239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

Title card of the movie TENSION

Title card of the movie TENSION

The following is an introduction to a lecture about systems from the programme of the Studium Generale. During her talk, she speaks about the difficulty of speaking of language through language, since language is a system in itself.

This lecture is impossible. Remaining silent might be the better option. Speaking, or rather: language as a system. My speaking, thus, undermines, with each word I utter, the subject that I’m tackling: systems. In other words, how can I speak of a system while I speak using a system? Which language should I use? There is no way to create distance from the subject. I’ve lost my credibility. My talk is in vain, my presentation is a failure before I’ve even commenced.

Where to begin? Par où commencer? Waar moet ik beginnen?

[Tine Melzer/Kasper Andreasen]

Structures and systems are not immediately visible, Roland Barthes wrote in Writing Degree Zero in 1953. They’re impossible to immediately comprehend, it’s hardly possible to distinguish or name a system in one glance. You won’t automatically discern the systematic characteristic inherent in an object or phenomenon. “Everything has a schedule, if you can find out what it is,” according to the American poet John Ashbery. The school is a system. As we stand here, we form a system. Even the jumper that you put on in the morning is a system, but you’re hardly aware of the pattern that lies at the foundation of that system. You didn’t stop and ponder the production process that produced your jumper. Or the advertising campaign where your garment featured. Or the system that shaped your sweater: the system of yarn and needles, hours of patience, cups of tea—that is, if it hasn’t been machine produced. You didn’t think of your jumper and it’s place in the ever fickle, but ultimately systematically developing system of fashion. Although initially completely invisible, a long history of colour, material, and design precedes the existence of your sweater. As you can see, we’re initially oblivious to the countless systems inherent to products and objects. We only recognise patterns and system on second glance.

It’s not always easy to know whether systems are intentionally put in place by their maker. Does the system lie in the “eye of the beholder,” or does it lie within the object? Hanne phoned me a few weeks ago, asking me if I would do a talk on systems. At that moment, AfterGlow, an artist publication by Navid Nuur was laying before me. While I spoke to Hanne, the little magazine stared back at me: on a photograph, eight matchsticks were laid out on a tabletop, their heads charred to greater degrees. Or, you could see the heads as portraying a downward slope. It all depends on how you look at it. During our phone call discussing systems, I suddenly noticed the horizontal wood grain of the table top on the photo, through which the vertically placed matchsticks created a rhythmic grid.

These are the days


I wasn’t sure if it had been the artist’s intention to incorporate this last system of horizontal and vertical lines into the image. Was it an intentional grid, had it been inserted consciously or unconsciously? Was it a consequence of the first system I’d perceived of rising and falling diagonals within the image? Or was seeing a grid the logical consequence of my dialogue with Hanne, in which we spoke of systems within artworks? You know the phenomenon: think of the colour red, and the city seems doused in red.

“While I spoke to Hanne, the little magazine stared back at me: on a photograph, eight matchsticks were laid out on a tabletop, their heads charred to greater degrees.” After I’d noted the sentence, I changed, as a variation on my own wording, the word “matchsticks” to the more poetic, but also more precise “wooden slots.” And as soon as I’d named the wooden quality of the matchsticks on the photo, they began to create a wondrous similarity or contrast to the wooden backdrop they were laid out on. Or was the table a laminated surface, onto which a fake depiction of wood was printed? I suddenly saw the image in a different context. It began to move. Or was the similarity or contrast to wood only textual merely because I named it, because I wrote about it?

Video still from Théâtre de poche by Aurélien Froment

Video still from Théâtre de poche by Aurélien Froment

This is a excerpt from a lecture for a Studium Generale on Systems. In her talk, she speaks of the difficulty of using language to describe systems because it, too, is a system.

I played a game this weekend:countless square cards were laid out onto a large glass table covered in a grid, the compartments of which were sized to match the cards. There were always two corresponding cards like in the game “memory.” The player’s task was to find the pairs. But unlike memory, the cards were never identical. Pairs belonged “together” for different reasons. The reasons for their compatibility differed: the partner to a yellow card might be a painter’s brush dipped in the same colour. Or two cards pictured different components of what was obviously the same machine. My fellow player and I searched for pairs while we argued why two images matched. Ultimately, it wasn’t the person with the tallest stack of corresponding cards who won. What was more important for winning was having the best arguments for why two cards matched. This game was about image, about how we relate, how write systems, tell stories, and how we write histories.

This game, an artwork by the French artist, Aurélien Froment, was based on a magic trick by a Flemish magician, who in turn, had learned the trick from his English colleague, Arthur Lloyd. During his act, Lloyd asked his audience to name an object, after which he conjured the corresponding card out of his jacket pocket. At the end of his career, Lloyed carried 1600 cards in his pockets.

