Bianca Baldi’s first German solo exhibition Eyes in the Back of Your Head at the Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof looks to Germany’s little-known colonial past. In particular it examines the role of technology as a colonising tool in the colony of Togo.
The Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof is reached by a quick trip on the train from the centre of Hamburg. Housed in the cavernous 19th century first-class waiting room of the still operating train station, its white walls with decorative stucco finishes, large windows, and dark wooden ceiling conveys lofty Victorian values. The artist engages with the loaded meanings attached to a space of this kind: hierarchies of class; domination and expansion; speed and advanced mobility.
Hanging vertically from the wooden ceiling, large black and white images of what appears to be a landscape are printed on voile and arranged to form a floating labyrinth. On closer examination it is revealed that the images document the construction of a telegraph station in the city of Kamina (1911-14), at the time part of the German colony of Togo. Objects stand on white plinths placed at intervals throughout the labyrinth. The objects look ceremonial: small stones of Dalmatian jasper delicately wrapped in Tengu paper stand on copper; a collection of black stones arranged snake-like; and finally an impressive sculpture in steel and mirrored acrylic that looks like a miniature telegraph tower. A video plays behind the one-way mirror that fills the spaces between the criss-cross laths of the tower. A throbbing bass can be heard coming from a speaker to the side of the room. It is at once meditative and ominous.
The ostensibly banal images printed on voile — taken for the German telecoms company Telefunken — record the endeavour to link Germany (in this case, Nauen in Brandenburg) with its colony in Togo. However, their re-appropriation as dreamy free-floating arrangements upends their former use-value as reliable documents of this endeavour. Natural daylight seeps through the fabric and the air causes them to shift slightly, rendering them dream-like. Seen from different angles, the images overlap to create new ones so that they form an unstable collage.
According to the artist, their re-appropriation and formal arrangement is taken from the visual instructions found in a traditional talisman scroll created by the people of Togo. The scroll’s objective was to evoke a mythological architecture bringing forth supernatural forces that would raise consciousness and awareness. According to the artist the talisman arrangement provided a cure for disillusionment by helping us to see. The video playing in the steel sculpture goes some way to illustrate this process. Understood in these terms the work becomes dialectical. An opposition can be read between the rational programme of establishing telecommunications and the so-called irrational beliefs of the ‘natives’. Two clear beliefs — one in science, and the other in supernatural forces — overlap and blur. If we seek contemporary examples we have only to look at the accepted idea that all our data is stored in a cloud, or we only have to consider how confidence is the crucial factor that ensures the international financial system remains stable. The language used to describe these ‘rational’ systems reminds us that belief is at the very core of modern myth making and that these systems are dependent upon that belief if they are to function.
Mention of the cloud brings us to the subject of surveillance — another theme alluded to by the title of the show. Our relationship to the cloud is one of verticality. This verticality suggests the privileged perspective of the all-seeing eye or God’s-eye view. In her essay In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective, Hito Steyerl reminds us that we have become accustomed to vertical perspective thanks to the aerial views of Google Maps and satellite imaging. This technologically led shift in perspective was preceded by much earlier technological innovations in navigational equipment during the Age of Discoveries. The use of these tools, which measured the horizon, facilitated early exploration, colonialization and the spread of “a capitalist global market.” Crucially, the development of single-point perspective in Renaissance painting coincided with these technological developments.
Single-point perspective played a role in affirming the power and dominance of the white male western subject. Literally, the world was seen and understood from his perspective. Today we see a shift in perspective as dominance is expressed and affirmed vertically. Grégoire Chamayou writes:
“By becoming stratospheric, an imperial power alters its relationship to space. It now becomes a matter not so much of occupying a territory as of controlling it from above by insuring its mastery of the skies.”
The development of earlier technologies like the telegraph and photography were instrumental in this shift to the vertical. The arrangement of the images by the artist as they float in the space illustrates, at least to my mind, the cloud and this shift to the politics of verticality.
in the Back of your Head
also suggests raised consciousness so that we might provide protection for
ourselves in the event of an attack. Today, it could be argued, this privileged
position of seeing is only available to those who have access to the cloud and
surveil from above. In marked contrast to a liberating sense of transcendence,
the self-censoring paranoia we feel as modern subjects is symptomatic of our
powerlessness. Indeed our now quotidian experience of social media couldn’t be
better encapsulated by Hal Foster’s writings on the exhibitionist. In the Freudian
account, he tells us, ‘the exhibitionist is the voyeur in disguise, who acts
out precisely for his or her own imagined viewing.’
The colonial enterprise was a means to experiment and execute ideas that would
later be applied en mass, ensuring we all become voyeurs of our own imagined
viewing. However, rather than inferring some sort of paranoiac surveillance of
the self, Baldi’s exhibition suggests that our eyes should look back towards
the past and hold it up as precedent so that we can advance cautiously. It’s a
posture that recalls Paul Klee’s enigmatic Angelus
Novus. In Klee’s drawing the angelus advances forward as she looks back,
ever mindful that history is a nightmare from which she cannot, and perhaps
should not awake from.
 Metahaven, ‘Captives of the
Cloud, Part III : All Tomorrow’s Clouds.’E-flux
Journal, no.50 December
(accessed 3 July 2017) “We have become the enslaved consumers of
nonsensical abstractions. No one has ever seen the cloud, or its main tenant,
“big data.” These are objects of ideology and belief, and at times, treacherous
harbingers of Big Brother.”
 H.Steyerl, ‘In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,’ E-flux Journal, no. 24, April 2011, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/24/67860/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/, (accessed 3 July 2017)
 G. Chamayou, Drone Theory, trans. J. Lloyd, London, Penguin, 2015, p. 53
 H. Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, London, Verso. 2013, p.99.