Empire 24/7, 2001
Technologies: Digital still cameras, custom software, data projectors
Keywords: media archaeology, time, Web cam
In 1991, years before the Internet became an everyday word and a widespread form of communication, German sculptor Wolfgang Staehle founded The Thing, an electronic bulletin board system (BBS) that functioned as a forum for artists and cultural theorists who dialed in via modem to discus their work and exchange ideas. Like a 1920's Montparnasse cafe, The Thing was a lively creative community where debates raged and collaborations were formed. In 1995, Staehle migrated The Thing to the World Wide Web, and in subsequent years expanded its services to include Web site hosting and development. Yet despite these practical aspects of The Thing, the project as a whole can be seen as a Beuysian social sculpture, a participatory space in which the boundaries between artistic practices and everyday activities is blurred.
In 1999, for the "net_condition" exhibition at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Staehle set up a digital camera in The Thing's office, which was located on a high floor in New York's West Chelsea neighborhood, and pointed the lens at the Empire State building. He captured images of the building every few seconds and transmitted them via the Internet to the ZKM, where they were projected on a gallery wall. Staehle titled the installation Empire 24/7 in reference to Andy Warhol's Empire (1964), an eight-hour-long film in which the camera focuses on the Empire State Building from dusk until dawn. Like Warhol, Staehle frames the Empire State Building in a prolonged static shot that draws attention, through the absence of action and camera movement, to the structure of the tower itself, to the effects of light on the building and in the sky, and to the act of viewing itself. Although both works explore the representation of time, Warhol's structural film is an exercise in extreme duration, whereas Staehle's Web cam work reflects the temporal compression of Internet communication. According to Staehle, Empire 24/7 is about "instant images for instant consumption." Staehle's project shows how the ubiquity of Web cameras have produced a Warholian environment in which even the most mundane scene is available to anyone with Internet access, at any time, anywhere -- 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Staehle's projection created the impression of a virtual window, as if one could see through the Karlsruhe museum's gallery wall directly into New York City. Empire 24/7 is thus also a visceral demonstration of the way in which the Internet collapses physical distances.
Staehle continued to work with Web cameras in gallery installations featuring multiple large projections of outdoor tableaux that function as live landscape paintings. In September 2001, Staehle presented 2001, an installation at Postmasters Gallery in New York that included three Web camera views: a castle-like monastery near Stuttgart, the looming TV tower in Berlin's Alexanderplatz, and lower Manhattan. The latter Web camera captured the attacks on the World Trade Center in real time, briefly transforming the work into the Internet-age equivalent of a history painting.