Maps to Negotiate With
Aage Langhelle has, in several projects, concerned himself directly with the all-encompassing but fundamentally unsettled position of images and their possibilities, but also deficiencies as guiding maps for clear and logic manoeuvring. Langhelle relates togeographical maps and street maps, but also to more diffuse mental maps. These maps have their blind spots, but can also tell us something we need to know, such as the following: An unlimited number of images already exist which we can reproduce and process in the foreseeable future.
An All-Encompassing Optic
The theoretician W. J. T. Mitchell is one of those trying to create a nuanced optic for this visual horn of plenty. He has long been occupied with the power and mythos of images in a culture dominated by images, visual simulations, stereotypes, illusions, copies and reproductions. Mitchell is pointing out a general attitude that indicates that spectators are easily manipulated by these images. A clever use of them can lead people to accept e.g. racism, sexual discrimination and class barriers as natural conditions. As technology and mass media become more and more absorbing and provide us with a fully covering screen through which we conceive the world, the role of images as an awareness-raising tool is tightened a few notches more. We accept what we see and what the images tell us, with certain exceptions. The ideological guidance often incorporated in images, requires an analytical approach; they are also political. In societies that claim their values to be democratic, it is worth looking closer into what representation really means.
A strongmanifestationof the totality of the digitalised visual world is the image technology of the Internet company Google — Google Maps and Google Earth — the latter being a globe program where you can view detailed satellite and aerial photos of planet earth. In addition, one can see landscapes and buildings in 3D. The experience of this digital copy of the world which we like to see as infinite and impossible to comprisecompletely, is in many ways overwhelming. This constructed, fixed space is close to realistic; if you look up, you’ll see the starry sky arching over the civilization, which is being mapped bit by bit. According to a press release from Google Earth Anomalies, Google Earth might have discovered so far unknown pyramids in Egypt, and the technology has allegedly been used by people to find lost family members. Despite the intrusive impact of technology — on screen this world is highly navigable and manageable. The digital maps also create the basis for the navigation system GPS.In Google Street View, which is part of the company’s map system, one can “wander” around the streets and map shops and restaurants all over the world. The physical and economical boundaries the user meets in real life are easily leapfrogged with a keystroke. In Google’s image technology the subjective perception is replaced by the objective — a generic image, made of an infinite number, represents the world’s existence through an enormous collage we already take for granted.
Aage Langhelle’s projects Uncertain Maps (2012) and Whiteout Maps (2013) surfaced in the wake of the discussion around Google’s detailed images of urban spaces. The systematic depiction of urbanity and landscape represents to many a widespread surveillance unparalleled in history, and also comprises military considerations. How much of a security risk does this adaptedtechnology constitute? To Langhelle, Google becomes a symbol of a type of surveillance that is epidemic; the digital technology makes it possible to massively monitor humans and human activities. Google’s finely meshed net is laid over society and the urban space, thus making the individual become very exposed.
Langhelle started the process of Uncertain Maps with an abstracted excerpt of billboards in the cityscape. Black or white drawing ink is added to it by hand, which floats out over the surface in an organic play, partly uncontrolled. This new image space is then digitalized. Whiteout Maps is based on the same work method as Uncertain Maps, but the photo paper has white, open areas.
The title Whiteout Maps refers to a meteorological phenomenon where our vision is reduced by snow or sand; white areas form, the horizon disappears and the standard sense of direction is disturbed. The figurative, effortless flow is blocked out and emphasises itself as a statement. A parallel arises to a driving situation where the GPS is not able to update itself fast enough, and the system also falls out where the area is not photographically mapped. These are conceptual loopholes, which make the standardised manoeuvring more difficult. One can either drive off the road or find one’s own alternative routes.
Both series show as a result the technical grid of photography and the freer, expressive patterns of the ink, which also elucidate the work process. A general and commercially influenced starting point is being countered by more distinct lines, which form an idiosyncratic and individual expression.
