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Michael Brynntrup’s Cinematic Antidote to Yellow Fever

by Alice A. Kuzniar

Michael Brynntrup has always been the self-reflexive artist par excellence. “Self-reflexive” is here to be understood in two distinct ways. For one, his work is a sustained inquiry into the impact of the visual medium on its object of representation. For instance, in 'Herzsofort.Setzung' (1994) he deploys videoprint, photocopies, and Polaroid to reproduce and alter his image, thereby demonstrating the cyborgesque intersection of man and machine. On his website (www.brynntrup.de), he has ebulliently termed the result “autogenous manipulations,” “the ECG of metempsychosis,” and “the electrographics of the 4th dimension.” Via successive shots Brynntrup manipulates a stylized picture of himself, so that we are left with the impression of the total, virtuoso mutability of the subject-image. The changes occur to the rhythm of the steady heartbeat of a camera clicking and the techno music of Jay Ray. This visual as well as aural seriality endows the short film with an aura of a limitless technological sublime. The artist cuts his face into frames, enlarges it, paints it, places it on a grid, and rearranges it like a Cubist painting and into a puzzle. At one point we see his image suddenly within a computer terminal, suggesting that the subject is lodged inside the matrix of the new media. The serialization draws us closer and closer into the face, forcing us to study it. Yet in the maelstrom, depth reverts into the opposite and the impression is left of sheer surface and tantalizingly brief, mosaic-like pieces. Brynntrup reminds us that there is nothing real behind each image, only another image in infinite regression.

“Self-reflexive” also means that Brynntrup repeatedly interrogates who the self could possibly be in the age of digital reproduction, and here too 'Herzsofort.Setzung' is a prime example. The psychoanalyst Adam Philips has written: “If, as Freud suggests, character is constituted by identification—the ego likening itself to what it once loved—then character is close to caricature, an imitation of an imitation. Like the artists Plato wanted to ban, we are making copies of copies, but unlike Plato’s artists we have no original, only an infinite succession of likenesses to someone who, to all intents and purposes, does not exist. Freud’s notion of character is a parody of a Platonic work of art; his theory of character formation through identification makes a mockery of character as in any way substantive. The ego is always dressing up for somewhere to go. Insofar as being is being like, there can be no place for true selves or core gender identities.”[1] As 'Herzsofort.Setzung' suggests, there is “no original, only an infinite succession of likenesses.” There is “no place for true selves or core gender identities” in the performative world of gender and selfhood, especially as the self cannot be extricated from the medium that represents it.

Thus, although in his experimental films, Brynntrup puts himself on display, nothing is revealed about his intimate self. Some of his other short films that purport to reveal an autobiographical self but thwart any prurient interest on the part of the viewer are: 'E.C.G.1.0.1 (a self-portrait in broadcast and artistic media)' (2002), 'Loverfilm--An Uncontrolled Dispersion of Information' (1996), and 'The Statics—Engineering Memory Bridges' (1990). The performance and camouflage of the subject are likewise reflected in a number of films that star drag queens, such as 'The Ovo' (2005), 'NY ‘NY’n Why Not' (1999), and 'Love, Jealousy, and Revenge' (1991). Brynntrup reminds us that, in this era of the technoterrain, gender is just as virtual as the e-medium and equally obeys the economy of the simulacrum. His fundamentally anti-identitarian projects consequently expose rather than participate in the self-absorption and exhibitionism of the Facebook generation and the facile voyeurism generated by it.

At first blush, the spectator viewing Brynntrup’s most recent work in the exhibition 'Gelbfieber' will be astonished at how his oeuvre seems to have changed. Gone completely is the preoccupation with the subject M.B. and its display. But is this change so different? Does not this work equally bear the signature of his previous work, especially in its self-reflexive dimensions? On the one hand, insofar as his previous work was already anti-identitarian, here too it is markedly so: Brynntrup discreetly disappears from the images on display. On the other hand, this absence of the directorial hand is what 'Gelbfieber' most markedly plays upon: it is only an illusion that these series of installations present a recording or diary of Brynntrup’s recent travels to Asia. Like his earlier work, the pieces in 'Gelbfieber' are anti-voyeuristic in their effect on the viewer, for we don’t see the Bazinian revelation of life in Asia that we had hoped for from his camera. Like 'Herzsofort.Setzung', the glimpses we get into life are presented anti-clinically, anti-developmentally, and anti-feverishly. There is an uncanny distancing here of the camera to the subject it purports to reveal.

