The Difference Between Being Global And Knowing The World

The Difference Between Being Global And Knowing The World

Luis Pérez Oramas

“From my earliest days I felt the urge to travel to distant and seldom visited lands. This urge characterizes a moment when our life seems to open before us like a limitless horizon in which nothing attracts us more than intense mental thrills and images of positive dangers. I was brought up in a country that has no relations with either of the Indies, and I lived in mountains far from the sea and famous for their working mines, yet I felt an increasing passion for the sea and a yearning to travel far overseas. What we glean from travelers’ vivid descriptions has a special charm; whatever is far off and suggestive excites our imagination; such pleasures tempt us far more than anything we may daily experience in the narrow circle of sedentary life.”1
Twelve years after the beginning of his trip, Humboldt wrote this first sentence of his book, his monumental travelogue. I would like to point out that, beyond Humboldt’s scientific and enlightened contributions to the understanding of our planet, beyond his astronomical observations, his trigonometric operations and barometrical measurements, beyond the plants–Melastomae, Rhexiae, and so on–the geography of trees, the comparative zoology or anatomy, beyond the mountains, the nations and ethnic groups, Humboldt’s travel initiates the possibility of a Visual Anthropology in America. This journey of a German to the American lands brought us an eye, a vision, an immense possibility to look.
In 1996, while living in San Francisco, Luis Molina-Pantin traveled for the first time to Germany with a Lufthansa Airlines fourteen-hour direct flight to Frankfurt. From this trip, made as a photographer, that is to say, as someone performing a technical task that makes light writing possible, Molina-Pantin, who insists inscribing the photographical practice within the field of visual anthropology, kept three images of his own: the inside of the aircraft–an Airbus–already emptied of passengers, dozed at the end of the crossing; the sight of its wing taken from the window in Frankfurt Airport; the image of Lufthansa Airlines headquarters in the city of Cologne.
I would like to point out, in reference to the exact temporal and cultural reversal of both journeys (Humboldt’s by the end of the eighteenth century; Molina-Pantin’s by the end of the twentieth century), that nothing distinguishes the inside of this aircraft from any other; that nothing distinguishes this sight of the airport from any other, namely, from the fifty-two photographs referred to the airport “topology” that artists like Peter Fischl and David Weiss have included in their  “Humboldtian” monumental work, Visible World 2; that nothing distinguishes Lufthansa headquarters in Cologne from any other corporate building, from any other architecture generically modern, from any other corporate headquarters of any company in any other urban place of this planet: Caracas, Addis Ababa, Sidney, San Francisco, São Paulo.

