Hans Rudolf Reust in Monography HG


“Échanges de surfaces”, 1990 – meubles, découpage, collage / furniture, cut up and collaged

Hervé Graumann’s work on the deep structures of a current worldview

Since Hervé Graumann exploited the personal computer at a very early stage in his artistic practice, one is often tempted to see him only as a pioneer of electronic media-based art in Switzerland. Since he uses names and signatures as elements of landscape representations or colour orders, one also suspects that conceptual art resonates in his oeuvre. In both cases, such identification results from hasty judgement based on technology alone, specifically the technological translation of a thought. However, closer study of Hervé Graumann’s work to date reveals many different forms of material and virtual articulation of a complex mental universe. The present publication offers an exciting opportunity to explore the artist’s work in a larger context. The following essay will attempt to analyse his practice with a view to the diversified means with which he transforms deep structures into surface structures.

The distinction between deep and surface structure goes back to the theory of transformational-generative grammar, advanced by Noam Chomsky in the late fifties of the last century. His grammar describes idealised speech situations, possible surface structures, which have been generated from a deep structure by means of transformation. The four essential transformative operations consist of substitution (replacing one or more elements by others), permutation (changing the sequence of elements), deletion (eliminating one or more elements) and addition (adding one or more elements). These four modes of transformation aptly describe Graumann’s work in structuralist terms, i.e. apart from any discussion of specific media, materials or the limitations of a defined approach. The only thing that the rules do not govern is the sequence in which they are applied.

Échanges de surfaces, 1992 – papiers de couleur, découpage, collage / coloured paper, cut up and collaged – (2 x) 50 x 70 cm.

Things / Pictures / Names with Rules and Controls

To save memory, not every picture in a sequence of pictures is stored in its entirety; an initial form is defined and the computer calculates only what deviates from this form in each subsequent picture. All the intersecting sets of pixels that describe the reproduction of an object in various positions become a picture in themselves. Graumann conducts a surprising investigation: he takes a picture of a rubber boot, duplicates it, overlaps the two pictures as if the one were the shadow of the other and by blacking out where they coincide, comes up with the contours of a third rubber boot. This shape is related to the object not directly but only indirectly through the computer. Digital economy leads to a model of second-order reality: to the original digital boot. As an intermediate image derived from pictures, this form is not pure simulation; it is in fact an auxiliary construction that contributes to making the digital re-production look even more like a precise illusionist rendition of surface structures. Yet it still remains a “landlocked” form, which is only twice conveyed and almost accidentally shows a similarity to the familiar shape of things. The processor follows its own logic in generating its own pictures out of the data of the visible world.

Cross objects, 1992 – photographies, découpage, collage, peinture noire / photographs, cut out and collaged, black paint – (3 x) 40 x 30 cm.

Cross objects, 1992 – photographies, découpage, collage, peinture noire / photographs, cut out and collaged, black paint – (3 x) 40 x 30 cm.

Are we here confronted with the age-old distinction between immovable substance and accident? Hervé Graumann is not looking for constants. Instead, in one example after the other, he examines the changes in the relational rules that govern the deep structures of the fleeting moments of visible reality. He brings the co-ordinates that determine our constructions of reality into play, and thereby puts aesthetic perception itself on the line. He does not select his rules of play arbitrarily; he educes them from the logic of the machine, from language, from the structure of a natural landscape, or from the statics of everyday things. However, by exposing the very rules that govern the construction of realities, he is also putting himself on the line. In the domain of art, the logical processes of the machine or the conventions of language are confronted with the potential of their incessant change.

