Issue 4/2020 - Net section

On Track?

Paul Kolling’s film installation Break of Gauge

Raphael Dillhof

A seemingly endless film strip runs across the enormous, darkened exhibition space at Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof. Like dark, shiny crime scene tape, it divides the hall in two as it unspools quietly, steadily, from one side of the space to the other. Projectors set at regular intervals make sections of the film visible at five points, throwing their light onto screens hung parallel to the film: mountains, valleys, vast plains, ever new stretches of land pass by, slowly and steadily, always along a thin, unbroken line that cuts sharply through the landscape. It only gradually becomes clear that we are looking at railway tracks, a train route shown from a bird’s eye view traversing the large hall, which was once Harburg station’s waiting room.
The film shows satellite images of the freight train connection that runs from China to Europe, known as the New Silk Road, which the young Hamburg artist Paul Kolling researched for this installation from a wide variety of sources and compiled for his film installation Break of Gauge, using digital methods to track out an absolutely straight, seamless course for the route. More than 10,000 kilometres are condensed in the exhibition space into a 300-metre 35-mm film strip. It takes 16 days for the film to play once, as long as the exhibition’s run – and the time a freight train needs to travel from its starting point in China to Hamburg, passing right by the Kunstverein, as the exhibition text explains. Quite literally: in fact, parallel to the film, a GPS-tracked container rolls inexorably towards the exhibition venue.
An experimental set-up in real time, playing with space and time: that’s the first thought that springs to mind when real time and film time seem to merge. And aren’t films and trains, after all, both anyway “manifestations of modernity that have massively influenced our perception of space and time”? That at least is what the exhibition text states, initially underscoring this clever analogy. Isn’t it the height of modern alienation when the landscape races past the traveller like a film strip, when space and a sense of time vanish?
Kolling’s work, of course, involves more than playing with media and does more than raise questions about perception of the world. For the five projectors primarily cast spotlights on a largely unknown world that progresses across the screens. While in Hamburg, in particular, omnipresent container ships tell of globalisation and lorries and cargo flights shape debates on the climate, trains on the gigantic railway route that forms an important part of China’s huge New Silk Road infrastructure project rattle by quietly and unnoticed, moving almost covertly right through Eurasia. Freight trains do not pass through our inner cities, do not stop at main stations.
Architect Keller Easterling calls the excesses of global infrastructure “extrastatecraft”, which determines our lives, virtually unregulated, cutting across national borders and state power, yet without really being taken into account – and the subject-matter of Kolling’s research fits readily into this category: What do we know about the routes along which goods consumed in Europe travel on their way here? What do we really know, for instance, about the numerous “free zones” that have been installed in recent years from China to Kazakhstan, from Georgia to Turkey to circumvent local tax laws along the route? Actually, very little is known. With the exception of certain important junctions, not even the exact route is public; for that reason alone, the stretch of track Kolling shows cannot correspond one hundred percent to this route, but is instead an unreliable fictitious version, created by means of research and conjecture, full of more or less obvious fractures.
Does that mean, then, that the focus is on the dearth of information, manipulated images, the connection between maps and reality? Is Kolling’s film seeking to expose neo-colonial structures? Perhaps. However, the artist does not judge or demonize in his film, which at least theoretically renders tangible or comprehensible the true scale of this transport link’s gigantic dimensions, or rather shows that it is impossible to grasp. Instead, through the pieced-together tapestry of images, he creates a semi-abstract, fascinating kaleidoscope of goods traffic that exerts an inexorable, hypnotic pull due to its constant movement: you see it, but still cannot comprehend it. The landscape passes by hypnotically, more as an abstract form than as identifiable geographical markers.
However, depicting the specific route does not seem to be the goal of the work anyway. For Kolling’s film, rolling by so steadily here, essentially has very little in common with a real train ride, despite the real-time dimension. The film doesn’t rattle and shake but glides, friction-free and silent, through the slick black projectors. It doesn’t stop and is not punctuated by stations: the visitor is high up in an observer’s position, above all the clouds, and not, for example, in the driver’s cab or in the carriage. Here, in Harburg station, we are removed from the delicate line of the rails, from the stations, the dirt and the physical labour required, for example, to switch the train to different tracks – the “break of gauge” – between national borders. Everything is clean here; even the black, minimalist projectors do not recall mechanical infrastructure, seeming more like design pieces, drawn from pure commodity aesthetics.
As a result, it does not seem to be much like a journey on a freight train when these clean satellite images and this precisely framed strip of landscape pass by; instead, with its semi-abstract flood of never-ending satellite images, the film shifts closer to digital data streams that are ultimately just as inextricably linked to the New Silk Road as the material goods transported on it. While the rail tracks deal with transporting physical matter, underground cables and satellites handle all the rest, from coordination and communication to payment and monitoring – just as Kolling also has his container tracked by GPS. Ironically, this experimental set-up, precisely by making the track infrastructure visible, renders the invisible conditions shaping its use all the more apparent. It is no coincidence that high-speed internet connections were installed along with the tracks when the rail route was constructed across Asia. (It should be noted at this point that installing broadband internet connections in emerging markets does not automatically benefit the local population, but primarily facilitates the process of skimming off profits and labour – a further point that Keller Easterling addresses).
The tense fascination that informs this show stems from that disturbing juxtaposition, in which two networks of globalisation – massive interventions in the landscape on the one hand and the invisible data streams on the other – in a sense coincide, while at the same time also becoming consumable in pristine commodity aesthetics. And perhaps the installation’s over-aestheticised look even contains a commentary on the role of art in today’s world too, as we, admiring Kolling’s installation in the darkened, still station waiting room, barely notice the noisy trains outside. Aren’t we constantly purportedly in the observer position here, yet nonetheless dependent in equal measure on flows of goods, data, and money?

Paul Kolling, Break of Gauge, Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof, Hamburg, 27th June – 19th July, 2020.


Translated by Helen Ferguson