The Outsourcing of the Eye to the Camera

»The camera allows us to have visual experiences that would be impossible without it. We are able to outsource our eye to film devices, sending it on a journey with the camera.«1 With this statement Bernd Oppl characterises one of the central foundations of his creative work: In largely multi-part, seemingly technoid video sculptures and video installations that merge moving architectonic space models, technical apparatuses, video cameras, transmission systems, projections and screens into complex systems, Oppl creates illusions with which he takes our perception by surprise and analyses it at the same time. In doing so, he refers to the early history of cinematography and motion picture exhibition with their mobile, optical-visual slot and viewing machines. In contrast to cinema as we know it today – which both in terms of space and the rather literary narrative of its films is strongly evocative of classic theatre – Oppl draws on the cinema of the 19th century, the ›Cinema of Attractions‹ that took place at funfairs and vaudeville theatres, not in well-behaved cinema halls or as home cinema.2 »Compared to the voyeuristic aspect of narrative cinema the ‘Cinema of Attractions’ represents an exhibitionist dispositive […]. The dramatic display, shock effects and the arousal of visual curiosity by surprising cinematic manipulations […] was given preference over storytelling.«3 One of the most extraordinary characteristics of this kind of early cinema was that the devices that generated the illusionist effects were never hidden; they were part of the presentation. Oppl is fascinated by those devices such as, for example, the praxinoscope, zoetrope or bioscope, or the early film studios such as Thomas Alva Edison’s Black Marie or that of Georges Meliès all of which were founded before the end of the 19th century, with some of them being state-of-the art facilities for the generation of illusions. However, rather than re-activating and re-staging these old visual media in his work, Oppl is more interested in the connection between technology and illusion openly demonstrated in these devices while retaining the magic.

Oppl’s installations convey this early cinematographic connection between technology and illusion into the context of the artist’s video works. His video sculptures and video installations are based on self-designed devices that are a mix of physical, experimental set-ups and architectonic space models. The space models often have the form of a black box but vary in their sculptural shapes, and they are evocative of a mysterious casing in which enigmatic, seemingly unfathomable occurrences take place. The black box is never closed; in its various embodiments it always has at least one or several windows that allow the viewer to see into it. The interiors of the models accommodate mostly simple but seemingly realistic spaces in miniature form – simple hotel rooms, corridors, rooms with doors and windows, featuring a few pieces of furniture, or rooms that contain elements generally not associated with them such as balls, dust clouds and other substances ranging from mysterious to surreal. These architectonic space models and their content are worked into experimental set-ups which are put into motion by movement mechanisms. Typically the spaces exhibit a slow yet continuous movement constantly repeating itself, revolving around itself, a vibration that sets a mechanism going. Video cameras that are firmly attached to the model spaces record what is happening inside and project the ongoings live on a screen or in full size on a wall in the exhibition space.

The aspect of real-time transmission is as central as the direct view into the black box since it contributes significantly to the reality effect of the video image on display. Everything seems to be real – the object, the motion, the live transmission from the inside. What we see, however, is in fact fiction, illusion. This becomes most apparent when the video transmission shows processes in which the laws of gravity seem suspended. It is remarkable that even though the entire mechanism that creates the illusion is plain to see we cannot help but ›wrongly‹ interpret the video image. We cannot help but believe that our interpretation of the video image equals the experimental set-up, even though we know that this is not the case and that we can verify this on the model itself.

Oppl’s work Untitled (2010/12) from the Point of View series is a significant example of this. A black box serves as the basis of the work, with the box being held by elastic cords within a larger sized iron construction, somewhat floating in the air. The interior of the box consists of a simple room with a door, window and lamp as well as four black balls. The space is put in a state of vigorous vibration generated by an engine. A camera is connected to the room and attached to it so rigidly that the video image that is directly transmitted to a flat screen does not show a room in motion but a completely static one. What we get to see as motion very vividly are the balls that jump back and forth owing to the vibration of the model. On the screen the balls seem to be jumping about or floating across the room by their own effect – quasi magically.

