241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

It is quite a recent thought that there is an objective distinction between the visible and the invisible. Whether one were to assert either that invisible things do not exist or that there is more between heaven and earth than can be perceived with the senses, in both cases it is presupposed that the visible has a certain objective limit behind which there either is or isn't something. Like in so many other areas, when it comes to the boundaries of sense perception most people seem content to hold several contrary beliefs. The general conviction that the world "behind our senses" consists of electromagnetic waves and the smallest of particles (ask around to convince yourself of this) does not prevent them from claiming with emphasis that we should only believe in "that which we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands."

It is relatively simple to ascertain that all our knowledge of the world, including the most advanced natural scientific knowledge, is a product of both our perceptions and actions. The enormous conceptual step that we take in the cradle when we realise that some of the things floating in sight are our own hands, is retaken every time we understand something for the first time- albeit at a much smaller and less awe-inspiring scale. Our belief that the existence of our hands is an objective fact is the product of a very precise fine-tuning between several perceptions and the combining force of the mind. For those who then consider their hands as the ultimate instrument to verify the world's reality (to the extent that it is tangible), it might well be advisable to realise that there has been a moment when their minds composed their own hands from a confusing multitude of impressions.

When my daughter Julia was four years old she found a small compass in a desk drawer; she attached a string to it, wore it like a necklace and looked at it all the time. My father came to visit and complimented her on the beautiful compass. With a dignified air she said: "No grandfather, that is my alarm clock. How silly, this afternoon the shopkeeper also thought it was a compass." I realised that for a four-year-old, for whom hours and cardinal directions are hardly well known quantities, the difference between a compass and an alarm clock is not relevant. They are both round objects with a little clocklike face behind glass. The adult who corrects such a 'mistake' without being willing to explain the concepts of time, the four directions of the wind, magnetism, elasticity etc., has been led astray from the path of pedagogy. (In fact, it is not a correction but instead an innocent compliment.)

For a child, concepts and words are set apart by immeasurably vast blanks in the universe of impressions. On the best television show I know, Achterwerk in de Kast (Buttocks in the Closet), once a boy appeared who explained gloomily: "I find that life becomes increasingly complex: I used to think that the wind just blows, but now it turns out that the wind always blows from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area." This boy is one among many individuals whose personal and adventurous relation to knowledge ends in school. The tragedy consists in the teacher's inability to convey the immensity of he high-pressure to the student, probably because he doesn't sense it either. The term 'high-pressure area' is not introduced at this point to open the door to an endless amount of new observations, but to erect a wall that effectively renders inaccessible the mysterious cause of the wind, of which every child naturally feels the global might.

Air pressure is a phenomenon for which we can educate and refine our observations. Semiconsciously, we perceive the way in which air pressure (and its connectedness to the temperature and humidity of the air) affects our bodily sensations and our general mood. If at school we would be taught, using a combination of theory and practice, how there is a direct correlation between these subtle air pressure differences on the one hand, and the pressure in the higher atmosphere causing wind to gather there amounting to hurricane force, on the other- well, this knowledge would not make us glum or disillusioned.

Our concepts form a network that, in proportion to the intricacy of its meshwork, is able to capture impressions in our consciousness; the rest slips through. But just as much as it is impossible to maintain an impression in the conscious mind without a certain degree of understanding, it is likewise impossible for a word or concept to be remembered if it does not become perceptible in one way or another. If this simple axiom of knowledge is overlooked, it leads to the erratic and depressing notion that our capacity for sense perception, or our thought, or both, are bound by an external limit. Our conceptual network has a horizon, just like our sense perceptions, and the two are interconnected. New impressions can only cling on to the fringe of our already-understood experiences; new concepts can only start off where existing ones had left off. To assert that behind these horizons, there is nothing, is about as short-sighted as the claim that what exists beyond them is the only true reality.

