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Dalibor Martinis' Public Binary Works

Nada Beros

As we all know, the public space is not merely a physical place, but a cognitive space. Patricia Phillips, in her celebrated essay Out of Order: The Public Art Machine, claims that "the public dimension is a psychological, rather than a physical or environmental, construct".
According to Jurgen Habermas, public space is primarily a site of critical discourse. The age we live in, the age of consumerism, of mass media and of the state invasion of the intimate, domestic domain, argues Habermas, bears witness to the demise of the public domain (Offentlichkeit), the very same public domain that the liberal nineteenth century bourgeoisie once conquered. Many authors agree on this, but others contend his argument, and rightly so. Bruce Robbins, for example, says that one can no longer believe Habermas’ apocalyptic vision of the rise of the mass media and the decadence of the public. Along with many others, he claims: The public domain is a phantom. The public domain does not exist. Thus, from Walter Lippman (1925) through to contemporary writers such as Nancy Fraser or Andrew Ross the question of the public is considered an unresolved problem. ’Within the concept of the public sphere, there is an unresolved tension, between a tight, authoritative singleness (the public as object of quest for universal collective subject or a privileged arena of struggle) and a more relaxed, decentered pluralism (publicness as something spread liberally through many irreducibly different collectivities)’.
Contemporary art, as we know, mostly addresses specialists, and its transposition into public spaces does not, in itself, make it more accessible. In his newest series realized in public sphere Dalibor Martinis, a pioneer of media art in Croatia, addresses far more than art specialists: these artworks are literally coded binary messages that need experts to be deciphered. But to understand what has brought Martinis to this procedure we need a closer look to his earlier work. We have been able to find the conceptual roots and similar approach since the mid-eighties.
Communication, more precisely, micro-communication, to which only the chosen are admitted, is frequently the hidden thread of Martinis’ work. On occasions it is readily discernible, while at other times it is completely camouflaged. Some good examples are the video film Dutch move, 1986, which concludes in a scene of two musicians on the streets of Amsterdam, from whose saxophones issue light at different time intervals, a message ciphered in Morse, a sort of cynic paraphrase of the Jericho trumpets.
In the light of present events – terrorists' attacks on New York and Washington and the US response in Afghanistan - this early coded message almost seems to be an anticipation of an overall threat of hidden messages we are facing now. Probably many of us laughed when we first heard that American media were censored from broadcasting Bin Laden speeches to prevent the most wanted "bad guy" to convey ciphered messages to Al-Qaida followers. But if we saw the coverage recently shown at CNN we would understand the fear of American Government. In this old coverage, shot in the late sixties, an American officer, captured by Vietnamese army, instead of assuring his fellow-officers that he had been treated nicely, managed to convey a hidden message to the attentive viewers by eye-blinking, writing a short sentence ciphered in Morse. His eyes sent a clear word: TORTURE. Not surprisingly, this coverage became a source material for Martinis' newest video he has been developing now.
We can easily understand incredible potentials of these secret weapons in art too, that Dalibor Martinis started announcing in several of his video and interactive installations in the mid-nineties during the war in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. As an artist, of course, he was both interested in the form and the content of the message, using different methods of camouflage. He deliberately plays with metaphoric and literal meaning of the message, being fully aware that even when the audience missed both meanings it still carries a seductive power of the visual.
In 1994, in the middle of war atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, when suddenly Croatia turned from its victim status into one of the aggressor to the Moslem population, Martinis produced a video-audio installation called Line of Fire, an almost classical triptych in which three gigantic heads calmly observe us. The viewer is caught in a trap, in a narrow passage where the faces are too close to be fully seen. The silence and stasis are suddenly interrupted by a sound reminiscent of a flame-thrower, and from the mouths of the faces, alternately and in short intervals, flames appear. Clearly stressed intervals of different size already announce the structure of coded message.
Whereas in his sound and video sculpture Membrane Tympani (1995) it is possible, in a certain way, to establish a logical link between being hit and screaming, to dissect a story, in Line of Fire the causes which lead to the transmogrification of man into dragon are not clearly shown. Absurdity, while often apostrophised in many of the artist’s earlier works, is here not quite irrational. The theme of animalization, the metamorphosis of man into beast - first encountered in Martinis' work in the early 1990s, indicates, as does the military term used in the title, a war context. For after all, has not yesterday's peaceful neighbour in this region become a monstrous killer? And has not his flawless facade repeatedly served to deceive those close to him?
In his interactive video-installation Coma (1996-7), based on the blurred line between the conscious and the unconscious, between death and dreaming, the spectator becomes part of the scene. His body, or to be more precise, his hand acts as a screen upon which a section of the image is displayed, thus changing him from a spectator into a participant; indeed into an executioner. Transformation and execution are frequent themes in Martinis' works. Whereas in his earlier works his interest focused on gradation and processuality, on recording small changes, in his recent work the transformations and changes are sudden and shocking. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that in Coma he used the metaphor of the electric shock literally. Here, it would be opportune to recall that the first electroshock therapy was applied in a slaughterhouse in 1938, by the Italian psychiatrist, Ugo Cerletti, at the height of Italian fascism, when he tested its effects on pigs. Pigs were soon to be followed by hundreds of human patients.
