THE PHANTOM SMILE IN THE VUE DES ALPES HOTEL
|Vue des Alpes is a fictitious hotel sited on the World Wide Web.(1) But people who think they can surf hurriedly through the hotel rooms have got another think coming. They will only be allowed onto two mountain paths and into the hotel lobby. Only nine registered hotel guests have the right at any one time to go into the hotel, their own room and the surrounding Alpine landscape and live in it with their eyes. In Vue des Alpes, the WWW cyberspace shrinks to a hotel room that visitors can use for five days after a long wait, but then it is theirs exclusively. Something that is taken for granted in real hotels, the temporary right to a room of one's own, is replaced in a virtual hotel by the right to your own imagespace, and you know that no strange eyes can look in from the WWW because you have a personal 10-letter code.
We explore the pictorial landscape of Vue des Alpes by clicking from image to image. Beyond the website window, a gigantic, seamless panorama of the hotel interior and the mountain landscape around the hotel seerns to stretch out before us. By clicking on an arrow we shift the image we are viewing and feel our eyes are moving through the hotel and the countryside. Vue des Alpes is an egocentric system, the world turns around us.
We experience our trip to the mountain hotel as an interactive road movie, following the directions given by the arrows with our subjective camera. Again and again we can choose between two or three directions, which makes us see the pictorial world of Vue des Alpes as a navigable space in our perception.The viewer becomes a participant and thus influences the narrative structure of this pictorial world. The traditional opposition of linear narrative and static description produces a new synthesis of film and fine art.(2) We clicking heroes are the subjects of a navigable world, and we are confronted with images - they are the result and the product of our movement. We click our way through the landscape and the hotel corridors, we take the cable-car to the Gleissenhorn and enjoy the magnificent panoramic views.(3)
In Vue des Alpes the pictorial sign is abandoned by reality, which is all the more disturbing because the hotel pictures look like photographs at first sight. In fact, Studer/vd Berg's work slows the high-speed medium of photography down. For in reality the architectural and landscape photographs in Vue des Alpes are images of a fictitious reality, modelled by digital craftsmanship with the aid of a 3D computer program. Studer/vd Berg simulate the instant photographic process with craft resources, to pick up and modify an idea put forward by Boris Groys.(4) Generating unique images on a computer is the modern, equally time-intensive equivalent of pre-industrial craftsmanship. It is only when they are published on the internet that the images are transformed into industrially duplicated products, to a certain extent by a snap of the fingers on the mouse.
In the mountain landscape of Vue des Alpes, which has shrunk to the size of a model, it is true that different laws of movement apply than those of primary reality, but our bodies and the way we experience time at the monitor are part of the game. An expedition from your hotel room along the mountain paths to the cable-car and from there to the Gleissenhorn top station takes eight minutes, so at least sixteen if you want to go back to your hotel room. You can't run through it quickly. And we pay physically for our tele-presence in the virtual hotel - with stiff muscles: our mouse wrist will give us something to think about after the pedalo trip at the latest. To move forward in the boat you have to keep turning a handle quickly with the mouse pointer. Monica Studer and Christoph van den Berg generate media-empiric cognition by over-acidifying small muscles. Thus the landscape of Vue des Alpes is of an uncertain size, spread out behind the monitor viewing window, and insisting on true-to-scale actuality in body use and a sense of time.
We experience certain forms of reality-dissolve in real hotels as well, and many details in Monica Studer and Christoph van den Berg's work idea pick this up.
- When we book a hotel room by telephone, we are no longer aware that in the telephone we are using the oldest device that permits us to experience presence at a distance. We are in two places at the same time when telephoning: the one where our body is and the other, where our voice is speaking to someone eIse. lf we had not lost our childhood media innocence, we would still experience, when making a telephone call, the "dizziness that protagonists of contemporary science fiction films experience when they log on to the cyberspace matrix for the first time."(5)
- Hotels often seem like exhibition galleries devoted to the time when they were built. Architecture, wallpaper, carpets and furniture suggest past decades. Studer/vd Berg have gone for the veritable work of sixties interior designers for their hotel. Each guest room is individually furnished. Their love of detail and meeting old friends from design history again make guests smile. (OK, you're smiling on this side of the screen, but aren't you smiling a little phantom smile there in the hotel room?)
- Even real hotels have the peculiar quality of looking like print-offs from catalogues that are already out of date. The staff have wiped away all the traces of the last guest in the rooms. We are living a copy-paste life in the copy-paste spaces of the real world.
