Dead Reckoning

Multi video channel installation, HDV, 12:00, 2014

Solo exhibition in Centre d’art contemporain la Synagogue de Delme, 2014

Through films, diagrams, drawings and texts, ZB offers various systems of knowledge representation. He uses these forms to convey concepts and ideas, but it is also a way of giving our senses more direct access to them, as well as a means of combining philosophical questions with poetical and visual modes of transmission.
The work that opens the exhibition consists of a serpentine sculpture made of pieces of paper that spread through the space at eye-level. ZB turns us into active readers, because one has to move, crane one’s neck, step forward or step back in order to read and understand the meaning of the words printed on the ribbons. Like a line of thought that the artist would like to make tangible, the installation is something of a mental diagram, a labyrinthine cartography made up of superimpositions that intentionally splinter, fragment and put holes in discourse.
Many of the works of ZB are infused with the inner doubts and resistance experienced by the generation that lived through the historical, political and social upheavals of the countries of the former Soviet bloc after 1989. The feeling of inadequacy and dislocation provoked by a highly paradoxical freedom, offered by a so-called democratic world, ended up producing what the artist calls “mental spasms”. More than just disenchantment, it was a kind of profound helplessness that took hold of the everyday life of this generation, which oscillated between the desire to adapt to a new liberal, individualistic environment and the search of a new sense of the common. 
In his most recent films, these questions are still central. Using minimal resources with a DIY spirit, ZB compiles a variety of images taken from the grey, apathetic media flow. He reconstructs these heterogeneous sources while lending them the rhythm of his own manipulation. There is no obvious correlation between the array of images and the voiceover text. The working method he uses involves continual misunderstanding and contradiction, as the exhibition title suggests.
In fact, Dead Reckoning is a technical term that designates the calculation of a vehicle’s position based on the distance travelled from its point of departure. Alongside the data used (such as speed), dead reckoning incorporates more fluctuating parameters like wind and sea currents. Reflecting this paradoxical science, whose purported objectivity incorporates error and uncertainty, the installation and two films produced by ZB for the Synagogue de Delme stem from the same navigation method.
The films Dead Reckoning (produced for the exhibition) and The microscope and telescope of Time (2013) are products of the artist’s research, which revolved around identifying the symptoms and contradictions that affect society as a whole. Paranoia, anxiety, hysteria and psychosis are the modern, internalized individual translations of a broader historical trauma in which class struggle, colonization and consumerism all clash.
Marie Cozette, curator of the show


The streets are full of people. Something has drawn them out. Tomorrow they will be empty. Anxiety will remain; nothing much will change. The streets are full today, though.

The average person should drink several litres of liquid a day, eat vegetables and have a sufficient intake of protein. Most people are incapable of meeting the average. They feel guilty about it.

Toilets are crammed. The treatment plants can’t keep up.

The future is not approaching, insisting on the present is a nuisance, the past is gone and is unpleasant.

Joy of life is marred by its statistical occurrence: 1:100 000.

Solidarity is the central motive of all that is human. The majority of activities, however, are burdened with guilt from invisible, non-solidaric behaviour.

Personal life and mass culture. Speaking to the point never means babbling without head or tail. Until it becomes clear that it is something else that is spoken about, which is shown by the manner of speech and its location. For example its inappropriateness. The tendency to be precise usually leads nowhere. Precision is often sharp, the ability to receive it impossible. When talk is of the local, point at the horizon.

Bureaucratized or privatized public space.

Broken comrades, no longer required; there are many of us. We mostly subsist in stinking layers without air. One day we will return from the scrapheaps and take revenge on the greed created by the market.

The life cycle is inherently dialectical. We used to be liquid mud, a living cell and a mechanical component, we were stone, farting and an instrument. We had and did not have consciousness, we lived in ignorance and in a terrible dream. Whenever you look at us, you cannot say what we are. We are the living and the dead. The eye and the thing.


Record: I remember one poor soul I passed on the side of a path. He was lying in ditch in an oily pool. The path, or rather road, was already overgrown with weeds, which tore the tarmac to pieces. This poor guy was babbling his last words, his clothes were tattered, the skin drooping from his hands, translucent. He was evidently dying. He babbled in a fatal trance. He looked like someone whose fate had not been easy. I leant towards him to understand his words. I didn’t know what to do, how to help him. So I sat next to his head and put my hand on his forehead so he would know I was there and leant my ear over him and tried to catch what he was saying. It seemed to me like an incomprehensible babble. He spoke of some woman, then about sunstroke and maize porridge, but then he began talking more intelligibly about general things: that there was no hope for civilized society other than anarchy and communism, otherwise everything was fucked. Then he droned on again for a while, but it was clear he was talking about evolution and how there was nothing that could advance it other than the idea of freedom of anarchy and a communist society and the struggle against Fascism. I reassured him that he was right. I didn’t know how to carry on from there, but he continued that his death meant nothing, yet it wasn’t in vain, and it was clear to him that by his death he had just laid the foundations of anarcho-communism. His eyes went blank and he died. So I’m telling you that just in case. Maybe that idea will take hold, anarcho-communism will really happen and that Granddad will have been right. That’s why I’m telling you. I didn’t find out anything more about him. I didn’t even have the strength to bury him.

