241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

All of our digital media leaves behind traces. But these are hidden traces that are present as invisible abstractions. These traces exist as digital binary structures of code that represent digital pictures, video, texts, three dimensional objects and more.

We leave behind cookies on our computers, we store most of our data in a cloud, but we also leave traces on each device that contains digital memory on its hard disk or flash memory. But these traces are invisible: we cannot perceive them as they are, we cannot perceive them directly.

The code’s structure does not readily yield the subject of what it represents. We can’t even perceive the structure unmediated, because we need a visualisation device. We might be able to directly perceive the physical presence of a small disc or a chip from our digital media device. But in the end the digital empire is only about what it represents: the functionalities, the images, the characters and combinations that form a coded language that, in turn, create the language we are able to understand.

Once I had the problem that I deleted the majority of my pictures, in a state of fatigue, from my hard drive. The first thing I did was google if I could somehow recover this data from my hard disk, despite having deleted it. I learned that a hard disk doesn’t actually physically delete your data, but reassigns the specific space that was used for the data, to be free to be overwritten.

This meant that the data was still there, but that the doors that lead to the used space on my hard disk where the images were housed had a little note on them saying that they were free to be taken up by new data. So, there’s a time between the reassignment of the digital space and the replacement with new data, which is a kind of no man’s land.


We are living in a less direct material world and a more digitalised one, where traces themselves seem to be a disappearing thing. Where we easily replace the old in order to maintain the clean and the new. The moment we throw something away, we also throw its trace away.

Maybe it’s time to become more materialised again. To be attuned to a greater sense of the things around us that we like to touch, feel and smell, in addition to the digital form of matter we indulge ourselves in. This must not be seen as a critique on our contemporary digital information- and imagery systems, but more as an essay to think about the value of the things we can see with our naked eyes, with our bare hands, our open nostrils, and our own ears.

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Mud - mother of all materials? Dirty and unscrutable.
Ceramicists lovingly/jokingly refer to their material as mud and admire both its ability to be formed into an object and likewise to crumble.

“Uit de klei getrokken” (translates from Dutch to: drawn from clay) is an intriguing rudimentary cup and saucer set. The designer, Lonny van Rijswijck, used various sorts of Dutch clay. Thanks to the baking process, variations in colour and texture are made visible. A pale yellow hue from Limburg, a shiny brown from Utrecht, Brabo terra cotta. It’s these differences that, according to the creator, visualise the “impressive but unpretentious similarities between origin and identity”

As an artistic concept it’s exceptionally effective. In terms of functionality and form it’s not quite as successful. In other words, the concept materialised through tableware raises a legion of issues. Not in the least by its material.

Set, Lonny van Rijswijck

A cultural and historical interpretation:
In Items 1993/2 I asked Benno Premsela, authority on design, about possible reasons for the – at that time – undervaluation of Dutch designers. Premsela had already given up hope. How could this country of “redistributors of sand and mud” match themselves to countries like Italy and Finland? Needless disdain! Clay is derived from mud that despite it’s simple image, might be the mother of all materials.

Outside of Europe, mud also has its uses: like in the bogolans, clay paintings from Mali, where imposing structures are built using clay. During Mali’s celebration of its independence in 1960, the need arised to swiftly produce festive clothing. The Malinese rediscovered the bogolon techiniqque with which mud was used to print patterns in deep black onto fabric. As a result, yearly competitions were held to determine which region made the most exquisite bogolan. In the seventies, Malinese artists and fashion designers began to seriously apply bogolan. Besides deep black, brilliant white prints were made.

Chris Seydou Mud Decoration Dress
The fashion designer Chris Seydou presented his winter collection in Paris in 1979 with bogolan shawls and headwear in Keith Haring-like motifs. The Nigerian fashion designer Alphadi broadened the bogolan spectrum with blue, green , and even pink. By the time Seydou died in 1994, bogolan had achieved the same status in Mali as batik had in Indonesia.
Chen Zhen, World in out of the World, 1991
Back to the source, mud. For his installations, the French-Chinese artist Chen Zhen (1955-2000) covered rubbish with a layer of mud. By covering these objects from our world of the disposable, Chen removes all technological glamour and in turn, deculturalises them. The mud erases the purpose of the objects and allows them to return, purified, to their origin in , to their heart and soul.