A chair, a painted seascape: an object of everyday use and an object of non-teleological contemplation are sawed into numbered squares of equal surface and subjected to the same process of analytical dissection. Upon reassembling the squares in numerical order, the resamples once again form a chair and a picture of surf – but their inner cohesion has lost stability. Both their physical and their semantic engineering have become shaky. The sequence of volumetric elements can be altered according to a variety of regulatory systems. Cubes of the most varied orders can easily be interchanged. Substitution would break up the rough unity of matter; the only thing that remains constant is the immovable datum: the bit, as a pixel or “plastel”. The notion of a basic element of representation whose content and position can be changed at will is intimately associated with the long-cherished dream of the atom, as if the existing or any other conceivable world could be generated out of ineluctable, indivisible building blocks. Thinking in terms of data packages necessitates rules that regulate their relations and potential means of intervening in the program. Behind that assumption lies the lasting idea that one or countless worlds can be arbitrarily manipulated and controlled to the point of achieving the best of all possible worlds. 

In his well-known representation of the semantic triangle of the chair as object, photographic reproduction and the copy of an encyclopaedia entry (One and Three Chairs, 1965), Joseph Kosuth restricted himself to illustrating the connection in a theoretical drawing. Hervé Graumann offsets Kosuth’s concept with direct intervention in the object. His thinking is inseparable from the specific act. The chair and picture were, after all, visibly cut into pieces: Graumann’s redesign is an act of brute force. His handcrafted gesture returns the concept to the world of tangible objects and, with a gently ironic undertone, indicates that it is possible to effect visible change in surface structures through intervention in the program. But he also demonstrates the static limits of pure manipulability and thinking based on the fantasy of wide-ranging control. In a landscape of flowing borders, the self-contained form is tantamount to scandal. “…the continent of Atlantis was an island which lay, before the great flood, within an area we now call the Atlantic Ocean…”

Slight changes in rules therefore chart not only an open field of possibilities. Hervé Graumann discovers degrees of freedom in fixed controls as well. Every additional interrupter that is built in between a coloured light bulb and an outlet increases the potential of different possibilities – and decreases the probability that the current will actually flow. Greater complexity turns the simplest switch, with its binary choice of electricity or no electricity, into a random generator for the viewer – or user – of a work of art. The power of Graumann’s simple images illuminates the complexity of a reality under the thrall of high technology, although always with a comic touch that exposes the absurdity of seeking complete domination of circumstances. 

Proper names in various languages refer to colours or elements in nature. Hervé Graumann meets Ms. Snow, Ms. Mountain or Mr. Brook. He places Mr. Damien Blanc (white) on the shoulders of Mr. Alberto Blanc, and, by placing white on white, gently undermines the pathos of Kasimir Malevich’s spiritual approach. He accumulates names to form landscape tableaux. He also orders them according to their scripted image, alphabetically, by permutating abstract colour fields on the basis of their first letters in various languages. The order of things does not follow a unified system. Graumann interrelates different linguistic, visual and spatial principles of order. Visual and linguistic orders come in to play reciprocally as the point of departure for changing surface phenomena. By using signatures, Graumann injects handwriting into the picture and, therefore, the inimitable individual difference from a strictly conventional linguistic sign. Writing something down defines the moment of never-ending distinction from the word. A landscape of signatures on a canvas testifies to the unique presence of a subject in the work of art – “Mme Rossignol was here”, as if written on the wall of a house or scratched into the bark of a tree – while the genre of landscape painting simultaneously extinguishes this subjectivity – who is Mme Rossignol? 

The specific logic of one medium – word, writing, picture, space – opens new perspectives in another medium. Hervé Graumann does not aspire to synaesthesia – not even in the presumably historically unique encounter between transdisciplinary thinking and the technical potential of the computer as a universal medium for calculation, text, picture, moving image, sound and control instrument for their interaction. He inserts specific modes of thinking, as transformers, into other modes. After 20th-century art pioneered the great move towards breaking down boundaries, he now occupies an open medial field. The relationship of this artistic practice to the history of art lies in the very fact that it embraces several media and does not take place within or along the boundaries of the old disciplines. Changes are events. Today they spring from a specifically rooted thinking in a context subject to sudden, abrupt change – and not from thinking that is fixated on change and that follows the market’s permanent demand for innovation. 

