241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Rozemund Uljée kicks off the Studium Generale programme with a lecture on how two great thinkers have defined reality - referring to past ideas that changed the way reality is conceived.

Pierre Huyghe

Part I: Plato’s unchanging realm of the real

The starting point is situated with Plato, the father of modern western philosophy. Firstly, Rozemund will give us an idea of his vision on ‘the real’ and his legacy. Plato can be seen as the first representative of the idea that we can only access ‘the real’ through reason. Plato asked himself how we come to a universal understanding of existence, from all our sensory encounters. Plato makes a distinction between the phenomenal world- perceived with our senses - and the world of ideas.

Furthermore, the latter constitutes the underlying structure of the phenomenal world, and should be seen as the true reality. For him the phenomenal world is not reliable because it is the perception of our senses, and thus fleeting: things that come into existence, then pass away. Plato tells us that whereas with our senses we perceive elements as beautiful, justified and good, it is only through reason that we can have an idea of Beauty, Justice or the Good itself. This should be seen as the explanation of Plato’s negative attitude towards art. Since it is a mere imitation of the realm of ideas, art is a copy of a copy - and thus of secondary value.

Ribbons, Ed Atkins, 2014

Part II: Why art can't do without Nietzsche

Since Nietzsche, the idea of the privileged place of reason in order to find ‘the real’ has been questioned most radically. Nietzsche was a pioneer, who paved the way for the end of a higher world order like Plato’s that informs our reality. Famously declaring ‘God is dead’, it is Nietzsche’s view that there is no such thing as a higher reality and that the reality we live in is the only reality that does exist. He states: ‘To recognize another world is to deny life itself’. This is the reason why Nietzsche is so interested in Nihilism – the realisation that reality doesn’t know a higher meaning and value. In this sense, in constructing a dualist worldview where objective knowledge is possible, Platonism and subsequent philosophies (including Christianity) serve as an antidote to a primal and original form of nihilism in the world – as the despair of meaninglessness of reality. This saying ‘no’ to a higher reality is an important part of what Nietzsche calls a ‘re-evaluation of all values.’

Denying a ‘higher’ reality constitutes a turn toward our physical, material, chaotic and finite world. This results in a situation in which man does not let himself be governed by a reality better than his own, but instead is granted the possibility to create it himself – to create meaning within reality itself. This liberation is regarded by Nietzsche to enable different perspectives with which we can look at the truth.

Nimbus II, 2012, Cloud in room, Berndnaut Smilde

‘’We might think of truth as of a sculpture: by looking at it from only one side, we don’t understand or appreciate the whole sculpture. Only by walking around it and looking at it from all different angles can we properly appreciate it. People like Plato, who offer an access route to reality through Reason, say: “there is only one truth and it must be looked at in this way.” Such an insistence paralyzes our understanding and makes it impossible for us to be free.’’ Nietzsche calls those who do not restrict themselves to only one specific reality perspective the ‘free spirits’ – and these are for him ‘The Artist’.

He says: ‘Art is worth more than truth. Art nothing but art! It is the great means of making life possible, the great seduction of life, the great stimulant to life. Art is the only superior counterpart to the will to life-negation.’

Transcription Afra Marciel

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist
Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Ladies and gentlemen, little artists!

When I was asked to speak to little artists today, I immediately thought of Wilhelm Reich. Rede an den Kleine Mann (Listen, Little Man!) leapt from the deep recesses of my memory. It had been years since I’d thought of this text, the heart-cry of a Polish-Austrian sex therapist. It wasn’t so much the starting point of the text (the little man suffering under the big man,) that made an impression on mebut rather its approach. By speaking directly, man-to-man, Reich ingrains into the little man that his trivial life of servitude is wholly self-inflicted.

Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist
Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist

Little man! Reich calls out, you close your eyes because you’re frightened to death of how small you are, you despise yourself and are most at ease in the role of the beloved slave. You’ll take what you’re given, but you, you only give what is demanded of you. The truth irritates you, and you dislike those who strive for freedom. Instead, you spend all day practicing life tactics. You don’t believe that anyone sat at your table could ever be capable of achieving greatness, yet you’ll believe what you read in the paper without scruples. If you were given the choice between a visit to the library or witnessing a fight, you’d choose to see the fight. And of the big men, you don’t see the truly big men, just the quasi-big who surround themselves a lot of little ones. “Rede an den Kleine Mann” continues on this tangent throughout the whole text. Reich empathises with the addressees because within him, too, resides the little man. However, he sees no worth in half-hearted methods and so he positions himself as a severe yet just father. And that’s just as well, because Rede an den Kleinen Mann thanks its quality to this strictness, despite it hardly being read anymore now that the little man is near extinction.

How different the situation is for the little artist is! The little artist truly is alive, and speeds himself to the auditorium when he hears of a talk especially for little artists.

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Little artist! I call out, every dream of a becoming a grand artist will be met with a hundred cold showers! It’s far easier to rid yourself of the little man in you than the little artist. The little woman in you can be made into a hundred big ones, but the little artist in you won’t ever even be made into one big artist.

Do you remember, little artist what you said at that party, on the boat, after your graduation? “Now I’m an artist,” you said, with that strange combination of self-ridicule and pride. The relativity of your words was obvious, the realisation that this was only just the beginning, that the word artist was still too pretentious and that you only meant it in the sense of the comedian, the singer of songs, the actor in the cabaret. At the same time, you sounded so sure of yourself, as though you’d already moved on and only spoke in literally translated English sentences like “Now I’m an artist.” As if you’d mentally crossed the borders of this puny Dutch city-state, and were already well on your way to becoming a global artist.

This conflict you showed there, dear little artist, is not coincidental or only applicable to you; it seeps through all that is art. There’s the little art, the drudgeries that are mocked, cursed and hushed; and then there’s the big art, declared holy to the extent that it’s beyond reach. The no man’s land between the two is vast as an ocean and impossible to oversee in its totality. The one art is seen as absolutely worthless, and any investment in it seen as money wasted. And the other art is so costly that the even the largest fortune pales in comparison.

You, little artist, might try to cross that ocean in a rowboat. But even if paradise descends on Earth, you’ll still have to make do with what you have as a little artist. You’ll always be kept little with an iron fist without mercy, without sympathy. Herein lies the difference between the little artist and the little man. The little man stayed little because he was poor and powerless. He was able to climb up the ladder, pull himself together, and expand his power and market value. In this way, he could overcome the little man in him.

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Little artists, on the other hand, will never be able to overpower the little artist in them. They'll stay little forever, because they have to start all over again with every new artwork.

True art is invented artwork by artwork. Art refuses to climb, is indifferent towards power, and refuses to pull itself together. Those little artists who think themselves capable of influencing their own market value are victims of the Great Postmodern Misunderstanding that claims artists to be tradesmen.

Not a hundred workshops in art management, nor a hundred networks, oh little arts, can exceed your market value past the size of a lottery ticket; only the lottery owner and the notary could influence it. Little artists who can't understand this haven't overcome the little man in them yet. The little man did useful things, these useful things could be magnified and used in transactions.Art, however, is of no use. Useful art is not art.

Nevertheless, from time to time, a little artist in his rowboat will unexpectedly arrive at the shores of the big art. After all, the prize money has to fall at some point on one out of every hundred thousand lottery tickets. But generally speaking, the little artist will have to rack himself just like the little man: he'll have to slave away, to sweat, and to toil. For eternity, because the little artist will never disappear. That's just the way it is, the little artist will suffer forever and ever. And all this suffering is no guarantee for great achievements, however much a pity this may be for the Tenacious Romantic Misunderstanding. The one that says that blood, sweat, and tears suffice to make an artwork regardless if no one sees it, understands it, or buys it.

