About Lines and Spheres
or reconstructing places through experience
On October 6th 2012, the artist Markus Jeschaunig travelled along a line from Graz to Maribor with an airship and filmed a high-resolution portrait of the 56 km long landscape area between the two capitals of culture. The publication “Line Projects / Linienprojekte” documents Jeschaunig’s cartographic work from “ISTANBUL on LINE” (2007) and “Urban Tomography” (2010) to the “Line-Flight Graz-Maribor” (2012). Text contributions by Aysen Ciravoglu, Werner Fenz, Erwin Fiala, Elisabeth Fiedler, Joost Meuwissen, Wolfgang Oeggl and Dieter Spath illuminate the phenomenon of a “line” as an instrument of space exploration and make cross-references between “mapping” and “acting” in Jeschaunig’s artistic practice. The interview took place at MoTA Point on June 5th before the book presentation.
The layout of your book is somewhat unconventional, it is “cut” in half: the cover is literally cut, inside the texts turn and bilingually run along the line, the pictures cut across different places, different views are juxtaposed on the same page. There is theory and projects. The book is an object, something that makes us think twice about what and how we are reading, seeing, thinking. It is a contemplation piece. Was the book about mapping your own practice after the Line Projects?
I worked on the book with Anja Jeschaunig, my sister, and Margit Steidl. They are both graphic designers and made a great team. My goal was not to produce a publication with simply presenting a series of photos and possibly adding a video. I wanted the atmosphere of the projects to be felt in the book. Even though the projects were already finished, I wanted to see once more how these three-dimensional, spherical projects come to a two-dimensional media. I was interested in what they would look like in one piece. We developed a different kind of layout and cutting for each project. The cut part in the book is like “urban tomography” — the monitors (represented by the pictures) are “standing” on the Earth represented by a still taken from the video of the Graz-Maribor flight on the inside of the book cover. In this sense, it is abstract to some extent, but that is the nature of the exhibition itself.
We can talk about the line and the cut. Was it clear at the beginning of your projects that one was going to become the other?
At first, there was the line as a feature, as a form to put over a map. Of course there is structure everywhere around us, but in nature far from the city there are no straight lines. If people found something geometrical in nature in the past, they called it a “witches’ circle”, for example – in German we say “Hexenkreis”, if stones are lying in a circle. It had to be something magical. There are lines, but they are not straight.
My fascination with lines began with the City-joker project “line walk”, where two young architects went through the houses in Graz. They moved through the city exactly on the line. I, on the other hand, did a lot of exploring of the city in the sense of flâneur, in the sense of the Situationist International’s dérive.
When I was in Istanbul during my Erasmus year, I kept seeing the city in new ways time after time. The city felt incomprehensible because of its large size. You can drive in every direction, and after one hill there comes the next one and then the next valley, filled with houses, and so on. It is vast, completely out of scale, compared to Middle European cities. Take Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Graz, etc., for example — they have an end. With Istanbul, there is no end. The city is a huge agglomeration, a metropolitan region around the Marmara Sea. There is no real city border, and I decided to explore this place by walking through its organism.
For me, it was something different, something I have never done before. I had visited several large cities in America and Europe, but walking through this city was slow enough to create an intense perception. It seemed like a strange big soup of houses with no end. The line set out on the map had a dimension, a width. It did not mean I would go through the city on a precise line; it was a magnetic direction to see Istanbul “from behind” and discover an unknown way. It was, in a way, about confronting a line on the map with the real city structure in the street, combining the top-down and the bottom-up perspective.
At first there was the line, but walking through the city was experienced as a cut?
Yes, that is the point. Now, after investigating the line, the cut has become more important. It is a method of cutting something into pieces and reading the inside of it. At this point I think in cycles, I call myself an “Agent in the biosphere”. For me, the biosphere has become a level beyond the line, beyond geometrical structures, patterns or mapping. It is something atmospheric, and this is the world I am confronting. The line is gone, it has found an end. The cut was the way to go beyond the line, to start thinking about spheres.