Ornaments and Patterns of Meaning as Places of Action

A convoluted line drawing in colour is based on the principle that the colour changes every time one line intersects with another. This clear-cut self-imposed rule yields linear patterns that could never be invented in such fashion in a freehand drawing. The intersections are signs of the process of composition; they enable us to reconstruct the history of the drawing.
Hervé Graumann introduces the artist as author, not with the gesture of inspiration but rather as a discoverer and developer of principles that lead to further discoveries. In that respect he resembles a scientist doing research to define the parameters for his experiments. His self-imposed rules are not a concept of the kind advanced by Lawrence Weiner, according to whom the work need not necessarily be executed and, if executed, anybody can do it. Graumann’s rules are intersubjectively comprehensible, but they are also exhausted through unique or repeated application by the artist himself. He decides on the technique and the degree of execution. Precisely because the practical realisation of a transformer is necessary and not merely one potential mode of being for the work of art, it no longer needs to be repeated after it has once been formulated in the visible world. It makes no sense to know about countless variations of a single set. Curiosity regarding other transformers motivates Hervé Graumann to continue developing his work.

This would seem to be contradicted by Raoul Pictor’s interactive site on the Internet and by the Web-based interactive project for commissioned art for the Neuchâtel Bureau of Statistics. Here, steadily ongoing pictorial production is intrinsic to the work. Every additional picture by Raoul Pictor is like his first one since the random logic of the machine embeds it in the same aura of anonymous production, that curious form of non-reproducibility that springs from a printer kept running without interruption. In his contribution to the Internet project Shrink to Fit (2001/ 02), Hervé Graumann adopted the blackmail strategy of the anonymous letter. Web-site visitors can type a message whose letters look as if they had been cut out of a newspaper. The perpetrator’s traditional strategy of anonymity coincides with the anonymity of pressing the keyboard, thus digitally escaping the telltale fingerprint. However, the message cannot be mailed via the net; it has to be printed out and sent through real space via snail mail. As a result, the printed copy of the blackmail reassumes the status of an original. Once again, Hervé Graumann has established an unexpected, surprising link between two ordinarily separate systems in everyday life. The user can not tap into the programming of the deep structure in this work, which makes it as non-interactive as Raoul Pictor’s. Nonetheless, action must be taken in order to understand the meaning of the work. Many of Graumann’s works link this relationship to an act that viewers can carry out – at least mentally – without belabouring the interactivity much vaunted in art in the wake of new information and communication technologies. 

The blackmail office, 2001 – projet Internet / Internet project

The blackmail office, 2001 – projet Internet / Internet project

The impression of digital pictorial production is inevitably evoked in the large patterns installed on the floor. In this case, the transformative principle of addition, the efficient repetitive gesture of copy and paste, would be within grasp were it not for the hands-off effect of the fragile engineering of the artist’s complex installations. The three-dimensional ornament, although spread out at our feet, cannot be seen all at once. In contrast to a pattern on a surface, the spatial structure changes with every change in vantage point. Every view of the installation, every static perception reveals new contiguities and therefore new semantic relations and insights. The pattern can be animated with a single gaze although it does not move. The act of seeing is in itself indeed an act. Skull, needle, egg and nail, cookie and CD-ROM accumulate on cardboard plates, in plastic cups and on placemats in extensive repetition of the same things, becoming not a surreal but rather a trans-real scenario. Looking, we traverse mental landscapes revealed in constantly changing panoramas. 