Little artist! No life is more frustrating, thankless, yes, inhumane than yours! You're at the very bottom rung, holding on to the top and there's absolutely nothing in the space between. All that keeps you going is hope, "hope, the wings of all time," as the little poet says. But hope for what? Don't say you hope for greatness, dear little artist; or worse yet, that you hope for fame. You cannot strive to be great, greatness emerges all on its own. Instead of trying to defeat the little artist in you, you're probably better off dispelling the great, famous artist stuck inside your head.

All you can really want is to live for art, to work, to make something, then make something better, invent an artwork, and then invent another artwork. The only thing you have to want, is to want to know. Wanting to know, knowledge, the rest is irrelevant. The nature of that knowledge or where it comes from is irrelevant. There's as much to learn from a good fistfight as there is from the library.

The legendary world champion boxer, Muhammed Ali, once delivered a speech to the students of Harvard University. He said: 'In my own way, I've studied a whole lot. But that's not what people pay for, people pay for follies. The wise man can play a fool, but the fool can't play a wise man. I play a whole lot."

Please understand little artist, Muhammed Ali, he’s a great artist,..


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.

prins carnaval Geleen
Eva Braun
carnival 2
prins carnaval Geleen

Carnival...the horror...the horror.
What I wonder is, why do I find carnival so horrible?
Oh wait, it’s not that I find it horrible. I find it revolting.

In essence, it’s a great concept: “A short period of chaos, the temporary removal of social hierarchy. An exchange of roles and the exaggeration of the behaviour associated with the assumed role.” This gives the notion of some sort of social upheaval, which I’m always highly in favour of. Instead of social upheaval, though, chaos manifests itself in the manifold groups of people taking to the streets, behaving super strangely, clothed in bizarre outfits that pay no heed to any sort of vanity, who begin their drinking at 10 in the morning to rid themselves of last night’s hangover so that the party may continue unfettered. Thankfully, neither small-mindedness, intolerance, exclusion nor negativity impose obstruction for this daze of intoxication. When entering a mass of partying carnival-goers, you will immediately be immersed and welcomed, becoming part of the whole. You and the cavorting mass will become one.

You’ll see your neighbour joyfully frolicking his way past you in a failed attempt at a smurf outfit and you think to yourself, “There’s a spark of life inside him yet.” He’s likely thinking the same when he sees you in your homemade “Domino’s Pizza” suit. You spot the cashier from the local supermarket in passionate embrace and watch her green face paint mesh into her male fellow partygoer’s pink lipstick. Behind them, an extremely ugly clown is engrossed in an equally passionate embrace with a lamppost (not a costume, just a lamppost) while a carnival float in the shape of a nose passes by in the background.

There are many different versions of the history of carnival. At the core of just about every carnivalesque festivity lies a social or ecclesial hierarchy. There must be at least two parties of unequal social or ecclesial order. Because where there’s an authority, there are (with a bit of luck) a number of subjects or followers willing to emulate the wielders of power. The church’s authorities believed it would be beneficial for the “normal believers” to experience what life would be like when “the devil, witches, jesters, the antichrist, and the eccentricity in man” would rule during a short period of a few days of festivities before Ash Wednesday. They wanted to show the people how the world would fall to ruin and the depravity of a life lived solely by earthly principles. The logic of this reasoning might rightfully confuse you, as it basically implies the same as saying: give a man a million to do with what he wishes for three days and you’ll see, he’ll come crawling back to our church with his tail between his knees!

“A short period of chaos, the temporary removal of social hierarchy. An exchange of roles and the exaggeration of the behaviour associated with the assumed role.” Anthony Howell (1945) is a British performance artist who plays with reversals in his work. In the performance, The world turned upside-down (1998) he walks around in an austere, classic men’s suit worn backwards. Two piglets that scurry around him, snorting and grunting, accompany him. Howell corrects his outfit as he walks. With his backwards suit and his tie on his back, he tries to turn his coat around, and in doing so the sleeves of his jacket nearly end up as trouser legs. The piglets symbolize man’s lowly self-indulgence and literally deliver the soundtrack for the performance. After the performance is over, Wiener sausages are served to the audience. By wearing this suit, Howell seems to be conforming to certain social values, which he immediately sabotages this by abusing, as it were, the suit on his body. He’s wearing a suit, but at the same time, he’s not.

