Contextual Scene: Artwork

2 Jul

Table of Contents, Glossary, Introduction and Methodology, Contextual Scene, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Conclusion, APPENDIX A, APPENDIX B, Bibliography and Other Sources



In this part of the thesis, I present and discuss a selection of installations and films that have influenced my own work with reference to defining and creating psychological space. I also explore how some of my installations inhabit this psychological space and set the foundation for Arctificial Territory. Works by EXPORT, Chan-wook, and Vasulka are examined in their relation to certain psychological conditions like schizophrenia, delusional disorder, etc. These works can be seen as forerunners to Arctificialism, pointing to new conceptions for Arctificial Territory with its seemingly obsessional and compulsive elements.

Background: Artwork, Films, and Literature

“Your PhD summary reminds me of the original cybernetics conferences in their emphasis on psychology and mathematics/engineering. Gregory Bateson’s notion of the double bind came out of a conversation he had with Norbert Wiener about how to make a computer schizophrenic, …” (O’Hara 2011).[1]

O’Hara associates my research with Gregory Bateson’s “notion of the double bind”[2], a form of feedback loop, and the idea of “making a computer schizophrenic”. This statement has affirmed my survey of artistic works in relation to psychological disorders.

My own artwork, especially a selection of installations from 1991 until present that deals with psychological and emotional space, has brought me to this research. In this chapter I discuss selected works from 1991 – 2005. The films, Invisible Adversaries (1976) by EXPORT, Sleeper (1973) by Woody Allen, Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979) by Ridley Scott, Alphaville (1965) by Jean Luc Godard, and I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2008) by Chan-wook, have influenced my work and this research. I examine EXPORT’s and Chan-wook’s films as well as Vasulka’s installations, Machine Vision (1978) and ALLVISION (1976), in more detail in this chapter.

Godard’s Alphaville with its robotic women, who are remote-controlled and act like zombies, has certainly made me think about obsessive-compulsive and repetitive life. Sleeper by Allen is a comedy that shows the confusion of a person who wakes up from a long artificially induced sleep. He comes back into a different society that is populated by modified and enhanced humans – like those outlined in transhuman scenarios such as Kurzweil’s singularity[3] or Vita-More’s “Primo Posthuman” (2004) – who have become more predictable, more controlled, and more of the same. The main protagonist in Allen’s film is different as yet not enhanced. From the perspective of the futurist world in this film, he is full of human flaws. He insists on his freedom of thought, speech, and movement. Scott’s classical science fiction films, Alien and Blade Runner, with their dystopian and mythological scenarios are based on alien life – a “foreigner within one” that is dangerous and cannot be accepted as it is eating one up or killing one – and posthuman enhanced and modified life that is also devalued and isolated, a stranger to human life, partly human itself, not wanting to acknowledge this and trying to exterminate the other. In the end, it is not clear who is human and who is a modified human or a machinic hybrid.

Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Possibilities of an Island (2006), is discussed in Chapter 4, particularly with reference to Moravec’s immortality narratives as outlined in his book, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (2000).

No Empty Space Available

Arctificial Territory is a psychological space, as is any space that is inscribed by history, human interference, and interactions.

As already mentioned in the introduction, my artwork deals with psychological space. My works deal with repetition, control, and manipulation, reviving and inventing narratives for a psychological space that has been defined by history, environment, dreams, theories, and life. This space is a precursor of Arctificial Territory. In the following paragraphs I outline by examples how these works utilise and create this space.


Illustration 3: Video still, Gudrun Bielz, Grauer Raum mit Blau (1987)

In my installation, Grauer Raum mit Blau (1987),[4] onlookers are challenged by a virtually overwhelming display. When I made this artwork, I described it as follows:

“When the audience enters the installation space, an “electronic eye” observes the observer. The image of the eye slowly changes into images with electronic noise. Voices of Radio Free Europe and Radio Moscow are mixed together. Their ideologies have become interchangeable and cannot be deciphered easily. Occasionally, the command ‘Do not look’ is shown on one of the screens. Observers are unable to obey, except when they leave the room. 33 Perspex tubes, each of them 2,5 meters long, are installed as a wave above 3 monitors with blue images that are reflected and mirrored in these tubes. ‘Do not touch’ is the command on the screens there. Observers obey.”

There is the conflict between wanting to watch the visual work and being told not to look, between wanting to touch the sculpture and being told not to touch, between finding out which news is from one ideology or the other one. The artist has control of the space, of how she installs the work, of what kind of instructions she gives the audience and what she imposes on them to follow these. It is a form of control that causes conflicting emotions and reactions for the observers.

