Fotograf Magazine

Christoph Keller

Factory of the Absolute

“I didn’t want to go into the jungle to report on other cultures the way ethnographers do. Instead, I turned this perspective around to look at the heritage of my own culture,” says Christoph Keller. Culture and art employ not only images but also the imagination, adds Keller when asked how he came to work with hypnosis.

His 1999 video, entitled simply The Stössensee Films shows the frontal view of a mechanically moving naked male figure. Though the video is digitalized from 16mm film footage lacking a soundtrack, with a large portion of the frames damaged, it is still apparent that the man’s movements are due to his obeying some kind of instructions. The footage was found in the 1990s by children frolicking on the Stössensee, a lake near Berlin, and it apparently represents a form of documentation of Nazi experiments with hypnosis. This piece already displays the three basic positions that Keller’s subsequent work is based on – found footage (often embodied also by a theory or an idea), which is then processed in the manner of a scientific experiment with a compelling resultant form of presentation.

This is often defined by a sort of mythical quality, an outward appearance of authenticity that the scientific experiment attains in front of the camera. The screenshot of his 2010 video Verbal/Nonverbal has come to be seen as emblematic of Keller’s whole oeuvre, featuring two young women. The neutral backdrop as well as the tasteful but restrained way they are dressed, as well as the chairs with armrests, all evoke the atmosphere of a television studio. Both women’s faces, however, are turning deep purple, as they explode in paroxysms of laughter. For they have just inhaled from an air balloon filled with laughing gas. Similar things happen to other participants in the experiment – as their faces relax, their eyes light up with excitement, and all attempts at self-control invariably fail, exploding in an orgiastic outburst of hilarity. The ego dissolves precisely in the place where it is usually felt most strongly – in front of the camera.

A similar principle is used in the 2007 work Deux Ciex. Here the grainy image reveals two men, shaking in a trance, sitting in front of a menhir in a wood, with someone’s hand holding a Dictaphone intruding into the image, with parts of other researchers’ figures also visible. The video is chilling and almost macabre precisely thanks to the casual attire and urban look of the mumbling figures, their gray hair but mutating voices, as well as the inferior quality of the footage. The video shows the intersection of two of the greatest discoveries – and greatest predicaments – of the 20th century: detached science documents the dark places of the psychoanalytical unconscious.

As part of his projects, Keller has subjected himself to hypnosis as well as taking on the role of hypnotizer himself. According to him, hypnosis is not difficult, and in fact is something which anyone can learn. In his project Visit to an Imaginary Museum, hypnotized volunteers from the audience recount what they are seeing in an imaginary museum, where they were ushered to by a professional hypnotist hired by Keller. This time what we see is not a Nazi experiment, nor the evocation of some sect. The disconcerting part is, once again, the tension between what was actually happening and what could be captured on film. “In numerous ethnographic documentaries of the 1960s and 1970s, all that was to be filmed – magic or what the shaman was doing such as travelling into the underworld, talking to spirits or entering a state of ecstasy and ascending the tree of life – is, in actual fact, unfilmable,” said Keller in a 2003 interview on the occasion of an exhibition at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover.

Hysteria and trance as states existing outside of the subject – object dimension have been repressed by modern society, which is based on the notion of individuality. Keller does not address the question of whether this is for reasons of necessary social control, and neither does he explore the role of the trance in archaic societies. Instead, he confronts us with our deeply-seated fears. What is important, however, is not the act of hypnosis itself, but precisely the tension between the subjective experience of the person hypnotized, and the outward reality recorded by the eye of the camera.

Michal Novotný