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.


I tried diligently to keep a straight face as I looked at the plate of sausages and strawberries in front of me. One of the sausages had cracked open, causing its dubious contents to ooze out right onto the fresh strawberry underneath it. The whole sad scene was covered in a filthy grey blanket of thick smoke and I wish I had dared to take a picture then and there for memory’s sake. The smoke was coming from the cigarette weged between the scrawny fingers of the woman next to me. She topped it off by harshly coughing all over the sausages, then said in all sincerity: ‘Why don’t you take a sausage, girl?’ ‘No thanks,’ I said, meanwhile heavily reconsidering my recent career decision.

Until recently, I had worked in an office where I enjoyed the company of my co-workers immensely and had thought optimistically that at each working place, there were top-notch people, in whom I would always be able to find inspiration for better days. I would continue working at this new place and keep my newly found gems with care. I would furthermore elaborate on these opportunities in texts, projects and future plans to-be-determined. Aside from indulging in this endearing optimism, I subjected myself to an experiment. How far could I go in selling my soul when it came to side jobs while managing to regularly do artistically legitimate things? When would I be an artist working in a hotel on the side, and at what point was I working in that same hotel with merely an artistically inclined hobby? Where is the balance and how far could I go?

Meanwhile, I was well underway indeed, and I felt the black void eyeing me. ‘Oh dear”, I thought, while rethinking my motives to work in this hotel. The cigarette had by then gone out, and the sausages and strawberries had been eagerly devoured by my company at the table. I scrutinised them one by one and considered their potential as part of my next project (or perhaps Sunday art session). The lady next to me was a fine specimen at any rate, and likewise the other ladies at the table wouldn’t be out of place in my collection of remarkable colleagues.

Rita, for one, had tobacco-coloured hair, ditto trousers, and chewed her sandwich in silence; Belinda entrusted me with hotel secrets, such as that it is endlessly preferable to not clean the rooms of cyclists or the Chinese; Denise told me proudly that she had left her junkie past behind her and had worked a solid thirty years for the hotel. She smiled baring her few remaining teeth and I smiled back. I was glad for her, but I’m always slightly creeped out when people at very unpleasant working places tell me that they’ve been working there for a very long time. I break out in sweat as I see my life flash before me, seeing the my future self as that person who, after art school, has begun ‘temporary’ employment, only to get stuck in it forever. People at an academy reunion will say something along the lines of: ‘Have you heard the news on Gerda? Been working in a hotel for thirty years.’ ‘The Volkshotel?’ ‘No, just some hotel. One of those along the highway whose name nobody really knows.’ ‘Oh.’

The roar of the radiators next to the room where we have our break saved me from the nightmare. My colleagues had stood up to get back to work and I considered for a moment to run off and never come back. I would like to emphasise, though, that I have no problem whatsoever with cleaning and similar jobs, as long as I manage to get some satisfaction from it. I have cleaned the houses of elderly people with great love, I have worked serving breakfast in hospitals, I’ve delivered mail for an entire summer (in my rain suit) and I have been personally responsible for planting roughly a thousand little plants in excruciatingly small pots on an assembly line. After this series of quite specific trades, I could go all out in my year long period as a teacher at an art centre, I worked in a fantastic shop (which has unfortunately closed), and, via the office, finally reached the hotel. The plan was to work there just enough to be able to pay my rent, and to otherwise get a good look at all the colourful visitors and their rooms in the name of art, and to then profit from it. As you will have surmised by now, my disappointment was considerable.

It was a characterless hotel where my job description consisted of getting the rooms to look as clean as possible. Until recently, I had enjoyed being in hotels, but those days were behind me for good. I pulled hair that belonged to strangers from shower drains and was instructed to dry toilets with towels (really) as well as to clean used cups by rinsing them with cold water before putting them back on the shelf (really). Not only was my Theory of Employment of before severely threatened, but I also began to worry about my karma as I carried out orders that turned the hotel into one big death trap of bacteria, diseases and other disgusting pests. Therefore, I decided to throw in the (filthy) towel and to look for a different side job. The risk seemed just too big to stay and find out where I would end up then.

