Second Life by Analogy

The works of Robert F. Hammerstiel have a central motif: commodities and, in conjunction with this, an economy of promise. The crucial factor in this economy of promise is the apparently contradictory relationship between a production which aims for high turnover quotas and a consumption which in buying this commodity finds at least temporary satisfaction of its individual desires and its desire for individuality. On the one side is the calculation with quantifiable volumes, on the other the notion of singularity. The mechanism behind this economic principle is simple: it reckons with the desire for individuality which is evoked by the fact that the consuming subject can choose from a spectrum of options and finds his identity affirmed by the decision for the one item on offer rather than the other. The identity promised by consumption itself is one of a spectrum of possible subjective notions with which the economy of promise reckons. The variable subjective notions and the corresponding commodities which they desire together form a quantity which demands to be addressed, wooed and served as a target audience. In order to make the difference between the various items on offer as variable and as economical as possible, the economy avails itself of a lowest common denominator which unifies the different subjects in itself. This lowest common denominator is the stereotype. The stereotype describes a certain form of behaviour or an ideal adopted by a group which is not only characteristic for this group but also represents a level of predictability. To the classic stereotypes addressed by the economy may be reckoned the notions of a unique, distinctive family who wish for their own house with garden, a roomy car and amenities to accommodate their individual needs: one or two children's rooms, a bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and also stereotypically a cellar or attic providing space for all those objects which no longer have any room in everyday life. However individual the different means may appear by which these ideals are achieved, the social, cultural and economic structures resulting from these notions remain stereotyped and predictable. The fact that some commodities represent a certain stereotyped attitude to life or style of life means that the consumption of these commodities also involves the consumption of certain stereotypes and consequently certain cultural and social notions of identity. The result is that identity, culture and social influences are shaped by commodities. The mechanism behind the shaping influence of commodities tends to integrate everyday lifestyle and planning in their entirety. What then remains is a subject that in consuming consumes itself: a consumer as a figure of identity.

It would be possible now to reduce the works of Robert F. Hammerstiel to a mere expression of critique of the role of commodities in shaping culture. In this case, it would be a question of an alienated world of commodities which promises singularity and yet only serves and produces stereotype desires. However the result would then not only be a critique of the false illusion of the world of commodities, but also the promise as if there were a real and authentic world on the other side of the illusion. The problem with this duality of illusion and reality lies in seeing the figure of the consumer only as the victim of a deception whilst associating the deceit with the economy alone. The mere critique of the illusory nature of the commodity would only shed light on the aspect of reception in consumption and ignore the active role played by consumption as a form of production of illusion. In order to grasp this ambivalence of consumption, it is necessary to take account of the possibility that the consumer too may have an interest making reality appear to be an illusion. What lies behind this could be described as an assent to reality at a distance. The knowledge of the fact that the commodity is a mere illusion would guarantee that everything consumed which appears as reality only appears as illusion - at its core as unreality, as reality on credit. In this sense, consumption is not so much aimed at procuring a commodity which is then transformed into an individual object in a unique ambience, but at the fact that the commodity is a commodity. Thus, buying itself becomes the end purpose of buying. One could say that in shopping what is bought is irrelevant, only that something is bought.

Significant for this role of commodities is their exchangeability. If the commodity which has become an individual object loses its appeal, it is replaced by the next best one. They are separated only by the decision to part from one object and to procure another in its place. Connected to this exchangeability is the fantasy that it is possible to change reality, and thus one's own life, at will. The fact that commodities themselves are not intended to last for ever and are indeed produced to be replaced, makes the decision to dispose of an object or an ambience as a whole an easy one. In this sense, consumption stands for a temporary acquisition, for an acquiescence in the temporary. What appears to be the present is designed to be a passage, a transition through time, which constantly begins anew with each act of consumption. The best-by date is the trademark of this temporality. The commodity which does not last for ever demands exchangeability by its very nature. Its transience or its loss of suggestive potential leads logically to the next commodity to be purchased. In this way, the change which the consumption of a commodity constantly promises anew becomes the norm. Only exchangeability remains the norm. In this sense, consumption necessitates a repetition which is less dependent on the subject than on the commodity itself. There is no need to mention in this context that the necessity of repetition favours the economy.

The works of Robert F. Hammerstiel document these mechanisms of the nature of commodities - either by throwing light on the serial production of commodities or by underlining the eloquence of objects in proclaiming that they are mere commodities. The nature of commodities is not criticised but exposed and affirmed. What becomes apparent through this is the illusion itself. It might appear paradoxical that illusion thus becomes a level of reality. Illusionism is not the other side of reality but a form of reality. Even if the escape from reality leads to the illusionism of the commodity, the escape from this reality itself remains no less a real escape. In this sense, consumption stands for the insatiable urge to escape from reality by means of the illusion of reality. Every shopping Saturday appears from this perspective to be a culturally sanctioned mass escape.

A culture which declares consumption to be an end in itself demands a legitimisation of the illusionism related to this in order to be able to understand this not as an escape but as an affirmation of this culture. This legitimisation is provided by the stereotype. The stereotype ensures that the special means by which a culture deals with a problem appears to be the norm, i.e. normal. The normality of a problem makes the problem disappear as a problem. What remains is the stereotypical masquerade of a cultural norm. Only those who do not fit into the stereotype have problems. The stereotype transforms the illusionism behind the norm into a custom. The custom in its turn provides the coordinates for a notion of reality. This notion of reality is ordered by means of the stereotype. From this perspective, order itself appears illusory.

Alles in bester Ordnung (Everything's just fine), the title of Robert F. Hammerstiel's exhibition, speaks precisely of this desire for a norm which masks its illusionary core as reality. If it is commodities themselves or the fact that a lifestyle is shaped by commodities which represent illusionism before consumption in order to be transformed after purchase into a piece of reality which has "become real", then the significance of the role of commodities in maintaining an illusion of order is only too understandable. Disorder only befalls this order when the transformation of illusionism into a reality which has become real is upset, and this is precisely the point which Robert F. Hammerstiel's works address. What they achieve by different means and perspectives is to translate the realities which have become real back into the illusionary. When Robert F. Hammerstiel presents images of commodities and the corresponding lifestyles, their implicitly pictorial nature becomes apparent as a result of their illusionary core. If his images were to be described, they would in this sense only be images of images which already precede these - even if it is only in the masquerade of reality. His aesthetic intervention occurs only in the translation of images back into images. The techniques he uses in this process vary: they range from the large format which by its very magnitude exposes the pictorial nature of an object, to the opposite principle which transposes the situational qualities of a section of reality into a small format and thus puts it "into the picture". His aesthetic strategy is based on a shift of perspective which is only intended to bring out again the pictorial nature of an object or a situation. In this process it is crucial that these images which are brought out again serve to express a distancing from reality which itself is intended to appear as an image. Here lies the connection between the stereotype and the simulacrum. The stereotype is the product of a simulacrum which as an image is conscious of its relation to reality. In the simulacrum, the fact that it is an image is evident. The stereotype, however, masks its origin in the image in order to be able to appear to be an ordering of reality. In this sense, Robert F. Hammerstiel's pictures translate stereotypes back into simulacra. This remark is important inasmuch as it is intended to make it clear that Robert F. Hammerstiel's works, whether they be photographs, videos or installations, insist on a relationship to the pictorial. The pictorial as a type of order is at work even where it is not possible to speak of images in the strict sense of the word. The pictorial seems to emancipate itself from the image in order to be able to appear as reality. The translation of the pictorial back into the image which Hammerstiel undertakes does not enter into a plea for the one or the other. Instead of this he brings the pictorial and the image into an ambivalent relationship to one another. The question then is not to decide for or against illusionism but to recognise the political, economic and cultural mechanisms which are rationalised and ordered in this relationship.

Andreas Spiegl