dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y




dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, 1997

On Seeing, Flying and Dreaming
Vrääth Öhner


1.  In his anthropological investigation of cinema, Edgar Morin compares the development of cinema with that of the airplane. Both have conquered the continents; but while the airplane "fulfilled the most nonsensical dream pursued by mankind since he first beheld the sky: to break free of the Earth", cinema accomplished the exact opposite, namely "reflecting earthly reality directly". "While the airplane moved away from the world of objects, the cinematographer's main aim was to reflect this world in order to be able to scrutinize it more closely." The point of Morin's little story about a historical coincidence is that the airplane and cinema soon came to swap roles. Due to its usefulness, the airplane obediently fitted into the world of machines and became an expedient instrument for travel, trade and warfare. Film, on the other hand, "rose up into a sky of dreams, [...] populated by adorable figures who had fled earthly reality, whose servant and mirror it evidently had been planned to be".1


Of course, this story does not tell us the whole truth; it fails to mention the links that film has had, and still has, with trade and war, for example. It is a falsifying tale whose sole purpose is to present familiar facts from an unaccustomed perspective. But according to Friedrich Nietzsche, this "perspectivism" is the last possibility of truth left to us because, by merit of its apparent narrowness, it at least preserves us from the greatest illusion of all, namely that such a thing as an objective or universal truth exists at all.


Johan Grimonprez follows an analogous structural principle in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, although the objects of his examination are slightly different: film has been replaced by television, the airplane has been replaced by the air disaster, and the dream is embodied, at least for a while (under the conditions of the Cold War), in the figure of the terrorist who occupies television and airplane alike. In 1997, in the terms of the history proposed by dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, we are now in a completely different situation again: there are bombs that explode without warning, bombs that various political liberation movements claim to have planted (Lockerbie), and there are honeymoon couples who film plane crashes by pure chance.


2.  The title, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, refers to conceptual issues in the same way as the video itself: is it really possible to call history? What sort of apparatus will make the connection? Will history answer? And most importantly: who would make such a call and why? The idea that it is possible to call history in the first place requires a set of stable relations: there is history, there is someone with a desire to find something out or just chat, and there is a channel which is able to create such a connection. In fact, no part of this scenario is true, or even as unambiguous as implied by the description: history is a fiction which, under certain conditions, can confuse reconstructed history with the past as it "really" was. Subjective interest in history is based on underlying prerequisites which exceed the subject's reflexivity. After all, the channel is transparent in the first place thanks to the exclusion of third parties, the demon, white noise. Showing that calling history, creating a type of "supermarket history", is possible therefore means at the same time pointing out changes in the conditions under which history is produced and represented in a critical way.


"Where once [history] was something one read about, inspected through stone monuments and written documents, drew lessons from or tried to leave behind, it now appears to exist in suspended animation, neither exactly 'behind' us, nor part of our present, but shadowing us rather like a parallel world, hyper-real and unreal at the same time," wrote Thomas Elsaesser.2 The history he was referring to is the one which has been recorded in images and sounds; it is a television history and therefore our history: we can call it because, when history still existed in the zone between event and representation, this type of history already called us (as described by Louis Althusser), as ideological subjects and subjects of ideology, i.e. subject to ideology. In dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y this situation is given an unambiguous name: the claim is made that the reporting of daily news has now replaced narratives of social events in novel form. This cancels out not only the temporal difference between past and present, which is constitutive for all narratives, but also the spatial difference between observer and object: society is no longer reflected in the mirror of an individual perception but only in an image of itself.


3.  As soon as it was able to do so, television began reporting on skyjacking all around the globe. It derived advantages from this by availing itself of the dramatic possibilities offered by a hijack (above all, the time frame between the unforeseeable attack and the conclusion of negotiations concerning release of hostages that allows enough time to set up cameras). Due to the fact that hijacks were events that lasted an (increasingly) long time, television was able to become established as a medium that could update its viewers at any time on the particular event with pictures and sound. A form of event direction that could not help but underscore the spectacular aspect of every single hijack in order to focus on the current one as something quite unique and distinctive (first transatlantic hijack, first live TV broadcast of a hijack, first attack on a skyjacked plane, etc.). Television emphasizes the difference of the similarity that is the only material suitable for television screening. In this way, this similar event can be presented as a whole, complete occurrence comprising all differences.


When Grimonprez assembles a chronology of hijacks on the basis of television images in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, we see that they show us almost nothing at all, or rather, what we see are the gaps and spaces that the television image has to mask because of its immediacy, because it has been broadcast simultaneously with the occurrence of the event, so that it can be perceived as an image. In this sense, the television image corresponds exactly to the definition of the visual as given by Serge Daney. The television image, he maintains, is an image that lacks reference to the other and in which this lack is no longer noticed. "An image is what I call something that is still based upon a visual experience, and visual is what I call optical confirmation of the procedure of powers (of a technological, political, military or commercial nature) that, as a commentary, aims merely to elicit a sense of 'Got it!'."3 The history of skyjacks in television images is a visual and thus blind history, which is why to Grimonprez it can become a history of this blindness.


However, this makes it necessary to link television images with other images (with a flying house reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, with images from a training video for the event of a hijacking, with pictures of the other side of the Iron Curtain: the dead Lenin, Stalin in mourning, the people in formation), and to add to the montage a voice-over that only makes indirect reference (Grimonprez uses quotations from two novels by Don DeLillo, White Noise and Mao II, for this purpose). And yet there would seem to be a close tie between Grimonprez's and DeLillo's intentions: White Noise, for example, not only records the vibrations of American consumerism, it not only contains the theories on the subject of death and conspiracy that Grimonprez cites, but rather its very title refers to both ends of the information spectrum that is also the focus of dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. In terms of information theory, White Noise not only implies the pure information beyond any redundancy, but also the disinformation that appears as a result of the unconnectedness of each individual piece of information with all others—to which the dial in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y refers: at the push of a button, we can obtain such a wealth of information from the internet that we no longer know where to start, Grimonprez noted in an interview.4 Above and beyond that, white noise in the acoustic field embodies the only audible range that we perceive as static, as unmoving.


Between an unreadable history and a superabundance of available history, dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y seeks to arrive at statements that do not, in turn, lay claim to the static essence of a viewpoint, but rather make history describable as a field of virtual (re)connections. dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y operationalizes the co-presence of several different points of view, thereby crossing the borders of any fictional narrative. As Elena Esposito noted, the term "virtual" comes from the field of optics and refers to the reflections of images in a mirror. "The mirror does not 'represent' [in contrast to fiction] an alternative reality for the observer (which can be attributed to a different observer); it 'presents' the real reality from a different point of view, thereby expanding the observer's field of observation."5 The reflection refers not to the differentiation between reality and fiction but to the conditions under which the observation takes place: because the virtual history suggested by dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y comprehends television images as reflections of social progress which we are as yet unable to describe, it does not reflect them as fictional reality but as the reality of fiction.


To return to Morin: after cinema had outstripped the airplane as a dream factory, the dream of flying returned on television as a nightmare.




First published as: Öhner, V., "On Seeing, Flying and Dreaming", in Camera Austria, no. 66 (1999), 29–30.