German Video and Performance (1981)

“German Video and Performance,” Parachute, no. 22 (Spring 1981),pp. 49-50.

Click to read

German Video and Performance
A Space, Toronto
4 - 25 JANUARY 1981

The presentations by Ulrike Rosenbach, Marcel Odenbach, Klaus vom Bruch and Jochen Gerz at A Space were video-performances rather than German video and performance. All the artists used video in their performances; and many of the tapes documented video-performances.
This integration in performance and documentation indicates a particular concern with video. (Jochen Gerz is aside of many of these generalizations. Gerz lives in Paris; the other three share a studio and video equipment in Cologne. Rosenbach curated the exhibition.) For the Cologne artists, video is a medium—a means of recording and transmitting—and an object (a monitor) in their performances, not specifically a substitute for commercial media. It serves to transmit cultural values (which are ideological all the same), not to impose social roles as defined by commercial media. In this, the video-performances differ from much North American work which inhabits the more theatricalized forms of media, and which effects a more direct relation between performer and viewer.

Even though we are part of the space, we observe these performances as if they were apart from us—as if they were sculptures we looked at from the side with no eye contact (excluding Gerz again). The performers confront the video monitors almost as objects first and transmitters second, rather than confront the audience. As a consequence, the cool detachment and working through of the performances both deter-mine a relation to the audience and establish an intention: the work is to be understood. While the work may be didactic, or pointedly symbolic in Rosenbach, these artists, including Gerz, are concerned that the audience or individual make a decision or choose to act. Odenbach the performer makes a choice in his performance; Rosenbach exemplarily enacts a role; Vom Bruch intervenes within his performance; and Gerz is “antagonistic” to his audience.

While we share a Western culture and the international context of contemporary art with these artists, differences invariably arise from a Central European and specifically German culture. Yet, we know this work —its forms, structure, ideological intentions and strategies: we can read it. A primary concern of the work, in fact, is that it be structured so that we can read it, understand and act.


In her performances, Ulrike Rosenbach follows through a physical act within a prescribed spatial structure in which mythical or historical patterns and personae (concerning women) and video technology are telescoped together. The space of the performance conflates a symbolic figure, such as a spiral, a mythical personified figure, and the physical forms of the technology. At the same time a persona is en-acted (while symbolized) through the body of the per-former who acts through the video technology while registering its projections.

The initial set-up for Psyche aber... She wandered about, 30’ was a maze of hanging paper which Rosenbach tore down with a walking stave to clear the space, and to reveal a monitor that she then carried on her shoulder along a spiral trail of video cable. Carrying of the monitor is that acting out of Psyche’s task at the same time that it is a difficulty: the monitor has a physical and cultural weight (with its image). Rosenbach’s assumption of this mythic task as a contemporary act has exemplary symbolic value. Yet even though it is actualized and acted through, it maintains that symbol; and the performance’s complex, layered formal unity serves for didactic comprehension. The performer does all the labour and leaves little for the viewer to cathect.


In his video installation/performance “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick,” Marcel Odenbach faced the video monitors as if he were a goalie deciding where the penalty kicker will kick the ball. Three monitors defined the space of a soccer field—two serving as goalposts, the third facing the “goalie”/performer as the action of the game. On top of this “literal” structure, video served as cultural transmission: one monitor alternated the red image of political speeches and American westerns accompanied by a repetitive musical scale, the other a blue meditative and illusory image accompanied by softer music such as Stevie Wonder. Once again, Odenbach did not confront the video monitors specifically as commercial media, but rather as objects of cultural weight. He occupied a more generalized existential position—acted upon as a goalie, acted upon culturally and socially. His seemed the most personal of the performances. At first, the performer attentively responded to the penalty kicks, throwing himself on the ground, and then was a helpless victim of its assaults, as if the kicks were to his body. Rather than subject himself to media imposition or simply react to the penalty kick, the per-former must make a choice. Within the physical space of the performance, this became a symbolic and object choice of the blue monitor by Odenbach as he ended the performance by moving his slumped body in front of it. But, as in Odenbach’s To fall between two chairs, the choice is what has to be faced, not necessarily escaped.


Klaus vom Bruch searches for the rhythms and forms of the imagery of the heroic male. His is the other side of Rosenbach’s feminist work on patriarchal codes as he poses the images of the male in the intersecting and supportive worlds of technology, labour and the military. (He used part of Rosenbach’s The culture of women/an attempt to establish contact on one monitor in his performance. His own work reproduces, in its tight technical control and application of new electronic devices, what one of his tapes names: The reason we males adore technique so much.)

In La grande propagande, Klaus vom Bruch worked with two monitors, using the strategy of repetition of a single image of a male in action, here a single repeated motion of a fireman, coupled with live projection of his own face into that image by means of a device that edited an image in response to a sound. The other monitor mainly showed a repeated clip of a WW II bomber pilot. (One complaint of the performance series was the inappropriate location at A Space which made viewing difficult, for instance, seeing at the same moment these two monitors.) By repetition, he imposed an image on us, but he also used it as a means of analysis. Repetition forms an image from a continuous motion, forms a socialized image from a presumed natural continuum; it hypostatizes an image that is always registered by the viewing subject. At the same time that repetition heroicized the image, it reduced it to a repetition compulsion on the part of the subject of the image—the fireman on one monitor, the pilot on the other.

As performer and subject to the image and technology, vom Bruch kept his eye on the monitor, inserted himself by ringing a bell, which edited him into the image (the bell was almost pathetic next to the fire-man’s hose), and slapped himself to achieve the same insertion. To be subject to, but also to pay attention, was the desire of his action.


Coming at the end, and from outside this group, Jo-chen Gerz put the performances into a perspective, or a least put the audience’s role in performance into question. We are coming questioned the audience’s acceptance of convention and consumption of performance—not an audience that could be easily antagonized, but the audience that knew its cues and responses; “We are not afraid”, spoke the audiotape that accompanied the performance from the point of view of the audience.

Gerz placed himself in the space as a presence and provocation. Half-naked, he played a flashlight over himself, around the “structure” of the room, and then on the audience’s faces. From bemused self-consciousness in response to the audiotape, one individual after another became the focus of the audience, first as subject of the artist’s flashlight, and then his touch. What Gerz seeks in his love-hate relationship with the audience is for the audience to break the frame, to act beyond conventional response, in effect, to leave performance/this performance.

At what point are we in performance that we need this reminder? What frames or conventions are necessary for an effect, or even in order for a convention to subvert itself? Gerz has to insinuate himself into a situation he is trying to act beyond. But conventions are built as much as they are broken in performance; and the promise of convention—and performance—is that something can be effected within it. While he may oppose the theoretical origin of the other performances presented at A Space, Gerz’s performance still has a didactic value as he continues to re-present in art his notion of life beyond art.