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).

Monkey's Feast

Ferdinand van Kessel

Roland Barthes
Monkey's Feast

Ferdinand van Kessel

I was standing in a corridor when a tall, young man walked briskly passed me. Moments later he was chased by a small brunette whose every step seemed to fall into the spaces left behind him. He marched on in anger and as she furiously followed, she hissed, ‘This will be the last time, it’s over, I swear to god I will just disappear.’

Watching them rush down the corridor, I thought about how many times I had seen this exact process of emotions in others, and of course experienced it myself. We all know this story, it is constantly repeated, or at least we are all familiar with this interpretation of the story: one threatening to cut the other off whilst running after them in bewildered warning, angrily and frantically begging them to stay whilst they move away. The strange and stylised emotional language we use in situations that we cannot or do not want to express, the reformations of our true purpose in order to avoid vulnerability, and yet through all our fictions and theatricalities, our intentions, although unpronounced, are understood.

If already just in this superficial layer, in all these given understandings of this situation we can see the magnitude and effect of our interpretation on the “reality” of things, at what point do we stop interpreting, what is the actual, the non-fictional?

So many aspects of my self were suddenly laid bare before me as stories I had told myself, interpretations of people’s actions in designed sequences. The way I saw, the way I was seen and in whatever light anything is shown, are all characteristics that are open to interpretation. If we dissect this situation to all its separate parts, we see that everything occurring only exists as one thing after another, events and actions in meaningless succession; it is we who give it meaning and chronology.

I stood in a corridor. Through this same corridor, a tall, young man walked, he moved quickly and dropped his feet heavily as he did so. A small brunette also walked through this corridor. As the small brunette walked, she spoke, her words were fast and rhythmic.

“Narrative is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; indeed narrative starts with the very history of mankind; there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative … Narrative is international, trans-historical, trans-cultural; it is there, like life.”- Roland Barthes”[1]

Seven of wands

Scènes de la vie privée et publique des animaux

Used in the design of tarot cards

J. Grandville


R. Barthes, ‘On Narrative and Narratives’, in: R. Barthes and L. Duisit, New Literary History, Vol. 6, No. 2, Baltimore, US: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975, pp. 237 -272

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.