electronic media artist





Dream of Zanzibar


1985, 8:12'

Documentation of performance

Premiere at the International Video Festival in Locarno, Switzerland, Aug 1985


A computer video play for three performers, mixing prerecorded footage with live video and digitization of the action.

With David Blair & Peter Guyer. Off screen voices by Michael Duffy, Christine Hatfull & Kay Hines.



Dream of Zanzibar begins with the projection of video and computer generated stellar and terrestrial images.  Person A enters the concrete parcours and steps onto the grass mound, where he puts down a piece of gauze with a drawing of a figurine.  He withdraws into the tent.  Subsequently B and C enter, each putting down his own piece of gauze and other items that A will later utilize.  A joins them and receives a machine from C that emulates breathing noise. C turns on the computer; B points the surveillance camera at A. The digitized image of A holding the breathing machine appears on the rear screen. A checks with a chronometer and slips back into the tent.  While a recorded voice tells the story of how Stanley found Livingstone, B sets the tent on fire. A emerges, again checking with the stop watch, obviously oblivious of the burning tent. The computer image of A standing next to the fire is transmitted to the screen. B puts down eight plastic basins in a row and begins to fill them with water from the hose. Meantime A starts a carefully timed race around the isle, at the end of each round setting fire to one piece of gauze. After three rounds A returns onto the mound and unwraps an ax.  He approaches a big tree, marks a spot, raises the ax to a blow and freezes, as though enacting Hodler's famous woodcutter. The image is captured by the computer. The following video segment shows two persons who enter a square and approach a wrapped body.  A imitates the event and unwraps a blue cane. He steps into the first basin, then advances, carefully measuring the ankle depth of each container. B points the camera at the final basin and exits.  The sound of a big crowd fades in with the computer image of people standing over ankles in the sea. Meantime C has left. A female voice says:  "By now it would be impossible to stand the world's population on the island of Zanzibar without people on the periphery being over ankles in the sea." A has arrived at the last container. When he measures its depth, it turns out to be bottomless.


Q:  How does the title of your performance relate to the island of Zanzibar?


A:  Zanzibar evokes exotic images and dreams. They are acquired realities. Dream of Zanzibar is a chronometrically timed parkour through an ensemble of preprogrammed events that finally transform it into a statistical metaphor, when the off-screen voice declares it as a spacial entity of a certain numerical seize.


Q:  What other information does the recorded voice give?


A:  Different astronomical, historical or statistical data.  They are fragments from various sources, from books (1), movies and records, sentences that emerge from my memory every now and then, without any particular context or obvious importance.


Q:  What is the role of each of the three performers?


A:  Person A is the dreamer within the dream created by B.  C operates the computer station in the center and controls the overall duration and visuals of the spectacle. The computer is the artificial electronic memory where segments of the performance are being stored and displayed on the big projection screen.


Q:  At some point,  A tries to cut down a tree, but then doesn't succeed.


A:  The occurrences are prepared. A reacts to them. But since they do not originate in his own experience, his reaction to them must be shifted towards the absurd. What is a burning tent, if you are obsessed with catching your cue to enter the ring around the island? As for the tree, I chose the Hodler picture of the tree chopper who, in the culmination of the swing with the ax incapacitates the very goal of his action. These moments from the outside of A's experience and memory predestine the discrepancies of A's reaction with the expectancy of the audience. The elements fire and water still fulfill their symbolic function but outside the subjective space and time continuity of A.


Q:  Tell me more about the significance of the artificial memory of the computer.


A:  For quite some time we have had means to store events outside our own internal memory, I'm thinking of photographs, film, audio and video recordings. But where as these are all static, the computer is a dynamic memory, that in the course of time is capable of changes and new creations in a mathematically ideal universe. With the assistance of the machine it is possible to simulate and even predetermine real world events and then expose to them any person A.


Interview Harry Wergles (†) with Alexander Hahn, August 1985


(1) For instance John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar"





Alex Hahn qui est ne en suisse vit depuis 5 ans a Manhattan ou il travaille comme vidéo e computer artiste. Son reve d'espace d'appartenance se developpe entre deux iles - celle de la petite ville natale de Rapperswil, renfermee sur elle-meme, qu'il a quittee, et celle du coeur de New York qu'il tente de s'approprier en etranger.


Dream of Zanzibar est l'expression d'un ensemble de reves, souvenirs, obsessions qui se developpe dans un reseau de citations, de fragments, de lambeaux de phrases en suspensions dans la memoire, emergeant brusquement du passe sans que l'on sache pourquoi. Une phrase de John Brunner du roman Stand on Zanzibar est a l'origine de la performance:"By now it would be impossible to stand the world's population on the island of Zanzibar without people on the periphery being over ancles in the sea."


Dans le reve, toute la population mondiale finie par etre concentree sur la surface de l'ile. Seul l'aspect numerique importe cependant (la quantite de surface occupee par personne) dans cette "metaphore statistique" ou evolue le performer, entre des voix et des images. Les images projetees sur un grand ecran proviennent de deux sources: une bande preenregistree d'une part, a laquelle s'ajoutent des images filmees en circuit ferme pendant l'action et digitalisees sur ordinateur. L'ordinateur et l'operateur sont au centre de l'ile, ils sont le memoir recepteur des images-instants les plus saisissants de la performance. Ces climax sont constitues par la tente qui brule, instant ephemere d'euphorie et de destruction; l'arbre que l'on tente d'abattre sans y parvenir, inspire d'une oeuvre de Hodler; la respiration electronique du performer, vie palpitante detachee de son corps; son parcours, les pieds dans l'eau, alors que la baguette indique des profondeurs insoupconnees.


Ces moments se distribuent au long d' un parcours effectue par Hahn autour de l'espace de l'ile, qui est ainsi delimite et mesure. Ce cheminement exhibe sa spectacularite et sa programmation: le performer chronometre scrupuleusement chaque movement afin de le synchroniser avec l'image sur l'ecran. Le trajet le mene d'un lieu pregnant a un autre, tandis que l'espace est amenage par un autre acteur qui dispose les outils conditionnant le parcours et les gestes du reveur.


L'espace de la reverie artificielle et des desillusions se construit ainsi au fil de la performance et l'ile, loin d'etre une planete perdue dans le silence, se revele comme un monde ou se croisent plusieurs voix, plusieurs schemas mentaux individuels et sociaux, des reminiscences et des visions dans un dedoublement continuel de la realite, entre apparence et verite, entre nature et culture, entre images et gestes.


(Lorenza Mondada)