From Wisla to WARS and Beyond or, Order Takes You Halfway There

“Static camera focuses for 15 seconds on the upper edge of the stand and on the architecture/landscape beyond the stadium, accompanied by the sounds from within it = choral dialogue. The announcer reads out the line-up, the camera pans across the stand roof and the view behind the stadium, or zooms in to the foreground (from the rear towards the stand fence) – 15 seconds – cut – handheld camera films the movements of the coaches in the tunnel from a height of c. 150 cm, from the side, no sound (or muffled noise from outside) – 10 seconds – cut – stadium noise. Static camera zooms frontally into the tunnel, with the coaches in the foreground – 15 seconds – and follows them to the coaches’ bench on the right – 10 seconds – coaches slowly sit down – 30 seconds – cut – static camera frontal to the coaches’ bench: coach checks his watch, otherwise indifferent,”1 The match can begin.

So far so good. Or perhaps not. To be precise the game has already started, a play within a play, kept deliberately off screen. We are already into the second minute. Next come extensive close-ups of the two coaches, carefully observing everything that happens on the pitch, none of which we ourselves can see. Accompanied by football songs and whistling, the match comes to an end, the figures 0:0 light up on the score board, one last pan across the empty Wisla stadium in Krakow, and then the two coaches, shaking hands with four “figures in impeccable suits” on an otherwise empty VIP stand. With a fade-out, the film and the game end.

What game are we talking about here? The central narrative of Josef Dabernig’s film Wisla unfolds only indirectly – through the concentrated gazes, restrained reactions and sporadic gestures of the two coaches in their “technocrat suits”, and through the singing and verbal reactions of a sizable crowd of football fans, who appear to be watching an “important” match. The narrative is also revealed through its context of before and after –
the run onto the pitch, the congratulations – and through images of the events’ location and surroundings – shown in two pans over the fragmentarily recognisable neoclassical stadium architecture, with utilitarian tower blocks in the background.

Where the game begins or Wisla ends is hard to say because, just as the film’s empty, imaginary centre delegates narration to a few isolated disclosures and to context, thus decisively extending the playing field, Josef Dabernig’s work as a filmmaker does not begin with the opening shot. The quotation which opens this text is from the Treatment for the short film, Wisla, b/w, sound, 5 min., which has been printed as an integral part of the work on page 71 of this catalogue. Its language, as precise as it is mechanical, corresponds to an almost mathematical structuring of time, which was slightly modified in the film itself. Dabernig’s inclusion of the treatment, i.e. the film’s concept, extends the boundaries of the work, relocating the film in a middle ground between visual art, applied art and cinematography, and thus deliberately connecting it with various other fields of activity.2 Moreover, the artist is not only the writer, director and producer of Wisla, he is also its leading actor. It is no coincidence that various commentators have interpreted this imaginary game in a Polish stadium as an allegory of the art world in which the work is regularly shown.3 It is Dabernig’s simultaneous presence in the film and outside of it which makes the imparting of the imaginary narrative possible. The same is true for the hand-shaking representatives of the ruling order at the end of the film, who include the former consul general of the Republic of Austria in Krakow, the director of the Ludowy theatre in Krakow and the long-standing president of T. S. Wisla sports club. They both are and play representatives of the divergent spheres to which the film can be seen to refer.

Josef Dabernig’s Wisla is in this sense about boundaries, about dubious divisions into
text – context, film – off screen, or artwork – the everyday. It is about the transmissions, reflections and deferrals in the relationship between imaginary and real order, in the relationship between narrative and representation.

