continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 7.1 / 2018: 93-122

Vaporous Evening Dresses

Seth Weiner


 

Bound by thin graphite lines, two lavender-skinned subjects stand in quiet conflict with one another. Their features are absent enough to render them mere projection screens, doubled, differentiated only by posture and clothing. The twin that has arrived at stage right leans on a pile of rectangles, stacked and filled with green and blue watercolor; stage left, the other stands, looking beyond the page. Their ankles are just slightly bent below the Minimalist sculpture, a spatial MacGuffin for both social interface and architectural imaginary. Smaller figures made of black and white contours, more mannequin than flesh, occupy the margins of attention. No ground has been established for the subjects to stand upon. Yet the ground nevertheless remains, humming relentlessly in the background.

 

 

In its current form, Palais des Beaux Arts Vienna is both a building and a website, each of which is largely represented through a catalog of views. Whether encountering it through a quick Google search or navigating the actual website, what can be readily experienced of the Palais is its compression into a strategic combination of text and image: immaterial, “future thinking art” in 400px wide columns of code. The real estate it occupies—including the cloud of data and name hanging above the entrance of the building—spreads across different formats, yet remains anchored in a branding strategy and website that acts as its public interface. In the past, the building was a site of production for widely circulated fashion catalogs and lifestyle magazines that asked viewers to perform an idea of place that was not only reproducible but consumable, and prompted a form of disembodied participation. Extending this legacy, the Palais des Beaux Arts allows visitors to browse through its catalog of projects, trying on contemporary art and its lifestyles as if they were garments.

 

On the website, a series of images and menu items are organized within a horizontal grid of translucent columns.  While the width of each column is fixed, their heights vary. Evenly distributed titles and blocks of text accompany the images, explaining the materials used, their significance and provenance. Every time the page refreshes, an emerald green shape assumes a different character. Branding the background of the site, it remains ever-present, sometimes entirely obscured by a description of the Palais' projects, sometimes only slightly showing through the gaps between the site's description of those projects. In this, it becomes the site's institutional surface. Following the ‘shop’ menu item, the visitor finds only a single item for sale, a large comma blinking on and off between words, while a limited edition umbrella spins in the corner. Addition and subtraction, algorithmically determined, continues in the tab of the browser, alternating between two calls to action: ‘new art world order now’ and ‘new art world, order now’.

 

At once bound to territory and wholly deterritorialized, the Palais des Beaux Arts occupies many different states. While some of the projects can be accessed via the website, others can only be accessed and put to use on site. Within proximity of the building, visitors can overlay and manipulate the Palais’ newly pixelated façade. While such views are possible during on-site gatherings, each will soon migrate to the grid of the page, where a compression of text and image await additional participants. Playing on our desires to project and imagine experience both at a distance and up close, Palais des Beaux Arts ultimately emphasizes surface ambience, its pixelated form branding an experience reinforced by each visit. Its fantasy is that of a disembodied being activated by a gaze that is not at all dissimilar from that of any other consumer fantasy; the contemporary artworld, its life, life styling and attitudes are put on display, becoming readily wearable garments, as if in a Chic Parisien catalog.

 


 

 

 

 

 


Two distinct catalogs mark transformative moments within my adolescent development. Bound by pre-internet conditions, each offered escape into a distant body by constructing images of place that were refreshed with each viewing and seasonal release. Hammacher Schlemmer, the first and seemingly more benign, offered a utopian futuristic marketplace for consumer-scaled technologies. Most items were throw-away patents, inventions for their own sake that promised better living through circuitry. Through it, I imagined myself mowing the front lawn as a MechWarrior, impressing passing neighbors by listening to the TV on a pair of wireless headphones, flipping through stations on a wrist watch, all the while looking out from a massive VR helmet and onto a suburban property that had become a matrix of vectors. Although I never ordered anything, the catalog strengthened an identity already based on want and projection, destroying the idea that transactions need to take place at a physical site, subject to my parent’s judgment – self-construction, bought and delivered on-demand. The second catalog, Vivid Video, was a mail-order service for sex toys and porn videos that accompanied an ill-willed gift that I received for my 14th birthday. Through what was little more than marketing copy, access was provided to a world of voyeurism otherwise uninhabitable. Because there was no way to verify age, we pooled our resources, sent an envelope of cash along with our checklist of videos off to The Valley and prayed. Upon its arrival, I learned an early lesson in applied capitalism. In order to watch the videos there were two choices: box my significantly more developed older brother or pay double the price for a dubbed copy. I chose boxing, gave up halfway through the first round – then paid. The catalog offered a type of augmented reality that only image can invite: an empathic gaze, triggered by and projected onto bodily experiences at a remove. This type of projection, although inherent in any act of fantasy, was a technique reinforced in figure drawing classes that I was taking at the time. As a way to draw proportion more realistically, we were instructed to imagine ourselves in the body of the model in order to better understand how gravity felt in their skin, training our hands to connect the gaze more directly to the fantasy of another's bodily experience.