*dedicated to Andrei Platonov

The girl was about twelve years old, skinny, slightly stooped, with long, greasy hair. Her head was often bowed and she didn’t speak at all. But sometimes she lifted her head and stared fixedly at someone. And when she did, it was as if she said everything there was all at once. For most people, it was such an abrupt blow that it took the words from the mouth of anyone who returned her gaze. It was as if all that was born, all of the past and the pain of living organisms appeared in the present moment. At that moment it seemed that the girl had the eyes of all the generations who had ever lived on Earth. Life is the creation of the present, creation by continuous creating. Looking into the girl’s eyes, one felt ashamed for forgetting that. When someone affected like that turned away and over time that recognition disappears from his memory, he falls back on old stereotypes and sentimental excuses. The girl was just an ordinary schoolgirl from next door. Few could handle her gaze, most of the neighbours and acquaintances would rather look away as they passed her.

All forms can be oddly seductive. There was one man who believed in all forms with his heart. He paid for it, became tangled in descriptions of landscapes and shrubs, individual stalks and stones and finally in individual grains of loess deposits. He would not hesitate to murder those who didn’t understand it and arbitrarily trampled the stalks and kicked dust in the air from wind-blown heaps. He was like that.

In ancient times they believed that the universe could be mirrored in books and that mirroring was a tool for understanding. Except books create another universe, even bigger than the one they mirror. They become a labyrinth that can be endlessly walked, connected and divided. One of the methods of reading and navigating it is to shoot into it randomly with automatic weapons. Create holes and throughways. Then thread them through with thoughts like strings and wait for someone or something on the other side of the shot-through books and shelves to pull them through and tie them to other strings. It’s something like a hypertext, but based on powerful weapons. A kind of nuke that pierces through the shelves and explodes somewhere far away! You could feel the afterblasts even decades after the rocket was fired. Then, years later it happens that someone will stretch through the hole a hose full of thoughts and before you know it, you’re knee-deep in them. Some links work, some are useless. You don’t know who to thank. Try to launch a rocket and you’ll see it’s very risky. You could even go mad with regret. You don’t know where you’re shooting. Nevertheless, it is a method…

Describe your dream: I had a dream, but it was not the kind of dream one has at night, but the kind one has when travelling by train. You drop off for a moment and when the coach jerks you wake up as if into another dream. The passenger sitting next to me turned to me and said to me, as if he were continuing a conversation already started: The future of humanity lies in something other than people. People will no longer salvage anything. So many times they’ve tried to build something together, because they know that alone they are nothing. But whether they move stones on the orders of rulers or out of delirium or fear of death, whether they patiently, collectively put together complex machines, live listlessly, forgotten in swamps or build communism, it all ends the same. Everything turns into its opposite, or it all just simply disappears. The eyes of the passenger were not looking at me. His gaze passed through me, as if he were talking to someone else behind me, someone sitting somewhere outside the train, about a metre behind the window, in front of the fleeting landscape. In the dream, everything somehow overlapped. I found myself answering him, but at the same time I was watching as if it were a younger brother replying to him and I was watching him indulgently from a distance. What he said sounded naive. It sounded like an argument of mine that I knew, but it was somehow naive at second hand: Of course, something else is awaiting us, all of this is only a transitional stage, but we have to work on that other, better one. A better society can be built, if not for us, then certainly for the future one. You can always wake up from a dream. So that was the dream.

Record: I’m saying this you. Here it is. Listen here and now: Do you believe that you are a unique being, chosen to hear the speech of the universe, which is meant for you alone? Do you also believe that everything that occurs to you has a deep meaning and happens to you for a reason? Do you believe you are fulfilling the plans of something great, something indescribable? You were born of your mother and everything that happens to you is important, you are the cornerstone of the whole universe? Yes, certainly it is somehow like that. So listen to the signs. They will certainly lead you reliably through life. But I say this: When you die all of this will disappear. It will be all the same to everyone, maybe not to your mother if you go before her, but the universe will be indifferent to it. Nothing will happen except that you die, you vanish. You don’t believe me. That’s clear to me. Why would you when I speak of darkness? And darkness is always dark and frightening and in it you are nothing, but in the light, on the contrary, you can swim, and that is so pleasant.

