239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

Ladies and gentlemen!

I don’t have any images to show you, as I was too late in realising that I should have brought some. However, this might be a blessing in disguise, because those listening carefully will experience a flurry of images.

I’ll be frank: I don’t think that we live in an era in which illegality should be considered art’s driving force. Art itself is weak, she is not a factor of social importance and thus isn’t improved by illegality. This is not to say that one should not take a critical stance on world developments—but critical thinking is not the same as illegality. Illegality is necessary when hefty, oppressive laws are being enforced by hefty, oppressive law enforcers. But our problem is not that the political and social structures in which we live press too heavily upon us. Our problem is that the wielders of power can get away with far too much. Our model of democracy has been fine tuned to minute detail and it grows finer and finer yet. The level of bureaucracy that almost naturally ensues is a blessing for the powers that be. Within bureaucracy lies a turning point in which all is still democratic on paper, but no longer so in spirit.

It becomes increasingly difficult to see the forest for the trees amongst the thicket of rules created to cater to each group and subgroup’s fair rights. And this is when profiteers and fraudsters strike. Bureaucracy is the illegality of power. This is where the cloaked retaliation takes place, where the tax collector’s alleged thievery is compensated, like when the areas that were agreed upon to stay leafy and green become construction sites, health and safety norms are ignored, and so on and so on.

Bureaucracy has made power schizophrenic. Although she may speak through the official language – the vocabulary of democracy – she thinks in outright ‘me, myself, and I’-terms. This is why their mouths are always dripping in deception, always the false smiles, that badly concealed inner pleasure at knowing that the herd of listeners is being fooled once again, with eyes wide open. You merely have to watch Bush speak for a few moments to see through him. I won’t even begin to say anything about our own leaders.

What it boils down to is that democracy isn’t as much a tool to prevent the imbalance of power, as it is a tool to make power something that’s unattainable. In the end, who truly holds the power? You could say it’s “the big countries” or “the multinationals,” but who are they? Power is more impersonal than ever and is no longer tied to certain political ideas or ideas about society, nor is it bound to tradition. The only idea still linked to power is money. At least, this is what it’s like in the West. We like to think that outside of the West, power is still based on tradition. Religious tradition, for example, which scares us to death. And we shudder to think that they might come here and take what they can of all that we’ve “built,” as they say!

Because we’re all too aware of how ruthless and greedy people can be. After all, we ransacked half the world in our glory days in the name of God and the motherland. But now the tables have turned, we’re none too confident, our population is largely aging, albeit with a great openness towards the world (we say,) but ultimately, we’re mostly defenceless and vulnerable from every angle. Are artists the ones to offer enlightenment through their illegal actions in this political landscape, which is generally seen as unsteady and threatening, where people prefer to keep themselves high and dry well before the skies erupt? That seems unlikely, to put it mildly.

Ambiguity about whom they’re targeting is the first problem. What is it they’re rallying against? I’ll name two examples of artists who are equally unsure of how to answer the question:

Last year I was invited to participate in a symposium about uprisings at the art academy at Enschede, AKI. As I approached the building in the morning, students were building a gigantic artwork out of dozens of shopping carts stacked on top of one another. While speaking to one of the tutors inside, we were interrupted by one of the students. He came to tell us that they wanted to merge the school with the artwork, but in order to do so; they’d have to shatter one of the windows. “Is that allowed?” he asked the tutors. “Throw in a window? I don’t think so,” was the reply. “Okay, then we won’t,” the student responded, before meekly wandering off.

And with this incident, the level of upheaval (or lack thereof) was set. The symposium continued with little but tepid mumblings. Out of sheer insubordination I yelled out: “There must be more authority!” The next day I received an enthusiastic email saying that they had highly appreciated my talk, and that I’d said many “valuable” things. Out of gratitude, my face was plastered on the cover of the AKI’s yearly report, published in book form. That’s just how easy it is to be famous; all you need to do is declare that the revolt won’t be happening. Tonight I’ll say it once again, but I hope this time will result differently, and Mister Motley will retain its honour.

The second example of an aimless form of illegality comes from the Venice Biennale, also from last year. I visited the Biennale with art critic Anna Tilroe, and it’s her poignant description of the experience that I’ve included in her words, with her permission, of course.

“An international curator pushes a ragged looking pink newspaper at us. Survival Guide for Demonstrators, is printed at the top. The paper is full of tips for demonstrators: where to find the best demonstration spots in different cities, train and bus routes, safety precautions, your rights if you should be arrested. In a corner, a thank you is printed to a few big curators and a very contemporary museum. Aha! This is art! It lacks any explanation for what we should demonstrate against. That would make the paper a political statement, and that’s not the point. “I like demos,” the artist, Jota Castro, mentions. “The more alternative, the merrier.”