Angular Field (2013) is another example in which Oppl experiments with the Ames room known from perceptual psychology. The Ames room was used to demonstrate that a significant proportion of perception is complemented by experience, that memory forms a reasonable and comprehensible image of what we see. The Ames room appears to be perpendicular when seen from a particular perspective only with one eye. However, the true shape of the room is trapezoidal. This results in astonishing optical illusions. Persons or objects seem to abruptly grow or shrink when they move through the room. In Oppl’s Angular Field, similar to an Ames room, a black box performs a slow and continuous rotational movement. Inside there is a simple room with two silver balls that roll from one corner to the next following the movement. A greatly enlarged image of the room’s interior is transmitted via projection while the Ames room no longer appears distorted but perpendicular as the camera takes precisely the position in which the room seems devoid of distortion. This brings about the optical effect in which the balls seem to become bigger or smaller for no reason while they move through the room. A double discrepancy is formed between what we see through the window of the black box – a distorted room and two same-sized balls – and what the video image shows us, a perpendicular room and balls ever-changing mysteriously.

Bernd Oppl’s video sculptures and video installations share the outstanding characteristic that the experimental set-up and the resulting image are present in the room at the same time; they are so closely connected that the two realities cannot be perceived independently of each other. No matter how much we concentrate on the video image it is impossible to block out the fact that we know how the illusion which we see is generated since the model keeps on moving in our field of vision. The technical apparatus – the black box, the camera, the image – becomes somewhat magical as it seems to be able to turn the laws of physics upside down by simply changing the orientation and reference systems. The apparatus becomes the magic box through which a different reality can be generated. This might be just an illusion but even though we know how it came into being we cannot tell the eye to see it in its debunked state. What emerges is not a pure, immersive illusion, it is a broken one. Tension builds up between the different reality zones that are defined by the model and the experimental set-up on the one hand and the video image on the other. Oppl describes this as »rips in the fabric of perception reliabilities«5 in which the requirements of media become visible: »In the dialectic movement between the two worlds, the world of media-fabricated illusion and the world of production technology realities, between the virtuality and the production of this virtual world – hence when looking at the objects from the side – lies the interface of these two halves of an interrelated world: the reality of media.«6

The work Passage (2013) is a major variation, in which Oppl picks up the aspect of the decomposition of perception, however, without showing the apparatus that generates the video image. In this work he parts with the system of a circuit connected in real time by separating production and presentation from each other. The filmic illusions of space addressed in Passage are fragile and broken all the same. Similar to many of his other works Oppl builds on the viewer’s film-related experiences. Owing to our cinema and television experiences we know very well how to read camera movements in films and what they mean in the context of the respective action. In Passage Oppl takes as a starting point the so-called Vertigo effect, an optical illusion which puts a room into a vortex-like motion. This technique entails moving the camera in the opposite direction of the zoom. It was first used by Alfred Hitchcock as a means to visualise vertigo. The pivotal moment is the subjectivisation of the space which in turn becomes part of the protagonist, an extension of his or her body and psyche. In Passage Oppl zeroes in on precisely this moment in which the space starts to move, when perception can no longer differentiate who or what is moving – the space or oneself – which establishes an odd relation between viewer and space. Instead of the Vertigo technique, however, Oppl applies reversion: Instead of moving the camera he moves the entire space, once again using a miniature model. Passage consists of three video sequences in which moving different elements in the room initially creates the illusion that the recording camera is moving. The room elements – a space-filling black square, a mirror that doubles the room – do not only move in one direction, at first away from the camera, but also back towards the camera. By no later than the second movement the illusion collapses in parts. All three sequences merely hint at the illusion of camera movement intentionally without really acquitting it, but also without completely dismantling it. This way, Passage creates a state of floatation of sorts in which illusion is generated while at the same time its production method is visible to a certain degree.

Praxinoskop (2013) is a second variation in which Oppl addresses the rip between media and production technology realities and the correlation between illusion and technology, respectively. Here, similar to Passage, Oppl chooses a path that reveals only one part of his otherwise mostly bipolar video installations and unlike Passage prioritises the apparatus over the video image. Oppl’s Praxinoskop is a sculpture that shows a film without using a transmitting device such as a camera, a screen or a projection. The sculpture goes back to the early history of cinema. The praxinoscope, also called magic drum, is a kinetic device developed in 1877 by Émile Reynaud after George Horner invention of the zoetrope in 1833.7 Oppl’s version is a revolving, polygonal-shaped black drum, an oversized gyroscope of sorts, which features a revolving duct in its upper part. The outer side of the duct has a sequence of images, the inner side a mirror that reflects the images for the viewer. Due to the fast rotation of the drum a sequence of images is collected in the mirror which is perceived as related to each other. This effect is brought about by the persistence of vision on the eye’s retina. In his film sculpture, which is both a productive and presentative device, Oppl refers not only to early cinematography but also the early history of film. The animation shown in Praxinoskop is a short, abstract film in which a white surface grows out of a black background. The squares execute a growth movement and seem to whirl towards the viewer, which creates the impression that the space is moving. The short film which lasts just as long as a single rotation of the drum recalls Hans Richter’s abstract films, especially Rhythmus 21 (1921) in which space and depth are created by white and black squares and rectangles moving against each other.8 Here, the rip in the fabric of perception reliabilities, arises out of the use of an essentially obsolete technique in contemporary creative practice because it is the only way to detach the perception of films from the devices to which it is bound today without exception. As an oppositional counterpart it refers to the mutual dependency between transmission technology and cinema as we know it.

