241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

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).

Just over twelve months ago I was in my last year of the art academy when we moved into the new building. This transition came with some resistance, seeing as the existing one was fantastic. It was the kind of place where students could muck around with paint, brushes, and all sort of crazy things on sticks for four years without interference. A place that encouraged you to dive into your studio and explode in a flurry of all the materials that you could find and afford. A place with countless colourful corners where every so often you’d find someone napping, or maybe even living secretly for months, where you’d have to take a great deal of effort to find a bare spot without paint splatters or some artistic statement. It was a building we all were extremely proud of.

Now, you might not expect this from an art student, but it turns out that of all the sorts of students, they’re the last that should be taken out of their natural habitat. The students shuffled hesitatingly through the halls of the new building. Disapprovingly, they glared at the clean classrooms, the new canteen, searching for a point of recognition that could only be found in their familiar brightly painted lockers—the only furniture to make it from the old building, and the only splash of colour within their sterile new habitat. The quiet mumbling soon evolved into loud commentary: the lamps were hung too low, the electric sockets were at precisely the wrong height, the walls were gray and every nail and speck of paint had to be deliberated, and goddamnit! the place was just like an office! How on earth could an academy student develop inside the confines of the office space?

It’s a great question that I’ve had plenty of time to think about this last year. As it turns out, it’s been nearly a year since I’ve graduated, of which I’ve spent five months working at an office. Despite this cruel and ironic twist of fate, I figured I’d take the opportunity to test the theory that I’d devised during that move. I’m convinced that you should be able throw an academy student anywhere and that they should be able to come up with fantastic works.

In fact, I believe that the academy goer can sometimes flourish best in places where you might not expect it. His skills and slightly odd views could offer him those pearls of perspectives to transform that place into a more beautiful and more entertaining place. Those who have been there for years often have lost the ability to come to these new perspectives. It’s comparable to seeing an ordinary word for the first time, repeating the word tenfold and feeling amazed at the queerness of that word. It seems to me that the academy student often approaches the ordinary in this fashion, which gives him a sort of super power, like an artistic night vision goggle constantly strapped around his head, allowing him to solve problems quicker, expose structures, and come up with interesting observations that others don’t seem to notice. Like an artistic spy on the work floor.

Of course, this is not a test that I had wilfully subjected myself to. I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t wished for a flying start, exhibiting my work all over the world. I must admit, I was early to suspect that I might not be in for such a golden start. Luckily, I had been trained for this moment by years of birthday gatherings where uncles, aunts, neighbours and acquaintances would pose that all telling question: “So what can you do with your degree once you’ve graduated?” I always said I’d just find a job somewhere and continue making and creating because I simply could not do otherwise. And so it went. I had worked very hard at devising a safety net for myself in a wonderfully ethical shop that was forced out of business and my safety net was relentlessly torn to bits. It was pretty shit, but there’s not much to do about it. Once I’d crawled back up, I began to apply to the jobs for which my Bachelor of Fine Art held absolutely no relevance (in other words: every job.)

As if that wasn’t confronting enough, it got worse. Dancing around the black hole, I was accosted from all angles by people with expectations of me that couldn’t be further from the truth. For example, during my first job interview I was told that being an art student I should have made an artwork of my CV. Because my CV was so neat and normal, I could have at least tried a little harder as a certified artist. Distracted, I suggested I send a CV in collage form, or as super experimental film via WeTransfer, after which everyone would herald me and hire me directly. Or that I would work for nights on end on an enormous and lavish sculpture that would testify my skills and characteristics that I could roll into the job agency. “Screw your artistic CV! No one would ever buy that,” I thought. That being said, this experience did, however, inspire me to make a book full of ideas for an artistic curriculum vitae.

Meanwhile, despite my lack of creativity, the job agency hired me to work at an office and gave me a very smart title that only confused my CV even further. My life at the office was set to begin. I worked in a hugely enormous tower with sixteen floors that I could only enter with entry card 2198. This is something that I know because I tried and failed. Each day I’d greet every man and woman in suit (apart from casual Friday, of course,) chatted at the coffee machine, and made many copies. Life at the office was frighteningly simple: pulled a few thousand staples of out dossiers, opened the envelopes, entered and printed out long lists of data, stacked them on top of each other, bundled them with rubber bands, laid them in the cupboard, only to start on the next stack. I did this from 8 am to 4.30 pm, all the while listening to a radio that was hardly audible. Friends and family soon began their many probing questions. Was I holding up alright, was it not killing my soul, was I not ripped from my safe habitat, how was I dealing with it?

But I actually quite enjoyed my time at the office. From the first time I cycled to work, I had begun observing. I observed those who took the same route to the office. This meant that I crossed paths with the same cyclists, for a while the sun came up at the exact moment that I cycled over the bridge, a giant flock of birds would fly from the roof of the stadium, from the top of a dyke I could look into a sweet little house where (if I was on time) I could see a gentleman eating his breakfast (if I was running late, he’d be gone.) Entering the office,, I’d step over the vacuum cleaner’s orange cable and greet the cleaning lady. Once in my workspace, those patterns and systems I adored would continue on.

