Messianic Zeal

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Moby-Dick

Sitting in a church in Burgenland on Sunday morning, me, a Jewish boy who was forced by his father to go to the synagogue every Saturday, I felt funny, strange, out of place. Melville forces us to think about God and religion again. Topics that I put aside a long time ago and had no need to revisit. But here we are in Burgenland, of all places, creating a religious ceremony, asking a local priest to give us a blessing.

One of the greatest chapters ever written in the English language is the one in Moby Dick titled »The Whiteness of the Whale«. Here we gain an insight into the profound symbolism that Melville employs in his novel. He explores how whiteness is used in history, in religion, and in nature. The terms he uses to describe the appearance of whiteness in these areas include elusive, ghastly, and transcendent horror, as well as sweet, honorable, and pure. All of these are descriptive terms that are symbolized in one way or another by the presence of whiteness. In this chapter Melville writes:
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Recording Water

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Moby-Dick

»Da ist Magie im Spiel. Lasst den zerstreutesten Menschen in tiefe Träumerei verfallen – stellt diesen auf die Füße, setzt ihn in Gang, und er wird euch unfehlbar ans Wasser führen, sofern es in dieser Gegend überhaupt Wasser gibt. […] Ja, das weiß jeder: auf ewig vereint sind Wasser und Tiefsinn.« (Moby-Dick, Kapitel 1)

Auf unserer Reise wird der Aspekt des Wassers weitgehend vernachlässigt. Unsere Anlaufstellen – die Mittelpunkte – werden nach mathematischen und nicht sozialen, menschlichen Gesichtspunkten ermittelt. Wasser war an diesen Punkten bis jetzt nicht zu finden.

So wurde auch unser ursprüngliches Vorhaben, jeden Tag einen Unterwasser-Klang zu posten, vereitelt. Hier ist nun aber der erste: ein Elektroboot – mit Schiffsschraube! – im Ossiacher See, aufgenommen am 5. September um 17:10, bei einer Wassertemperatur von 23˚ und leichtem Wind. (ms)

Die Weltmaschine Franz Gsellmanns

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Moby-Dick

Ähnlich wie in St. Stefan ob Leoben und der Gegend rund um den Erzberg dreht sich auch im Herzen von Franz Gsellmanns Maschine eine Eisen-Kristallstruktur. Im Schlaf hatte er eine Vision, von der sich herausstellte, daß es sich um das Atomium handelt, welches 1958 zur Weltausstellung in Brüssel gebaut wurde. Gsellmann wanderte zum nächsten Bahnhof, fuhr nach Brüssel, besah das Atomium und machte sich noch am selben Tag auf die Heimreise.

Zuhause zog er sich in einen Raum zurück, dessen Schlüssel er immer um den Hals trug. Hier arbeitete er an seinem Werk, das er erst kurz vor seinem Tod fertig stellte. Seine kinetische Skulptur, der er selbst keinen Namen zu geben vermochte, beeinflusste sogar den Künstler Jean Tinguely.

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Exhaustion

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Moby-Dick

Ten days into the journey, people are exhausted, overworked, feeling the work in their body. This is the point where the work we’re doing can either become magnificent or disastrous.

I’ve never been on a whaling ship but I assume that the crew is going trough days of boredom and fatigue and then: A WHALE. Everyone on the ship goes into work mode, life is exciting again, there is a monstrous creature in the water, let the hunt begin.

Our WHALE can be a ship in a truck stop, a motorboat in the Ossiacher See, or a song sang in a bathtub in one of the houses we occupy for two days. We then enter working mode. A scene is being constructed, a moment, a short performance. Hunting the moment is our quest, the elusive split second when a scene is coming to life, a song starts to sound like something we can sing out loud, a text makes sense.

These moments are short lived.

In a whaling boat there is always the next big catch, it is never enough.

»But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd’s head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd’s eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him.« (Moby-Dick, Chapter 1)

Yes, the magic that is placed before our eyes is as elusive as Moby Dick, the whale and the book. (y)

Truck Stop

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Moby-Dick

On September 4th we stopped in one of the truck stops between Graz and Villach for a late lunch refueling. Overpriced salad bar and watery coffee. Like airports, truck stops seem to be places where travelers are being punished for traveling.

Behind the restaurant stood a large ship. A playground ship, out of order till further notice. The kid in us couldn’t pass the chance to play sailors and pirates. So we jumped aboard the ship, ignoring the ‘don’t use’ sign and sailed into the high seas of make believe.

The other guests of the restaurant looked at us the way parents look at an unruly child. Why are these grown-ups running around dressed as sailors? And why are they climbing on a kid’s ship screaming at an imaginary whale?

Try to explain to them that this is fun. That this is the whole point of us traveling around Austria looking for the Austrian whale. We cannot pass a chance to board a ship, any ship, that comes our way. We have to tame the whale.

We play cinema, we play performance, we play Moby Dick. So, for that matter, Austria is our set, our stage, our playground. Austria is a vast ocean full of ships and we are looking for them, one province at a time. (y)

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Inspired by: Fitzcarraldo

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Moby-Dick

In St. Stefan ob Leoben we encounterd another pop-culture character, whose quest to exploit a natural resource turns into a mad, self-destructive journey: meet Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald López, the Peruvian rubber baron who mercilessly killed his indigenous workforce, if they would not work. Or rather, his dramatized character Fitzcarraldo, played by Klaus Kinski, who took on to move a whole steamboat across a hill in the rainforest—or even director Werner Herzog himself. Read More

It’s All in the Name

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Moby-Dick

Michael, besides being behind the camera when we are shooting, is responsible for the technical side of our trip, and thus also for backing-up all the data we accumulate each day. This intersects with publishing blog posts, when it comes to the photos stored on the portable hard-drives he uses: I get to browse through a day’s worth of images by connecting the disc to my own computer.