After the show, as we discussed this “théâtre de pôche/pocket theatre,” we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t only this magic trick that had inspired this game as art/art as a game. In fact, the technique of the magic trick also recalled how travelling bards and troubadours memorised their songs and poetry during the Middle Ages. Because of the customised nature of their performance, it was inevitable that the delivery of their song would never be identical in any two places. It was undisputable that disparities in delivery such as the trill of voice and the omission of certain passages were part of the act. Inherent within their act was a newsworthy element, something which now leads to controversy – an artwork must be a closed entity, referring to itself. It was a given that the poet actively include daily life, in other words what we now would call society. The game shows that language, too, is capable of making this connection. To play this game of language, one had to wander, to sing, sit silent, guess and gamble, look further, to not follow the fixed markings of the grid but to find one’s own path instead.

They were stern, yet loving. He was never short of food, though it was rarely ever tasteful. Finishing off his plate was such a lengthy process that the last bites were usually cold. Nothing out of the ordinary happened while he played on the streets. Every now and then, his report card showed a fail. There was only one thing that worried him. Worry might be too strong a word; rather, something had occurred to him. Something must have gone wrong somewhere down the line. Something he could not grasp. No curse had befallen him, yet no blessing either.

The teacher often arranged the students in a line. After all, line was the most practical way to manoeuvre a group from A to B. From class to the schoolyard for recess, from the street to the swimming pool for swimming lessons. It was fun standing in line because at least you knew something unusual was bound to happen, unlike when sat your desk. But standing in line did not always foretell a pleasant event. If ever the class was suddenly asked to stand in line, one could rest assured that at the end of the hall you’d be awaited by a white coat holding an injection needle. And without fail, he was always the first to be called. To bare his arm, to stretch open his mouth. It took a while for him to notice. Initially he believed fate to be at work, until he began to realize that maybe there was something actually wrong with him.

At home and leaning over a never-ending plate of food, he began to inquire. His father took him aside, which was in itself a foreboding act. It must be something from the adult world, the scope of which was difficult to discern.

‘Thousands of years ago, in another country, the alphabet was invented. We’re not exactly sure why, but they decided that the letter A should come first. And it’s been like that ever since. Don’t think that the A will ever move to another spot in the alphabet. This is one of the few things in life that you can be certain of. Just like the A will always be the first letter of Aarsman. That’s why an Aarsman is usually at the front of a line. At least, when lines are arranged in alphabetical order. Of course, there are many other names that begin with an A. But, think about it, how many names do you know that begin with two As? That’s the reason Aarsmans usually are called up first. There may be times when this is unpleasant, but usually itturns out to be quite useful. Like when Sinterklaas comes to school, and you’re called up for presents. For example.’

Father saw wrinkles of thought forming on his son’s forehead.

‘You’ll have to bite the bullet, but you’ll see, in due time you’ll only ever want to be first. Why do you think we have sayings like the early bird catches the worm? And how about don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today?”

Holy smokes, Hans Aarsman thought. The name came from his father. And he went on and on about how wonderful it was to carry that name. But indeed, if something pleasant was to happen, the Aarsmans were always at the frontline.

“The early bird catches the worm.” And: “don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” He repeated the idioms, tasted them, they lay ready on his lips. They came in handy if ever at a loss of words. He added a new one: “First come first served.” Some seemed to have been invented especially for little boys who had to stand at the front of the line against their will. But strangely, on his quest for new idioms, he encountered many that declared the very opposite. Like: “Haste makes waste,” and: “The first shall be the last.” In fact, idioms seemed to go in every possible direction. “Waste makes haste.”

The idioms were still contradicting themselves when one night it wasn’t he, but his brother, who was the last to finish his plate. He noticed this because the last bite to disappear into his mouth was not cold as usual, but in fact, lukewarm. Without truly deciding to, he started upping his tempo. For the first time, he saw the advantages to being fast. If something was to happen, he might as well get it over with immediately. The way he saw it was, when his classmates were standing, shivering standing in a row, he’d already had his injection. And while the others were still being examined, he could leisurely recline. Before he knew it, he’d gotten used to being a double A’d Aarsman.

And then things changed. He noticed how nervous he’d turn when not standing first for inoculations and dentists. He sped behind his desk the very moment he returned from school to do his homework. He scarfed down the food on his plate. With everything he did, he though: if it has to happen, then let’s have it done at once! And so, until this very day, he speeds through all, both the fun and the not-so-fun in record time. A birthday party? Don’t stick around too long. Don’t overstay your welcome. Should a bill or form arrive in the mail, Hans Aarsman will fill them in that very night and toss them into the nearest mailbox. Never owing anydebts. His name is always at the top of a list. There’s no avoiding that man! No group manifestation without his name at the top of the list. And that’s how I succeeded in being able to have my say right here. That’s one thing, but there’s another undeniable aspect to the last name.

