Barbara Kapusta on Amy Croft at the Künstlerhaus Vienna
Copies of the article ‘Civilian Camouflage Goes into Action’ are provided as guidebooks to Amy Croft’s solo exhibition ‘up there down there’ at the Viennese Künstlerhaus. Written by the artists Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes in 1942 and published in the U.S. Civilian Defense Magazine, the article introduces the concept of camouflage as a central theme in Croft’s exhibition. The seven page illustrated text focuses on a particular case; one of altering the perception of urban architecture in the wake of a new threat posed by the aerial bombardier during WWII, and the new perspective of ‘up there’. However it concurrently draws comparison between the overall evolution of collective perception or viewing habits and the technical, political or cultural developments that ensued. ‘Camouflage was always designed to deceive the human eye at ground level, it was only during WWII that aeroplanes could carry bombs for such long distances and hit targets with such precision.’
The second reference to Crofts research for ‘up there down there’ which is included in the exhibition is “Juliet with Peacock Feather” (1938); a photographic work by György Kepes showing a young woman whose right eye is camouflsaged with a peacock feather. The landscape format by which this portrait is presented (in line with the intentions of Kepes) stands as a rupture to the conventions of vision and the formal presentation of images. Also used on the front of the exhibition’s invitation card, this very simple optical devise reveals how the conditions of presentation are cultural constructs. The manner in which Croft poses a historical article as an informative guidebook to her exhibition also questions distinctions between research, design and artwork. As these two instances demonstrate the concept of camouflage in ‘up there down there’ is removed from its implied functionality and woven through the exhibition in subtle abstractions and transformations to question hierarchies and the control of communication through an activation of the potential of visual language.
In the first room of the gallery the artist displays a set of colourful Plexiglas screens from opaque to transparent, on which nine text fragments are printed. ‘Visual scope’, ‘motion awareness’, ‘simulation’, ‘clarity of joint’, ‘directional differentiation’, ‘imitation’, ‘form simplicity’, ‘visibility reduction’, ‘disruption’. The words are taken from a combination of writing by the American urban planner Kevin Lynch and György Kepes. In their writings both anticipate a ‘universal and international’ language of vision, without ‘limits of tongue, vocabulary or grammar’ that due to its generality can be a powerful device of expression and communication. Besides the idea of an open unity of communication realized by models of composition, structure and organization, (which very much comes within modernity’s myths and ideals of generalisation), Kepes and his colleague provide a concept for an active, self-determined human being, that demands an active role in the process of organising human relations.
In ‘up there down there’ Croft forwards this activation to her audience and draws attention to their own viewing habits. In the second room of the Künstlerhaus the Plexiglas objects are translated into a video projection with 4-chanel sound. Appearing at irregular intervals and at varying distances and focus, the screens slowly come into the frame of the camera and disappear again. While witnessing this motion, an uncertainty arises about whether it is the camera, which is moving around the screens or if it is the sculptures themselves that are being moved. A woman and a man interacting with the screens, slowly bringing some of them into different positions, reinforces one possibility that the camera is actually fixed. ‘Each visual unit gains its unique mode of appearance in a dynamic relationship with its optical environment.’ Kepes states in Language of Vision. In ‘up there down there’ the change of environment depends on the cameras place. It functions not only as a witness of events but also as an actor and the definition, whether it is the one looking or the one being seen depends on the audiences´ choice.
Something similar applies to the audio synchronised with the video. We hear city sounds (recorded in Chicago), creating an atmospheric surround sound collage of a heterogeneous and polyphonic city. Alike the video, the audio counterpart of ‘up there down there’ dismantles our expectations of a relationship between audio and image. Being entirely surrounded by the plasticity of the sound the audience starts looking for significance having been activated by simultaneity and asynchrony. Unclear whether the audio refers to image or vice-versa and if overlaps are mere coincidences, the audience becomes aware of their own perception and the mobility in the works audio-visual units.
‘up there down there’ puts the concept of a language of vision in relation to a research on city planning and urbanism and is a search for the collective, social and political potential in both. If seeing and making something visible can be used as a tool of critique then contemporary urbanism and theories of architecture are not only about orientation in space but inherit a potential for social critique that can be activated by an engaged manner of looking.
Barbara Kapusta is an artist working in Vienna. www.saprophyt.net