Merel van Tilburg
The complex audio-visual installation “Setting” by Swiss artist Gabriela Löffel starts out friendly enough. During the opening minutes of the work, the visitor finds herself in a room plunged in total darkness, where peaceful sounds of chirping birds and the voice of a woman pour out of five speakers. The placing of the speakers on either side of the room ensures a stereoscopic sound environment. The narrator, speaking French with a marked accent, is recounting curious events in which she participated. We quickly discover that we are listening to a story that is not meant for our ears. Over a number of years, the woman has worked as an extra in a high-security training camp for mostly American soldiers on their way to combat in Kosovo, Irak, or Afghanistan. Here, scenes that might occur in war zones are acted out with the help of extras, according to carefully planned scenarios. The sounds of birds and rustling leaves seem to divert our attention from the sinister content of the woman’s story, but in fact create an aural backdrop for one of the poignant contradictions central in “Setting”: the training camp, placed in the hills of rural Bavaria, Germany, is a site of imagination and simulation, a site of make-belief.
The thirty-two minutes of narration are a patchwork of various events and personal impressions from the training camp, as seen through the eyes of a single participant. Needless to say, a breach of contract was necessary on the part of the extra to collaborate with Löffel, and the artist’s laborious research process could be the basis of a completely different work. But for “Setting”, Löffel has chosen an approach that both mirrors the layering of reality inherent in the hidden practices inside the training camp, as well as focuses on the complex relationships – political, experiential and aesthetic -, between war and its representation in (moving) images. This latter thematic has become crucial since the first televised war in Kuwait under Bush senior, aired “live” on CNN.
During the first nine minutes, “Setting” shows no images. Then, a still image looms up on the left of two screens discernable in the darkened room. For quite some time, this image remains poorly lit, making it difficult to distinguish what we see: a folded microphone-stand, a chair, the contours of a room. Although the narrator’s story is well underway, the image remains fixated at the moment of an overture, waiting to be lit up, waiting for something to happen – as is essential to the moving image. Standing in front of a barely lit, still video screen, our expectations are thwarted. Accustomed as we are to the unremitting flow of images, some visitors have even presumed a technical problem. But this voluntary withholding of the image, frustrating indeed, throws us back onto ourselves and stimulates us to consider our bodily position in the dark. When images finally do flare up on either of two screens in the room, they do not show scenes of war or their simulation. Of course, the artist did not gain access to the camp, and she certainly was not given permission to film there. But rather than to redouble the problematic of simulation by presenting us with a staged reconstruction of events in the training camp, Löffel shows a sound designer at work in his studio. The sound effects we see him producing underline or even create the mood of the narrator’s continuing story, which every now and then builds up to a climax, speeding up to greater (emotional) force towards the end. Seeing the sound designer at work, however, creates discrepancies and dismantles the rhetorical process. Eerie, undefined, impressive sound effects turn out to be made by such unexpected actions as breaking vegetables in two, running up and down iron stairs, blowing up a rubber balloon, or rubbing together two ordinary bricks.
In a similar manner, the installation breaks down narrativity – any claim to believability -, by introducing layers of distance to the ungraspable reality of war. Why would a woman from Bavaria speak French? The female voice we hear is that of a professional reader. This may lead us to incur that the narration too is mediated: it is the artist who has edited the interview with the German extra, and who has chosen which fragments to use and in what order. On top of that, the pitch, tone and rhythm of the professional narrator’s voice lends signification to the words. We will never know if this interpretation is in accordance with the artist’s wishes, with the original interview, or simply with the narrator’s own view.
The choices of process and technique, of what to show and what to tell, and most of all, how to show or tell it, contribute to a complex layering of reality, representation and experience. They also enhance the feeling that is expressed at the end of the narrator’s autobiographical tale: even after so many years of hyper-realistic make-belief, she feels she cannot begin to grasp the atrocity of war that is “so horrible… and so very far away…”. The interviewed extra thus functions as a stand-in for our own, highly mediated access to war. Listening to someone who was trained to simulate life in war-zones is perhaps the closest we can get. But most of all, “Setting” succeeds in giving a rare insight into the visual mechanisms with which we are ourselves “trained” to experience and judge events, choices and people involved in the unfathomable horror of war. And it is not without reason that this word is evoked: just like Conrad’s captain Kurtz’s famous phrase “the horror… the horror…” has come to replace the unspeakable “heart of darkness”, so Hollywood’s adaptation of it guides our imaginary of war in the modern era. The closest the interviewed extra in “Setting” comes to imagining the actual experience of war, is when she describes how she thinks she would feel if actual helicopters were approaching. It is impossible not to be reminded of the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now.
“Setting” contests this tyranny of the image.
Merel van Tilburg
Art historian, based in Paris