Vilém Flusser, who are you? Philosopher? Journalist? Media theorist? Prophet? Born in Prague in 1920, into a family of Jewish intellectuals, your life was shaped by tragedy and exile. It is simple to write that you left Czechoslovakia at the age of 19; it is another matter to contemplate your entire family being killed in the concentration camps. From this expulsion, you went first to London and then to São Paulo, where you lived for 30 years. By the time you left Brazil in 1972 and settled in southern France, you had long committed yourself to the radical potential of the permanent outsider. In an essay titled ‘Exile and Creativity’ (1984), you wrote that the expelled are thrown into ‘an ocean of chaotic information’, making it necessary to transform the chaos into meaningful messages: ‘Exile, no matter what form it takes, is a breeding ground for creative activity, for the new.’
Flusser’s laconic and vivid writing has influenced European media studies since at least the 1970s, but it is far too restless and strange to be confined to a single discipline. Developing his own experimental anthropology and nomenclature, Flusser no doubt took pleasure in ignoring academic protocol in favour of the short essay. A polyglot, he would often rewrite (and therefore rethink) the same piece of writing in different languages. I am yet to come across a single footnote in his work; when he does mention influences – Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Franz Kafka, Ludwig Wittgenstein – it is usually in passing, as though names obstruct the flow of the text.
‘Without Firm Ground’ – part of the ambitious 300-day GLOBALE programme at ZKM – was a busy and eclectic exhibition, with over 70 artworks and artefacts either directly or indirectly influenced by Flusser’s thinking. As you might expect, Flusser was everywhere: speaking to us through an array of discoloured and grainy videos; fragmented and layered in Ed Sommer’s photomontages (1988–99); pitching human history as a television drama in Michael Bielicky’s film Vilém Flussers Fluss (1991–94); or, in Harun Farocki’s short film Schlagworte – Schlagbilder (Catch Phrases – Catch Images, 1986), sitting in a cafe analyzing the combative relationship between text and image on the front page of the tabloid Bild. Depending on your patience, you could also encounter him in excerpts from his unfenced correspondence, or in the selection of creased books from his travel library (sadly behind glass). The danger of any exhibition built around an intellectual is that it can feel like a lecture or, worse, curatorial hagiography. For the most part, ‘Without Firm Ground’ was more like an animated archive, an arrangement of things orbiting Flusser’s belief that the fate of our imaginations (vis-à-vis creativity and freedom) rests on our ability to play with and ‘outwit’ our own telematic systems or ‘apparatuses’.
In Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983) and Into the Universe of Technical Images (1985) – two books that deserve their place on the shelf alongside the touchstones (or, occasionally, balls-and-chains) of photography and media theory – Flusser argued that linguistic communication is no longer sufficient for our concepts. Writing has become a deficient code. In its place, we enter a universe of technical images, where pictures whiz around as bits of information, outcomes of calculations and algorithms – in a word: dimensionless. This began with the invention of the photograph, an image determined by the camera: ‘The apparatus does as the photographer desires, but the photographer can only desire what the apparatus can do.’ Standing in front of Andreas Müller-Pohle’s deliberately blurred and abstract Transformance photographs (1979–82) – his attempt to photograph the ‘inside of the camera’ – you get a sense of what Flusser meant by ‘playing against the apparatus’, even though the outcome is still, in the end, a photograph.
Also included were Mira Schendel’s ink drawings on rice paper, Untitled (1964–65), delicate constellations of half-letters and calligraphic-like scribbles. A fellow émigré and friend living in Brazil, Flusser thought Schendel’s work pointed to the humans’ ability to imagine our own concepts and propose new codes. In doing so, there is the possibility of finding significance within chaos; of reclaiming an agency from within technologies that determine the way information is produced and circulated. While this exhibition made no claims to propose how these new codes come about, it did show Flusser’s thinking to be alive and prescient. This is where his status as a prophet comes in, since his concerns about and hopes for technology seem to be more applicable now, in our brave new metadata world, than in his own lifetime (which ended tragically, in a car crash in 1991). It is difficult to remember, but this was before the internet swallowed everything.