The way it works in the universe is no matter what you do, you can never be sure of anything. Death is the greatest gift to all living things. Without death it would be too divine and our greatest enemy would be horrific boredom, eternal madness and never-ending anxiety. Expecting the unexpected is the paradigm of death. Even in the age of rationality no one can avoid thinking about birth and the inevitability of the extinction that it leads to. The banality of life, as one never calls it during life, is manifest suddenly and sometimes for the first time, certainly for the last time, in the nanosecond of death, as the supreme discovery. That does not mean that life itself is banal, only that life exists to be extinguished. The final moment usually comes late, so as advice for life this is useless.

To begin with the same words, but give them a different meaning. Ideas are always born the same. They are wrapped around the bones of words. Figures built from such bones are like living corpses, burning with desire, without fear and without stopping. To bring them to life demands a revolutionary act that will change the status of bones and the flesh wrapped round them. The definition would begin with a description. Plunging into the abyss is a necessity, but everyone’s abyss is different, only it is necessary not to forget the main task. To begin with the same words, but change their meaning.

An exercise for the deaf: there is such a thing as a sound and a word that can be articulated and carries meaning. There are listening devices that can catch sound even at a distance of several miles, a whispered conversation. These are devices that are tuned in order that we can understand the secret movement of all-encompassing matter. There are devices that attempt to direct sound waves in only certain directions. Others are capable, by means of sophisticated manipulation of  echoes, to make any sound inaudible. These are all resources that serve strategic functions and are always associated with power. Listening devices and their specific functions are unprecedented instruments of power. Technological capabilities have led us to the limits of unanticipated movement of social bodies. From now on, our listening devices are the future. There will be nothing but listening devices.

Every rejection hurts. Rejections are repeated and will stack up, as they have stacked up until now. Pain culminates, teaching us to think historically. And that helps us to understand rejection and reactions to it. It teaches us what we also must reject. It teaches us to understand the rejected.

What distinguishes a hesitant person from a decisive one? It is similar to how it works in a large office. Nothing is obvious. Rather, it is necessary to ask who is keenest on writing memos. On the basis of this enquiry it is possible to find the differences. It would be best to rephrase the question or to think about why we want to know that.

Society is either a big organism or a constellation of solidaric individuals conscious of each other’s qualities. Then…




Hard to Read

A brief reflection on the films of Zbynek Baladran

Among the often decontextualised aphorisms that get in our heads like catchy tunes, and are attributed—sometimes falsely—to philosophers or artists, there is a saying that particularly reflects the work of Zbynek Baladran. The saying probably comes from Jacques Lacan, and has a decisive resonance: “reality begins where meaning ends”. Obviously I have been unable to find the exact source, but an extract from the Seminar develops the idea: “Contrary to what people say, there is no truth about reality, since reality takes shape as if it excluded meaning. It would still be going too far to say there is a reality, because to say this is to assume a meaning. The word reality itself has a meaning, and at one time even I played on it by evoking the echo of the word reus, which in Latin means guilty—one is more or less guilty of reality.”

Any attempt to define reality therefore runs up against an aporia. Searching for truth implies representing and imagining reality, symbolising it through a set of signifiers that gives it order and meaning, and consequently evacuates it. And yet the search for truth requires that reality be confronted, given a name, a symbol, that it at least be circumscribed, giving an experience of separation to the person making this effort, the separation of reality from language. It is this separation that Guy Debord criticised in 1961:

“The spectacle of cinema has its own rules that enable it to present satisfying products. However, the reality that one must begin with is dissatisfaction. Cinema’s function is to present a false dramatic or documentary coherence, as a substitute for absent communication or activity.”

Debord, in his film Critique de la séparation, takes images from advertisements, comic strips or posters and combines them with fragments of filmed scenes, overprinted with subtitles that do not correspond to the omnipresent voiceover that, as in all of his discrepant cinema, only communicates the impossibility of conveying reality through its spectacle, in other words though its symbolisation.

