241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Every product in Euroland costs one euro. The countries that don’t carry the euro have similar stores like the Pound Store or the 99c Store where everything costs a pound or a dollar. While travelling through foreign lands, I’m always on the lookout for these stores. There’s always one. More than the touristic highlights, the cathedrals, or museums, I visit Euroland. I’ll easily skip a gallery, but I’ll never pass up a so-called junk store. Because although these stores are the same everywhere, they always carry different merchandise. Each country imports its own range of cheap crap.

Plastic ringen van Euroland

Photo by Dirk Vis

Many of the products have a second layer in addition to their direct function. A pistol is likewise a dolphin, a penholder also makes noise, a globe also serves as a stress ball, and so on. It’s this second layer that makes them so fascinating. And it’s the reason why, regardless of whether you use them, are special. As if that second layer is an excuse for their cheap appearance. I collect second layers. Their second layers bewilder, they’re silent witnesses of a world that could have been different. I like to imagine a world in which these strange products are the every day norm, where all pistols really are dolphins. And pink. Or where all penholders speak.

They’re sold in mass quantities. They’re made to earn money. For the makers, there is no ulterior goal (no urgency, no sanctity, etcetera.) These products are common objects without much consequence. In that sense, they’re the exact opposite of what economics terms the black swan: an unlikely occurrence with great consequence.

But just as in folk art and folklore, they find themselves relating to the mysterious directly and without pretension. They’re the least mysterious objects imaginable: stress ball, ruler, notebook; and yet it’s astonishing how strange they are. Why a stress ball in the shape of a globe? Accidentally, they often speak in beautiful terms. Like the butterfly that spins thanks to solar energy: the mechanics that drive the butterfly are bigger than the butterfly itself.

For a euro, you can own something that’s been envisioned, sketched, designed, assembled, shipped, packaged, and arranged. While they’re every day objects, they’re also completely absurd (a combination that could make the best absurdist jealous.) I often take one-euro objects home to use as artefacts in short stories. Without a doubt, they’re just as effective as inspiration for animations, design furniture, comic books, pieces of music; the list goes on.

Recently, I’ve been examining these objects ever more closely. With the advent of 3D printing, we’ll probably be able to print these objects ourselves in the near future. Of course, the euro shops won’t stop existing, but will their products remain as inventive, fantastical, and surprising? It’s for this reason that I collect them, a collection which is turning into a swan song for the euro products. Because it’s hard to imagine, and it surely isn’t a problem, but they eventually will disappear.

On the 25th of September 2010, artist Jeroen Werner turned fifty. Hester Alberdingk Thijm came up with a mirror dinner party; his work as an artist is often about reflection and mirroring. The table was covered with reflecting foil with a hologram effect, and on it stood many old glass items from AkzoNobel’s laboratories. Some of these lab bottles were filled with water coloured with ecoline ink. There were hundreds of silver-coloured tea lights, silver-coloured balloons, and a chandelier that all children had helped to build.

The favourite items from the birthday boy, ranging from wooden spoons to brushes, were given a silver-colour spray coating. The names of the guests were written on concave mirrors. The guests, too, were dressed in reflectors, so that everyone mirrored one another.
There was dancing and singing and everybody stayed over for the night.

a man made of cheese and ashes
Little 'Assmann' burning

There is a particular and usually unmistakable characteristic that certain objects, clothes, dishes, tools, and even words have in common: being self-made.

Alone or with others, one has decided to cast so much attention to a self-made thing so it forms a closer relationship to it’s maker than any other found, bought, or given object will. (Similairly, a self-formulated thought, formed with the same sort of attention, will take a more permanent hold in your head than a thought read and borrowed.) The French philosopher Bachelard touches upon this in his “Poetics of Space”: objects that are cherished achieve a higher degree of reality than objects that leave one indifferent.1 Self-made things are especially easy to cherish. They represent the loving attention of the mind and hands. That which leaves you cold does not exist. That which you cherish remains.

The amount of attention directed to a work determines value: a self-made photograph is dearer to you than a photograph you stumble upon in a book, despite the fact that, objectively seen, it’s a better photograph. For that same reason, a fire burning in the hearth is so very pleasing, because it requires more than just an automatic turn of a knob to heat the room.