I observed and probed my colleagues, often asking what they would do in devilish dilemmas, what their dream jobs were, and what their worries were while working at their desks. What I discovered is that I found myself among the most interesting and varied group of people I had ever encountered. Sharon the make up artist gave me tips on make up, Monica from Spain and I would talk about literature, and I once accompanied the very Dutch Anne and Samantha to their weekly McDonalds lunch trip and ate our hamburgers while the pounding of hardcore through speakers and subwoofers violently rammed my sensitive artists’ heart from all sides. I spoke about the use of art and why it shouldn’t be free to Karim, who also worked at his father’s pita bread factory on the side so that he could afford his outfit that cost as much as a whole week of my pay. I found out that the animal caretaker is getting married this year, that the musician’s dreams of making music have died, and tried to understand the conversation between the biologist and the accountant but couldn’t follow it due to my own background. As Gerda the artist I naturally delivered my own contribution to this colourful group. In the hours that we spoke I was exposed to an enormous amount of input, and in the hours that we were silent, my mind ran with the most fantastic and ridiculous ideas, most of which I executed the minute I got out of work. In the meanwhile, I collected my staples in a glass jar to remind myself, in some glorious future, of this period of my life.

The jar has since been filled and the project at the office is over. I’ve been at home with many ideas for works and projects, both running and on the drawing board. Once again, I’ve been diligently typing up job applications for every position you could think of, and sometimes find myself nostalgically thinking back to my academy days. It was a fantastic place, buzzing with possibilities, colourful exuberance, and colourful people. But if there’s one thing I learned in the last year, it’s that the world outside of the academy is just as colourful and that ideas don’t stop—no matter where you are. So I might just go for office-plant-caretaker, furniture tester, chauffeur of a karaoke taxi, bartender at a swimming pool, hotel room cleaner, or find myself some other fascinating occupation. And then, make work or write texts about it. I think that would be fantastic.

“That which is creative, creates itself” – John Keats

Nothing remains unsaid at schools; everything is up for discussion. The child’s right to cherish his secrets is denied him. There doesn’t seem to be a place for daydreams, fantasies, or repression. Every minute of a child’s life must be meaningful. But children want to play and experiment without pretension. They should be allowed to form images and thoughts that manifest themselves within the hidden corners of the mind, far away and out of sight from others.

My life is given form by the countless images that impose themselves on me every three hundredth millisecond. The distance between the conscious and the unconscious seems minimal. Useless thoughts dominate my brain and link together to create a chain of countless, fleeting thoughts. Every action and all behaviour are preceded by fictional plans and fantastic imaginations.

My ability to make exceptional drawings was recognized early at kindergarten. Were parents and teachers competent to recognize ability? On the grounds of what criteria were my drawings assessed? When I analyse them, I notice realism, detail, and intensity. The sense of imagination is not strikingly idiosyncratic or expressive. The use of colours seems realistic. The images were related to trips and outings I’d made, as well as creatures like garden gnomes and fantastical animals. Goblins. The challenge was to portray these imaginary images as perfectly as possible. Kids don’t strive for expressiveness. Only adults appreciate the visible struggle of creation or the painter’s movements coagulated in paint upon the canvas.

My talent had little to do with the characteristics that would be important for a future artistic practice.

At primary school I endlessly drew mice with human features, top secret flying, driving, and diving survival cars; and even historical events made their appearance, like the beheading of van Oldebarneveld. Many artists say that they’ve felt like an outsider and an observer since childhood, and to have a greater sensitivity to their surroundings.

Teachers interpreted the bloody drawing as expressions of mental illness or family issues. By doing so, they made an implicit connection between artistic quality and mental abnormality. I had an undeniable urge to shock. Bloody, scary scenes lent themselves well for this. It isn’t only admiration that stimulates the need to create, a negative response likewise stimulates this need; I’ll show them! The feeling of being an outcast energised me.

When I was twelve, I had a teacher sporting a bow tie who presented himself as an artist. He created an inspiring environment by being a role model, observer, dreamer and rebel. The point of departure is what formed the student’s ideas, while constantly referring to art and artistry. He had faith in the idea of the student. It was this attitude that also drew students to him who had little to no interest in art. He was very conscientious, delayed his judgement and was constantly alert. The students believed in his honesty. Without being aware of it, he was a forerunner in what now would be called authentic teaching.

Still, I was seen as a talented student. That implies a promise that had simply to be fulfilled. At this point, heading to the academy seemed self-evident.

The promise remains. But the longer it stands, the less likely it is that it will be realized. As time goes by, personal identity becomes entwined with the identity of the artist. This makes quitting impossible. With Bourdieu in mind, being an artist is like a coat that I can’t take off, for if I do, I’d be naked.