Thought-Rooms: Lost in Space

Human thought is increasingly interpreted in terms of mechanistic logic and as a metaphor of operating systems and program applications – at least in popular science. In 2002, Hervé Graumann spent several months as
artist-in-residence at the “Département des Neurosciences Cliniques et Dermatologie (Neuclid)“ of the medical faculty at the “Hôpitaux universitaires de Genève”. Inviting an artist to join a medical research facility contradicts the stereotype. Studying the physiological foundations of thought and daily life in a clinic, even watching brain surgery, was a logical consequence of Graumann’s analytic approach to his own thinking, the ceaseless experimentation that determines his artistic practice. Neuclid Team Spirit, the work he created for the hospital, consists of a mobile of Rubin Vases cut out of chrome-plated sheet metal. The perception of figure and ground in this object is reversible, alternating between the vase and two identical profiles as frontally opposed negative mirror images of each other, which demonstrate that the seeing of seeing is a productive process. By using the facial features of the senior physicians for his rendition of this familiar optical illusion, the artist has produced a volatile group portrait and broken up the anonymity of the clinic. In studying thought processes, even scientifically objective researchers cannot escape the reality that they themselves are also both object and subject of their research. Team spirit and social competence are decisive in a team of “spirits”, who keep finding themselves sitting at the table with themselves in the course of their scientific investigations. Only by looking at the mirror can they manage to arrest the phenomenon for a second or two. 

Through the invention of rules and experimental specifications for the discovery of pictures, Graumann’s work resembles that of a scientist. He remains detached; his own presence does not figure in his work; he concentrates on the choice of basic structures and methods of transformation. In that respect, his work shows an affinity with that of Keith Tyson, who also resorts to the natural sciences in boldly addressing the question of a worldview. Tyson, like Graumann, is certain of only one premise: there is no such thing as a coherent, self-contained world view; there are only many simultaneous worlds and insight will always only be partially revealed through methodical interventions. Tyson develops “Artmachine iterations” (a means of approaching different worlds through the construction of machines for art production) and “Teleological Accelerators”. Graumann exploits the logic of machines and language, and allows us a brief moment of consciousness by abruptly pulling us out of the acceleration of our daily lives. His worldviews do not provide us with legible tableaux but rather elicit unexpected flashes of astonishment that come with studying his work. The views of the world unearthed by Hervé Graumann no longer rest on fixed constants but rather on insight into rules that invest existing connections with an unexpected degree of freedom. The “resampling” of a chest of drawers contains no fixed drawers. The place to store things no longer has a fixed place of its own even though a self-contained corpus still stands before us. We could so easily see it differently.

Hervé Graumann moves unimpeded through virtual spaces and Euclidean space. The conditions of specific dimensions are not givens but rather the subject matter of his art. This inevitably leads to contradictory movement between unlimited extension and contraction, addition and deletion. The principle upon which an object by Graumann is constructed dissolves in the space in which it is articulated: the pixel grid that covers his resampled things is a principle of both integration and disintegration. 

The work L.O.S.T. for documenta X in 1997 presents this contradiction in the form of a small narrative. In the Web’s unlimited, immoderate extension in countless dimensions, in the “dark” space of the World Wide Web, the circular beam of a torch reveals the traces of someone lost – someone who recedes, who becomes increasingly lost, pulling us into the darkness as well, the harder we look and seek. Graumann’s worldview unites the unchartability of spaces in the worldwide computer network with the real experience of uncanny, sinister spaces familiar to us from childhood. We can chart only the tiniest pieces of the infinitely vast world of the Web, like illuminating outerspace with the light of a torch. Nothing more is revealed, no matter how much effort the explorer makes. On the contrary, in a process of constant deletion, we are progressively deprived of space until all that is left, as we grope in the net space of L.O.S.T., is a cryptic e-mail address. In the lightest spot of this sinister space lurks a menacing black hole from which no message can escape to the world outside. 

Hervé Graumann does not develop an overview with his art; he does not consolidate a terrain; he does not conserve language. None of his works are a continuation or a repudiation of a preceding one. He is always on the road, charting impenetrable, dark and fleeting territory, always looking for new methods that will yield snapshots of new worldviews. “Dark spaces cannot be possessed; they can only be used.”

Hans Rudolf Reust in Monography HG