b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
lives and works in New York City
The Small Infinity
Single channel HD video, with sound, 11 min
German, with English subtitles
70 pages, with color illustrations
5.5” x 8”
Edition of 50
Allison Collins: Could you lay bare a bit of the formal structure that brought your project from research to the realization of this project? What were the various contact points for your narrative construct?
Benjamin Tiven: Passing through Berlin for work in the fall of 2009 I met chess player Paul Werner Wagner at his office in Kreuzberg, where he runs a gesellschaft for the late German chess master Emmanuel Lasker. I had gone to see this gesellschaft because I wanted to play chess and hear more regarding Lasker, about whom I thought I might make some kind of work. I imagined the place a little too fantastically—as an old smoky library filled with weird guys playing dozens of simultaneous games, testing arcane openings and counter-attacks in an aura of aged mahogany bookshelves and pipe tobacco. In reality it was one guy—Paul—in a bright, open industrial office, sitting at a computer. There were, at least, a lot of books.
We talked for a while with an old friend of mine translating between us. Paul grew up in the east, and though he always understood what I said, he never responded in English. Turned out that Paul’s own story was much more interesting than Lasker’s. In 1968, right after graduating high school, he had tried to flee East Germany to Vienna on his moped and was caught while hiding in the woods near the Czech border. Trying to escape from the DDR was a crime so common it had its own name—Republikflucht—and this got Wagner a ten-year sentence: the first three in solitary confinement in various locations and a seven-year term of hard labour.
During his solitary time, Wagner—who had been a chess enthusiast in high school—read chess magazines and studied the game, eventually playing matches with one of his Stasi guards who was evidently as bored of his shift as the prisoners were. The guard was a gifted player and played by memory. While passing on his rounds he would check to see what move Wagner had made and would reply with a countermove, all through the slot in the cell door. This guard was much better than Wagner was, and beyond sharpening Paul’s game, the experience helped provide a mental focus point while he waited out his prison sentence.
Afterwards, Wagner’s hard labour term included a stint at the Agfa corporation, making the toxic brew used for cinema film emulsion. It was during this time—roughly 1972 to 1978—that Wagner saw a screening of the 1960 West German film Schachnovelle, in English “Chess Story,” which tells the story of a lawyer named Werner von Basil who teaches himself chess while imprisoned by the Nazis in Vienna in 1938. Von Basil drives himself insane, playing half of his brain “black” and the other half “white.” An immediate connection was drawn between Wagner’s own life, the story in the film and the short book on which the film was based—which is also called Schachnovelle, by the Viennese novelist Stefan Zweig. Paul’s decision to endure his prison sentence and then become a historian of both cinema and chess crystallized in that moment, and that’s exactly what he has done. The experience of seeing his own life played out as fiction became the reason to adjust his life to that fiction.
Anyway, I had come back home and digested this whole story, then returned to Berlin a few months later. I contacted Paul and knew I would make a film with him and that it would consist of a single core gesture: to screen the film for just him, so that we could listen to his narration while watching him watch the film. The “small” infinity created here is not just implicit of the endless possibilities of a chess game, but also the intertwined relationship between Wagner and his cinematic alter ego—that is, between the audience and the screen.
I was in Berlin for four days. We did the interview on the second day and the film screening on the third. In the off hours I made photographs of a few tourist places, since it was only my second time in Germany and I hadn’t seen the Pergamon Museum or anything like that. I also went to the Soviet Liberation Memorial in Treptower Park, on the south side of the city. I’d heard the Soviets had pillaged Albert Speer’s Reichstag building to use its red facade stones in the monument and I wanted to see it. Quite a haunted kind of recycling.
AC: Your practice has a strong element of research that ends in constellations of media: books, videos, diagrams, texts, and reprints of original materials. After the unraveling of this particular story, this is even clearer. It appears you have a penchant for noticing correlations or affinities that occur as objects accrue history.
What I mean is that you have managed to find a manner by which you could document a wide array of links and tangents—conceptually, historically and even materially, such as with the images of the stones and the Pergamon.
What is the logic behind the way you bring these various fractions and elements into the larger equation of the work?
BT: Well, yes, this project is an articulation of materials that I’ve grouped together through some shared or associative histories, which were provoked in the first place by this particular encounter with Paul Wagner. Unraveling that encounter suggested its own formal handling. When I had figured out that Wagner had seen his life reduplicated in a film—which was also a version of a book—I knew that what I would do is make a video of his engagement with that film and then some kind of book. These weren’t just the appropriate forms, they were the requisite ones; I wanted my framing gestures to suture this open loop. The project takes a very private, inward story and makes space for it within a wider arena of social histories. And of course, books, video and cinema are very distributable, social forms. It made sense.
As things developed, these two formal ideas had to accommodate a wide spread of overlapping characters who all emerged as I dug out the film’s history. In the video, the relationship between Wagner and the fictional Von Basil is the core thread. But really, there are six people arranged in this work: this fictional lawyer Von Basil; the very real actor Curd Jürgens, who plays him in the film and whose autobiography explains his personal attachment to the role; Gerd Oswald, the original film’s director, who is himself a German émigré; our man Paul Wagner; the ghost of Emmanuel Lasker, who makes an appearance in both the film and the book as himself, the eminent German chess Grandmaster of the pre-war era; and, of course, the novelist Stefan Zweig. This was the last book Zweig wrote before his 1942 suicide while in exile in a town near Rio in Brazil. So, the essential narrative here—i.e., “man plays chess in prison to keep from going crazy”—is diffused across a number of people: the written character, the film director, the lead actor, the scholar. All of whom feel some deep resonance with this fiction, as if they each embody it from divergent angles.
