Ours is a time of historical loss: The Video Essays of Ingrid Wildi

Philip Ursprung

Wherein lies the power of Ingrid Wildi’s art? Why is it that most exhibition visitors come to a halt at her monitors or projected images and listen to the people replying to her questions? One of the sources of fascination that Ingrid Wildi’s art has for the viewer is undoubtedly the way she uses language to convey the physical presence of human beings. The first time I came across one of her works – the video installation Der Frühling ist da (1999) – I was immediately struck by the voices.1 Even before I had worked out that this was a young girl in Switzerland, picturing herself as a biologist in the future and a boy, obviously an immigrant, imagining himself becoming an astronaut one day, I was attracted by the sound and rhythm of the children’s voices. I realized that they were responding to questions and that they trusted the questioner. It almost seemed to me as though I could hear their very thought processes.

Wildi has herself declared her interest in the spoken word – ‘the voice’.2 For her voices are equivalent to “breathing, to something that continues without end.”3 The voices in her films are the bearers of the flow of responses which she steers by means of specific questions, the video camera, the editing process and the subtitles. The voices constitute the material that she deconstructs and painstakingly recombines in a new form. Drawing from a pool of questions on issues related to philosophy, religion, politics and other fields, the conversations she instigates with small groups of selected individuals can last for several hours. Ultimately she only uses a tiny fraction of the responses and breaks up their linear sequence. She doesn’t edit out slips of the tongue, pauses, anecdotal remarks, so that after just a few sentences the viewer becomes curious and is drawn into the situation. Wildi first makes a roughly edited montage of the responses before finishing the editing process in such a way, as she herself has said, as to bring out the “lack of inhibition” associated with documentary films.

Wildi’s video essays veer between documentary and work of art.4 She uses video because it allows her to work both economically and spontaneously.5 But the end result is never about revealing and reflecting the characteristics of the medium. As a rule, her camera is placed on a tripod; sometimes it is allowed to move around freely, either operated by Wildi herself or a cameraman. The views of her protagonists are usually ‘American’, i.e. the camera shows the upper body. Its presence is important because it means that the speakers are not responding to the artist alone, but also direct their remarks to the camera and hence to the future viewer. The images and language in Wildi’s video essays have a very specific texture, cadence and rhythm. She never interrupts her speakers and only “cuts according to full sentences,” but she does combine their responses in such a way that “these people utter truths that you don’t hear in the cinema or on television.”6

In Si c’est elle (2000) >p.148 three men from different cultures describe a woman. Wildi’s montage of their comments ensures that for a long time the viewer cannot tell whether this woman is their lover, mother or just wishful thinking. At first the viewer may even have the impression that the men are describing the same woman. Only gradually does it become clear that all three men are talking about their mothers. For Quelquepart I (2000) >p.152 Wildi asked three projectionists fifty questions each, including – not heard by the viewer – questions about the length of time the light takes to hit the screen, how long the human gaze takes and whether they ever had the impression that the projected figures were looking back at them.7 She interlaces their replies so that at times they sound like snippets of film theory, even like poetic fragments, as in the words of one projectionist:

We keep seeing all these dead actors . . . / A weird feeling. / They continue to live – / like Gary Cooper just right now. / He’s no longer alive, he’s actually a ghost.8

With Kontinuum I Wildi showed that her art also touches a wide public beyond the art world. This installation was part of Heimatfabrik, the Swiss pavilion at Expo.02 in Murten, Switzerland.9 The remit was to use architectural and artistic means to examine the notion of a sense of belonging to one region. Wildi, together with the artist Mauricio Gajardo, conducted conversations with a number of speakers who live in the Mittelland region of Switzerland, the area specified by Heimatfabrik. Instead of becoming entangled in clichés about being connected to certain landscapes or dialects, Wildi asked the speakers to tell her something about an object that was particularly important to them. Hundreds of thousands of visitors poured past Kontinuum I and stopped, transfixed, as one of the protagonists talked about some unidentified object in a strong regional dialect:

It was a loaf of bread. / A man-made product. . . . yes, . . . before, you could bite into it, / and you could break it too. / And now, it’s like a stone.10
Immaterialized Work