“I don’t care it’s muddy there/it is my house [...] My heart cries out for muddy water.” – Bessie Smith

Muddy Water

Bessie Smith and her Blue Boys, Muddy Water, A Mississippi Moan Parlophone 78

Giotto’s painting is praised for many different reasons. For its simplicity and realism, its clear narratives and compositions, its imaginative landscapes and architectures, its drama and use of colour. One of the Giotto’s most interesting innovations was his use of the isocephaly, or “levelled heads”: grouping figures on a horizontal plane, on level ground.

Giotto makes ingenious use of the isocephaly in his masterpiece, the murals at the Arena chapel of Padua.

In his monumental rendition of the Last Judgement, Giotto expands dimensions both horizontally and vertically. It’s plausible since the scene doesn’t take place on earth but in the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, he needed to find a solution for arranging the halos around the choirs of saints and angels.

The Assumption of Mary in Berlin shows an interesting take on the isocephaly. The play between head and halo of partial overlap and complete visibility are taken to extremes.

Once fascinated by Giotto’s isocephaly, more and more details will start standing out. Like how within a large group, the exception sets the rule, by the individual figure looking backwards at someone standing behind him. Or the variation in how the crowns of heads arise above the halos in front of them. Or how subtle variations break the monotony of the group.

Giotto’s isocephaly is addictive. Gitto or Cimabue, painting or photography, football team or choir, you can’t stop looking. Once you’ve acquired an eye for it, the arrangement of the figures goes from being secondary to the most important aspect of his work.

Giotto, The Last Judgment, Arena Kapel, Padua
Giotto, The passing away of Maria, Berlin
There is so much that asks for your attention in the ordinary, everyday life: the shopping lists that have been left in the grocery cart, little papers you find on the street or in the library, notes that have been left in books. I take them with me and collect them for a while, but then I discover a new fascination and the folder with, for example, ‘found items’ is somewhat deserted in my archive. Artists often have better focus and keep collecting to the very end of what might be a beautiful booklet. Artist Kris Harzinski published a paperback titled From Here to There.
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To prepare his moving to another house, he had started to tidy thoroughly. In one of his stacks of old papers he found a number of maps that people had drawn for him to explain a route or situation. This was the beginning of an archive for maps drawn by hand and the foundation of HDMA, the Hand Drawn Map Association. This collection can be found on www.handmaps.org. A little sketch to show someone the way or to describe a situation mostly shows how incomplete our experience is of the map on which we all move around. During the Venice Biennale I and four others lodged in a wonderful old apartment for a week. On the way back, one of my fellow travelers asked the others to draw a map of it. Which was difficult, for how did that corridor, kitchen and all those rooms fit together again? Five entirely different houses were scribbled onto paper. Giving good directions is often an equally impossible task; you can walk the route without flinching, as if your body intuitively knows the route, but to give a precise description by heart is another matter completely.
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Kris Harzinski has collected all these attempts and expanded the series with broader criteria, such as maps that are hand-drawn by artists as official art. The categories are: direction maps, found maps, fictional maps, artful maps, maps of unusual places and explanatory maps. Unusual places contains the drawing by Marilyn Murphy, on which she indicates precisely in which places she is given the injections that are necessary for her arthritis. Harriette Hacker made a map of her face from which all the traces of the past can be read: the chickenpox, the scar from a nasty fall and a single beauty mark.

From Here to There is a beautiful paperback with a small text to accompany each map. However, the small size of the book takes its toll on legibility. Many drawings disappear in the centrefold or are simply too small for all the information. Which is a bit of a shame, because such maps make you want to go through them and sort them out thoroughly.

Everyone can send his or her hand-drawn map to www.handmaps.org.
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People often think that science strives for truth, but this isn’t always the case. We’re usually searching for the answers to concrete questions, and these answers often find their form through models.

A good example of this is the tube map. The tube map is a complex system consisting of grids and lines. It is, first and foremost, a depiction of the system as it is.

In the 1930s, the underground became increasingly complex. People don’t handle complexity well, they prefer things simple. Harry Beck redesigned the tube map so that it was no longer based on geographical distance but on where to change trains. Instead of representing reality, the map caters to the needs of its user.

Models are developed, and questions are answered by creating models. The function of a model is that it attempts to understand in order to answer a question or purpose.