Photography: Cedric Mussano
A gloom has set in around Bellevue as Matthias Groebel and I keep a look out for the waiter. We are immersed in a conversation about the machine-made television paintings he created in the 90s, and have arrived at Brian Eno and David Byrne's 1981 concept album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. But the low-hanging clouds and his impending trip to Cologne signal it is soon time to go.
The album is a globetrotting sound collage made entirely of samples. A tour de force of cultural appropriation and genre-blending, a sonic medley of unusual noises and voice recordings made in the tradition of ‘musique concrète’. ‘Field recordings’ of English radio talk show hosts, Lebanese mountain singers, southern-state American priests, conjurers of exorcism ceremonies and samples of Egyptian pop were cut together in Byrne and Eno's studio, superimposed then accelerated. Their rhythm and incoherence create a hypnotic effect—a kind of trance in which significance and its opposite blur.
The album has come up because it shares with Groebel's paintings something in attitude, intent and methodology. Both are about intercepting distant signals, collecting broadcast flotsam and jetsam and mechanically transforming those materials in the studio. Like Groebel's paintings, the songs reflect a virtuosic talent for extracting and assembling, applied to an infinite range of material possibilities—a technical ingenuity. They are also connected by their use of radio and tv satellite signals—invisible waves of content that stream directly into the studio, whose hissing and flickering indicate that what is seen and heard has entered via the ether, having bounced off some satellite. In each case, channels and frequencies are zapped up and down in search of what in psychoanalysis is called ‘the other scene’, the collective psychic depth of the medial unconscious.
In Groebel's work, there is a dimension of psychic dream work at play. He has long been interested in the dark corners of satellite television, in frequencies that hardly anyone knows about, in the most obscure programmes from the smallest stations and whatever else is beaming around. His work is the outcome of someone who deliberately wanders into the fairy-tale forest of satellite offerings in search of signals and motifs, only to recall isolated images and fragments of speech the next day. It’s a dérive through a thicket of media environments from which the TV screen is seen as a mirror of consciousness and all that lies beneath.
So, in a way, Matthias Groebel's painting is the televisual counterpart to Eno and Byrne's sampledelia alchemy. Or rather, the album echoes the radiance of Groebel's ghostly stills.
But his paintings also have an uncanny connection to the 1954 novel by Amos Tutuola, from which Eno and Byrne’s album takes its name. In his book My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Tutuola creates an idiosyncratic language and world by pairing West African mythology with Western technological culture. A key figure in the novel that combines these two elements is the “Television-handed Ghostess,” a medium with television screens in her palms, not entirely distant from Groebel's painting machine, which paints stills from television as if by magic.
Much of what Matthias Groebel is telling me concerns the complex construction of the painting machine and his years of challenging work with it. His stories have an almost literary quality—the tales he winds about the adventures of his artistic practice and output sound more like a fictional plot to a futuristic sci-fi or cyberpunk novel, than 30 years of studio work.
Groebel's story is that of a painter who studied pharmacy rather than art. He worked as a pharmacist in Cologne during the day, then turned to painting at night. He is a technophile who lost interest in his own abstract works in the mid-1980s, and in abstract painting in general. The pieces were too harmless, he says. The discourse, too elitist. He was looking for "paintings that take effect even when you don't want them to." The dominance of television media in the 1980s required a different kind of painting to do justice to the techno-cultural present. For him, innovation was elsewhere. In electronic music, in cyberpunk literature, in the DIY hacker culture of new media. No longer the canvas. Painting seemed too shackled to its chains of self-reference, trapped in its own history. That self-reference had become a Faraday cage, one that conducts the impact of the outside world. So, what was he to do as an artist? Many painters—especially in this region—struck poses in front of their own gesturally expressive paintings. This performative strategy, which directed attention to the presence of the artist, was not Groebel's thing. Neither formally nor socially did he belong to the Rhineland chapter of the Neue Wilde. He was never, to paraphrase Martin Kippenberger, one of them, among them, with them.
Instead of turning away from painting, Groebel transferred his fascination with technology into it. Initially, he did not have a clear, aesthetic idea of the images he wanted to produce, but he had come up with a specific process through which TV images could be transferred onto canvas. At just the same time as a new tool that could convert analogue wave signals into computer pixels came onto the market, Groebel happened upon an advertisement for a children's construction set by Fischertechnik. Together, these led him to the idea of computer-aided painting.
He decided to rebuild the small painting toy but modify it—he set it up vertically, scaled it up to a surface area of one square metre, replaced the pencil with an airbrush gun, adjusted the nozzle opening to control the application of paint and extended the whole thing along a Z-axis to determine its distance to the canvas. The machine was not much more than an excuse for tinkering and speculating. Circuit boards and plug-in cards became his field of experimentation. He then roamed the electrical scrap yards of Münsterland. Together with a mechanic and an electronics engineer, Groebel built his machine bit by bit, piecing it together with old photocopier and windscreen wiper motors, bike chains and plastic rollers. It was mounted in a steel cabinet, lined on the inside with pressboard and set with a double-glazed window through which the painting process could be viewed. With shining steel chrome rods, turning chains, spiralling compression springs and glowing neon tubes, a machine that was only meant to produce paintings turned out to be an extraordinary object in itself—proof of a baroque imagination. The apparatus was far ahead of its time, operating a decade before the first multi-colour plotters.
