241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

“That which is creative, creates itself” – John Keats

Nothing remains unsaid at schools; everything is up for discussion. The child’s right to cherish his secrets is denied him. There doesn’t seem to be a place for daydreams, fantasies, or repression. Every minute of a child’s life must be meaningful. But children want to play and experiment without pretension. They should be allowed to form images and thoughts that manifest themselves within the hidden corners of the mind, far away and out of sight from others.

My life is given form by the countless images that impose themselves on me every three hundredth millisecond. The distance between the conscious and the unconscious seems minimal. Useless thoughts dominate my brain and link together to create a chain of countless, fleeting thoughts. Every action and all behaviour are preceded by fictional plans and fantastic imaginations.

My ability to make exceptional drawings was recognized early at kindergarten. Were parents and teachers competent to recognize ability? On the grounds of what criteria were my drawings assessed? When I analyse them, I notice realism, detail, and intensity. The sense of imagination is not strikingly idiosyncratic or expressive. The use of colours seems realistic. The images were related to trips and outings I’d made, as well as creatures like garden gnomes and fantastical animals. Goblins. The challenge was to portray these imaginary images as perfectly as possible. Kids don’t strive for expressiveness. Only adults appreciate the visible struggle of creation or the painter’s movements coagulated in paint upon the canvas.

My talent had little to do with the characteristics that would be important for a future artistic practice.

At primary school I endlessly drew mice with human features, top secret flying, driving, and diving survival cars; and even historical events made their appearance, like the beheading of van Oldebarneveld. Many artists say that they’ve felt like an outsider and an observer since childhood, and to have a greater sensitivity to their surroundings.

Teachers interpreted the bloody drawing as expressions of mental illness or family issues. By doing so, they made an implicit connection between artistic quality and mental abnormality. I had an undeniable urge to shock. Bloody, scary scenes lent themselves well for this. It isn’t only admiration that stimulates the need to create, a negative response likewise stimulates this need; I’ll show them! The feeling of being an outcast energised me.

When I was twelve, I had a teacher sporting a bow tie who presented himself as an artist. He created an inspiring environment by being a role model, observer, dreamer and rebel. The point of departure is what formed the student’s ideas, while constantly referring to art and artistry. He had faith in the idea of the student. It was this attitude that also drew students to him who had little to no interest in art. He was very conscientious, delayed his judgement and was constantly alert. The students believed in his honesty. Without being aware of it, he was a forerunner in what now would be called authentic teaching.

Still, I was seen as a talented student. That implies a promise that had simply to be fulfilled. At this point, heading to the academy seemed self-evident.

The promise remains. But the longer it stands, the less likely it is that it will be realized. As time goes by, personal identity becomes entwined with the identity of the artist. This makes quitting impossible. With Bourdieu in mind, being an artist is like a coat that I can’t take off, for if I do, I’d be naked.

‘Who can does, who can not teaches!’ wrote Shaw. By this, he meant that if you were truly good at your trade, you’d rather practice that trade as a researcher rather than a teacher.

Many subjects are taught by professors who teach without any true engagement, who themselves have also been schooled by the very same sort of tutor. It might sound disrespectful, but it’s an undeniable phenomenon.

Most researchers have trained themselves with the guidance of another researcher.

How do you prevent the rift between researchers and teachers growing even wider? Firstly, by employing as many teachers as possible that have been successful researchers.

But also by writing textbooks, readers, and practical manuals in such a way that they show how research is truly done in a practical sense.

Most schoolbooks are written with present day knowledge as their foundation. They follow the history of their subject and its related disciplines from beginning to end. In textbooks, you won’t find many detours or examples of dead-end developments. And if that happens, you’ll know beforehand that it was a mistake. In practical manuals you won’t find experiments that explain a dead branch or root in history that helps understand the subject. Because of this, it seems like the subject developed through a succession of ready-made questions that lead to easily found answers. Knowledge and insight are taught on the basis of their justification.

But shouldn’t it also be possible to approach a subject through the history of its development? By not only looking at the grand scheme, but also at the crucial turning points? As a repetitive process of guessing, missing, and hitting. In the process of doing so, you’d be raising future researchers. And you’d be telling future teachers how researchers work.

Bas Jan Ader

Although I never followed formal training in photography, I was briefly affiliated with an academy, just not as a student. In 1986, I was appointed the position of photography tutor at the Rietveld academy.

For the first assignment, I asked students to sit themselves in the canteen with their camera.

The time of day was up to them: early in the morning without a student in sight, at the busy lunch hours, or in the evening when the part time students entered. It was all up to them, my only demand was that they shut their eyes, clicked their camera, and filled up a whole roll of film. Hopefully, this exercise would loosen and relax their way of seeing.