As every proper captain of data Michael uses two hard-drives that mirror each other, so that no data would be lost even if there was a problem with one of them. His main storage device is called »Pequod«, like captain Ahab’s ship; the mirror is called »Rosebud«, like one of the ships the Pequod meets on its journey.

Strangely enough, my own backup devices were named after ships long before this project: my hard-disk is simply called »Ark«, like Noah’s Ark; and my USB-drive is called »Skiff«, like the rowing boat that, for instance, transfers humans from the world of the living to the realm of the dead in Greek mythology.

I guess it’s already geek behavior to name your devices (if you do so, too, please share the names of yours in the comments to this article!). But it now strikes me as both weird and apt to use the names of ships for that. It’s a clear sign of what our valuables are these days: While whale oil—contrary to Melville’s own time—has long lost its significance as a commodity, data has to be shipped to safety, rescued from demise, protected from extinction. (z)

Make Austria Great Again

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Moby-Dick

In Leoben, Styria, on a rainy day, FPÖ election rally. Young and middle aged men, well groomed, well dressed, fit and ready to fight, spout hate in the middle of a shopping centre area.

We stopped to do some food shopping. The supermarket was full of people doing their weekend errands. It was a stark contrast to then step outside the mall into a festival of loathing.

These FPÖ politicians know how to speak in codes. But we don’t need Alan Turing to decipher their speech. It’s a xenophobic version of »Make Austria Great Again«. They use words like fairness and We deserve and We are the real ones. They are very cautious in their wording, but the subtext is clear.

Like the crew of the Pequod they are willing to take the Austrian ship down for a false promise of some gold coins. The whale of hate is once again swimming toward us, lets steer the ship into the land of sanity. Let’s say NO to Ahab, we are not here to play his game of hate and revenge. (y)

Die Grenzen der Vernunft

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Moby-Dick

In preparation of our encyclopedic project circling around Moby Dick a lot of material was accumulated. What follows is a longer text in German about the physical and mental maps both relevant during Melville’s time of writing the novel and today.

Die Weiterungen der Erzählung, ihre sprichwörtlichen unendlichen Weiten, sie sind in der sich immer wieder perpetuierenden Stiftungserzählung der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika zu finden. Die Leiter, die nach Walter Benjamin vertikal tief ins Erdinnere und hoch in die Wolken reicht, findet sich an den Planwagen, eben jenen Leiterwagen wieder, mit welchen die Pioniere die Grenzen immer wieder neu zur Horizontale hin ausloten und verschieben. Moby Dick ist eine Parabel auf diese Ost-West-Ausdehnung, die übrigens nie für Spannungsstress sorgte, im Gegensatz zum Nord-Süd-Verhältnis, welches dann fast 15 Jahre nach Erscheinen des Romans im Bürgerkrieg mündet. Der Westen ist dabei für Amerika das, was der Orient für Europa ist, wild, geheimnisvoll, irrational.
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Certain Queer Times

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Moby-Dick

»[…] yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.« Moby-Dick Or: The Whale, Chapter 42

This was shot at the town square of St. Stefan ob Leoben, Styria on August 31st. Performers: Isabella-Nora Händler and Yosi Wanunu. Camera & Editing: Michael Strohmann.

On Countryside Monsters

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Moby-Dick

We stopped at a small village, we needed lunch desperately. We found a place with some tables outdoors. The kind of place that is half farm, half guesthouse. The kind of place that is full of kittens and cows grazing nearby. You somehow know that the cows will find themselves, sooner or later, on the restaurant menu. It is hard, almost impossible, to eat in front of animals you read about as the daily special. So you lovingly strike the kitten and ignore the cattle, the large animals are invisible in that pastoral setting.
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Local Disco

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Moby-Dick

Driving with Moby Dick, or to be more precise: Ishmael, the resident writer of the ship, is like driving with a complete edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and some more. Ishmael is like the hitchhiker that can’t stop talking. Every topic is fair game, religion, philosophy, whales, books, the countryside, cannibals, breakfast at the inn, and so on and so on.

Looking out upon the country passing by, Austria in our case, one gets the feeling that every topic is there. Religion, of course, race, refugees, nature, extreme sports, the added value of pumpkinseed oil, mountains and rivers, small towns with nothing to do and bigger towns with nothing to do.

At St. Stefan ob Leoben we performed a short action at the town square. Everyone stared at us as if we were characters from another era. We felt as though we had approached some metaphysical border. As if we were writing our own Encyclopaedia. As if we were the hitchhikers that can’t stop talking about every Austrian phenomenon we see from our window seat.

And then we talked to some young people who looked at us with amazement. Are you familiar with the book Moby Dick? We asked. And to our surprise they were, with the story at least. They invited us to the reopening of a local disco.

Oh Ishmael, now you will have to talk about dance, and the meaning of movement, and the history of Austrian folk dance, and the social function of a disco in rural Styria.

Let’s dance St. Stefan ob Leoben. (y)

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