In the installation, Untitled 1,[5] I generate a psychological space that recreates unsettling parts of the history of a specific location, giving the audience the choice either to escape or be tormented. When I made this work, I explained it as follows:

“When spectators open the door to the installation room, a sensor registers their movement. Light is switched on, and viewers will find themselves in the spotlight. The spectacle can begin. Commanding voices tell them to sit down and to get up. The room itself is painted white. This represents methods like sensory deprivation (white torture) that were used in Stammheim (German prison where RAF [Red Army Faction] members were kept), where no sounds, no colours, and no stimulants are permitted. The daylight is filtered out, immersing the space in a greyish-blue haze. The history of the building is still present. I intended to create a room that represents this history to a certain extent and makes people feel uncomfortable or just thoughtful. Memories about school are wiped out but some are focused on too clearly. In the past, a catholic public school and the GESTAPO [German Nazi secret police] had used this room. History has already marked this space uncomfortably.”

During the research for Untitled 1, I found out that the exhibition space had been a Gestapo headquarters and a Catholic boarding school in the past. It had been a place of torture, pain, emotional detachment, and controlling, sadistic behaviour by Nazi torturers and by teaching nuns, who had oppressed and punished pupils for not fitting in, not praying the right way, or touching their bodies. I wanted viewers to experience the “soul” of this building, to feel fear and vulnerability. I painted the whole room white and filtered the light out. I created a space with a form of sensoric deprivation, a muted space. Theatrical elements, a stage light and well-placed speakers, put the audience via movement detection sensors into the centre of attention. Visitors had to listen to orders like “Get up!” and “Sit down!” while a floodlight was shining into their faces. They had to pay attention to demanding and controlling voices in a white, nearly empty space. Its history was to be re-enacted in a metaphorical and manipulative, maybe controlling way. I wanted viewers to feel uncomfortable and develop some empathy, perhaps to relive past and present feelings of fear and abandonment.

There are aspects of interactivity. When a spectator opens the door and enters the room, a stage light goes on, and the sound piece starts. The area stays silent without any interference by an audience. The artwork becomes only active and interactive when people enter the installation space. The viewers are carefully guided. They either give in to their fears and leave the room or they stay and try to be impartial observers. Several people left the space in panic because they felt emotionally overwhelmed by the narrative.

Repetitive orders and a white, rather cold ambient bring audience, artist, and exhibition place into Arctificial Territory. This is a seemingly cold space that is signified by memories of oppression, fear, control, and the idea of the superhuman. The viewers are placed in the middle of things. The events unfold after the spectators have entered the room and set the spectacle off.

Untitled 2

Illustration 4: Installation view, Gudrun Bielz, Untitled 1 (1992)

The installation, No Empty Space Available?[6], displays 150 meters of highly polished saw blades, which are cut into long pieces and lined up on concrete floor. The moving beam of a programmable stage light slowly scans the blades. The light follows these lines precisely, endlessly repeating its cycle, and highlights the sharpness and danger of the saws. The beam doesn’t replicate its cycles in exactly the same manner. This breaks the repetitive pattern in the smallest way possible. No repetition is the same! Viewers are not allowed to enter this space physically but are able to watch the event unfold in front of their eyes. The endless motion of the light beam over metal is hypnotising, engaging the audience in a quasi-compulsive ritual.


Illustration 5: Installation view, Gudrun Bielz, No Empty Space Available? (1994)

Untitled [7], a video responding to Poena Damni: Nyctivoe (2005) by the Greek author Dimitris Lyacos, deals with a cold and scary space. The piece circumscribes a space that is inhabited by fearful and mortal life desiring magical powers. The work points towards disembodiment, a virtual world without any physicality:

“… fear, mortality and ‘magic’. The viewer might want to be rescued as suggested in one of the sub-titles, or might get drawn into ‘darker’ ancient times. ‘My skin is blackening. Big pustules open and I cannot breathe.’ is reminiscent of the plague in medieval times. Some of the texts imply that we are living in a world in between, a dream world, a virtual world, a world beyond, a world with no space for any physicality” (Bielz 2005).

This indicates that OCAL, existence in another psychological space, deals with the friction between repetition and repetition, a small space in between physicality and purified disembodied information. One can interpret this as a nano-psychological action, a miniscule psychological process that helps to define OCAL and is part of Arctificial Territory.

Unreliable Perceptions

Music: Booba, 2002b. Feat LIM – Animals. Temps mort, YouTube.