Yeah, fun, demonstrate! It doesn’t matter what we’re rioting against, because this is a conceptual work, and that means we basically only care about the idea, in this case of being playful and alternative. This is how we should interpret the Utopia Station. It’s a corner of the Biennale, overtaken by a chaos of poster, folders and information stands. In a whole, the work is reminiscent of the action years of the sixties, but in this contemporary case it lacks any sort of goal. Nothing refers to actual Utopian ideals. A vision of a future world is nowhere to be found. What we do see is that art wants very badly to engage itself. It just doesn’t know how to or with what cause.

The aforementioned condition is what the theme of this night likewise touches upon. We’re asked to speak about phenomena like graffiti, stickering, stealing exhibitions, but it’s not clear what graffiti we’re talking about, nor what the art stickers say, nor which exhibitions should be stolen. Or are we implying that graffiti art is already inherently artistic and illegal enough by its nature? Now, there have been many beautiful graffiti works, like those that embellish the iron shutters that otherwise turn our cities into rodent holes at night. But there’s also an enormous amount of graffiti shit that has contributed to the degeneration of our cities.

Like so many others, I too, am of the opinion that the privatisation of the Dutch rail company has been mostly detrimental, however I don’t feel that the artist who sprayed FUCK HELL all over the seat I sat across from the other day made any impact whatsoever. FUCK HELL, God forbid, how does one come up with that? These actions are nothing more than a reflection of the lack of taste that have been pumping junk architecture (predominantly) into the outskirts of our cities, besmirched our inner cities with a wildfire of advertising. A few years ago, the city of Paris made the wise decision to ban all street advertising at the Champs Élysées. But then again, France is a rather authoritative nation where the authorities still execute their decrees. In our thoroughly democratic nation, we handle things differently. The city of Rotterdam, for example, has urged its businesses to plaster more advertising to their streetlights. It seems that the city housing the biggest harbour in the world is unable to pay for its lighting, and so the MP deemed it fit to set up an advertising construction to compensate. Brillliant, the city council must have thought, solved!

Thanks to government encouragement, the city is being saturated with images that are wholly vacuous and empty. As if we won’t eventually be collectively affected by the emptiness. As if this visual environment won’t slowly drive us towards a mental vacuum. You could call this the legal illegality of power—now, there’s something artists should revolt against.

But that’s easier said than done. After all, we’re trapped in a world of exponential impatience, in which images that don’t stick to our retinas for more than a nanosecond are deemed nearly worthless. The answer that artists seem to have proposed to this concerning development, is to express themselves in the same language as the images that they are trying to combat: fighting fire with fire. An artist who consciously applies this strategy is the Italian-Swedish director Erik Gandini, who won the Silver Wolf last year with his documentary, Surplus. Gandini promisingly claims – and this is also the subscript to his film – that we are being “terrorised into consuming.” Surplus is what you could call a visual manifesto against globalisation. In fact, an important spokesman for the anti-globalisation movement, John Zerzan, also appears in the film.

Surplus is a collection of beautiful and often surprising images. For example, an utterly hysterical obese person on stage, riling up a room full of Microsoft employees. We see a location in India where 40.000 labourers demolish gigantic ships to recycle steel, conjuring beautiful rust-coloured images. We’re shown world leaders who, with the correct movement of their lips (Gandini knows his special effects,) churn out anti-globalist slogans.

And yet the film, Silver Wolf or not, has failed as the analysis of a certain world condition. As poignant as Gandini is in finding images and digital manipulation, he fails to direct the images towards a specific standpoint, leaving one questioning if he even has a vision at all. The ringer lacks a bell. He sketches Cuba as paradise on Earth, completely naïve, as though we’re living forty years in the past, in the time that Harry Mulisch returned from Cuba golden bronze and praised Castro to the heavens. Could it be that Gandifini’s intentional use of advertising language is exactly that which hampers the film? After all, doesn’t advertising contain the fable-like ability to manoeuvre highly aesthetic images with the most gruesome content to political neutrality (like Benetton)?

These are important questions for Mister Motley, if you ask me. Because the magazine, with its focus on beautiful and attractive images, also seems to have been affected by the fear that only the visual cortex grants access to our brain. This is dangerous, because if you’re not careful you’ll be completely immersed into the free and happy image culture, even if your initial intent was illegality,

I thank you.

Spoken in Amsterdam on February 12th, 2004.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’d like to say something about the Volcano. The ultimate authorities of the Earth. Tsunami machines. Monstrous pustules of Techtonics. An elegy of worship, humility, devotion, and awe. A puny man, swallowed by a radical landscape.

I apologise, but I have no answer to these gas and fire spewing, regurgitating mountains strewn over the globe with seemingly no other purpose other than to remind us that our planet is a smouldering ball of magma, and that we are just little temporary inhabitants... and not much more than that.

A nonsensical, softly glowing dot in a universe filled with searing, cold, and raging heavenly bodies. Just as we have no answer for death, this rant will be devoid of critique, flattery, rhetoric, or debate.

