The real Works

by Dag Petterson, 2006

The featherlike lightness of Domke’s artworks originates only partially from her substitution of gravity. For equally substituted are time, space, communication and movement – fundamental visual coordinates that, along with gravity, mutate like warm clay in her hands. However, none of these mutations seem able to explain why her videos and photographs apparear so remarkably light.

The lightness of her work has more to do with her refusal to sincerely investigate these notions. Resisting all deadpan approaches with contagious delight, she suspends time or gravity just to unsettle our view a little and to prepare us to see differently. Many viewers often smile in return and some even laugh out loud. If we also marvel, it is because she bends time and space out of shape with such surprising ease. They virtually melt from the simple, but profoundly thorough trick photography that she practices. Avoiding digital postproduction, Domke works with oldschool trickshots in rigged rooms that tilt, or with a back wall that is made to look like a floor; sometimes a projection does the trick, sometimes a video runs backwards, in loops, upside down, or is shot so that an entire day flies by in a few minutes. The truly remarkable thing about it all is that we stay fascinated even after the tricks have been called.

Had these artworks really been investigations, I am afraid that their ostentation would have crushed us like bugs. Fortunately, however, their playing with time, movement or gravity merely breaks the ice – and ever so gently – just barely enough to introduce themselves and make us look. Not that that would amount to some clowning around before we get down to more serious business (such stratagems belong rather to investigations that often need a visual gimmick to attract attention). No, when Domke disjoints time, space or movement, the art of the matter is in the way that that makes new relationships appear between things. In other words, what keeps us with the artworks is not the fact that she substitutes gravity or time in her representations. Rather, it is that with her substitutions the represented things come to relate to each other in new ways, wherefore new relationships are produced for us as new ideas. When new relationships are made, she suggests, our ideas of the things thus related are also reconstituted. And then we are glued to the screens and photographs because we too begin to be differently related to the things that she shows us.

At this point, it does not matter that we have figured out the technical trick, for what we have begun to see is its other side. Not what lies beyond it, but its flip side, as it were. Comparing her tricks, as tactical means, to the relationships they produce may explain why her artworks seem so light. Whereas the trick shots are joyful displacements of our visual coordinates, the ideas thus produced, or summoned up, are things not known. The lightness of her art is then primarily experienced in relation to the immanent counterweight of the unknown. The mode of producing these unfamiliar relationships is what really deserves detailed critical attention.

It is important that the tricks she employs and the things she represent work together in the image. Depending on whether or not a technical setup and the things in the picture grasp each other, an image may or may not be able to produce new relationships. Every trick would not work equally well with every represented scene. Let us compare the series “Fabricated Evidence” (2002-05), “Plant” (2005) and “Country Life” (2004). All of them displays a thorough integration of what is represented and the way that the image is shot. Each image in the series is a variation of that integration. But each series employs a unique mode of integration. In “Fabricated Evidence” it is the camera’s careful position in space together with the arranged lights that grasp the furniture and the young woman and makes them enter into new relationships. Space and light forms a constant, and the variations of that constant hold the different scenes together. These variations are furthermore what allows the mutation of represented gravity and the following production of new relationships. As a contrast, in “Plant” the lighting is kept much closer to the space of the images. In fact, the leaves shifting between each of the four photos establish light and space as an invariable constant. In a fixed light-space it is the leaves alone that produce the series’ variation of gravity. In “Country Life”, on the other hand, the constant that grasps the woman and the landscape to produce the romance cowboy relationship is exclusively the camera’s position in the studio. The lighting, however, does not sustain a seamless transition between the background landscape and the woman in the foreground.

But this lighting breach is not a mistake, for it is absolutely crucial that a working integration does not close itself shut. Should a trick grasp the things represented too firmly, so that we fail to recognize it as a trick, the grasp may easily disable the production of new relationships. It threatens to occur in “Plant,” where the trick and the things represented integrate so well that a viewer may come to see the shifting plantleaves as a consequence of a nearby blowing fan. Because the lighting and the space are in a fixed relation to each other throughout the series and also, because the only visible variation from image to image is the leaves, the viewer may fail to recognize the serial variation as being one of gravity. Then, an exterior cause like a fan is sooner assumed and no new relationships emerge.

When the integrating grasp is given a certain degree of laxity it may produce relationships that are not previously sensed. How can that happen? It is a thorny issue to explain, but it involves a particular ontological class of beings that define how things are known to be, and also, what we know of ourselves to be. Michel Foucault was the first to name them diagrams. Diagrams determine what we can know – we call that our epistemological outlook. As they determine what is knowable at a given time we cannot know about the diagrams in the same way that we can know about other things. They condition our ability to form knowledge. This we humans do and have done in a great variety of ways throughout history, yet never without a particular set of contradictions and discrepancies. The reason why every consistent body of knowledge has its contradictions, and why every epistemological outlook is in part challenged by other ones is that the diagrammatic mode of integration attributes to them a certain degree of laxity. There is, in that sense, no absolute knowledge. But by playing around with what we think we know and experiment with what we do not know – using a visual trick, perhaps – it is possible to find correspondences of contradictions and with them affect the diagrams. However, it remains beyond our means to control them.

