Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Alter Bahnhof Video Walk – Christine Ross, The Affective Historicization of Public Spaces

[Fall 2013]

Since the 1990s, spatial art – a category that has broadened to include installation, architectural environments, relational interventions, aesthetic exploration of automated real-time location technologies (GPS, an extension of smartphones), and augmented reality technologies – has led to a major redefinition of the relationship between art and the public space. Whereas aesthetic strategies of the 1970s and 1980s privileged a critical demythologization of the public space – using various tactics, such as site-specificity, institutional critique, and neoMarxist forms of analysis of the social conflicts underlying public sites – recent art tends, rather, to privilege an affective activation of space. In Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s relational urban environments, for instance, passersby are invited to use their smartphones to send a personal online message, which they hear a few minutes later broadcast in a public space, modulating (by the voice’s intonations) the light beams projected in the space (Open Air, 2012).

. . . the story supplies us with some historical data. But the affective charge is experienced around platform 13, where the binaural sound track is amplified by the noise of moving trains and rushing passersby – transforming the site into a corporal and sensory space with a high affective intensity.

This type of affective activation often stems from participatory practices in which the viewer contributes (more or less successfully, depending on the case) to the creation of the artwork. It is also largely a result of media explorations that tend to dissolve the distinction described by the philosopher Thierry Paquot between public space (“the site of political debate, of confrontation among private opinions that advertising endeavours to make public, but also of the practice of democracy, a form of communication, of circulation of different points of view”) and public spaces (“places accessible to public(s), that inhabitants travel across . . . in short, the public road network and its fringes that allow for the free movement of people, both accessible and free of charge”).1 Thanks to their mobility, the media may go hand in hand with the public space: they may be used to circulate different points of view.

To better understand this transformation, I will look in this essay at a participatory media work that explores movement – the mobility of media, the viewer’s movement in the space, and the movement of image and sound – as a modality of affective historicization of the public space: the Alter Bahnhof Video Walk by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, presented at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012. This artwork is innovative in how it historicizes a site the history of which is no longer visible or is being neglected. Designed for a specific site – the old, but still active, train station in Kassel – the video walk channels movement (in all three senses of the term mentioned above) to transform an apparently banal public place into a historical space the history of which is felt by the walker rather than portrayed, demythologized, or interpreted. Here, movement is a key player in a deployment through which forgetting – what the historian Paul Ricœur designated “the emblem of the vulnerability of the historical condition taken as a whole”2 – is confronted, questioned, even counteracted.

Alter Bahnhof Video Walk was created for the Hauptbahnhof. Visitors are invited to move around the train station with an iPod and earphones, guided by the screen that transmits pre-recorded images of the station and a soundtrack composed of pre-recorded sounds of the place and Cardiff’s voice. Cardiff tells a story that seems autobiographical but is imbued with an aura of fiction and film noir. The story is composed of fragments of personal accounts, observations, and impressions, but also instructions that guide walkers through the station. Cardiff tells us about her arrival in Kassel and her pleasure in observing passersby in a train station. She identifies objects, people (musicians, a ballerina), and different areas of the station; she asks us to look carefully. As our gaze wanders between the pre-recorded space visible on the screen and the physical space that we are crossing, objects and places persist but people disappear. The screen thus acts at once as a camera (the walker often feels like he or she is filming the place in real time), an archive (the images testify to what Cardiff saw but we will never see, since they are documents of the past), and a diversion (our gaze is caught by the screen, at the risk of destabilizing our movement). Gradually, Cardiff begins to refer – a reference that will be active until the end of this twenty-four-minute journey – to the history of Kassel during the Second World War. We hear a man talk about the bombing of Kassel; Cardiff guides us to a monument dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust and then to different boarding platforms. She talks about her fear of trains, remembers a dream, and reminds us how difficult it is for human beings to abandon their memories. She brings us to platform 13, from which Jews were deported (she explains) to concentration camps.

If we can talk of affective historicization of the Hauptbahnhof, it is because our movement and Cardiff’s story (even fragmented) prepares us for it. We are invited to get to know the old Kassel train station by walking through it, and the story supplies us with some historical data. But the affective charge is experienced around platform 13, where the binaural sound track is amplified by the noise of moving trains and rushing passersby – transforming the site into a corporal and sensory space with a high affective intensity. Binaural recording is a method that captures the passage of sound from one ear to the other. Played through earphones, the recording creates a three-dimensional stereophonic sensation that gives the listener the feeling of being in the space where events took place. Binaural sound is very powerful, especially when we find ourselves in the place where the sounds were recorded (which is the case for Alter Bahnhof Video Walk), for it tends to produce a continuum, sometimes even a confusion, between pre-recorded and live sounds, the space transmitted by the earphones and the one in which we listeners find ourselves, the audible and the visible, and consequently the past and the present of the Kassel train station, the Holocaust victims and the passersby in 2012. For these few seconds, history (that of the Hauptbahnhof train station) is experienced affectively: it is materialized by affectivity.

