241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Chris Johansen

What do artists read? The following artists share their favourite books.

Chris Johanson
I don't have a favourite book but I do read.

Annette Messager
The dictionary.

Alexandra Leykauf
This is impossible to answer… but let's say Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.

Ken Lum

Ken Lum
My favorite book is a children’s book that I actually reread a few years ago when I bought it again to read parts to my youngest niece: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Marcel van Eeden
Gerrit Achterberg, Ode aan Den Haag, De ballade van de gasfitter, Spel van de wilde jacht.

Annette Messager

Marlene Dumas
The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

Gabriel Lester
Boris Vian, J 'irai cracher sur vos tombes (Ik zal op jullie graf spugen/I Shall Spit on Your Graves).

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth

Kimberley Clark
How to Make Love Like a Pornostar by Jenna Jameson.

Alicia Framis
La Dislocation, Benoit Goetz.

Marcel van Eeden

Jamy Shovlinn
Everything from Georges Perec.

Amalia Pica
The Order of Things, Michel Foucault and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano.

Amalia Pica

Christian Holstad
The telephone book.

David Shrigley
The dictionary, it is the one I keep going back to.

Ryan Gander
The Adventures of the Black Hand Gang by Hans Jurgen Press.

David Shrigley

The following texts result from Nabokov's teachings at universities around the USA:

Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

  1. The reader should belong to a book club.
  2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
  3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
  4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
  5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
  6. The reader should be a budding author.
  7. The reader should have imagination.
  8. The reader should have memory.
  9. The reader should have a dictionary.
  10. The reader should have some artistic sense.
Scene from Nabokov's Lolita

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.

Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development.

Nakobov in 1919

The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement.

A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

‘I can’t make art, is this an illness?’ is the first question Trudy Dehue asks her audience. As a philosopher and sociologist of science, she specialises in our concept of truth and what reality means within the field of science. At first sight, the question and its conclusion might appear a bit strange, but through her lecture we come to understand that these strange conclusions are normal in today’s society.

Scientific research is much more a matter of shaping reality than of discovering it. By this, Dehue refers to technology and classifications as the main transformers of our perception of reality. Technology allows us to experience the world differently. For example: before the invention of light, parties as we now know them wouldn’t exist. For the simple reason that without light, it is impossible to ‘go out’. In this case, technology changes our perception of reality since we can now experience the night with the help of artificial light.

As said before, classification also plays a big role in our perception of reality. When we look at ‘homosexuality’ we can ask ourselves if homosexuality has always existed. According to Trudy Duhue, the answer is no, for the simple reason that in ancient times, homosexuality was a common phenomena that remained unnamed. It wasn’t until Saint

Saint Augustine (354-430) that same sex relationships were identified as sin.

The first DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), published in 1952, describes ‘homosexuality’ as a disease. This is the first occurrence of this terminology, and it is since then that we name persons that fall for the same gender ‘homosexual’. The reason why people agreed with this definition at the time was that - before this publication of the DSM - being gay was seen as something negative. And if the other option is to be defined as being ‘bad’, most people prefer to be termed as ill. The weird thing is that, although we are far more tolerant now, we still use the DSM definition—in essence the description of a disease. This all has to do with the fact that we have an urge to conform to society.

Harvard Psychological Laboratory Display. Circa 1892.

A next slide shows us a rat with the title: ‘’How to test depression pills?’’ Trudy tells us that scientific research for medicines for depression are done with rats. Generation after generation, the rats are put in boxes with a trap. The rat hangs by its tail and it has to find a way to free itself. When the mouse –test after test– frees itself it is seen as ‘not depressed’. But when the mouse gives up the effort to free itself, it is seen as ‘depressed’. Trudy tries to tell us that we should be more aware of conclusions that are drawn by the medical world. The rats are a great example to show how ridiculous and absurd our notion of ‘depressed’ is and that scientific research is – as said before – much more a matter of shaping reality than of discovering it.

Walking past a traffic light in Larkhall reveals a hatred for green. While in other cities the red light would turn to green, in Larkhall it changes to clear when the cars rush off. There is no option for green since the lights have been smashed. Again.

The first time I was confronted with this – most likely – urban myth I was shocked. But a little research reveals that everything in the city is about blue and the hatred of green. Hatred is revealed itself in many common phenomena, and in Larkhall it’s green that provokes so much revolt. The city of Larkhall is situated close to Glasgow. It is the only city where the sandwich chain Subway doesn’t have a green front but a black one, where the pharmacy doesn’t have the usual green sign and the fences are blue. Not to forget that they “pish” on the grass due to it’s green colour.

So from where does this hate actually originate? The main reason lies in football. When the blue protestant football club ‘The Glasgow Rangers’ play against the green catholic club ‘Celtic’ – ‘The Old Firm’ - riots always ensue. It’s the moment where hooligans fight against the green in Larkhall and traffic lights get smashed.