From the one strange working environment I rolled straight into the other, where I planned truck routes throughout the whole country from a kind of control centre. As far as art school graduates go, I am pretty good at focussing, coordinating and organising things so it seemed no harder to do the same thing applied to truck drivers. I worked hard and eventually bit myself in the butt by planning everything so efficiently that I had finished the job three weeks before the intended date. But maybe that was for the best, since my colleagues knew that I was employed on a temporary basis and decided for the sake of convenience to act as if I had already left. It was a strange experience that I wouldn’t wish upon anybody.

Meanwhile, my projects grew like cabbage and I was asked for the most splendid things. I participated in a documentary on creativity, founded a meeting place that drew a lot of visitors, interviewed artists and was told by everyone that I was doing so well for myself. It was true that during my free days I worked passionately on my projects and saw them grow, but it was still bothering me that I could not earn a living with what I did best. In this way, I dug for both dream jobs within the cultural sphere as sad job offers within the other one.

Hooked on the employment version of Russian roulette, I kept on playing. Was it going to be another miserable side job or would it be something else? The gods proved benevolent in my favour, for instead of the next grey work spot, I was granted the chance to tag along with the editors of the magazine Kunstbeeld. Not only did I discover that my heroes behind Kunstbeeld were very sociable, but also that there is paid work in this world that challenges your talents. I immersed myself in it completely; I emailed back and forth with artists and their assistants, interviewed Marlene Dumas while I was quivering like a leaf, and travelled the entire country in the name of art. I wrote my reports passionately, took in every possible experience and prepared for what would come next.

I hoped with all my heart and soul that I could do something in which I could work with both my brains and my pen, where I could coordinate and work together with people that make me happy, and so that, like the cherry on the cake, I could earn the roof above my head. After being rejected by email at least every day, all of a sudden there was the message on Saturday night that said: ‘What line of work are in you nowadays? Are you good at organising?’ I looked at my screen and up again, thinking for a second that the universe was surely playing a cruel game with me. ‘I am very good at organising.’ I replied. After many messages back and forth and one conversation, I have suddenly been equipped with a real job with all kinds of things I like and am good at; I work for two very nice people, who even invited me along to Cape Town to do even more wonderful things.

Trying to comprehend this turn of the plot, I think back to last year. The office, the trucks, Kunstbeeld and even the sausages and strawberries on a plate in that hotel. I remember the smoke blowing over them and realise I have escaped a certain destiny. A smile curls slowly upwards on my face. For now.

I am not afraid of spiders. In fact these, these creatures particularly remind me of my childhood and make me feel nostalgic rather than disgusted.

Spiders appear as the royal king in the kingdom of insects. They are the most mysterious and the most beautiful. We all admire their extraordinary ability to create webs: structures that could be seen as something in between tree houses and vicious traps. Our perhaps we admire them because human technology is still unable to deliver a structure equally simple and light yet powerful.

They are familiar to us both as dangerous enemies and as prey. We admire these insects because we are truly afraid of them, and it is not wise to disrespect an ominous enemy. Especially when that potentially deadly and dangerous creature can be so much smaller than us, since we tend to relate power to the size.

Maybe what is the most fascinating about these animals is that even they seem to be the closest to more developed and closer to human species like for example dogs and cats, they remain mute.

What might be the most fascinating thing about these animals is that although they resemble cats and dogs in their domestic proximity to humans, they remain mute. They accompany us in our kitchens, bathrooms, and attics; yet they emit no sounds of approval. The other animals that we have deemed intelligent and live so close to us communicate their joy or discontent, but not spiders. Are they simply aloof? Like us maybe? Or maybe they do not think at all?

