Stefan Banz - Real Reality
by Christoph Doswald

"How real is reality?" - This was the question asked by the psychologist and communications researcher Paul Watzlawick as early as 1976, in the book of the same title, thus questioning any objective perception of reality.1 Since then our image of the world and perception of reality have become even more radical, as all direct experiences of life have been translated into the media. Advertising, television, magazines, video and - more recently - the Internet are increasingly defining the framework and perspectives of our perception. The world is now largely experienced in images. We are aware that our impressions - that is, our perception of reality - cannot be objective, just as reality itself cannot be turned into anything objective. We expected truthfulness from technical aids such as photography and video, but they have become suspect. We seem to have understood now that images are often deceptive substitutes.

Yet despite the increasing relativity of media reality we still carry that sentimental desire for authenticity in our heart. And when we look at an image, we do want to know whether a given scene really took place as shown. The same paradox also faces us as we look at Stefan Banz's photographs and particularly his videos. This insecurity of perception was especially noticeable when Banz showed his work titled "Door to Door" to the public for the first time.2 The video, which lasts several minutes, is about an argument between the artist and his neighbour in a modern terraced housing estate in Lucerne. Although the dispute about 'badly behaved' children and 'antisocial' artists ends in fisticuffs, the scene is neither exotic nor absurd, but a day-to-day occurrence of a petty bourgeois environment. After all, in our supposedly civilised society, frustration and prejudice do erupt in the form of such verbal and sometimes physical acts of violence, although they rarely leave the confines of the domestic sphere.

When mundane things are placed in a museum and are given a special aura through artistic treatment and the setting of a museum, then the viewer is faced with the essential question: artificial or real? "Door to Door" is a prototypical example of the discourse on this delicate difference.3 Viewers who are unfamiliar with quarrels between neighbours, for instance, tend to suspect that there is some clever theatrical direction behind this violent sequence. Others take the scene at face value and have no doubts about its authenticity. The artist, in turn, pursues a strategy of renunciation. He does so by publishing a profoundly humiliating scene in his life: although he is years younger than his neighbour, he has to put up with physical violence from an old-age pensioner. His act of artistic creativity enables him to distance himself from the scene and thus to cope with it.

Seen against the background of notoriously propagandist war reporting, sensationalist live broadcasts and so-called docu-soaps, it is appropriate and indeed necessary both for the viewer and for the affected protagonists to reflect upon the scene. There is mutual interaction between the source of the scene (if there is a source), the motivation of the protagonists, the intention of the image-maker and the attitudes of the viewers. This interaction has its own effect on the "decoding" of the motion picture. With his video works, which now run to about 150 in all,4 Banz submits an experimental set-up that occupies precisely this interface. All the sequences are everyday domestic family scenes. Some take no more than a few seconds, while others go on for several minutes. Yet all of them skilfully play off these paradoxical variables against each other, producing an equilibrium that is both enchanting and unsettling and which is threatening to collapse any moment. They are also expressions of a familiar environment: a petty bourgeois nuclear family, with a healthy façade that conceals something rather monstrous - a monstrosity which is in fact capable of causing this social narrowness and which very rarely appears in the videos themselves (except for "Door to Door") but is only conjured up through the images created in the viewer's head.

One element that characterises Banz's videos is their so-called documentary content, on the one hand, and their alienating, ambiguous effect causing associations to run through the viewer's mind, on the other. This effect develops its specific visual impact and independent-minded view of things. In "Scarborough Fair" (see page 162-163), for instance, we hear Banz's son Jonathan singing this well-known song (which, ironically, in its version by Simon & Garfunkel, is one of the most popular telephone tunes inflicted on people waiting for their calls to be answered). However, Banz does not show the lad directly but uses a translation technique which has quite a tradition in art history: he shows his mirror image, reflected by the smooth surface of some water. We can see straight away that this choice of imagery was influenced by the Narcissus myth. However, this only appears to be the case, like some virtual reality. What we see is not the silhouette of the boy, but of his sister Lena.5 Yet, unless we actually know the two children, or unless we can tell them apart after watching Banz's other videos, we are unable to perceive this reality shift. This example is an excellent illustration of the complicated game that Banz plays with reality. Moreover, from time to time, we can see the artist's figure shining through the surface of the water, armed with a camera and evoking an entire new chain of further associations, ranging from Vermeer via Velazquez to Umbo and commenting on the subtle inclusion of the artist in the picture itself - somehow showing the author, yet shrouding him in mysterious semi-darkness.

In his work, Banz uses photography, video, installations, text and painting - techniques which, at first sight, display clear differences. While installations and painting are generally seen as genuine artistic statements, and photography suspends the space-time continuum for a fraction of a second, video prolongs the traditional illusion that it can record and depict reality. Banz's use of these media, however, is a plea for an interdisciplinary approach, emphasising the points they have in common, while at the same time pointing out differences. Despite the everyday character of his motifs, Banz is thus examining the very nature of the media in his uvre. This was particularly noticeable in an installation set up by Banz at the Ars Futura Gallery in Zurich in summer 1999.6 While presenting a series of small-format imitations of Francis Bacon paintings in oil ("Baby Bacons") in the main hall, he also confronted visitors with a provocative ensemble of paintings and videos in a small cabinet. He placed several small-format paintings on the wall, which he painted using motifs from his own photographic works. What was originally a rather mundane snapshot from a photograph album but had been absorbed by the art market, was now given an additional aura of art through this traditional artistic medium.

On the floor of the cabinet there were two television monitors showing short video loops entitled "Lick (Doggy)" (page 26-27) and "Jump (Doggy)" (page 18-25) - two sequences with special significance in the context of these art media reflections. They showed Banz's daughter Lena imitating a dog, crawling around grandma's house on all fours, barking and sitting up and begging in a doggy-like manner. Banz had started by capturing this juvenile activity with his camera. He then duplicated it, recorded one of the duplicates backwards and put together the forward and backward sequences in a loop. In this way he not only constructed a strange, persistent sequence but also reflected upon the role of the subject - a girl who, like the rest of the family, has long ceased to take any notice of the continuously present camera, thus showing a genuinely novel understanding of the media. This new understanding is directly opposed to Roland Barthes' view, which used to be accepted as universal: "When I pose before the lens," he wrote, "(I mean, when I know that I am posing, be it only temporarily), I don't take much of a risk (at least not for the moment). [] Yet no matter how imaginary this dependence may be (and it is pure imagination), I do experience it with the same apprehension with which one anticipates an uncertain childhood: a picture - my picture - is about to be created."7

1 Paul Watzlawick, How Real is Real?: Confusion, Disinformation, Communication, New York 1977
2 On the occasion of the NONCHALANCE exhibition at the Centre Pasqu'art in Biel from August 31 to October 26, 1997.
3 On the subject of cultural perception among the educated middle classes, see the study by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge 1994. Bourdieu recently also wrote a study on the role of television against the background of the reality shift between the world and images. Pierre Bourdieu, On Television,London 1998.
4 Cf. pp. 164-165, Video Works 1997-1999. The only item that is missing from this list is Banz's first one of 1994: "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" - a video about the reality and the death of the teenage idol Kurt Cobain, who had just died at the time.
5 "Scarborough Fair" was conceived as a further development of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" - Cf. note 4.
6 Stefan Banz, Gods + Monsters, Ars Futura Gallery, May 22 - July 10, 1997
7 Roland Barthes, Die helle Kammer, Bemerkung zur Photographie, Frankfurt am Main, 1985, S. 19 (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York 1981)