A major phenomenological stream in cognitive science helps us understand the role of movement in the process of affective historicization. The model of perception formulated by the philosopher Alva Noë, for example, describes perceptive experience as a tactile action, the content of which is conditioned not only by the body in motion (what we do) but also by our sensorimotor capacities (what we know about how to do).3 From this phenomenological perspective, motion also generates spatial concepts (such as the inside, the distant, and the nearby). In the view of the philosopher and dance theoretician Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, “Careful reflection on these studies from an experiential perspective shows that we put the world together in a spatial sense through movement and do so from the very beginning of our lives. Spatial concepts are born in kinaesthesia and in our correlative capacity to think in movement.”4 Many cognitive science studies maintain that the different instruments (maps, pencils, iPods, and iPhones, for example) that we use to perceive, think about, and remember an environment may be considered part of the substrate required for cognitive activities.5 Alter Bahnhof Video Walk contributes significantly to this line of thought: walking promotes all facets of movement – the mobility of the iPod, the walker’s movement through the old train station, and the movement of image and sound – through which the public space is gradually historicized. Movement amplifies the perception of the space that we travel through. This amplified contact with space prepares us for the affective experience of platform 13 and its surroundings, a true moment of historicization of the train station.

But what exactly is meant by affect? And how is the experience of historicization of the site affective? Although there is far from unanimous agreement on the definition of affect (if affect is a reaction to a stimulus, is this reaction pre- or post-cognitive, non-conscious, unconscious, or conscious?) and it is too often confused with sentiment or emotion, its Deleuzian formulation has been considerably bolstered since the late 1980s. Brian Massumi defines Deleuzian affect as a pre-personal intensity, which corre­sponds to the transition of an experiential state from one body to another. This intensity “[implies] an augmentation or diminution in that body’s ca-­pacity to act.”6 Eric Shouse, a communications theoretician, specifies that affect (still in a Deleuzian perspective) “is a non-conscious experience of intensity; it is a moment of unformed and unstructured potential. . . . Affect is the body’s way of preparing itself for action in a given circumstance by adding a quantitative dimension of intensity to the quality of an experience.”7 Thus defined, affect precedes conscience and will. It can never be completely represented by language, even though it has the power to amplify the conscience that the viewer has in his or her biological state.

Alter Bahnhof Video Walk contains the conditions for a possible affectivity designated in these terms. As the walker moves around platform 13, the binaural sounds facilitate the emergence of intensities resulting from a force field that tend to merge present and past – the walker and the deported Jew. This affective quasi-merging corresponds to neither idiopathic identification (absorption of the other by the self) nor heteropathic identification (identification with the other as other),8 but to an injection of a quantity of intensity into the quality of a path – engendering a form of non-personal empathy that moves the walker rather than being moved by him or her. The force field initiates the intermingling of past and present in which the walker may be able to feel (this development is never guaranteed) what the other might have felt (the Jew in Kassel, horribly subjected to the possibility of a genocidal deportation during the Shoah). The other is not represented but corporally felt. This – by movement, and more particularly by affect as movement – is how Alter Bahnhof Video Walk (and other contemporary spatial practices of which this video walk is a key example) historicizes space. In this aesthetic, oblivion as “emblem of the vulnerability of the historical condition taken as a whole,”9 is confronted and potentially reversed.
Translated by Käthe Roth

1 Thierry Paquot, L’Espace public (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2009), p. 3 (our translation).
2 Paul Ricœur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 284.
3 Alva Noë, Action in Perception (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), p. 57.
4 Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, “Thinking in Movement: Further Analyses and Validations,” in Enaction: Towards a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science, ed. John Stewart, Olivier Gapenne, and Ezequiel A. Di Paolo (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), p. 167.
5 See Noë, Action in Perception; Andy Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Mark Rowlands, The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).
6 Brian Massumi, “Notes on the Translation and Acknowledgments,” in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. xvii.
7 Eric Shouse, “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” M/C Journal, vol. 8, no. 6 (2005), http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0512/ 03-shouse.php.
8 Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 205.
9 Ricœur, Memory, p. 284 (emphasis added).


Christine Ross is a professor and holder of the James McGill Chair in Contem- porary Art History in the Department of Art History & Communications Studies at McGill University. She is also director of Media@McGill, an interdisciplinary research centre focusing on the relationship among media, technology, and culture. Among her publications are The Past is the Present; It’s the Future too: The Temporal Turn in Contemporary Art (2012) and The Aesthetics of Disengagement (2006).

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