When I visited Heimatfabrik in summer 2002, I noticed how very many visitors were gazing at Kontinuum I as though they were watching a craftsperson at work. It seems to me that our fascination with workshops comes from the fact that, in the industrialized world, these are amongst the few places where people can still observe physical labor. They can watch as something is being made, rather than simply being confronted, as consumers, with a finished product, alienated in the Marxist sense. According to neo-Marxist theories, since the 1970s work has become ‘immaterial’ for the inhabitants of the industrialized world.11 In other words, work is no longer tied to particular places and landscapes, the factories of Northern Italy, for instance. On the contrary, it has been removed from our field of vision and exported into countries with lower wages. But the ‘immaterialization’ of work also brings with it a very considerable loss of identity and sense of belonging to a particular region. And this process of immaterialization is also inextricably entwined in the great collective fear that besets industrialized nations, namely the fear of unemployment. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri maintain that this fear, indeed the anxiety concerning the future in general, welds together what they call “Empire,” their shorthand for the ever growing territory dominated by the globalized world.12

The greater the invisibility of work, the greater the desire for ‘reality’. I would even go so far as to claim that the rise of reality TV in the 1990s is a symptom of this. The climax of this trend came when John De Mol and his production company, Endemol 2000, launched Big Brother. Having started in Holland and Germany, this program is now sold and produced the world over. Big Brother is all about a group of young people locked for weeks into a house, cut off from the world, and how they live from day to day without working. One by one the occupants of the house are eliminated until just one is left, the winner of the prize money. Big Brother, it seems to me, may in part be so successful because it creates a negative imprint, as it were, of immaterialized work and in the process presents a picture of what otherwise may not be shown, that’s to say, unemployment. It seems that the pressure of constant surveillance combined with social and sexual rivalries, generates the highly precious resource we call ‘reality’. From a safe distance, viewers can share in moments of ‘authenticity’ in the form of endless conversations between the housemates, which are in fact also intended for the camera and hence for viewers all over the world.

Of course Big Brother has nothing to do with Wildi’s art. The voyeuristic, even sadistic aspects of the program that are obligatory for reality TV are as alien to Wildi’s video essays as is the promotion of conflict, which is necessary to make the daily round in the Big Brother house suitably entertaining. The power of television producers, which turns the protagonists into marketable goods, bears no resemblance to the authority of the artist who chooses her conversation partners and creates a work of art from a montage of their replies. And, unlike the invisible television producers, Wildi herself can be located within her own video essays. But it seems fair to assume that each touches a nerve in very different audiences, by homing in on the problems of present-day reality through the medium of the spoken word.
Realism: Historical Space

Wildi’s art is also interesting in the context of the current discussion of art because she taps into the now largely forgotten iconography of work. The camera always shows hands, moving. And the topics return again and again to what the speakers do. It’s true that all around us these days, especially in advertising, there is a plethora of images of consumption. But we seek in vain pictures of work; according to Marx, “Labor is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time.”13 In fact the last remnants of this pictorial language disappeared in the 1980s at the latest with the neorealism of Italian cinema, with North and Latin American realism and with the particular Socialist Realism nurtured in Communist countries. The only place where this tradition survived was in documentary films. Aside from her interest in directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Wildi is primarily drawn to the makers of documentaries, such as Raymond Depardon, Claude Lanzmann and Abbas Kiarostami.14

The artistic horizon encompassing the iconography of work and the pursuit of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ comes from an artistic tradition loosely known as Realism. Developed in the 19th century by artists such as Gustave Courbet, it came into its own in the 20th century above all in the shape of Socialist Realism. In the West, after a brief flowering in the 1930s, it lived on under cover and with a
different name, in the Happenings of Allan Kaprow, performances by Gordon Matta-Clark, texts by Robert Smithson, and photo essays by Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula. The artistic attitudes associated with Realism display a preference for things marginal and peripheral, for cracks in the apparent coherence of the world, for outsiders and loners. Wildi, too, finds many of her speakers on the fringes of society, be they children, old people or immigrants. These are people for whom the spoken word is not simply a given, but something that they constantly have to defend or reclaim yet again.