There is a vital connection between the fineness of our conceptual mesh and the precision of our observations. A good car mechanic can tell by the sound of a running engine what the matter is. That is not because he has better ears that the rest of us, but because his profession has provided him with a most distinguished insight in the parts, materials, movements, frictions and potential defects of a car engine. A chef is able to taste which ingredients are used in a certain dish, his "educated taste" consists of the amount of terms that during his career, he has learnt to employ to distinguish between all the nuances picked up by his nose and taste buds. Concepts cut up experience, which had at first instance seemed like a unity. Concepts bring to the surface what had been hidden in the depths of perception. Coarse concepts keep perception imprisoned in dark, dough-like creases, whereas real knowledge unfolds perception to form a great, illuminated plane.

Art can make the experimental treatment of knowledge as practised by children urgent once more. When it comes to art, the aim is not to make something that is 'true' but rather something that looks convincing, which means that we play a cunning game with the regularities of the perceptible that has a twofold effect on the viewer: on the one hand he must be taken in by what he sees; on the other, he must remain continuously aware of the artificiality of the situation. The tension between the surrender to the senses and the feeling of complicity in the game is the liberating and consoling power of art.

In the human consciousness, a rift emerges between the world and ourselves. In our thought, we then mend this split in an ongoing process in which new observations and new names are woven together more and more closely. The liveliness of thought is of importance. Perception and thought, or the process of truth, provide independence and liberty.

Rozemund Uljée kicks off the Studium Generale programme with a lecture on how two great thinkers have defined reality - referring to past ideas that changed the way reality is conceived.

Pierre Huyghe

Part I: Plato’s unchanging realm of the real

The starting point is situated with Plato, the father of modern western philosophy. Firstly, Rozemund will give us an idea of his vision on ‘the real’ and his legacy. Plato can be seen as the first representative of the idea that we can only access ‘the real’ through reason. Plato asked himself how we come to a universal understanding of existence, from all our sensory encounters. Plato makes a distinction between the phenomenal world- perceived with our senses - and the world of ideas.

Furthermore, the latter constitutes the underlying structure of the phenomenal world, and should be seen as the true reality. For him the phenomenal world is not reliable because it is the perception of our senses, and thus fleeting: things that come into existence, then pass away. Plato tells us that whereas with our senses we perceive elements as beautiful, justified and good, it is only through reason that we can have an idea of Beauty, Justice or the Good itself. This should be seen as the explanation of Plato’s negative attitude towards art. Since it is a mere imitation of the realm of ideas, art is a copy of a copy - and thus of secondary value.

Ribbons, Ed Atkins, 2014

Part II: Why art can't do without Nietzsche

Since Nietzsche, the idea of the privileged place of reason in order to find ‘the real’ has been questioned most radically. Nietzsche was a pioneer, who paved the way for the end of a higher world order like Plato’s that informs our reality. Famously declaring ‘God is dead’, it is Nietzsche’s view that there is no such thing as a higher reality and that the reality we live in is the only reality that does exist. He states: ‘To recognize another world is to deny life itself’. This is the reason why Nietzsche is so interested in Nihilism – the realisation that reality doesn’t know a higher meaning and value. In this sense, in constructing a dualist worldview where objective knowledge is possible, Platonism and subsequent philosophies (including Christianity) serve as an antidote to a primal and original form of nihilism in the world – as the despair of meaninglessness of reality. This saying ‘no’ to a higher reality is an important part of what Nietzsche calls a ‘re-evaluation of all values.’

Denying a ‘higher’ reality constitutes a turn toward our physical, material, chaotic and finite world. This results in a situation in which man does not let himself be governed by a reality better than his own, but instead is granted the possibility to create it himself – to create meaning within reality itself. This liberation is regarded by Nietzsche to enable different perspectives with which we can look at the truth.

Nimbus II, 2012, Cloud in room, Berndnaut Smilde

‘’We might think of truth as of a sculpture: by looking at it from only one side, we don’t understand or appreciate the whole sculpture. Only by walking around it and looking at it from all different angles can we properly appreciate it. People like Plato, who offer an access route to reality through Reason, say: “there is only one truth and it must be looked at in this way.” Such an insistence paralyzes our understanding and makes it impossible for us to be free.’’ Nietzsche calls those who do not restrict themselves to only one specific reality perspective the ‘free spirits’ – and these are for him ‘The Artist’.

