The past year was not the happiest of years for the Swiss arts, seeing as two of that nation's more interesting cultural ambassadors - designer H.R. Giger and filmmaker Peter Liechti - both passed away. The former, of course, I eulogized here, but I confess that I'm still nowhere close to being an expert on Liechti's work. Up until now, I've only seen the films of his made available through the Drag City record label: these include the excellent Kick That Habit based loosely on the exploits of Voice Crack, and the Roman Signer documentary / travelogue Signer's Suitcase (Zündschnur in the original.)
This last item is certainly worth adding to my slowly expanding list of belated film reviews, and not simply as an apology for my neglect of Liechti. As ephemerality becomes more paradoxically 'present' in the digital-virtual age, the subject of Liechti's 1991 opus becomes an ever more interesting figure to communicate such ideas. His documented actions and interventions have been, largely, of a very ephemeral nature, consisting of strangely elegant acts like the shooting of rocket-propelled red streamers across volcanic landscapes (e.g. Mt. Stromboli), setting tables adrift across icy waters, or simply shaking tree limbs until the snow falls off of them. In those actions where Signer is visible as a subject, he will do things such as ritually lighting life-sized cubic 'candles' or walking down a stretch of beach with lit sparklers attached to his rubber boots (items that are as iconic for Signer as Dali's moustache was for him, and notably featured on the cover of Gastr del Sol's 1996 album Upgrade and Afterlife.)
Signer has been at work on these projects since 1973, and has had considerable assistance from his videographer wife Aleksandra since the early 1990s. His phenomenological studies have, as hinted at above, largely been intense dialogues with nature, but Signer's Suitcase also portrays him as having a profound curiosity about artifice as well. For example, he rhapsodizes over the noises made by half-functional vehicles and imparts hylozoic attitudes about their indistinguishability from sounds made by the human organism (Liechti lends him a hand here with some memorable still shots of headlamps glaring like inquisitive eyes.) Signer's apparent thesis, that no matter is wholly incapable of communicative interaction, shines through well in moments like these: his famous emphasis upon explosions, collisions, and transitions between states of matter seems not so much like a fetish for destruction but like a search for otherwise imperceptible qualities within matter, for what Bruno Latour called "proto-actants" that "[do] not yet have a stabilized identity and [are] thus describable only as a list of effects or performances."[i] There are certainly some elaborately orchestrated demolitions in Signer's canon, such as the 2008 action 56 Kleine Helictoper in which a swarm of remote-controlled toy helicopters crashed into each other and convulse upon the ground. Even here, though, the focus seems to be on the vitality of these objects - their nearness to some kind of sentience - than on their fragility.
Signer's attitude towards matter also informs his perception of geography: though he is clearly well traveled throughout the European nations by the time of this documentary's filming, he seems to be affected by his surroundings as if he were experiencing them for the first time. His enthusiasm is perceptible in even his faintest grins and in those moments when his demeanor is at its most staid, and - perhaps most importantly - is perceptible whether his whimsical experiments yield astonishing results or not. He continually reminds us that true experimentation does not involve massaging undesired results into something closer to the experimenter's expected outcome, but rather invites us to set aside anxieties over failure so that accidental discoveries may be given a chance to bloom.
The downside to all this, of course, is that - as per Anna Dezeuze - Signer's "career modesty has perhaps partially contributed to the neglect he has suffered in the U.S."[ii] This is a sad realization, not just for Signer, but for likeminded artists who see publicity for their work as a pleasant side effect of its proper execution, rather than as the work's outright reason for being. From my limited perspective, the U.S. public still seems to prefer performance artists with a combination of messianic and daredevil qualities, and perhaps with some sort of alliance to the world of popular music (I doubt any names need to be named here.)
Having said that, it is interesting to see how popular forms of music are incorporated into Liechti's study on Signer, particularly when considering that the latter has been refered to on multiple occasions as a kind of spiritual cousin to John Cage. The Icelandic sequences of the film are punctuated with the elegant rímur singing of Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, and elsewhere we can find some of the most poignant scenes of East bloc ballroom music outside of Ulrich Seidl's Import / Export. These sequences do help to herald or just underscore the transition to new locations, although I don't get the impression that they were included for this reason only. As the film progresses, they become less seemingly unnecessary or non-diegetic, and become a most valuable counterpart to the 'meat' of the movie based on Signer's actions. Both Signer's activity and the indigenous forms of music on display seem to come from the same pre-reflective area of human consciousness; from a need to communicate before the content of that communication is fully understood by the communicators.
All told, Liechti's documentary shows that the dream of dissolving the boundaries between art, science, and some sort of "everyday life" is not dead. Unlike so many projects that take quotidian nature into consideration, though, Signer's work is unconcerned with making catalogs and inventories that are then assumed to have some kind of "universal" relevance. In a memorably poignant scene where Signer explains his attraction to the melancholic toys of Eastern Europe, it's actually surprising to see him being a collector of any kind, since his life work otherwise de-emphasizes quantification, and he certainly does not make that an artistic act in and of itself. As Signer himself has stated, his experiments themselves are a kind of an "addiction," but - despite the occasional danger invovled in working with explosive devices - they are so integral to his life as to be very far removed from the parasitic nature of pointless accumulation. Heavily repeated actions only become pathological when they detract from some more beneficial activity, and in this case it is hard to imagine a better picture of psycho-spiritual health than the wryly smiling Signer in the midst of his ephemeral explorations.