Another salient feature of the tradition of Realism is the emphasis on the artificiality of any form of order. This is based on the premise that order is not ‘natural’, but always the outcome of various kinds of circumstances. Just as Courbet’s landscapes look as though they were put together from bricks, in Wildi’s case there are very evident joins where different phenomena collide with one another. These joins can be material, the result of the editing process which affects the way different film sequences follow on each other. Or they can be discursive in the way that verbal connections are made between various phenomena. The formal power and the sheer beauty of Wildi’s art is not least the result of these cuts, joins and pauses which articulate the spatial and temporal dimension of the work. And its equally breathtakingly complex texture reveals something of the stature of the work that is yet to come from Wildi.

Wildi’s biography is intrinsically linked with her artistic approach. Her own life always resonates in her work – be it that she chooses family and friends as her speakers, be it (as in her longest film so far, ¿Aquí vive la Señora Eliana M ...? (2003) >p.140 that she sets out for Chile in search of her mother Eliana – a clairvoyant. The viewers first see Wildi’s mother during the opening titles, folding a pullover.15 During the course of the film, they learn that the police sometimes turn to her for help with difficult cases. Born in 1963, Wildi grew up in Chile until her family was forced during Pinochet’s dictatorship to emigrate to Switzerland for economic reasons.16 As an immigrant, who “disappeared from one country and appeared in another,” she is sensitive to the function of the spoken word,17 very aware of the fact that for those who have had to leave their own country, their own history is dependent on the spoken word. In narratives repeated again and again, ultimately alienated, history is told and retold until it is indistinguishable from fiction. As Wildi has herself said, her fascination with video is also connected with the way that it allows people to emerge from the shadows, like phantoms, given a material form through light and electricity alone.

It seems these days that cultural difference offers artists one of the few chances of establishing a critical distance to certain phenomena. And it is true to say that, in the Swiss art world, Wildi’s body of work so far is one of the few instances of political art in the sense that it articulates the economic and social constraints on her subjects. Moreover, while both reality TV and the art world largely suppress history, Wildi is interested first and foremost in the historical dimension of life today. For her, the video interview is a tool to measure historical spaces at the same time as pointing to their partly fictive nature. In doing so, she captures on film how certain people – here and now – articulate their own stories and history, how they establish their own relationship to reality as they see it. Theorists like Hardt and Negri have shown that at the latest since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we now find ourselves in a situation where the empire, as a new world order, “completely suspends history, thereby casting in stone the status quo.”18 Wildi takes the same view: “Ours is a time of historical loss.”19 She gives her speakers the chance to go into their own oral histories. In so doing, she interweaves the pictorial spaces of video, as a medium, with the spaces inside a person’s mind, spaces filled with memories, projections, the subconscious. Wildi’s methods are ‘architectural’ in the sense that from the outset she makes spatial plans for her works, for instance physically arranging the questions to be used in the interviews in thematic fields. She transcribes the conversations, hangs the transcriptions on the wall and recombines them to make the first rough cut. She treats the conversations almost like apartments “with entrances and exits, with different rooms and atmospheres and sources of light partially illuminating them.”20 In contrast to most documentary filmmakers, she wants to do more than simply reflect the situations her subjects find themselves in at a given moment, for as she says, citing Mario Benedetti: “Mirrors don’t have memories”.21 Wildi sides with those on the margins, those in danger of disappearing without a trace. Significantly, in her works there are repeated references to clairvoyants who have the ability to navigate future time, as it were traveling in the opposite direction to historians. Clairvoyants operate on the margins of society, and it is mainly society’s weaker individuals who still believe in them. But clairvoyants are also amongst the few who have anything to offer in face of our collective anxiety about the future and the repression of history. And Wildi sets out the program for her own art – a form of art that never forgets its own political responsibilities – when she opens the film ¿Aquí vive la Señora Eliana M ...? with her mother’s words:

(In my mother’s hotel room; she is knitting a pullover).

I also predicted the Berlin Wall / five years before it happened / and I told various people. / I’d completely forgotten that.22

References :
1 Der Frühling ist da was shown in 1999 in the exhibition Grown in Frozen Time,
curated by Harm Lux in the Shed im Eisenwerk, Frauenfeld. I would like to take this opportunity to thank
Stefan Banz for the invitation to write this text and Ingrid Wildi for a series of conversations between 2001 and 2005.

