The work was was commissioned by Steven Bode of Film and Video Umbrella with Watershed Media Centre, Bristol and first staged in Bristol in October 1993.
The following describes a developed version for the show 'V-Topia' at Tramway, Glasgow, curated by Steven Bode, Eddie Berg and Charles Esche. The show opened in Glasgow in July 1994 and toured to Ikon, Birmingham in July 1995. Passagen was also staged by Rear Window in London in December 1994, and Tate Liverpool in April 1995 as part of VideoPositive95.
Exhibtion supported by Dataton.
In pitch darkness a space is described by five long, narrow images back projected onto screens suspended from the ceiling but appearing to float in mid air. On entering this space the visitor is surrounded by a panoramic view of three European cities, Paris, Berlin and London as seen from the Eiffel Tower, the Fersehturm and Canary Wharf respectively. In the centre of the space is a touch sensitive computer screen which enables the viewer to select a route through sequences of images, text and sounds to descend from their aerial view, through street level, and move about an underground transport system via its tunnels, escalators and intersections.
Physically the installation exists as a pentagonal shaped space described by 5 back projection screens, each approximately 4.5m x 1m. These are suspended about 1.5m above floor level. This space has a radius measuring approximately 8m. The ends of each screen are spaced about 1m from eachother. Onto the five screens are back projected, in sections, a 360° panoramic view of; Berlin from the TV Tower, Paris from the Eiffel Tower (daytime and at night) and London from Canary Wharf, there is also a skyscape of clouds punctuating the sequence of cities. These images have been constructed by seemlessly pasting together and merging the numerous individual photographs required to cover the full length of the horizon line using a graphics computer. The panorama appears as four slide projections and one video or data projection.
The slide projections continuously, but very slowly, fade down from, for example; Paris by night and up to Paris by day, to London, and then to Berlin. This slow fade to and from black gives the space a pulse or a sense of the rise and fall of breathing.
The visitor enters the space via the opening facing the data projection. In the centre of the space is a black plinth or console approximately four feet high concealed inside of which is a computer, its display screen is set into the top surface of the plinth and is angled toward the viewer. When stood in front of it the viewer faces the wall onto which the data projector sends its image. This image is that also displayed on the computer screen; the computer being linked to both screen and projector. The computer runs a sequence of animated stills, these include at times text and extracts of sound.
At the end of any sequence or in the absence of intervention by the viewer the screen will return to display an animated sequence of clouds against a blue grey sky. This opening or home sequence includes a soundtrack featuring a voice. Speaking in a measured middle European tone the voice has the quality of a hypnotists as it addresses the viewer; You are between sleep and waking. You are unsure of where you are. All that you experience is the bliss of altitude. Etre aux anges. The solar eye. You reach out in the hope of touching something solid. If, on this prompt, the viewer touches the computer's touch sensitive screen the image dissolves to that of an out of focus cityscape, the voice adds, as you do, the horizon appears. It continues with; What you see now is unclear, you know it is the city, yet strangely from up here all cities look the same. You are between sleep and waking. Slowly you pick out familiar sites. Sites every tourist knows. You remember you felt like this in Paris. You remember you felt like this in Berlin. You remember you felt like this in London. Paris........Berlin.........London.......... You want to touch them all. As the voice continues to repeat this, each time a little more insistent, an indistinct image of the corresponding cities fade through on screen. If the viewer touches the screen on one of the three cities the image dissolves into a clearer view of that city. The voice continues with , if Paris was choosen for example You realise now you are on the Eiffel Tower and Paris is beneath you, to the left.......to the right...........everywhere. Here the viewer has the opportunity to scroll the panorama horizontally to see the full 360° image, by touching the screen on the right, the image scrolls to the right, if the screen is touched on the left, the image scrolls left. Whilst it does this the voice continues. You feel yourself torn. Torn between the desire to enjoy the city at a distance, to be amongst the angels; etre aux anges, and to descend, to join with the city. You feel a giddiness up here, (a preternatural clarity), a giddiness that asks you to descend. Now, you try to steady yourself against some solid thing, to touch a reassuring surface. The scrolling now stops and if at this moment the viewer touches the screen the voice states, You wake, then as the image of the city dissolves into an image of the view from the lift on, in this case, the Eiffel Tower, the voice continues And now your descent has begun..... . An animated sequence of images and sounds from the descent from the top of the Tower to ground level, in the case of Berlin or London we see the interior of the respective lifts with graphics of floor numbers flashing on screen.