You also mention the even wider array of fragile links between the images or objects in the project and this is a really important point for me. I’m always thinking about a given sequence of ideas, interests or particular subjects, all of which are constantly being annotated, updated or altered, since each project somehow emends a previous one. Deciding which of the tangential connections I’ve stumbled upon are meaningful is part of the process of forming the work. So, for example, I had gone to see the monument in Treptower Park because I’d already done some thinking about Speer, and while it was just—as you say—a tangential footnote in this project, it had carried over from playing a much larger role in an earlier one. So that’s a repeating theme or an accidental strategy: carrying over footnotes and expanding them into full-length investigations.
Anyways, whether this project documents connections or produces them is sort of an open question, since these threads don’t necessarily all touch each other outside the logic of my project. But stories don’t occur in a vacuum, and the more I researched things, the more I gravitated towards the matrix surrounding Wagner’s story than his story itself. Perhaps, in part, because constructing that outer framing device—that is, the actual work—is where I can insert myself into this larger chain of resonances.
AC: I’d like to take up this notion of meaningful material. I have an interest in the intertwined subjectivities and time periods that this project analyzes. Or perhaps analyzes is the wrong word. That it imagines or presents. I feel that these subjectivities—all six of them—have really become the constituent element of the project and the organizing principal of the work, which occurs in the two physical phases of the video and the book and, I would argue, in a third phase of your own narrative role as a the researcher/detective/producer.
Something I am often drawn to imagine is exactly where the sparks, reactions, fusions, and/or relationships are occurring that generate interest. “Interest” here is being used as a very loaded term. If I am very straightforward I will admit that what I am looking for is a way to place a point on a vast map of relationships and say, “Aha! Here is the art!” Except that this operation essentially loses sight of the work itself, as each tangent is revealed to lead to another layer of meaning.
So, in a sense, I am interested in how you have grappled with the potency of narrative as a constituent element of video in your work. Can you discuss the displacement of narrative or the centrality of narrative in relation to your work? Previously we explored the ways in which one might deploy narrative or enact it, while also approaching it as a subject to be considered.
BT: Well, the project tries to find balance between following all the expanding threads and cutting to a core, formal move. The dispersal of the research lead to variations in modality, tone of voice and form. On the one hand, the video is pretty self-contained: It’s the dialogue between Wagner’s memories and the film in which they’re embedded, structured to suggest that he’s re-editing the film in his mind as he tells us the story or maybe through the very act of telling us. There is a clear narrative arc, however diffracted across different times and media. On the other hand, the book lines up a wide swath of references that all point towards and co-illuminate each other—references that quietly annotate the video, like footnotes.
This spread of the narrative across time (that is, across different modes of address, across memory, history and fiction equally), is also mirrored in the way the piece was shot (as a video of a film in projection)—that is, a diffraction of narrative across divergent surfaces of technical media. I shot the entire Oswald film as a projection. Every time there’s a cut in the original film I made a cut on my timeline, disassembling the whole into all of its constituent parts. I then re-spliced these to fit the voice-over I’d edited from an interview with Paul. So here, video subsumes the projected film image into its blank horizon of digital data. These media face each other and they flatten each other. Obviously this was a specifically limited form of montage, dictated by Oswald’s choices, but it models something I’ve been thinking about since: the way video data is given meaning through its edit structure, through the rhythmic armature on which it hangs. It’s worth noting that in addition to Schachnovelle, I also had footage of the particular flukes of the projectionist I’d hired for the screening. Whether intentionally or not—and likely not—his inattentive gaps between reels produced unexpected pauses, extra black leader, flicker and dust, all of which became meaningful material for me.
As to narrative more generally, telling stories is something I try to focus on, but it’s intrinsic here given the project’s origins in a novel. Formally, the structure of my video is based on Zweig’s book. In Schachnovelle, Von Basil’s prison narrative is a nested memory, told within a framing story that takes place aboard a boat. So in the video we begin in 1990 when Paul Wagner is first allowed to see his Stasi files, then we move back to 1968 to the core events of his prison term, and then we go back to his present day analysis of his own life. This is mirrored in the images by moving from the projection booth (the space of reflection), to the theater (the space of involvement), then back to the booth and then back to the theater once more. But this method of dismantling Schachnovelle into fragments and then reassembling them was its own struggle, in regard to narrative, since the original film has a tremendous advancing force of storytelling embedded in each shot: dramatic lighting, extreme angles, stormy weather—the works. Oswald was a skillful director, and so much of the imagery in the film—and its increasingly tense, nervous, gothic score—was built to push this main character toward a resolution of crisis that my main character doesn’t actually get.
AC: This arc is much clearer when one considers and mentally plots the various relationships in the work, which seems a little like a magician revealing his tricks. Even so, there is a rhythm occurring that is formally and also poetically taken up. I wonder if you could speak a little about the labyrinth of meanings that this builds, both fictional and nonfictional. In a sense I feel that this work guides us into a maze, from which we are not meant to escape, but inside of which we might be encouraged to consider the forms around us. Would that be a fair characterization?
BT: Yes, that’s a great one. Well, the question of how to narrate history is one thing raised, as are the relationships that can link history to fiction if the right accidents line up. I hope the film isn’t misunderstood as a facile compression of the political scenario of Germany in 1968 to that of Germany in 1938, though I’m certainly interested in how those times are tied together. But mostly I’m thinking through how a characterization can spontaneously irrupt in both the world of fiction and in the real world, and how that characterization can become lived reality in unforeseen ways.
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