241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Roughly speaking, there are three ways to find something new:

1. Non-serendipity

Finding what you’re want while specifically searching for it. A good example is the discovery of the bacillus responsible for the bubonic plague. Convinced that the p­lague was an infection, Yersin, a student of Pasteur, travelled to South-East Asia to find the cause for the disease. He wanted to perform autopsies on people who had died in the hospital from the plague, but was not allowed to. He then commissioned a straw hut to be built on the hospital’s lawn and, with the help of a bribe, was given access to a plague victim. He sliced his knife into a pustule from which oozed a ‘puree’ of pus. Underneath the lens of his microscope he spotted the bacillus, which would later be named after him.

2. Pseudo-serendipity

Roentgen's X-ray picture of the hand of Alfred von Kolliker, 23 january 1896

Finding something you’re looking for while not actively searching for it. A classic example is the ‘vulcanising of rubber’. Goodyear mixed latex with sulphur to make it more durable: it was a ‘why-not’ sort of experiment. He heated the mixture and while stirring it spilled some on the hot oven. The spill scorched. Underneath the burnt surface was a transformed layer, underneath which an unchanged layer lay. This change is what we now call vulcanisation. Goodyear, being a man of faith, believed God himself had helped him a hand in this discovery because he had been working so hard and trying his very best.

3. Serendipity

A chance discovery, found without searching for it. As Dijksterhuis commented, it’s still unknown what aspect of cathode rays Röntgen was investigating when he discovered X-rays, or Röntgen radiation. He darkened his laboratory, covered what is now named an X-ray tube with black carton paper, electrified the tube, and saw to his great amazement a nearby fluorescent screen light up. Röntgen himself termed these rays permeating the black carton ‘X-rays’, because ‘X’ is the mathematical symbol for the unknown variable (a discovery of genius within Arabic algebra). The rays were invisible and passed straight through many materials. To convince himself of his findings, Röntgen captured the results on light-sensitive plates. When asked what he thought he had discovered he answered: ‘I wasn’t thinking, I was experimenting!’ After the publication of his discovery, it turned out other researchers had made observations that were also linked to X-rays. This is called ‘negative serendipity’: these other scientists made unexpected observations, but failed to interpret them correctly.

This is similar to the discovery of America: when Columbus landed in the New World he deemed himself to be in India, which is why he spoke of ‘Indians’. It was Amerigo Vespucci who made the right interpretation! What Röntgen experienced was ‘positive serendipity’: he not only made an unexpected observation (the fluorescent screens lighting up in the dark in the vicinity of an active Crookes-tube covered in black carton), he was also correct in his interpretation of this wondrous observation.

Ultimately, in practice, non-serendipity, pseudo-serendipity, and serendipity are not always discernable from one another.

Ad Reinhardt, Moma
Ad Reinhardt, Moma

What does it really mean? Artistic research

Everyone is suddenly talking about “artistic research” and the “artist as researcher”. Only since recently can artists and designers undertake a PhD at the University, a new Master Artistic Research has started at the Royal Academy of Fine Art of The Hague, and art tutors are conducting research.

Ad Reinhardt (1913 – 1966) said his black paintings were about “nothing”. In the first of these paintings, made in 1953, darker tones of green, red and blue were discernable. They also varied in size. But from the 1960’s until his death, Reinhardt only painted black canvases on identical formats, five by five feet (157,5 x 157,5 centimetre. He was “painting the very last paintings,” he said, “the last that you can make.”

The paintings are severe, although they are less stringent than you might initially think. They are not evenly black, in some places the paint is more matte, catches more light, than in other spots. Glancing sideways at the surface, you’ll see squares within the paint, and Greek crosses. Otherwise, every other characteristic of a painting has been discarded: representation, composition, brush stroke, expression, and colour. Yet, they are not anonymous or mechanical. The black breathes, is space. These paintings are exceptionally fragile, because Reinhardt used minimal amounts of binder to ensure a paint made almost purely of pigment. The black plane is unfathomably deep, and all light disappears into these depths.

Reinhardt owes his important position within modern art to these black canvases, as well as to his radical views on painting. But to the general public, he was known in a very different manner, namely as cartoonist for, among others, the magazine The New Yorker. In 1946, Reinhardt made a series of cartoons named “How to Look at Modern Art”. One of the drawings from this series, “How to Look at a Cubist Painting”, is depicted above.

Cartoon uit de serie “How to look at a Cubist Painting”, 1946.

A mocking viewer responds to a cubist painting. In English, “to represent” has the same double meaning as in Dutch: “to represent” as in “to portray” or “to display”: but also “to represent” in the sense of the degrading, “that doesn’t represent much”, “that doesn’t mean much”. By angrily retorting, “what do YOU represent?” the painting confronts the viewer with himself.

And this is exactly what happens while looking at an artwork. The artwork is silent and confronts you with yourself. As opposed to all other forms of art like theatre, music, dance, and literature; visual art does not immediately immerse you. This silence is not only relevant to painting and sculpture, but in general also to performance, video, film and acoustic art: little is “said”, and there is no finality in intent, or hardly. Duration of time is rarely ever prescribed. The artwork unfolds itself within the span of time that the viewer takes to look at the work. The “narrative” that arises is the exchange between the viewer and the artwork.

Only through the viewer’s effort does the artwork reveal itself. The viewer must take the first step, open himself up, and set aside his own preconceived notions. He can then penetrate the work and engage with the artwork. Within this dialogue, the distance is bridged between one world of thought and another. The experience of engagement with an artwork allows the viewer to become aware of the activity of his own thinking, of living, and of being alive. As the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer said: experiencing art is a “multiplication of existence.” This is what makes artworks important.

It’s difficult to look, said Reinhardt, but we can learn to do so through art. This is not just true for the viewer; it also counts for the artist himself. The artwork is the result of the combination of the desire to make something and the desire to see something. The artist is the first viewer of the artwork. He must learn to see what it is that he’s made, and to recognize it’s meaning. This is reflection; thinking about one’s own experiences and about how and why something has been made, with the goal to clarify the structure of the work and to find a foundation and a context for it. This reflection can only take place once the maker distances himself from the experience of making. To then, if the work is unfinished, pick up where he left off.

The artist's reflection on his own work is the subject matter of artistic research. Within this, the importance of the process of making outweighs that of the final product. Artist-researchers share this reflection with others through conversations, debates, publications etcetera; and are likewise fed by this.

making = thinking
thinking = speaking
speaking = thinking
thinking = making