241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

I have an early childhood memory of receiving a postcard from my neighbours who were on vacation in Limburg. On the left part of the card “KR Brinkman Fam.” was written. I wondered with surprise why they’d only leave an abbreviation when there was still so much white space left on the card. Despite that enormous vaccuum, I remember my mother being very pleased with this postal greeting.

This is the essence of a postcard; it’s a gesture of presence. The postcard can contain a message that's nearly empty, that does little more than communicate the sender’s message: “I’m here” or “I’m thinking of you”.

Since college, I’ve been steadily building my collection of postcards. All in all, I have around three shoeboxes full of them. There’s no real underlying theme. There are the prototypical “happy birthday” cards. On one of these cards, meant for a man’s birthday, is printed a shaving brush, a beer jug, cigars, a miniature car, and a slightly pathetic bouquet. One birthday card for a woman shows a cyclamen, a mixer, a candleholder, a sewing machine, and other assorted household appliances. These are still lifes from the fifties that are becoming increasingly rare.

I have Turkish and Italian cards, countless art cards from the Kröller-Müller, the Prado, and other museums. Since 1993, “Free Boomerang cards” came out on the market. These cards were freely available to be plucked from display stands at cafes. There are some very strong ones among these. For example, one printed with the expression “In a dip?” shows a depressed teenager on a white folding chair in his empty study room. Or a card with a man falling from the skies with the words, “Ever considered aerotherapy?” Boomerang seemed to have a card designed for every idea or mood.

I often look through a pile of cards if I want to change my mood or my mode of thinking. My unwritten postcards are not addressed to anyone, and don’t need to ever be sent to anyone. They are images and ideas in their own right.

The philosopher Jacques Derrida takes this a step further in his book, La Carte Postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà [1]. In the Bodleian library in Oxford, he found a postcard on which Plato and Socrates are depicted. This card fascinated him, because neither the meaning of the card, the image, nor the text on the back correspond to its message. It is a gesture, an impulse, a transmission, or “un envoi,” in French. It takes flight and in that, finds its power. Every letter has certain content; the postcard has no need for that.

Derrida claims that a philosophical text is like a postcard. Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates is always the main character, are some of the most well known texts in the history of philosophy. According to Derrida, they can be seen as a series of postcards that have been sent into history. Derrida wonders how Freud received Plato’s postcards 2500 years later.

There are certain postcards that I would never do away with. An aquarelle in card form by Marlene Dumas from 1989 titled, “On his back”, for example. I bought this card after seeing Dumas’ exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris at the end of 2001. Each time I looked at it, I became calm, as though my son, one year old at the time, was depicted on the card. I’ll always cherish this card for the therapeutic value it had for me.

Choosing a Dumas-in-card-form is no coincidence: she has often told that her work is often based on photographs and images. She sees the interpretion of images towards an intrinsic meaning as a process in which the different elements overlap.

To observe and to give meaning; we cannot help but bring what we see into words. Dumas puts this very succinctly in an interview: “words and images drink from the same cup, and our ears are next to our eyes”. [2]

Apparently, the poet Rutger Kopland has a huge collection of postcards. Among his writings, there are various poems dedicated to musing upon these cards.This one is titled “Choosing a postcard”. [3]:

Choosing a postcard

On the postcard there are a couple of men
playing pétanque below a plane-tree
at their feet the balls they’ve thrown
they’ve stopped the game and ponder
they are standing in a circle, heads bowed
over what is lying there
there’s a problem lying there
never have their balls lain like this
I could keep looking at this card
it’s probably almost night there now, the shadows
have lengthened, the end of a hot day
and while nothing moves there
invisibly slowly a question is growing
the question: what now
I’d really like to send you this card

© Rutger Kopland

© Tranlation: Willem Groenewegen http://www.decontrabas.com/de_contrabas/2009/08/rutger-kopland-75.html

The tape-recorder, photograph and hard-drive are typical metaphors used to describe our memory. Devices of direct repetition; a flawless copy of a saved memory. What characterizes our contemporary age is this external storage. Not only of personal memories, but more importantly of information. The World Wide Web has become our primary source of information, our modern library. Information has become so accessible, that we now add more value to remembering how to locate it, rather than actually taking the time to possess knowledge of it.

The vital difference between the human brain and the artificial ‘brains’ mentioned before is it’s reliability. Our own memory is unfortunately (?) not flawless, most often we only remember bits and pieces, and we’re left to reconstruct the rest of the information. Our minds tend to get a general idea of a situation and not necessarily pay attention to details, subconsciously filling these gaps with what we would expect that detail to be. A hard-drive on the other hand, can reproduce the exact same information as when it was received.

Although this mechanical accuracy is so appealing, our own memories may actually not be so unfortunate - for the exact reproduction of items is also the machine's downfall. All information absorbed by a hard-drive acquires the same value. In other words, it enters. That is all. It sits there waiting to be retrieved, exactly as it was before. What makes our natural memories so strong is the hierarchy we appoint to it. A certain quality is given to each (natural) memory depending on what happens after it has entered the mind. The human mind still processes information long after we receive it, making connections to prior knowledge. We are constantly re-evaluating for ourselves and are capable of putting thoughts and ideas into perspective with other related information. In a way, we rate the information we receive, we are able to decide what kind of information sticks by deciding which to focus on more.

