241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Bas Jan Ader

Although I never followed formal training in photography, I was briefly affiliated with an academy, just not as a student. In 1986, I was appointed the position of photography tutor at the Rietveld academy.

For the first assignment, I asked students to sit themselves in the canteen with their camera.

The time of day was up to them: early in the morning without a student in sight, at the busy lunch hours, or in the evening when the part time students entered. It was all up to them, my only demand was that they shut their eyes, clicked their camera, and filled up a whole roll of film. Hopefully, this exercise would loosen and relax their way of seeing.

I don’t remember what the assignment resulted in. However, I do know that I had a meeting with the supervisor at the end of that year. The supervisor let me know that they’d been under the impression that the bottom of my photographic knowledge had come into sight during my year of teaching. They would no longer be needing my services.

I can imagine that for many people it would be a huge blow to hear from the supervisor of an esteemed art academy that they’ve seen the bottom of your photographic knowledge. But I wasn’t too bothered. I asked them for a written statement to confirm the termination of my contract. Including the reason. I wasn’t bothered because I had my Red Folder: the folder where I collected all my Rejections and Disappointments.

As with all collections… once you start it, you need to complete it. I simply had to fill up the folder. And so, I perforated the Rietveld’s letter of rejection and stuck it in with the other rejections.

In retrospect, the Rejections and Disappointments folder may have been too big for its purpose. But the good thing was: to fill it up, I needed a whole lot of rejections. So I had to write applications, throw lines here and there, submit proposals, present my work, apply for jobs. Applications that were accepted were placed in the Green Folder. This is where I collected Grants and Other Successes. The fact that my folder for Successes was as big the folder for Disappointments might display some misplaced optimism.

Thanks to these two folders, I discovered that rejections positively affect your career. I can best demonstrate this correlation through a graph.

On the x-axis I’ve placed the years, from 1980 until now.

On the y-axis you’ll find my income in Euros.

There’s no better measure of success than turnover.

A small dip is visible in 1986, after my contract at the Rietveld was not renewed. I never made a lot of money there. Nobody did, and they still don’t. In 1995, when I quit photography and began to write, a much bigger dip entered.

It’s interesting to compare the yearly rejections in my Red Map to the above. Now we’ll enter a world of higher mathematics, as I’ll place these two graphs on top of one another: the scale of the number of rejections on top of my turnover.

But the point is: during the first fifteen years, the graph of rejections follows the same form as that of my turnover. There must be, then, a direct correlation between rejection and artistic success.

When I quit photography in 1995 and begin writing, rejections still follow turnover, albeit with less precision. Both decline because I still hadn’t mastered writing. I practiced all day, leaving me less time to write applications and in turn, fewer rejections were sent my way.

Slowly, after 2000, my income begins to rise again. As I begin receiving assignments, I write fewer and fewer applications. In 2003, I start writing a column for the website PhotoQ where I analyse photos like a detective. The column is a success and in 2004, the Volkskrant asks me to analyse a press photo each week. My income steadily begins to rise. While the amount of rejections dramatically drops, so does the amount of applications and proposals I write.

At this point, everything begins to calm down. The income rises even further, the rejections decrease until they cross one another, here, in February of 2012. It’s in this very month that the Rietveld asks me to open their graduation show.

The opening of the graduation show!

Yes, then you’ve got it made.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I can’t help but offer four tips to the budding artist:

1)Buy two folders, one green and one red. Place your rejections in the red folder, the successes in the green folder.

2)Don’t bother with self-promotion. Don’t over advertise your work. If you discover something, or stumble across something interesting while working, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell anyone who will listen. Your friends, your parents, the baker on the corner. And if someone’s around who can help you further (you know the type)… just keep talking.

3)Speak about your work clearly and directly. No jargon. If the baker stops listening, you’ll probably have to tell it differently the next time. This is how you start understanding your work better.

4)Don’t be too picky. Don’t just reach for the top. Starting at the bottom can have great advantages. You’ll have room to experiment and to find out what your work is about. It’ll be useful for the future, when you’ll be tossed into the lion’s den.

Art Bin, Michael Landy

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!

“You can’t have anything. You can’t have anything at all. Because desire just cheats you. It’s like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it – but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you’ve got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone. “ F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Beautiful and Damned

Indeed, desire slips so readily through our fingers once we hold that coveted thing. And in the blink of our eyes, we’re once more blinded by the glitter of the next novel beauty, the next promise of love, of wanting fulfilled.

The veneer is scratched away, layer by layer. Sometimes the process is lengthy, lasting months, years, decades. Other times, desire is doused instantaneously, without notice.

(Of course, let’s not become overtly cynical. Love exists beyond the glare of desire, yet for those who have not yet been so lucky we gladly play the fool, over and over again.)

En zapatillas, 2007
No title, 2008
Nights like obstacles, 2011
En zapatillas, 2007

People are in a truly awful state. Wherever I look, I find someone tottering toward a void.

In the bar where I was yesterday, a girl fell asleep on her table. Just before that, she took one look at my son, Joan, and gave him a faint, nondescript smile. I was amazed she still had the strength for such tenderness, or even to put makeup, however poor the result. I ached just watching her.

Alex, 2008

Today on the street it was an ugly woman, struggling to put on her coat. I imagined the staleness of her life and the wretchedness of being without sexual attractiveness.

