Drifting glances

Andreas Broeckmann

About Oliver Whitehead's video 'mind's eye'

1. Looking out of the train window

You are travelling by train through any suburb. Sidings, marshalling yards, embankments and overhead cables, screened off from city-dwellers' eyes with banks, shrubs and trees, show themselves off to the traveller in all their naked indifference. There is no doubt that these stretches of track are built without any sense of aesthetics. They are subject to an austere sense of economy that does not make the slightest attempt to present anything more than their function: they are technical structures for transporting goods and passengers, leading through the industrial backyards of cities.

For a long time human settlements faced the transport routes that led to them. Fortified crossroads, fords and river estuaries became central locations for urban civilization, and the façades of the buildings with their arcades, decorative gables and windows looked proudly out over the traffic arteries. Country roads were also built with a view to experiencing the surroundings. A sense of landscape aesthetics culminated in the construction of motorways and roads over mountain passes as panoramic routes in the mid 20th century.

But in railway architecture the economics of covering distance were more important than an aesthetic for the tourist's eye. You do not see major landmarks as you come into large cities by train, nor is there any attempt to make the first impression attractive. In the case of high-speed trains, the aesthetic experience of train travel is coming close to that of flying - imposing a tunnel vision that distorts the outside world to the point of unrecognizability by making it visually redundant, as a result of speed and visual and aural airlocks. And the traveller's eye is then distracted by a video monitor in the back of the seat in front.

2. Minimal attention

Oliver Whitehead's video work "mind's eye" shows the view from a train. A pale and featureless suburban landscape passes by. The train is moving at about 50 kph, which means that individual objects can be focused on and followed for a moment, and then they disappear on the edge of the field of vision. The video shows a long sequence of such views in individual shots; the camera looks forward in the direction of travel, finds a subject, pans against the direction of travel to hold it for as long as possible and then loses it on reaching the rear edge of the window-frame. The camera is looking for graffiti that youngsters have sprayed on to the walls of buildings, bridge piers, tunnels, level-crossing huts and signals. Every so often people come into the picture, walking along the railway line, taking the dog out, coming back from work, from shopping, perhaps from the nearest station. A third, recurring motif is provided by aerials and satellite dishes, particularly on private houses. They too are just picked up quickly from the train and disappear from the field of vision just as inexorably. But above all we see graffiti, sprayed drawings somewhere between text and image, with no time to decipher them. Anyway most of them are illegible, occasionally you can make out mysterious combinations of letters, names perhaps, or strange acronyms.

The beginning and end of the tape seem to have been chosen arbitrarily; the sequence of rapid pans begins after a few opening shots with glimpses of rocks flying by. The tape breaks off after about 8 minutes, without any obvious dramatic motivation or logic, though with a fine sense for the rhythm and dynamics of the sequences. This moment is fixed by the end of the soundtrack accompanying the images: the artificial voice of a text-to-speech computer programme recites extracts from an English thesaurus, under the heading of creativity ("formation of ideas, imagination, inspiration, originality, fantasy, …"). Without purpose and without emotion, this spoken text, from which the title "mind's eye" is also taken, duplicates the indifferent rhythm of the images, and at the same time reflects on the idiosyncratic forms of expression in which the graffiti condense.

3. The skin of the city

Graffiti are among the most striking elements in the image of post-industrial cities. In the mid-70s, Jean Baudrillard described this recent phenomenon as a strategic intervention in the urban structure ("Kool Killer oder Der Aufstand der Zeichen" [Kool Killer or The Rebellion of the Signs], 1975). He provides us with some interesting hints for interpreting Oliver Whitehead's video work. According to Baudrillard, cities are no longer defined by a sign matrix of work and commerce. Instead they are coded almost exclusively by the signs of consumerism, produced in the main by the media's image and text machines, but also inscribed in the architecture and urban structures of cities.

Unlike the political and poetic wall slogans of the '50s and '60s, graffiti are not expressing the passion of active resistance. They are empty signifiers, and cannot be read or interpreted. This is inscription in a suburban landscape that is neutral in terms of meaning, occupying non-signifying surfaces of the city with signs that redefine the decoded urban space as collective territory (Baudrillard). The city is given a body and its neutral surfaces are turned into erogenized zones in places where the visible element is normally completely neutralized - in the self-same backstage areas of the city that suburban train routes run through. The graffiti in Oliver Whitehead's video are intended for people passing in the train, in other words people who use public transport rather than private cars. This kind of collective travel is directly linked with the collective perception of signs. "SUPERSEX and SUPERCOOL liberate the walls from architecture by tattooing them, and turn them back into material that is alive and still social, back into the moving body of the city before it is marked by functions and institutions." (Baudrillard)

4. Something that Baudrillard did not know about in 1975

Whitehead departs from the principle of semiotic redundancy at one point only. In the middle of the tape, several graffiti are to be seen that clearly read "virus" and "HIV". It is unlikely that they are there by chance, but it is also not possible to interpret this short series unambiguously. Is this a reference to a black hole in the skin of the city? Is it HIV as an irreducible sign resisting the proliferation of meanings under Postmodernism? Or an attempt to associate spraying graffiti with a viral activity that penetrates the body of the city in the sense of Burroughs' "language is a virus" and weakens its immune system?

5. Dérive of the eye

The counter-images to the non-significant graffiti in the video are the aerials and satellite dishes that faciliate the disembodied and individualized reception of medialized consumer messages. The tangle of routes on which people move through the city, singly and severally, on foot and by train, spins its way between the two sign systems, between graffiti and aerials. This city semiotics system is determined by invisible draughtsmen, shadowy media consumers and anonymous commuters.

Strikingly enough, the city in "mind's eye" is a city without cars, a city of pedestrians and rail passengers. It is reminiscent of the utopian city of Situationism, whose psychogeography is experienced and mapped with the aid of non-functional, non-significant markings while wandering around. The dérive (drift) of Whitehead's camera is certainly not left to chance, nor to the intuitions of the Situationist urbanist: it is subject to the inescapable movement of the train. Thus the "economy of space and desire" is defined much less romantically here than the Situationists' economy, but it knows that it is directly dependent on the "technical logic of locomotion".

6. School of the inattentive gaze

At the beginning of his book on the perception of landscape in 19th century France, The Spectacle of Nature (1990), the English cultural historian Nicholas Green describes the view from the window of a train and takes this as the starting-point for reflecting on the fact that the modern image of nature is a construct. "mind's eye" uses the same approach to take us beyond the pure realism of depiction and to show how the depiction and its technologies contribute to the construction of social reality; in this case: how the video work designs an image of the "urban condition" that links aimlessly crossing the suburbs by train with the drifting eye that "scans", or reads in, the new semiotics of the city and counters it with an ironic, mechanized lecture on creative activity. The grainy video images and the alienated computer voice thus create a distance from the depiction, as though one were looking at the archaeology of human creativity in the late 20th century from the viewpoint of an extraterrestrial machine.

What looks like an accumulation of empty glances at a meaninglessly passing cinema of reality - we are inevitably reminded of that Ambient TV classic, the series called Germany's Most Beautiful Rail Routes, in which, for hours, a fixed camera on the locomotive of a train shows a view of the passing landscape - is in fact a very deliberate staging of a perception that trains the eye to appreciate the signs of an inconspicuous urban quality in the rhythm in which they appear and disappear.

For Nick Green, another commuter.