The selected works and films, which I discuss here in more detail, deal with aspects of personality disorders. They have helped develop and contextualise Arctificial Territory with its Obsessive-Compulsive Arctificial Life (OCAL).

Key Terms

Schizophrenic host for alien life – artificial intelligence invading a human body! EXPORT, Invisible Adversaries (1976)

Narcissistic cameras mirroring each other and dancing to their own tunes! Vasulka, ALLVISION (1976) and Machine Vision (1978)

Delusional disorder patient (DDP) no. 1 meets DDP no. 2. They ignore and try to suppress emotions, and they confront each other in machine-like manners! Chan-wook, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder becomes a vital part of OCAL’s make up! New fictional life in a cold territory that blossoms in sub-zero temperatures! Bielz, Arctificial Pandemonium (2015)

The installation, Arctificial Pandemonium, is part of this PhD. I discuss the exhibition in Chapter 5 of this thesis.

Broken Glass

Metaphor: Schizophrenia

Invisible Adversaries, (Unsichtbare Gegner). Directed by VALIE EXPORT. 1976. DVD. 112 min.

Excerpt from video (2’ 13”):


Illustration 6: Film still 1, Invisible Adversaries, VALIE EXPORT (1976), photo VALIE EXPORT

“Schizophrenia is a group of severe brain disorders in which people interpret reality abnormally. Schizophrenia may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking and behaviour” (Mayo Clinic, n.d.).[8]

In EXPORT’s Invisible Adversaries Anna cannot rely on her observations and feelings that are questioned and ignored by various men in her life. Trying to escape these external control mechanisms, societal norms and men imposing on her, and compulsive and controlling rituals from within, she ceases to be a self, herself, and cannot comprehend herself as a complex and rich conscious being. She freezes in herself. She feels and grows colder and colder. She experiences and inhales arctic cold, arctificiality.

“The Hyksos are coming,”[9] says Anna and looks out of the window, waiting for the appearance of somebody from another world, an ancient world that lies in her future. This moment encompasses the sum of all her experiences and the past of every woman alive or dead. What she actually experiences is a figment of her imagination, inner voices dissociating her from herself, appearing as one Anna (Susanne Widl) and many versions of Anna. There are versions of Peter’s (Peter Weibel) projections, Anna’s own stories, and accounts of all projections from past and present. Anna’s gaze, directed out of the window, invites aliens from an ancient past, the Hyksos[10], who can be seen as the other to herself, the stranger to herself.

There is a world of feedback loops in this film: Anna sleeping with herself (an image of herself, a life-size photograph), the real Anna lying on stairs and changing to a photo of Anna, etc. Images are looped backwards and forwards, to all sides in all directions, into artificial separation of inner and outer existence. The audience can get caught in these loops, if they want to. The audience is caught in these loops, if they want to or not.


Illustration 7: Film still 2, Invisible Adversaries, VALIE EXPORT (1976), photo


What is reality and what is imagination? What is virtual and what is actual? What is imagined reality and what is actual imagination? This film queries the perception and experience of actual events. Perception and gaze shift and leave a defragmented world, a world in which Anna loses control of her real self by strangely gaining control of an imaginary self that shifts in and out of the dichotomy between real and unreal, normal and not normal, inner and outer world. All of these are inventions that have lost their power and have proven to be narratives that oscillate between concepts of normality, the illusion of precise definitions, the gaze of the other (to ourselves), mirroring, projection (psychoanalysis and film), normality, and new normality (schizophrenia).


Illustration 8: Film still 3, Invisible Adversaries, VALIE EXPORT (1976),


Anna sees her image reflected in the fridge, a spatially quasi-extended, although pasted mirror image. Her mirror image acts as if it has a life of its own. Anna notices this but is not puzzled. It is as if she were used to thinking and feeling, seeing and acting as different personae all the time at the same time.

This scene makes me think of OCAL as an extended mirror image of humans, projected into a genderless future without mortality and finity. I suppose that the male gaze has informed this idea of no gender, just like in EXPORT’s film. I refer to the scene where Anna has become frozen in the imprisonment of the subtle violence and obvious control mechanisms of a male defining her identity as a female.

When Anna sits in front of her bed, in a room that seems to be warm enough but is so cold that she has to wrap up in a huge jumper, being arrested in a catatonic pose, she seems to have become part of an artificial space that leads into Arctificial Territory.

Everything Orbits Around Myself

Omni-control – Metaphor: Narcissism

Steina Vasulka, ALLVISION, 1976, and Machine Vision, an electro-opto-mechanical environment, 1978.

“Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings” (Mayo Clinic, n.d.).

Vasulka developed ALLVISION and Machine Vision in the 1970s. These works are about the exchange and interchange between human and machine, the dance between them, and the idea of the gaze of the artificial eye on the reflection of the world around it. This world becomes an invention of the machine, a science fiction narrative, solely directed by a machine that is an artefact and placeholder for the human eye and its gaze.


Illustration 9: Installation view, Steina Vasulka, ALLVISION (1976)

Video cameras mirror themselves and their environment in a mirror ball, a crystal ball; these mirror images are captured and mirrored again in television screens that act as mirrors of and to the world. This can be seen as a metaphor for the narcissistic reflection of the world mirrored by machines in love with and in awe of themselves.

Cameras do not have feelings, and their captured objects have no feelings either. Though they look like objects in action, they are frozen in camera motion. Cameras that record their mirror images are narcissists that have escaped the curse of falling into the well. They long for the beauty they can only see but not feel. Vasulka’s work can be understood as the interpretation of a self-absorbed world by a self-loving monitoring or recording machine, a self-referential artificial eye reflected in mirrors. This is a form of feedback loop.


Illustration 10: Installation view, Steina Vasulka, Machine Vision (1978)

ALLVISION and Machine Vision point towards a world with self-referential machines that is devoid of biological life. The artificial eyes (cameras) are perfectly happy with their quasi-narcissistic mirroring. They are narcissistic dancers reflecting their selves, recognising themselves as others, mirrored in themselves and mirroring their environment, imprisoning it in the apparently confined space of monitors that direct our gaze into the world of cathodes and electronic signals: deconstruction and reconstruction. A magical trick! Illusion!

The surrounding space is bent in this mirror ball, this magic crystal ball, and sent back into its own gaze, momentarily blinding its vision – only to come back as a similar gaze, slightly shifted, drowning in another experience of time. These artificial eyes define the environment as much as they mirror it. They are in a position that swallows up the world and spits it out on small monitors observing the observers. This is a feedback loop; cameras, audience, and mirrored reflections observe each other. There is no escape from an omnipresent observer.

The installations, ALLVISION and Machine Vision, are about omnipresence and mirroring more than just the self, reflecting the other to us (strangers to ourselves), echoing these mirror images in their environment. The works are about a form of expanded narcissism, an oxymoron.

The question then arises: how might Obsessive-Compulsive Arctificial Life perceive its environment? It might look at it like Alice through the looking glass, filtered via sophisticated systems or with a barbaric basic idea of vision, pixelating the whole world and not being able to recognize what you and I might perceive. Unlike Vasulka’s artificial eyes, OCAL will not drown in its own image. It probably won’t reflect the world within the world.

I Am a Machine, Not a Human

Metaphor: Dissociative Disorder

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Palisades Tartan. 2008. DVD.

Trailer (2’07”):

“We all get lost in a good book or movie. But someone with dissociative disorder escapes reality in ways that are involuntary and unhealthy. The symptoms of dissociative disorders – ranging from amnesia to alternate identities – usually develop as a reaction to trauma and help keep difficult memories at bay” (Mayo Clinic, n.d.).

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay is a film about a woman who is convinced that she is a cyborg warrior. She falls in love with another hospital patient who believes he can steal other people’s souls. She asks him to steal her sympathy (empathy) for people, so she can kill the people in white (hospital staff) without remorse. She wants to be a machine through and through.

“Time to meditate. Get up and listen to the hum of the fridge in the middle of the night. … Feel the sound of the boiler that has been running all night. They move us to tears because they have a purpose of existence” (Young-goon, female protagonist, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, Scene 1).


Illustration 11: Film still 1, Park Chan-wook, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2008)

The female protagonist Young-goon works in a factory with production lines for transistors and motherboards. Everybody wears the same uniform. She sees herself as part of the bigger system, part of an interconnected computer system, a cyborg.

Young-goon feels so in tune with the machines that she plugs herself into the mains. Afterwards she wakes up in a mental hospital. She meets a guy who is delusional and takes “loving” control of her, while she believes that she is a robot. She is a robot as well as a human. She might be psychotic. She is also very detached from what we call reality, although she lives in her own bubble of reality. She thinks that computer mice are her brothers and sisters, and she calls herself the mother mouse. This is not so different from Pinky and the Brain[11] with Brain wanting to control the world. As the mother mouse she can control the actions of all other mice that give access to computers and networks.


