And what then?
On ‘Untitled’ (2001)

From the notes for a talk by Wolfgang Staehle at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, 2018. This article accompanies the inclusion of Untitled (2001) by Staehle in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology and the gallery exhibition “The Art Happens Here: Net Art’s Archival Poetics,” on view at the New Museum through May 26, 2019.

In 1999 I was invited by Peter Weibel to present The Thing in a show at the ZKM in Karlsruhe called “Net_Condition.” I refused to do that, because I did not consider myself the author of The Thing, it was still very much alive then, there was an ongoing group dynamic, and to experience it you had to participate in it. I did not see a possibility to “represent” it in an art exhibition.

So as an alternative we showed Empire 24/7 [a live image of the Empire State Building in New York transmitted over the internet]. The exhibition catalogue states that the work is a tribute to Andy Warhol’s Empire, and I understand that—obviously—one could see it like that, but as an explanation it falls a bit short of my intentions.

The day after it was installed in Karlsruhe (as a wall projection at ZKM), I walked in there and all I could see were these refractions, all these strange light effects. I thought, has the lens gone? It took me a while to realize that what was happening was that the sun was coming up right next to the building.

In Germany it was 1 pm, and in New York it was 7 in the morning. I never saw that in New York. I’m never up at 7 am to watch the sun rise. In a way, this gave me an incredibly visceral experience of synchronicity, of the networking of the whole damn planet...This instantaneousness, this compression of space and time. I don’t know if I can ever repeat that experience again.

The work was seen by Tamas Banovich of Postmasters who invited me to do an exhibition in September of 2001. For this exhibition I chose three scenes: Comburg, a monastery in Germany, Fernsehturm in Berlin, and a big panorama of lower Manhattan. At the entrance of the exhibition there was a small monitor with credits and acknowledgements to collaborators and also this quote by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, taken from his “Introduction to Metaphysics” (1934):

At a time when the farthermost corner of the globe has been conquered by technology and opened to economic exploitation; when any incident whatever, regardless of where or when it occurs, can be communicated to the rest of the world at any desired speed...when time has ceased to be anything other than velocity, instantaneousness, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from the lives of all peoples; when a boxer is regarded as a nation’s great man; when mass meetings attended by millions are looked on as a triumph—then, yes then, through all this turmoil, a question still haunts us like a specter: What for?—Whither?— And what then?

Well, what happens then? The sky falls on our head, as Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa would say.

Ed. — Staehle’s exhibition opened on September 6, 2001. On September 11, 2001, Staehle’s live view of lower Manhattan captured the attack on the World Trade Center.

Around noon that day in New York, my collaborator Jan Gerber and I went to the gallery to find two friends [nettime moderator Ted Byfield and art critic/hacker Blackhawk] sitting on the floor and watching the scene unfold. One said, “Oh, Wolfgang, this is a really important piece now.” I said, “What do you mean—it wasn’t before?” The other friend said, “No, it’s ruined now, its whole meaning is changed.” I said, “You’re both nuts.” I just set up a camera, and of course things can happen.

EPILOGUE

On July 18, 1962 the Comburg monastery was the place of a conference of phenomenologists in which Heidegger gave a lecture entitled “Traditional Language and Technological Language.” In it he argues for the cultivation of a traditional language—or the “mother tongue” if you will —as opposed to the formalized technical language, which is necessary for “the construction of the technological universe.” It is an argument for an awakening of a sense for the useless. I feel this is even more important now in our age when we only value what is immediately useful.

This thought is not entirely new. Hundreds of years ago, Dsuang-Dsï, a student of Lao Tse, already suggested that the sense of things themselves is to be useless, to resist being immediately practical, and thus to remain inviolate.

In fact, their usefulness depends on this.