Structure and Ornament, Symbol and Chance

Martin Prinzhorn, 2000

One of the important topics of the current cognition psychology debate on the visual is the differentiation between «higher level vision» and «lower level vision». The opposition of «high» and «low» is not at all meant to be evaluative. The terms rather characterize a difference in perception: do we perceive something only by means of knowledge that has previously been saved or by means of a permanently installed, algorithmic apparatus, which-similar to an automaton-structures and processes information independent of our previous experiences? Visual cognition as construction, that is, reconstruction of a meaningful world versus cognition as a machine-like meaningless process. While important theoretical debates, such as that between empiricists and nativists, are admittedly at stake, the focus here is on the multiple test designs that aim to help demonstrate this dividing line, which is empirically very difficult to draw. In the case of «lower level vision», test persons are required to see systematic differences between various meaningless and sometimes randomly generated structures without being able to draw on semantic aids. In the case of «higher level vision», the aim is to determine to what point visual structures of meaning that have been broken down as much as possible and fragmented still remain meaningful for test persons. These two different strategies are so interesting when opposed to each other, because their images appear to be very close on a formal and perhaps also on an aesthetic level, and sometimes they appear to overlap. We can, however, exclude any actual point of contact between their formation and the intentions connected with this formation. On the one hand, systematic structural relations are used to reconstruct units, such as size, length, space or color out of a totally «non-objective» input. On the other hand, the object is brought to the edge of breaking up through the filtering out of structure relations that refer to its meaning. It is interesting to see this formal convergence and attraction without actual contact in relation to abstraction in painting. Of course, both approaches have always been pursued in painting in this century and have been seen above all- at least in a western context-in a dynamic relation and in a relation of tension to each other. This latter point distinguishes the problems of more modern abstract painting from the traditional differentiation between object and ornament. In painting, the objective can never be totally excluded since even the most monochrome picture is always situated in a relation to a signified object that can be projected and that is perhaps only hidden by the closed window. From very early on, individual artists have been preoccupied with the use of automatic machines in painting as the exemplification of a radical «lower level» way of looking at things so to speak. As the process then totally escapes the person, the relation between both ways of looking at things gets lost, and the question still remains whether both points of view can more probably be united in art than anywhere else.

Peter Kogler still does not explicitly deal with the problem of the machine in his early panels, which rather focus on a central problem of visual meaning, namely facial recognition. Doing this, he uses the whole of the historical significance of portrait painting by leaving facial features partially or wholly out of the picture and by reconstructing meaning through the contours, on the one hand, and the artistic genre, on the other hand. These pictures are not abstract in a conventional sense, since they are not abstracted through reduction, rather a certain aspect-the facial features-is simply left out, while other aspects are all too obviously preserved. Already very early on in his work, Kogler chose the computer as an instrument and clearly made this a central feature of his art by, above all, retaining the very clear aesthetics of the raster and the uninterrupted, repetitive form. Although he does not see the computer as an automaton that simply makes decisions for him, the computer is, however, very restrictive, and this restriction imposes itself on the artist’s way of working. Good examples of how automation and fixed patterns are represented in Kogler’s work are the fragmentation into the typical computer rasters- this fragmentation appears to form a random pattern when the screen is excessively enlarged-or the sometimes seemingly awkward computer-generated presentation of three-dimensional pipes winding through rooms. Automation as an abstract concept or metaphor is, however, extended to the objective: an early motif in his work is the ant, which is generally considered to be an animal totally bereft of will that is a minute part of a large piece of machinery. And even the brains-in their very nakedness and repetitiveness-hint at emptiness and pieces of machinery without will and not at the thoughts that they produce. Kogler’s work does not really deal with the question of object versus «non-object», but, more importantly, with the question of content and formal intentions versus restrictions and structures that are given and without will and that the artist would only have to place in an artistic space and arrange. On the level of content interpretation, this has, of course, a lot to do with areas such as electronic media, communication, digitalization, etc.

