241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

We hadn’t even finished our desserts when he asked it. It was a question that seemed to have come out of thin air. I couldn’t believe that this sentence rolled from his lips like any other sentence. I didn’t know what to reply. Instead, I posed my date the same question. ‘What is your top three of favourite animals?’ Without hesitation, he summed up his favourite animals. For me, it was clear. There would not be a second date.

Even though the proverbial spark between the man in question and I didn’t occur, he continued to resurface in my mind now and then because of this peculiar question. I was bothered that he so readily answered this question to which I had no reply. I started to bother others with the same question. Many reacted like I did, in exactly the same order: first surprise, then disbelief, and at last frustration because of their inability to answer. Do none of us have favourite animals in life?

Even if I look at it more generally, I hardly have favourites. No favourite band, colour, food or film. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I go through a phase of immense appreciation for a dish or musician, but for a while now I have been very careful in using the word ‘favourite’ in this context. The realisation that my preferences are temporary prevails.

The whole idea of a favourite seems to have disappeared out of sight. The word ‘disappeared’ is not randomly chosen, because as a child I seemed to know exactly what I found cool and what I found dumb. Exactly.

How could it be that I was formerly so apt at listing my top faves and am now so hesitant to call something ‘my favourite’? This probably has to do with the limited information that you have at your disposal as a kid, in comparison to what you learn and know about later in life. As a child, the world seems to be encompassed within everything you know – your reality is the only reality. At a young age, you’re unaware of the limitations of your knowledge. Precisely the limited knowledge and information enable everything that you know to be simply divided into good or bad. The world is still black and white. As you get older, newer colours are added. Knowledge is accumulated and slowly you learn that there are countless elements in the world that are preferred or despised. There is so much information available that it is hard to distil favourites. Moreover, you find out that preferences also change quickly.

Maybe I should not have written my date off as a weirdo, but seen him as someone who is closer to his inner child than I am.

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.

As entries, strike-throughs, spelling mistakes, re-entries, question marks, lists within lists, bullet-points, dashes, personalised bullet-points, squares, asterisks, circled entries, bold entries, ambitious entries and already-done entries are scattered across the page, the mind moves quicker than the pen to create this masterpiece in its initial form. Margins, the bottom of the list or the space in between the lines are an opportunity to add information that could not keep up with the mind or that were simply forgotten. At times, these secondary entries will appear in a different colour where an alternative writing tool has had to be used.

The creator of a list has no intention to design their thoughts but merely to order them visually in tangible form. The back of a card, an old envelope, some scrap paper, a notebook, a smart phone, a saved email draft, a train ticket or a post-it note provide the canvas for this mind montage to be drawn out.

The activity of list-making is both common to all yet entirely individualistic.There is a sense of urgency attached to something that is created on-the-go or in between activities and maybe it is the extent of this pressure that when making a list, normal writing conventions are ignored. Baselines are misused, words are written across them rather than on them; the ascenders on letters become muted; the descenders have added flamboyancy and the margins are no longer a no-go area for words but a place to fill with words, additional thoughts, numbers, sketches and question marks.

In a moment’s pause, a second thought is given to putting these thoughts into better order or form, perhaps in order of priority or alphabetically.This can be done at a later date. Sometimes, a complete re-draft of the list might be necessary. If it is a list of that type it can be prepared to make sense to others. It is at this point a design element might be added: colour coding, font selection, margin widths and line lengths.

There is an unspoken hierarchy to the various forms of lists that surround us in our daily lives.Train times, shopping lists, gift lists, hate lists, wish lists, to-do lists, today’s food specials, contents pages, registers, stock lists, missing lists, menus and guest lists. The different forms of lists are matched and paired with a tried and tested format. Registers are done alphabetically; shopping lists by memory, train times chronologically etc.

When a list finds itself in the hands of someone other than its author, different aspects of it might be scrutinised. The graphologist looks at the space between the lines and the curves or flicks of the letters, the size of the capital letters, the margins around the texts and the slant of the handwriting. The artist dreams up the story that precedes the list and what might follow. The curious looks around to find its owner. And others disregard it.

When an individual has shown extraordinary qualities or talents, the contents of a list they have made might become valuable to others. The lives of great scientists, musicians, actors, writers or designers are retraced and dissected by making their diaries or notebooks public. Whilst the content of their home is on show so is the content of their minds. Private information, messily scrawled across the page with changes and errors, supposedly give insight into a frame of mind. A laundry list suddenly reveals secrets of their lifestyle, an unseen side to their character.

Michelangelo's menu list

This information, analysis, format, or story is irrelevant to the author; the content is what is of interest to them. Their document is plagued with encryptions of coding, different methods of ‘crossing off’, ticks, strike-throughs and circles around ticks. Only some entries have numbers, where clearly an attempt at prioritising has been made. Some have dates next to them, for deadlines and finales, giving an added importance, a ticking reminder. These juxtapositions need not make sense to others.

Having been created, a list triumphantly sits at the top of important papers. It is versatile and can be used as a bookmark, a coaster or a space to sketch; it is embellished with important things, mustn’t forgets and mental notes. It ages well. Every mark on this creation is part of its existence. Folds in the page create creases across the unused printed lines; they battle with the thoughts sprawled across them. A new dimension is added to the form where the author has rolled the corners back and forth between their fingers.