He says: ‘Art is worth more than truth. Art nothing but art! It is the great means of making life possible, the great seduction of life, the great stimulant to life. Art is the only superior counterpart to the will to life-negation.’

Transcription Afra Marciel

Brahamans and participants to religious ceremonies. Evang. Broedergemeente - Zeist

Born in Suriname and raised in The Netherlands, Haarnack maintains his collection on the sixth floor of a sleek apartment block in the eastern part of the city, overlooking the area that was once the docklands of this city.

Barber Shop. No. 126 Uitgevers Kersten & Co, Paramaribo

It was here that Nahuel Blaton, my fellow Anthropologist in Art, and I were first exposed to the musty scent of thousands of rare books, common publications and mass-produced postcards; a silent lapidarium of all topics Surinamese.

Paramaribo. A Negro Boy. No. 2 3de Serie,. Uitg. Bromet & Co., Paramaribo

However, when Nahuel Blaton and I first visited Haarnack’s bibliophile’s wet dream, it was the fantastic collection of postcards that caught our eye and inspired the direction of our common exhibition. We flipped through a broad spectrum of photographed subjects; plantation mansions, infrastructure, buildings in Paramaribo, cityscapes, Paramaribo’s harbour, churches, seemingly casual street-scenes as well as exotic fruits and agricultural products. The subjects that particularly made an impression on us however were those of people. More often than not, neatly categorised into ethnic and social groups; one came across various tribes of Amerindians (‘Indianen’ in Dutch), Bushland Creoles (then known as ‘Bosne(e)gers’), City Creoles (‘Stadscre(o)olen’), Indians (known as ‘Britsche Indiërs’, ‘Hindo(e)stanen’ or the rather more politically incorrect term of ‘Koelies’), Javanese and Chinese.

Many of the postcards are attributed to and undersigned by one Eugen Klein. Born in Mannheim in 1869, Klein moved to Suriname in the 1890’s to set up a professional photography studio in Paramaribo. For some 30 years, up until his death in 1927 in Paramaribo, he was the most prolific photographer of all things Surinamese with perhaps his most productive period between 1900 and 1905. After 1927, his widow Louisa Schrader and her children continued running the photographic studio on the Domineestraat C35, at the corner of Vaillants square in Paramaribo, up until the Second World War.

Wealthy British Indians: Uitgevers: C. Kersten & Co. Paramaribo

Some of his photographs were commissioned by the primary Evangelical Missionary Society in Suriname; the so-called Hernhutter Mission, named after its first colony, Herrnhut (“unter des Herrn Hut – under the protection of the Lord), located in Saxony, Germany. The Hernhutters had a paradoxical role in the development of Surinamese society. On the one hand, they carried out a doubtlessly benevolent plan of socio-economic advance in the impenetrable interior of Suriname by providing a programme championing education and literacy.

Suriname. Youths. Eigendom Eugen Klein, Paramaribo No. 189 (cancelled 15-12-1911)

On the other, they were also instrumental in the behavioural ‘pacification’ of Suriname’s ‘heathen’ population. This, in the typically religious vein of the period, was coupled with an emphasis on the fight against ‘immoral’ co-habitation, an emphasis on work ethic and a sedentary way of life. Their main business, of course, was that of religious conversion within the various groups of Bushland Creoles and Amerindians. It seems likely that the Hernhutter Mission in Suriname commissioned Klein as part of a political agenda to convince the colonial authorities, as well as benefactors back in Europe, of the success and necessity of their presence.

Raswantia, British Indian in gala. Eigendom van Eugen Klein, Paramaribo No. 175 (cancelled 23-7-1910)

Sifting through literally hundreds of these single or group portraits we realised that what we were looking at was the fragmented imagery of a people before they were to become the nation they are today.