With works such as Korridor (2009), Flock (2011/12) and Sick Building (2012) Oppl not only taps the installative setting by demonstrating the entire cycle of moving architectural models, camera transmission and screen or projection, but also his engagement with space and architecture in film and video art. He specifically addresses the aspects of cinema that make films a discipline of architecture: »I understand film as an architectural form of art that depicts space and transforms, thereby creating new spaces.«9 Central to his work are predominantly the filmic moments in which space and architecture cease to be only just environment and setting and become autonomous, full-fledged protagonists and actors. Amongst other genres, Oppl refers to horror films such as the haunted house genre in which buildings and spaces are treated like bodies and interact with the human protagonists as if they had a conscious of their own. In his works Oppl experiments with these space stagings that have come to be collective experiences of space through cinema. »I find it interesting how mainstream cinema has found a way into our collective subconscious and how it impacts our experience of spatiality almost like real spaces do, and how we connect the virtual spaces in films with our real-life experiences.«10 In works such as Korridor and Flock Oppl walks down the path of reversal by using already existing filmic stagings of space and conveying them into a physical space model to »position the two locations, the physical and the media space within and next to each other, respectively, and to join them as one single installation«.11

In the video sculpture Korridor Oppl stages an architectonic element from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining (1980), a long corridor of the Overlook Hotel which is haunted by supernatural evil forces. The film has an infamous scene in which blood gushes from the closed lift doors and floods the corridor. While until that moment the building seemed to be haunted only by a spirit it now virtually acts as a body. In his re-staging of the hotel corridor Oppl replaces the blood with small white balls that are put into a continuously floating motion by making the entire model revolve vertically around its own axis. Due to the rotation the flow of white balls runs not only along the floor but also the ceiling and walls. On a screen which is integrated in the sculpture and has exactly the same size as the corridor, positioned immediately adjacent to the model, the white balls whirl through the space as if driven by an uncanny force, seemingly defying the laws of gravity.

In Flock an empty space is haunted by a dustcloud. The cloud that looks like a swarm of insects whizzes along the walls and interacts with the few elements present in the space: an on and off closed and open door, a window with a heater, a staircase. Oppl borrows the elements from Hitchcock films in which a staircase is used to build up suspense, windows to heat up voyeurism and doors to enter the next action sequence. By interacting with the strange occupation of the space by the cloud – which also bears resemblance to science fiction films – the elements begin to tell a story. A central aspect of Flock, once again, is the discrepancy between the experimental set-up and the video image. While in the video it looks as if the camera follows the movement of the dust through the space in reality it is the upended space model itself that rotates around a static camera lens.

The title of the video installation Sick Building itself spells out the aspect of subjectivisation and embodiment of space Oppl explores in many of his works. Sick Building consists of a space model and a video created by the experimental set-up. The video shows an office floor that is gradually traversed by a viscous organic substance. The model’s rotation movement makes the substance in the video suddenly grow from the floor to the ceiling, settling there and then flowing from the side walls across the room. The laws of gravity do not seem to apply to this biomorphous liquid which appears to be alive, and it seems as if we could look into a physical interior of the room.

In all three works, Korridor, Flock and Sick Building, Oppl disrupts our experience of space and spatiality. On the one hand, the rotation movement of the space models suspend our regular reference system of gravity and on the other hand the transmitting camera renders a somewhat limited image, hiding the information about the fundamental change of the reference system. It shows us images in which the spaces are static, in which above is above and below is below. At the same time we see substances that move against the laws of physics in these spaces. The interplay between rotation, suspension of gravity and cunning camera perspectives creates a state of ambiguity in which the static character of the spaces is questioned and both the substances and spaces appear like entities that possess dynamics of their own.