Let us, however, first take a closer look again at the formal details and how to interpret them. With an extremely limited inventory of symbols, consisting of pipes, ants, brains, and a few amorphous forms, Kogler lets the computer finish constructing his worlds of pictures. The graphic structure, the internal rules of construction, and the creation of hermetic and apparently self-sufficient systems emphasize the computer construction. However, something seemingly contradictory is also happening: a traditional identifying feature of painting is the characteristic style, that is, the personal way in which artists technically realize concepts. It is like a signature that allows us to recognize the piece of art and allows for the real or even fantasized personalization of art. Kogler takes all relations away from these features that could somehow directly reflect psychological states, such as mood and emotion. His signature is written, so to speak, with the machine. In spite of this, his art is still to a high degree identifiable. The question of personalization is even more difficult. Art cannot simply be read as if only a cool, calculating, and emotionless unit were responsible for it. While the units of meaning present themselves in an extremely canonized form, they still perfectly fulfil their purpose and continue to transport meaning. Canonization and references to generation according to fixed systems of rules are self-supporting and do transport meaning. In this case, however, it is difficult to project these onto the intentions of the artist, and this difficulty has several consequences for the observer. The connection between a person’s intentions and the art she/he produces is fundamentally shaken and deconstructed, once the arbitrariness and the manipulability of this relationship is brought to light. It is, however, also clear how much our way of looking at art depends on our projection of this relation. To some extent, Kogler’s strategy is in this instance a negative one. The limitation and the canonization of the means that almost completely impoverish this relation actually make it significant through the process of impoverishment. The machine metaphor itself also naturally contributes to this process. One just has to consider how good the use of androids and other machines in science fiction is at illuminating the problem of psychological states. Even here a question is being examined through frontier research, and parallel to the approaches mentioned at the beginning one can ask, When does a person lose the possibility to represent things psychologically, and when does a machine start to simulate psychological representations or to own them? For this reason, people really like to place Kogler’s art in relation to electronic media, because they are often seen as reasons for a general change in consciousness or even mythologized as the new transporters of consciousness. Kogler displays his references to machines on many different levels, for example, in the movement sequences of his video installations, which in a more recent project are contrasted with Modern Dance. Another example is to be found in the formal references-for example, through Pop Art-to the sixties and seventies, when the relation to technology was still unbroken and positive. The transportation of the aesthetics of a past and positive utopia into the present does not, however, result in his art radiating a positive belief in the present and future. Especially in the spatial installations, his art grows together into a threatening pseudo-organism that has completely spread itself throughout the world (as exhibition room). The machine gets dangerously close to its creator, and the borders are in danger of becoming blurred. The relation between the aesthetic lightness of the modules of the ornaments and the threatening heaviness of the all-embracing material are studied to their very depths, and the relation between the two is revealed to be a contradiction. This is also an interesting move away from the art object as a unity that can be discretely grasped and with which we enter into a relationship with a holistic system that functions of and for itself, and we can only guess at what information flows through its veins. A few decades ago, a self-sufficiently functioning technical system was considered to be an environmental ideal that in principle could be identified with nature. Nowadays-and Kogler is no exception-this ideal is a threatening monster, because the symbols of its internal communication remain hidden to us. The structure of meaning has almost been lost in the all-encompassing ornament. Something unknown arises that frightens us in its hybrid form of living meaning and artistic emptiness. The paranoia that such an environment could produce in us is then deconstructed again, because we know that the artist is behind the artwork and that the piece of machinery steered by his hands is also part of a game imbued with artistic meaning. These are not patterns that have been generated by chance. This is art that analytically investigates these patterns. This artistic meaning is not a structural symbol, an ornament, or a digital medium that has entered into an artistic context simply by chance and without detachedness. Kogler sometimes mounts photographs or structural variations on his murals, and these in turn break through the unity like windows or panels. He thus creates the possibility for us to keep approaching a border from the different positions of leaving the panel and returning to the panel, while still, however, creating the possibility for them somehow to be joined in his art.

An abridged version of this text appeared
in the magazine Parnass 3 1999