Since the late 80s, pioneering Austrian filmmaker and artist Virgil Widrich has been creating mind-blowing multimedia art
There’s something rather unsettling about the Skype ringtone that vibrates through the computer’s speakers as it connects to a room somewhere in Vienna. In the digital wilderness, before the glitched human face of avant-garde director and multimedia artist Virgil Widrich appears, this sound seems like a strange attempt to emulate the feeling of the 80s. It’s an echo from the past, resolutely analogue yet digitally produced.
Exposure to Widrich’s work is likely to give rise to exactly this kind of dislocation from the present. His preoccupations as an artist circle around the reproducibility of the individual through digital media and the social impact, both aesthetic and legal, of new media production and consumption. For good measure he liberally sprinkles in references to the theory of relativity.
It’s all heavy stuff for a guy who comes across as resolutely comfortable, if not outright cheerful, with living in a world of such grand confusions. But then, as he says, it all comes down to the imagination.
“There are people who say there was a dividing moment at the birth of cinema where two distinct approaches came into being. One was the cinema of Louis Lumière, which was documentary – trains arriving at stations and people leaving factories. The other was that of Georges Méliès, who from the beginning was about creating fantasy. I guess I’m a child of Méliès at heart.”
Born in Salzberg at the tail-end of the 60s, Widrich grew up relatively free from the influence of mass broadcast media. “My parents were of the world of classical music and theatre so we never really had popular youth culture as part of our childhood experience,” he remembers without a hint of regret. In part in response to the paucity of Austrian television stations – there were only two at the time – Widrich found himself spending more time backstage at concerts than glued to the box.
“I remember I was in the cinema for the first time and we were watching Bambi. The film ended and I asked my father if I could go behind the screen and meet Bambi. He explained to me that it wasn’t possible because films were different from theatre. He took me to the projection room and explained to me how this little plastic strip could create emotion. As a kid that blew me away – it felt like such a magical act, that a plastic strip could make people in a dark room cry.”
Hooked on the transformative power cinema seemed to hold over reality, Widrich got his hands on a Super 8 camera and began experimenting with animation and stop motion. “I remember getting a backwinder which meant I could play with double and triple exposures to make visual effects. You have to remember this was way before computers made that stuff possible at the click of a touchpad.”
For a shy kid who spent most of his time within his own imagination, the camera allowed Widrich to become a voice directing a crowd. “People suddenly listened to me. I’d have this mass of kids in front of me and be arranging them to clash in these epic staged battles against each other. Perhaps that’s the secret of cinema – to create a world where you have control.” As Widrich is keen to point out, it’s a mentality that unites the efforts of directors and programmers alike. “They’re both a bit obsessed by the shock of the uncontrollable real world. Creating your own reality in response to that is really just a sort of manipulation.”
In 1984, when Apple were pumping out their message of an egalitarian future brought about by technology in a seminal Ridley Scott-directed commercial, Widrich got his hands on a computer for the first time, at school.
“I remember making these simple graphics – like a rotating pyramid – that took ages to program. To me it was instant cinema, something you could see while you were making it. The two things, filmmaking and programming, became versions of the same thing in my mind. They were both tools to make images and create emotions. The first computers even connected to your TV set, so there wasn’t a clear distinction between watching a movie and programming something that moved on that screen.”
After ducking out of a place at the Vienna Film Academy, Widrich set up his first film distribution business, Classic Films, in 1987. It introduced, he recognises now, a practical concern with the day-to-day necessities of marrying art with commerce. A brief stint in Hollywood followed, with Widrich assisting on The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, a low-budget feature helmed by cult cinematographer John Bailey (American Gigolo, Groundhog Day).
On returning to Austria at the onset of the 90s, Widrich began to develop his interest in the then-emerging multimedia world of CD-ROMs and games. “In the middle of the 90s we were commissioned to make an animated kids book that had the budget of a movie. As part of that we programmed an interactive dialogue machine that would generate scenes and artificial conversations. That really interested me as an idea as I’d already been aware of various experiments like Eliza in the 60s and 70s.”
Eliza, coded by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT between 1964 and 1966, was a program that imitated the patterns of questioning used in psychotherapy. It was so successful at mimicking the tone and structure of a therapy session that test subjects were unable to tell that a machine, not a person, was guiding the conversation. “Eliza was really the first interactive character in my mind. It was also a comment on the stupidity of the psychoanalytic method. It definitively riled people.”
At the same time as he was developing programs and ROMs, Widrich got his introduction into the world of multimedia installations by working alongside Peter Greenaway, who had been invited to stage a series of exhibitions to mark 300 years of Austria’s Academy of Fine Arts. “Greenaway created three installations called ‘100 Objects to Represent the World’. The idea grew out of the record that was sent into the cosmos on the Viking space probe – sounds of babies crying, music by the Beatles, that sort of stuff. He was thinking what objects we’d shoot into space to represent the human race.”
The next small step was Widrich’s big leap into the avant-garde film scene with his 1997 short tx-transform, a collaboration with media pioneer and inventor Martin Reinhart. For this film, Widrich was introduced to a method of processing moving images based on transposing time and space axes.
