Essay for Video Pool forthcoming publication
Germaine Koh: Call and Relay
October 17 – November 23, 2007
100 Arthur Street
When first thinking about writing this piece I was flying across an ocean, which is one of the few places where I, in my own personal space, am free from wireless communications. In airplanes – as was once the case in airports and on trains – time takes on a different shape from the scheduled work hours of our lives, simply because we are in an enforced no-telematic-communication zone, because we are ‘unplugged’. And with the time lag, the counting of the minutes until touchdown, and the hours slipping past as you fly across another time zone coupled with the communication muffling blanket, comes a kind of nostalgia. I write ‘kind of nostalgia’ because what I really mean is the feeling you get from noting an absence – of the other, or the possibility of communicating with the other – and the longing for meaningful communication with that other, be it a person or a place that you are jetting from or to. The change of pace one feels when in transit, or when unplugged (which I think one equally feels in remote places, or in snowstorms) makes, in my mind, communication less hurried, and thus potentially more saturated with meaning.
This weird cozy feeling of timeless personal space that comes with a long haul flight is also something gained through interacting with Germaine Koh’s communication projects. Through their shifting of both our perceptions of physical space and the time of our interaction with them, they remind us that perhaps this complicated and affecting emotion (that I am possibly mistakenly calling nostalgia) doesn’t necessarily come from a slackening of our daily pace, but perhaps from a combination of both a temporal and spatial shift. After all, the etymology of nostalgia is spatial – namely in reference to grief for a native land – and yet the most common use of the term is temporal.
So how does this work in Germaine’s projects? Relay takes users’ frantic text messages
and (as quietly as floodlights can given that they are unnoticeable when they
are off) blinks out the communication in Morse code across the city. Steady as
she goes. Call allows visitors to
pick up an old fashioned telephone handset and be connected, via landlines, to
a perfect stranger somewhere else in that same city, for a completely
unstructured, unscripted, open-ended chat. Time is not prescribed in either of
these projects. Your Morse message can be as long as you want (indeed it is
longer in Morse than it is in type), and while there is a short technical delay
between when you send it and when it is transmitted in lights, it does not
up to meet the immediacy of today’s telecommunications. On the contrary, it
demands that you slow down to the pace it takes to read the dots and dashes.
These works of Germaine’s sit within an artistic practice concerned with the small gestures of communication between people, and with, as I see it, the creation of a kind of nostalgia regarding personal space. Perhaps it is in their resistance to the sped-up communications of the so-called modern world that they give nostalgia this new shape. This new nostalgia is not based on grief per se, but rather is an emotional feeling that shifts us, perhaps sideways, to take a different view of things and pushes us into a different space-time by actually resisting the push to move forwards. Germaine’s works suggest a particular pace to viewers’ interactions. They are prescriptive, and yet they make slowing down, which is usually understood as frustrating, into something useful, into a welcome interruption that breaks from the norm.
Consider the actions of Germaine’s other projects: office workers’ keystrokes are translated into smoke signals that dissipate above the building in which they are working; gallery lights dim and change incrementally (sometimes unnoticeably slowly) in response to the clouds passing or sun setting outside; a turnstile allows entry or refuses it (either way asks you to consider the pace at which you are entering the building) by turning in sync with the wind blowing outdoors.
Nostalgia is ultimately concerned with affect and, I would argue, its effects on our sense of personal space and time. Affect is what Germaine does well. She makes natural systems – for example, that of the wind and the sun – affect technological ones, which then affect you. Then she turns and allows you to affect the technological system.
Sometimes it is not so obvious: a standard metal fencepost is placed in the middle of a small path which has been worn into the ground by people using it as a shortcut between two streets. Over time, the single path is worn into two distinct paths – one to the left of the post, and one to the right. Sometimes it is Germaine herself that functions as both the technological system and its affect. Such is the case when she sits in a gallery window all day, looking out. Likewise, when she keeps her diary in the classified ads section of the newspaper, or when she spends hours in a public place unravelling sweaters to re-knit the wool into an enormous blanket. This is also true when she presses a coin into your hand, in a kind of systematised transaction, and the currency of the coin is her own intent – metal stamped with the words “I WILL”.
I was asked by Germaine to be one of the recipients of phone calls from visitors to her Call project when it was first made for a festival in California. I didn’t receive many calls and they generally didn’t last longer than five minutes. But they did affect me. Their unplanned spontaneity meant I had to stop what I was doing to chat; their unplanned content meant I had to give myself up to listen and be prepared to suggest or insinuate a topic into the unstructured conversation. I had to affect back. I had become part of a system designed to reinvest the personal into systems we expect will be impersonal (much like the automatic retrieval or translation of information).
Maybe nostalgia is the wrong word for this after all, for
there is rarely anything of outright grief for the lost land in Germaine Koh’s
works. Instead, they celebrate technology in all its hindered, quirky,
malfunctioning forms, just as they celebrate human intervention for being
equally fallible. Best of all, her works marry those together and,
they do, as
publicly-sited as her projects often are, they return you to an awareness of
your own personal space. And they do that far better than the most
nostalgia-laden long haul flight ever could.
Sarah Cook is a Canadian curator and post-doctoral research fellow based in North East England. She co-founded the online resource CRUMB, a site for curators of new media art to share knowledge about their practice. Sarah has curated exhibitions across Canada, in the UK, USA and Europe.
 Marc Augé has written about airport, airplanes and other ‘transient’ places in similar terms – as spaces of reflection, but not because they're communication-less, as Kris Cohen reminded me in an email (Nov 25, 2007), “but because there is a sense of relief in being able to float sideways from one's normal life, because spaces of transit like airports are a space apart from ordinary life”. See Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 1995.
 Nostalgia: from the Greek nosos = return to native land, and algos = suffering or grief. Adam Phillips writes: “Darwin says nostalgia is maladaptive - that actually there is a real problem if we want to go on living into the future with old stories.”
 Thanks to Dorian Stuber for helping me figure this out (email 25 Nov 2007).
 A relief, or an abeyance, as Kris Cohen noted in the same email.