The references to your work according to the text by Elizabeth Fiedler are Andy Warhol’s films Empire or Sleep, the work of Edward Ruscha and his project Every Building on the Sunset Strip, the Land Art movement and the work of Richard Long or Michael Heizer in particular. She also points out the relation to friction as a mark in the process of indentation in the sense of Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze as they describe the phenomenon in A Thousand Plateaus. How have these contexts influenced your work and in what way are the ideas interesting for you today?
I talked to Elisabeth about what inspired me for the project. The names you mentioned considerably influenced me for the Urban Tomography project. They are the basis for my diploma work — a series of references before I developed my idea of “urban tomography” — the idea of cutting, slicing the city. I find the process is close to the idea of computed tomography (CT scan), of scanning a body. Seeing the city as a body that is sliced by urban tomographers in form of videos is the closest comparison I can think of.
But in your work you also deal with landscape.
Yes, this is why I refer to the Land Art movement. I am still fascinated by the Double Negative. It is one of my favourite works, it influenced me a lot. I get excited just thinking about it. It is nothing, a few cubic meters of soil put in a different place at the same area. It is closer to a cut. It is about putting away instead of adding something. I think the consumer culture we live in is always adding. I find the idea of taking away more interesting than adding things.
I feel this in your work, it is very immaterial.
The cover of the book is a cut. The line is non-existent, it is imaginary, but it is real and at the same time it makes a place. The cut is about perforating the cover, the paper. It is not even taking anything away, it is merely pushing the microscopic pieces of paper aside. This principle expressed in fabrication is consistent with the content inside the book.
What about Ruscha’s Sunset?
Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip interests me because he was doing something different from what was happening in the 70s art world — it was not painting or sculpturing. For this project, he drove along the Sunset Strip, photographed it and made a portrayal, which was already different the same moment he took it while passing by. Maybe a poster was taken off, buildings were demolished the next week or new ones were constructed. He made a city portrait, which did not exist anymore the day after.
Cities are constantly changing; they are in a perpetual flow of transformation (friction). Ruscha captured one street and published it in a book. At first, you think it is a “boring” book with numerous photographs that fold inside. However, I find it a big step in terms of conceptual art. It fascinated me. In Graz, I wanted to do a documentation of a place in a certain kind of way. I shot 22 videos at 11 points along a 10 km line. I filmed grass, trees, walls of houses where nothing happened. In the end, the people said: “How great!” A video of a wall alone, where you see a frame of the window in the distance of 1,5 m is quite boring to watch for 10 minutes. But in context with other scenes captured in the same second makes this one picture interesting. I was wondering what made people like this piece. The picture itself has no artistic value; the value lies in the idea, in the combination of scenes and the concept behind it.
Guattari and Deleuze, on the other hand, must bring a different strategy to the table?
What fascinated me about Guattari and Deleuze’s philosophy was the theory when humans came to the planet, took action, and changed it. One could say that a cow is also taking something from nature and it is also giving something back — shitting. Afterwards, some trees start to grow, because the seeds are getting energy. It is an interdependent, overlapping, synergetic system. Today, the human race has reached the point when we take away much more than the Earth can regenerate. If we continue to live this way, we will soon need 1,5 planets in terms of resources. Depending on the country, of course, some countries would already need five. I do not wish to talk about the Ecological Footprints, but it is about the interaction with the planet we inhabit, about the system.
Guattari and Deleuze wrote about the untouched natural space and the moment when the scratching started. They talk about “smooth and striated”, but not in the sense of form. If you drive the boat through the sea, the sea is a smooth space, the boat drives through it and creates strives. Also, the desert is a smooth space, not only in a formal, architectural sense, but also in a cultural one. According to Raimund Abraham, an Austrian architect that immigrated to the USA and lived there for his entire life, processing the earth with a plough was the first act of architecture.
There was an interesting exhibition in Munich, entitled The End of Land Art in the 70s. There is no more land art today. Am I 30 years too late? I think this is the material we have to work with, the biosphere. The future is not looking at cities, because the resources we need for our city life come from the land. If we continue taking more and more, the batteries will empty one day and then we will have to question our actions, look closely at what we were doing. I believe this time is coming very soon. It is a matter of how do we change things then, or how could we change them even before?