“In a normal film, one second contains 24 single frames. tx-transformation splits each frame into a series of horizontal columns – the exact number depending on the resolution of the film. It then takes the first column from each frame and arranges them alongside each other to create a new frame that shows everything that happens in that column throughout the whole film. You‘re basically seeing everything that happens in a given space across the duration of a film in a single moment.”
Thinking about the best way to match technique with theme, the pair turned to the idea of the moment of death. “If there’s any point where time and space stop functioning normally it’s probably the instant you die. That got us thinking about Bertrand Russell’s discussion on the theory of relativity, where he used the example of two people shooting each other on a train. Depending on whether you’re on the train or standing outside of it, the bullets will either impact simultaneously or one before the other. That’s the basic idea we explored in the film.”
tx-transform was picked up by Ars Electronica and earned Widrich attention on the avant-garde film circuit. A longer feature, Brighter Than the Moon, followed in 2000. The film follows the misadventures of two Romanian bank robbers who travel to Austria to commit a heist but don’t find anyone there. “These are two marginal figures, they’re totally outside of normal society, so for me it made sense to show them completely on their own, splintered away from everyday reality,” he explains.
There’s a certain terror underneath the humour of these films, a whiff of the sinister beneath the surface that’s simultaneously intriguing and unsettling. “There’s definitely something like that going on. It’s that balance of life. As humans we’re already on the Titanic. The clock is ticking and our ship will sink one day but everyone acts as though they have endless time.”
For his next project, Copy Shop, Widrich turned to a scene he’d imagined in a dream. “I had this really vivid image of waking up and going to the bathroom to wash my face, only when I looked back I could see myself still in bed.” From that, Widrich created a terrifying and manic short that sees a copy-shop clerk spontaneously reproduce multiple duplicates of himself, each scene adding layer upon layer until the final collapse into madness. The film earned Widrich an Oscar nomination in 2001 – the first received by an Austrian director in over 25 years.
After Copy Shop came Fast Film, a piece that sits firmly alongside the work of contemporary digital video artists like Christian Marclay and Nicolas Provost. Comprised entirely of found footage, it re-appropriates the abundant images churned out by Hollywood to inject new meaning and purpose. Does it bother him to see his film, made after all from someone else’s copyright-protected property, so freely available to view online?
“Not at all. It bothers me that the quality might be pretty bad or that people sometimes post half a film rather than the whole thing. But the principle doesn’t concern me.”
Against the backdrop of the USA’s insidious Stop Online Piracy Act and its ugly European sister, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, Widrich recognizes the paradox of digital artists creating works from found (read: stolen) footage. “I took Fast Film out of the world of images we’ve been saturated with and gave something back. I agree that artists should be able to stop someone attaching a meaning to their work that they don’t support – for instance a Nazi group using a band’s music as its soundtrack. The bigger issue though is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to define the line between acceptable and illegal usage and duplication of digital media due to copyright nuances. The laws we have don’t work for the media we consume and produce these days.”
It’s an issue that’s gripped Hollywood with fear, making it all the more bizarre that the H5-directed Logorama netted a 2010 Oscar despite depicting an animated world made of logos and copyright-protected brand characters. H5 director Hervé de Crécy is more than familiar with Widrich’s work.
“Fast Film is an amazing piece that plays with our intimate relationship to the image,” says de Crécy. “Widrich plays with the fact that an image is never neutral. It has a positive or negative charge, on the emotional level. A similar idea underscores Logorama. It’s based on what I call ‘diversion’: using existing footage and giving it another meaning by remixing it, thereby empowering the viewer to explore their own link to the image. Fast Film and Logorama are original creations, even if based on copyrighted images. The real debate is about defining the frontier between art and a plague of piracy, and I don’t think there can be a definitive answer to it.”
Now professor of art and science at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts, Widrich balances his time between teaching and sustaining his exhibition and installation design-studio checkpointmedia. While continuing to make new works that stitch ideas of production and consumption of media to physical environments, Widrich is also in a prime position to keep abreast of the concerns of emerging digital talent. What trends has he seen developing?
“One thing’s for sure – TV has no meaning to this generation. Everyone lives online. More than that though, it seems like we’re finally emerging from the widespread misconception that art and science are two different and discrete disciplines. That idea was a product of the romantic era and its obsession with objectivity, which belonged to the old observational gaze of science, and subjectivity, the preserve of the artist. Thankfully we’re beginning to think more in terms of points of connection than points of dissimilarity.” The irony of an Austrian artist seeking to rehabilitate the collective consciousness from the ideas of subjectivity and objectivity promoted by his nation’s greatest thinker, Freud, is far from lost on Widrich.
“For me it’s also a question of how we can get Hollywood out of our heads. When you picture the world, a lot of the time you think of it in terms of images from movies. If you think of the past, World War I for instance, in your mind’s eye you see newsreel. I don’t think people ever really stop to interrogate the power of that influence or question who shapes those images and their context within films. In a way movies help determine how people think about reality and that has to merit consideration.”