April 2nd, 2005


Click Opera Interview: Bjoern Karnebogen

Rewriting history is a favourite hobby of mine, whether it's imagining the 18th century with electronics or picturing a 21st century Japanese aristocrat indulging sordid appetites in London 1888. So I was delighted to come across the Flash illustration kits of Bjoern Karnebogen, a man after my own heart.

Bjoern has made two "parallel universe construction kits" available on the web; he groups them under the title Rewrite History because that's what both of them allow you to do. When I discovered the Hokusai Manga Construction Kit a couple of weeks ago I thought it must be a Japanese project, but in fact Bjoern (a 28 year-old based in Cologne, Germany) made it while he was artist in residence in Sapporo, Hokkaido at the end of 2004. (Spooky co-incidence: a month later I was also an artist in residence in Hokkaido.) When I mentioned the Hokusai game on Design Observer Bjoern wrote to thank me, adding:

"I suggest that you are a Scotsman, so maybe this tool is also interesting for you! Do your own medieval embroidery with the tapestry of Bayeux-based Historic Tale Construction Kit."

Accepting Bjoern's suggestion that I be a Scotsman, I clicked the link and found a digital machine for making instant anachronistic tapestries. Something out of H.G. Wells (and also well outside the pop video cliches of much Flash work)! Suitably impressed, I thought I'd ask Bjoern how he came to make this work. He replied:

"In my diploma thesis Type and Image I was dealing with - well - the relationship between type and image. So in these studies I came across comic-like creations like the Tapestry of Bayeux. But have a look here..."

I looked and found Bjoern's immaculately-presented diploma thesis outline, which makes playful links between type and image. The thesis page is full of Flash toys you can play with: I particularly loved A Historic Tale, with its medieval music and computer voice. The whole thesis is available to download (in German only) as a pdf, but there's also a short precis in English. In it, Bjoern explains that he wanted to "give the alphabet or respectively the latin letters a more pictorial and emotional impression. It is done in an abstract, associative way, with motion and animation, or more obviously with sugar cubes and french fries."

Now, what I find really interesting about the mission Bjoern has settled on is that it doesn't just connect the present to the past, it also makes a link between reason and emotion and between Europe and Asia. Chinese and Japanese scripts are based on pictograms; they are images, not abstractions. As Godard said, "Il n'y a pas une juste image, il y a juste une image" — "There are no just images, there are just images." Our Western tendency to abstraction of text from texture, and truth from images of the world, leads to Platonic assumptions that truth lies in some inaccessible realm of "the universal". It leaches out of the soil of the particular the rooted, situated mini-truths that reside in each thing. Platonism's mistrust of the present and the visible combined with Christianity's destruction of the animistic traditions which linked gods with rocks, trees, rivers... specific things. In Asia, the persistence of pictographic scripts and animistic religions like Shinto preserved respect for the particular, and for the rootedness or situatedness of truth. But by thinking, like Asians, in images instead of abstract symbols perhaps we can cure ourselves of this habit of abstraction, and reconnect reason with emotion.

In his book Picturing Japaneseness (Columbia UP, 1995) Darrell William Davis describes the ideas of Barrie Greenbie, a professor of landscape architecture and urban design:

"Western rationalist epistemology elevates reason over feeling, says Greenbie, and this initiates a kind of mental schism that banishes affect from our concepts and abstractions. Since abstractions like money, prestige and morality disregard particularities in favor of generalities, Western thinking evacuates feelings from our public life. But according to Greenbie,

"It seems that the Japanese do not abstract at the expense of feeling, at least not to the extent that modern Westerners do. The Japanese appear to acknowledge in their own behaviour and in the arrangement of their habitat the contradictions inherent in the divided brain, whereas Westerners tend to deny those contradictions. With an acceptance of contradictions between affect and concept, particular and general, there is an opportunity to perceive, integrate, and express them in objects and behaviour through the performance of an "imaginative unification/synthesis." This bridges the gap between the affective self and the potentially alien qualities of inanimate objects and concepts alike. These are humanized by clearly bounding them according to a modular logic that controls proxemic domestic relations.""

(Davis is quoting from Barrie B. Greenbie's Space and Spirit in Modern Japan, Yale University Press, 1988.)

Well, excuse that diversion! But do you see where I'm going with this? Bjoern Karnebogen's work is an attempt by a Westerner to "heal" our cerebral wounds, our tendency to detach the particular from the universal, and emotion from reason. He's helping us recover from Plato! And this mission comes directly from his exposure to Japan. Bjoern again:

"When I was invited to Japan I thought about the long graphical and calligraphical tradition of Japan and saw the works of Hokusai, especially the Hokusai Manga, which fit perfectly well in doing a Hokusai Manga Construction Kit. So I created this tool completely in Japanese with hiragana writing (with lots of help from kind Japanese people). There is even now a fanblog, Hokusai Blog (full of screenshots), and these guys tortured the HTCK!"

Something else strikes me about Bjoern's work. It's Flash used for its own sake, rather than Flash used to make an ersatz website interface, or emulate a pop video. Flash used as website interface is one of my pet hates; the Platonist in me wants to whole of the web to have a common interface, to be text-based, searchable, familiar, universal. But Flash particularizes the browser, wresting control from me, making me learn a new interface each time I arrive at a site, excluding the site from universal searches and direct links. Flash sites can be entertaining, but they can also be the most tedious thing in the world.

But—don't you see?—this question of Flash versus HTML is central to the schisms outlined by Davis and Greenbie above. It resembles the struggles between particular and universal, art and knowledge, analogue and digital, emotion and reason, female and male, East and West, pictogram and alphabet. And Bjoern Karnebogen is right there in the battlezone, making digital tapestries of the action. If Greenbie is right, there are no "winners" in these battles. But there are cultures which stage them more elegantly and harmoniously than others, and build their inherent contradictions safely and successfully into the fabric of public life.