners who run so far that endorphins start to circulate in the body, giving a feeling of joy and ease, almost like being intoxicated. This is a well-known phenomenon that makes it realistic to talk about “training addicts”, as training can make you dependent on running’s physical effects. One possible interpretation is that the runner is counteracting melancholy by solo, monotonous running, by taking responsibility for his own health and using the joy of running to intensify his nerves’ impulses and his hormonal high. The signs give no indication of whether this should be interpreted as the starting point of masses the force to start an revolution, or whether it is individual self-care, an alternative to the passivity caused by the over-consumption of shimmering, electronic streams of images? The use of images is consumption that generates considerable profits for producers and rights holders, and is a not insignificant effect of and motivator for the global movement of people, goods (including moving pictures) and services (including power supplies and heating) that now fill the last housing ghettoes of industrialism.

The relationship between these two expressions, of which one – the one that is the film’s title and which is somewhat indicated in the film, opens up for several possible interpretations. Is the eventlessness and even movement in the film a forewarning that tensions are mounting, like the quiet before the storm or a ticking bomb – both expressions that are used in analyses of the situation in shabby, socially and economically stagnant areas of housing. If so, it is indicated through negation, the same way as a romantic painting of a gloom sky can carry a message of an impending snowstorm. There is a short sequence in the film that indicates that there are supernatural powers at work (symbolic of “social forces”?) where concrete blocks, containers and netting inexplicably begin to move and collide and come rushing up close to the runner. Påhlsson has also included a sequence in which we follow a moving “camera view” placed up between the girders on a roof, a gaze that follows what is happening. The film hints at who or what is doing the monitoring.

Påhlsson has also included a sequence in which we follow a moving “camera view” placed up between the girders on a roof, or a giant billboard frame, a gaze that follows what is happening. The film hints at who or what is doing the monitoring. Running High is a visually intense work, in the shift between electric darkness and the bright lights towards the end. The experience and its interpretation are governed by us following the runner and scanning the broad urban landscape he jogs through. We try to understand what it feels like to live here, an empathy that gains from what we know of and have experienced in similar barren surroundings. An important part of the work is the music, composed by Erik Wøllo just for this film. We know the importance of timing and rhythm when film music is written, even if – as a rule – it is magnificent at creating an atmosphere. It takes a tenth of a second for a cut and a visual event to synchronise with the music. Here, the music is a soundtrack experienced as the sound of the runner’s feet on the ground, his breath and pulse. The music flows subtly along with the visual process, and it affects the experience more than we initially realise. As the soundtrack is linked to the runner, he, as the film’s agent and interpretive centre, is made a greater focus of our attention. The music pulls us towards the runner. It creates a sense of space through sounds and echoes and, again, this helps to create the experience of a physical space around the runner. The echoes also mean that the surroundings emit noise, as if something is smouldering in these places that are otherwise presented as passive and neutral, until they start to move by themselves (maybe as the result of a virtual pressure wave), such as when concrete blocks and metal girders collapse behind the runner.

It is, like other works by Sven Påhlsson, a romantic piece of art. It is an allegory without progress, it is an allegory (where the props are just piled up) on a social melancholy highlighted using a continuous, gloomy nocturnal atmosphere that ends in a flat, strong, characterless light. The infinity of the miserable, uncomplaining backdrop is a source of social sublimity. In the romance period there would be a lonely walker or a monk by the lake to witness to the topographic sublime. Here, the runner is a stand in for us and who, unlike in Caspar David Friedrich, stands with his back to the audience while we watch from the side. Through this silent, anonymous agent, the viewers can experience a situation in which they meet the sublime; in this case, the social-economic sublime. The viewer stands there, distant and existentially alienated, but as a witness. The runner never being shown with an aim in sight can be regarded as a loss of meaning; is it hope, acceptance or resignation? This is a social situation that has existed in European and American metropolises for generations. The question is whether there is a way out of social housing, if nature can make space for a new (social) morning or, as it is now known, a “… spring”?

All artistic works, whether they are made as stable objects or presented as streams of images, consist of what sign theory calls “signifiers”, or “indicators”, the physical things that we can see. But this is only half the sign’s structure, because the sign also has a “name” or a “meaning”, a “signifier”. It is when the sign’s physical or visual form is linked to what it might mean that there is meaning to the art, and this is a process that is dependent on interpretation. In dogmatic modernism, we lived under the illusion that the artist who had created the sign was the only true guarantor of the interpretation or meaning of the artwork. But that illusion has not survived the influence of the neo-Marxist and Structuralist or postmodern criticism, that gained in importance in the 1950s. It was this type of ideology that was the focus of the postmodern movement, so it is not certain that Running High’s form and progression have a single interpretation. Everyone can find meaning in it, as long as there is respect for the phenomena, motifs and events that the film’s visual figures indicate. There are objective phenomena in the world we share. Accordingly, the artist has conducted his research in the areas of London and Paris that have the social reality he aims to problematise. The choice of figures and props in the film’s scenography go in just these directions, where the film’s images point at their potential names and their origins, so the meaning of the work is that interpretations should focus on the suburbs and areas of apartment blocks. But meaning is not only found in the form of visual signs, which are the limited reality the artist has to use. Everyone can find their own interpretations, but we must remember that objective historical phenomena and discussions (with their differences of meaning and ideological conflicts) govern how we try to understand this video work, as they have governed the thoughts I have tried to express here.

Åsmund Thorkildsen, Museum Director

[1] David Josleit, After Art, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2013, page 112.

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