Spiders not only inhabit the area located someway between intelligent animals and the grey mass of insects and lower forms of life like bacteria: dangerous but robbed of any personal traits (When we think about any other bug, we usually think about THEM, in plural, when a spider appears, it is a lonely hunter most often and this gives him more individual traits.) but also the area between what is disgusting and fascinating. What disgusts about them is their set of eyes that lack the characteristics of a personal gaze. Their hairy legs also somehow do not make them fluffy and cuddly, instead they express something more primal, a scary force of brutal nature.

Louise Bourgeouise's sculptures of giant spiders can be regarded as a homage to these little monsters. Reimagined by the artist they seem to posses all of their core traits of "character" but made more visible, more tangible. They drift above our heads, like they do in ordinary life, on their strong, scary legs. Suddenly they can encircle us, and create a shadow over us, but is it really something unusal when they live all around us in the pipes of the houses we inhabit, under-the-carpet areas that nobody has ever time and enough energy to clean or in the corner under the ceiling where the human eye, tired of the every day routine, cannot, or at least does not want to, notice them?

Bourgeois compared the spider to her mother's omnipresent way of being. My memories of them somehow send me to my grandmother because of many reasons.

First of all, she owned a beautiful necklace in the shape of a spider made of artificial emeralds. This piece of jewelry interested me a lot when I was a child, made me think up different stories of its provenance or to imagine to whom it might have had belonged before, even though it was only made of plastic.

I can also remember her room in my family home that was truly full of spider webs and spiders. She never allowed my sister and I to kill them because that brings bad luck. Instead we were taught to catch them, to let them crawl onto an old newspaper, which she kept so many of in her own quarters, and then gently place them outside the window so they could live in the garden.

Last December, I went to Düsseldorf for my annual visit to the artist I wrote my thesis about more than 20 years ago.

In the early nineties I discovered, through an article in the art magazine Metropolis M and an internship at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, the work of a relatively unknown German artist. He made small, grey, paper books with series of fuzzy black-and-white photos of small airplanes in the sky, women’s knees and swimmers doing their laps in a pool.
At the Boijmans I was stimulated to further study this –in my eyes- somewhat obscure artist. As I grew increasingly enthusiastic and found out that very little had been written about the man, I went to my thesis tutor, feeling both excited and reluctant, in order to inform him of my choice of subject. He suggested that I should meet the German artist in the flesh for an in-depth conversation about his work. Oops! It was not that common for an art history student to have a real rendezvous with an artist. But it was the only possibility to gather lots of information and I felt like adventure. After some dawdling, I took up the phone and called the artist for an appointment. As I was not impervious to some romantic notions surrounding ‘the essence of the artist’, I was surprised how quickly he agreed to a visit with a completely unknown student from Groningen (if only it had been Amsterdam). I took to Düsseldorf, tape recorder in my bag, and, timidly, rang the bell at a nice-looking apartment building from the early 20th century. Astonishment yet again! The man stood before me as awkwardly as I to him. He was around 50 years old and I was somewhere in my twenties. He wondered what on earth could be my business here with him, as an art history student from Die Niederlände. He also told me that he in fact had a dislike for words and that he had nothing to say about his, indeed, decisively visual work. Well, imagine: there we were then, the two of us, sitting in his study at a large desk on which there were many folders full of images! Out of shyness I took out my home-prepared sandwiches and began to nibble at them. In hindsight, this proved to be the magical moment in which the artist started to believe that this student could actually write an excellent story on him. In a later letter, he let me know that my taking my own sandwiches had brought us to the same wavelength.

the artist

The thesis was written and approved by both university and artist. And indeed, last December I paid him a visit for the umpteenth time. He as a much more famous man than back then, and I, after roaming about in the art world somewhat, as a teacher at the Art Academy in Groningen. This artist (now in his early 70s) has also come to win a prestigious prize for, note, young artists (the jury praised the work for its freshness). Not to mention a large retrospective in Hamburg.

