Wolfgang Staehle

Wolfgang Staehle at Postmasters
Art in America, Nov, 2001
by Nancy Princenthal

Like paintings, the projected video images in Wolfgang Staehle's "2001" were static. And like movies, they weren't: every four seconds, around the clock, they were minutely adjusted, as the video-fed, Internet-transmitted photographs of three far-flung sites were continually updated. One showed an 11th-century monastery in rural Comburg, Germany; a second displayed the upper portion of the Fernsehturm in Berlin, a TV tower and tourist landmark that houses a revolving restaurant. The third, a 9-by-23-foot panorama, gave us the lower Manhattan skyline, seen from the waterfront in Brooklyn. The regular, soundless lurch of these scenes, a kind of decorous visual stutter, was barely detectable in the Comburg and Fernsehturm projections, where the only changes were the diurnal and meteorological rhythms of light and occasional flights of birds. But the cameras aimed at lower Manhattan also captured river and bridge traffic, its halting progress oddly, serene, the four-second intervals pushing the little boats and cars along like a child playing with toys. Patently artificial yet obviously real and live--a counter at the bottom of each image marked the date and time--these images (which could only be viewed in the gallery; they were not accessible over the Internet) quietly played havoc with what we think we know about the world before our eyes.

And, of course, they were played havoc with in turn. The World Trade Center catastrophe caught Staehle's work, like everything else, by surprise. An attack shaped in part (as many commentators have observed) by imagery, it generated a great deal more of it as the towers went down. Measured by the impassive, steady blink of Staehle's cameras, a world was blown apart, and among the infinity of things whose meanings changed utterly was his project. Faith, communication and commerce, the triad for which his three subjects stand (or stood), are only some of the cultural signal systems that were irreparably scrambled.

Staehle is a video artist widely acclaimed as a Web-art pioneer; he launched the indispensable Internet forum The Thing as an independent media project in 1991. This is his first solo gallery exhibition in a decade. He invokes Martin Heidegger to help frame the ideas his project engages. In an eerily prescient 1935 text cited by Staehle in English and German on a monitor at the entrance to the show, Heidegger laments the moral implications of the globalization of technology and capital.

Other equally haunting speculations come to mind concerning the conjunction of Staehle's media-driven esthetic and the movie-like quality of the images issuing from the tragic events of September 11. "Why are there two towers at New York's World Trade Center?" Jean Baudrillard asked in 1983. "The fact that there are two of them signifies the end of all competition, the end of all original reference," he concluded. They are "the visible sign of the closure of the system in a vertigo of duplication." Baudrillard's writing, as emblematic of the 1980s as the towers, and, in some quarters, as inescapable, later came to sound shrill, even a little silly. Now the media-brokered version of events, the "vertigo of duplication" in which Staehle's work participates, is another lesson that must be relearned from scratch.