241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

‘I can’t make art, is this an illness?’ is the first question Trudy Dehue asks her audience. As a philosopher and sociologist of science, she specialises in our concept of truth and what reality means within the field of science. At first sight, the question and its conclusion might appear a bit strange, but through her lecture we come to understand that these strange conclusions are normal in today’s society.

Scientific research is much more a matter of shaping reality than of discovering it. By this, Dehue refers to technology and classifications as the main transformers of our perception of reality. Technology allows us to experience the world differently. For example: before the invention of light, parties as we now know them wouldn’t exist. For the simple reason that without light, it is impossible to ‘go out’. In this case, technology changes our perception of reality since we can now experience the night with the help of artificial light.

As said before, classification also plays a big role in our perception of reality. When we look at ‘homosexuality’ we can ask ourselves if homosexuality has always existed. According to Trudy Duhue, the answer is no, for the simple reason that in ancient times, homosexuality was a common phenomena that remained unnamed. It wasn’t until Saint

Saint Augustine (354-430) that same sex relationships were identified as sin.

The first DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), published in 1952, describes ‘homosexuality’ as a disease. This is the first occurrence of this terminology, and it is since then that we name persons that fall for the same gender ‘homosexual’. The reason why people agreed with this definition at the time was that - before this publication of the DSM - being gay was seen as something negative. And if the other option is to be defined as being ‘bad’, most people prefer to be termed as ill. The weird thing is that, although we are far more tolerant now, we still use the DSM definition—in essence the description of a disease. This all has to do with the fact that we have an urge to conform to society.

Harvard Psychological Laboratory Display. Circa 1892.

A next slide shows us a rat with the title: ‘’How to test depression pills?’’ Trudy tells us that scientific research for medicines for depression are done with rats. Generation after generation, the rats are put in boxes with a trap. The rat hangs by its tail and it has to find a way to free itself. When the mouse –test after test– frees itself it is seen as ‘not depressed’. But when the mouse gives up the effort to free itself, it is seen as ‘depressed’. Trudy tries to tell us that we should be more aware of conclusions that are drawn by the medical world. The rats are a great example to show how ridiculous and absurd our notion of ‘depressed’ is and that scientific research is – as said before – much more a matter of shaping reality than of discovering it.

There came a day when someone decided that an end should come to the many unanswered questions in the world. This person opened an office with visitation hours, just like a city hall or the post office. You’d draw a number, and once it was your turn, you’d walk up to the counter and ask the employee your most pertinent question. With an answer in hand, you’d walk out the door feeling satisfied.

I wish it existed. Only I wouldn’t know which question I’d ask first, because I have so many: where does the light go when I turn off the switch? What came before the big bang? Where is the end of the universe? Is there a God? What is infinity? Do invisible things exist? And if that wasn’t enough, the answers to these questions would most likely prompt even more questions.

I’m in Berlin, standing in front of the doors to the institute for “unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems”. The building is on a corner and covered in white sandstone and tall mirrored windows in metal frames. “Denkerei” is written in pink letters above the front door. At first glance, the building is more reminiscent of a bank office or a fancy, but dated, hotel. To the left and the right of the door, the windows are covered in sentences such as:

-Thinker at your service

-Institute for theoretical art, universal poetry and outlook

-General secretariat for accuracy and for the soul

Everyone is welcome to enter the Denkerei and to present his or her question to its staff. I imagine that this employee then pulls a thick tome out of a heavy safe, leafs through and recites the answer, with a finger all the while pointing at the sentence at hand. But no, that’s not how it works. The Denkerei is no oracle, no storehouse of answers. This is where scientists, artists, politicians and writers come to think, reason, and discuss.

I try to open the front door. At first, it refuses to budge. It’s only when I lean against it with my entire weight that it opens. I step inside. The door swings shut. Street noises are far behind me. Is there a connection between the heaviness of a door and the weight of a place?

I find myself in a grand space, standing on a gleaming wooden floor that stretches over the entire surface of the building. Smooth white walls, a thin table occupied by a gigantic floral arrangement, chairs lined up on an empty stage, but also a sitting corner, and a bar above which lamps bearing the Denkerei logo emit a soft red light. Artworks are hung on the walls: painted panels that portray an intriguing play on perspective. This space is a cross between a waiting room, a gallery, and a hotel lobby.

At the table, a man sits behind a stack of newspapers. I recognise his face from the presentations I’ve seen on Youtube. It’s Bazon Brock: artist, dramatist, professor of aesthetics, and founder of the Denkerei. Through Wikipedia I found that he presents lectures while standing on his head and that he temporarily lived inside of a glass display case, but luckily now he’s simply sitting on a chair at a table.