We cannot own the volcano, cannot control it, expunge, there is no coaxing it, no, we cannot even theorize it...

No, this is not a declaration of love to the volcano, but one of a lover that would not, by God, know what to do if the object of his desire was his.

The perfect conical summits on the island of Hokkaido in North Japan, Iceland’s glacier covered sleepers, Java’s sulphur spewing, the ice lake of Puy de Dome, Singu’s flanks in Myanmar.

And the hundreds of hills on the Korean island in the Chinese sea...

One of the series is a bit longer and follows the sulphur mine worker, Mohammed, who I accompanied for two days on the Ijen Vulcano in East Java. Twice a day, Mohammed makes the lengthy journey to the rim of the volcano where he lowers himself into its putrid interior, where liquid sulphur and gas are emanated in great quantities. The sulphur solidifies almost immediately and Mohammed carries the 80 kilos on his back out of the volcano and makes his descent, all for a meagre starvation wage. This is the most beautiful and likewise most gruesome tableau I have ever seen.

I combined the photos as an essay in which the black of the lava and the intense yellow of the sulphur are combined in a musing on these colours, but also about the significance of these materials. The display refers to the economic and social factors, and yet it is also presented as a depiction—a scene from a film. It became an exercise in ruminating on the hopelessness of the injustice in the world, that at the same time portrays perception as an intense experience. And an experience always proves itself more potent than an image.

‘We were mesmerised by the volcano’s jaw, yes, a mouth, and a tongue of lava,’ Susan Sontag wrote in her novel, ‘The Volcano Lover’. ‘A body. A monstrous living body, masculine and feminine at once. It thrusts, it ejaculates. But it is also an interior, an abyss. A living thing that can likewise die. An inert being, occasionally in movement, existing only in intervals. An ever-present threat. If predictable, still never predicted. Capricious, untameable, malodorous’.

Is this what one refers to as the primitive?

Nevado del Ruiz, Mount Saint Hellens, La Soufriere, Mont Peleé, Krakatao, Tambora, Katla, Newer Shield

Poignant names for eternally slumbering giants that might awaken at any give movement. A thundering giant whose attentions will turn to you. King Kong and Godzilla in one. Spewing, destroying all, only to fall back into sleep.

Religion and ideology often assume that there is a significant meaning to the universe, humanity, and history. The arts and philosophy have been questioning these assumption for ages. Many centuries ago, even Shakespeare said that ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Albert Camus, too, deemed human existence ultimately futile, and thus, absurd. But it was precisely in that acceptance that man’s ability and freedom lay to give his own meaning to life. In other words, futility is the primal source of human creativity, the art of living, and art.

Hoewever, it’s also the source that clings itself excessively to art and threatens, time and time again, to swallow her whole, as Mr. Ormeling once suggested. Perhaps this is why many people feel a strong aversion to art: it reminds them too much of the futility of life.

Mountains and volcanoes can have the same effect. People fear their massive, purposeless presence; they stir within every fibre of our being the realisation of our complete meaninglessness.

I enjoy immersing myself in this feeling. Perhaps I’m somewhat megolomanic, not without audacity or ostentation. I should probably put this into perspective. I’ve been presented here as Volcano Hunter, as though I travel the pyroclastic ash clouds carrying a leaden bag, but I have to disappoint you: I’m merely a tourist who enjoys visiting non-touristic destinations.

Seven centimetres of volcanic ash is enough to collapse the roof of a building. And I’m not talking about Chinese Tofu architecture, but about a solidly built North American home.

The English philosopher Francis Bacon once described the goal of man and progress as attaining ‘complete mastery over nature’. Not by revealing the laws of nature, but by seducing her to a creative collaboration of sorts.

The forces of natures usually have the last word, like in the above mentioned example. One in ten people on this planet live in the direct vicinity of an active volcano... these areas, are after all, extremely fertile.

Even though were are the initiators of art, it becomes ever more clear that nature is the true creator. Whatever the human undertakes, each art work, each action, begins and ends with nature. Natura Artis Magistra.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles threw himself into the Etna to prove his spiritual divinity. Dissolved into the Nothing. His followers did, however, find his sandal which the fickle and uncooperative mountain had regurgitated; and they knew what this sly fox had wanted to do; to disappear for eternity.

Horatius told the disappointed students that poets have the right to destroy themselves.

When I’m 92, I’d like to do the same. Although, I might no longer be physically capable, so I might just call on you when the time comes.

Many thanks in advance, and I’ll see you on the flanks of the Etna!

(We listen to some pleasant volcanic energy, I’m going to the mountain with The Fire Spirit, a song by the Gun Club, performed by 16 Horsepower...)

Antwerp, May 2013-09-06

(Text spoken during an evening on the power of nature in Artis’s library in Amsterdam. Commissioned by Lost & Found)