- Television in hotel rooms has a particular charm. The television set is as much part of the hotel room as the bed, the bathroom, a window and at least one picture. It is no coincidence that the Vue des Alpes hotel rooms keep strictly to primary reality in terms of these ingredients. For in our sleep, in the picture, through the window and on TV we can look into the distance, zap through realities. But there is a concentrated irony in the Vue des Alpes bathrooms: here we have a shower without a body, a loo without poo and a mirror without a reflection. Only vampires do not have a reflection, and they are well known to be creatures with a pathological distance problem in terms of warm bodies.
In the Vue des Alpes hotel we are cyber-tourists or, to use an old term coined by Stanislaw Lem, 'Fernlinge'- farlings. We have been farlings at the latest since the first faraway television shots of the surface of the moon, and the two NASA robots, 'Spirit' and 'Opportunity', due to land on Mars in 2oo4, are intended to prove to us again on TV that this planet is more than a little yellow spot in the night.(6)
Bit by bit, Vue des Alpes starts to make hotel guests rack their epistemological brains, though the owner family M. and Ch. Studer van den Berg does wish us a peaceful stay on the welcome page. While Virilio's 'Rasender Stillstand' whistles round our ears,(7) we answer the question whether the digital Alpine world behind the monitor screen is closer than Mars at 5oo million kilometres, with a tired 'yes and no' and hope that this indigestible code for digital thinking will not make our computer crash. Ultimately the images of the last Columbia disaster are still painfully in our mind's eye.
Vue des Alpes is a lonely island in the mountains. With our hand on the mouse, we punt through the beautiful mountain landscape for which being an image has long been second nature. The loneliness and the quiet and deserted hotel may make us melancholy in time, a melancholy that we know from Romantic landscape images, and in a new form from a lot of computer games.(8) In literature and in the cinema (9) we had this feeling years before our first computer experiences, and in Vue des Alpes it overtakes us again. Perhaps this new kind of melancholy will be recognized later as a sign of our times.
2) in 'The Language of New Media' Lev Manovich writes: "As noted by Mieke Bal, the standard theoretical premise of narratology is that 'descriptions interrupt the line of fabula'. For me, this opposition, in which description is defined negatively as absence of narration, has always been problematic. It automatically privileges certain types of narrative ( ),while making it difficult to think about other forms in which the actions of characters do not dominate the narrative ( ). Games structured around first-person navigation through space further challenge the narration-description opposition." Lev Manovich:The Language of New Media, Cambridge 2001, P. 246.
3) in your hotel room and on the Gleissenhorn you can use socalled VR Panorama Technology to give you a fluent all-round view of the surroundings.
4) cf. Bice Curiger, Patrick Frey, Boris Groys: 'Peter Fischli - David Weiss', Zurich 1995, pp. 26-27.
5) Stefan Münker:Vermittelte Stimmen, elektrische Welten', in: Stefan Münker, Alexander Roesler (ed.),'Telefonbuch', Frankfurt am Main 2000, PP 187-188.
6) The Lego toy group and NASA ran a name competition for schoolchildren for the two Mars
robots. The winner was nine-year-old Sofi Collis from Arizona. But it makes you think.
7) cf Paul Virilio:'Rasender Stillstand', Frankfurt am Main 1997.
8) Especially in the 'Myst' trilogy by Cyan Productions. There as here, there are technical and aesthetic reasons for the absence of people. Who would want to come across motionless fellow-guests who do not answer questions. If you want to chat you should move from Vue des Alpes into the Habbo-Hotel, there are always rooms available there (www.habbohotel.com).
9) For example in the novel 'Morels Erfindung' (1940) by the Argentine author Adolfo Bioy Casares, or in the film 'L' année dernière à Marienbad' (1960) by Alain Resnais from the screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet. People do appear here, but they turn out to be holograms or virtual creatures of our memory. But finally and above all we have Science-Fiction films like '2001: A Space Odyssey' by Stanley Kubrick (1968), which addressed a new melancholic loneliness long before our computer experiences.
Text published in:
Monica Studer/Christoph van den Berg, Andreas Baur (Ed.):
BEING A GUEST
Christoph Merian Verlag, Basel, 2003
With text contributions by Andreas Baur, Reinhard Storz, Ludwig Seyfarth,
Dorothea Strauss, Studer/v d Berg (deutsch/english)