: Suriname.Indian Camp (preparing the Cassave). No. 18 3de Serie. Utg. Bromet & Co. Paramaribo (cancelled 13-1-1902)

With the introduction of the photographic film in 1871, taking pictures became a relatively easy praxis, even in the tropical climate of this Dutch colonial possession. Coupled with the intensification of economic and political interests that led to an ever-higher frequency of Europeans visiting, working and living in the colony, this would ultimately lead to a veritable boom in the postcard industry. Family and friends back in Europe could now receive visual documents of the exotic far-away where their senders resided and worked. Mass-produced and –circulated, these cardboard-mounted images were intended for consumption by a white, urban bourgeoisie back in the Motherland.

Suriname. Hindu Priests. Uitgave Zendingsgen. der Evang. Broedergemeente – Zeist

No subject was more popular than that of the exoticised and eroticised peoples that inhabited the distant crown dominions. These, incidentally, are at the same time the most ethically problematic of subjects. For in the practice of photographing these people, one inevitably stumbles across a kind of subjugation, exemplified by both the poses of the subjects, as well as the redundancy of the captions that inscribe them.

“Four generations of Indian women”, “Chinese man with his Creole wife”, “Coolie in Paramaribo”, “Group of Bush Negroes”, “Creole Beauty”, All individuality is negated in these captioned postcards and all individuals are relegated to remain mere examples of their respective ethnic categories.

The backdrops, often with hints of lush verdant foliage, seem to imply an original environment of virgin purity and, implicitly, the primitivism of the ethnic subjects. The artefacts that they wear and grasp – including calabashes, bows, arrows and feathers – are of such formulaic appeal that one would be surprised indeed if these were not staged by the photographer.

Bok Lokrodimedjo (from Java). Eigendom Eugen Klein, Paramaribo No. 185

The strength of these postcards may lie in the sense of estrangement that his portraits evoke. A sense of estrangement that lies somewhere in between the distinct past that the images evoke, with the paradoxical realisation, that this distant past is, in fact, uncomfortably near. These visual documents of bewildering clarity and from a not-so-distant past attest to the photographic praxis of production, circulation and consumption that rendered huge segments of the global population into mere objectified ethnographic exhibits.

In the context of our contemporary, politically correct society of polite moral indignation for a past that is, quite frankly, our legacy, these photographic proofs disturb and embarrass us, and rightly so. We continue to deal with the vestiges of this uncomfortable past in public discourse and the individual level even today. Moreover, lest we let our guard down, we might still be judged as complicit in the consumption of imagery that underlie global politics of exploitation and subjugation by future generations.
Suriname. Three sturdy boys! Typen uit het Boschland. Uitgevers: C. Kersten & Co. Paramaribo (cancelled 8-5-1928)

So, let us be thankful that amongst us, there exist those individuals and institutions that are dedicated to the preservation of material from former colonies, different mores and bygone times. I invite all to subscribe to Buku’s blog on books and other ecclectica. Mr Haarnack’s enthusiasm for all matter Surinamese and published will prove to be as infectious as it is to us, Anthropologists in Art.

Visit: www.buku.nl

'Erstarrte Unruhe' publication
age from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
'Erstarrte Unruhe' publication

Besides stencilling, Özlem Altin mainly uses the copy machine to make her booklets, which occupy a middle ground between Zines and artist’s publications. In issues such as The Primitive Mentality and Zig Zag Lady, existing reproductions are freely reproduced – from wondrous photos and drawings out of various illustrated books on primitive art and art of the mentally ill, to illustrations from anthropological or biological treatises. These images are intuitively juxtaposed to create surprising visual contrasts. Any new meanings that emerge as a result are open to the viewer’s interpretation. The booklets that Altin produces frequently (making them is like breathing to her) appear in very small editions (approx. 80-150) and are sold for little more than the cost to make them. What is important is that they exist, not that they are lucrative.

