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Thomas Köllhofer

The Limits of Perception

Light of varying quality: warm, glowing light, a harsh blinding glare that even through shut eyelids leaves an impression of brightness. Moving light that dissolves before our glance can light on it. It is invariably artificial light with many different yet always precisely definable properties which is used in Gunda Förster's work. Light itself becomes malleable material, occasionally even a lexical sign. Never deploying it in a static form, she instead always uses it in a form of motion, even if this only entails having light go on and off again in brief sequences.
In her videos, movements of light and pictures are on occasion accelerated to such a degree that the eye can no longer perceive the individual sequences as discrete images but merely as flickering.
Light includes a further perceptual property, one which is not usually designated a sensory perception yet represents one of the major premises for interrelating the world with oneself and others with the world. This is spatial perception. Those who do not perceive the space surrounding them forfeit a relationship with themselves and also lose track of time. Extending space alters temporal perception just as, conversely, condensing time changes spatial perception.
In addition, Gunda Förster combines the visual stimulus with other sensory percepts such as acoustic signals, ranging from clear, pure tone frequencies to specific mechanical noises, with the latter, however, always electronically processed. The tones and sounds again and again lead to percepts felt by the entire body as the room vibrating or as oscillations continuing via the air in space and becoming palpable in the body. Moreover, in some installations, Gunda Förster also works with changes in temperature.
None of these sensory percepts are deployed in Förster’s work in static staging. Instead they are always in moving settings so that their fleeting, ephemeral nature is emphasised. Perception, therefore, inevitably becomes memory, even in the process of observation.

In > WHITE NOISE we enter the installation room to negotiate a hermetically sealed atmosphere. Spotlights housed in industrially made metal reflectors are mounted at eye level on all four walls, loudspeaker boxes and long strands of electric cable are visible through which electricity flows into the entire installation as set up. The work enables viewers to experience an exchange of different sensory properties.
Light of varying degrees of intensity is combined in the room with appropriate tones electronically generated by sinus waves. A sequence lasting just 7 minutes is a firmly structured composition throughout. A 60-Hz tone sequence is followed by complete quiet and darkness in a dark room. Then again there are sequences with a rather more clearly perceptible tone between 60 and 70 Hz matched by a glimmer of light from spotlights. The restoration of quiet and the repetition of sequences with darker tones elicit alarm when very bright spotlights suddenly go on, with the light accompanied by a very high, synthetic 12,000-Hz tone. The lamps used for this purpose radiate extreme heat at maximum output so that visitors to the room are confronted with a spontaneously induced flood of warmth in addition to the optical and acoustic percepts. Once the light is extinguished, the warmth also quickly recedes.
Whereas a deep tone starts on the floor to spread throughout the body, a tone ranging between 60 and 70 Hz is perceived instead as vibration in space. An irritatingly high tone is only heard and felt in the head. All sequences are combined, each in its own distinctive way, to form a collage consisting of light, sound and warmth that is perceived by the whole body. Viewers can only evade it by leaving the room. The light sequence with a high tone in particular literally dissolves the space surrounding those viewing it.
An installation conveys, in the simplicity of its individual sensory qualities, enormous clarity in the different perceptions, which, however, end in what is a diffuse physical and unconscious emotional sensation rather than a rational analytical overall perception. In this work, Gunda Förster explores the limits of what is learnable and tolerable in both the acoustic and the visual fields. The glaring light is unpleasantly harsh, making visitors spontaneously shut their eyes or turn their gaze from the spotlights to the floor to perceive the surrounding light indirectly. Yet even with eyes shut, viewers cannot evade the light. The intensity of perception during the sequences that are acoustically and visually intense induces an enhanced awareness of the dark and quiet sequences, which represent more than a mere break for the senses. Not only refreshing and relaxing, they become an experiential area in their own right. > WHITE NOISE confronts visitors with a high-intensity experience which has long-term repercussions. Gunda Förster does not allow for calculable experience through composition. On the contrary, viewers are transplanted to a state of tense expectation to await each forthcoming setting. Thus Gunda Förster elicits a repeatedly spontaneous experience of the different sequences.

In > CIRCLE, the source of light describes a wide circling movement. This is not a pendulum measuring the limits of amplitude or the revolution of the earth but rather a seemingly endless cyclically orbital movement recalling the motion of the planets. The length of the pendulum induces slow, circling movement, which exerts a mesmerizing magical pull on viewers. The source of light moving through its courses inevitably recalls the magic pendulums with which truths and falsehoods, beneficial or malignant forces are divined.
The moving light—always returning, only to vanish again—guides viewers’ gaze. The speed of the source of light makes it possible to recognize spatial areas caught by the beams of light yet withdraws them again immediately from sharp focus on the visual plane. Our instinctive urge is to react to the movement since a potential danger emanates from it. Therefore our gaze is compelled to follow the source of light as it circles. The light bulb swinging in rotation, however, prevents the necessary change in the field of vision which would actually make focusing sharply possible. The repetition of movement alone calms the eye since it need not react in frenzied spontaneity. Instead a trance-like state of seeing is induced, in which perception commutes between expectation and recollection in a continuously changing charged field. Shadowy regions emerge continually to move, wax and wane again. They arouse the impression that it is not the source of light which is wandering through the room but rather that the room is moving about the source of light. By virtue of being closed, the circle refers to infinity or rather the suspension of time, thus annulling the spatial continuum.

