239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

A box of matches is a pocketsize miracle. Destructive force taken hostage in a mass product, tamed nature by the pack. The matchstick, puny as it might be, is a great symbol for the way in which man has forced the elements under his control.

How our ancestors learned to handle fire cannot be said with certainty. It is plausible, however, that it has taken long for early humans to not only transport and maintain fire from a natural source, but to also generate it themselves. Ever since the invention of the matchstick, the art of making fire has become a piece of cake. Never before has fire been so user-friendly and mobile. Moreover, matches were ‘the only manmade objects that were so cheap that you could ask a stranger for one,’ writes sociologist J. Goudsblom in his book Fire and Civilisation.

Numerous scientists and philosophers have dealt with the question as to what distinguishes man from the animals. Some consider the use of language or tools characteristically human acquisitions, but there are plenty of indications that apes and other animals also make tools and master complex systems of communication. According to Goudsblom, the human species has a monopoly for one ability only: the control of fire. Over time, we have come to set the world on fire. On photos taken from space, the nightly earth glows with the domesticated fire of houses, factories, streets and highways.

The average nineteenth-century person used six to eight matches a day. Nowadays, weeks can pass before you strike a match. We might be completely dependent on fuel for the energy we extract from it, but the sources of our evolved fire remain out of sight. The fire of now is buried in power plants, factories, engines, cables and batteries. We ignite lamps, furnaces, cars and other equipment by pushing buttons. Fire in its original shape, flaming and smoking, has become ornamental. Candles, campfires and fireplaces belong to the realm of romanticism and vacation, they have become atmospheric accessories. There are still a few that smoke, but the electric cigarette is on the rise.

The matchstick has gradually become a nostalgic item. Will enough users remain to prevent their extinction? Surely. There are few things more moving than a box of matches. Like a group of jinn, the unused sticks lay asleep in their carton housing. Each match is a fuse, a chance to get something going. Even if that is merely a passing illusion, as is the case in the story of the girl with the sulphur sticks who, barefoot, sells bundles of matches on new years’ eve. She escapes the cold and hunger by lighting her own unsold merchandise, and experiences a vision with each stricken match until death catches her off guard. Against a single match the darkness flinches is the name of a picture slide installation by media artist Jeanne C. Finley from 1998. Sometimes a title is a work of art in itself.

I used to fantasise once in a while about a trip to a production forest for a matchstick factory. I wanted to walk through trees that would end up as fire sprigs in lightweight boxes, boxes you can shake to hear the sound of wafer-thin promises rattling against each other.

There are two fields in which the matchstick is still valued for its worth. First there is the market of the emergency kit. What if the earth is hit by a nuclear bomb, a natural disaster, a colliding meteorite, causing all electric circuits to fail? Who wants to have a chance at surviving such a catastrophe needs to make fire. Not a single emergency kit, therefore, lacks special supermatchsticks, waterproof and extra thick.

But also for ritual and religious occasions are matches still a precious requisite. Perhaps because they proffer the semblance of timeless naturalness, with their analogous flame and primal scent of fire. Yet the fact that the striking of a match is a modest ritual in itself might also have to do with it, a ritual in which light and warmth emerge at the expense of irreversible destruction. Every match perishes at the hands of its own function after all. That makes the striking of a match a grave moment. No matter how ephemeral or futile, it is a sacrifice. A full-fledged drama of thirty seconds: the preliminaries to the ignition, the promise of combustion, the ineluctable consumption that follows as the fire devours the wood, the catharsis of the freeing of light and heat, the demise when the material has served its turn. But without the end there is no beginning.

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.

Zwart licht, 1984

Douglas Gordon, Black Star, 2002

Zwart licht, 1984

The most interesting artists are always those who attempt the impossible. For example, they might hear someone from the largest lamp factory of the world say: “It’s impossible to make grey light, we’ve tried it in every way possible, but it’s impossible!” and immediately they’ll think, “Oh really? We’ll see about that!” The American James Turrell is one of these artists. He quite easily managed to succeed where Philips failed. He threw together a few fluorescent tubes, light bulbs, filters, and then— lo and behold! Light of the purest grey.

Of course, this is no small feat and it immediately poses the question if the same is possible with black light. The likelihood of this possibility is quite slim because “black” insinuates “to absorb light.” How could one ever create a light that absorbs light?

Dutch artist Rob Scholte once made a painting of black light (Nachtlicht, 1984). A large Philips logo is depicted, and through its round hole a desk lamp is visible, emanating a black smudge as though it were a soot-spewing chimney. It’s an interesting image but it remains a painted representation, whereas Turrell manages to create actual light. Nevertheless, Scholte’s black light became slightly more real when a postcard of the painting found its way to Philips, upon which the company ignited in anger. Ridiculously, the multinational’s lawyers demanded that the postcard be taken off the market. As if they could forbid artists to play on the grounds that they had left in frustration.

Philips did, by the way, successfully develop a Black Light that differs from the above connotation of black light. Black Light is the name for lamps that only emit a very small portion of the colour spectrum, namely theultraviolet range. Everyone knows these lamps from discos, for example. But in the disco, this light reflects offa multitude of people and objects. This will make you experience the light as strange, but definitely not as black. To experience the light as black, you’d have to empty the entire room and even cover the walls.

Douglas Gordon, Black Star, 2002

Douglas Gordon, a Scottish artist, did something similar in his installation Black Star (2002). The light in this room is extremely frightening; it’s almost like looking through an X-ray where every hair on your clothes, every flake of skin, every other visitor seems like a spectre. The artist’s voice resonates from hidden speakers and reads from the 19th century horror novel “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” by James Hogg. The space seems formless and without a single thing for your vision to latch onto, until you’re standing in the exact centre of the room, and you find yourself in the middle of a five-pointed star—the symbol of the devil. It’s literally and figuratively a black artwork.

For a while, it seemed as though the scientists would provide a clever answer to the black light question. On September 9th, 1987, the American James DeLucas published an article titled, “Definition of a Darkbulb”. The first sentence was: “The Darkbulb is an electronic device that produces darkness”. The rest of the article describes the specific workings of the black bulbs, which new and which old technology it uses, that the invention would allow one to take a nap in the middle of the day in the dark by pressing the light switch and so on.

Ugo Rondinone, The Third Hour of the Poem, 2005

Unfortunately, it turned out that the article came from the Journal of Irreproducible Results, and so nothing more was ever heard of the Darkbulb. Apparently, we shouldn’t expect anything from scientists or the lamp factories, meaning we have only the artists to rely on. This is actually very logical, since the greatest desire for the black light has been within circles of artists. Last year, the Swiss Ugo Rondine expressed this desire by building a two-meter high black light bulb, as if to say: if I can’t make a lamp that fills the room with darkness, I’ll make a dark lamp that fills the room with itself.

There’s a great chance that given the time, the artists will eventually produce an unexpected and inventive solution. Although scientists and light technicians have a much more extensive theoretical basis, artists are more flexible in their approach and dare to oppose conventional thinking. Some day, artists might just decide to create black light by placing the light switch on the person instead of on the wall. One press of the button and your eyes would roll backwards and immerse you in a delightful darkness. You’d be like the man in Blind Ernest (White), a photograph by Douglas Gordon, whose eyes are white, without iris. Ernest smiles happily, in complete contention in his black light.

There’s still no definitive answer to the problem, until now every solution is based on excluding white light, and black light still isn’t being made. But that’s the way it goes in art, the problem stays, it never stops, it never ends.