I don’t remember what the assignment resulted in. However, I do know that I had a meeting with the supervisor at the end of that year. The supervisor let me know that they’d been under the impression that the bottom of my photographic knowledge had come into sight during my year of teaching. They would no longer be needing my services.

I can imagine that for many people it would be a huge blow to hear from the supervisor of an esteemed art academy that they’ve seen the bottom of your photographic knowledge. But I wasn’t too bothered. I asked them for a written statement to confirm the termination of my contract. Including the reason. I wasn’t bothered because I had my Red Folder: the folder where I collected all my Rejections and Disappointments.

As with all collections… once you start it, you need to complete it. I simply had to fill up the folder. And so, I perforated the Rietveld’s letter of rejection and stuck it in with the other rejections.

In retrospect, the Rejections and Disappointments folder may have been too big for its purpose. But the good thing was: to fill it up, I needed a whole lot of rejections. So I had to write applications, throw lines here and there, submit proposals, present my work, apply for jobs. Applications that were accepted were placed in the Green Folder. This is where I collected Grants and Other Successes. The fact that my folder for Successes was as big the folder for Disappointments might display some misplaced optimism.

Thanks to these two folders, I discovered that rejections positively affect your career. I can best demonstrate this correlation through a graph.

On the x-axis I’ve placed the years, from 1980 until now.

On the y-axis you’ll find my income in Euros.

There’s no better measure of success than turnover.

A small dip is visible in 1986, after my contract at the Rietveld was not renewed. I never made a lot of money there. Nobody did, and they still don’t. In 1995, when I quit photography and began to write, a much bigger dip entered.

It’s interesting to compare the yearly rejections in my Red Map to the above. Now we’ll enter a world of higher mathematics, as I’ll place these two graphs on top of one another: the scale of the number of rejections on top of my turnover.

But the point is: during the first fifteen years, the graph of rejections follows the same form as that of my turnover. There must be, then, a direct correlation between rejection and artistic success.

When I quit photography in 1995 and begin writing, rejections still follow turnover, albeit with less precision. Both decline because I still hadn’t mastered writing. I practiced all day, leaving me less time to write applications and in turn, fewer rejections were sent my way.

Slowly, after 2000, my income begins to rise again. As I begin receiving assignments, I write fewer and fewer applications. In 2003, I start writing a column for the website PhotoQ where I analyse photos like a detective. The column is a success and in 2004, the Volkskrant asks me to analyse a press photo each week. My income steadily begins to rise. While the amount of rejections dramatically drops, so does the amount of applications and proposals I write.

At this point, everything begins to calm down. The income rises even further, the rejections decrease until they cross one another, here, in February of 2012. It’s in this very month that the Rietveld asks me to open their graduation show.

The opening of the graduation show!

Yes, then you’ve got it made.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I can’t help but offer four tips to the budding artist:

1)Buy two folders, one green and one red. Place your rejections in the red folder, the successes in the green folder.

2)Don’t bother with self-promotion. Don’t over advertise your work. If you discover something, or stumble across something interesting while working, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell anyone who will listen. Your friends, your parents, the baker on the corner. And if someone’s around who can help you further (you know the type)… just keep talking.

3)Speak about your work clearly and directly. No jargon. If the baker stops listening, you’ll probably have to tell it differently the next time. This is how you start understanding your work better.

4)Don’t be too picky. Don’t just reach for the top. Starting at the bottom can have great advantages. You’ll have room to experiment and to find out what your work is about. It’ll be useful for the future, when you’ll be tossed into the lion’s den.

Art Bin, Michael Landy
John Baldessari, No more boring art

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student - pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher - pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: be self-disciplined - this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail, there's only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It's the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don't try to create and analyze at the same time. They're different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It's lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: "We're breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities." (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything - it might come in handy later.

One of the greatest clichés of the art academy is that we’re taught how to think and look. This could almost be considered an insult to those who are newly admitted to the academy, as if they’re not yet able to think. But according to the great writer David Foster Wallace, we do have a choice in what occupies our thoughts, and how we can learn to use this choice in a constructive way. If he’s correct, we’ve learned to look at another way of thinking at the academy, as well how to see something that does not yet exist and find a form for it. In other words, this is the thought process that happens inside the studio. But when an artwork is placed within an exhibition we’re forced to begin our thought process anew. The placing of the work in a physical construction demands the gears of thought to start their churning once again.

Any space where art is presented has it’s own signature. In an ideal situation, it should act as a refuge—a habitat for the artist, the art, and the public alike. Presenting work is a contextual and relational matter. This is inherent in the agreement in which we build a set, a display of temporary nature in which works begin a dialogue with scale, atmosphere, and the significance of both the place and the other works within that space. We build new sentences.

Roman Signer

A space speaks to us (‘It’s a place full of known and unknown unknowns,’ as Thoreau puts it. This text will restrict itself to the presentation space, because the public space conjures wholly different questions and criteria etcetera.) Is it a dead white cube, or an eloquent, stimulating white space?