> EMERGE is another work that is striking in its simplicity. Gunda Förster writes words in the darkness with a dotted source of light like lines drawn in the dark of night with a rod glowing at the tip. Before we can fit the writing together into words, it has already dissolved in darkness. Like dance, writing becomes in our eyes an ephemeral art through the movement of the source of light and the brief duration of the image created by light. The images of writing that surface and dissolve become memory pictures before they have been created. Förster writes »timeless light—forgotten pictures—timeless pictures—forgotten light« and with this calls into question the existence of time as a linear concept. The writing in the dark becomes synonymous with a sketchy trace of life. At the same time, however, the brief visibility of the light alludes to its transience. Being »written in black on white«, a colloquialism regarded as meaning a manifestation of eternal existence, has been reversed here in form and content and dissolved. The written image exists only with light and without light it is merely a timeless constituent of memory without substance.

In the film > S 2, viewers see a sequence of abstract images racing across the »screen« at a rapid pace and interrupted by dark phases at sporadic intervals. Although the high speed of the pictures makes it virtually impossible to perceive them individually, they are inevitably associated by viewers with the experience of travelling by train, especially underground or suburban rapid transit train, during which passengers looking out from within the light interior of the train are repeatedly exposed to comparable sequences of images. During the three and a half minutes this film sequence runs, the pace of the pictorial sequences accelerates. The digital deletion of individual frames from the passage as it runs causes extreme acceleration so that direction is no longer clearly recognizable. Instead the pictures begin to flicker. At this point it becomes apparent that Gunda Förster is exploring the limits of perception or confronting us with the relativity of what is seen. At the same time, very beautifully composed pictorial sequences emerge that have been nonetheless borrowed from reality as we know them from Concrete art. The rapid pictorial sequences are linked with the loud noise produced by the iron train wheels on steel rails. Here Paul Virilio’s conviction is confirmed yet again that »There is no abstraction.« [1] Everything we see is reality. Whereas this reality is abbreviated and condensed by the freeing of individual pictures from an original film, the artist uses the very reverse of this process in > NOW. In this work, the occurring reality of a flash of lightning sweeping over the sky for a fraction of a second has been lengthened into a filmic sequence lasting approximately 5 minutes. The reality thus recreated from the digital world now has almost nothing in common with the reality of nature as given. Entirely contrary to its nature, the lightning in the film moves not just in one direction as it is discharged but also independently of the laws of physics in directions guided by an unnatural force. The distillation of reality becomes autonomous. Every macrocosm can be infinitely reduced by means of the digital media just as every microcosm can be infinitely enlarged.

The models for the > photographs were taken in front of a turned-on television. Relatively long camera exposure times make the motion of the pictures discernible. The television image is in itself an artificially reproduced, electronic replica of reality. What Förster photographs, on the other hand, is the reality of the television image as it is being played. The replica of it is then digitally remastered and subjected to further processing. The result is a palette that is more reminiscent of artificially created electronic images or X-rays than the origin of the pictures concealed behind several metalevels. Since several individual frames of the film as it plays coincide with one exposure, an impression of multiple exposure is created. Reified associations of all sorts of motifs or scenes of action are awakened in viewers but these associations have nothing verifiably to do with the original action captured on film. These photographs seem more like the shadows of pictures. The viewer's imagination is compelled by the painterly amorphous configurations to tie them into narrative content. It stems more strongly from viewers’ subconscious than the experiential realms of the conscious intellect. Being on such a very large scale, the photographs develop a painterly effect independently of action sequences approximating reality.

In the video > NOISE, the contest between light and shade, prefigured in the photographs, takes place in moving form. Photographs are forms of memory which have been detached from circumambient reality as dissociated scraps. The information they provide always remains reduced to a single dimension, the visual sense, and can at best evoke physical reactions affecting more than just the eyes when one recognizes scenes one has personally experienced. Here memories of various physical experiences such as smells, temperatures, etc, can be aroused. Gunda Förster not only breathes life into her own memories. She creates new images from short segments of memory retained, present in the form of the photographs with which she started.
> NOISE represents a consistent development, one that appears almost of necessity to have emerged from Förster’s photographs. They in turn must be viewed as only part of a pictorial sequence of motion. These images are accordingly brought to life again in the video. However, they represent a new departure of their own developed from the form of the photos and do not follow an original mode of movement.

Again and again Gunda Förster discusses in her work the essence of image and perception. A static photo is unnatural because everything is in motion. Consequently, Gunda Förster works with pictures that dissolve, playing with the fleeting experiment of capturing images and the impossibility of this operation. Even when her photographs hang on the wall as fixed, captured and immutable pictures, they represent in fact the expression of motion, coming into being and simultaneous dissolution. Expressive of withdrawal, they create an aesthetic of disappearance. [2] This also makes her pictures or the impressions created by her works mnemonic images. Emergence and dissolution become cyclically correlated synonyms. All light is dissolution in that it suppresses darkness and emergence in that it creates the visible. Conversely, all darkness is the emergence of negative space and the dissolution of the image in light.
Light and sounds are energy set in particular vibrating motion. Light is dominant, is the most immediate expression of speed, and it is light that lends Gunda Förster’s works their highly charged quality.

[1] Paul Virilio, Der negative Horizont. Bewegung, Geschwindigkeit, Beschleunigung. München 1989, p. 9
[2] cf on this Paul Virilio, Die Ästhetik des Verschwindens ...

Catalogue text
> Gunda Förster
Kunsthalle Mannheim | Hatje Cantz, 2004