Into the north window of my chamber glows the Polar Star with uncanny light. All through the long hellish hours of blackness it shines there. And in the autumn of the year, when the winds from the north curse and whine ... I sit by the casement and watch that star. Down from the heights reels the glittering Cassiopeia as the hours wear on .... Just before dawn Arcturus winks ruddily from above the cemetery on the low hillock, and Coma Berencies shimmers weirdly afar off in the mysterious east; but still the Pole star leers down from the same place in the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey.
H.P. Lovecraft: Polaris (1920)
We believe in the meaning of signs. After all it is with the help of signs that we find our way in life. We see and understand what the signs, signals and texts that orchestrate everyday life tell us and act accordingly. We go through life as readers. Our capacity to read the signs that surround us in fact is the very condition for our participation in modern life. Modernity has turned us into relentless readers. Coke or Pepsi, Nike or Addidas or Dolce and Gabbana, real or fake, CNN or Aljazeera, departures or arrivals, which platform, which gate, which exit? It is essential to read the signs, to know the difference and to do so in time, before it is too late. To get things done you have to have an answer prepared when someone asks you: Under what name? At which price? Which brand? Which passport? Which prophet? At what rate? Fun, Weekend or Passport with 500 minutes of free air time when you're travelling abroad? Here, a short moment of inattention can have serious consequences. To revoke your choice is tricky once you have taken it. In the end what you received was what you chose even though, in the moment of choice, you might not have been aware that this was what you chose.
We always get what we ask for even if we don't expect it. There was this cartoonist, for instance, who published a cartoon about a prophet in a big newspaper, partly in the hope that its readers would notice it, partly in the hope that they would not take it too seriously. But modern readers are serious people. So they understood exactly what the cartoons meant. Their meaning was that they were mocking a holy man. Unsurprisingly then, the mocker earned himself the scorn of those whose holy man he mocked. He received what he asked for even if he didn't expect it. What you give is what you get. The total equivalency of signs and meanings is the law of modern communication. Modernity has revealed all secrets. The only meaning that things have in the modern world is there actual meaning. After the resolution of all mysteries everything means exactly what it actually means, nothing more and nothing less. Someone who ignores the signs and jumps a red light risks an accident and someone who mocks a holy man will get into trouble with his disciples.
Is that so? Do we not succumb to a fallacy here? Might it not be that we effectively deal with the signs that govern our lives on a much more basic level than on the level of what they are supposed to mean? For instance, what is the actual meaning of Coca Cola, CNN, Dolce and Gabbana or Islam and USA? This is something no one will really be able to tell you. What everyone knows, however, is that these signs emit a certain glint and glamour. They shine brightly and their value lies precisely in the fact that they do so. Their radiance is their actual meaning. By virtue of their ubiquitous radiance they illuminate screens, facades, labels and the pages of newspapers and magazines all around the world. The great media ornaments of modernity outshine the codes of the readable world.
Katarina Lofström's Little Star is one such media ornament. Based on a graphic pattern of interlocking pentagrams Lofström designed a geometric structure that mirrors itself infinitely. The pattern is modelled on moorish ornaments like those found at Alhambra. With the help of digital imaging technology she rendered this ornament as a three-dimensional structure which is animated in such a way that it appears to be slowly revolving around an invisible axis. The video-animation is edited as a loop so that the revolving motion seems to continue endlessly. In this process the structure, however, is always only shown in parts and never in its entirety. It therefore remains undecidable whether the three-dimensional structure is in fact a geometric object with limited extension or a limitless spatial grid. As the structure slowly rotates around its axis the perspectives of it change continuously so that the relations between the lines and angles that constitute its geometry come to look slightly different all the time. Also because of this it is practically impossible to fully grasp what the structure looks like as a whole. Despite its visual complexity the view of the structure, however, never strains the eye. It is, in effect, quite beautiful to watch. The Little Star is simutaneously enigmatic and appealing. This quality is precisely what makes it a media ornament. It attracts and arrests the gaze because it is simple and complex, transparent and inscrutable, rationally constructed and mysterious.
