Dr. Johannes Meinhardt

Addressee unknown
An aestheticism of communication interferences



The works of Sylvia Winkler and Stephan Köperl usually commence with communication interferences, i.e. with interferences, misconduct or failure of the interaction, the report of statements or messages - on the level of language, writing, body or behaviour. They deal with situations with pieces of writing turning up, for instance, which are incomprehensible or not perceived as writing in the first place; or which exist in a situation without addressee or speaker, anonymous and non-referential, floating and without context; or they concern certain forms of behaviour which evade communication, refuse expression and lock themselves up. Such unsuccessful sending, failure or refusal is very ordinary; it is mostly small, unremarked interferences in the daily routine, where the usually unremarked communication mechanisms, i.e. the report of statements with the help of signs like spoken sentences, written sentences and interactive forms of behaviour, are noticed in the first place: by missing their target, petering out or getting stuck.

It is especially on journeys abroad that such interferences in communicating or better in understanding (I do not understand what the other person says or if they say anything at all) become perceptible: the natural integration in the world of signs and in communication collapses to the degree to which a certain writing or language is unknown to me or, which is even more impressive, to which I do not know or understand the behavioural codex of a certain society; therefore I am compelled to perceive the non-functioning of communication and understanding. That is why such perceptions and experiences arise mainly and inevitably (virtually by themselves) abroad, i.e. when the cultural codices of the countries being travelled are unknown to me. This strangeness is expected and not surprising; its arousal is not disconcerting. Such interferences and failure, however, can also, and especially, occur with the most intimate and known relationships: as a completely unexpected event of non-understanding, of collapsing communication. It is especially in the most intimate relationships that everybody knows such fundamental interferences in communication and understanding; because where expectations and demands as regards communication are set highest, the failure of this communication arises most easily: as a sudden and catastrophic collapse of the common language, as an unpredictable and so disconcerting and frightening arousal of incomprehensible, individual utterances and behaviour, which do not communicate any longer.

Second, the perception of such communication interferences can develop into a fascinating and analytical curiosity seeking to observe and to hold on to the totally different and unknown functioning of communication, i.e. the cultural difference in foreign countries and the individual one in relationships. The incomprehensible and confusing expression and interaction of the body appear to be especially strange here; for it is clear that foreign languages and writings are incomprehensible, however, to perceive a different body as strange as regards its utterances and behaviour is irritating and shocking in relation to the own body. Sylvia Winkler and Stephan Köperl keep coming across such strange interferences, both on their travels and in their relationship, which become the material for their performances and installations. When these small, common and unobtrusive, even casual moments of non-functioning communication are noticed, they, first of all, merely cause a sort of irritation akin to astonishment, i.e. it is surprising and disconcerting that the communication fails. To the degree, however, to which they become a topic of sensibility, of reflection and analysis, they evoke a kind of alienation, which means an increasing wavering as regards the naturalness of all communication and understanding. The undoubting and self-evident "wild" hermeneutics of daily life interprets incessantly: not only written and spoken sentences, but also gestures, facial expressions, movements, forms of behaviour. It interprets everything that is referable to an articulating or expressive subject, everything that can be understood as an expression or utterance of a subject. This unconscious hermeneutics of everyday life is wild because it is not being reflected; it functions although there are innumerable reasons for its failure.

Even the conditions for an understanding in everyday life are astonishingly complex and offer many possibilities for a failure. Sylvia Winkler and Stephan Köperl have turned nearly every possibility for a failure into material for artistic works.

The reading and interpretation of signs already set going a complex hierarchal interplay on at least three levels : in order to be able to identify any forms as signs, I have to differentiate on the simplest level between mere forms, decorations, ornaments and shaped objects, which merely exist without transporting any information, on the one hand and signs that are elements of a system of signs, i.e. of a significant structure carrying meaning on the other hand. This differentiation brings up two fundamentally contrasting opinions: either I consider a form a distinct sign that carries meaning or a meaningless object. Further I have to differentiate on this first level between merely material surfaces as for example facades or carrier bags, whose surface and extension are quite irrelevant as such, and surfaces supporting signs that put the unity of the chain of signs into reality in the unity of the inscription surface. What, however, happens when apparently separated, disjointed surfaces supporting signs transport and communicate a continuous, coherent text, as is the case in many works by Winkler and Köperl? To speak from an information theory point of view, I have to be able to recognize a transmission or radiation, which means to recognize both, a carrying medium and the existence of modulations or forms carrying information. The second level of reading written and hearing spoken language deals with the identification of the distinct elements of the system: the symbols or phonemes. Potential mistakes included, on the first level I am quickly able to identify a line of ornaments or forms as writing, even if I cannot read the individual signs. So on the second level I am able to read written text, whose signs I know, just as I acoustically know and recognize almost all phonemes of all existing languages without being able to speak and understand the language myself. (It is only phonemes missing from my own language that cause difficulties, for they cannot be differentiated). Hence, I am able to read and hear proper names in a language unknown to me, for example, as they do not represent any semantic units.

