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A thousand words: Roman Signer; Talks about Observation Box, 2000.

Once, I spread a load of dynamite over the ground and positioned a Super-8 camera very close to it. The film shows the fuse burning down, and then everything turns black. But Super-8 cameras are much tougher than video cameras, whose electronic mechanisms are distorted by the waves from the blast. The picture loses color; it becomes "pale from fear." After a few seconds of black-and-white images, the color slowly returns. I am interested in camera positions that record what the eye can't see-the "suffering" camera that participates, not just the viewpoint of the bystander.

Observation Box is a kind of laboratory situation designed so that the participant (me) can witness a huge fireball up close; the human eye thus becomes a substitute for the camera. To conduct my experiment, I transported the box out to Weissbad, a remote area in the canton of Appenzell, where I often execute ideas that can't be performed in the studio. I didn't intend a juxtaposition of peaceful nature and violence; the countryside was merely a practical testing ground. More important to me is the contrast between the apparent security the object represents and the actual danger it's intended to protect against. The box is a deceptive refuge, like the fragile windowpanes of our homes-what makes us feel so safe is in reality a thin membrane separating man from nature.

I sat inside Observation Box wearing a flameproof hood and special visor meant for looking directly into a fire. For a brief instant, the box was like the cockpit of a plane, or the driver's seat in a race car, with an external combustion "engine," if you will, which I sat behind, as if piloting into the explosion. I suppose Observation Box has a certain malevolent emanation. The hood and visor remind me of military gear designed for protection from a nuclear blast. Perhaps these types of actions are an elaborate way of working through certain fears. Physical risk, however, is not an element of the work, and I protect myself as well as I can. Injuries are simply the result of miscalculation. Other artists, like the Vienna Actionists, often invited the presence of blood, but to me that would be a mistake. For each piece, I choose specific safety measures, like flameproof suits or helmets, which also have an aesthetic appeal.

It has been mentioned, in terms of my developing interest in the properties of combustion, that I used to work in a pressure-cooker factory. Indeed I did once; it was my job to assemble release valves and pack the cookers. My experience at the factory didn't influence me so much as my mother's cooking with a pressure cooker, and pressure-cooker mishaps and explosions-as happened to my aunt, resulting in barley soup on the ceiling. Perhaps I even caused such accidents by incorrectly assembling the valves.

Explosions can be highly aesthetic. I understand them as a complex form of sculpture because an infinite number of forms are produced within extremely short periods of time; every moment looks different. The perfect sculpture is a transformation, a process. An explosion in water produces a transformation. A column of water is merely transient. But at the same time it is a sculpture that progresses and then collapses back into itself. The sculpture exists only for a moment. But caught on video or film, this moment is frozen.

I make a distinction between actions performed in front of an audience and those that are only recorded on film. For the former I have to rehearse and test everything in advance; I'm exposing myself, and the action has to work on the first try. When an action is performed and filmed without an audience, the process is more open and relaxed. Nevertheless, I still execute dozens of practice runs by myself before a photographer or cameraman records the work. For Observation Box, the explosion occurred without an audience. I had the operation filmed and photographed not with the intention of treating the event as an action that would be recorded, but more as documentation of the transforming process that completes the work. A star pattern was burned into the top of the box as a result of gunpowder I carefully configured before the explosion. Everything was meticulously planned and measured, yet one can never be certain whether the gunpowder will merely burn (to form the star) or detonate, which would be quite dan gerous. Observation Box is a sculpture whose creation was, to a certain degree, left to chance.

I rarely do actions in front of an audience anymore. Overtime I have become suspicious about whether the actions were adequately understood or mistaken for entertainment. Without an audience but documented on film, the work has a longer life, a different quality, and isn't exhausted as quickly. My notion of sculpture has moved toward the vicissitudes of process itself. The transient sculpture has outgrown the action.

RELATED ARTICLE: Since the early '70s Roman Signer has been conducting and documenting self-described "sculptural events" in the Swiss countryside, employing a limited repertoire of objects (blue barrel, red balloon, Christmas tree, dynamite) to produce various physical phenomena. Effects range from the pink smoke of flares trailing Signer's skis as he crossed a pristine snowfield (Zakopane, 1994) to the subtle roving of a camera's-eye view from a tabletop raft as it floated past vivid riparian scenery (Table with Camera, 2001), to more dramatic outcomes, like the controlled explosion of Observation Box, 2000-a simple pine construction designed to give Signer front-row seating to a quick, smoky combustion. Two types of work resulted: the box, unchanged save for a delicate symmetrical pattern of gunpowder burns, exhibited with the artist's fireproof hood; and photographs of the explosive event. Considering them autonomous works rather than linked artifacts, Signer never exhibits the sculptural object and photo documentation together.

If the meticulous planning in Signer's Alpine cause-and-effect experiments, the economy of his prop list, and the cool, "straight man" role he plays amid the chaotic actions all seem rather Swiss, the transformations he effects are, to the contrary, poetic and absurd. While structured within the parameters of systems, Signer's events allow for unruly outcomes that continually undermine the rigorousness of setup. But if there's madness to his scientific method, his investigations are after something understated and abstract: a glimpse of the ephemeral.
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Author:Kushner, Rachel
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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