Sabine Hänsgen

video poiesis

At a time when the Soviet state strictly controlled all media of technical reproduction, working with video was regarded as a subversive act, because it could produce a communicative space of its own. In spite of these restrictions, in 1984 I managed to bring a „Blaupunkt“ video camera with me from Germany to the Soviet Union and began my video-related activities in the Moscow Conceptualist circle. My main aim was to document what seemed to me in danger of being destroyed, repressed, or forgotten.

I wanted to use video to explore the processes of communication within a certain artistic milieu. Here, traditional works of art (pictures, texts, objects, etc.) would serve as a background to give visibility to aesthetic events by using the technical possibilities of the camera. It is in this sense that I would characterize my videos as „conceptual“. Poetry readings, picture shows, discussions, and especially performances led to the self-staging of the subcultural milieu as a kind of „gesamtkunstwerk.“

In terms of historical development, video documentation appeared rather late in the aesthetic practice of Moscow Conceptualism, with some delay in comparison to Western art. When I began to work with video in the mid-eighties I was quite familiar with the video-art of the sixties and seventies from Fluxus, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, and others.  Many events took place in the Rhein-Ruhrregion: „24 hours“ in the Wuppertal Gallery „Parnass“, exhibitions of Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell in Cologne and Duesseldorf.

Thus in an aesthetic sense, my Moscow videos were done reflexively, even if the recordings look quite ordinary at first glance. I used a simple amateur technique which anybody can use. The video recordings are not characterized by a particular authorial style, they seem to be almost anonymous, but in this anonymity, a style of purely automatic recordings manifests itself.

It is worth mentioning that the first editions of these Moscow video recordings even formally stress their historical lateness, since the color was subsequently taken out to produce the hyperbolic effect of „outdatedness“ through purely black and white images. [1]

In the video images one can find a series of references to the avant-garde tradition, not only to the black and white documentations of the sixties (for instance in the US), but also to the classical cinema of the avant-garde, to German expressionism (through the composition of shadows) and to Russian avant-garde cinema, especially to the use of the camera in Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera.

In the case of Vertov, who judged the possibilities of technical optics much higher than the possibilities of the human eye, the camera served to produce an optical unconscious. In this tradition, I tried to explore video as a technical instrument to open up another horizon of perception, knowledge, and behavior. As a device, video could at that time stimulate new experiences and attitudes because it had not yet become commonplace.

From my point of view, the media potential of video is characterized by the fact that the creation of a certain situation and the process of its reproduction are very closely intertwined – they influence one another. Because the person recording is at the same time in front of the camera and within the real situation, an interactive relation is achieved. Moreover, all participants in the situation can immediately see what has been recorded. They are subjects as well as objects, and those who record and those who are recorded have the ability to change their positions. 

The video camera can not only provoke a situation, but also open up a horizon of dialogue within this situation. I regard video as a dialogic medium and for me, therein lies its main political function. So, it was not only important to work independent of the state censorship apparatus, but from the point of view of political aesthetics, the way the video camera was actually used was much more significant. And here, one can observe a certain critique of mass media culture on an international scale: both of Western commercial and Eastern ideological mass culture.

The critique aims at the one-way communication in mass media culture, in other words, at the fact that the dominant use of mass media, especially television, presents the spectator models of perception, knowledge, and behavior without giving him the possibility to respond. In the Brechtian tradition of the „media utopia“ which wanted to transform the radio from an „apparatus of distribution“ into an „apparatus of communication“, video can be regarded as a medium of the dialogic opening up of a situation. It is a question of creating a space of exchange and agreement which is at the same time the prerequisite for developing a ramified, reversible net structure (Vilem Flusser).

Video possesses the ability to record and to save the recordings, and therefore can be regarded as a form of cultural memory. Here, various aspects concerning „archives“ could be discussed. I would like to focus on one aspect: from my point of view, video is an excellent medium for archiving situations which normally are excluded from official memory. Regarding the politics of memory, of crucial importance are the criteria which determine the order of the archives. The videotheque can take on an organizing function for the recordings. It not only questions the traditional understanding of a work of art as a clearly distinguishable, singular work, but in its serial composition, it makes perceptible the structures of poetic repetition that surpass a linear story and produce in the spectator an aesthetic sensibility for formbuilding processes.

So to me, the best method of presenting video recordings is through the videotheque, i.e. the space in which not only the video recordings, but also accompanying materials, texts, and images are collected and preserved. In the videotheque, the visitors can stay as long as they want and watch the videos, and read or study the different materials. The rather meditative recordings where almost nothing happens send the spectators on a „secondary“ journey through the multiple layers of documentation. During this journey the spectators can reconstruct the events and explore their own attitudes towards them.

In the tradition of the textualized image, we are not dealing with a mimetic representation of the visible, but with a reference to the sphere of invisible meanings. Such a practice of documentation turns the attention to something beyond its own limits. An open series of references to the „other“ is created.

The term „video poiesis“ presumably came to my mind as an alternative for the term „video art“ which to me is too much connected with a traditional understanding of the work of art. This new term does not so much stress the completedness of a work of art, but on the contrary emphasizes the process, the aesthetic practice. In this context, the video monitor appears less as a mirror, but much more as a window. It does not reflect light, but instead emanates it, and thus creates a new type of image that aims at transcending the given reality.

The author wishes to thank Monika Dittrich and Yelena Kalinsky for their assistance in preparing the final version of the English text.


[1] Günter Hirt / Sascha Wonders: Moskau. Moskau. Videostücke, Wuppertal 1987 and  Günter Hirt / Sascha Wonders: Konzept - Moskau - 1985. Eine Videodokumentation in drei Teilen. Band 1: Poesie. Band 2: Aktion. Band 3: Ateliers, Wuppertal 1991.


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