Some might say ‘we must leave room in our minds’ to think, - and consciously leave the task of remembering to external devices - however, this statement would suggest that there is a capacity to our long-term memory. On the contrary, we do not need to make space to be able to further our thinking processes. We are able to take in an endless amount of information and thus construct our personal network of memories. A strong basis of knowledge enables us to contemplate, review and be critical - which eventually results in a strengthened mind.

The World Wide Web contains an immense amount of connections. The fact that eg. Wikipedia (hyper)links to just about every concept known to man, does not mean that the machine itself can make ground-breaking discoveries because of all the ‘knowledge’ it contains. These connections are man-made and not understood by the computer itself. This lack of understanding prevents the machine of being able to make conclusions for itself. Computers are merely capable of accomplishing tasks with human direction, seeing as eg. webpages are designed to be read by people, not machines.

When we use the internet as a substitute for our memory, we lose the strong basis we require to accumulate more knowledge and sacrifice the wealth of connections in our mind. Because however much we want, we will never be able to call the innumerous amount of connections on the web our own. We seem to be “conceited in the idea of wisdom”, as we don’t possess the basal content to work with, denying ourselves the ability to reflect and contemplate. The internet remains a tool of reminder, and therefore information cannot make the translation to knowledge. We would expect from the information/knowledge age that we are knowing more, but we are actually knowing less.

Excerpt of “A Research on (Spatial) Memory from a ‘Graphic Design’ Perspective” including parts on spatial synesthesia, the importance of spatial orientation & cartography, underlying relations and structures, graphic design as a vessel for memorization, etc.

Carr, N. The Shallows. New York, 2010

Clapman, M. History of Technology vol 3. from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, c. 1500 - c.1750. London, 1957

Foer, J. Moonwalking with Einstein. New York, 2011

Lievers, M.Mens Machine. New York, 2008

Sagan, C. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: Pt. 11 The Persistence of Memory, 1980

Grand Tour souvenir: painting of vulcano
Grand Tour souvenir, small items
Grand Tour souvenir: painting of vulcano

The Grand Tour, a journey to discover the classics, the arts, and social conduct, was exceptionally popular with the British upper class. When in the 18th century, Oxford and Cambridge lost much of their esteem many aristocrats decided to send their post-Eton sons off to explore the world instead. Their accrued knowledge and life experience would prepare young men – and from the 19th century onwards, women too – for key positions in society. Most travellers were younger than twenty, no more than boys for whom sowing their wild oats was implicit on their journey: the first lessons in love and gambling learnt.

Paris, and especially Italy, were the most important destinations on the Grand Tour. Travelling was time consuming and programmes were filled to the brim. Usually, the Grand Tourist’s voyage would last anywhere from six months to two years. The Venice carnival, Easter in Rome, an erupting Vesuvius had all to be seen and taken in.

To ensure the Tour’s success, the young traveller was assigned a bear leader (chaperone.) This would often be a man who knew their destination well and would show the little lord his way. Depending on the budget and the duration of the voyage, the Tourist might have been escorted by one or more chamberlains and a coachman. Many travellers hired a local to make sure that there would be at least one member of the party who could make himself understandable. The family’s foreign relations, local guides, or antiques dealers provided tours and introductions.

The Grand Tourist found himself in an endless stream of site seeing; too much, perhaps, to remember upon his return home. For this reason, most travellers wrote letters home or kept a travel log.

Of course, souvenirs that served as tangible memories of the trip were acquired along the way. Sometimes these would be original antiquities, other times the Grand Tourist would buy (scale) models of artworks, architectural structures, monuments, sculptures in bronze or marble, prints, drawings, paintings, and so-called dactyliothecae, made especially for this purpose.

The souvenirs gave status to their owners, acted as ‘conversation pieces’ during dinners with relations, friends, family members, and illustrated the Tourist’s gained knowledge and experience. Ultimately, they were used in art education and had a great deal of influence on the development of art and architecture. Every important art academy in the 19th century owned a collection of plaster sculptures, cast from famous sculptures from antiquity.

Grand Tour Souvenir: Hercules Farnese
Grand Tour Souvenir: sculpture
Grand Tour Souvenir: model of a temple
Souvenir erotique , detail
Souvenir erotique , detail

The dactyliotec is the equivalent of the modern day digital photo album. Dactylioteca were stacked boxes containing prints of gems bearing depictions of Roman emperors, philosophers or art works from for example Vatican museums. Most of the imprints, also called intaglios, were done in cast. Some of them were cast in a beautiful red sulphur paste.

The Grand Tourist started buying them from the beginning of the 19th century at specialized studios and could customize the content description to the latest scientific advances of his time.
Already during the 18th century P.H. Lippert gathered 13149 of these casts in three cabinets in the shape of books. He named the collection a dactylioteca, derived from the Greek word for depository for signet rings with gems. The Amsterdam drawing Academy bought one copy of Lippert in 1792 which is now part of the collection of the Rijksmuseum.

Famous makers of these 19th century collections of casts were Odelli, Liberotti and Paoletti. They all set up their studios in the same area in Rome between the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. This was the area where most travellers found shelter upon arrival in Rome and was therefore called the 'English ghetto'.

daktyliotheek, detail

A remarkable copy is the shown here: a set of prints of erotic gems. Since the first half of the 18th century there was a 'gabinetto segreto' in Naples, a secret cabinet that contained the excavations from Pomeï with an erotic tone. The cabinet has known a long history of closings and opening and was even closed with a brick wall in 1849.
This collection of casts is an extraordinary souvenir of a traveller who might have had the luck to find the cabinet opened.
Souvenir erotique , detail