A list by Charles Darwin

At the height of its usability, the list holds authority over its creator; unchecked items glare at you and make you feel guilty for the things you have not yet accomplished. A mutual resistance grows and other lists arise. Before the list has peaked it finds itself at the bottom of a bag, on a supermarket floor, wedged in a shopping basket, slotted in the corner of a sofa stuck to some crumbs, at the end of a book that was being read, in the shredder, at the back of another list, propping up a table, underneath a doodle, fallen on the pavement or sitting helplessly in the recycling bin, sitting next to the envelope that wasn’t chosen and another list that has efficient strikes through most entries.

On the off chance that a list may be revisited or found again by its creator, they might experience the sense of satisfaction that comes with being able to cross off multiple items from the list. The single action of drawing a line, or the flicking of a tick enhances the achievement of completion.

Video still from Théâtre de poche by Aurélien Froment

Video still from Théâtre de poche by Aurélien Froment

This is a excerpt from a lecture for a Studium Generale on Systems. In her talk, she speaks of the difficulty of using language to describe systems because it, too, is a system.

I played a game this weekend:countless square cards were laid out onto a large glass table covered in a grid, the compartments of which were sized to match the cards. There were always two corresponding cards like in the game “memory.” The player’s task was to find the pairs. But unlike memory, the cards were never identical. Pairs belonged “together” for different reasons. The reasons for their compatibility differed: the partner to a yellow card might be a painter’s brush dipped in the same colour. Or two cards pictured different components of what was obviously the same machine. My fellow player and I searched for pairs while we argued why two images matched. Ultimately, it wasn’t the person with the tallest stack of corresponding cards who won. What was more important for winning was having the best arguments for why two cards matched. This game was about image, about how we relate, how write systems, tell stories, and how we write histories.

This game, an artwork by the French artist, Aurélien Froment, was based on a magic trick by a Flemish magician, who in turn, had learned the trick from his English colleague, Arthur Lloyd. During his act, Lloyd asked his audience to name an object, after which he conjured the corresponding card out of his jacket pocket. At the end of his career, Lloyed carried 1600 cards in his pockets.

After the show, as we discussed this “théâtre de pôche/pocket theatre,” we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t only this magic trick that had inspired this game as art/art as a game. In fact, the technique of the magic trick also recalled how travelling bards and troubadours memorised their songs and poetry during the Middle Ages. Because of the customised nature of their performance, it was inevitable that the delivery of their song would never be identical in any two places. It was undisputable that disparities in delivery such as the trill of voice and the omission of certain passages were part of the act. Inherent within their act was a newsworthy element, something which now leads to controversy – an artwork must be a closed entity, referring to itself. It was a given that the poet actively include daily life, in other words what we now would call society. The game shows that language, too, is capable of making this connection. To play this game of language, one had to wander, to sing, sit silent, guess and gamble, look further, to not follow the fixed markings of the grid but to find one’s own path instead.

What does it mean to collect? And why do people collect? Is collecting a hobby, or is it a neurotic compulsion?

Instead of speaking of a neurosis, an art collector will speak of having a passion. When is a collection complete, when do you stop collecting, and when do you begin a new collection? There are a lot of things I collect, like super8 cameras, retro consoles, chairs, musical instruments and much more. Probably because I’m not good at throwing things away and I easily buy things at flea markets. I don’t collect art. I get art either through trading or being given it by friends and colleagues.

My largest collection is of wrapped scaffolding in front of the fronta of buildings. I started this collection after I installed a castle of 25 square metres for the exhibition “Het weiland dat beroemd wilde worden” (The meadow that wanted to be famous) at Dertien Hectare. This “castle” was wrapped in white “scaffolding” canvas.

It’s been years, but I still take a photo nearly every day while cycling, driving, taking the bus or the tram of canvas, often coloured, wrapped around a scaffolding in front of a building. My collection spans thousands of photos, and I find myself reaching for my phone whenever I spot a scaffold.

I’ve reached a point where my friends immediately recognise what I’m about to do, and sometimes even jokingly send me a photo they’ve made with their own phone. For me, it’s not about the photo, but about the action and the collection that ensues from it.

In my case, it truly is a neurotic compulsion and I simply can’t stop expanding my collection.

Making a snapshot of a new colour or colour combination against a facade gives me a sensation of pleasure.

Around two years ago, I started a new photo collection that I, once again, collect using my phone’s camera.

Often, when I’m standing or sitting somewhere, I’ll take out my phone, turn on the camera, and take a photo. The picture will always show my feet and possibly those of the person next to me.

Many of my shoes, trousers, and slippers have made their appearance, and the locations are greatly varied.

This collection, too, now consists of thousands of photos...

The key to being a good painter is by placing the last brushstroke on the canvas at precisely the right moment.

Will I only be able to stop collecting scaffolds if I make an artwork out of them? My wife has been telling me for years that I should make them into a publication.

I never started this collection with the intention of making an artwork, but because I simply felt the necessity to collect.

Often, neurosis, hobby, or passion will form an important part of an artist’s oeuvre. Sometimes on purpose, other times through intuition.