Should we begin by ‘depersonalising,’ a space? In other words, to find meaning in meaninglessness, or to neutralise the space as much as possible? Space breeds hope and future: the promise of explosions of colour on a neutral canvas! In any case, an exhibition must inhabit a space by correctly analysing it; by thinking and searching transforming it into mental architecture, and subsequently the ideal habitat for a work. By doing so, each work becomes site-relevant and in turn, becomes empowered. Something from nothing. A room as a generator of energy. A measure, a guide. It requires vision to be able to interpret a space and imagine the work within it. The space must be considered as a partner: an ideal physical relationship. Similar to love, the work comes to life only when the relationship is wrought.

Ola Vasiljeva, 2014

An ensemble of works, whether by one artist or many, creates a route within the presentation space. As the viewer walks through the space, viewing bold statements or zooming in on details, a story unfolds, or an essay is relayed. A dialogue is created between the works by their placement and the space surrounding them, and is completed by the presence of the viewer. Often, the viewer is alone, or at least needs to find their own, personal, relationship to the space so that fellow visitors might become a figure, another element to relate to. Just like an architect can only truly see his work once it’s in use, a viewer and his own subjective world of experience finalises the completion of the exhibition. Art simply does not exist without this last element. The viewer expands the significance and complexity of the works: in a similar way that the storeys of a skyscraper ultimately, when seen from a human scale, allude to imagination.

gerlach en koop

The audience uses the intentions of the works as a reference for their own findings. Through presentation we find the sole evidence of whether our intentions are visible to The Other. A text and a title offer metaphysical foundations. However, this relationship only works when the work and the written correspond. ‘Theory without practice is sterile. Practice without theory is futile,’ someone once said. I believe in tactile theory; concept must be implicit within the full picture, and not just within the A4 placed beside it. Tangible.

An exhibition touches on many matters; an explicit placing, a forceful conglomeration of works, or the meaning of silence, the experience of seeing, the logic of poetics, light and space, contextual theory, the passing of time in multimedia, but also the duration of time within motionless sculpture… In fact, and this is the beauty of it, every good exhibition includes a relevant thought on the presentation and placing of an artwork. But also: the invisible, the intangible, the non-existent, and the subdued. It can rouse an emotional response. We all seem to be afraid of this, but in fact, it’s the most beautiful of all: the emotion that is stirred within the symbiosis of theory and practice. The right thought in the right place.

There are few general statements to be made about fine art, except that her immense power is likewise her weakness. Within the contradictions that make her lies her fragility. It stands, hangs, or simply exists. Irreproducible. That’s why art has a harder time drawing a large public than cinema or music. But in essence, I find silence and inertness the greatest qualities of fine art. Dead, worthless material that can suddenly strike a chord within one person, which can explode with energy, life, and magic and incite an endless hunger for thinking and feeling. This is art’s immanent tour de fource. As soon as the newly enlightened viewer moves on, the material reverts back to lifelessness. For this reason, art needs protection. Protection that can be found in a well-constructed exhibition.

In the novel ‘The House of Leaves,’ by Mark Danielewski, a family moves to a new house. Along the way, they discover that the interior of the house is far larger than the outside. The interior keeps expanding endlessly, as though mutating, while the outside remains the same. I often think of this when I exit a good exhibition and look at the building from outside. Inside, I made a journey through dozens of hallways, rooms, colours, and ideas. The solidarity of the physical space has collapsed, but it brings new mechanisms of perception.

Thinking about how to present art is relatively new. Of course, medieval painters knew what they were doing when they painted allegoric images above the cathedral altar, but the very conscious placing of artworks as an intrinsic ensemble in a space, or the idea that art is only ‘temporary,’ are ways of thinking that have only been around since the 1950’s with the rise of the Situationists. They were the first artists that came together to reflect on concepts such as urban planning and the vague distinction between art, life, and participation. They deconstructed the society of the spectacle and introduced terms such as psycho-geography. Art became a tool with which to understand the world, and art could be anything: a newspaper or a distorted radio broadcast.

A new light was shed on culture in general, and most pertinently on the classic exhibition, because for the first time, the context of a work was given a defining importance. It was no longer just a thing in a chamber, but a means to view and alter the world. It’s these revelations and all that came as a reaction to them, that we work with and have to reinvent. Research and Destroy. From the first mega exhibitions and curators like Harald Szeeman, to where we are now; an ever expanding field where art is no longer merely something, but also somewhere.

Antwerp, December 2011

The quotes were chosen from the following books;

  1. David Foster Wallace, lectures
  2. Henri David Thoreau, ‘Walden’
  3. Mark Z. Danielewski, ‘The House of Leaves’, Pantheon Books, 2000
The footnote (*A) is a drawing

‘Art is by the Alone for the Alone’