Given that the titles in the exhibit refer to various locations in Southeast Asia--Zhuhai, China; Hong Kong; Manila; Jakarta; Bangkok; Singapore; Seoul—it seems that Brynntrup is empirically recording what he observed, rolling the camera before his subjects. As curious viewers we are searching here for traces of the unusual and unique, perhaps trained by the documentarian eye of a filmmaker like Ulrike Ottinger. In such works as 'Die koreanische Hochzeitstruhe' (2009) and 'Exil Shanghai' (1997), Ottinger like Brynntrup refrains from commenting on what she is filming in Asia, and if so, only minimally; she also refrains in large part from a narrative context; and she makes us aware of our own viewing and curiosity. But Brynntrup is markedly different from Ottinger insofar as he resists aestheticizing the image and thereby turning the Orient into an object for visual fascination; he refuses to gratify the viewer, which is what Ottinger always does, albeit brilliantly in her stylishness. At Galerie M the video monitors do not present the image in captivating high resolution, and the headsets are clumsily annoying. This is not to say that Brynntrup’s filmmaking is not equally engrossing—but for other reasons that have to do with retraining how we see and what our expectations are in today’s visual culture, where images from abroad are made instantaneously available via the digital medium.

So how exactly does Michael Brynntrup retrain our vision in 'Gelbfieber'? Take, for example, the monitor-installation 'Sűdkorea Trance'. In this 7:08-minute loop where the music repeats itself every two seconds, we see, according to the exhibition description, a popular pastime of the veterans of the Korean War. Through the persistent drumming, the focus on the same group of people (the camera doesn’t pan to show how extensive the assembly is), and the sudden retake through sharp editing cuts, Brynntrup mimics in his art the repetition of the dance moves. Engrossed, we study these figures as if caught up in a trance ourselves, but we are dazed for different reasons: the circular medium of the cinematic loop refuses to offer any explanation of the event depicted, only its endless rehearsal. There is no voice-over or introductory account of what the trance signifies or why the veterans engage in such an odd pastime. Although Brynntrup offers the image up to the Westerners’ eye and pretends therewith to overcome cultural barriers, these remain too large to surpass. He confronts the viewer with his or her own stupefaction.

With the seven-channel installation ''Universal Time Coordinated' (+7/8/9)', the exhibition description similarly gives us a hint as to its (non)meaning: the “Blick aus Distanz” is deliberately “aus europäischer Perspektive.” The images in the wall monitor of television reportage of the Fukushima reactor disaster illustrate our passiveness and inability to interact from afar. The image merely repeats itself. How are we to grasp the profundity of what this nuclear catastrophe means for the Japanese people, for the environment, indeed for the proliferation of nuclear power plants around the developed world? Brynntrup reminds us of how distant we are from this event so many time zones away.

On the six monitors placed in a circle in this corner of the exhibition, the specific time zone and place where the footage was shot are similarly labeled. But what sort of documentarian veracity do these loops present us with? In the one, a camera constantly tracks down a labyrinth of narrow pathways, confusing us in their maze: the loop also contributes to the sense that there is no exit. In another, the image of a storm, with the rain blurring against the camera lens, likewise comments on our inability to see. This scene could be the same as any other on the globe, were it not for the distant view of palm trees bending in the wind, the only indication of a tropical location. On a third monitor we see a boy wearing just shorts, lounging on a street bench. The sudden cut to a close-up on his face reflects back on our voyeuristic desire to study his near-nakedness: we furthermore want him to wake up and notice the camera. But in no sense is ours a privileged viewing of his body: there is nothing intimate that Brynntrup’s anti-pyretic camera can offer. 'Universal Time Coordinated' ultimately poses the question: does the listing of time zones make Asia seem connected or disconnected to the present moment in Berlin? The visitor to 'Galerie M' can look up from its monitors and scenes of Asia’s city streets and hectic shoppers, past the gallery windows, to perceive the 'Peek und Cloppenburg' logo on the mall across the desolate concrete square in Marzahn.

