241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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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).

There is a particular and usually unmistakable characteristic that certain objects, clothes, dishes, tools, and even words have in common: being self-made.

Alone or with others, one has decided to cast so much attention to a self-made thing so it forms a closer relationship to it’s maker than any other found, bought, or given object will. (Similairly, a self-formulated thought, formed with the same sort of attention, will take a more permanent hold in your head than a thought read and borrowed.) The French philosopher Bachelard touches upon this in his “Poetics of Space”: objects that are cherished achieve a higher degree of reality than objects that leave one indifferent.1 Self-made things are especially easy to cherish. They represent the loving attention of the mind and hands. That which leaves you cold does not exist. That which you cherish remains.

The amount of attention directed to a work determines value: a self-made photograph is dearer to you than a photograph you stumble upon in a book, despite the fact that, objectively seen, it’s a better photograph. For that same reason, a fire burning in the hearth is so very pleasing, because it requires more than just an automatic turn of a knob to heat the room.

Without going so far as to sat that reality is “fluid,” we cannot deny that how we experience reality is malleable, and thus, fluid. By making something by yourself, whatever this may be, you are forging a connection to it. This natural attachment can serve as a compass in a world that is mostly industrialised and anonymous. A person can easily lose contact with himself when their wardrobe, household items, and vocabulary are completely interchangeable and in favour of fashion, because self-made individuality is our anchor in the world. Those who cannot choose are without anchor. One’s soul can be reflected within material. (Or is the individuality mentioned in fact merely a step towards the state of the truly wise, who go out to sea without an anchor, and maybe even without a ship?)

Compared to the endless ocean of the universe that surrounds us, even art is too small. Regardless, artists self-make with all their might, resulting in little islands. Joost Conijn (1971) for example, made his own wooden car fuelled by wood, and even flew his third self-made airplane to Africa. Iona Hoogenberk (1982, writer of this article) built a house by herself, small but real, existing for one night, only to break it down brick by brick, tile by tile, with the same attention as directed towards the construction of it. It was a sweet house, self-made and self-deconstructed. The unique combination of imperfections attributable to the self-made cannot be bought, and is charming. The self-made stool is comfortable, despite the crooked light; the apple pie is delicious, even if it’s undercooked. That which is not interchangeable becomes a part of you.

Like so many other things, the own experience here is the most important thing—and to gage subjective quality the degree of self-madeness is the best indicator.

1Bachelard, Gaston, The poetics of Space, The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places, Boston (Mass): Beacon Press 1994 (1958), p. 68.

“DataSpace” is a spatial and temporal concept, embedded in the physical reality surrounding us. The “local area network” is replaced by a room, a street, or a building, depending on where the user is located.

Re(x)ursion installation at Place da Figueira, Lisbon

LUST

The concept of a DataSpace is in contrast to that of a standard database. Databases store information locally about remote physical objects. In this scenario, the physical objects become merely the artifacts of their corresponding entry in a database. In a DataSpace, the data is stored locally in objects, and becomes a property when queried (highlighted or “illuminated”). DataSpace is geographically organised as opposed to the logical structure of computer databases and Internet. Therefore, DataSpace is structured analogously to the real physical space which surrounds us, as opposed to a mere reference. The move away from the referential to the empirical is important because of the higher level of abstraction empirical data allows. By definition, referential data inherently contains a certain level of abstraction (cliché), while empirical data can still be open to any abstraction applied to or projected onto it, allowing a much greater level of manipulation.

–– Conceptually 1:1 is more interesting than 1:many.

Re(x)ursion installation at Place da Figueira, Lisbon

LUST

Re(x)ursion installation at Place da Figueira, Lisbon

LUST

Five graphic design studios were invited to create site specific urban interventions bound by the Experimenta Design biennale’s theme Useless, in one of downtown Lisbon’s most central squares. Triggered by varying instances of scale and volume, detail and emptiness, architecture features and superficial embellishments, the resulting interventions establish a dialogue with the chosen sites.

LUST designed and installed 8 giant pictures on the square, citing and playing on the impression you get when looking at a city through Google Streetview. QR-codes provided mobile access to an online environment where visitors can upload their own "picture-in-picture" and browse the archive of previously taken photos.

Re(x)ursion installation at Place da Figueira, Lisbon

LUST

There is so much that asks for your attention in the ordinary, everyday life: the shopping lists that have been left in the grocery cart, little papers you find on the street or in the library, notes that have been left in books. I take them with me and collect them for a while, but then I discover a new fascination and the folder with, for example, ‘found items’ is somewhat deserted in my archive. Artists often have better focus and keep collecting to the very end of what might be a beautiful booklet. Artist Kris Harzinski published a paperback titled From Here to There.
handmap spread 1
To prepare his moving to another house, he had started to tidy thoroughly. In one of his stacks of old papers he found a number of maps that people had drawn for him to explain a route or situation. This was the beginning of an archive for maps drawn by hand and the foundation of HDMA, the Hand Drawn Map Association. This collection can be found on www.handmaps.org. A little sketch to show someone the way or to describe a situation mostly shows how incomplete our experience is of the map on which we all move around. During the Venice Biennale I and four others lodged in a wonderful old apartment for a week. On the way back, one of my fellow travelers asked the others to draw a map of it. Which was difficult, for how did that corridor, kitchen and all those rooms fit together again? Five entirely different houses were scribbled onto paper. Giving good directions is often an equally impossible task; you can walk the route without flinching, as if your body intuitively knows the route, but to give a precise description by heart is another matter completely.
handmaps spread 2

Kris Harzinski has collected all these attempts and expanded the series with broader criteria, such as maps that are hand-drawn by artists as official art. The categories are: direction maps, found maps, fictional maps, artful maps, maps of unusual places and explanatory maps. Unusual places contains the drawing by Marilyn Murphy, on which she indicates precisely in which places she is given the injections that are necessary for her arthritis. Harriette Hacker made a map of her face from which all the traces of the past can be read: the chickenpox, the scar from a nasty fall and a single beauty mark.

From Here to There is a beautiful paperback with a small text to accompany each map. However, the small size of the book takes its toll on legibility. Many drawings disappear in the centrefold or are simply too small for all the information. Which is a bit of a shame, because such maps make you want to go through them and sort them out thoroughly.

Everyone can send his or her hand-drawn map to www.handmaps.org.
handmaps spread 3

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!