Without going so far as to sat that reality is “fluid,” we cannot deny that how we experience reality is malleable, and thus, fluid. By making something by yourself, whatever this may be, you are forging a connection to it. This natural attachment can serve as a compass in a world that is mostly industrialised and anonymous. A person can easily lose contact with himself when their wardrobe, household items, and vocabulary are completely interchangeable and in favour of fashion, because self-made individuality is our anchor in the world. Those who cannot choose are without anchor. One’s soul can be reflected within material. (Or is the individuality mentioned in fact merely a step towards the state of the truly wise, who go out to sea without an anchor, and maybe even without a ship?)

Compared to the endless ocean of the universe that surrounds us, even art is too small. Regardless, artists self-make with all their might, resulting in little islands. Joost Conijn (1971) for example, made his own wooden car fuelled by wood, and even flew his third self-made airplane to Africa. Iona Hoogenberk (1982, writer of this article) built a house by herself, small but real, existing for one night, only to break it down brick by brick, tile by tile, with the same attention as directed towards the construction of it. It was a sweet house, self-made and self-deconstructed. The unique combination of imperfections attributable to the self-made cannot be bought, and is charming. The self-made stool is comfortable, despite the crooked light; the apple pie is delicious, even if it’s undercooked. That which is not interchangeable becomes a part of you.

Like so many other things, the own experience here is the most important thing—and to gage subjective quality the degree of self-madeness is the best indicator.

1Bachelard, Gaston, The poetics of Space, The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places, Boston (Mass): Beacon Press 1994 (1958), p. 68.

We live in a time where perfection is king. Our computers exist to help make everything they process perfect, even the cameras on our phones record the lightest light and the darkest dark. And if something isn’t perfect we have numerous tools to touch things up and make them perfect.

For these reasons, I’m interested in ‘imperfections’ and the quality of making mistakes. It sounds strange, but if everything is perfect, there is no creativity anymore. New ideas spring from failures or mistakes. These errors can change previous perceptions and open up new ways of looking at things, thus making the mistake something to strive for.

Failures and inspiration from mistakes can be found pretty much everywhere. Just by walking down the street and keeping an eye open often works. The most funny and ridiculous mistakes are often made in constructions or road works. A classic is the letters STOP stencilled on the road. There are numerous examples where road workers did not really get the idea of how to do it. It’s remarkable how many mistakes one can make with this four-letter word.

Another classic mistake, but more rare, is to find things that can go wrong in constructing a balcony. How can you build a balcony when the door isn’t yet ready? Or how about having a lovely balcony, the only problem is that it’s built right above a train track.

Frequently these construction mistakes involve toilets. A bathroom is usually a small space to construct, so a mistake is often quickly made. There’s for instance the difficulty of a toilet door opening so the inside can be a problem. The only solution here is to carve a piece out of the door, so it won’t bump into the toilet seat. Things get even funnier when the toilet seat and cover are constructed in the wrong order. You feel the confusion and desperation of someone confronted with this situation.

André Thijssen,Grünau, Namibia 2000

Often there’s no need to go out looking for these mistakes yourself. There are hundreds of people online, all on the hunt, photographing and sharing these errors. The ones that I find the most myself are situations with trees. A tree is a big thing that is difficult to move from its place. This can be a problem. Especially when this tree is standing exactly in front of a parking spot. In this way it’s totally impossible to enter the parking spot, even though the parking spot is inviting you by the letter P standing on a sign. In the same category you find a tree standing in the middle of a cycling path or staircases.

An artist and photographer who has a brilliant eye for mistakes is André Thijssen. For many years he searches all over the world for images that are slightly off. The only images he’s interested in are the ones that show something not natural in a natural environment. The classic example is a car parked with his wheels right in front of two concrete balls on the pavement. The balls make the new wheels of the car.

André Thijssen, New York City, USA 2002

Maybe the best example I found representing mistakes is an album of an American family fighting against the biggest mystery in photography: How to shoot my black dog? They failed all their lives to document their dog and as a result of that, the dog appeared as a black shadow on every image.

A black phantom in front of their house, on their sofa, in the garden and on their bed. In the end the family got really frustrated and started to over-expose the images. As a result of which there’s one image where you can see the dog. Finally.

Making and finding mistakes is something to wake up for, it’s shines a light on the difficulties in a creative process. By looking at them and embracing them you will end making unexpected and wonderful discoveries.

Long live the Mistake!