Our view passes through pavement level, in Paris, a businessman hurries down the steps to the Metro, in London we see the view from the rear carriage of a tube train as it runs from over to underground, in Berlin; a young child skips behind his parents as they walk through the arches of the Brandenberg Gate, and we arrive in the Metro (or had we choosen Berlin or London; either the Unterbahn, or the Tube system). Accompanied by the echoing sounds of trains and passengers, the voice begins again, LEnfant du Metro is the story of a little girl, born on the Paris Underground, who remains there searching for her lost parents. She pictures for herself the world above by drawing on the mystical names of the stations she sees signposted below: Babylone, Etoile, Pyramides. This begins the long sequence of slowly unfolding images, sounds and narratives of the underground system. At times station names appear, each rich with associations; Angel, Temple, St.Pauls, Rosa Luxamberg, Marx, Pasteur, 4th September 1945, Nationale, Liberation, Victoria, Waterloo. These are touch sensitive areas, and offer the opportunity to navigate a deliberate course through these collected narratives to encounter different visual or audio references to their history or their more poetic associations (in the Metro, sequences from Zazie dans le Metro when Zazie, faced with a choice of the historic landmarks of Paris wishes only to see the Metro, or the moment in Wages of Fear when the Parisian driver in South America shows off the centre piece of his collection of memorobilia - a Metro ticket from Pigalle, in London perhaps reference might be made amongst others to the near mythical status of the underground stations as air raid shelters during the second world war, in Berlin; to the passage of some routes beneath the wall through stations patrolled by armed soldiers at which passengers could not alight). Gliding across these images of inhospitable and only occasionally inhabited spaces are a series of fine grid lines, suggestive of x and y axise, coordinates or route maps. They dissect the spaces and isolate the few figures that populate them. As annotations might appear next to map references extracts of text fade up at the intersections of these lines or at the four edges of the frame.
As these sequences continue, seen on the large screen in front of the viewer and surrounded by the other four screens showing the city panoramas, slowly fading in and out to darkness, they are accompanied by the sounds of trains arriving and departing; the characteristic warning alarms as train doors close; platform announcements and anonymous footsteps, all heard as distant phrases echoing through tiled corridors.
The Arcades Project (as Benjamin most commonly referred to the Passagen-Werk), was originally conceived as an essay of fifty pages. But the ever more puzzling, more intrusive face of the project "howling like some small beastie in my nights whenever I haven't let it drink from the most remote sources during the day", did not let its author off so easily. In order to bring it to the light of day - and "out of an all-to ostensible proximity to the surrealist movement which could be fatal for me"- Benjamin kept extending its ground and deepening its base, both spatially and temporally. Ultimately all of Paris was drawn in, from the heights of the Eiffel Tower to its nether world of catacombs and metros, and his research spanned more than a century of the city's most minute historical details"
Walter Benjamin worked on the Passagen-Werk for 13 years, from 1927 to his death in 1940 when he committed suicide after attempting to flee occupied France. For the most part it consists of loosely arranged notes, half finished observations, quotations derived from contemporary books, magazines and journals etc, fragments of commentary and sparkling aphorisms.
