Wolfgang Staehle: That happened about ten years ago.
Ottmann: In Germany?
Staehle: No, I was here in New York. I wanted to get out of my studio. I was tired of being alone with my paintings.
Ottmann: You studied painting?
Staehle: Yes, but not exclusively, also some sculpture and experimental film. It started around 1980 when I got involved with COLAB [Collaborative Projects]. They had that slot on cable television, on Channel C, and two friends of mine and I decided to do a television magazine, called After Art. We did about four issues in 1980 and 1981. It reported on the downtown scene, the arts, the clubs, the performances. In between, I started making these short video collages of television material as fillers between segments.
Ottmann: Did you go to art school in Germany before you came to New York?
Staehle: I studied in Stuttgart for two years at the Freie Kunstschule.
Ottmann: What made you decide to come here?
Staehle: A combination of reasons. First of all, it was coincidence. I met a musician who invited me to come to New York. Once I was here, I met somebody who had friends studying at the School of Visual Arts. At the same time this book came out, On Art, published by Dumont, on all these conceptual artists, Huebler, Kosuth, Andre, and so forth. I read some of that and when I went to SVA, Kosuth was teaching a class, and Marshall Blonsky was giving a semiotics class. I started getting interested in semiotics, when I saw a show in Berlin called "Welt aus Sprache" [World Out of Lan-guage] which was dealing with semiotic phenomena. But there was no way in Germany to really have that all together at one university. So I found it more interesting to come here.
Ottmann: Today you show paintings either separately, combined with sculptures, or even inside the video, generated electronically. Do the painting and video inform each other?
Staehle: I hope that they enter some kind of correspondence, that one comments on the other.
Ottmann: Do you see your paintings independent from the video or do they share a common discourse?
Staehle: Well, they are different media and, in that respect, they are independent from each other, but in combination, as an installation or arrangement, they can contribute to or share a common discourse.
Ottmann: Do the paintings also echo the visual experience of the electronic media?
Staehle: I suppose so, because I'm exposed to that experience all the time. When I go back to a more traditional medium, it is certainly informed by that experience. I sometimes even use a computer to make sketches.
Ottmann: Well, they are all information in a way, a semantic system. The painting as well as the video. Especially when looking at this new painting which incorporates an illluminated General Electric logo.
Staehle: This is really about things like sponsorship in the arts. You see these catalogues: The Museum of Modern Art, whatever, sponsored by Philip Morris, something like that. And so this in a way becomes cartoonish, because in this painting the sponsor is inside it. It raises questions about this so-called autonomous art object.
Ottmann: Your work seems to focus a lot on the influence of the media or the synchronicity of the media and art, like the Beuys piece where you have Beuys advertising whiskey on Japanese television. Is that an important concern?
Staehle: It's just that the media, like television, are so pervasive in our culture. A lot of people watch it all the time, and then you the snobs who say "I don't watch television." I think, either way you're deprived culturally, whether you watch it or you not, because it informs all the people around you. To understand how they think and what's going on, you should go to the source and try to analyze the source. I ran into an interesting quote recently by Duhamel who said in the 1930s: "I can no longer think what I like. Moving images substitute themselves for my own thoughts." In a way that kind of thought also informed those light boxes I made with the ready-made subtitles.
Ottmann: Where are the subtitles from?
Staehle: They are the translation of the original dialogue. Usually I look for some that have a certain resonance and the kind of fictional mood I want to create in the exhibition, but it's not my voice that speaks, it's the voice of an actor reciting from a script. There is a lot of discussion today about what is originality. For some it doesn't exist anymore and everything is just a chain of empty signifiers and there's no more meaning. And there's no more originality and everything has been said and thought and etc. I see my role as an editor in a way. Like when I'm sitting here making these video collages I'm sifting through the whole mess of visual debris and junk and then pick certain fragments from all kinds of different genres—news, fiction, documentary, commercials—which I then edit and recombine into a new context, and suddenly you have a brand-new story.
Ottmann: After you did that television program with COLAB, you showed your video collages at Danceteria nightclub. When did you decide to incorporate the video into sculptural settings?