In this sense, it is important that your work is recognized in the context of art in public space. Elizabeth Fiedler suggests reading your projects as sculptures. As an architect, I would like to go one step further and link your work to architecture. I understand your projects as inverted objects of architecture. You gather experience in space according to a plan you set up, and then you reassemble traces of this experience in a new medium – be it a map, a spatial installation, a video, a book. You reconstruct places through your experience of time in it. When does the moment of friction come?
I used the word friction in a very old text of mine. It is important because with it I somehow found my way, and for this reason I decided to publish the text in the book unchanged.
The moment when one thing is confronted with another thing interests me. Let’s take lines for example. There is a house in a certain location. Long time ago, there was no house, but maybe there was a field where they grew vegetables. Maybe there was a structure of pathways leading to the fields and these fields were sized in the way that a donkey or a horse could pull the plough. It was an organic agricultural organism with rules. Even in the past it had to be economic. There was/is a situation of ownership. The city grew on top of these patterns. Road structures we have today are still following the inscriptions from the past. Every sidewalk is a process of discussion. A decision has to be made in order for the sidewalk to be built precisely in this location, even though there is a certain unsharpness about it. In the end, there is a discussion process that is the result of friction. The result is a discussion that means work, fight.
The process of transformation can also be found in nature. One cloud is colder than the other, causing rain, which is also a result of friction. The “event” of rain is a form of friction, but one cannot hear the dialogue. Friction is a result of dialogue between people or things. For me, friction is an overarching theme, a word for a transformation process, or system processes in general. In German we say “Reibung”, you may associate it with body parts touching, even sex. It is a word I like to put into urban context.
In your projects, you play with scale. In the scale of the map you situate the (time)line – you determine your orientation/direction, how you are going to move through space, how long it is going to take you, how you are going to occupy it. This is also the scale of urbanism. The gesture of a line reminds one of the avenues in Paris or Rome for example. Pope Sixtus V demolished buildings to construct new avenues and a new symbolic map was created upon the existing fabric by connecting institutions. Today, our experience of space has radically changed with the new media. Is the scale of your projects in this way infinite for you? How do you determine the beginning and the end of the “line”?
It was never my plan to do “Line Projects.” In the beginning, I wanted to experience Istanbul by walking, and I found out that the line was non-existent. We were “on line” for three days. The line was more or less about setting a direction, so we did not get lost. It made sense conceptually, but if you are “on line”, you do not feel the line at all. You have to go, talk to people, smell, see the weather situation – everything is influencing you. It was like the flâneur, it felt like a linear dérive. You have the feeling of doing a dérive in a relaxed way, you have the map, but you get out of the rush, out of the intense city experience. For me, it was fascinating. The line is the most direct, sharp tool, but at the same time when you follow it, you get lost, because you would never experience it as a line in reality. It is an imaginary form, imposed on something chaotic, the city.
In Istanbul, we decided we wanted to cross this organism of the city, and if wanted to cross it, we had to start in Bursa and end in Edirne, which would take us three weeks. For this reason we decided to start at the Ataturk Airport. In the European sense, the airport is outside the city. We started walking for 10 km from there, and knew it could be done in a few days. Afterwards I came to Graz, which is 10 km wide across the Dom (the main church). Right in the central position, the Künstlerhaus, where we set up the exhibition with Elizabeth Fiedler, is located. In a way, I saw it as an inverted concept to Istanbul. Graz was presented on a scale of 1:20 in the exhibition space. A visitor could experience a 10 km belt of the city in one space. The length of the line was a given, determined by the political city border of the city of Graz. There is no real border of the city there; there is just a political decision, a line, a friction.
Afterwards, I was asked to do a project for a regional festival in Styria, to develop an idea between Graz and Maribor in 2012. Since I was dealing with lines, and I did not want to do the same thing again, I decided to go through the air, a new from of movement. Walking in the first project, filming a 10 km way in the second, while the third was about flying over the territory, going up in the air. The dimension, the line was placed between the cities of Graz and Maribor, which are located 56 km from one another. I was thinking about the project — it was about capturing the Earth’s surface. I am not interested in capturing more precise images than NASA or Google, this is their job. I only want to focus on an excerpt. Maybe it would be nice to do urban tomography all over the world, including rivers or the sea, having millions of pictures that look the same, but this is not my goal.