Back to the empty centre, the imaginary narrative, which is accompanied by various further omissions and “lacks”. Back to a game without spectators, to the surrounding housing complexes, empty of people, to run-down stadium architecture, and finally to two coaches, who can only sit and watch all their hard work being put into practice. “Cursed always to be spectators”, they do this with detachment and without emotion. The “emptiness” in Wisla is never absolute – it is not to be confused with a pathetic, existential nothingness, in which the other represents hell. The coaches are not self-preoccupied subjects suffering under their own existence and from their own alienation. Quite the opposite. The empty spaces, absences and gaps in Wisla remain relative. They relate back concretely to the social ideals, plans and orders, to the precise structures and systems, in which, and between which, they arise. The coaches, for instance, are doing their job, and doing it with the utmost professionalism. Neither the omission of the game nor the visual absence of the spectators lead to fundamental questions of meaning or existential solipsism. These gaps are compensated for by a dynamic soundtrack and by a directing of the attention to the “framework occurences of a football match”. At the same time they draw attention to the rules of representation and to the ordering of the (filmic) acting, with its identification strategies and imaginary constructions. The “lacks” and “gaps” in the stadium and high-rise architecture also arise from the internal contradictions of high-level technocratic systems. In the foreground, elements of a dilapidated fascistic architecture, designed to awe and impress. Framing it in the background, huge planning and normalization phantasms. Ultimately in Wisla –
and in Josef Dabernig’s work in general – order, and normative structures are as important as absences and omissions. No rational totality without its empty space; no systematic order without its central opposite, which, as a “lack” or hole in a network of symbolic structures, invites the viewer to play along with the imaginary game. Having entered the game, the above-described dialectic never loses its tension. League-table announcements in Italian together with Polish architecture hardly contribute to the progression of a coherent narrative order, yet sound and image deliver enough “plot”, enough clues and points of entry, to allow the viewer to keep up and to keep reviewing his or her own position in the game. Wisla ends with a standard situation – a paradigmatic power ritual with four apparatchiks in the centre. The camera zooms back, opening up the field of view, and positions the event – in an empty spectator stand. The coaches are also there, they walk to one side and mark the edge of the game/film. From off screen comes the whistling of an emotional crowd, indicating a substantial playing-along of another kind. The honourable representatives smile routinely. Wisla, a match between order and idling, power and powerlessness, ends with the interchangeable result 0:0, an open end.
Five years after Wisla, Josef Dabernig shot WARS, 16mm, b/w, 10 min., in a restaurant carriage belonging to the Polish railway company PKP. The film begins with a static shot, “frontal to the black curtain, with moving landscape in the background”.4 The noise of the train can be heard, and the monotonous rhythm of the rails. The window pane is murky, all movement passive – standstill in motion. In the following scenes Josef Dabernig intensifies this effect. We see an empty kitchen, a waiter leaning against a window cleaning his fingernails, an untouched array of drinks and snacks, and finally a long shot of the empty restaurant car, with the waiter on the left and a waitress sitting on the right. The room is in movement, in stark contrast to its interior, which lacks either guests or narrative. “Every action occurs passively – conditioned by the vehicle, the railway lines, the route, the air quality in the room, etc.”5 After a few minutes we see the interim balance on the till: 0.0, another draw apparently.
The void we are discussing here is ordered and prescribed. Serial and orthogonal structures make up a modernist interior in which everything runs according to plan. Once it is set in motion, there is no way out of this closed system. Thus the personnel fulfil their tasks strictly as instructed. Subject to the physical, psychic and economic orders of the space, they wait until further notice. There is no other narrative or communication beyond this. They are determined by others – the tracks and their employers – until the train terminates. This situation only changes at the end – of the film and of the journey. As the staff cash up the dynamic changes, and all the personnel including the chef begin cleaning furiously. It makes no sense, but where does sense come into it, when there is a plan and a system to be followed through, which dictate every narrative precisely?
It is not easy to define the systematic emptiness of WARS using standard expressions or binary opposites. It combines movement and stillness, passivity and activity, apathy and involvement. Waiting and cleaning are two sides of the same coin, the outcome of a totalitarian structure, which knows the outside world only through the window pane, and life as a closed symbolic order of systematic repetitions.