Registration of Visual Tracks
If one presupposes that photography per definition is recording a given reality, one might say that Aage Langhelle, in this operation from the mechanical to the manual, is placing a subjective layer over an objective motif. This motif is taken from public space, captured by a camera. Photography is traditionally linked to referentiality. It shows that which at a given moment was present in front of the camera lens. Its story, as a witness to a moment that now has passed, has been challenged by Langhelle in several interwoven pictures comprising photographs that have been intertwined in a tight grid. The grid’s formal autonomy, which only references itself, creates an imbalance in the referential balance sheet, within which the photograph is systemised.
Langhelle’s image space is removing itself from its referential starting point and demonstrates that photography always will be a space for negotiations between different characters and wills, figurative and conceptual. Its claimed neutrality and clear causality haslong been problematized, not least as a result of linguistic and semiotic theories, and became, with the digitalisation, even more unusable as characterisation. Also, a pure recording of visuality assumes a selection, and the silenced excerpt, whose initial information has been pushed into the background, is being used to achieve something, if only a meaning-bearing expression.
In certain ways, both Uncertain Maps and Whiteout Maps are dealing with the current position of photography as a complex medium, squeezed between artistic recognition and specialisation on one side and the image flow of everyday life on the other. Photographs are very easily accessible through Internet, not least as a base for further visual production. To a certain degree this enormous selection makes the camera redundant. Google’s search engines present the images we search for in a flash,systemised by theme. The material processing of photography that Langhelle’s two series represent is, in that respect, resolute in its expression — they insist on a genuine presence in the free play of the ink. Even though they are photographed, they indicate a strong tactility, like visual traces that area result of the layering of effects.
An Art Historical Loop
Aage Langhelle’s way of handling the ink, which seems hurled on the surface in generous movements, shows a stylistic similarity to the abstract expressionists, first and foremost Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, with his gestural grandeur, his sweep of paint and his primitivist inspiration. The organic overlapping and the potential infinite continuations outside the canvas are reformulated by Langhelle into stricter, more limited units, but the oil-like dance on the surface is still given free rein. The digitalised standardisation, which Langhelle is criticising, is here meeting its complete opposite. The creative charge of the surface, the autonomous quivering of the luminous colour strands, which seem to have been formed through pure experimental desire, still only exist as a photograph. In a way this contradicts the dictum of abstract modernism, which called upon the necessity for a direct experience. The viewer was supposed to move in front of the big canvases and experience the paintings over time as a rhythmic symphony. Langhelle short-circuits this presence and this slowness with his more forthright photographs. The reformulation of abstract expressionism in contemporary times is therefore based upon a paradox — this was art that resisted reproduction, but which is still the perfect monumental museum art, at a safe distance from the untidy reality of public space.
Langhelle’s expressiveness is incorporated as a formal effect amongst several possible — it assumes the character of a quote of a signature style. Where the abstract expressionists wished to create a fresh start for art, an American enterprise as a response to the European ruins after the Second World War, the historical moment is, in Langhelle’s work, open for free interpretation as a formal experiment, a critique or a homage. The visual codes of Uncertain Maps and Whiteout Maps maycarry a romantic longing for the individual, existential expression — as it once was idealised. The canvas became a surface to act on, an active, energetic area that cultivated traces of dynamic processes and bodily gestures. The power language was found in the artistic action, not in the narrativity that each work might have the potential for. Langhelle lets the pictures rather tell a story about other pictures, about their qualities as illusions and ideals — as fortifications of power and necessary gaps in a tightly woven matrix of information and control. It seems impossible to tame the image completely; it is as if images have their own will and agenda outside of our longing for meaning and coherence when interacting with them. Even photography can express a desire for material presence.
Pictures in the Street Grid
Characteristic for Aage Langhelle’s production is an orientation towards public spaces. He is preoccupied with how visualities take shape in the urban space, which also includes a broad spectrum of social and cultural spaces. The public space as a place that is open and visible, a stage for free speech, outside the corridors of power, is a model that constantly has to be argued for. In practice, divergent interests are fighting each other, and the visual is used purely instrumentally as a pry bar for attention.