 

 

 


 


 

 

In an act of seeming retreat, I spent the better portion of last fall in my basement, searching for a stronger connection to my hands with a set of watercolors I took from my son. Frustrated and a bit worn out from exhibition contexts, I became increasingly interested in how books and the space of the page structure and choreograph attention. For the past few years, my work has oscillated between spatial service and sculpture made to order. Each project was developed for its own context, and worked on how space organizes social bodies, the act of viewing and attention. In such a situation, the compressed site of a book became ever more appealing and offered the opportunity to respond to material in a more direct way. Its constraints are not social but tactile. With a flick of the wrist, space, figure, narrative and meaning can be rearranged, dramas emerging from a single gesture.

 

Like every well-trained watercolorist, I turned to Google for an oracle on my proposed subject matter, entered "theater of the wrists", and used the images that resulted from my query for painting and remodeling those images. From the search, I gleaned advertisements for wrist braces, ergonomic mouse pads, yoga poses and peripheral stories about suicide attempts and their locations. The results were, and continue to be, unstable, the index of images a slippery archive: by the time you reach the end of the screen, the top of the page has already begun to change based on what you’ve been baited to click. The subconscious state of this algorithm – one of Google Poetics' many forms – will inevitably become more streamlined as it matures, eliminating the associative possibilities it now so beautifully presents. The cocktail of results we get from the algorithm’s adolescent phase will most likely become nothing more than a marketplace that targets consumer patterns, the archive swallowed whole by catalog view.

 

After seeing this work-in-progress, "Google Oracles: Theater of the Wrists," Bernhard Garnicnig, the acting director of Palais des Beaux Arts, approached me about doing a project that involved my newly-found passion for watercolors and would somehow belong to his project of decommissioning the institution. During his research into the Bachwitz family, who commissioned the Palais des Beaux Arts building and once operated a publishing house out of it, he had found a series of fashion catalogs they had produced and in which they primarily used watercolors for their illustrations. At this stage, I had only a rough notion of the history of Palais des Beaux Arts Vienna and its output, knowing more about what was currently being done than I did about the longer history of the institution and its undoing with the rise of National Socialism. That time period had not really been addressed in any previously commissioned projects, an omission that had to be either respected and left in its absence or addressed directly.

 


 

 

A shadow is cast and seems to come from another body. Its edges touch the model's shoulder, trailing her. Her head tips over, her mouth articulate but without words. Her eyes are slightly open, concentrated upon her miniaturized double, stage right, caressing the collar of a fur coat. Stage left, ignored. Two strips of alternating pigment hover over the surface. Mirrored and repeating a pattern: emerald green rectangle, blank, deep violet circle, blank. Whatever she's leaning on is sliding away. The strips hold her in place, the wall is only implied. The shadow is swallowed by the tip of her toes, into which the graphite disappears.

 


Operating officially from 1898-1958, Chic Parisien/Bachwitz AG [1] was the most renowned of the Bachwitz family’s endeavors. Initiated by Arnold Bachwitz, who died of natural causes in 1930 in Vienna, the publishing house was handled primarily by himself, his wife Rosine, and their daughters until the rise of National Socialism. In 1938, after Austria was annexed into the German Third Reich, the administrative board of the company fell under the rule of the Nuremberg Race Laws and underwent Aryanization as part of the effort to “de-Jew the economy”. As a result of this seizure, the board – comprised mostly of the Bachwitz family – was replaced, their publishing rights to several fashion magazines revoked. With this change, not only was the business of fashion magazines lost but also the publication and distribution of works of literature, painting, sculpture, music and photography. In the span of only four years, the original inhabitants of Palais des Beaux Arts had been almost entirely erased. Grete Lebach, the second daughter of Arnold and Rosine Bachwitz, died of cancer in 1938 in Vienna, Rosine Bachwitz was murdered in 1942 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and their daughter Alice Strel, died in 1945 under unknown circumstances during a death transport from Prague.