Wisla, like WARS, takes as its theme the structural correlations between order and idling as a consequence of absolute isolation and the separation of inner and outer. In the centre of each system are subjects, whose status is analysed by Josef Dabernig through the film’s content as well as its structure. The voids and apparatus which his films are about are at the same time voids and apparatus that reflect filmic representation itself, that demonstrate filmic method (in regard to the observed and observing subject).
In WARS, as previously in Wisla, many levels of narrative and representation cross and overlap. There can be no doubt of the extent to which the actions of the restaurant car staff are predetermined. It is not only the thoughtfully observed details and contradictions however, or the references to concrete economic systems from planned economy to capitalism, which give such force to this fact, but also the manner in which this heteronomy is portrayed, i.e. related to the watching subject.
As mentioned earlier, the film begins with static shots out of the window, into the kitchen and of people who are being rattled along much in the same way as the tastefully arranged “potpourri of crisps, nuts, chewing gum and drinks”.6 The images seem objective, unaffected by the events themselves. As the journey progresses, this “neutral” outside view becomes relative. The first downward view of the cameraperson’s own checked trousers, and a pan back up, is followed a little later by a subjective look at a calculator and a woman’s hands. A fuzzy shot of the letters WARS, slowly coming into focus, is followed by a reverse-angle shot of the waiter’s face as he is shaken awake from his doze. On closer inspection, almost all the images in and of the restaurant car turn out to constitute the gazes of active subjects within the carriage. There is hardly a single distanced or apparently objective observation that is not directly derived from the spatial and narrative structure of the film and the view of its regulated subjects. Has the viewer been short-circuited into a closed symbolic order, in which acting and seeing are one and the same?

Recent film theory has a largely psychoanalytical basis for its descriptions and explanations of how the subject is bound up with classical narrative film. Using the term “suture”, Oudard, Heath, Dayan, Silverman and others have developed a model in which the subject is lead into the narrative through a broken imaginary relationship between eye and camera. The “suture” theoreticians begin with the assumption that in watching a film there is an initial moment of pure joy in the image which is then disturbed by becoming conscious of the frame, the restrictedness of filmic representation and the control of the gaze through an unseen other. (In WARS, for instance, the frame is emphasised right at the start, with the frontal shot of the window frame with the landscape going by behind it, “like in a film”. The following tightly edited shots further underline the image boundaries.) This loss is compensated by a re-identification of the gaze within the image itself. The absent willed gaze is replaced by the subjective one of an actor. The camera’s initially disturbing gaze is particularly motivated through the use of shot/reverse shot. What is given to view no longer refers to an absent “other”, but to a known person who shortly before was subjected to the viewer’s gaze. According to Daniel Dayan, the spectator can resume his previous relationship with the film. The reverse-shot has “sutured” the hole opened in the spectator’s imaginary relationship with the filmic field (through his perception of the absent other).7 Even though it must be emphasised here that the imaginary compensation for absence is always incomplete and that suture, as Heath indeed has maintained, must be understood as a continual process, the advocates of this model, despite all their differences, agree that the mechanism of suture “provides the means by which the subject becomes visible within the discourse and (at least ideally) takes a position corresponding to the existing cultural order”.8

So what about the positioning and determining of the viewers of WARS and the relationships between inner and outer which the film takes up? Although the gazes are thoroughly subjectivised, apart from a few exceptions, this does not occur within the dialectic of shot/reverse shot, or of the subject/object position. The gazes in the restaurant car are mostly static and thus continually throw their subjective origin into doubt. They come moreover from three different protagonists; to an extent they describe a circle, or more exactly a triangle, and it is difficult to attribute them. Through which identification in the film is a lasting suture of the doubt underlying this play to be achieved, thus anchoring the viewer’s subjective position? The gaze in WARS changes continually; there is an avoidance of fixed suturing and subjective anchoring which may certainly be understood as programmatic. A remaining uncertainty, long since lost by the protagonists, is required from, and made available to, the viewers. And even if we at times consider the actors in WARS to be structural representatives, they allow entry into the symbolic order only at the price of identification with the emptiness and apathy they signify – the final consequence of the totalisation and permanent closure of this order. “No discourse without suture (…)”9 The films of Josef Dabernig of course give rise in their viewers to imaginary bonds and entanglements, but they do so in a manner which itself includes a confrontation with the mechanism and consequences of this involvement, this suturing of symbolic and imaginary. They do so in a manner based on procedural chaining together and temporary suturing of contradictory identifications, interpretations and perceptions, which include taking pleasure in idling together with disturbing gaps and the repeated compensations for them.

