‘The Final Countdown’

For his monumental video piece The Final Countdown (2010), Koen Theys took on a devil of a task. He picked more than two thousand video clips from the immeasurable virtual jungle of YouTube, in which individuals, bands, orchestras and brass bands, participants in music contests and even complete stadiums full of people ventured into a rendition of the iconic opening melody of the world-famous song The Final Countdown by the Swedish glamour-rock band Europe. Theys meticulously edited this gigantic amalgamation of amateur clips – together more than 130 hours of video material – into a long loop of about 45 minutes in which the various film extracts interlink in a constantly changing monumental mosaic pattern.

Theys – the ultimate ‘director of other people’s work’ – often puts the viewer’s endurance to the test, mentally and even physically. The thousands of versions of the ‘Final Countdown’ tune are after all painstakingly built up into a crescendo, whereby the initial clumsy attempts by young webcam addicts change excruciatingly slowly to local bands and orchestras whose sound is not always equally pure, and finally lead into a full-blooded mash of sound in the form of noisy and distorted stadium rock.
As a result of the endless repetition of the tune, the whole video sequence evolves into a sort of irritating-incantatory mantra that gradually worms its way into the viewer’s mind until, towards the end, he is – even physically – almost completely overcome by it. In this sense The Final Countdown can be seen as the ultimate, ironic allegory of the excessive contemporary consumption of sounds and images. It’s an über-baroque tableau vivant in which Theys not only subtly confronts the viewer with his current status as an addicted virtual voyeur, but in which worldwide, often pathetic webcam exhibitionism is put on show in an exaggerated but penetrating manner.

On the other hand, The Final Countdown also acts as an accurate contemporary social document that’s almost like a documentary, and that can be viewed in a more open way. This work, in form and ideology entirely in keeping with today’s utterly fragmented way of living, offers an insight into thousands of minor ‘slices of life’ involving thousands of people – from tentative children’s attempts and melancholy teenage dreams, through local club events to grand mass spectaculars – that run parallel to the crescendo dynamics of the work. Theys subtly orchestrates these thousands of ‘micro-documentaries’, starting with the most intimate private stirrings of the soul and ending with the most extravert public emotional extravagance.
In this sense, and partly through the deliberate use of the mosaic structure, The Final Countdown seems like a visual counterpart to Life: A User’s Manual by the French author Georges Perec. Perec too used the fragmentation technique for a bottom-up description of many of the sub-particles of daily life, thus expressing a nuanced view of the contemporary human condition without lapsing into a moralising tone.

At a more cultural-historical level, in The Final Countdown – which visually takes the form of a triptych – Koen Theys refers explicitly to The Final Judgment, a much-used theme in Christian eschatology which in painting was always depicted in a triptych. The human condition is here represented in the most penetrating manner: after all, every individual is rewarded or punished by God for the life they have led. In The Final Countdown this is strikingly expressed at the end of the video, when a conductor towers over an hysterical, orgiastic mass of people like a sort of demonic Christ figure, to the hellish, thundering notes of the Europe song.

As a part of the artistic course taken by Koen Theys – already thirty years of it – and of video art in general, The Final Countdown occupies a unique, hybrid position. Not only is it his first monumental video work that was composed entirely of found footage from the internet, but it can also be seen as the provisional climax of Theys’ dealings with the video art medium. After all, he has often put reflection on the video medium at the heart of his practice as an artist, examining the (video) image both for its purely media-based semiotic value and for its intrinsic aesthetic – and even ornamental – connotations. In both approaches, in The Final Countdown Theys succeeds in avoiding the usual approaches taken in the discourse on video and, by extension, even media art.
As a video work, The Final Countdown presents itself almost as the ultimate, and somewhat ironic, ode to the (digital) media image. By using monumental proportions, slow progress through time and the aesthetic strategy of the mosaic pattern, Koen Theys pimps the usually rapid, grainy pixellation and instantaneous nature of the internet image to the level of a true mass ornament in the most baroque sense of the word. By means of this ‘aestheticising’ approach, he succeeds in employing the ‘classic’ video art medium in an accurate and relevant way to question the artistic qualities of the internet image and no longer its purely semiotic qualities.
On the other hand, the status of The Final Countdown as a work of media art is equally hybrid. Unlike much (new) media art, in which the questioning of its own digital media image is itself the chief focus, Koen Theys uses this digital media image to add nuance to the status of the work of video art.

In this sense, The Final Countdown is a perfect example of a successful and balanced fusion of video and media art, without denying the intrinsic media properties of either of them, and – above all – completely free of any artistic or semiotic concessions.

Thibaut Verhoeven