In her installations and sound pieces, Michaela Melián pursues a nonlinear strategy of story-telling. The two recent works on show at Lentos Kunstmuseum demand as active an approach to the audiovisual material they present as the historical piece that informs them: the multimedia film project Varia Vision – Unendliche Fahrt (Varia Vision, Endless Journey, 1965), a highly complex set of projection loops and electronic sound installed at the International Transport Fair in Munich, conceived by directors Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz with musician Josef Anton Riedl. The work was intended as a statement against the rigid peepshow principle of the cinema, providing non-stop audiovisual impressions on the theme of travel to an unbroken flow of visitors moving through the exhibition hall.
For Rückspiegel (Rear-View Mirror, 2008), Melián conducted interviews with the makers of Varia Vision, filmed actors reciting these interviews and screened selected elements of this research on five monitors in the gallery. The characters speak in turn about their project and about formulating a mission statement at the Ulm School of Design – shut down while they were teaching there in the 1960s due to political disagreements – to offer a vision of the future of film whose full scope still hasn’t been realized today. On the surrounding walls hung images of circuitry and other systems taken from photocopies whose lines have been retraced using a sewing machine or chalk.
In Speicher (Storage, 2008), Melián applies the strategies discussed in Rückspiegel. A camera fixed to a car moves through a deserted nocturnal scene. Place names, signs and other points of reference remain blurred. Snowflakes fall continuously in front of the headlights, creating the illusion that the projection screen extends into the viewing space. Sounds intensify into music before the camera begins to circle over an abstract landscape, which resembles a computer-generated soundscape, but is in fact machine-stitched fabric. The disorientation generates a willing receptivity to the work’s texts and sounds. Kluge’s text fragments (‘Hiking in the Harz Mountains with a London street map’) are the only surviving material from the 1965 project, which Melián extends with numerous quotations from travel literature: letters from 19th-century emigrants, blogs by migrants etc. Over these lies a blanket of sound that Melián generated using the same 1959 Siemens synthetic sound production studio equipment on which the sounds for Varia Vision were created. Melián deploys loops and wave patterns to create a meditative sound picture that is shot through with, or muted by, language that gradually intensifies or abruptly cuts off.
Reflecting on the past makes major demands on the ‘Speicher’. (As well as meaning ‘storage’, the German word also translates as ‘computer memory’ and ‘accumulator’.) While human memory has a limited capacity, data storage facilities and archives provide ever larger resources for preserving historical documents. True responsibility for this heritage, however, lies not in merely storing it, but in adequately communicating it. Under the pretext of fulfilling shared needs, ideas have too often been transformed into ideologies while those responsible for the ideas were shrouded in mystery or rendered anonymous. In this respect, there is a link between Rückspiegel and Speicher and earlier works by Melián devoted to characters deprived by history of the full realization of their potential, including for example the 1930s’ film star Hedy Lamarr, considered to be the co-inventor of mobile phone technology (Life as a Woman, Hedy Lamarr, 2001).
In all these works, the complexity of historical knowledge is systematized, although the perceptions of the viewer/listener remain necessarily selective. Melián invites her audience to undertake a journey along their own chains of association. Such meanderings can offer a pleasant, dreamlike wash of impressions, but the narrative form in Rückspiegel and Speicher – driven by the sampled pathos of found texts – can also hinder arrival at a central argument. As I leave the room, I hear one last voice: ‘I came here a stranger. As a stranger I depart.’
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 124