The Tower of Babel may be an apt metaphor for Wojtek Ulrich’ s Untitled (2007). The former is an Old Testament narrative found in the Book of Genesis, and its commentary concerns a structure in the ancient city of Babylon built by human hands attempting to reach the heavens via architecture of dystopia. But the almighty had perceived these futile, human intentions as arrogant because the motivation for this edifice’ s erection was not to glorify divinity. Humanity’ s vanity was revealed in the futility of trying to reach the heavenly firmament by physical means alone, thus divine retribution for such blasphemy took the form in fragmenting language’ s homogeneity into heterogeneity of tongues.
Sameness and difference and other dichotomies in the allegory of the Tower of Babel, can be understood as manifesting in language. The primacy of language is germane to creation as well; this is evinced in God’ s pronouncement in “ let there be light,” where the binary between lightness and darkness is equally a primeval proclamation of language is an episteme foundational for creation. But trying to understand the primacy of language through an Old Testament narrative via its rubbing up against Ulrich’ s Untitled may be coy, but does not quite underscore how intrinsic language is to the fabric, if not the fabric, of our psychic constitution. One can look at other systems of thought were language is epistemologically central to an understanding of self and the world. Wittgenstein’ s “ language-Games,” Lyotard’ s “ metanarratives,” or Lacan’ s configuration of the unconscious as being structured like a language, for example, foreground the language’ s centrality as the sine qua non of human interaction and social life. In one sense, Wittengenstein’ s philosophy of language, Lyotard’ s critique of epistemology, and the Lacanian linguistic unconscious are also peripherally alluded to in Wojtek’ s piece; but it is its citation of the Old Testament linguistic split manifesting in the present poly- cultural world saturated with a babble of polyphonic voices that gives his work a secular and technological, eschatology. In a kind of twist on the Tower of Babel, then, is Ulirch’ s video sculpture consisting of 48 small, LED monitors assembled in the shape of a cross. But it is no ordinary cross, for it is strategically installed where its relationship to the viewer subtly conveys an asymmetry of power. As much as the gaze has been articulated in the history of art as a differential between subject and object, between viewer and that which is beheld, here the as one In other Ulrich works such as Scum (2007), for example, the spectator’ s role is voyeuristic and one of dominance. All that unfolds in front of the viewer is subordinate to her/him. In this work, however, it is reversed; for the viewer of the cross sees it from a position of subservience as the work hangs slightly above eyelevel.
This seems to morph the cross into a crucifix; but, interestingly enough, the angle of vision in looking at Untitled is similar to the upward perspective one would have had in seeing Christ on the cross, circa 2,000 thousand years ago. Folding the Old Testament narrative of the Tower of Babel into a New Testament reference, it can also be construed that the work “ speaks in tongues.” For the monitors that make-up the cross concomitantly plays 48 different channels from many areas of the world which, in turn, transmit a plethora of television programs simultaneously in a dizzying array of information overkill.
The visual, audio, linguistic and cultural cacophony includes, for example, Al-Jeezera, pornography, Disney Channel, CNN, soap operas, cartoons, game-shows, sitcoms, sports channels, educational programs, university and college TV, Gay & Lesbian TV, Religious channels of all denominations, Woman’ s Channel, Community TV, HAMA Television, ESPN, CSPAN, BBC, Televisa, TVNZ, NRK, NOS Teletisk and infinitum. According to a CIA report published in 2000, there are now 33,401 television stations in the world with 48 million hours of unique programming a year. Ulirch’ s video sculpture can theoretically receive those signals since he incorporates a satellite antenna to obtain transmissions from around the globe. What this produces is a rhizomatic orgy of electronics, digitization, and audio and image. The multi-headed hydra and monstrosity of visual overload is delirious and, paraphrasing the philosopher Jean Baudrillard, can catapult one into a technophilic “ ecstasy of communication.” But over-saturation of information and its frenzied conveyance creates unintended incommunicability; communication mania succumbs to a stuttering, indecipherable inertia of tongues tied-up. Like the Old Testament edifice, then, Untitled is the twenty first-century equivalent to the Tower of Babel. If the heretic Babylonians were the blasphemous builders of the Tower of Babel, what makes up the congregation of Ulrich’ s video cross that pays heed to it?
Research has revealed that in some developed countries, particularly in the U.S., the average person watches four hours of television a day. Much has been written on the implications of this medium on the human mind, especially the notion that excessive watching foments a kind of a mild docility. But Ulrich’ s video sculpture is less concerned with statistics and empiricism. Rather, he is critically and poetically commenting that TV, in an exceedingly alienating world, is disconnecting humans further from each other and, more frighteningly, from themselves. Ulrich targets the ubiquity of television and subsequent eclipse of social interaction as resulting in dehumanization. And in this sense, it is a contemporary parallel to Scum; for both works approach the general subject of emotional and psychic displacement. Untitled, however, foregrounds alienation in the guise of an image-emitting sculpture and religious symbol that concomitantly alludes to a kind of memento mori. But this particular reminder of death is actually the inverse of memento mori.
According to some sociologists, Television desensitize its viewers to violence and thus it not a reminder of death; but, in fact, hides it from our very eyes by massaging our psyches with banal entertainment and confections of information. During the Iraqi war, for instance, the Bush administration would not allow any images to be transmitted on television of flag-draped caskets of U.S. war dead. On the other hand, during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the imagery of war violence could be consumed from the safety of American living rooms and Lazy-boy chairs. The surrealism of this particular type of spectatorship was that it was akin to simulated violence intrinsic to certain video games, making the war that much more insidious.
Hypothetically, tens of thousands of TV channels with tens of thousands of television- viewing options are always at our disposal. On an absurd level, then, the outward appearance of choice through the plethora of viewing selections offered can create acquiescence and a complacent culture by generating and sustaining a culture of complacency. And how politically convenient, too; for it is through an intellectually inert and critically impotent acquiescent citizenry where tyranny can foster best.
In Untitled, Ulrich has reified the couch potato, which is a ubiquitous North American colloquialism for the TV addict, into the high priest of television and readymade Tele- Evangelist. Whereas before we watched TV on our recliners, we now kneel and bow our heads while we gaze to upward to the endless programming on channels north-to-south and east-to-west.