Staehle: Well, all these things were on separate tracks. I was still painting in the mid-eighties and somehow I couldn't get all these things together. So at one time I just decided to throw it all into one. It was my first show at Daniel Newburg [Gallery] where there was one piece that had a monochrome panel and then there were two small media pieces that were kind of sculptural. When I made those collaged tapes I was very frustrated with the distribution system of those ideas. I thought at the time that the ideas were valid and I sent them to these video festivals. But the resonance was always disappointing. They somehow couldn't distinguish that from a kind of visual chewing gum that relies on effects and pastiche, the stuff you could see in abundance at the time. Only the people at Danceteria who usually came in at three in the morning understood my work, strangely enough. They could read it. They could make the jump from one genre to another without a problem. They were more visually literate than the art bureaucrats and the academics.
Ottmann: Why did you switch from collages to tape loops?
Staehle: First of all, you can watch a loop as long as you want—a great advantage in a gallery. They came at the end of some kind of distillation process and for me in a way they work allegorically. If you have that George Jetson on the conveyor belt, and combine that with the title taken from a book by Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-garde, then it becomes something else, something caught in a certain discourse without having any way of actually escaping from it.
Ottmann: A commentary on the postmodern condition?
Staehle: That's one issue, but I want to keep it open. I love it when people are coming and saying, "Oh that's just how I feel today, being on this treadmill," and they identify with it and at the same time it's humorous enough, so it gives relief also. At the end you laugh about it, and laughter is the best response to our existential dilemma anyway.
Ottmann: You probably would not see yourself as a video artist.
Staehle: No. Just as an artist. That's trouble enough.
Ottmann: Are you interested in traditional video art at all, people like Viola?
Staehle: Yes. I like to watch Bill Viola's piece, the one with the animals. One night I turned on the TV and there was this owl staring at me, without any sound, and I thought "What's going on? That's not television!" In some context it works better than in others, and some of that work works best on TV.
Ottmann: So your work is not a critique of traditional video art?
Staehle: Not at all. I use the medium much more like any other medium, like painting. It's just that people have these categories. and then they make these exhibitions like "Video Art in the Federal Republic of Germany." That's actually very problematic. I can understand that in the beginning, when the medium was brand-new and there was a certain thing about knowing the technology, it was something special. But now, the way I work, any amateur can do it, except maybe on the editing console. About fifteen or twenty years ago, when the term video art was coined, it was something very special. At the same time people had to watch all these boring tapes, like an ant crawling over somebody's breast for half an hour. I remember when Daniel Newburg first showed my work, he wanted to call it "video works." I said: "Don't write that on the invitation, nobody will come, they all will drop it in the waste basket."
Ottmann: Do you feel like you are becoming type-cast into the video genre?
Staehle: There is definitely that danger. When I started making stripe paintings. I sent some to Europe, and my dealer told me that people come and say, that's not a Staehle. They don't recognize it. They see a certain body of work and they want you to do the same thing over and over again. But then, in a couple of seasons, it's dead, because they can't see it any more. And I get bored in the first place. I get bored before they get bored. So you want to move on and sometimes you make mistakes, sometimes something doesn't work the way you want. But I feel I have no obligation other than to myself.
Ottmann: Is the situation in Germany in regard to working with media better now, with private television and new schools like the Institute for New Media in Frankfurt?
Staehle: Until now there was a kind of situation where you had the gallery world and then there was this kind of media art world. They had their own circuit and did their own shows. In a way it was like a ghetto. It had its own discourse, its own distribution system and criticism, and it didn't really relate, with a few exceptions, to the discourse in contemporary art. When people in Germany see a television set in a gallery, they still think, ‘Okay, it's video, it's not art.' So there's that big prejudice, and that's a bit harder to overcome in Germany, while in France people don't care, they love these new gadgets, they are much more open and interested in what's behind it conceptually.
Ottmann: You work on a rather modest scale, using small, portable television sets, etc.
Staehle: It just goes better
with my work. Nam June Paik, for example, relies on this overload,
flashes these images on, uses all kinds of effects, whereas I cut
them out. I isolate a certain image, its more like strategic bombing,
focusing on one person, one to one. In a way those small TVs work
better with that kind of surgical procedure. You have to get closer,
also somehow they are much more designed and adaptable to the other
hardware I use. I don't want to rely on that heavy bombardment. I
don't want to club people to death.
Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.