Christian Unverzagt

Heading on Time

first published in:
Mediamatic 3/4, The European Art/Media Magazine. Amsterdam, Juli 1989

translation Maarten Bavinck

Museological strategies lust after time. It is arranged in a chronology, conserved so as to return as timeless, arbitrary signs. In the following article, the past no longer falls victim to a permanent state of topicality. But time turns around so that a game is played with it from the future.

The Spectacular Synchronization

Like people, cities can age in only a few years. Berlin needed just over a century to be able to celebrate its 750th anniversary in 1987. The thread of history turns out to be a net thrown out by the metropole over a time-space whose continuity with the past is all but certain. Most of the celebrating neighborhoods were independant villages or fallow land a hundred and twenty years ago.

In a time in which things age with micro-electronic speed, there appears to be a desire for public signs cloaked with the dignity of old age. These signs can only be designed.

Of course, it is not the past which is old – when present it was even relatively young. The present is old. Modernity conceives its dignity along the lines of ancient mythical genealogy: the one able to recount his history back to the source is given status and high rank. The modern present can act as owner of The History by presenting its signs. While myth tries to escape to No More by a backward movement holding on to tradition, modernity looks into the past by conjuring up the vision that s,he does Not Yet exist.

In the mythical world, sacred objects handed over from generation to generation symbolize the inviolability of tradition. The inventory of meanings depends on the integrity of the signs, on the unceasing recurrence of the symbols and the faithful passing on of the words. To transfer the meaning of symbols, the manner of transfer must also be passed on. Modernity however, lives on the transversing of its present state. The present is not a state at all, but rather a project subject to continual innovation. The representation and transfer of the sign is part of this project. Only that which is picked up by the media from the permanent inventory belongs to the inventory of the world.

Constant new signs bear witness to the fact that transcendentally uncompleted things are still in development. The past too, no longer consists of signs which were legible formerly. These signs have disappeared (dialectics would have it that they have been lost because their meaning was not yet completely deciphered). Subsequently they are re-presented as brought-to-life monuments. Nothing, however, is currently still re-presented: only the spectacle of the presentation is left. The viewing masses, brought together by the media, ensure the reality of the signs as long as they circulate. The world still exists by the favor of mass observation.

Origins have been transferred to the future. Only there will they be unveiled. At the end of its tether, nature, proving to be genetically manipulable, reveals its code. But thereby time is levelled out. In the perception which modernity has of its own Not Yet, the future too is disappearing as something conceivable, because everything will be different – if there is anything left at all. Maybe the present-day will have no successors at all to redeem the mort­gage of her future expectations.

A present-day without past or future is no more than an inventory. It changes into a shallow horizon of events, in which only timeless signs can circulate. Making signs timeless is the necessary condition for the spectacular synchronization of the past.

The Simulated Anachronisms

Things do not get through to us anymore, but we do not succeed in avoiding their signs. In order to posit itself as time-space, levelled modernity must take on some differentiation. There must be something which she is not or was not before. For this reason she lets different signs from the past circulate in her global presentation of the world.

Everything supposedly having its source in a pre-media period must have been stripped of its context and cut loose from the time-space with which it was originally interwoven. Next to the ruins, which have been proclaimed as sightseeing objects in the urban aggregate, there are museums, in which masks, weapons, figure-heads, medicinal pratices and totems can be admired behind glass or a rope. Things from the past rise up in the epoch of immaterial information as gigantic signs. They are the loot in a triumphal procession lasting just as long as the exhibition. The things, coagulated as separate signs, are reanimated in the museum by the exhibition trick. The setting infuses them with part of the strangeness they lost during transport.

The autonomy of works of art is suggested by their frames. The historical or ethnological museum piece however, generates a vague suspicion that it had its own place before (according to the development theory the barbaric belongs in the gallery of family portraits). The signs of the Others have invisible links, seeking connection in our glance. There, inside modernity, a window is projected offering a glimpse of the outside. The caption explains the unknown. It labels the museum piece as being strange, but deprives it of all its strangeness by simultaneously explaining it.

Modernity presents signs of what it is not; simultaneously it reveals itself as that which it is not. By revealing the meaning of these strange signs, they are made into things in which Man sees his origins reflected. He makes his own tracks. But, after meeting himself everywhere, he likes to have confirmed that he has progressed. For this reason he organizes a historical fair in which everything is built as it used to be – of course not exactly the same. The guests of this travelling Disneyland of the past are not left in doubt that this history is an achievement of the present. It bears proud evidence to the fact that we have removed ourselves from the lost meanings of the good old days. Their best aspect is that they no longer really exist; they are spectacularly quoted. The dignity of ‘that which was’ is derived from that which factually is no longer (the rest is backward). If modernity had not worked itself up from the actual circumstances of the past, it would not be able to quote them now (they would correspond). Only through differentiation do things of the past become acceptable. Only at a certain distance can they be regarded seriously, humoristically, compassionately, indifferently or idealistically. In the world of modernity all this is possible. It is a world of possibilities in which the differentiation between that which is and is not is the result of a sign operation.

The Short Memory of Mankind

After the other end of the discourse which Mankind holds about the world, he meets himself. Universal man has humanized the world. He is the legacy of a history whose arrow has seemingly come to rest in the horizontal simultaneity of the media.

