Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Three Rs

This is the three “R”s… Repetition, repetition, repetition
– Mark E Smith

This weekend Tate Modern hosts a season of ‘classic’ artists’ films with ICO Essentials an Independent Cinema Office touring programme. The six programme season (themes include ‘Dreams’, ‘Modernity’, ‘Play’, etc) consists mostly of historical avant-garde perennials with which most students of the form should be quite familiar, with the possible exception of The Otolith Group’s Protest programme on Sunday and one remarkable film in particular screening in Monday’s Pop programme curated by Tanya Leighton: Film Montage I an all too rarely screened film made in 1965 by Frankfurt artist Peter Roehr who died of cancer at the young age of 23 in 1968.

In his short life Roehr produced a prodigious amount of work incorporating a wide range of media including visual poetry (Typomontagen and Textmontagen), found objects (Objektmontagen), sound (Tonmontagen), photography (Fotomontagen) and of course Filmmontagen. He was concerned with serial accumulation and repetition, often using ‘found’ images and material, but whatever media he worked in he followed the same strict principles. To Roehr, the montages represent a kind of self-realisation, freeing him from aesthetic problems like form, composition, and artistic innovation.

I change material by repeating it unchanged. The message is the behaviour of the material in response to the frequency of its repetition. I assemble available things of the same kind together. These might, for example, be objects, photographs, freestanding forms such as letters, texts, tones and sounds, film material, etc., the results I call ‘montages'. – Peter Roehr

Roehr used material from popular and mass media, advertisements, quotidian objects and structures from urban architecture, familiar but often anonymous material which became abstracted and de-familiarised through repetition while nonetheless maintaining, sometimes intensifying the dynamics of its source. His films repeat short extracts of both carefully appropriated and specially filmed material which, while perhaps related to structuralism and serial music, partly anticipates more current practices, as Rudolf Frieling has observed:

It could be possible to call Roehr a forerunner of current sampling in music and in VJing, but unlike the current contemporary artists who conceive a potentially endless loop to ensure constant presence in the exhibition space, he insists on a specific dramaturgy with a beginning and an end. The whole thing had its inherent logic, its quasi mathematical aesthetics…

While his aesthetic processes might have much in common with Minimalism, Pop Art, Serialism, etc, Roehr’s work remains quite unique; as repetition determinedly and obsessively abstracts meaning there is something faintly absurd, a dry humour that distinguishes his work from the detached coolness typical of Minimalism while more concerned with structure than most Pop. No more is this evident than in his repetitive use of advertising jingles in his Tonmontagen such as Take a Look (click for mp3). Alas Roehr didn't live long enough to fulfill his ambition of showing all the film sequences simultaneously on a gigantic screen as a tribute to the film Lawrence of Arabia.


Kaz Maslanka said...

I am not sure that I would be so consevative to say "quasi mathematical aesthetics" ... It looks like the aesthetics of pure maths to me.


Steven Ball said...

Interesting distinction. I think Frieling is suggesting that Roehr is applying mathematical processes when producing artworks but he is not actually 'doing' mathematics, so it's the maths that's 'quasi'.

Kaz Maslanka said...

Yes I understand, yet it is one of my pet peeves, as an artist who also works with the aesthetics of mathematics, that people confuse the two aesthetics. In the authors defense he probably was not talking about the image you have shown. However, the visual work in the lowest image of you blog entry exists in the realm of pure math and contains nothing artistic. It is four separate images displaying two-dimensional representations of an orthogonal space of different magnitudes. Furthermore I must say that it is a nice piece of minimalist mathematical work. I am not accusing you or any one else of calling it art however, it did catch my eye and I did want to make the distinction because the aesthetic of that piece is directly connected to verbogeometry and orthogonal space poems for which I am very interested. It is nice to know that others are interested in polyaesthetics (mixing different aesthetics in one work) I think the first hint of this comes from Henry Flints paper on concept art where he talks of theorems that don’t have to be true.

Thanks again!

Steven Ball said...

Hi Kaz,
Well I think it's kind of irrelevant whether the images displaying representations of an orthogonal space (and I'm going to have to defer to your expertise in this, mathematics is not my field!) contains anything 'artistic' or is in itself 'art'. I think of Roehr's use of it in the same way in which he uses, say, the Volkswagen ad in the sound piece I posted. Clearly a VW ad is not art but in appropriating and recontextualising it exists within an artistic practice, in much the same way that Duchamp's urinal didn't become art until he signed it R. Mutt 1917 and called it 'Fountain'. Of course this is the stuff of just about all undergraduate discussions about what is or isn't 'art'!

Although on closer inspection the provenance and significance of that particular image is unclear. It is actually on the cover of a catalogue from an exhibition of Roehr's in 1971. It is possible that it is part of Roehr's practice, part of one of his pieces, but equally possible that it was used as a sketch diagram illustrating the organising principles that he used in his work. For example his 'Photomontagen' and 'Objectmontagen' similar structures in their repetition of the same object or image. This for example:
uses a 4 x 9 configuration.