Luis Molina-Pantin has gathered–with the soul of an entomologist, with the spirit of a collector–Lufthansa’s “memorabilia,” during and after his trip. The artist says that since childhood he admired the nature of the famous German airline public image, and its design strategies. It is indeed a paradoxical remark coming from an artist–although one might ask if this term is still relevant for those practicing the operations that we usually assign to “contemporary art”–in whose work the voluntary, systematic, keen absence of character in records and appropriations seems to play a strategic role.
Among the ‘memorabilia’ of his Lufthansa trip that Molina-Pantin includes in his exhibition, there is a photographic enlargement of one of the airline company’s advertising in which a laconic slogan states: “The difference between being global and knowing the world.” This choice is symptomatic of a tactic decision that constitutes the meaning of this installation, because the entire work of Luis Molina-Pantin deals with the absence of difference, with a systematic undoing of differentiation mechanisms. Thus, for instance, the three images produced by our photographer, the only three images in this show not corresponding to the strict logic of the “ready made,” the only ones entirely  “authorized” by Molina-Pantin in this work, the sole images that are not a consequence of appropriating strategies — the empty plane, its wing and the company’s headquarters –, merge, blend with the others, they (un)differ from the others: advertising postcards, posters, announcements, corporate marketing iconography, etc. Hence, the distinction between the postcard enlargements of Lufthansa’s planes, the photographic enlargements of aircrafts details — the landing gear, the seat — and the photographs taken by  Molina- Pantin is willingly lost.
Everything seems to indicate the work’s twofold constitutive movement in its strategy of  “museum” inscription: on the one hand, “to lower” photography to the level of the anonymous, corporate imagistic paraphernalia used by the company for self-promoting publicity; on the other, then, in the same installation operation, “to elevate” a placeless and authorless iconography to the limits of an “artistic” intervention conceived by Molina-Pantin.
The terms “to lower” and “to elevate” are, of course, ironically evoked. The strict consequence of the non-differentiation that characterizes this work — and which is not new in Molina-Pantin — is exactly the impossibility to distinguish whether it is an issue of elevating or lowering: we are not in the institutionalized territory of photography or the artistic practice as strictly aesthetic practices. To take up again Humboldt’s phrase: “whatever is far off and suggestive excites our imagination…” As in any strategy in which an appropriation of meaning prevails, this one is about specific transfer operations: from a place (author photography) to another (anonymous imagistic production), and conversely; from art to visual anthropology, and conversely; from the airport (a place of transit) to the museum (a monument of domiciliation and permanence).
Hence, transfer mechanisms are within the conceptual nucleus of this work. Let author photography blend with anonymous photography, and conversely. Let individual intellectual property — which legally regulates artistic production in the Western world — merge, at any cost, with corporate intellectual property, with trademark image, with commercial franchise. Let places, with so much transfer, numbed in the coldness of the installation, get lost. Let there be neither a precise place nor a place to be precise. Thus, it is neither a coincidence nor an “intention,” “a sight track,” but rather a perfectly proportional intuition, that this museum-like exhibit by Luis Molina-Pantin presents, as a pretext, the “label,” the “image,” the corporate iconography of a commercial mean of large-scale transportation: finally, the non-differentiation, operated by subtle transfers, has as a pretext and a reference an (air) transfer company.
Among other things, Humboldt made clear — to the frustration of the scientific euro centrism of his time (and ours) — that American nature could not be explained, as it was believed then, by a sort of proto-historical move from the European lost close woods towards the primeval grounds of the new world. In other words: Humboldt’s gaze began to assert, at least in the field of scientific knowledge, the certitude that, strictly speaking, there is not in the world any generative central place, that there is not a “matrix” place originating all other places.
That which characterizes traveling, for example, by an airline, is the absence of place, the non-differentiation of place. The contemporary world excels in the production of indifferent topologies: homotopies– always-similar places–that never become affected by the “difference of place.” All airports, all aircrafts, all traveling kits, all corporate buildings, all landing gears become the “clones” of themselves: identical products of a universe of exact productive identities. In such territory of absolute similarities, in this actual dream of ideal self-identifications — in that territory of the absolute stability among identical things — the undifferentiated, neutral, authorless (if not unauthorized) photography has something to say: it can, for example, duplicate — from its origin photography has been the object of a mystification of mimesis — the most absolute nowhere.
Everything here indicates a place resistance–even the Museum’s exhibition hall without proper museographical identifications where this installation takes place. Molina-Pantin transferred from Caracas to California, and from there he transferred to Germany in a Lufthansa flight. Everything has happened out of place. He then comes in to domiciliate temporally in a museum of Caracas, whose architecture responds, with euro centered awkwardness, to the anonymity of an undifferentiated genre: couldn’t the Museo Alejandro Otero building be as well in an hippodrome in Berlin without detriment of its image?