Shadow Play (2002-2012)

And, surprisingly: the last time I visited him I felt again this tension of twenty years ago, when we met. An appointment between a now-famous artist and someone who wrote a thesis on him in his early stages: does that have validity? It is confronting how as an adult, you still relapse into old thought patterns. Immediately after my arrival in his town he takes me to a cafeteria in a shopping street in Düsseldorf and tells me how the regularity of our meetings is dear to him. I have been in this coffeehouse with him before and he is a daily customer who likes to sit here reading and, especially, watching life on the street. There is little noteworthy or sophisticated stuff that is said during our meetings and yet every time I see him, he manages to provide me with a few new perspectives on the world around us. However small they might be, I leave these meetings every time with extra air in my lungs. The late Dutch curator Gosse Oosterhof has once called him a “professional voyeur”. And indeed, this man accomplishes the feat of rendering the everyday world special for a while with his visual and, despite himself, verbal frameworks. A great gift, I find, and I am glad that I had prepared those sandwiches back then. The name of the artist, by the way, is Hans Peter Feldmann.

see the documentary on http://www.cobra.be

Hans-Peter Feldmann at gallery and bookshop Wien Lukatsch

http://www.ingemarleenbooks.com/blog/wienlukatsch/

Hans-Peter Feldmann, Ursula + Hans-Peter.
Gardner
I am looking for a small frame for a postcard with some deer on it. I find exactly the right size, somewhere in a box. In the frame is Ms. De Boer. Or at least: an image of her, of course. I don’t know Ms. De Boer that well, so I flip her face out of the frame. Another Photo falls out. On it, a young woman and man with white Dianthus flowers on their blazers. Seems like an engagement photo, not one of resistance, considering the smiles on their faces (although the gentleman grimaces rather sarcastically).

An indistinct sense of guilt creeps up on me. I remember Ms. De Boer. For hours I have sat next to her, in her service apartment, in the middle of busy Schilderswijk.* It smelled musty, of old perfume and fabric softener. The sound of the oxygen machine constantly in the background. On the TV a soap series.

She did not tell me all that much about her life. She had drunk and smoked much, as a result of which she now had COPD. Her ex-husband was in a home for the elderly. She didn’t take kindly to that. Or to people generally. All the more to her little children, though. They were displayed on the upper ridge on the walls of her small sitting room. The dogs. Different German shepherds, of which one was the sweetest of them all, but I have forgotten any names. I also forgot the name of that epileptic Keeshond that (volunteering for the animal foundation) I came to walk for her. And in spite of the fact that it was everything to her.

In general, Ms. De Boer complained most of the time, but when her little dog was concerned, she would radiate. When things were going worse and worse, her anxiety over her dog took the upper hand. “For me, I’m done here, but who will take care of my little dog?” The dog wagged its tail, rain tapped against the window, Moroccans threw stones at the tram. The sound of the oxygen machine. The tears of Ms. De Boer.

After having been lying in hospital once again, she told me she had seen Death. A large black man had stood at her bed. She was afraid to die, and cried softly.

A while later was her cremation. It was by far the most depressing service I have ever witnessed. Besides me, there were four other service workers. And there was the church. Ms. De Boer was afraid and lonely in her last couple of days and for some reason or other, that attracts the church like a lamp does flies. All of a sudden there was talk of God and some conversion, whereas Ms. De Boer was the least religious person I knew. For a finish, they placed a large wreath with a religious text onto the ribbon beside the coffin. I can remember that this considerably obstructed my attempts at serious morning, especially for the bad spelling mistake they had made. I don’t remember for certain, but I think it was: “The Lord leeds me.” A grave matter.

So now I flip her face out of a frame and realise that the chance exists that I am the only one who still thinks of her. That is sad. She might not have been the most pleasant person to be around, but how much she cared for her little dog shows that she could feel love. And loneliness, pain and fear. She has given me the picture when she knew she would die. It was one of the few photos she had of herself. I will look for another frame for those deer.

* A neighbourhood of poor alloy in The Hague.