“Suture” is one way of dealing with “lacks” and absences. In the second half of WARS, we are met with yet another compensation mechanism – overzealous cleaning! As a substitute plot it is pointless as such, but it does create a dynamic contrast to the preceding apathy and emptiness. In Josef Dabernig’s film work we see such compensatory strategies again and again. In automatic, for instance, a collaborative work with the group G.R.A.M. from 2002, three men sit in parked vintage cars and indulge their obsessions; they listen to music, draw and fiddle with a (stills) camera. In between this the film camera focuses at regular intervals on nostalgic and erotically loaded details of the cars. It connects the functionlessness of old automobiles parked in a garage, and the self-preoccupation being demonstrated within them, to imaginary object-fixation and libidinal substitution mechanisms. In this multi-inverted scenario, without a constitutive outside, exclusion and idling go hand in hand with fetishisations, which can be understood in the economic as well as the psychoanalytical sense.
One year later, in Parking, of 2003, the mixture of Marxist commodity fetishism and phantasmal sublimation – as analysed by Freud – that was characteristic of automatic or WARS, slid over into the clearly sexual. At the side of a country road, two men divest themselves of their clothing, play a sado-masochistic game next to the reverberating car and then calmly dress again. The bondage and strict discipline received by the one protagonist from his partner – played by Josef Dabernig himself – is obviously consensual. He subjects himself gladly to reprimands, subordination games, and finally to blows with a rubber mat from the car. From the (phallic) order and subordination, pleasure is also achieved, whereby the presence and fulfilment thus generated is inherently contradictory. They appear to be the result of a game whose rules have been clearly laid down in advance, the result of an artificial staging in which the knowledge that this is a construction, a fake, has become an integral part of a satisfying imaginary process. Seen in this way, Parking shows both the regulation of “both men’s hormone levels” (“men in underwear”)10 and a further “memorial to lack”, a form of compensation for direct experience. A lack or loss which here has decidedly gender-specific aspects and offers up for discussion the relationship between action and representation, between bodily and visual desire.
It is no coincidence that in his most recent film, Lancia Thema, of 2005, Josef Dabernig is once again on the road in the same car, with whose rubber mats he thoroughly disciplined his fellow traveller in Parking. This time, though, he uses a camera to bring himself relief and pleasure, repeatedly photographing his car. A visual pleasure, whose order and mechanisms also challenge the viewers of his films again and again, and compel them, while watching, both to enjoy and deny their imaginary compensations.

1 Josef Dabernig, Treatment for the short film, Wisla, 16mm, b/w, sound, 5 min., p. 71 in this catalogue
2 This play on traditional categories of artwork, their simultaneous repetition and negation, is also indeed the creative principle behind this publication. Josef Dabernig otherwise makes clear distinctions and divisions of labour through frequent co-operation with artists from other disciplines.
3 c.f. for instance Christoph Blase, Die Zwei von der leeren Bank at:
4 Josef Dabernig, Treatment for the short film Wars, 16mm, b/W, sound, 9 min., p. 123 in this catalogue
5 Josef Dabernig, WARS, p. 125 in this catalogue
6 ibid
7 Daniel Dayan, The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema, in Film Quarterly vol. 28, no. 1, 1974, p. 30. See also Stephen Heath, On Suture [1977], in Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema, Bloomington, 1981
8 Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics [1983], in German, in the catalogue Suture – Phantasmen der Vollkommenheit, Salzburger Kunstverein 1994, p. 47
9 Heath, Ibid, p. 100
10 Josef Dabernig, Parking, p. 131 in this catalogue

Dabernig, Josef. Film, Foto Text Objekt, Bau
German/English. 212 pp., 280 b/w illustrations. Edited by Barbara Steiner on behalf of Museum for Contemporary Art Leipzig. Published by Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 2005. Authors: Silvia Eiblmayr, Christian Kravagna, Matthias Michalka, Barbara Steiner and Igor Zabel

Matthias Michalka