It seems that in all of his films, Zbynek Baladran’s point of departure is also this dissatisfaction, this awareness of the need to search for reality, for “raw” reality, practically without a subject, in line with Debord’s understanding of cinema (“demystifying cinema means extracting it from its subject”), as well as the simultaneous awareness of its failure and incommunicability. Having no subject does not mean that Baladran makes films about nothing, quite the contrary: each of them is a stratification of images, of historical and everyday anecdotes, a narrative construction in which the intimate, self-reflexive voice makes itself heard within mechanisms of social history. This voice, which assumes various identities (that he humorously pretends to be amazed by in the video 40 000 000 (2010): “I hear myself speaking in a woman’s voice. A chance to think from another perspective. To hear oneself”), is nevertheless always the same, and this makes it possible to understand that each film, in its disparity, is pursuing the same writing project. In film after film, beyond any subject, he attempts to get close to the truth of emotions, inside capitalism’s societal machine, of which he admits to being an active agent, and pleads guilty. But whereas in the work of Debord (who does not plead guilty), this awareness leads to melancholy, to a kind of emphatic seriousness, in Baladran’s work this melancholy is the result of a struggle that has no result at all, and it never departs from the irony that, appropriately, begins at home. Thus in the recent The Microscope and Telescope of Time (2013), he wrote:

“The question remains as to why it is worthwhile mining for buried memories and confronting them with the current reality of aggressive capitalism, the form of which we participate in either consciously or unconsciously. And why in such a form? And why here in the context of the art world?

Because it’s a matter of life and death.

Because it’s about the collective imagination of the possible.

Because there are various channels of communication.

Because art is one of those channels.

Because even if art seems toothless, it still speaks to someone.

Because there is a possibility here that art can change something.

And also because the author is trained in art and cannot do anything else.”

The videos that Zbynek Baladran creates are, like Debord’s films, difficult to grasp through their discrepancies, the apparent inconsistency between the images and text. And their words, usually heard as a voiceover or printed in subtitles, have that character of abstraction and illusion that make it difficult to interpret them. However, they do not try to exert any authority, and the modesty of their construction deconsecrates their messianic words. Baladran usually shoots his videos in his studio, on a fixed camera, filming printed photographs on his desk as he manipulates them, or speaking while he performs symbolic actions (cutting a sheet of paper, stretching threads across the space, etc., so many metaphors for his filmed reflections).

The photographs he places in front of the camera are not spectacular, do not inspire amazement: one would say they are images of everyday, trivial reality, images without qualities. Nevertheless, these images are offered with a certain distance, like that of a science-fiction writer describing his immediate environment through the filter of a fictional story situated in the future or in a parallel world. The fictional device of a familiar world seen by alien eyes is the one Baladran uses in order to blur temporal reference points: it portrays the present alternatively as the ruins of the past or as a projection into the future. One of Baladran’s main preoccupations is the analysis of temporal distortions imposed by dominant ideologies, those of Soviet socialism, which he experienced in Czechoslovakia until 1989, as well as those of capitalist imperialism: idealisations of the past, and projections into the future, which lead to the crystallisation of a perpetual present. Once again, arrangements of reality expel reality from the field of representation. A kind of hypnosis ensues, that “artificial hysteria” which Baladran evokes in the film Preliminary Report: “most people are probably in a permanent state of hypnosis and are at the same time incapable of noticing this.” Like the character Ijon Tichy in Stanislas Lem’s novel The Futurological Conference, Baladran attempts—by means of a paroxysmal, paranoid representation (the paranoia of the synecdoque, of the possible meaning attributed to a network of anecdotal links)—to search for absence of meaning in a world under hypnosis, where all forces converge to bring order to reality. For Baladran, this lack of meaning is not the acknowledgement of an aporia, but the search for what keeps transforming and eluding control in the petrification of the present. This transformation faculty, understood as something subversive, is the object of his philosophy of local and global history, which he comically materialises, dialectises and objectivises through his fascination with bureaucratic diagrams and charts. The antithesis of a programme, this transformation ultimately proves to be the expression of the filmmaker’s own metaphorphic faculties, and the confession that his project is nothing more than the revelation that an artist’s role consists in nothing more than contradicting himself. “If we are not to succumb to a feeling of despondency, we must concede that it is a subjective romanticization of the artist and his work. And also, that it is not about an aesthetic objective either. Rather, it is about a methodological proposal for proceeding with an artistic statement. A statement about the loss of the universal collective notion of the impossibility of change and about the ambiguity of such a statement and the ambiguity of the role of the artist and of art. In this case, the author conceives himself and his approach as a case study, as an instrument for scrutinizing himself… which is an obvious nonsense, but it’s enough to say that the author scrutinizes himself, and leaves that contradiction, like others, unanswered for the time being.” (The Microscope and Telescope of Time)

text by Francois Piron
Publication: Dead Reckoning
published by Centre d’art contemporain la Synagogue de Delme, 2014