“Anyone can walk in and ask a question”, Brock explains. If the question is interesting enough, the Denkerei will hold a symposium for it. Thinkers from different disciplines such as biology, geology, philosophy and medicine, but also from literature and the arts come together in order to explore the question and to utilise knowledge from these many different areas. All the while, thinking itself is sharpened. “Poets teach scientists how to think, and scientists teach poets how to ask questions”, Brock tells me. This doesn’t lead to ready-made answers: questions stay unanswered, even after a whole symposium is dedicated to it.

The Denkerei does not intend to find an answer, a quick fix nor a solution. The act of thinking is the main goal, which is not as simple as it may seem. “Learning to ask the right questions is essential” says Brock. You need to know which questions you’re asking and how to formulate them. We don’t learn this at school. Instead, we learn how to produce answers, which means that we often forget the nature of the questions that precede them.

In other words, the Denkerei does not supply answers nor does it bandage brooding brains. There is no intention to placate, like a visit to the doctor might: even though you might still feel ill or be in pain, you’ll feel better knowing you’re carrying an illegible prescription in your bag. A formulaic salvation that will rid you of your illness or pain, an answer to your question so that you’ll need not think further.

The Denkerei is far removed from anything of the sort. After twenty minutes of questioning Bazon Brock, I’ll leave this place with at least as many new questions.

“If you can formulate a good question, you’ll understand that an answer is also a question. An answer is a question in a different form.” After Brock has spoken this last sentence, he leads me to the door. Through the window I can see that despite the falling rain, the sun is shining.

Maybe questions exist precisely because there are answers.

Dorien de Wit's visit to the Denkerei in Berlin is part of her research into bringing art, science, and society closer to one another. This research was made possible through funding by the Amsterdam Foundation for the Arts (Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst).

Cinedix: Contemporary Film Lexicon

An ABC of film through which Paul Kempers finds relationships between various entries from a lexicon on contemporary film. From “South Korean feel good” to “Cinéma á la Grècque” to the “Secret of the Plotless Plot” to “Bruce Willis dialectics.”

Humour, the unexpected, and Pacino, Al – Many thinkers have broken their heads over what makes something funny. Great minds like Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson have baffled themselves over the exact mechanism to trigger laughter. The father of psychoanalysis argued that spasms of laughter were unconscious manifestations of emotions buried within the Id and the Ego, that spurred the Superego to urge the mouth to open, the stomach muscles to contract, and the vocal chords to fibrillate at maximum intensity. But still, he couldn’t quite lay his finger on what actually made something funny.

Although the vitalist Bergson believed he had uncovered the riddle of laughter with Le Rire, little laughter could be heard during the monotonous readings of his treatise on humour, and there was no revelations on the secret of the joke.

A similar fate befell the casual philosopher, Harry Mulisch, who gladly pontificated the circumstances of wit without as much as a grin from the fellow member of his gentleman’s club. (“Does the joke precede laughter, or is it laughter that brings about the joke? These oppressive questions are a necessary imperative within my writer’s practice.”)

Typically, the practice of humour wisely avoids definitions of humour. Or it’s found in the dry laconic observation that humour comes into existence once the joker enters the stage. Like one forgotten German comedian once said “Humor ist wenn ein Komiker da ist” – an equally dubious as striking deduction in light of German history and Rudi Carrell’s career.

Humour is likewise spoken little of in the world of film, apart from the screenwriters who are expected to have an answer to everything. (“Humour is the result of a mutual misunderstanding between the simple logic of the dictate of tension”) And while actors often discuss their trade, I can’t imagine a conclusive statement on the concept of humour to have ever crawled through the doors of café De Smoeshaan.

But there are actors that are unexpectedly funny.

Take Al Pacino, for example. The 74-year-old actor recently visited the Venice film festival, where two of his newest films were premiering. Pacino plays in Barry Levinson’s filming of Philip Roth’s The Humbling— a burnt out, depressed stage actor begins a relationship with a lesbian woman—and in Manglehorn, in which he, according to Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, plays a “confused ex-convict and locksmith, who has great difficulty with social contacts.”

It all sounds very promising: the depressiveness, the confusion, and the difficulty with social contacts.

Also very promising is the discovery that the eternally grumpy looking Pacino has a sense of humour. He makes some surprising remarks during the press conference. When asked why he’s wearing mirrored sunglasses, the actor replies that his eyes are irritated from allergies. His glasses, the sharply trimmed goatee, the rings, and the beaded necklace, the mullet growing into his neck, are all part of his newest role: an aging rock star searching for his long lost daughter. The film is called Danny Collins.