Illustration 12: Film still 2, Park Chan-wook, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2008)

The paranoid male protagonist Il-sun wants to control the delusional biological female “robot”. Young-goon tries to forget all emotional pain by acting like a machine, with repetition and predictable motions. Most of the time she is lost in a dreamscape of machine feelings. She refuses to communicate with human psychologists, parents, or co-workers. For Il-sun she can be his perfect projection screen, though she has escaped into her own actuality of being a robot. Connecting to the mains, nearly killing her, has given her a new life; however, it brings her to a mental hospital. She invents an actuality that has helped her to overcome the effects of the machine-like emotionless behaviour of her biological peers. It is less painful to be a machine than being a human who is treated like a machine. She can obtain control of herself. “I am a machine” gives her strength and authority. The male protagonist tries to control the woman who tries to gain control over her uncontrollable surroundings by transforming into a “flesh and blood” machine.

Young-goon talks to fluorescent lights, to vending machines, and to electrical sockets, as they seem to understand her. They are made of the same fabric. She has escaped into her own world because humans tyrannise her, ignore her, and tell her what to do. When she talks about computer mice being her brothers and sisters, she expresses that she is a machine: “I am a machine, but I did not come with a label or an instruction manual anywhere.“[12]

At the end of the film, the male protagonist feeds the woman’s delusion, so he can keep her alive as a human. He tells her what she has to do. He wants to protect her. In his bubble he invades her bubble, and she is so translucent and machinistic that she takes his bubble on. She starts to eat again because he tells her that she has a chip implanted in her brain. She wants to blow herself up but does not succeed because her friend has manipulated the radio antenna she uses to attract a lighting bolt. I see this as a metaphor for the happy coexistence of human and machine that is a human in disguise. The human shows empathy for the deluded human machine; and the machine can survive as it not only feeds of batteries and tries to attract all other machines but also can be human without having to be aware of its humanness.


Illustration 13: Film still 3, Park Chan-wook, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2008)


The works discussed above deal with different variants of personality disorder. The protagonists suffer either from schizophrenia and psychotic delusions or the machines represent and create a quasi-narcissistic world. They are creative and humanised as machines, and they are creative and machinistic as humans. The thesis, “Arctificial Territory”, utilises another personality disorder, OCD, to develop a futuristic psychological science fiction space.


In this chapter I have outlined what artwork has led to this research. I have introduced artistic psychological space and discussed how a selection of my and other artists’ works relate to this space via elements of artistic interventions with reference to personality disorders. These works are either precursors of Arctificial Territory or already part of it because they act in a cold, repetitive space without essentially being cold and repetitive.



Table of Contents, Glossary, Introduction and Methodology, Contextual Scene, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Conclusion, APPENDIX A, APPENDIX B, Bibliography and Other Sources



[1] The philosopher Dan O’Hara extensively commented on my ideas in a message on Facebook, but this communication got lost, and he wrote a shorter reply to give me an overview of what he had written in the erased message (O’Hara 2011).

[2] Gregory Bateson was a social scientist and cyberneticist. A double bind is a conflicting situation in which a person or a system experience a dilemma and can neither resolve nor abandon the problem. I interpret this as a feedback loop that is stuck somewhere, comparable to playing a scratched CD that does not seem to move forwards or backwards, hence blocking the information flow.

[3] “The Singularity is the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence” (Kurzweil 2011).

[4] Gudrun Bielz, Grauer Raum mit Blau (Grey Room with Blue), installation, shown at the exhibition TRIGON: Styrian Autumn, Neue Galerie Graz, 1987.

[5] Gudrun Bielz, Unititled 1, installation, shown at the exhibition Im Raum Schule, Offenes Kulturhaus Linz, 1992.

[6] Gudrun Bielz, No Empty Space Available, installation, shown at Galerie 5020, Salzburg, within the context of the film festival DIAGONALE, 1994.

[7] Gudrun Bielz, Untitled , video installation, Faces of Death, Ilion Galleries, Athens, 2005.

[8] I have quoted the clinical definitions by the Mayo Clinic to give a short overview of the characteristics of each personality disorder.

[9] Invisible Adversaries, Scene 1.

[10] Hyksos: “A people of mixed Semitic-Asiatic stock, probably including a proportion of Habiru, who gave their name to the fifteenth Egyptian Dynasty (1650–1558 b.c.) which ruled the eastern delta” (OED 2010).

[11] Pinky and the Brain is a 1990s American television animation. Brain wants to rule the world and never succeeds. They are “genetically enhanced lab mice” (, n.d.).

[12] I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, Scene 1.




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