Anthony Howell, he world turned upside-down, 1998

“A short period of chaos, the temporary removal of social hierarchy. An exchange of roles and the exaggeration of the behaviour associated with the assumed role.” I suppose my repulsion lies in the following: a SHORT period of chaos? The TEMPORARY removal of social inequality? What about the remaining 365 days? It’s precisely this short window of opportunity that I disagree with. Four days where all are licensed to act weirdly, dress bizarrely, and anything is possible. People, this no more than a drop in the ocean! Oh artists of all nations, carry on, carry on. On all the other days it’s your duty to reveal the world in a different light, to turn the inside out and the upside down!

“Defining, but also the forgetting of time is very important during carnival. The clock is overcome. When we celebrate carnival, we are greater than time. This is nearly metaphysical. You could almost say my book is also about Zen Buddhism.” As said by the Amsterdam author Jan van Mesbergen (1971), following his novel Naar de overkant van de nacht (loosely translated to: To the Other Side of Night,) that takes place in the daze of the carnival in Venlo that he visits annually.

(Oh artists of all nations, carry on, carry on!)

Portret van de kunstenaar als jonge man, 1959

Portret van de kunstenaar als jonge man, 1959

Portret van de kunstenaar als jonge man, 1959

Portret van de kunstenaar als jonge man, 1959

Art’s main point of origin is no longer restricted to the solitude of a lonely studio. Instead, it is created through dialogue with others, whether or not they are physically present. Interactive elements form important aspects of the work. Originality and eternal value, so inherently characteristic of modern art, no longer hold the same importance. What does retain its gravity is what can be conjectured to be a deep seated need for immortality and the perpetual need for the self affirmative: ‘I exist!

Access to media and technical possibilities has democratised art even further. Every individual can easily express himself and make himself heard. In a similar fashion, the masses were able to make themselves seen through photography and film at the beginning of the last century. People will always want to leave a trace, no matter how trivial. One could interpret this need as the constant reshaping of identity. What they think and do takes a temporary form in the constant confrontation with the other. It’s this need that has become a basic necessity for the young today.

Internet and the mobile phone are very suitable as artistic devices. Especially the mobile phone allows us to exist in multiple contexts, or “thanks to the specific characteristic of it’s medium, mobile telecommunication disrupts typical narrative elements such as [unity] of space (setting) and linear casuality in time (plot) in addition to the image of a consistent, thoughtful character (unicity).’ Also, ‘people are exceptionally fascinated by experiences and non-rational, magical moments that they often consciously seek out’.

They are especially capable of sharing their own story—narrative, auditory, and visual—in relationship to others across the world.

Looking at artists’ work process, the exchange of image and narrative does not necessarily need to take form outside the virtual space in a desperate attempt to materialize. The temporary and imperfect character of art, especially in relationship to interaction and transition, is represented in Japanese with the term “wabi sabi.” This term expresses the relationship between beauty and transience. Leonard Koren explains wabi sabi as ‘a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.’ The artist increasingly makes use of fleeting images that, through media, are globally transmitted and progressively refer to a common frame of reference.

The work is no longer a representation of the artist’s living environment. The origin and starting point of the work lies within that or, better yet, it becomes part of it. It finds a place on the Internet and in the environment, the society, and in thinking. And once again, the artwork is no longer about mass communication or about interculturality. It is about articulation, confrontation, and the invention of shared stories without a set goal.

Nicolas Bourriaud typifies contemporary art as the arena of exchange: the virtual platform of exchange that the artist, too, is a part of. Because artists utilise an artistic form in lieu of the every day form, the every day becomes extraordinary and the extraordinary becomes every day. The traces, or memories, that their work leaves behind evidences their capability to be temporarily part of that culture in a virtual (or non-virtual) place at a specific moment.