People that talk to themselves in the street; people just letting themselves die; mistakes not corrected now taking their toll in mid-life. There's no going back. The bitterness of having wasted one's chance to live has marked their features. They are drowning in senselessness, and only short-term solace will relieve the sting: a beer, gambling at the arcades, watching peep shows, drugging oneself to death ensues, a weekly spell of the idiotic, underhand boxing match of Moros y Christianity1 , vainly attempting to persuade someone in a bar that you are an expert on politics; avoidance, self-deception, watching others suffer; attitudes so often shown by many of those around us.

Feeling like Gilles, 2008

I get dizzy just thinking about how commonplace unhappiness is, how many unhappy souls cross my path every day.

And the girl I saw yesterday... where did she find the strength to smile at my child? In any case, thanks for passing the baton on to him. Joan, it's your turn now. Don't stumble.

1 Moros y Christianos is a talk show on Spanish television.

Claude Monet
Jean Baptiste Camille Corot
Claude Monet

We returned from our art trip to the north west of France feeling disappointed. What we had encountered were mainly echoes of Paris. Silently, we drove homewards. We felt let down, it certainly had rained on our parade.

It was in this state that we were confronted by the accident that would prove itself a gift from the gods; the sensation we’d been yearning for all that time.But let’s start from the beginning.

The first museum was in Rennes and it immediately set the tone for the remaining excursions. One or two of the worst works by big names, mainly French of course, were being exhibited. Granted, a bad work can be illuminating in reminding us that even a genius is but human. But after a number of these reminders we began to grow bored.

In Rennes our eagerness was still boundless, and so we dutifully shuffled from one painting to the next. Suddenly we pointed out one that was truly exquisite. Caillebotte, how beautifully he managed to render light in his painting! How he succeeded in creating such a grand effect with something as simple as the construction of a bridge and a man leaning over its railing!

Caillebotte, PontdeL'Europe, Rennes
We became increasingly lyrical and were beginning to exaggerate, and we stopped being able to properly look at the paintings. We no longer trusted our own judgement and decided to ask the invigilator for directions to the museum café.

There was no café at the museum of Rennes.

Musee de Vannes
The same pattern repeated itself in Vannes. In the brochure Corot, Millet, Delacroix and even Goya were featured to lure the visitor. The thirteenth century judicial building transformed into a museum showed work by all these giants, with the exception of the Spaniard. He’d never even been there, they said. Handfuls of regional artists, on the other hand, had apparently frequented often, as the plethora of at times downright clumsy paintings attested to.

The most interesting anecdote was pertained to the painting by Delacroix. The pastor, whose church was to receive the painting, studied the work in his own room for weeks. He came to the conclusion that Maria Magdalena, the central figure in the work, was wearing a robe with an indecent décolleté. Like a ruthless restaurateur, he made his adjustments using thick black wall paint. The painting was then taken to the church tower to cover a drafty hole.


Goldreyer is of all ages we thought, and asked the way to the cafe. Once again, to no success.

The museum in Nantes had a better, albeit equally obligatory collection. After seeing the two deplorable Monets and hearing that the museum cafe would “maybe be built” the following year, we gave up.

Delacroix restorated
In the second building we came finally came across something that made an impression: a cryptic by Bill Viola. The three panels showed, respectively, a woman giving birth, a man under water, and a dying woman. We watched the newborn being brought into the world while the woman perished. We heard moaning and screaming, the bubbling of water, and the pumping of the life support machine.It was just what we needed—confrontational, yet at the same time soothing.

Where could we find more in this vein? Would it be better to simply go out into the world and cast our eyes onto harsh reality? In other words, onto life and death itself? All the to and fro in between only resulted in compromise, fabrications, art.

In the end, we drove home in silence, disgruntled by the inability of our stomachs to automatically communicate their richly filled contents to our brains. Then, on the N25 towards Arras, a two-lane road, we saw the horrific accident.

We trudged onwards. A car lay on its back in the curb, completely crushed. Two military officers strapped a man and a woman, both possibly dead and, in any case heavily bleeding, onto stretchers. The air was filled with shouting, lights were flashing all around. Men and women in white jackets hurried around the ambulance while the fire brigade hose the car. While one police officer filmed the scene, another urged us to keep moving.

At the very last moment we thought we noticed something strange. We saw the male victim laughing. Could it be possible that some people really do leave this world with a smile?

A few kilometres down the road we saw a large billboard on had only the letters ACF (Automobile-Club de France) written over it and the question: “Have you see an artwork recently?” “No,” we said out loud.


We decided to leave the road as soon as we could and to take a back road to return to the site of the accident on the main road. It took us four hours to manoeuvre back, four hours to witness twenty seconds of something that might have been art.

It was an artwork. Everything was unchanged. The white coats were still running around, the victims still hadn’t been loaded into the ambulance, the policeman was still filming. This time we saw that on the side of the ambulance, a large reproduction of Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” was printed. The military officers wore uniforms that corresponded exactly to the flute player on Manet’s famous painting. In the air above the scene, swirls and curls hung, unmistakeably like van Gogh. But we had to drive past straight away.

That day the television broadcasted news of the accident we’d seen.

Motorists were extremely upset. For hours, the roads had been hindered by absolute nonsense. Afterwards, the minister of transportation who had granted permission for the spectacle, claimed the uproar to be self-righteous. At least ninety percent of those passing the accident had no clue that the accident was a fake. A member of the artist collective responsible for the work asked himself why people weren’t relieved now that the victims were, in fact, healthy and well. “You operated under the name ACF,” the reporter said, “now the auto club is outraged.” “There’s nothing we can do about that,” was the answer, “l'Art se Conforme à la Folie. That’s what those letters mean to us. “