Painting machines have their place in 20th century ‘utopian’ literature. One thinks of the fantastic creations in the writings of the Frenchmen Alfred Jarry and Raymond Roussel. In his novel Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien, which he himself called ‘neo-scientific’, Jarry describes a machine that sprays walls with primary colours. In his book Locus Solus, Roussel designs a device that, among other things, creates mosaics from human teeth. Painting machines were also developed in mid-20th century visual art. The most famous are those of the Situationist Guiseppe Pinot-Gallizio and Jean Tinguely. But the difference between their practices and Groebel’s is that, for both Gallizio and Tinguely, their raison d'être lies in the critique of various forms of art and the sales logic behind it. In both instances, the machine is the centre of attention as a sculpture-turned-painting critique. This is not the case with Groebel, the machine is not on display; only the paintings are.
The fact that his works are invariably about painting is evident in his choice of motifs. He takes faces from programmes so obscure that they are essentially anonymous to us and, in some instances, have been digitally morphed so that the person portrayed is never properly recognisable. As a result, one is compelled to reflect on the picture itself, compelled to ask how it is made, compelled to speak about painting.
His interest in painting itself is also indicated by the square format of the works. Even his early abstract paintings were square, the “one metre high, one metre wide” format posed a far greater challenge to him than landscape or portrait formats which, as he saw it, offered “inherently aesthetic settings” and were thus much easier to create associations with.
But only by working on the machine did Groebel confront the formal and aesthetic demands his paintings made, concluding that his pictures should have the same trancelike radiance as the cathode-ray tube-screens of the time. He moved away from pixel pointillism towards the colour-laden, oversaturated wave-blur: the cold, flickering, backlit aesthetic and the beguiling effect of the monitor.
So, what do we need to understand about television to understand Groebel's painting? Or rather, what do we need to know about painting, in order to understand what interests the artist in television? After all, his fascination with television seems like a horrid obsession.
If one ambition of 20th century abstract painting was for an immersive, contemplative, visual experience, it was no match for television, a medium that forced itself upon—effectively bound itself to—the viewer, a medium that has, in Groebel’s words, “an effect even, when you don't want it to."
What first took his interest was in the way early TV images were in fact blurred, composed of a mosaic of multiple, individual colour elements, brought into focus by the act of looking. Perception made the image in the same way that, with late 19th century cinematograph, it produced the illusion of motion from a fast-running sequence of film stills.
If television exploited this gap between perception and cognition, it meant that every image contained fragments that the eye could not register, but were being absorbed at a certain level, subliminal or otherwise. In a sense, watching television was akin to dreaming: the viewer submitted to a torrent of highly charged semiotic fragments. It was soon clear that these charged images harnessed to generate revenue; by the 80s, the commercial arm of the television industry was in full swing.
What is crucial about that decade was the advent of the satellite dish, which had a significant impact on the distribution and consumption of media, in both public and private sectors. In West Germany for example, the first private satellite stations went on the air in 1984, and this marked the change from state programmed television, with time-limited broadcasting windows, to an around-the-clock, seven-day-a-week unrestrained ‘flow’ of broadcast material. Television audiences would henceforth have to live with incessant advertising, even if they were blissfully unaware of it. The amnesia and anonymity this created are the spectres of Groebels’ paintings.
In the parlance of the Frankfurt School, the paintings describe television as a ‘dreamless dream’ that doesn't so much take us where we've never been before, but rather shackles us to the inevitable and makes us what we basically are, only worse. Appropriating television’s trance-like effects, Groebel’s emotionally vacuous, ghostlike presences—eerily eccentric and unpleasantly familiar profiles, indistinguishable characters of any low-budget sci-fi flick—turn almost abstract again.
Groebel's artistic practice is reminiscent of J.G Ballard’s dystopian short story The Sound-Sweep. In this story, all audible music has been made obsolete by technology, and all sounds have been deposited in solid surfaces. When acoustic sediments trickle out of these surfaces, people become triggered by emotional flashbacks. Therefore, the sonic residues must be sucked up with ‘sonovacs’ by professional cleaners. One such sound-sweeper is the main character, a mute boy by the name of Mangon. He befriends Madame Gioconda, an opera singer who lives in an abandoned recording studio, destitute due to the invention of an ultrasonic music that can only be felt. Over the course of the story, Mangon leads the opera-singer into a–very Ballardian–landscape of sonic dumps, where acoustic waste piles up. "A place of strange echoes and festering silences, overhung by a gloomy miasma of a million compacted sounds, it remained remote and haunted, the graveyard of countless private babels." Here, in the midst of this huge heap of sound remnants, Mangon the mute finds his voice.
Matthias Groebel’s story as an artist is like a visual counterpart to Ballard’s. A pharmacist roams the electrical waste dumps of Münsterland looking for components to build a machine with. He thinks differently about technology, against its predetermined, profit-driven use, and comes up with a form of expression born from the technical scrapheap of society. He then sits in front of the television late into the night, zapping through all frequencies, losing himself in the flow for days on end, image-sweeping an abyss of unknown material. Then, in his waking hours, he sifts through the images in his memory. Those that stick out get resuscitated through the machine. A second chance at life, only on canvas.