In the third Line Project, the line becomes negotiated against the atmosphere and the video against Google Maps. The experience of proximity and distance is felt in the video, there is a sense of familiarity. What new perspectives did the project open?
At the beginning of the project, I had an idea of connecting the cities in a direct way. I have not talked about this publically, but my family’s origins come from Slovenia. My grandparents came from Goče, from a German-speaking minority. During WWII, the family was scattered around the world and my grandparents came to Styria. I liked the idea of going back to Slovenia, because I think there is not enough dialogue. Slovenian people speak German, but most Styrian people do not speak Slovenian, even if they live directly at the border. I experienced this myself.
When I went into the air, it was an amazing experience to fly and look down. The main message of the project is to show that I am interested in planet Earth. It does not matter where I would carry it out. For me, Maribor 2012 and its framework were a good way to find funding. I wanted to show that I am looking at the planet and producing new pictures of it, new ideas about it, so we can develop new needed strategies. Oil, coal and energy are running out, everything our society is based upon in terms of resources is running out, so we have to get new ideas. I went up in the air and was fascinated. Filming was just an add-on to document the experience, but in principle, I was thinking about connecting the cities by looking at the countryside. The “portrait”, on the other hand, was the way to go down vertically and do a dérive in the air. It is like walking in the air, it is smooth.
Peaceful indeed. For a long time I searched for a plane and tried to determine how low it is possible to fly with a plane to be still able to see the birds. It was a challenge to be slow enough, so that they would not get scared, or not being too loud, so that people would not look up. I wanted to capture life as it is. The airship is silent and slow enough that people do not see or hear it.
You have mentioned dérive several times. It is a term Debord referred to at the 1966 Situationist International’s conference, when he noted that the strategies nurtured by the SI group – that is dérive and unitary urbanism – should be understood as a fight against utopian architecture, the Venice Biennale happenings and the GRAV group. You, on the other hand, work quite well with the context of institutions. There is the context of cultural capitals Graz and Maribor, you are crossing the border. I find your work peaceful and disruptive at the same time, I sense an ironic distance. How do you use the term dérive?
I am a referent to the dérive and feeding the system at the same time, yes. I think I should mention one more project at this point. I made a raw oil installation in 2012, called Barrel You! In order to make it, I had to find crude oil, petroleum in its original state when it comes out of the Earth. I had to look for this material in an oil storage company. In a way I had to ask: “Please give me some oil, I am doing a critical work against oil.” How do you do that? It is a difficult situation. In general, people are open to art, and the first reaction was positive. Since an artist was asking them for 35 l of oil, they donated it, but asked me not to use their name. I find such moments interesting, because these frameworks are the powerful influences that drive the development of ecology, humans and environment right now. It is about the things that are out of order. We are not in balance at all and I find it important to work with these forces, to confront with this culture.
At the same time I find it ridiculous to label Istanbul, for example, as the cultural centre of Europe of 2010. Istanbul has been the cultural capital of Europe since 3000 years ago. So why does it need the title in 2010? Is it all about the Expos? I know the instruments — the marketing and the production of an image of a country, etc. — it is all a part of the economy, I am OK with doing things in the same framework, I do not fear it. I do not find it as something horrible. I really wanted to produce a dialogue between Graz and Maribor. When I was asked to do something in the space between them, I wanted to link the two places filming the space in between.
There is not only a well-constructed principle about your work, there is also a distinct aesthetic coming out of your projects. If I read between all possible lines, I would say the minimalist didactic visuals are there not to attract attention, but to bring out the construction of the project, of the lines. Is there, however, a certain “politics of aesthetics” beyond this point if you pose the idea next to the fact that the book came after the flight between the two European Capitals of Culture?
There is a system, the planet Earth and something that we call the “universe”. Our lifestyle has lost balance with the environment; the consumer culture in its current state is facing a dead end. We need to think over our environmental practices generally. For me, working with the contemporary language of the system is important, as well as addressing ideas towards a post-oil world. Just like Debord and the Situationists used different technics of aesthetics (collage, mapping, etc.) as a strategy of protest and change. In my works, I try to reach a certain point of composition, where the content becomes focused and directs into the space. Like Friedrich Kiesler said, “The artist tries to express the unknown with the known”.