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[text] Lewis Baltz


Lewis Baltz : Ronde de Nuit, 1992

by Katrin Kaschadt

Ronde de Nuit not only marks a new artistic approach in the works of the American photographer Lewis Baltz, it also preludes a trilogy that critically examines the relationship between new technologies and social power structures. This sites of technology trilogy also includes Docile Bodies and Politics of Bacteria [both 1995].

Today, information technology is the backbone of almost all areas of public life: traffic, administration, electricity and water supplies, media, the army. Knowledge about these technologies and their use gives power to the individual, just as Foucault says: power over those who don't know. [1] That is, over most of society or, in the case of military applications, over other nations. Surveillance is an essential means of control and social manipulation. It makes it possible for people to gain that constant edge of knowledge necessary in maintaining power.

The focus of interest for Lewis Baltz is the relationship between these power structures and surveillance both of the individual and of society. Structures comparable with those in totalitarian states like the former GDR or the Soviet Union, which used large portions of their labor potential for espionage and surveillance, are also found in western, so-called 'free' social systems. They are not just effective in a military context, as the Gulf War – the first modern and obviously virtual war - showed us. Here, the media were manipulated to a greater extent than ever before, with only selected pictures beeing shown to the public. Ronde de Nuit was created at this time.

In the installation, twelve large, unframed Cibachrome prints join to form a photographic wall twelve meters long and two meters high. Ronde de Nuit cannot be viewed frontally; it eludes the »correct viewing distance«. [2] Viewers are plunged in medias res, as if this were a video-age panorama piece. The kaleidoscopic, monumental series of fragments taken from an urban environment creates a movement that draws the viewer into different layers of an urban reality that has an apocalyptic quality. »The perspective narrows, the gaze becomes concentrated from overviews to views to insights«. [3] House facades, an escalator, the interior of a restaurant, the control center of a building, cables. In the original version of 1992, a voice emanating from loudspeakers reads out, in French, an alphabetical list of concepts related to the subjects high tech and power.

Video technology plays a decisive role in the piece's content. Most of the twelve single-frame exposures, especially those showing an urban space, come from police surveillance cameras. They were taken in Roubaix, a depressing industrial suburb of Lille, the "South Bronx” of France. An extensive surveillance network was installed there to monitor the high rate of an often-armed criminality. It controls every corner of public space and makes it possible for the police to follow any individual person from one end of the city to the other without interruption. Baltz, who moved from the USA to France in 1986, was not allowed to take photographs in Roubaix, however, he was permitted to operate the surveillance cameras for several days. [4] The pictures of bundled cables and a main computer in Baltz's installation indicate the technical equipment necessary for a network of these dimensions. These photographs form a second, much smaller category that is mainly grouped around the center of the installation, in which an oversized, computer-generated face watches the viewer.

The photographic reproduction of the pictures corresponds to the different connotations they evoke. The surveillance camera images have a low resolution which varies within this group itself. In contrast, the pictures of the "other”, technical side of surveillance have a high resolution of photographic clarity, which directly includes the viewer in the act of surveillance. By means of photographic reproduction, the viewer takes up the same position as the artist had when he controlled the camera. However, the monumentality of the 'surveillance' scenes undermines this strategy. Together with the central figure looking at the viewer, which is unfocused, but does not fit into the context of »being watched«, the proportions make viewers part of the scene under surveillance. They are »watchers« and »watched« at simultaneously.

Baltz took the title for this work from the famous picture by Rembrandt commonly known as The Night Watch [1642]. [5] However, Rembrandt's painting, a commissioned group portait, shows neither a nocturnal scene nor soldiers keeping a night watch but rather a convivial gathering of numerous people grouped around the person who commissioned the painting, an army captain. Baltz also shows a central figure in his work. Here, however, it is the monumental, computer-generated countenance of Satan surrounded by technical equipment. Baltz translates this countenance – basing it on Dante's description in the Inferno - into the virtual reality of the »data hell«, while giving it a seductive but deceptive, feminine beauty. [6] The virtual power of Satan interweaves life in the same way that the photographic panels interweave the urban scenes – from the familiar interior scenes, in which we so casually deal with the data flow, to the furthest corners of the city. It is omnipresent.

The title Ronde de Nuit (Nightwatch) is just as deceptive as its subject's supposedly benevolent face. For, in the form of an over-powerful virtual beauty, Satan not only watches solicitously over human life but also controls and commands it. People become marginal alongside him. The endless, circular nature of modern surveillance techniques becomes tangible here both in the technical process of taking and reproducing the photographs and in the picture of the confusing cables.

However, Baltz does convey a little glimmer of hope with his title. The night watch, the paranoid stage in which Hamlet and his soldiers see his father's ghost and, ultimately, the truth, is a stage at which the enemy's watchfulness is weakened. [7] It is only this moment that allows the viewer to recognize the true – virtual – face of Satan, and thus the true nature of data surveillance structures.

