NBK Neuer Berliner Kunstverein 

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'body of the message'
Ortsbegehung No. 4
NBK Berlin 1998
curated by Inke Arns

espace image; espace mort; espace régénérateur; espace de temps 

Ralph Lindner about Sandra Becker 

In much of her work Sandra Becker raises a question that is as old as the city itself: how can urban space and humankind’s urban nature be represented? Even Nadar, who flew up in a hot-air balloon in order to shoot bird’s-eye photographs of Paris, was obliged to admit that the wider view thus obtained offered very little insight „into the whole moral mechanism of this world" (1). Similarly, the flaneur who strolled around the sites of modern life soon encountered his limits in view of the accelerating pace of structural transformation. Today, it is a different logistics of perception that organizes the gaze. As Sandra Becker moves through the underground of the cities, she is accompanied not by the legendary tortoise, that miracle of slowness at the side of Charles Baudelaire’s travelling contemporaries, but by a video camera. The Metro in Moscow and the subway below New York’s Wall Street, Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and Tokyo’s Akasaka – these are only a few of the places in which since 1993 works like global departure, persona grata, Warteraum and now metro scan were created. Sandra Becker tracks down her central theme – mobility – in photographs and films, in video installations and stills. 

Sandra Becker, Persona Grata 1-4 

If considered solely in terms of their layout, the tubes, subways and metros of this world look very different from each other. New York’s orthogonal ground plan shaped the city’s underground face in the same way as the Tokyo subway zig-zags in reaction to the established structure of the city. Yet this form of mobility is based on internationally comparable historical preconditions that go beyond any national peculiarities. Russian military considerations, for instance, influenced the construction of the St. Petersburg metro, and such grounds were foremost in other countries, too. More than anything else, however, the need for rapid access to manpower resources arose as a consequence of rapid industrialization and the general assertion of a monetary economic system. The economization of the movement of the masses carried forward the strivings to industrialize the human body by means of new office machinery or Taylorist priniciples of workplace organization. From then on, factory time-clocks clicked in time with train frequencies, and vast streams of people were transported daily, hurled into an anonymity lamented in complaints seldom considered worth further attention. The lack of space in the poky trains, the heat on the platforms – lack of comfort, in other words – and the resultant fatigue have become a stock theme in literature, at most. 

The transport industry, meanwhile, has been attempting to minimize the restrictions on personal comfort the tribute to a mobile society demands. Not only places of transit such as subways are now designed to be more spacious and welcoming, but the car-maker Renault promotes its Espace model with the promise that it offers us a room of our own, a „mobile room that takes us with it. All we need is there, we want for nothing." (2) A French airline christened its seat model Espace 2000 for similar reasons. Yet the new freedom promised by the advertisements cannot hide the fact that „economic conditions influence spaces and bodies, are reproduced in the latter’, and at the same time ‘are defined by social actions, networks of relationships, gender relations and social and cultural value concepts". (3 

Sandra Becker takes things from here. The mobility we encounter in her images is one at the intersection of two perspectives: the movement of people under the terms of physical time, and then the subjective experience of the individual somewhere between points A and B. While the first perspective focuses on the logistics of moving labour resources and thus on the economic correlation, central to the second view is the momentary, interim existence of passengers – a wholly different kind of state. What meets up here are Michel de Certeau’s models of the planned, easily legible city and the metaphorical city. (4) The latter, which is associated with opaque and blind mobility, would appear to dominate Sandra Becker’s works. „Was it not the case in such places where thousands of individual movements intersected that something remained of the elusive charm of unused plots of land and unfinished building sites, of railway stations and waiting rooms in which our steps were lost, all these places of chance encounter in which one has a fleeting glimpse of the possibility of adventure, a sensation that one must only >let things happen<?". (5) The question asked by the protagonist in a novel by the ethnologist Marc Augé might be one put to themselves by some of the practitioners of the city captured in Sandra Becker’s work. 

The undefinable sensation of freedom evoked by such places of transit is in fact something we have all either felt ourselves or at least observed in others. From time to time, strange choreographies resonant with playful lightness suddenly unfold before our eyes when fellow-passengers, apparently for one brief moment relieved of all obligations, fashion dancer-like ornamentations in space. The theatrical impression is reinforced by the architecture of the underground stations. With their unmitigated artificiality, the columns often dividing them up and framing the actions of waiting passengers, and not least their lighting, they look like stages of the everyday populated by the heroes of modern life. The strangeness of the everyday we encounter in such situations exudes a fascination Sandra Becker shares with Peter Handke, in whose play The Hour In Which We Knew Nothing Of Each Other a multitude of people incessantly cross over the stage. Common to both is the transposition of the actions to a space on the other side of the aesthetic divide, in Handke’s case the theatre, in Becker’s the exhibition room. Unlike the writer, however, Sandra Becker by using video continues to work in the medium which is normative for the underground, her specific location, and so automatically opposes those images permanently supplied by the monitoring cameras. For the logic of the latter is binary: they scan the environment solely for suspicious actions, and divide the inhabitants of urban space into those whose behaviour is orderly, and those who disturb the smooth flow: suicides, homeless, criminals and, of late, smokers. 

Although Sandra Becker works with a similarly low level of resolution and colour, she uses as stylistic means recurrent, speeded up and slowed down images as well as underexposure and blurring. In addition, she subverts the normative total view of the surveillance camera by adopting a number of points-of-view. For instance, she juxtaposes the terror of monitoring with what she terms the „poetics of waiting". Her goal is not to image urban space, but to create through media another reality, to tell fragments of fictional stories, in order to throw off balance our consciousness of reality. At the same time, however, her images reveal that implanted in our movements is a degree of economics and technology we have long come to accept as second nature. The freedom we feel in those moments of passivity peculiar to places of transit can be enjoyed only because it seems to be the product of a higher power. This lightness of being is of brief duration – its origin lies in enforced respite. It is a state far removed from the ideal of authentic repose. Sandra Beckers’ works are distinctive for evoking these ideals of calm and freedom without obliterating the freedom and calm actually experienced. 

- Translated by Tom Morrison - 


1  Charles Baudelaire, here quoted in translation after: Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire. Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus, Frankfurt/M. 1992, p. 39. 
2  Cf. Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, tr. London 1995. (Own translation.) 
3  See exhibition Supermarkt in the Shedhalle, Zurich, 1998 (catalogue in preparation). 
4  Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life [1980], Berkeley and Los Angeles 1988 
5  See Note 2.