When the animated graphics of Little Star are rendered by the computer controlled light system on the facade of the Kunsthaus Graz, the skin of the building is covered in one big pattern of slowly moving points of light. The work turns the building itself into a media ornament. It is illuminated by Little Star. We know that the actual meaning of media ornaments is difficult if not impossible to determine. This also holds true for Little Star. What does it mean that the Kunsthaus Graz is illuminated by a moorish ornament? First of all it means just that. The Kunsthaus Graz is illuminated by a moorish ornament. The meaning of the work lies in the facticity of its realisation. It seems rather more crucial to grasp what the work does not mean. As a result of its use as a digitally animated ornament on a facade (and its considerable transformation by this use) the graphic structure of Little Star progressively looses the meaning of a culturally specific sign that it had in the context of moorish ornamentation.
That is, it doesn't loose this meaning entirely. Whoever looks close enough and knows how to read the signs will still be able to recognize the origin of the ornament. So the point is rather that Katarina Lofström only gradually - and that is not completely but purposefully more and more - disconnects the ornament from what allegedly was its original meaning. Allegedly, because the magic of the ornament after all comes from the fact that despite the ideological background of its emergence due to the Islamic prohibition of images (at least this is how it is explained to us) it is based only on abstract mathematical principles and therefore has very little to do with religion. By turning the moorish pentagram pattern into Little Star Katarina Lofström on the one hand turns this pattern into something that it never was before: a media ornament which in its pure self-reflexivity only is what it actually is: an illuminated sign with no ideological content whatsoever. By transforming it into something new, however, she on the on the other hand makes the ornament become what it, most probably, always was: an abstract sign free of meaning which never ceases to fascinate precisely because of its enigmatically abstract nature.
There is a political dimension to the act of gradually disconnecting the ornament from its ideological context and relating its power to fascinate back to the enigmatic character of its abstract composition. As a rule, big media ornaments lie when they glisten and glow. Little Star does not lie. Big ornaments like CNN, Coca Cola or other holy signs lie because they pretend to mean a lot when their meaning effectively only lies in their glisten and glow. Little Star doesn't lie because it only glistens and glows. It embodies no promise but only an enigma. In general, media ornaments formulate promises to advertise ideologies. CNN promises the truth, Coca Cola promises the American way of life, freedom and fun, USA and Islam promise happiness on earth and in heaven and so on. When they are put at the service of ideologies media ornaments are bound to lie because they can never fulfil the promises that they make. After all they are just empty signs that can never satisfy the desires they arouse. Little Star promises nothing. It doesn't serve any ideology. It rather shows the basic nature and effects of the media ornament in the moment of its disconnection from ideology. After the erasure of any promise only its luminescence remains. Beyond ideology lies the purely enigmatic. So, to disconnect the power of the ornament to fascinate from its ideological use means to point to the possibility of a form of the auratic that would not be absorbed by the logic of power.
Power turns aura into spectacle to promote the ideology that is meant to give power its credibility. In modern times the total absorption of society by the spectacle went hand in hand with the resolution of all mysteries. As long as aura is still all mystery and enigma it cannot become spectacle. Conversely, it is only in a society which knows no mysteries anymore that aura can be absorbed by the spectacle and become the force of advertising. (As long as sex was still a mystery to us we couldn't use it for advertising purposes. This only became possible after modern medicine and pop culture solved its mystery.) A way to challenge the power of the spectacle could therefore lie in the attempt to create auratic moments which remain entirely enigmatic and thus do not advertise any ideology by promising any higher meanings beyond the actual experience. This is exactly what Little Star does. It confronts the culture of talkative advertising signs with a media ornament that remains a pure enigma and thus points to the possibility of a luminescence beyond the lights of the spectacle. Precisely because this luminescence does not promise anything it is fulfilling. It hints at an unconditional joy of beholding a pure enigma. Some have named this joy god. We don't have to go that far. We can just call it Little Star.