Bernd Oppl’s photographs – for the most part conceived as series – can be read as stenographic condensations of the subjects and methods formulated in his video sculptures and video installations.

The three-series photo work Shrinking City (2013), for example, explores the perception of spaces exemplified by the architecture of large cities in which Oppl yet again works with a model and integrates cinematic references. The starting point of Shrinking City is an elaborately built wax model in the style of Chinese cities. The close-up of the lens makes the skyscrapers appear monumental while at the same time their fragile, organic materiality is evocative of the subjective almost physical architecture of expressionist film sets such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in which urban architecture expresses society’s dysfunctional psyche and modern age’s overwhelming trust in technology turns against mankind in the form of a Babylonian city that has assumed colossal proportions. In this photo series, heat gradually causes the skyscrapers to sway; the entire city collapses and dissolves. Oppl depicts a dystopia in which architecture is fragile, organic and body-like while also referring to economic failure.

Photo series such as Ennis House (2012) and Untitled (Plaza de las Tres Culturas) (2012) also revolve around the perception of architecture. They are »subjective portraits of architecture«12 that connote motion rather than a fixed point of view. By employing the in-camera method of analogue multiple exposure in which several pictures are collaged into one image, Oppl condenses varying perspectives into bundles of intersecting architecture and space sequences. The photographs look like memory diagrams in which sequential perspectives are collected in a similar way as when moving across a square or around a building. They somewhat symbolise our memory in which sequences of images and time manifest themselves in complex networks and intersections. Both in the photographs and in the mind’s memory traces the results include portions that are random, uncontrollable and subjective. Ennis House is a portrait of the house in Los Angeles with the same name designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923. It combines the style of Maya temples, which served as an inspiration for its design, with modern concrete casting. In its numerous appropriations by the media and use as a set for films such as Blade Runner or Mulholland Drive the house itself stands for the moment of superposition. The photo series Untitled (Plaza des las Tres Culturas) – created in Mexico City – portraits a similarly multi-faceted place where the country’s ramified history in the form of pre-Colombian pyramids, a Catholic cathedral and 20th century high-rises superpose each other in a cultural amalgam. With his method of collecting and condensing single perspectives Oppl’s photographs indicate the complexity, ambiguity and subjectivity of how we perceive urban spaces, architecture and space in general.

(Jürgen Tabor, 2014)

  1. Bernd Oppl, »Von hier aus. ›Ich inszeniere die Realitäten vor und hinter dem Screen‹«. Interview with Ursula Maria Probst, in: Desiring the Real. Austria Contemporary, Austrian Ministry of Education, the Arts and Culture, Vienna 2012, 122f., here p. 123.
  2. Cf. Gabriele Jutz, Cinéma brut. Eine alternative Genealogie der Filmavantgarde, Vienna 2010, p. 73.
  3. Gabriele Jutz, ib.
  4. Cf. Bernd Oppl, ›Orders of Perception‹. Interview with Isin Önol, Reality Manifesto symposium (19-20 January 2012) as part of the exhibition Reality Manifestos – Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna. Zur Geschichte der Kinetischen Schaukunst und der frühen Kinematographie cf. Hans Scheugl/Ernst Schmidt jr., Eine Subgeschichte des Films. Lexikon des Avantgarde-, Experimental- und Undergroundfilms, first edition, Frankfurt am Main 1974, p. 403-488.
  5. Bernd Oppl, »Von hier aus. ›Ich inszeniere die Realitäten vor und hinter dem Screen‹«. Interview with Ursula Maria Probst, in: Desiring the Real. Austria Contemporary, Austrian Ministry of Education, the Arts and Culture, Vienna 2012, 122f., here p. 123.
  6. Bernd Oppl, »Von hier aus. ›Ich inszeniere die Realitäten vor und hinter dem Screen‹«. Interview with Ursula Maria Probst, unabridged and unpublished rough draft, Vienna 2012.
  7. Cf. Hans Scheugl/Ernst Schmidt jr., Eine Subgeschichte des Films. Lexikon des Avantgarde-, Experimental- und Undergroundfilms, first edition, Frankfurt am Main 1974, p. 453f.
  8. Cf. article on Hans Richter, in: Hans Scheugl/Ernst Schmidt jr., Eine Subgeschichte des Films. Lexikon des Avantgarde-, Experimental- und Undergroundfilms, second edition, Frankfurt am Main 1974, p. 739-750, here 743f.
  9. Bernd Oppl, »Von hier aus. ›Ich inszeniere die Realitäten vor und hinter dem Screen‹«. Interview with Ursula Maria Probst, unabridged and unpublished rough draft, Vienna 2012.
  10. Bernd Oppl, ›Orders of Perception‹. Interview with Isin Önol, Reality Manifesto symposium (19-20 January 2012) as part of the exhibition Reality Manifestos – Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna.
  11. Bernd Oppl, »Von hier aus. ›Ich inszeniere die Realitäten vor und hinter dem Screen‹«. Interview with Ursula Maria Probst, unabridged and unpublished rough draft, Vienna 2012.
  12. Bernd Oppl, conceptual text, 2012.