To speak from an information theory point of view, I have to be able to recognize the set up system of signs as a structure, to analyse it in its structure and to comprehend it as a code.

Merely the third level is concerned with what represents the apparent immediacy for the consciousness and for communication: the meaning. It is only now that the chain of signs originating from a structured symbolical system is interpreted and semantically identified. It is only now that the meanings of the signs are reconstructed (in reality only constructed) as an expression of a subject and an intentional sense. And it is only now that the written text is understood as a coherent entity, as a meaningful message from one subject to the other, hence as communication.

Not only does communication, however, require the sending of signs, i.e. a sender and a referential reality the message refers to, but it also needs an addressee. In case of a message being misdirected this addressee is even non-identical to the recipient. Equally, there are messages directed to every addressee possible (hence to nobody), like prohibition signs, signs in general, text panels, posters, bills etc; there also are messages lacking even reference, like examples, grammatical or linguistic exercises etc (sentences whose semantic content is irrelevant or indifferent).


Sylvia Winkler and Stephan Köperl use for many works one single sentence, which sounds especially strange, ambiguous or poetically wild. They are mostly sentences, which they find in language dictionaries. (They use the foreign version in situ, on the spot, abroad, in their installations and performances and simultaneously provide the German translation on photographs and videos made in each place).

These sentences have primarily not been selected for their content nor are they supposed to communicate any message or intentional sense - their being well-formed and grammatical correctness suffice -, they have been constructed, instead, as examples that show grammatical, syntactic and phonetic rules especially well. Therefore they are often sweetly feeble-minded: detached from any situational context, without speaker or addressee they are semantically contingent, nearly meaningless and float indistinctly or ambiguously in a specific kind of emptiness. Such sentences, however, become aestheticized exactly through this emptiness, through their functional disorder and the absence of any semantic and situational embedding. As they forfeit most of their sense, their transparency becomes cloudy, just as the naturally presupposed transparency of the signs, which are usually transparent in transmitting their meaning from speaker to addressee, or which are not perceived or forgotten over their meaning in the first place. On the one hand, it is only their aestheticization and their semantic clouding that makes them wide-ranging - we might also call it poetic -, however on the other hand, it creates the possibility of perceiving the sentence in its own reality as a chain of signs before any hermeneutics and interpretation; in other words, we are enabled to view the sentence as a series of absurd signs, which are initially hardly comprehensible and seem to obey a law different to that of the intended meaning. As in poetry, translation, language games and phonetic similarity in general, the chain of signs also here follows rules which do not depend on meaning but which deal with surface effects of language instead, with contingent similarities or identities of the phonetic and graphic material of language, with rhythm and sound, with ambiguity and insolvability.

Such sentences are not poetic in the sense of poetic production; they have been found, however, and stand out through a slight bulkiness and stubbornness, through a floating elevation that makes them remote and strange at the same time. This becomes clear especially with the type of sentence lacking speaker and addressee even on a grammatical level like infinitives, or with sentences having an anonymous and unspecified speaker and addressee like imperatives and slogans, or with mutilated sentences lacking verbs and hence representing a mere stringing together of substantives without meaning.

All three sentence types often appear in the sentences and on the writing panels of Sylvia Winkler and Stephan Köperl. Examples are: "education has to be hard and merciless" (Chinese); "to drink from one´s sip by sip" (Arabic); "the superficial depiction of the events" (Japanese); "to contest the actual truth of an event" (French); "to see to something with dedication" (Polish).


Sentences of this kind are presented by the two artists in several works in such a way that the individual words of the sentences are located on disconnected, independent carriers in completely different types of writing corresponding to the carrier. All you can see in the beginning are different inscriptions like company names, logos, advertisements on a wall, a plastic bag, a jacket or a shopping bag; graffiti on a house wall; posters printed or written by hand; inscribed banners. These inscriptions appear totally "authentic" in the sense of the text and the corresponding writing expected in such a place and on such a carrier; they fit completely into their surroundings being in that sense remarkably unobtrusive. Only on a second view, which is guided via the hint at the sentence translated into German on the photograph or in the video, do you realize that the inscribed carriers, which seem to be disjointed and just happen to be there at the same time, follow an invisible choreography (or should I say calligraphy?). In other words, the snapshot of a random and disjointed distribution of inscribed carriers in space abruptly reveals itself as an intentional and carefully constructed arrangement of a sentence. Against all reason and against all knowledge of the contingency and chaotic accidental nature of life, a coherent sense of coincidences becomes suddenly striking. It is as if a higher power hiding insidiously behind the coincidences of life lets its miraculous epigrams and oracles flash for a moment; for only a second later would the line of words be incomprehensible and the arrangement of the inscribed object destroyed again: inscriptions are often fastened onto moving objects, as for instance cardboard boxes being transported by mopeds, bags being carried, or driving cars. This sudden revelation is even more insidious (and comical as an imploding tautology), when the sentence from the dictionary picks its way of presentation as the central theme: the Arabic sentence (illegible for most people) "to carry the bag once in the right hand and then in the left hand" is written onto various bags carried past, whereby it is evident that the passers-by carry the bag once in the right and then in the left hand.