When he sneezes the actor says: “I’m not sure what I’m allergic to. Maybe it’s my goatee?” See: healthy self image, a girlfriend forty years his junior, competition with Robert De Niro.

Filmlexico Cinedix appeared between 2005 and 2007 in De Filmkrant. The series was revived in 2013. The episodes are sent at irregular intervals to an irregular group of recipients. The author Paul Kempers is a film historian and works at, among others, the Amstedam film museum Eye as writer and editor.

They may not have been called teenagers yet (this word didn't exist until the New York Times wrote a feature on teenagers in 1945) but these youthful subcultures were still recalcitrant, anti-establishment and they dressed to their own codes. In some European cities, this resulted in the formation of youth gangs, some more violent than others:

An arrested member of the Scuttler gang

During the late 19th century, groups of young men known as the Scuttlers alleviated the tedium and smog of the industrial Manchester streets with petty crime and inter-gang battles, fighting with heavy buckled belts decorated with pictures of beasts, the names of women or hearts pierced with arrows. These buckles, swung from their arm, were not intended to kill, but to maim their opponents.

With their hair cut short at the sides but with a so-called donkey fringe (longer on the left side and plastered down over the left eye) and their hats tilted, they were a far cry from the other youths in their working class neighbourhoods. Their bell-bottomed trousers, brass-tipped pointed clogs and colourful silk scarves added to their idiosyncrasy.

Apache Gang

At the start of the 20th century, Parisian youths banded together to form the Apaches, a criminal gang known to be especially violent and ruthless.

They wandered Paris, rejecting their working class status and seduced by cars, girls, nightlife and money, preferring to spend their time at the Moulin Rouge rather than slaving away in a factory.

Apache revolver without a barrel and stabbing knife

The Apache was likewise a dandy: always well dressed in a silk scarf and cap, and with an undeniable hautain air of cool, who had a sense of honour and a taste for distinction. Part of the Apache subculture was a dance that mimicked street fighting, that at times became so violent that members were seriously hurt and even killed.

A group of Eidelweiss Pirates

Fast-forwarding to Nazi Germany, gangs of youths formed that were more politically inclined than their predecessors. The Edelweiss Pirates were a group of loosely organised youths spread all over Germany between the ages of 14 and 18 who refused to take part in the Hitler Jugend.

A group of Eidelweiss Pirates

They heavily rejected the norms of the Nazi regime through mostly small gestures: using outlawed symbols, their dress (long hair, colourful chequered shirts, bright flashy neck scarves,) camping trips (now seen as an innocent pastime that during wartime Germany could have serious consequences,) singing anti-Hitler songs; or by pestering the Hitler Youths by ambushing their patrols and beating them up or stealing their bicycles.

A group of Eidelweiss Pirates

But the Edelweiss Pirates also assisted deserters, concentration camp escapees, and helped spread Allied propaganda leaflets. Of the Ehrenfeld Group, a faction of the Pirates, twelve members were publicly hanged in 1944, including their 16 year old leader Barthel Schink, who had plans to blow up a Gestapo building in Cologne.

Whether getting caught up in bar fights or fighting fascism, these groups had one thing in common: they refused to conform to their elders and explosively resisted.

16 year old Barthel Schink
En zapatillas, 2007
No title, 2008
Nights like obstacles, 2011
En zapatillas, 2007

People are in a truly awful state. Wherever I look, I find someone tottering toward a void.

In the bar where I was yesterday, a girl fell asleep on her table. Just before that, she took one look at my son, Joan, and gave him a faint, nondescript smile. I was amazed she still had the strength for such tenderness, or even to put makeup, however poor the result. I ached just watching her.

Alex, 2008

Today on the street it was an ugly woman, struggling to put on her coat. I imagined the staleness of her life and the wretchedness of being without sexual attractiveness.

People that talk to themselves in the street; people just letting themselves die; mistakes not corrected now taking their toll in mid-life. There's no going back. The bitterness of having wasted one's chance to live has marked their features. They are drowning in senselessness, and only short-term solace will relieve the sting: a beer, gambling at the arcades, watching peep shows, drugging oneself to death ensues, a weekly spell of the idiotic, underhand boxing match of Moros y Christianity1 , vainly attempting to persuade someone in a bar that you are an expert on politics; avoidance, self-deception, watching others suffer; attitudes so often shown by many of those around us.

Feeling like Gilles, 2008

I get dizzy just thinking about how commonplace unhappiness is, how many unhappy souls cross my path every day.

And the girl I saw yesterday... where did she find the strength to smile at my child? In any case, thanks for passing the baton on to him. Joan, it's your turn now. Don't stumble.

1 Moros y Christianos is a talk show on Spanish television.