2 "Above all it’s orality, the voice, that interests me," The Mirror has no memory, Interview between Ingrid Wildi and Katya García-
Antón, in: Ingrid Wildi, De palabra
en palabra, Video
Essays, edition fink, Zurich 2004, pp.66–74, here:p.74.

3 Ingrid Wildi, telephone conversation with Philip

4 Since the late 1980s, the terms ‘essay film’ or ‘video essay’ have been used to define the work of artists such as Anri Sala, Ursula Biemann, Harun Farocki,
Hito Steyerl and others. It is used to describe a form of film that unites aspects of documentary film-making and artistic concerns. The word ‘essay’, borrowed from literature, points to an open, non-linear structure, along the lines of the theorist Georg Lukacs’ notion of “critique as an art form“.
Cf. Nora M. Alter, Memory Essays, in: Ursula Biemann, (ed.), Stuff it.
The video essay in
the digital age,
Edition Voldemeer, Zurich; Springer, Vienna 2003,

5,6 Ingrid Wildi, telephone conversation with Philip

7 Ingrid Wildi,
e-mail to Philip

8 Ingrid Wildi, Quelquepart I, transcribed, in: Ingrid Wildi, De palabra
en palabra, 2004,
pp. 40-48,
here:p. 45.

9 Heimatfabrik was the outcome of a commission from
the various Cantons of the Mittelland Region; it was
intended to demonstrate their common interests. I was the artistic adviser to this project from 2000–01. Amongst
the artists who
contributed interventions were
Ingrid Wildi and Mauricio Gajardo, Jürg Lenzlinger
and Gerda Steiner; cf. Heimatfabrik,
Über die Produktion von Heimat, ed. by Espace Mittelland-Kantonen Bern, Freiburg, Jura, Neuenburg, Solothurn und Aargau, Verlag Niggli, Sulgen 2002.

10 Ingrid Wildi in collaboration with Mauricio Gajardo, Kontinuum I, transcribed, in: Ingrid Wildi, De palabra en palabra, 2004,
pp. 50–55, here:p.51.

11 Cf. Maurizio Lazzerato, Immaterielle Arbeit, Gesellschaftliche Tätigkeit unter
den Bedingungen
des Postfordismus, in: Toni Negri,
Maurizio Lazzerato, Paolo Virno,
Immaterielle Arbeit und Subversion,
ID-Verlag, Berlin 1998, 39–52.

12 Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri,
Empire, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge MA 2000.
13 Karl Marx, Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy (1857–61), Penguin, London 1973,p.361.

14 Ingrid Wildi, telephone conversation with Philip
15 On Ingrid Wildi's visit her mother learnt that she had two grandchildren. She was knitting a pullover during the time when the film was being shot.
Ingrid Wildi, telephone conversation with Philip
Ursprung, 10.2.05.

16 Wildi describes herself as the "product of numerous emigrations." Due
to the state of the family’s finances when her father
was four years old, he moved with his family from Switzerland to Argentina. Having spent time in Argentina, Switzerland, Genoa and on the high seas, in the end he arrived in Chile, where he worked as a copy
editor for the renowned daily
El Mercurio. In 1981 he found himself obliged to move to Switzerland with
his children; Ingrid Wildi later studied art in Zurich and Geneva.
Ingrid Wildi, telephone conversation with Philip Ursprung,7.2.05.

17 Ingrid Wildi, telephone conversation with Philip
18 Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri,
Empire, 2002,p.13.

19 The Mirror has
no memory, Interview between Ingrid Wildi and García-Antón, in: Ingrid Wildi, De palabra en palabra, 2004, pp.66–74, here:p.67.

20 Ingrid Wildi, telephone conversation with Philip

21 The Mirror has no memory, Interview
between Ingrid Wildi and García-Antón, in: Ingrid Wildi, De palabra en palabra, 2004,pp.66–74,

22 Ingrid Wildi,
¿Aquí vive la Señora Eliana M ...?,
transcribed, in:
Ingrid Wildi,
De palabra en palabra, pp.106–159,


Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott