© NELE STRÖBEL
A 'Modern Cabinet of Communication Marvels'
Wilhelm Christoph Warning
'A Communications Society without Borders'. That is the title of the text presenting the Siemens 'Mobile Telephone Portal'.
'A Communications Society without Borders': that sounds wondrously optimistic, promising and world-embracing. Just as if mankind had now been endowed with global communications thanks to the digital technology distributed by the concern across the planet. Through it, all mankind can finally become brothers as proclaimed in Schiller's 'Ode to Joy'. The designers have placed a photograph next to the text. It shows a young man bending far out over a high, smooth stone wall and extending an arm in an attempt to touch a child which is reaching out to him as far as it can from the other side of the wall. Their hands are about to touch, contact will be made and the distance between the two human beings will be overcome. That is the unequivocal message we - and that means us - are supposed to get. All those who aren't in on this have locked themselves out, are on the far side, without contact, have spurned the proffered hand. They have rejected it, refused to communicate and, as a result, do not share in the 'society without borders'.
As everyone knows, the term 'communication' derives from Latin. The verb communicare does not, however, mean just 'to impart' but also 'to let someone take part in something' as well as 'to participate in something', 'to sympathize' and, literally, 'to empathize'. Those who communicate, therefore, in the actual sense of the term, impart something of themselves and share it with others so that they in turn can share in it. Real communication is, consequently, a complex, reciprocal process on many planes and a very intimate exchange that presupposes mutual awareness, understanding between transmitter and receiver. In this everyone is equally both transmitter and receiver. Joseph Beuys kept on inventing impressive pictures of what was going on when he used energy-conducting materials such as copper, for instance, or created a work like the 'Earth Telephone' (1968). That is why really communicating requires that everyone not only takes seriously everyone else involved but also recognizes them as partners on an equal footing, which means also accepting that one's opposite number may differ from oneself, may perhaps even be alien. This is not just a question of acculturation and socialization. It also entails an inner sense of self-confidence and poise. Those who communicate do not make themselves and their world-view the measure of all things since, if they did, they would exclude others. Excluding others in turn means the end of all communication, of all participation, of all sympathy.
The 'imbenge-dreamhouse' project has become in so many ways an exemplary communication project. Of course, not in the sense of a 'communication society without borders', of 'global fraternisation' thanks to digital technology. On the contrary, deliberately misconstruing it as such would in fact make this undertaking by European and South African artists and the work it does appear risible. It seems almost ironical, after all, that what sparked off the communal enterprise in the first place was the colourful telephone cables of analogue technology being thrown away by the post office because the digital wireless age had been ushered in - for the sake of that same so-called 'communication without borders'. What had once functioned as the link between people talking to each other was now - obsolete as it was and dating from a world that was already fading away - superfluous and, therefore, had become rubbish. The group of artists arrived via this very material at a communal - and, of course, 'analogous' - exchange with one another, thus loading the term 'communication' with its own, true meaning.
In so doing, it has made it possible to experience palpably what it means to sympathize with others and let them participate in what is one's own - even across the boundaries of cultural differences, indeed especially there. In mind and body, in, to use that apposite old expression, 'word and deed' - since after all, in both Germany and South Africa, the idea was to design twelve aluminium frames and to assemble them into a round structure, a roofed-over house of dreams. Every single person in the group brought his or her special abilities to the project. The only requirement was readiness to listen to each other and to learn from one another. Communication as a form of community. Being there mutually for the whole is also termed solidarity. Augustine, the Christian saint - who, by the way, was of North African origin - graphically summed up this process in striking imagery:
'It is said that stags, when they go about in herds or are swimming across a body of water, lay the weight of their antlers on each other's backs. One is at the head, the one who follows lays his head on the one ahead of him, and so on - until the end of the train. However, when the first stag, who bears the burden of his antlers himself, tires, he joins the end of the train and the one who had been before him takes over his task. He himself can then, as the last, rest his head on the one ahead of him and thus recover his strength.'
It goes without saying that the premise for this is communication without a hitch, listening to one another, accepting one another, trust and the ability to accept other messages or ideas, which also means relinquishing one's own projections or ideas. That was a challenge of a particular kind, especially in view of the participants' differing cultural backgrounds. Now things would presumably have looked similar in any other communal project as long as it was informed by an overriding desire for real communication, for true community. Here, however, both the individual works as well as the Gesamtkunstwerk [the work of art as a whole] attest to an astonishing concurrence of content and form. After all, everything down to the last detail deals with the overarching theme of communication.
In any case, the cable is the really perfect metaphor for it, especially since it is telephone cable that is concerned here. It is a symbol for keeping in touch since it transmits messages. The fascination this quality exerts is shown, for instance, in children conversing over a distance of several metres by means of two tin cans joined by a thin piece of wire. Suddenly another person is there by virtue of their voice even though they are absent. The person is indirectly right there. One imagines the other, with what one does not see supplemented in the mind's eye. And one is perhaps surprised when one has only had voice contact and then is suddenly face to face with one's interlocutor because idea and reality do not coincide. Cable links - but only on an 'incorporeal' plane, as it were. Here in the work of art, in the 'imbenge-dreamhouse', the cable is suddenly being used in the 'physical' sense. It loses the abstract dimension which it had qua telephone cable, becoming a woven picture, a poetic line of colour, a rolled-up condensation. It makes narrative clear, reminds one of recollections, becomes a tortuous path to the novelesque line, which surfaces, disappears, entwines itself with others, resurfaces, only to knot itself up again.
Here the cable has become, thanks to imbenge, the traditional Zulu art of grass weaving, the support of dreams. Of fantasies, ideas, of worlds that are thought and dreamed up. Becomes even a poetic conduit through time, far back into pasts or distant futures. The gods once created the world while dreaming, in those days before anticipatory thought, and the idea is to renew it through the power of dreaming and poetic denotation. This, too, is a sort of communication, of exchange, recalling the myths which since time immemorial have been told - in all cultures. Time is needed for that, time to listen and to tell, to give off and to take in. The chair in the 'imbenge-dreamhouse' hints at this: anyone who sits down has time. Stays. Listens. Tells. Is at once guest and host. Takes in people under his or her roof. The roof protects. Here, too, forms are revealed, gleaned from digital worlds, configured by the woman artist who initiated the project, Nele Ströbel from Munich, who also added the chair. The digital, virtual worlds have, therefore, not been excluded but instead have been included in communication as an integral part of it.
Nele Ströbel has recurred again and again to the house theme, with its coming into being and decaying, with the house as home, as a protective space, as a place of energy but also of solitude. For instance in the work 'inside-out / a sugar-cube installation' (2002). Virtual houses from the Caribbean bear witness here to colonial over-exploitation by just a few people, which ceased decades ago but has left many people impoverished down to the present day. Now Africa and here, too, the house. 'A vessel,' she says, 'for communication.' That is just what interests Nele Ströbel: the house as a temporary living space, as a laboratory, as an extraordinarily complex and almost entirely self-organizing dynamic system - in the social, in the political, in the visual, even in the mythical and religious space: in brief, in the communicative space. Although she still animated the installation 'Chambre d'amis - Das rote Zimmer' ['Room for Friends - The Red Room'] (2003) - a work dealing with the change in meaning undergone by public and private space - by herself, this time co-operation, exchange, had priority. The communal project has been conceived expressly as a place for assembly, as a work which only comes into being through communication.
A round house. Round, as psychology is well aware, promotes communication. Round abolishes hierarchies of rank. Like a round table. No one has to sit at the short end. There is no important and unimportant. Every story, every dream counts. All are on an equal footing and can permeate to the outside. The walls are transparent, wickerwork woven of cable in fact, which gives the interior weight on the outside and vice versa. That, too, is a sign of permeability. Inside one can hear what is going on outside and vice versa because the walls are a tracery of wickerwork. All knotted and wired up to varying density. The cable has become a network. This term, too, is polysemic and refers, for instance, to communication and solidarity, to help and community.
Wire, of course, also means demarcation. Here is inside, there is outside. Demarcation can mean protection. Exclusion, on the other hand, is the end of communication. Wire fences surround gardens, settlements, partition countries, mark internment camps. Make people into prisoners. Create differences in social class. Oppressors and oppressed. That, too, is an historical burden left over between Europe and Africa, part of the communication of this art project. It is discussed in the work without having to be explicitly named. The encounter takes place only in awareness of our different and at the same time joint history, burdened as it is with Colonialism and Post-Colonialism. So is the history of art, with all its misunderstandings that are now a century old.
Al Imfeld, journalist, writer and old Africa hand, has written about the dialogue between the two continents that what is at stake is establishing relationships. 'Everything revolves around finding a way out of the isolation on Ariadne's threads. The big problem is not lack of understanding something totally different but the lack of relationships between totally isolated people. Brought together and linked up, people can multiply in their thousands in the struggle against inhumanity and totalitarianism. If one is silenced, another man or woman immediately takes up the thread of discourse in a different place.'
One can scarcely express more aptly what an impact a project like this 'modern Cabinet of Communication Marvels' can develop.