'Erstarrte Unruhe' publication
Özlem Altin, 'Survival of an Idea'
Image from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
Image from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
age from 'Geometrisches Porträt'
Image from 'Geometrisches Porträt'

Özlem Altin


I have an early childhood memory of receiving a postcard from my neighbours who were on vacation in Limburg. On the left part of the card “KR Brinkman Fam.” was written. I wondered with surprise why they’d only leave an abbreviation when there was still so much white space left on the card. Despite that enormous vaccuum, I remember my mother being very pleased with this postal greeting.

This is the essence of a postcard; it’s a gesture of presence. The postcard can contain a message that's nearly empty, that does little more than communicate the sender’s message: “I’m here” or “I’m thinking of you”.

Since college, I’ve been steadily building my collection of postcards. All in all, I have around three shoeboxes full of them. There’s no real underlying theme. There are the prototypical “happy birthday” cards. On one of these cards, meant for a man’s birthday, is printed a shaving brush, a beer jug, cigars, a miniature car, and a slightly pathetic bouquet. One birthday card for a woman shows a cyclamen, a mixer, a candleholder, a sewing machine, and other assorted household appliances. These are still lifes from the fifties that are becoming increasingly rare.

I have Turkish and Italian cards, countless art cards from the Kröller-Müller, the Prado, and other museums. Since 1993, “Free Boomerang cards” came out on the market. These cards were freely available to be plucked from display stands at cafes. There are some very strong ones among these. For example, one printed with the expression “In a dip?” shows a depressed teenager on a white folding chair in his empty study room. Or a card with a man falling from the skies with the words, “Ever considered aerotherapy?” Boomerang seemed to have a card designed for every idea or mood.

I often look through a pile of cards if I want to change my mood or my mode of thinking. My unwritten postcards are not addressed to anyone, and don’t need to ever be sent to anyone. They are images and ideas in their own right.

The philosopher Jacques Derrida takes this a step further in his book, La Carte Postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà [1]. In the Bodleian library in Oxford, he found a postcard on which Plato and Socrates are depicted. This card fascinated him, because neither the meaning of the card, the image, nor the text on the back correspond to its message. It is a gesture, an impulse, a transmission, or “un envoi,” in French. It takes flight and in that, finds its power. Every letter has certain content; the postcard has no need for that.

Derrida claims that a philosophical text is like a postcard. Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates is always the main character, are some of the most well known texts in the history of philosophy. According to Derrida, they can be seen as a series of postcards that have been sent into history. Derrida wonders how Freud received Plato’s postcards 2500 years later.

There are certain postcards that I would never do away with. An aquarelle in card form by Marlene Dumas from 1989 titled, “On his back”, for example. I bought this card after seeing Dumas’ exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris at the end of 2001. Each time I looked at it, I became calm, as though my son, one year old at the time, was depicted on the card. I’ll always cherish this card for the therapeutic value it had for me.

Choosing a Dumas-in-card-form is no coincidence: she has often told that her work is often based on photographs and images. She sees the interpretion of images towards an intrinsic meaning as a process in which the different elements overlap.

To observe and to give meaning; we cannot help but bring what we see into words. Dumas puts this very succinctly in an interview: “words and images drink from the same cup, and our ears are next to our eyes”. [2]

Apparently, the poet Rutger Kopland has a huge collection of postcards. Among his writings, there are various poems dedicated to musing upon these cards.This one is titled “Choosing a postcard”. [3]:

Choosing a postcard

On the postcard there are a couple of men
playing pétanque below a plane-tree
at their feet the balls they’ve thrown
they’ve stopped the game and ponder
they are standing in a circle, heads bowed
over what is lying there
there’s a problem lying there
never have their balls lain like this
I could keep looking at this card
it’s probably almost night there now, the shadows
have lengthened, the end of a hot day
and while nothing moves there
invisibly slowly a question is growing
the question: what now
I’d really like to send you this card

© Rutger Kopland

© Tranlation: Willem Groenewegen http://www.decontrabas.com/de_contrabas/2009/08/rutger-kopland-75.html