Just as the Asian boy lounging on the bench contrasts with the frenzied pace of the city street around him, so too, in the installation entitled 'The Hong Kong Showcase Box', a young man methodically washes mannequin display windows, completely absorbed in his task, while commuter trains periodically travel past him. His individual manual labor contrasts with the speed of urban transport. These images indicate a kind of slow lived time, just as Brynntrup’s still camera suggests a commitment to a patient, non-feverish watching. This commitment, however, doesn’t promise any payback in terms of the viewer’s desires to see something new and unanticipated suddenly happen on the screen. In the triptych, 'Hotel Europa Ltd.', for instance, the camera is stationary before (a) hotel corridor(s?) where little except lighting changes. The viewer is not privy to any signs of actual human life; the cinematic trope of hotel-room or elevator doors opening to reveal an unexpected sight is not indulged in for the viewer’s sake. Instead, what the hotel chain offers is a guarantee of impersonality and a simulacrum of itself. As 'Hotel Europa Ltd.' indicates, Brynntrup’s stationary camera and devotion to slow time make much of the 'Gelbfieber' exhibition appear deceptively documentarian and straight-forward. But the post-production work involved in editing, adding of special effects, and the installation arrangement itself are significant. Slow time means a commitment to a reversal of the fast-paced editing and rapid screen changes that contemporary visual culture cultivates, whether it be in a music video or on the ipod touch screen. But paradoxically slow time can be just as crafted for all its resistance.

A fine example of this paradox is 'Totale Mondfinsternis űber dem Meer (AETHER)'. In this 15:44 loop video with amplified sound, the silhouette of a boy fishing on the rocks stands before a dramatic sunset. It seems to be shot in real time, as the sun descends, until one realizes that at times the clouds start to move in the opposite direction or star constellations suddenly appear in the digitally altered sky. One wonders what the title “total eclipse of the moon” means until the boy’s head moves to reveal a moon; again a purportedly natural occurrence is seen as a construction of cinematography. The spectator who would hurriedly walk in and out of this loop without watching it in full (or, for that matter, repeatedly) would fail to notice these slight changes in the sky. In other words, Brynntrup encourages him or her to indulge in an attentive viewing that demands deceleration.

Does one need to go to foreign locations to seek new pictures, as Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders suggest in their documentary filmmaking? Michael Brynntrup tells us that the answer is “no”: it is not new, odd images that he is after. His street scenes bespeak the curiosity of the onlooker—but at a distance that makes us aware of our own frustrated viewing. Indeed, we’re literally boxed in while looking at the video monitors. The structure of the loop in all the installations invites a deepened viewing on the next re-run, only the cyclical form itself suggests empty repetition as well as a dissolving of any sense of progress. To the same effect, in 'China Central Closed Circuit (CCTVCC)' Brynntrup props his camera before a TV set, as he clicks through sixty-one channels. The same dullness and disappointment are here on display as in any other country, leading one to switch mindlessly from one channel to the next. As in one of the photos taken in China in 2005, we are looking at a road leading to nowhere.

This coming to terms with our desire to encounter the exotic is best exemplified in the title for the exhibition, 'Yellow Fever'. On the one hand, it seems to be to a derogatory allusion to the skin color of people of Asian race. Yellow Fever, in this case, would suggest a kind of voyeuristic delirium for the exotic. On the other hand, as Brynntrup points out, the disease of yellow fever is prevalent in tropical and subtropical areas, in South America and Africa, but pointedly not in Asia. In other words, the title is a clue to the fact that what one expects to find in his work one doesn’t. He thus ingeniously challenges us to look slowly and carefully in his work for what is explicitly not there. Michael Brynntrup has fortunately not altered his signature touch, that is to say, his singular provocation of the viewer.

(Alice Kuzniar, "Michael Brynntrup’s Cinematic Antidote to Yellow Fever",
In: GELBFIEBER, Catalogue of the Exhibition, HBK Braunschweig, May 2012)

[1] Quoted by Judith Butler in The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997), 151. Cf. “As all the queer mobilizations of deconstruction have speedily noted: if an identity is effected only through a repetition through time of the same, then the condition for identity is also a condition for difference and deviation. The self is nothing other than its repeated performances, and is at once always already different from itself. There is an ‘essential’ queerness to all identity in so far as identity is effected through structures which at one and the same time make ongoing sameness possible while introducing a destabilizing repetition into the marking out of that sameness.” Claire Colebrook, “How Queer Can You Go? Theory, Normality and Normativity,” Queering the Non/Human, ed. Noreen GIffney and Myra J. Hird (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 26.


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