This turn over of a banal every day situation, in which only the nature of chance decides about simultaneity, into a veiled sense that is directed to me as the observer and hits me as if it was addressed only to me by a malicious god (the other people in the same situation do not notice anything), touches a realm of psychotic-paranoid experiences to which access usually remains rather difficult. The paranoid experience that indefinite contingent series of signs spread all over the world band together to a secret sense so that I suddenly become the addressee of every incoherent and disperse series of signs possible, forces me to imagine a malicious will towards me behind the haphazard world. In the works of Winkler and Köperl I am not exposed to this force, as there is no malicious phantom god pulling the threads behind the contingent reality; on the contrary, the two artists have constructed the situation as hidden, however simultaneously revealing as regards their procedure. To the extent to which I understand this surprising being addressed to as an artistic strategy and not as the hidden truth of reality, the way it works becomes reflectable and transparent.


Closely related to this use of sentences in foreign languages are the substitution or supplementation of signs: of public prohibition signs and signs giving orders, of flags with slogans and cheering-ups, of plaques and bills, advertisements and posters, and of panels with other texts. They are also examples out of dictionaries. Especially Japan and China are states with unimaginable masses of public writing: In Japan mainly advertising, signs and public behavioural orders, in China mostly pedagogic requests, mottoes and slogans. When, for instance, a sign at a desk outside carries the Chinese inscription "checkpoint of the fifth new housing district", it is only through this sign that an entire, completely foreign socio-cultural sphere becomes perceptible; so when Winkler and Köperl replace this sign by another one with the Chinese infinitive " to be able to feel something but not to express it with words", then this found sentence without speaker or addressee seems to refer directly to this socio-cultural situation. Or when Winkler and Köperl, write the (evidently found) sentence "criticism on the quiet" onto cardboard boxes in ïsaka, which the homeless use as their sleeping place in an arcade at night, then this sentence comes across as a comment on the obligation to consent not allowing criticism in the first place (even if the boxes on their use tear the arrangement of the words in the sentence apart).



Even in the performances and the cover versions of pop songs by Velvet Underground and Nico, Haddaway and Foley/Westpar, it is lost material showing or causing communication interferences that forms the center of interest. Just as the sentences they found for their works of writing, so the material discovered for their productions, their movements in the performances and the strange affective behaviour of the songs represents to a large extent material that evades the usual, functional use and sense; hence it becomes aestheticized through its disfunctionalisation on the one hand and perceptible as an independent production of signs on the other hand.

Therefore it is the gestures, attitudes and movements that evade or refrain from communication, confine the subject to him/herself and lead him/her to forgetfulness or, quite related to it, to concentration, which play the most important part in the performances. Gestures made only half-consciously on the one hand and forms of behaviour arising when people are immersed in themselves and do not perceive their surroundings and themselves anymore on the other sharpen the awareness for the retreat from communication in particular. Sylvia Winkler often deals with them. Examples from Japan are "das Einziehen der Luft durch die Zähne als Geste der Verlegenheit (Super-8/Band-Aid in English)", and "when a woman got lost creaming herself in the sento, the public bath". Such gestures create a disconcerting distance to the subject immersed in him/herself, especially when they originate in a foreign culture and cannot be perceived and interpreted as a natural expression any more. Here Sylvia Winkler has a quasi-natural affinity with the gestures of shutting oneself off, of retreat, of absence and of the refusal to communicate.

This process of retreating connected to an odd experience of alienation, is also expressed in a sentence by George Perec that the two artists use in one of their works: "you do not move, you will not move. Another person, a double, an eerie and conscientious substitute maybe takes over your gestures you do not make anymore."

In correspondence to that their manner while singing cover versions is just as inexpressive and almost motionless: the feelings and moods expressed in the songs as well as the emotions transported by them are affects that have been found; as far as the subject is concerned, they face him/her as strangers, i.e. as parasites trying to seize hold of its affective life. Winkler and Köperl maintain this distance between these induced feelings and themselves, whoever this might be. They do no comment on these songs and affects, they do not criticize them nor do they surge in the emotions expressed: instead they do the work of performing the songs with the neutralism concentrated work requires and with the distance that enables emotions to be cited without comment. That is also disconcerting. It is this strangeness of the presentation, however, that makes the concealed strangeness of the induced feelings and the moods only taken over from the songs perceptible in the first place.