Magazine article Artforum International

A Thousand Words: Roman Signer; Talks about Observation Box, 2000

Magazine article Artforum International

A Thousand Words: Roman Signer; Talks about Observation Box, 2000

Article excerpt

Once, I spread a load of dynamite over the ground and positioned a Super-8 camera very close to it. The film shows the fuse burning down, and then everything turns black. But Super-8 cameras are much tougher than video cameras, whose electronic mechanisms are distorted by the waves from the blast. The picture loses color; it becomes "pale from fear." After a few seconds of black-and-white images, the color slowly returns. I am interested in camera positions that record what the eye can't see-the "suffering" camera that participates, not just the viewpoint of the bystander.

Observation Box is a kind of laboratory situation designed so that the participant (me) can witness a huge fireball up close; the human eye thus becomes a substitute for the camera. To conduct my experiment, I transported the box out to Weissbad, a remote area in the canton of Appenzell, where I often execute ideas that can't be performed in the studio. I didn't intend a juxtaposition of peaceful nature and violence; the countryside was merely a practical testing ground. More important to me is the contrast between the apparent security the object represents and the actual danger it's intended to protect against. The box is a deceptive refuge, like the fragile windowpanes of our homes-what makes us feel so safe is in reality a thin membrane separating man from nature.

I sat inside Observation Box wearing a flameproof hood and special visor meant for looking directly into a fire. For a brief instant, the box was like the cockpit of a plane, or the driver's seat in a race car, with an external combustion "engine," if you will, which I sat behind, as if piloting into the explosion. I suppose Observation Box has a certain malevolent emanation. The hood and visor remind me of military gear designed for protection from a nuclear blast. Perhaps these types of actions are an elaborate way of working through certain fears. Physical risk, however, is not an element of the work, and I protect myself as well as I can. Injuries are simply the result of miscalculation. Other artists, like the Vienna Actionists, often invited the presence of blood, but to me that would be a mistake. For each piece, I choose specific safety measures, like flameproof suits or helmets, which also have an aesthetic appeal.

It has been mentioned, in terms of my developing interest in the properties of combustion, that I used to work in a pressure-cooker factory. Indeed I did once; it was my job to assemble release valves and pack the cookers. My experience at the factory didn't influence me so much as my mother's cooking with a pressure cooker, and pressure-cooker mishaps and explosions-as happened to my aunt, resulting in barley soup on the ceiling. Perhaps I even caused such accidents by incorrectly assembling the valves.

Explosions can be highly aesthetic. I understand them as a complex form of sculpture because an infinite number of forms are produced within extremely short periods of time; every moment looks different. The perfect sculpture is a transformation, a process. An explosion in water produces a transformation. A column of water is merely transient. But at the same time it is a sculpture that progresses and then collapses back into itself. …

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