Ephemeral Places

A chair, a table, a bed end, two doors and a light switch give off a pale sparkle in matt grey. Everything appears calm and static. Only gradually doubts appear about the authenticity of the space and the reality displayed therein. In slow motion, a layer of ice starts to spread out over the furniture, the bed cover, the walls and doors; the camera opens up the room, widens the shot, and reveals both what the ice conceals and “makes disappear” over time. Bernd Oppl’s video/object Hotel Room (2011) revolves around what lies between motion and standstill, staging the so-called any-space-whatever or non-space in all its ephemerality.1 Hotel rooms remain in our heads long after the generally short duration of a stay, activated by isolated memories of real and cinematic journeys, of individual and collective traces of our virtual (visual) memory – a screen of the absent. In its monochrome simplicity, Oppl’s Hotel Room plays the part of many already or yet to be experienced places where we stay briefly or just pass through, to which we retreat or from which we set out. The seemingly simple composition of the object leaves room for the viewer’s own imagination and attributions, such as maybe adding a picture on the wall here, placing some reading material on the bed table there. It is the absence of such connoting objects, humans or animals that activates both real images and those created by the media in our memory we believed long-forgotten, and constructs a “space of virtual conjunction, grasped as pure locus of the possible”.2 Oppl’s objects are projection surfaces. They directly challenge our perception and imagination, bringing to light visual memories and memory gaps alike.

Meticulously assembled models or 3D prints of random places – such as waiting rooms, hallways and passages – form the basis of Oppl’s works that mostly reveal the mechanisms behind the construction. The works may be perceived as filmic objects evocative of the early cinema of attractions or as a world with its own laws of nature and gravity. Either way, they all have one thing in common: Using motion as the key element of representation, they play with media-specific relations between seemingly contrasting pairs such as illusion | reality, documentary | fiction, construction | coincidence, presence | absence, virtuality | actuality and memory | oblivion.

In the two objects Canteen and Sleeping Hall (2015) the projection surface becomes purely static and moves only in the viewer’s imagination: The two 3D printed models are encased in white peep boxes that are attached to the wall and merge with it. The viewer has to step up closely to them to fully understand the spatial objects – their “modern” architecture, the narrow window frames, the chair construction in the canteen, the embedded ceiling lighting of the sleeping hall. By controlling the viewer’s gaze the distance to the constructed image is eradicated and in addition to the artist’s own perspective reflects the viewer’s own “cracks in the web of perceptive reliability”.3 Oppl’s objects become actors. They encourage new perspectives and seem to be arbitrarily connected with a “second” nature inherent in the objects. At the same time, they do not manifest anything. They remain in motion and ephemeral. And – amongst other things – they remind us of the imageries of early cinema devoid of theatre halls and screens, and also of the independent existence of space and architecture in post-war Hollywood films. They move along with us to the next (random) place and vanish in the depths of our minds where they eventually splash over our memory in virtual form, exceeding their ephemeral existence.

(Lydia Nsiah, 2015)

  1. Cf. Réda Bensmaïa, the “any-space-whatever” as “conceptual persona'” in “Der Film bei Deleuze/Le cinema selon Deleuze” edited by Oliver Fahle, Lorenz Engell, Weimar 1999.
  2. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 109.
  3. “Seen from here. <I stage the realities in front of and behind the screen>”, interview with Ursula Maria Probst, in Desiring the Real. Austria Contemporary, Vienna 2012, p. 125.