At first glance, Martinis’ installations from the series Brainstorm possess no direct social comment; the social and historical contexts are non-transparent. And yet, there is no doubt that the contradictions marking the end of the century - notably the end of the twentieth century, which began with a delay of some ten years and which ended before its time - are so acutely expressed in his work. While building his observatorium upon the rational, restrained and controlled presence of the artist, right up to the limits of his de-materialisation, Martinis has at the same time energised the mental presence of the artist, his ferocity, irrationality, even a kind of "idiocy". Today, there can be no doubt that the dominant currents characterising the whole of our century, and in particular its beginning and end, are rationalism and the belief in progress on the one hand, and what is known as the tradition of idiocy on the other. From Apollinaire's Les Mamelles de Tiresias (Tiresias' Breasts) and Jarry's Ubu roi (King Ubu) to Paul McCarthy's clowns and Oleg Kulik's performances of a human-dog in the nineties, all speak of the society and the time we live in with the utmost cynicism and vehemence, and all under the mantle of innocent idiots. The subtle subversion and melancholy dissection of the reality of Martinis' Brain-storm, a sort of performance without a performer, allow us to interpret it as being on the trail of that same esoteric idiocy.
Two years ago Dalibor Martinis started a series of works - installations, audio performances, actions, video films - under the title Binary Series. Here I will focus on the works produced for different public spaces, urban and rural, among them News Broadcast, Zagreb, 2001, Conference Call, Friuli Region, Northern Italy, 2000, and Parken Verboten, Rosenheim, Germany 2000. Combining or confronting low-tech media with high-tech procedure - digitally coded messages - Martinis deals with the ambiguity of public and private space, real and virtual, engagement and detachment, need for communication and lack of communicators... Applying mathematical phenomenon of the binary system, the information has been turned into a numerical series consisting of the digits 1 and 0, conveyed by means of low technology such as church bells, buckets or automobiles. Overall digitalisation grasped and endangered all spheres of our lives. As an early investigator in digital media, Martinis is aware of its favours and constraints. It seems that he asks us to reflect once again the potentials of combining old and new. Tihomir Milovac calls it post-tech procedure, which "enables the artist to return to some experience of the pre-technological era and to rediscover simplicity and elementary values of things and objects, of actions and events that had been defined long time ago and as such forgotten".
Martinis started the series of audio performances in Northern Italian region Friuli in the autumn of 2000. The region is well known for its belfries and the tradition of church bells and bell-ringers. In almost idyllic rural landscape the artist uses the well-known language of church bells, but this time involved in a contemporary artistic practice. A coded message, which binary structure 1 and 0 was shown as a tonal difference of two bells, was tolled in six Northern Italian towns from their belfries. The message was forwarded to the Codroipesi as artist's personal address to the people he had never met but who made this work possible. We can only assume how the audience was puzzled by this strange "composition", entitled Conference Call, the effects of which was a sort of trans-spatial, trans-temporal, trans-confessional, and trans-musical message.
Unlike this poetic Conference Call, in his audio performance News Broadcast, held in May 2001 as part of Zagreb Music Biennale, a festival of avant-garde music - Martinis broadcasts actual daily news appropriated from daily newspaper. "Writing" headlines from politics section through culture section till weather forecast – on the two bells of St. Mark's church belfry Martinis uses medieval means of communication for "up to date" news. Choosing the St. Mark's church at St. Mark's Square and its historical and present environment, the artist is deeply concerned with our everyday life, significantly created in the near-by Governmental building and The House of Parliament and our constant need, or even hunger, for information. This need for information is simultaneously nurtured and withheld by the artist. Although the message is public, it is hidden in bitonal composition of the church bells. Martinis' intention was not to create disturbance in church practice of calling believers to a liturgical ceremony. He was much more interested to associate old means of communication with the new content and media. This is why the whole event was broadcast live on the Internet showing artist precisely "writing" the message onto two bells in the belfry and the reactions of passers-by at the St. Mark's Square.
While in his audio performances Martinis hardly physically engages the audience, in his action, namely site-specific installation Parken verboten (Forbidden parking) the artist decides to use the most public square in the German town Rosenheim, Max-Josephs-platz and the casual passers-by at the square. In this pedestrian zone the artist and his assistants continually parked some fifty brand new cars in a precise line and order - black and white VW Golf automobiles - creating a sort of piano keyboard loaded with binary coded message. The passers-by were shortly stopped from their ordinary activities or walk, some caught in this car-trap. Some reacted angrily, many were curious and surprised, the others were indifferent. Soon the installation set the local community in motion. We can only guess of the intensity of the reaction if the cars were Renault or Ford or maybe Skoda! While in the sixties and seventies the avant-garde artists mostly aimed to "shock a citizen", provoke contempt, establish two clearly divided parties of "us" and "them", the art of the nineties and of "turn of the century" seem to be reconcilable. Communication with the audience is now the key word and artists try hard to establish a close relationship with the audience, transforming it very often into a main protagonist of its act, and sometimes even fully repressing their artistic ego. For this reason it is sometimes hard to tell a difference between art projects of the nineties and, for instance, actions of social benefit. Similarly, Martinis' projects from Public Binary Series are partly provocation. First and foremost the artist is interested in communication and even if his messages are not fully readable to the public, or even misunderstood, the artist rightly counts on the power of images and sounds per se. But as a true heir of the late sixties Martinis deeply believes in the power of physical involvement, both the artist's and the audience. In the present world of virtual he is equally impressed with the physical - both with the motion and with stillness, with weight and with lightness, with speed and with slowness - highly energising his images with beauty and emotions. But we have to be cautious: Martinis' take on beauty is always double-coded, like in his recent series of binary works, i.e. installation Spears and Spheres, 2001; or video Inside The Maltese Falcon, 2002.
The idea of beauty seemed to be one of the most powerful taboos in the twentieth century's art. The latter can be considered the century of anomalophilia - century that loved error, deformation, ugliness. Martinis' quest for beauty could be perceived as his personal struggle against the modernist dogma on beauty, but at the same time as an effective camouflage for a subtle subversion. Not surprisingly, the black and white cars in his Rosenheim installation (PARKEN FERBOTEN), have written the message: IST MANCHMAL SCH???N (Forbidden parking - is sometimes beautiful).