241 Things

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

Read the most recent articles, or mail the editorial team to contribute.

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).

The Japanese shoe umbrella

The Japanese shoe umbrella

Driven by the pleasure derived from useless erudition, I’ve been collecting research studies that, due to their complete and utter idiosyncratic nature, have never been linked to any tradition whatsoever. Grouped together, these unsung theories comprise a new field of epistemology: morosophy. Morosophy literally means foolish wisdom or wise foolishness. The morosopher’s wisdom is delusional, creating obviously absurd theories on existence. Unlike mediocre theories constructed by New Age gurus, ufologists, creationists, etcetera; morophist studies are so unusual that they’re ricocheted into the realm of the literary, granting them the title Fous Littéraires in France.

Morosophists deliver outrageous answers to burning questions. Is the earth flat? Was Dutch spoken in paradise? Are atoms spaceships? Is the world entering the Lilac phase?

The Morosophist is always someone whose world has fallen to pieces by a shocking event. With his theory, he manages to rebuild a new universe out of the ruins through which he can, once again, find control over his surroundings. His theories are not fuelled by a search for a higher truth, but by the desire to cope with existence. They are not patients, but are instead held sane by the belief in their delusion. Nor do they live in a world of dreams, but lead a normal life thanks to their fantastical belief in the idiotic.

At this point do we arrive at the most important characteristic of the morosophist: his ability to lead a normal life while being absolutely committed to an absurd theory. The originality of the morosopher stems from a life lived in two worlds, each with its own system of thought. With surprising ease, they alternate between the world of magic and the world of the every day.

A.E. Ing. Panamerenko

AE. Ing. Panamarenko

The Belgian theoriest and artist Panamarenko designs enormous flying machines with magical names such as General Spinaxis, U-Kontrol III, and Meganeudon.

General Spinaxis

Steel, 1978

Like Leonardo da Vinci, he can be categorized in the tradition of those who unsuccessfully attempt flying. Da Vinci’s projects retain their poetic value up until today, despite their total lack of scientific value.

Sketches of Da Vincis helicopter
While Leonardo was searching for something that did not yet exist, namely, the technique of flying, Panamarenko desperately attempts to lift off the ground in the age of space travel. He disregards history and sides with Leonardo as if time has stood still.

The catalogues paint Panamarenko’s primitivism as a poetic protest against the “coldness” of modern technology and the inability for the everyman to grasp it. Or that he’s motivated by the nostalgia for a mythical era in which science was still a personal adventure.

But all this is nonsense, as is evidenced by the thousands of pages scrawled full of Panamerenko’s quasi-scientific calculations.

The morosophist explores areas that are uncharted by the delineations of science. Their work grants us a glimpse of a universe that runs parallel to the official, recognised truths. Morosophy releases us from the acceptance of a world vision that we often see as the only correct and possible one.

As a curious teenager I read about Thought photography for the first time, in the popular science magazine KIJK. It centred on a ‘paranormally gifted’ American by the name of Ted Serious who was allegedly capable of fixing his mental images on light sensitive film. The article was illustrated with pictures of buildings and street scenes, blurry, hazy and tilted, exactly like one would picture a ‘thought photograph’. There was also a picture attached of the thought photographer in action: a contorted face, head aimed at the camera. Exactly like one would expect a thought photograph to come into being.

Ted Serious in action

I found it fascinating, and wholly convincing. These were, I have to add, the seventies, the times in which Uri Geller had a TV public of millions believe that he could bend teaspoons with his willpower, the times in which parapsychology could be taken seriously as a professional discipline, as far as within scientific circles. The New Age had started, with its unbridled embrace of mystique, astrology, crystals, flying saucers and whatever else is unverifiable. Previously ‘occult’ matters such as spiritism, auras, telepathy, and telekinesis seemed to have become phenomena that could be seriously studied and would even soon be explained and proved.

Big Bang thoughtograph

Telekinesis – the ability to move objects using sheer mental force, without touching. If one could assume that this phenomenon really existed, the conferral of a mental image onto light sensitive material should be one of its most easily realised forms. The defiance of gravity would not even enter into it; a subtle molecular change of some tiny sensitive layer would suffice. If the influence of even the smallest amount of light would be able to effectuate this change in the emulsion of photographic film, a concentrated thought, given extra focus by sheer power of will, then, should certainly be able to do the same.

Alas, paranormal abilities such as telekinesis and thought transfer remain unproven, and Ted Serios was exposed as a fraud even before Uri Geller (although some, of course, still challenge this). Although the New Age has really not quite ended, the idea of telekinesis seems to have almost disappeared from collective memory. As for thought photography, one doesn’t even come across the idea of it at all anymore.

Parthenon-thoughtograph

That might be quite a shame, since the ability to photograph one’s thoughts is extraordinarily appealing to the artist. To take a picture not of the outside world, but of one’s inner world. Not of what something looks like, but how one experiences it. In fact, it is precisely what artists have always been looking for in photography (and all other disciplines).

For what makes photography such a difficult medium for an artist? What is the cause of the debate that is held ever since its invention, namely whether photography can be classified under the arts?

Thoughtograph

The fundamental problem, I believe, is that a photograph depicts the visible world by means of a lens and light sensitive material, enabling it to present an astonishingly accurate image of what something looks like- but not much more than that. For a real estate agent who wants to sell a house, that’s perfect, but an artist searches for something else. He does not want to register the outer manifestation, but the inner experience. An artist tries to express the invisible by means of the visible.

Thoughtograph- Ted Serious

One could say: what the artist really and truly wants is to photograph his thoughts.

In my time in art academy, during my first skirmishes with photography, I renewed my interest in thought photography for this very reason. I did not regard it as a real phenomenon, but like a symbol, a symbol for the artist’s quest for the impossible. The ability to photograph one’s thoughts – it seemed to me a kind of Holy Grail, comparable to the secret procedure for transforming lead into gold, the potion that keeps the drinker young forever and ‘the book that renders all other books redundant.’

mental photography

Thus understood, only a metaphor remains of Ted Serios’ ‘thoughtography’ – albeit a beautiful one. A metaphor of the hardly realisable desire of the artist to capture the invisible in an image.

The idea has stayed with me ever since, and I think in a certain way all my work can be regarded as attempts to break through the impossibility of ‘thought photography’.

I believe that I can even say I was successful at some moments. But that’s another story.

Paul Bogaers

If an idea to research something crazy suddenly befalls you, it’s well advised to go just through with it, complete it, and publish it. I once had the idea to visualise human coitus using an MRI scanner. It was a spontaneous idea; like the French poet-statesman Lamartine said, ‘I never think, my ideas think for me.’

I immediately received criticism. ‘What’s that good for?’ ‘You don’t even have a question! ‘We know everything already.’ But also enthusiasm: ‘if you want to research something that’s never been done, and easy as pie, do it! Why not?’

And so, we were able to conduct this study, but only in secret. Subsequently, the first scan was immediately compelling, iconoclastic even. It turned that all Da Vinci’s drawing proved to be fabrications, without anyone ever objecting (you and me included). The scans showed that the previous depictions had originated partly from the bedroom (before death) and partly from the cutting table (after death).

Play
Seks in de MRI

The article about our research was rejected three times. That’s just how deviant our findings from the scanner were. Even our fourth article was considered to be ‘made-up’ by the British Medical Journal. The article wasn’t considered an actual report of an actual study until the magazine had done a thorough research on the accuracy of it, without us knowing. They even asked to include us in their Christmas edition (where every year strange studies are bundled).

Meanwhile, the study is the most clicked article on their site, while images of the scans weren’t even on the cover of the magazine. The film version of the MRI scan on the ‘Improbable Research’ site has been watched over a million times. It also immediately received the LG Nobel prize, because it makes one laugh before it makes one think.

In retrospect, the study is a classic example of Spielerei nebenbei to Ernst im Spiel and freedom in research.

Like Johan Huizinga argued in his Homo Ludens: play is indeed a higher order than severity because play includes severity, whilst severity excludes play.