 

At the end of the war, the German Labor Front was the publishing house’s main shareholder; afterwards, the company became the property of the Republic of Austria, existing only on paper until it was finally dissolved in 1958.  Restitution documents from 2003 show that some 20,000 shares of the company’s stock were outstanding, and were eventually returned to descendants of the Bachwitz family and their relations. When one of the Bachwitzes’ great-grandchildren saw that the Vienna City Library was searching for an heir to the library's collection of the family's former periodicals, he contacted the library through a lawyer; another great-grandchild was contacted directly by the library. In 2003, after a series of legal proceedings, it was eventually decided that the magazines would be returned to the two great-grandchildren; the property was then removed from the library and deleted from its catalog.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

In the spring of 1929, Arnold Bachwitz published Elégances du Soir Robes à danser: Vaparous (sic) Evening Dresses, presumably one of the last editions of Chic Parisien in which he would be involved. Widely circulated and part of a quarterly release schedule, the issue featured forty-nine looks that focused on promoting lifestyles and garments, a collage of tropes from a global imaginary. In French, English and German, the introductory text reads: "Old times are resuscitated before our eyes. Reminiscences of the Rococo and Biedermeier period, of ancient English fashion-pictures are mingling with lovely details of recent times. […] They are real poems of supple, floating silk, velvet chiffon, lace and net of a great feminine charm.” [2] This particular edition of the catalog is noteworthy for marking a transition in Chic Parisien's representation of spatial settings. The subjects of its watercolor illustrations have become the inhabitants of an increasingly abstract series of tableaux, the decorative elements of previous issues replaced by a graphic structure which the figures step into and out of. They lean upon frames and openings, interacting with one another as well as with the flatness of the page; by constructing an impossible architecture, the images also build impossible social interfaces. In previous issues of Chic Parisien, place was offered up as a location with an accompanying template of behavior: coffee houses, balls, processional staircases, spectral landscapes. From this issue onwards, the page itself increasingly became a model of space that would construct its own social diagram; later catalogs were increasingly flat, fractured and ambiguous. Leaving location behind, the page offered up surface ambience instead, place becoming something partial, vaporous and present in the absence of itself.

 


 


 


 


 


Taking these graphic structures literally, I began pulling elements from the pages of the catalog and modeling them according to how they were being performed by the subjects of the illustrations. After a few tests, I started breaking their components into modules so they could be reconfigured more easily, aiming to exhaust the spatial possibilities of each model through small, incremental moves. The depth of the paper models was lost in the process of flattening each iteration through photography. Frames, having become figural, had also become the structural ground of the image. In the Chic Parisien illustrations, the subjects created scale and spatial orientation even while the objects they interact with frustrated conventional ideas about habitable space. Once the people had been removed, however, the scale of the body no longer provided an anchor for experience. The empathic gaze searches for a point of reference to attach itself to what is no longer there, finding instead only disembodied shapes. Displaced from the page, each spatial proposition is made to be broken apart, turned around ad infinitum, awaiting its ultimate return to the page.

 

Knowing that this work on the Chic Parisien would end up as a matrix of pixels, I asked that these images occupy the landing page of Palais des Beaux Arts for a minimum of one-hundred years, rotating at random, and according to the quarterly publication schedule of Chic Parisien. Rather than accumulating images as would a typical archive, the introduction of each new model should erase the previous one: the website a catalog for disembodied views. While there could be no promise of such a long-term commitment, the idea led to conversations about the paradox of wanting permanence from an immaterial institution and the sustainability of the infrastructure propping it up: the internet. Few institutions begin with an expiration – a desire for longevity is implicit within the etymology of the form. But institutions have an end, as the history of the Palais des Beaux Arts makes clear. That they continue, as vapor, digital or stone, owes little to either their organizational form or the larger political-contextual space within which they once appeared and, ultimately, disappeared. What survives is what remains palatable to a situation in which the past may no longer have any contemporary purchase. Were such vapors to survive, it’s not their past form that would persist, but their absence.