According to Foucault, it belongs to the nature of diagrams that they are historically mutable. They also vary with geography and with class, but they need a collective to produce knowledge. As we cannot know what they are, we understand their being by looking at the forces of an epistemological change. One major such change occured in Europe during the Renaissance, and was provoked in part and among other things by a rather simple technical mirror device. With this contraption the central perspective was produced and from it emerged completely new ideas, for example about the relations between objects and space, between representation and referent, and between calculus and visual experience. Although Brunellesci’s mirror panels produced such new ideas on the flipside of the optical trick, so to speak, he could hardly have recognized the diagrams it affected as well. Other diagrammatic changes already underway included it for the provocation of further changes, and those enabled the rise of new architecture, new warfare, new geometry and optics, etc. The diagrams of the Renaissance produced new ideas about life, about knowledge, man and God, characterized by a particular set of contradictions, lacunae and problems. We recognize the force of a new diagram by the sore spots of knowledge that erupted, a bit like an earthquake reveals the movements of tectonic plates.

But what is it that diagrams produce? The best bet, suggested by contemporary Foucauldian thinkers, is that we are talking about the real. Blocks of reality are produced in art, and these are in more or less conflict or congruity with other blocks (produced in science, art or philosophy). Not that the artists have privileged power to produce the real as they want; to the contrary, the real works in art to reproduce itself – with the artist as an assisting catalyst. Domke’s photographic series produce new relationships between things. Her videos too engage with this production of reality, but in a slightly different way. Let us look at “Let the Wind Blow” from 2003. Here, a new block emerges from a video trick that represents a ‘mineralized’ human body time, a body in inverted speed ratio to the macroprocesses of planetary motion and meteorological changes. From on top of a windy hill, two motionless figures overlook a valley with a teeming big city. One is standing up, the other sits on the ground, the distance between them too large to evoke a sense of togetherness. With the employed video trick the day-and-night cycle is compressed to last merely a few minutes: the clouds race across the sky, the night falls like a brick and thousands of lights gleam at once in the valley before dawn breaks, the sun flies up and a new day begins. All the while, the two figures remain absolutely still before the unfolding scenery. Only the wind blows in their clothes and their hair. That is it; and it is that simple. A new block of reality emerges with that touch of the wind, with its affections on a mineralized human body affecting the viewer: a new possible relationship, a different sensation of the body.

“Let the Wind Blow” may be seen as the final piece in a suite of videos where the technical artifice works in ways similar to the photographic series. Earlier videos like “Still in Motion” (2002), “City Tiger” (2002) and “Realplayer” (2001) developed integrated trickshots whose flip side created new relationships much like “Country Life” or “Fabricated Evidence.” Moving images, however, mean other possibilities for the production of new sensations and relationships. This is accomplished with far greater complexity in the following video suite which begins with “You’ll Miss What’s Gonna Stay I + II” (2004). Previous to these twin video pieces, the tricks were integrated with the things represented so that new relationships were produced primarily between two things: between a plant and a receptiondesk; a woman and a window; a dripping faucet and a kitchen sink. In these later videos the technical integration is downplayed visually and is more poetic than surprising, but above all it produces new relationships between more than two things at once. And these things now involve social interactions and language.

In “You’ll Miss What’s Gonna Stay II,” the scene is set in a trashy backyard of some big city. Here are four groups of people: from left to right a young couple laughing and making out in a broken armchair, a single guy talking on his cell phone, three boys in a sofa, and finally a second couple leaning against a spraypainted van, enjoying the spectacle of the boys. All of them move about in slow motion. Looked at closely, however, one may notice that their movements loop, that the video runs backward and forward and backward again. Another moment of scrutiny reveals that each of the four groups loops in its own rhythm, separate from the others, and that this rhythm is not constant but sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. It is this resulting variation of interlocking rhythms that is important. Supplementing the video’s representation of the four groups, these rhythms express their social being-with-each-other: sometimes looping faster, sometimes a bit slower, each rhythm relates intensively both to itself and to all the others.