As a book it does not really exist, there is not, as Susan Buck Morss points out, even a first page. Nevertheless for an apparently non-existant text the Passagen-Werk has cast an extraordinary spell over attempts to consider the poetics of the city and the experience of modern urban life. What singles the Passagen-Werk out from the myriad writings on the city is Benjamin's willingness to speculate on the dream life of the 'phantasmogoria' that was modern Paris. As Susan Buck Morss indicates while the predominant tendency in writing on Modernity is to see the world under capitalism as disenchanted, emptied of mythic power, Benjamin asserts precisely the opposite. The capitalist city is an enchanted space, a dreamworld.
This installation is generated out of a fascination with two of Benjamins dominating metaphors in the Passagen-Werk - metaphors he suggets that are keys to analysing the dreamwork of the city; the panoramic view and the labyrinth. If the first appears to offer an unbounded view over the ceiling of the city (even when only a painted or projected simulacrum in the diorama), the second suggests an undetected but blind passage under the floor of the metropolis. The one approximating a solar eye - up, as it were, with the angels - taking in the city with a magestrial sweep, situating the spectator both at the heart of things and way above them, the other brings to mind a subterainean network of passages and tunnels in which it is possible to 'lose' oneself, or at least 'tarry' in the "compact darkness" having tossed aside the security of Ariadne's thread and
surrendered to the pleasures of the maze. Panoramas and underground systems like all the collective architecture of the 19th century - arcades, factories, wax figure cabinets, casinos, railroad stations, and department stores - provide, in Benjamin's eyes, "housing for the dreaming collective" and as such carry with them the trace of utopia.
In the dream in which every epoch sees in images that is to suceed it, the latter appears coupled with elements from prehistory - that is to say, of a classless society, which have their storeplaces in the cllective unconscious, interact with the new to give birth to the configurations of life, from payment buildings to ephemeral fashions.
In the Diorama, or on the balcony of the Eiffel Tower, the viewer enacts a kind of Babel complex, as Roland Barthes was to later put it. (It is obviously no mere coincidence that the earliest 360 degree panoramic spectacles in England and France presented in the endless Dioramas, cosmoramas, and diaphoramas, aerial views of the city from impossible high towers). Barthes talks of the bliss of altitude and the euphoria of aerial vision as components of "great baroque dream which quite naturally touches on the irrational", and while we may no longer be challenging Deadelus or indeed trying to communicate with God the desire to get to the summit of the city, a desire which is most obviously manifest in the stranger, the foriegner or the tourist, has not entirely dissapeared. (To this day the Eiffel Tower remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris, just as the Fernsehturm in Berlin retains its popularity, and Canary Wharf in London, for the brief period it was open to the public, attracted some 50,000 awestruck visitors).
Meanwhile in the most recent labyrinth, riding on the Metro or the Underground, the traveller of Benjamin's Arcades encounters a modern day nether world, an encounter which brings with it memories of the most ancient.
The Metro, where evenings the lights glow red .... shows the way down into the Hades of names: Combat, Elysee, George V, Etienne, Marcel, Solferino, Invalides, Vaurigard, have thrown off the tasteful chain of streets and squares, and, here in the lighting pierced, whistle pierced darkness have become mishapen sewer gods, catacombs fairies. This labyrinth conceals in its innards not just one but dozens of blind rushing bulls into whose jaws not once a year one theban virgin, but every morning thousands of anemic young cleaning women and still sleepy salesmen are forced to hurl themselves.
Writing in the City Portraits, Benjamin suggested that "every step one takes... is on named ground. And where one of these names happens to fall, in a flash imagination builds a whole quarter about the sound. This will long defy the later reality and remain brittly embedded in it like glass masonry". No where is this more true than on the underground railway where one literally travels along a network of names. Of course these days we are all in too much of a hurry, or more likely too scared to loiter in the underground, let alone lose ourselves in wonder in "the labyrinth without end". We alight at Angel or Waterloo without a thought and with relief rather than amazement. And this is undoubtedly true. But momentarily, as an outsider, as a kind of child, careering through Paris on the Metro, or thrown about Berlin on the Unterbahn, it may be possible to take Benjamin at his word and recognise that while waiting for reality, it is preceeded by its name ...