Media Art in Germany en

Bjørn Melhus and the group "visomat.inc" featured here are two representatives of a young generation of German media artists whose creative work is strongly influencing the current electronic media art scene. In his videos, installations and films, Bjørn Melhus tell stories of individuals whose search for identity is inseparably bound up with our contemporary media-driven world.

The group "visomat.inc", on the other hand, was formed in the mid-nineties with the aim of giving music an equally weighted visual level of expression.

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Video art in Germany can trace its beginnings to the small city of Wuppertal in the federal state of North-Rhine Westphalia. Influenced by the performance activities and fluxus happenings of his friend John Cage, in 1963, at the gallery PARNASS, Nam June Paik experimented with television sets. Using a large magnet he manipulated the picture so that only a small line could be seen on the screen. Other, German, artists also tackled the then new entertainment medium television from a highly critical and distanced perspective. Wolf Vostell, for example, buried the goggle boxes, while Günther Uecker drove nails into them. Contemporary art of the time was still strongly concerned with consciousness raising and the desire to find ‘alternative’ applications for technology and, as cultural critic Bazon Brock put it, to offer "artistically high quality" productions to counter the content of television programming. The whole complex of popular media remains a significant area of tension, confrontation, and exchange fueling today’s media artists as well. Bjørn Melhus is among the most highly regarded video artists in Germany. In 1992 he was awarded a video art grant from the city of Bremen; in 1998 the Marler Video Art Award; in 2001 was honored in Hannover with the Sprengel Award for Fine Arts, and exhibits worldwide in major museums and galleries. Melhus’s work to date has been honored with retrospectives at numerous festivals.

Born in 1966, Bjørn Melhus belongs to a generation that grew up with the mass media phenomenon television and the parallel experience of reality as well and virtual reality, taking up - consciously or subconsciously - the options for identification offered up by television. In his videos, video installations and films Melhus depicts people whose search for identity is inseparably bound to our media-driven world. Time spent in the USA in recent years - and especially the analysis of American media strategies he undertook there - has found expression in Melhus’s latest works which increasingly emphasize global and socio-political issues.

We meet up with Bjørn Melhus at the exhibit "Fast Forward" at the ZKM (Center for Art and Media Technology) in Karlsruhe. In an interview we examine with him the relationship of the identity-seeking individual to our modern media-driven world. Against the background of his video installation "Silvercity I+II" created in 1999, Melhus provides insight into the globalization of media codes, a recurring theme in many of his works. The installation combines the verbal clichés of two cowboys - aimless platitudes circumventing any possibility of intimacy - with images of two astronauts, separately circling the earth, each isolated in his own capsule.

In "Sometimes" and in the new installation "Still Men Out There" we experience a world of insecurity and foreboding where reality and fiction meld.

Melhus almost always bases the concepts for his pieces on the sound element, employing acoustic material culled from film classics, television and pop music to build a sound construction to the rhythm of which he then sets his fantasy images. His fictional characters are all portrayed by Melhus himself. These characters communicate with one another on various levels of reality, but the dialogue is always fragmented, made up of endless repetitions and distorted, fragmentary bits of text. Every presumed interlocutor is an alter ego as well. Although in Bjørn Melhus’s videos, individuals exist only as asexual, uniform mass media clones with no personal experience.

During the interview we also present some of the artist’s early works. In the video "Das Zauberglas" - The Enchanted Mirror - (1991), for example, Melhus uses the form of a tele-fairy-tale to describe the operative mechanisms in the relationship between the self and the media: A young man tries to enter into a dialogue with a young woman he sees on the television screen. She represents his feminine alter ego. The screen, however, is an impenetrable frontier against which the attempt at communication can only crash and burn.

"visomat.inc." (Torsten Oetken, Gereon Schmitz, Michael Weinholzner) are informed by popular culture. They got together in the mid-nineties as part of a Berlin-specific crossover trend combining media art and club culture. Their aim was to ‘visualize’ music presentation. Positioning the video mix as an element of expression/statement equally weighted to that of the DJ’s music mix, they create a visual and technological counterpart to the electronic minimalism of contemporary music production.

Their video installation in Berlin’s "WMF" club was instrumental to the emergence of the VJ scene. The media architecture put in place by visomat.inc. supported a wide range of functions, some of them defined here for the first time: Next to the obligatory DJ workstation a VJ module was installed. From this point on, the live mixing of visual images became a standard fixture of a night in clubland.

visomat.inc. work in the best sense of the word ‘techno’, i.e. at the interface between visual service provider, creators of ambiance, and artists able to subtly subordinate analysis and critical statement to an apparently dominant functionality.

We meet up with the group in their studio and their fully-automated "Automatenbar", a private club in hip, young Berlin-Mitte. They tell us about their latest project "DIN-AV", a DVD sampler featuring the work of ten young Berlin video artists. This compilation, which includes background information on the artists presented, is a first-time publication of such a large selection of self-contained artistic videos defined by a unique visual language and the tension between sound and image characterized by the club scene.

The KuBus report introduces us to these artist’s formal concepts; how they use material predestined for their work, such as test patterns, technical graphics and TV documentary footage, and also JPEGs from the net and samples from video games which are then edited together with original material, e.g. abstract graphic elements. Others, such as Ute Härting, alias "U-Matic", make intentional use of ‘mistakes’ and visual interference. Her style is defined by modulations in the repetition of audio and visual fragments.

In a section of the piece "Sechs-Minuten-Terrine" by the VJ group "Pfadfinderei" we observe an accelerated, rhythmic picture edit orientated on a sound composition of noises that arise during the making of pasta. In the piece "Modell Statt Berlin" produced by visomat together with Jan Jelinek, images of a GDR era model of East Berlin are chromatically manipulated, parts of the pictures stretched or optically displaced and accompanied by a tranquil yet playful soundtrack.
Goethe Institut e. V. 2004