The Glasglow Rangers in revolt!

I managed to get in touch with a ‘wee’ Scottish woman that used to work as an english teacher in Larkhall. When asked, she told me that everything in this town revolves around sectarianism. When students find out your Celtic preference they often are outraged and sometimes even throw chairs at you. However, that’s not the worse thing that can happen. A fellow colleague was evenstabbed because of this sectarianism. No wonder there is a uniform fear within the town, with companies also following the colour preferences and attempt to eradicate green, possibly in fear of being stabbed.

There came a day when someone decided that an end should come to the many unanswered questions in the world. This person opened an office with visitation hours, just like a city hall or the post office. You’d draw a number, and once it was your turn, you’d walk up to the counter and ask the employee your most pertinent question. With an answer in hand, you’d walk out the door feeling satisfied.

I wish it existed. Only I wouldn’t know which question I’d ask first, because I have so many: where does the light go when I turn off the switch? What came before the big bang? Where is the end of the universe? Is there a God? What is infinity? Do invisible things exist? And if that wasn’t enough, the answers to these questions would most likely prompt even more questions.

I’m in Berlin, standing in front of the doors to the institute for “unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems”. The building is on a corner and covered in white sandstone and tall mirrored windows in metal frames. “Denkerei” is written in pink letters above the front door. At first glance, the building is more reminiscent of a bank office or a fancy, but dated, hotel. To the left and the right of the door, the windows are covered in sentences such as:

-Thinker at your service

-Institute for theoretical art, universal poetry and outlook

-General secretariat for accuracy and for the soul

Everyone is welcome to enter the Denkerei and to present his or her question to its staff. I imagine that this employee then pulls a thick tome out of a heavy safe, leafs through and recites the answer, with a finger all the while pointing at the sentence at hand. But no, that’s not how it works. The Denkerei is no oracle, no storehouse of answers. This is where scientists, artists, politicians and writers come to think, reason, and discuss.

I try to open the front door. At first, it refuses to budge. It’s only when I lean against it with my entire weight that it opens. I step inside. The door swings shut. Street noises are far behind me. Is there a connection between the heaviness of a door and the weight of a place?

I find myself in a grand space, standing on a gleaming wooden floor that stretches over the entire surface of the building. Smooth white walls, a thin table occupied by a gigantic floral arrangement, chairs lined up on an empty stage, but also a sitting corner, and a bar above which lamps bearing the Denkerei logo emit a soft red light. Artworks are hung on the walls: painted panels that portray an intriguing play on perspective. This space is a cross between a waiting room, a gallery, and a hotel lobby.

At the table, a man sits behind a stack of newspapers. I recognise his face from the presentations I’ve seen on Youtube. It’s Bazon Brock: artist, dramatist, professor of aesthetics, and founder of the Denkerei. Through Wikipedia I found that he presents lectures while standing on his head and that he temporarily lived inside of a glass display case, but luckily now he’s simply sitting on a chair at a table.

“Anyone can walk in and ask a question”, Brock explains. If the question is interesting enough, the Denkerei will hold a symposium for it. Thinkers from different disciplines such as biology, geology, philosophy and medicine, but also from literature and the arts come together in order to explore the question and to utilise knowledge from these many different areas. All the while, thinking itself is sharpened. “Poets teach scientists how to think, and scientists teach poets how to ask questions”, Brock tells me. This doesn’t lead to ready-made answers: questions stay unanswered, even after a whole symposium is dedicated to it.

The Denkerei does not intend to find an answer, a quick fix nor a solution. The act of thinking is the main goal, which is not as simple as it may seem. “Learning to ask the right questions is essential” says Brock. You need to know which questions you’re asking and how to formulate them. We don’t learn this at school. Instead, we learn how to produce answers, which means that we often forget the nature of the questions that precede them.

In other words, the Denkerei does not supply answers nor does it bandage brooding brains. There is no intention to placate, like a visit to the doctor might: even though you might still feel ill or be in pain, you’ll feel better knowing you’re carrying an illegible prescription in your bag. A formulaic salvation that will rid you of your illness or pain, an answer to your question so that you’ll need not think further.

The Denkerei is far removed from anything of the sort. After twenty minutes of questioning Bazon Brock, I’ll leave this place with at least as many new questions.

“If you can formulate a good question, you’ll understand that an answer is also a question. An answer is a question in a different form.” After Brock has spoken this last sentence, he leads me to the door. Through the window I can see that despite the falling rain, the sun is shining.

Maybe questions exist precisely because there are answers.

Dorien de Wit's visit to the Denkerei in Berlin is part of her research into bringing art, science, and society closer to one another. This research was made possible through funding by the Amsterdam Foundation for the Arts (Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst).