241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

The camera obscura is a strange and almost magical natural phenomenon where an image is created by simply passing light through a small hole into a darkened space. Where the light is cast, an image of the outside world is projected in full colour, upside down, but with all sense of depth and perspective preserved. In the summer of 2013, Teun Verheij transformed his student room into a giant camera obscura:

In the morning, I'm sitting amidst cartoonish clouds that languidly crawl over the floor. It is surprisingly light, and silent now that the fire alarm has stopped wreaking havoc. The agricultural plastic gathers all the street's heat and focalises it, bundles it into a straight, narrow beam that makes a small hot sun in between the clouds. No wind can find me here, only its shadow, which makes the leaves quiver on the trees that hang from a concrete sky. As a consequence, I have been cooking alive now for weeks but it is worth it- I love the big yellow van that is patrolling my ceiling as we speak, the playing children, the bikers looking unbearably fragile- but no fancy pictures for your hungry eyes, because with a long exposure time anyone can make it look like quite something. It is a form of cheating, exhilarating and rewarding but ultimately unsatisfying. Photographing inside is like brain-scanning a square-skulled cyclops, or taking a picture within a picture.

Instead, stay there a while, sleep in there, wake up in there. It is like living in a theatre alone while ghosts of the outside world perform their daily haunting play, oblivious to you. Yet it is completely unlike hidden cameras or spying - what you are watching is already recycled, already filtered by the one eye before you see it. It covers up more secrets than it cares to disclose.

The camera obscura is a philosophical can of worms, yet the usual suspects of comparison (Plato's cave, the Cartesian theatre, psychoanalytical and feminist accounts of the Male Gaze, even surveillance theory's wilder excursions, let alone the entire shelves written on the more ''obscure" aspect of photography) make me feel nauseous even thinking about them. What's more, I think they miss the point somehow. The magic of the camera obscura is hardly the stuff of books, yet it isn't mere optics either.

I can see a seagull lost in the area between the couch and the bookshelves, and I think of nothing at all.

Sitting in the taxi I spot the sign ‘Ceramica’, and we jump out of car so we won’t miss it. This turns out to be a great decision, because this store is nothing less than an actual voodoo shop.

Behind the counter, the clerk stands wearing a checked shirt, looking calm and relaxed while walk around the shop. A man with glasses on enters the shop and carefully collects the items on the shopping list he’s holding. He leaves the shop with a pretty purple bundle held together by a ribbon. In this shop one can clearly see how old superstition and Christianity go hand in hand. Besides the various paraphernalia to practice voodoo, to predict the future, the small soaps to wash away your sins with, the drinks to ignite love; there are holy statues and protective amulets depicting saints.

Brazil is officially Catholic, but the old animism carried over by the slaves from Africa is still abundantly practiced. During slavery, it was forbidden for slaves to practice their own religion. In order to still honour their own gods, they cloaked them with names of Christian saints. The god of the sea, Iemanja, for example, was attributed the Holy Maria as her alter ego and is exuberantly celebrated on December 31st. The ceramic statues are packed in plastic, set up in rows.

A sculpture of a little gagged black man conjures associations of SM, making one fear the worst. What evils could this little object induce? Yet, it turns out this trinket is nothing more than a protection piece in the form of the holy Anastacia wearing a mouth cover to protect herself from contagious illness. Likewise, the owner of the talisman will be protected from illness. I decide to buy it.

Saint Anastacia

I also buy wax ex votos, these are images of body parts to be thrown in a fire and so beg protection over that part of the body. The baskets holding little notes folded into bows differ remarkably in popularity, the pombagira is sold out while the basket of exus is still completely full. (I can’t find an exact translation for pombagiras, but it seems to mean something similar to ‘receiving an answer’.) We both take a sorry note that describes in Portuguese how to perform the ritual of forgiveness.

'pombagira' and 'exus