It happened in the biology classroom. The first years of middle school were all about the body: blood circulation, digestion, the nervous system. Then came the other mammals, from big to small, from whale to mole. And then came the cold-blooded animals, the frogs and the crocodiles. He must have been sixteen when they came to the multicellular organisms. After which came the parasites, organisms that couldn’t sustain life on their own and needed a host to survive. This could be a plant, an animal, or a human. They crawled in, started their feeding, and laying their eggs. Ringworm, lintworm, hookworm. How they came from pigs, how cross contamination occurred. One by one, the teacher drew them on the blackboard. His thoughts were wandering – there were quite a few parasites to be named – when the sound of his classmates jeering jolted him back to reality. The teacher had drawn a creature on the board. A moon-shaped staff. Was it hairy? He doesn’t remember, but can clearly recall the title it was given: Aarsmade (n.b. translated from Dutch into: Arse Maggot.) The jeering was deafening, and they were pointing… at him. The precise nature of the aarsmade is still not entirely clear to him. When the teacher understood the cause for the uproar, she quickly wiped the drawing off the board. Never again was the aarsmade spoken of. By the teacher, that is. His fellow classmates eagerly entertained themselves for weeks, conjuring variations of his last name. How utterly inspirational nature can be. Go ahead, try it, it’s not hard to come up with a few yourself. At the time, buttguy and assdude were by far the most successful. Don’t react to their taunting, he had resolved, and he didn’t.

When the Americans started napalming Vietnam a few weeks later, man, plant, and animal were burnt to a cinder. The school was so caught up in these events that the creature and his unfortunate namesake were cast into the oblivion. Still, he was slightly fearful that the aarsmade would rear its head during examination week. What if one of the questions was: name three human parasites? But the teacher was sure to avoid, at all costs, any question that concerned that possibly hairy, moon-shaped little staff.

These days I sporadically hear a nearly inaudible chuckle when phoning an institution, or I’ll see the corner of a mouth turn upwards at a counter. The most spectacular would be the time I reported the disappearance of my bicycle. The policeman on duty pulled an earnest face: “I can’t believe they never told you that it hardly costs a thing to change your name! A strange name will even be changed for free!”

But I’d never do that. Above me and below me, the phonebook lists a plethora of Aarsmans. Do I abandon them? I know them all. They’re all descendents of my grandfather. Until recently, that is. In the 80’s, a small migration took place. Dozens of Aarsmans from outside Amsterdam moved into the city and connected themselves to a phone line. They, too, had understood the benefits of alphabetic order.

A few months ago, the newspaper wrote of an Olga Aarsman who competed in the miss Ajax pageants. She’s no cousin of mine, and she didn’t win.

The first time I noticed how interesting the effect of name giving was to me, was during my first year at the Rietveld Art Academy.

'Create a panorama.' That was the assignment.

As a perfect example of my generation I didn't find out how to actually make a panorama, instead I went to see the dentist and asked him to make a frontal x-ray of my teeth. I printed it on an A3 and thought: this is a panorama and I'm going to call it 'City by night'. The text belonging to an image can unlock or represent an entire world. The tension between the word, its meaning, the image and its visibility can serve as a playground. Marcel Duchamp referred to the function of the title in arts as an invisible colour.
Sometimes the invisible is a promise. Like a pregnant belly. What's inside, will receive a name. It's the cherry on top.

Today I want to talk about names because life begins with having a name. I will introduce name giving with a juicy piece of gossip. I thought I had reached closure in my first sad love story when I was eighteen years old. But the final scene came later.

Not that long ago I opened my facebook and saw a couple of baby pictures. My ex-boyfriend just had a baby. I read the title of the photo album: my name, followed by at least ten exclamation marks. He had named his baby daughter Annelein. Midas Dekkers once said: Your name is a poem. Parents try to fill it with meaning that is supposed to comprehend the greatness of your being.

I rebooted my computer and logged on and off of Facebook but the site was not the problem. By naming his daughter Annelein he had managed to create a connection between him and me.

Of course we are not really connected. Of course it's only a name. Every sane person knows there's no harm here. Then why did it feel so poisonous?
The gesture is so much bigger than the actual event. It's an exercise of power.

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet’

The North American Indian treated his name as a part of the self. His name is just as important as his eyes or teeth. Malignant use of his name is as harmful as hurting his body. There are Aboriginals who keep their names a secret to protect themselves against evil. There are Indian tribes that demand their members to change their names after one of the members has died. Some Indians have to deserve their name, until that time they are called 'boy' or 'girl'. Other Indians will never say their own name out loud when they're close to a river because the water can take away their soul and evil will get hold on them.

People have names, art works have titles, products carry a brand, plants and animals have a terminology.

If I remember correctly there are Aboriginals whose names refer to natural phenomena. The name Karla could, for example, mean 'fire'. When that person dies, they never use that name again and have to come up with a different name for 'fire'. That's how their worldview is under constant change. The associations connected to the word 'fire' will have to be reborn.

In theory I appreciate a worldview that claims authority in this way. Not because I am willing to view the world in the same way and not because I would be able to, but because you never know when Karla is going to die.

Some people speak on behalf of the law; others speak on behalf of art. There's always a connection between claiming power and the usage of names. Americans tell me: 'Hi! What's your name? Annelein? Oh hi, Annelein. Nice to meet you Annelein.'

A friend of mine thinks it's disgusting that cashiers are forced to wear nametags. It makes them submissive.

You can tag someone and reduce him or her to a notion. Or, in the case of products, turn their name into a concept.