G.R.A.M. : »côte noire«, 1998
by Sabine Himmelsbach
»As a society, we have become obsessed with the gaze of the videocam, not only because we perceive that it brings us 'security' but also because we are fascinated by the visual representation of ourselves. Today, we are very much, a culture of voyeurs.« 
»Because, after all, far from being singular, imagery is legion. It proliferates. One image breeds another. And then again, because imagery sticks, the image surface will attach itself promiscuously to any other surface.« 
In 1987, Günther Holler-Schuster, Ronald Walter, Armin Wanner and Martin Behr founded the artist quartet G.R.A.M. in Graz. Their joint works centered on the phenomena of mass culture and the media-based nature of today's society. They use mostly found material, pictures from newspapers, magazines and agencies which they rework in their artistic process, or have re-worked. The cliche pictures from the routine and material world together with the aesthetics characterize their works. Like DJs, they use existing material, sample it, re-mix it and place it in a new context in their works.
In 1987, the group of artists spent half a year in Los Angeles. Surrendering to the glamour of Hollywood, the four set out on their hunt for stars and starlets. On the search for prominent figures, they soon also began to terrorize their immediate vicinity with the camera. »We filmed everything in L.A. that moved. Both stars and unknowns.«  Like the paparazzi guild, those sensation hungry photographers, they pursued their fellow man going about his daily occupation. The distinct difference, however, is that they lie in wait not only for the modern jet-set but also for the people nearby who are observing. With zoom and telephoto lenses they edge up to their neighbors, documenting them as they water their flowers, leave for the office, climb out of the car or other such daily pursuits. Like Paparazzi photos, their photos are characterized by their blurredness which comes from the fast and secretive way they work. They have to react quickly before a potential »victim« disappears again into the impenetrable - inside their four walls.
On the Côte díAzur during the Cannes film festival, G.R.A.M. operated as paparazzi and documented the colorful goings-on of the stars and passers-by. In the côte noire series the scenes are mixed up. In a series of three photos, we see a man standing on a balcony as he just lights a cigarette. The second photo shows the same man leaning slightly over the railing adjusts his black sunglasses. In the third photo we see a woman with long dark hair who is preparing to leave the balcony. All the photos are taken with a telephoto lens and reproduce a situation which takes place far away from the observer. The way the people act clearly shows that they are not aware of being observed. Another series shows a man in casual, everyday clothes on the street, with a video cassette in his hand. In the same picture you see a woman approaching him. You cannot see the two actually meet, bit in the following pictures there is only the woman who you can only vaguely recognize. Does the video cassette have a particular meaning? Is this a 'handover'? Another work shows a topless woman on the beach. Who is she? Is she a star or an unknown? The camera lens alone makes her an »object of desire«, bestows upon her the 15 mins fame that Andy Warhol prophesied for all.
By formally adopting the paparazzi aesthetic, the mechanism which constructs the private and the public in media terms is exposed for what it is. »The so-called fundamental difference between private and public life is so mendacious that even exegetes are not able to define this clearly. In fact it expresses nothing more than two definitions which are related to the same phenomenon but at the same time separate from it: Life, which has become a commodity, distinguished by its double aspect of its user value and its exchange value.«  Especially the paparazzi aesthetic with its blurry focus, impreciseness and large grain arouses a feeling in the viewer that it must be authentic. In today's media world we are so familiar with these pictures that we instantly start to suspect a story behind them. Who can the people in the picture be? What do they appear to be doing? Our own imagination is set into action by these pictures. Harmless happenings become stories of »sex and crime«. Unknown passers-by become potential stars or criminals. The photographs have an openness which allows you to project your own thoughts into them. You could say they form a sort of vacuum.
The photos bear witness to the desire to observe. G.R.A.M.'s pictures display something between surveillance as a threat and as a desire for exhibitionism. In reality TV shows, the most intimate problems are paraded before a large unknown public. »The proliferation of video means that we can all be 'on film', just like our cherished cultural icons of television and the cinema.«  We are not only being observed but called upon to observe others. Benthamís panopticon of the visibility of everyone and the invisibility and potential presence of someone surveying us has given way to the existence of many surveillers. Everyone is an observer and an observed at the same time. »With the contemporary blurring of boundaries between notions of »public« and »private«, between »real« freedom and its simulation, it is easy to see how »democracy« could become little more than a media illusion on the postmodern landscape.«  Is there still a difference between private and public life? If there is, the difference which is left appears to have become redundant.
1 William G. Staples, The Culture of Surveillance. Discipline and Social Control in the United States, New York, 1997, p. 57. ^
2 Dick Hebdige: »On image and identity, in: Jon Thompson [Hg.], Towards a Theory of the Image, Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht, 1996, p. 139. ^
3 Günther Holler-Schuster, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 28. April 1998, Julia Grosse: »Auf der Suche nach der realen Präsenz. Die Künstlergruppe G.R.A.M. macht mit Paparazzi-Methoden Jagd auf den ganz normalen Alltag.« ^
4 Maxime Matray: »Nicht-das-Proletariat als Thema und Darstellung«, in: g.r.a.m. côte noire, Villa Arson, Nice 1998, p. 26. ^
5 William G. Staples, The Culture of Surveillance. Discipline and Social Control in the United States, New York 1997, p. 57/58. ^
6 See ibid., p. 134. ^