The Accidental Historian

Wolfgang Staehle’s last show at Postmasters Gallery, which opened on September 6, 2001, included a panoramic projection of lower Manhattan updated every four seconds via Webcam and dedicated “To the People of New York.” Several days later, it became an unintended portrait of the newly severed skyline. Karen Rosenberg spoke to the veteran Net artist.

What was it like to have your art become a record of 9/11?
People talked about how lucky I was, all this nonsense. The work was set up with completely different intentions—it was against spectacle. Recently, I didn’t get a grant from National Video Resources. The administrator told me the jury was divided. She said, “This 9/11 thing—it’s a blessing and a curse.”

But you can’t blame people, given what happened.
No, of course not. It is remarkable. A lot of people wanted the footage. I gave it out once, to the philosopher Paul Virilio, for a show in Paris. I have it in a safe place.

Did the work’s meaning change for you?
I’m indifferent! I went to the gallery that day, and two of my friends came by, and one said, “Oh, Wolfgang, this is a really important piece now.” I said, “What do you mean—it wasn’t before?” The other friend said, “No, it’s ruined now, its whole meaning is changed.” I said, “You’re both nuts.” I just set up a camera, and of course things can happen.

That’s very Warholian of you.
Yeah, but it’s really more inspired by European Continental philosophy, to perceive things in their authenticity. I’m interested in what happens when nothing happens.

Do people ever perceive your work as surveillance?
The other day, I was in my sports club at Chelsea Piers, and I went out on the deck with my video camera. The manager asked me to shut it off. He was going on about the convention. It’s ridiculous—anyone with a cell phone can take pictures anywhere, but if you have a camera they’ll arrest you.

Your new camera work mostly records landscapes, like the Hudson River Valley.
It’s reminiscent of nineteenth-century Hudson River School painting—playing with the sublime, this wild scenery that people were so fascinated by when they came from Europe.

The show opens Friday, September 10.
Postmasters usually opens on Saturdays. [The director] said, “Maybe we should change it.” I said, “That’s even worse.” But I agreed, in the end. To open on the 11th would have been such a distraction, again. That was a reason I went for the landscape this time. I thought, “What can happen in a landscape?”

The Accidental Historian