Langhelle has, in several earlier projects, had a closer look into communication and transactions in the cityscape, such as in DHL, where he followed and photographed cars from the big international logistics company DHL for a few months. The photo series is thematically tied to the work Whiteout Maps inthat the pictures are signalising surveillance. Here we see drivers, close-ups of GPS systems, and parcels delivered to German addresses. Langhelle is sticking to them as a leech, in pure detective style. He depicts something that initially seems completely innocent, but at the same time is informing about an economical image of time. What is being delivered, to whom and at what price? All this remains unanswered.
Langhelle has, in the photographic installation Layers of space (2013),documented objects and communication in Berlin — small human traces each tell its history – objects placed on the street for free pick up, birdcages or rags in a tree. An investigation into the visual imprints and underlying ideology of our everyday surroundings can also be found in the work DDR — Alexanderplatz from 2003. Here Langhelle is looking into how changing values are being expressed in logos — in the span between standard market-oriented commercialism and propaganda. Placed in a Berlin subway station for the U2 line at Alexanderplatz, the work can be seen as a commentary on Germany’s clearly conflicted recent history. Langhelle changed the abbreviation for the old name of Eastern Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, here also shown as “ddr” in small letters, as if to underline that this state is forever dissolved and diminutive) into a logo on commercial billboards. The trademark appears to advertise for any article of consumption. We seem to recognise, in 32 different graphic shapes, design elements from beer labels, clothing brands and such, and the logos are generally colourful and modern.
Here Langhelle is dealing with an industry based on nostalgia or “ostalgia”, which, particularly in the beginning of the 21st century, gave the German consumers an increase in typical DDR products. After the dissolution in 1990, a loss, or at the same time an inadequacy, was profiled through concrete goods with a heavy symbolic, as pulled out of a time pocket. Langhelle is acting within the new Germany and points to saleability as one of the main motors of the European superpower. The logo does, in this respect, become a tool that is signalizing a dynamic development within the capitalist system, but through Langhelle it also becomes an empty casing ripped of genuine substance — a template. At the same time, Langhelle’s art as an artistic expression of Berlin in 2003, a time when artists came swarming to the city from everywhere, also becomes an expression for the creative, free expression that has turned into the trademark of Berlin.
Clarifying urban mechanisms and calling attention to the fine line between genuine content and subsequent empty branding — a mechanised reflex in our culture — seems to be a general strategy for Langhelle. He has, amongst other things, looked into the relationship between politically motivated graffiti and advertisement posters in the work Collateral Image. The title refers to a metaphor for accidents or unintended injuries following military actions. Here Langhelle sabotaged adverts by adding graffiti, which had been photographed earlier in the cityscape of Berlin. Several weeks could pass before these picture fragments were removed from the adverts. This postulated violence towards the image is being stuffed down the throat of the capitalist message, simultaneously as the graffiti also becomes an interfering visual element, placed as a wedge into new contexts.
The original message of the images is destabilised, both the one that is professionally forged together to sell and the one that is by definition individual and in opposition, and the direct message is being tampered with. Commerce and underground are adhered to each other. The expressions influence each other mutually and remain unclean and composite. This activism, which makes use of the images we are inevitably surrounded by, only to intertwine them into new and unknown dimensions, is characteristic of Langhelle’s art. The prefabricated images are given a chance — without insisting on an unambiguous message. They become carriers of a fundamental unclearness which we all must relate to. Aage Langhelle uses the images as experimental maps of a diffuse landscape, like rebuses that cannot be solved. As viewers, we simply have to negotiate between the ideological extremities of the images.
Line Ulekleiv, born 1974, is a Norwegian art historian. She works as a writer, art critic and editor. Ulekleiv mainly writes for Klassekampen, Kunstkritikk and Billedkunst. From 2005-2011 she wrote also for Morgenbladet. She has also been editor for many publications, such as KORO, Nasjonale turistveger og Kunstårboken. Ulekleiv works also at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts.
 W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 1994, S. 2-6. Deutsche Ausgabe: Bildtheorie, hrsg. von G. Frank, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt/Berlin, 2008