What shall we think, then, about the presence of an image of the quintessential corporate Museum, the franchised and franchise able Guggenheim-Bilbao, in one of Lufthansa’s advertising enlargement that Molina-Pantin includes in his installation? To put it in a sibylline way: no doubt there is a difference between being global and knowing the world. With the Guggenheim–such mayor phantom, phantasmagoric of any museum in the post-industrial age–the Museum has inaugurated the history of a placeless existence.
The space of tension– and meaning–in this work is then established between the artist, that voluntarily renounces to his right to franchise, to his authorship legal authority (i.e. to be recognized as such by any uninformed viewer) and the corporation–commercial and museum-like–that claims such legal authority (to be recognized by any uninformed bystander), beyond the legislation of the spirit, in its strategic position of power, in its (geo-) political inscription.
The traditional museological domiciliation was not enough: a museum room was not enough. It was necessary to indicate that this issue, this legal combat, like an agony of franchises–since this is all about a traditional aesthetical legalization versus a new legalization that artistic practices which are more proportioned to the anthropological understanding of the visible have been producing for a century–overflows the room that symbolically takes it in: the “screen savers” with the Lufthansa’s logo on the computers screens at the museum’s  offices (that no viewer or visitor will never get to see), a static and subliminal video in the cafeteria, an advertising billboard in the sculpture garden, another enlargement–this time from an old Lufthansa billboard–next to a cup showing the company’s logo on top of the index card cabinet at the documentary center of the institution.
The latter is a particularly significant element of the installation: isn’t the “archival” reduction the destiny of all work that has been “museumed”? Finally, in the heart of the Museum, in its never-ending registration machinery, where the works exchange their appearance for a code number, their body for an index card, their existence for a conservation report, what is produced, through a complex act of (re-) nomination and under the excuse of making differences, is a supplementary non-differentiation. What person who worked in institutions such as museums hasn’t experimented the risk of loosing completely the experience of the work of art due to the uncanny feeling of possession and deferment provoked by the instrumental register device? Who doesn’t see in the textual sequence of the registration codes and numbers of the works the anti-monumental loss of all difference among the works of art?
Luis Molina-Pantin doesn’t seem to have any specific position before the problem that his work suggests and which pervades it all: his production shows a real fascination for the reduction of place, for the non-place. However, the enlargement of the old Lufthansa billboard and the encapsulated china cup on top of the museum’s empty index card cabinet acquire the disturbing appearance of a fetish–a “reliquary” dimension. And also, at least in my personal experience, this image produced an association with the concentration camps, the death camps–perhaps the very first and most radical experience of non-differentiation and absolute loss of place that humanity has ever suffered. Because there is something that characterizes–like a recurrent symptom–the images that Molina-Pantin has produced up to now: there is not in them any kind of significant, explicit human presence. His spaces–those produced by him, appropriated by him–are barren spaces; they are deserts; they are non-places; they are places for nobody.
Another last analogy, perverse but not deliberate, has brought to my memory the death camps. Lufthansa and Luftwaffe: for an unaware dweller of Equinoctial America–educated under the constant influence of North American television series, in which with the help of a cold war, the hot war of the past century was evoked again and again schematically identifying evil with the German accent–certain sonorities and appearances will always be charged by specific connotations. Today we know that those camps were the most serious attempt to produce, in the flesh of history, a non-place, a place of similes, of identical men. And since then, we also have learned to get disturbed by any kind of vague apparition of non-places in history experience–airports or the controlling images of our most banal existence.
In the mute desolation of the works of Luis Molina-Pantin–which were the consequence of a trip, the trace of a transfer towards the non-place, the metaphor of a loss of place that relentlessly has capitalized all the peripheral enthusiasm of our culture with the modern, the exact reversal of Humboldt’s travel, which initiated the epistemological construction of our place–we would like to see a subtle way of objecting, which by omitting any statement, would grasp the political singularity of our present history, today marked by an apparent regression to the fiction of localities with which our utopia of not wanting to assume any difference between being global and knowing the world is collectively brought to a close.

1 Alejandro de Humboldt: Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, trans. Jason Wilson, Penguin Classics, London, 1996 .

2 Peter Fischl y David Weiss: Visible World, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona MACBA, Mathew Marks Gallery, Nueva York, 2000.