By integrating video technology and the people represented in this way, Domke produces new relationships between several groups at once. What, then, is the block of reality that begins to emerge here? It is different from that of “Let the Wind Blow” but related to it. It is a block that makes visible, in a distinctly new way, the social capacity to relate to what is outside of one’s immediate attention. The emphasis on body rhythms remains from “Let the Wind Blow” but it insists in this context on a different, more social dimension. Furthermore, it makes visible something distinctly different from sociological conceptions such as discourse, subjectification, performativity, class, race, or gender boundaries. The polyrhythmic display of social gestures affects the diagram that renders a particular social condition visible. This is the condition that enables a group to open a new relationship with other groups and individuals. The actors in the video do not leave their position in the frame. But the pulsating rhythms between them form an image of the shifts of timing according to which a group may split up and/or engage with another one.

In “You’ll Miss What’s Gonna Stay I,” which is even more complex than nr. II, the scene is a basement nightclub. With a three-channel video installation Domke presents a continuous 180° view of the location on three separate screens. Each screen contains four different groups of people, as in nr. II, and again the movements of people dancing, talking, drinking, serving at the bar or at the DJ rack reveal potential social rhytms of interaction. But this piece adds yet another element: a second rhythmic level that cuts through the ones already present. With about eight minutes interval, a girl in a red T-shirt and jeans enters the nightclub from a doorway in the right hand screen, walks past two young men and up to the bartender for a beer, receives it and moves into the middle screen, passes in front of the lounging people and into the third screen where she walks behind the DJ, out through a door, into a back room, and is gone. The effect is stunning. More than emphasizing the capacity of each group to engage with the others and tie the place together, this figure introduces an image of the distance that keeps them apart in the first place. The social ambivalence of presenting and representing oneself in a crowd of more or less unknown people is masterfully portrayed with these interlocking rhythms. The last video to date, “A Sunset Takes Seven Minutes” (2005), is in many ways a logical continuation of “You’ll Miss What’s Gonna Stay.” It develops the block of reality produced so far by shifting the constants, just as the constants were shifted between the photographic series “Fabricated Evidence”, “Plant,” and “Country Life.” The space of the backyard and the nightclub constitutes the constant of “You’ll Miss What’s Gonna Stay”. This space holds their variation of social rhythms together. In her latest video, Domke reaches back to “Let the Wind Blow” and uses the sunset for a collecting motif. But whereas that film set the day-and-night cycle in reversed tempo to that of the human body, the newest production uses the sunset to grasp the cycles between video camera and social interaction.

We are on a rooftop in Berlin with some young people hanging out in scattered groups after a finished picnic. The sun is about to set. The camera pans away from it and the glowing rooftops to give us in one continuous 360°-movement the entire scene – not one, but five times. Each time the camera passes a given group of people, the same conversation is repeated and the same body movements are performed. But the sun keeps setting, and eventually it disappears under the city skyline. Unlike her previous videos, this one begins and ends. In between, the sun sets under the horizon. Domke’s camera rotates slowly and ceaselessly, and the friends exchange the same comments. But there are small, hardly noticeable discrepancies: the camera is sometimes further ahead of the conversation than the last time, sometimes not yet there; sometimes a whole bottle is in the frame, sometimes just half of it; at one point the woman with the sunglasses sips her beer before the camera reaches her. These rhythmic variations allow the technical apparatus to be pulled into the frame, and the trick is now on it. From the viewpoint of a continuous linear time, that is, from the constant of the setting sun, Domke’s camera produces new relationships between itself as a technology and the social mode of being-with-each-other – of which the camera is a constitutive part. The cultural self-rehearsal before a camera is an important social phenomenon where we engage in repetitive behaviour with few variations to form genres with specific characteristics. A sunset moment is certainly one such genre. As with any other genre, major variations are experienced as transgressive. In “A Sunset Takes Seven Minutes”, however, the variations are too small to be revolutionary. Nevertheless, Domke seems to insist, tiny variations are inevitable and occur regardless of how we want to represent ourselves, and also, with what means we chose to do so. In fact, she celebrates these variations, although she fights to suppress them in the making. It is due to their existence that we still own a part in the workings of reality.

Variations of reality, or the real that works out variations of itself: this is the preferred domain of Domke’s art. Sustaining the viability of reality’s self-labor, she is able to ensure a vast array of produced variations. It occurs at the expense of controlling it, or imposing her will upon it. Hence is avoided any postulates about what the real is. It would make little sense to articulate what it is, for we do not know what diagrams are. Yet for the benefit of its self-reproduction her articulations and representations have embraced the lightest possible constitutive part of the real. They make up the early works of a young artist, and it is superbly rich, fascinating and full of potentials. It will take many years to unfold them, to pry into the various corners of reality, but the tools developed so far are both durable and flexible. Her experiments promise to yield more of the unknown, in unexpected variations, in odd shapes and forms. The real works in these artworks, because she allows it to reproduce itself and to emerge in ever-new variations.