The extreme and difficult proximity of the viewer to the work is a result of the original space for which Ronde de Nuit was created. Baltz developed the installation in 1992 for an exhibition in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, where it was set up in a claustrophobically small passageway. As is the case with the surveillance system on which the work is based, the form of the installation was not meant to be completely comprehensible at first glance, purely by virtue of its enormous dimensions. What is important is that the visitor enters completely into an imaginary space that is subject to technological surveillance.

Thematically, Ronde de Nuit continues on from earlier photographic works of Baltz that also show buildings on a large scale and replace the pantheism of his earlier landscape photographs with the »achievements« of the urban living space [The Tract Houses, The New Industrial Parks, Park City, 1969-1992]. Baltz has been working with color photographs since 1988. For him, color is less a sign of the empirical world than a means of manipulation, comparable with the focusing of the lens, the light, and the proportions in his photographs and installation. Ronde de Nuit can also be read as a series of encoded pictures carrying a warning. This superordinate aspect took on a literary form by means of the audio track that accompanied the work in 1992. Like some higher authority, the words spoken seemed to warn of the vision presented.

One of the main themes of Ronde de Nuit is the dependence of everyday urban life on information technology and data monitoring, which are increasingly overstepping their limits and controlling everyday life. The two other installations in the trilogy, Docile Bodies and Politics of Bacteria [both 1995], focus on another area of social life in which the surveillance society is at work.

Docile Bodies was created for Ars95 in Helsinki and continues the imagery of power in the area of high-tech medical developments. Baltz, who refers in the title to Foucault's book Überwachen und Strafen, [8] here intensifies the subversive side of power. As long as power is only repressive, it is not as strong. Medicine based on technology puts patients at the mercy of machines and their »omnipotence«. The pictures used for Docile Bodies come mostly from French hospitals, in which technological surveillance in the body itself makes it possible for surgeons and physicists to provide the most effective and safest treatment. The body becomes a dehumanized object performed upon by knowledge. Ultimately, only those 'in the know' can make decisions about the use and benefits of the new technologies, and thus also about the life of the patients. The invalid is at the mercy of this »gentle« power.

Politics of Bacteria, commissioned in 1995 by the Musée d'art moderne, Villeneuve d'Ascq [Lille] for the exhibition The World after Photography, is the last work in the trilogy. Here, Baltz clearly shows us the repressive side of power by characterizing government and administration as areas of masculinity and power. Most of the photographs were taken in the new Finance Ministry in Bercy. The building, filled with state-of-the-art technology and with its own helicopter pad and wharf, provides an almost James-Bond-like backdrop.

The description of the late capitalist body as being an object constantly at the mercy of the abstract flow of figures, money, and the market takes up the concept of French philosophers like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari. Baltz's view of the problematic entirety of the body continues his notion of cities and buildings as being places pervaded by the flow of information. Politics of Bacteria [the title comes from Thomas Pynchon] portrays a male world built around the idea of organized force sanctioned by the state, whose different aspects are embodied by the male figures and their bodily postures.

The dimensions of all three works are nearly the same [about 12 m long, 2 or 2.5 m high], as are the effects of the photographic montage technique. Baltz uses photography as a means of taking stock of situations in a sober, unromantic, clear-minded way. He leaves any personal and emotional involvement to the viewer. By replacing the illusion of photographic skill with an apparently mechanistical description using ready-made materials, Baltz turns his back on traditional artistic photography. His photographs, direct and aiming at the unfinished, contradict middle-class conventions of »seeing« and show where the problem lies.

The trilogy creates a picture of the technologies that determine our daily lives to an ever greater extent and of the power structures made possible by them in their many and various forms. The process of surveillance itself is more difficult to see than the technologies that make it possible. Baltz uses these as a metaphorical pointer to what lies behind them. His trilogy reveals characteristics of this surveillance and power system while critically questioning the current social situation and politics of power, and makes viewers aware of hidden, latent, yet omnipresent structures of power and force. [9]

1 Cf. letter of the artist to the author, 23 June 2001. Michel Foucault, Überwachen und Strafen. Die Geburt des Gefängnisses, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1992 [Original edition: Surveiller et punir. La naissance de la prison, Edition Gallimard, 1975]. ^

2 Letter of the artist to the author, 23 June 2001. ^

3 Urs Stahel, Das große Spektakel, in Lewis Baltz. Regel ohne Ausnahme, exhib. cat. Fotomuseum Winterthur/Switzerland, Scalo, Zurich/ Berlin/ New York 1993, p. 144. ^

4 Cf. ibid. ^

5 Cf. Cornelia H. Butler Lewis Baltz. the politics of bacteria.docile bodies.ronde de nuit. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Ram Publications, Los Angeles 1988, p.52. ^

6 Cf. unpublished letter of the artist to the author, 23 June 2001. ^

7 Cf. Cornelia H. Butler, Lewis Baltz. The politics of bacteria.docile bodies.ronde de nuit, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Ram Publications, 1988, p.52. ^

8 Michel Foucault, Überwachen und Strafen. Die Geburt des Gefängnisses, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1992 [Original edition: Surveiller et punir. La naissance de la prison. Edition Gallimard, Paris 1975]. ^

9 Cf. letter of the artist to the author, 23 June 2001. ^



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