art
 and 
context
The Keeper of the Common Good
December 2014

From the opening pronouncement, ‘Dear Johannes’, the clearing of the throat and the assignation of ‘Westphalian Oak’ as to Johannes’s origins and nature, there is no doubting the self-assured authority of the narrator of Arbeit (2011). Yet in a number of respects Arbeit is the most obscure of Duncan Campbell’s videos. For a start there is the title. Arbeit, is translated from the German in several ways, from job to work to script; it holds no specific relation to the content. And, while the audio throughout this 39 minute video is in the precise, male voice of the narrator, the allusions within are not immediate to an audience unfamiliar with ‘Johannes’—henceforth addressed as ‘Hans’—and his circle in the Finance Ministry and Central Banking System. The screening of Arbeit at the Irish Museum of Modern Art includes a hand-out which informs us that ‘Hans’ is Hans Tietmeyer, ‘an invisible bureaucrat’. The video traces Hans’s career through the period of West Germany’s post-war consumer boom, Germany’s reunification, the introduction of the Euro, and finally at the International level. This is accomplished with two performances running approximate to one another: the voice-over and the deployment of hundreds of images drawn from archives. While Hans is a powerful bureaucrat the closest most people will have a glimmer of his existence is most likely at the brief moment the video touches on the Red Army Faction’s attempt to assassinate him. For the most part, clues are more difficult. A mid-section of Arbeit in which Campbell gives extended attention to just two images is alluded to at a later point with the narrator’s reference to ‘that heavy smoker.’ Two still photographs of the more familiar face of ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, lit cigarette to the fore, fills the screen as the photographs, one after the other, burn and disintegrate. At the same time the narrator suggests that Hans was involved with and certainly approved of the so-called Lambsdorff Paper. This was a critique of the spending levels of Schmidt’s social-democratic led government, a Paper that sparked its downfall.

The relevance of Campbell’s research hardly needs to be spelt out. Hans is more of a hook for the video than its ultimate subject. That is the levers of power which operate on the economy and has such profound effects on all of us. Campbell doesn’t focus on the excesses of individuals who thrived after the deregulation of the banking system but on the regulators who move between the banking system and governments and who hold some responsibility for the economic welfare of nations, which nowadays includes the Eurozone. For the narrator of Arbeit, Hans has climbed from humble origins to become a model bureaucrat; he is a paragon for stability and discipline for whom the gamblers who fuel the cycles of boom and bust are anathema. He is a self-made patrician of the Old School. This much is indicated when at an early point the narrator makes unfavourable mention of East Germany’s reliance on algorithms and equations for economic guidance while the country’s subjects barter rather than use the currency, or towards the end when displeasure is expressed at the speculators and the images are of the graphics of the Stock Market Exchanges. For Hans and his narrator, it is not computer outputs but proper human judgement that matters. Or rather, it is the judgement of those who know and defend ‘the common good’ who matter, and who should prevail. Arbeit is not a disinterested work but neither is it an out of hand dismissal; it is carefully considered and the audience is invited to reflect rather than judge. While Arbeit is about the system rather than personality, we may still ask who Hans’s narrator might be, or what role he might serve. The narrative feels like a soliloquy and perhaps the narrator is Hans in the third person, or together they represent a class. In the final segment Hans has changed position from the European to the International level, and in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 he moved to force the banks to have higher reserves. With that, the narrator’s summation is, ‘There is no further need for you now Hans’. But he goes on to speak of the failure of governments to curtail financial speculators.

While there is a close identity between the narrator and Hans, the relation between the narrator and the images is less clear. Arbeit follows the same 4:3 picture format as Campbell’s previous works, Bernadette (2008) and Make it new John (2009). While this format is directly related to the archive material used in all three, Arbeit is the only one which is entirely in black and white. A further difference from the two earlier works is that most of the thirty nine minutes is based on still photographs. Exceptions are a short sequence when the Euro currency is represented in moving images perhaps in response to the razzmatazz of its unfurling, and towards the end where the visuals are mainly culled from footage from Stock Market Exchanges. If this too is in response to the glitz of these gambling dens even this is in black and white which, presumably, Campbell changed from the original colour. With the predominant use of still photographs from landscape, to West Germany’s consumer boom, to the Deutschmark and the halls of power, Arbeit must generate its own movement. Campbell employs a series of devices towards this end starting with the black blob floating on top of a landscape photograph; the blob later transforms into a lens-like tube, or camera shutter, or is reversed as stage lights against darkness. There is also the repetition of a black screen, the opening of a grey screen onto an image, the closure of the image and the return to the flat, grey screen. All these mark time. In Film time is an artifice and Campbell will not let the audience escape the materiality of the apparatus involved in the sequences and the intervals that go into its construction. The images do not exactly illustrate the narration: they operate semi-autonomously. Sometimes they operate together but with different intent. For example, when the narrator speaks of the ‘ZAP’ of contemporary journalism, the need for instant hits rather than analysis, it is spoken against the whirr of an old slide projector and the rhythmic click of the change of slide. Campbell has acknowledged the importance of the relation between image and text. It is left to the narrator to state, ‘Does not all writing during its metamorphosis in respect of content and form necessarily regard itself ironically?’

Arbeit is showing at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, along with three other Duncan Campbell videos, Bernadette, Make it new John, and It for Others, November 2014 – March 2015.

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