History must have started when culture was no longer transferred as a steady collective, but was taken to be something contributing to the survival of the individual name. This work-culture crystallized in stone monuments. The name however, in whose honor these were erected, was erased by the names of the dead to provide those still dying with hope for survival. Very early in time, history appears to be the rewriting of that which was taken for granted in an explanation corresponding with the present period. The remains of things from the past became the monumental signs of power in the present.

The rewriting process accelerates in a period in which the only constant is the speed of light. Things have no time to coagulate. The works therefore, are virtual in the information network. As the matter of things dissolves, the time in which the monuments should have arisen evaporates. The venerable cathedrals, victims of the devil of exhaust fumes, illustrate the general breathlessness of things. Nobody can believe in their conservation anymore; so that time itself, to which they should have been surrendered, becomes a dubious matter. Visit Europe while it is still there was the slogan of an American travel agency, long before it appeared on the propaganda posters of the German peace movement. The old world of monuments exists only on request. The future is no longer something to build up. The present is universal; it reaches out over the centuries of history, the millions of years of geology, the billions of years of cosmology. But tomorrow, everything may be finished. One single impulse could sweep away the whole inventory, as is possible with the photon beam of a laser. Modernity is no longer sure that there will be future witnesses of its existence. The world has shrivelled to an instantaneous exposure with which it registers and stores every moment. Observation and memory have coincided. We live as tourists in God’s dream. If he wakes up, the trip is finished. We can only be contemporaries of this world, whose inhabitants must act as if they are their own observers. It is a short-lived world in which Man speaks only with himself.

The forgotten reality

Historical memory has functioned as a rewriting process in recounting the names of Man. It has always used ‘forgetting’ as tool. At the basis of this process lies something which we have forgotten we have forgotten. Already in the first monument was the sense of an extra-human measure lost. The tower of Babel was built on the suppostion that Man can overlook and control the course of things. By means of this plan he wishes to meet himself in time. Even though things do not go quite as expected, Man remains the context of man. Times, by contrast, (where the things must first be stripped of their context in order to be presented as historical signs) have never reckoned with a later Mankind. They were situated opposite the unknown reality which never allows itself to be grasped in controllable signs. This reality remains The Big Unknown, with which a metaphoric dialogue can only be conducted, only if one remembers the rules handed down through the ages.

The universe of these times cannot be translated into that of modernity. The points where it connects with reality have been severed and made invisible by their simulation. The memory of extrahuman reality will be painful. It will manifest as an irrepressible apocalyptic eruption of signs. The ‘revelation’ lets the things appear – and they are truly inhuman. Suddenly the events are not distanced. Later they will be the only signs branded in memory. The message of the media becomes a murmur. The epoch of the warriors dawns. Only then (and too late for most) Man notices that historical time has always dwelled with reality’s fatefulness. He realizes that he has not prepared himself for its sudden appearance. Reality reveals itself as something which cannot be decoded by Man. History appears as a project to forget that reality and is doomed to failure.

The origins of our era have been lost, its history has become implausible. But the apocalyptic being can recount the history of this world, starting from her termination. From that position, he regards the course of things and, surprisingly, its reverse side is also revealed to him.

Looking into meta-reality

There are other hidden sides to the things which can no longer be suppressed. The reverse side is everywhere: not only on the side turned away from us.

Meta-realism operates with signs detached from their time by modernity. It knows that the timespace to which they belong only comes into being by their circulation. This insight enables meta-realists to intervene in the game of reality. Using appropriate inside-outside operations, meta-realists continuously introduce unusual dividing lines to the inventory. They separate what is and is not and join them again in a different manner. In the sign traffic of modernity, fluctuating thought patterns arise with themselves (and then often only briefly). However, they also suggest that they are in alliance with an indecipherable reality which they have contacted on a parallel level. Some claim that contact only takes place in the form of a catastrophic collision between different sign levels.

A few passages from a meta-realistic manifesto (which appeared in Rome in October 1988) have been translated and published in a West Berlin pamphlet (Das bleiche Feuer, no colophon). God is dead, the things have disappeared and the signs are not checked by any meaning whatsoever. Under these conditions, meta-realism can bring up the matter of the abundance of meanings. The meta-realist believes in metaphoric realities beyond the sign rampage but doubts whether they can be grasped by believing in them. Meta-realism is the attempt to get an underlying level (which doesn’t exist) to vibrate. North of the Alps there is a meta-realistic splinter group bearing the name Association of Contemporaries. The motto of the group is: ‘Everything happened long ago’, which implies events that haven’t occurred in official reality. Not only is actual information converted, small incidents are unleashed. Meta-realism doesn’t only reflect the system, it also conjures up its end. Meta-realism operates with imaginary variables – it is an imaginary variable. But if you fantasize yourself inside, it becomes real. Then, like a virus, it eats itself into reality.

Meta-realism does not wait for the return of reality for that decisive final act. From the point of view of meta-realism, it too has happened and life goes on – until the next revealing of things. We live simultaneously post- and pre-apocalyptically. The ambitious undertaking of meta-realism is also to cover the spaces between events with reality. It imitates something we will never see. The linear historical-continuum has engendered cycles everywhere. Now that it has become flat, they unreel on parallel levels. Meta-realism quotes this kinds of parallel levels. If it succeeds in placing them in the right way many expect that these playful signs will surface our world in a fateful way.