 

At once ethereal and unending, these lost images from the Palais des Beaux Arts survive now only as a catalog of voids.

 


 


 


 


 

 


REFERENCES

[1] Gemeinderatsausschuss für Kultur und Wissenschaft Stadtsenat Gemeinderat. Vierter Bericht des amtsführenden Stadtrates für Kultur und Wissenschaft über die gemäß dem Gemeinderatsbeschluss vom 29. April 1999 erfolgte Übereignung von Kunst- und Kulturgegenständen aus den Sammlungen der Museen der Stadt Wien sowie der Wiener Stadt- und Landesbibliothek [City Council for Culture and Science. Fourth report by the City Council for Culture and Science on the transfer of objects of art and culture from the collections of the Museums of the City of Vienna and the Vienna City and State Library, according to the municipal council decision of 29 April 1999]. Wien Museum. 10 Nov. 2003. Web. 18 June 2017.(p.15)  http://www.wienmuseum.at/fileadmin/user_upload/PDFs/Restitutionsbericht_2003.pdf

Mandl, Eva Maria. “Exkurs: Chic Parisien, die Familie Bachwitz und Albert Einstein. Löwengasse 47 (1938) [Excursion: Chic Parisien, the Bachwitz Family and Albert Einstein. Löwengasse 47 (1938)]“ Pratercottage. 08 Sept. 2011. Web. 26 June 2017. http://www.pratercottage.at/2011/09/08/exkurs-chic-parisien/

Schwarz, Ursula. Das Wiener Verlagswesen der Nachkriegszeit: Eine Untersuchung der Rolle der öffentlichen Verwalter bei der Entnazifizierung und bei der Rückstellung arisierter Verlage und Buchhandlungen [The Post-War Viennese Publishing Industry: An Investigation into the Role of Public Administrators in Denazification and the Restitution of Aryanized Publishers and Bookshops]. Diss. Universität Wien, 2003. Web. 20 June 2017. (p.125)

http://www.wienbibliothek.at/sites/default/files/files/buchforschung/schwarz-ursula-wiener-verlagswesen-nachkriegszeit.pdf

[2] Atelier Bachwitz. ”Vaparous Evening Dresses.” Chic Parisien: Elégances du Soir Robes à danser  Spring Issue 1929. Print.

 

 

IMAGE CAPTIONS

Figure 1
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 15-16, Var. 06
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017


Figure 2
Chic Parisien - Elégances du Soir Robes à danser: Vaparous Evening Dresses - Model 15 - 16
Atelier Bachwitz
1929


Figure 3
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 15 - 16, Var. 01
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017


Figure 4
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 15 - 16, Var. 02 - 05
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017


Figure 5
Chic Parisien - Elégances du Soir Robes à danser: Vaparous Evening Dresses - Model 03
Atelier Bachwitz
1929


Figure 6
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 03, Var. 02
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017


Figure 7
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 03, Var. 03 - 06
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017


Figure 8
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 11, Var. 18
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017


Figure 9
Chic Parisien - Elégances du Soir Robes à danser: Vaparous Evening Dresses - Model 11
Atelier Bachwitz
1929


Figure 10
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 11, Var. 02
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017


Figure 11
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 11, Var. 10 - 13
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017


Figure 12
Chic Parisien
Atelier Bachwitz 1913


Figure 13
Chic Parisien
Atelier Bachwitz
1929


Figure 14
Chic Parisien
Atelier Bachwitz
1933


Figure 15
Chic Parisien
Atelier Bachwitz
1933


Figure 16
Chic Parisien - Elégances du Soir Robes à danser: Vaparous Evening Dresses - Model 27 - 28
Atelier Bachwitz
1929


Figure 17
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 27 - 28, Var. 30, 12, 05, 38
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017


Figure 18
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 27 - 28, Var. 01 - 25
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017


Figure 19
Vaporous Evening Dresses - Model 27 - 28, Var. 09
Seth Weiner
1929 / 2017

 

A special thanks to Bernhard Garnicnig, Ryan Crawford, Claudia Slanar, Marc-Alexandre Dumoulin, Anthony Carfello and Sophie Wagner for their generous support, exchange of ideas, and edits.