While writing about Fluxus and the archive (see the previous three blog entries), a work that sprung to my mind was Arthur Køpcke’s Reading/Work Piece No. 15. It is one of those works that seems to want to generate an archive of its own. It consists of a single staple, accompanied by a text to the effect that it ”will fit the following staplers: alpha – baby – brynce – bykama – cito – citopress – citofix – criterion – cometa – el casco – electric – erasit – ergo – everstrong – express – folle – frog – fafnir – floris – focus – fox – ideal – jilliot – jimco – king – knirps – kuki – longdon – mana – mosda – novus – rex – rexel – senator – sentamani – servo – servo 15 – servo 90 – servo plier – sigma – skre – skrema – stabil – stigma – three-in-one – trioh – universal – vélos – zenith”. The list is followed by a couple of empty lines, marked “place for supplements”, and that is all.
Of course the work is first and foremost an excellent example of the care and attention given to small, disregarded everyday objects and events by Fluxus artists. George Maciunas called Køpcke an “independent”, and none of his works were ever published as Fluxus multiples, but he was an early and important member of the Fluxus network, so it is justified to call him a “Fluxus artist”. But there is more to the piece. Like all Køpcke’s Reading/Work Pieces (128 or 129, depending on the version you are reading), it is both a logical conundrum and an invitation to act.
To start with the first: the staple no longer “fits” any staplers at all, because it is used, and therefore the text does not connect to the object. It is clear what Køpcke meant, but strictly speaking, either the object is wrong or the statement that is made in the text is false. The best that can be said is that the staple now fits the paper, not the stapler. Moreover, it is used in a way that denies its function. It could have been used to hold the pages of a Manuscript of Reading/Work Pieces together, but it holds on to nothing. It becomes a model instead – a model of what a staple can do. The text is not about the staple next to it, but about an ideal staple that the reader mentally distills from the example on the page.
The way Køpcke uses the staple reminds forcefully of paragraph 2.011 of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Things are independent in so far as they can occur in all possible situations, but this form of independence is a form of connection with states of affairs, a form of dependence”. “Things” should here be read as “objects” and “states of affairs” as “combinations of objects”. The paragraph is a part of section 2 of the Tractatus, where Wittgenstein defines things as always belonging to a situation – what characterizes a thing, he says, is its ability to connect, or more precisely, its ability to connect with other things in situations. The independence of an object is defined by the way it is dependent upon other objects to create situations. A staple is a staple as long as it can perforate a sheet of paper.
Moving to the other side of Køpcke’s artistic project, the invitation to act that is extended by this particular piece is the one to “add supplements”. If one had done so consistently since the publication of the Manuscript of Reading/Work Pieces (sometime after 1963, we do not quite know when it was finished), one would have had to try the staple on any stapler one came across and added the name of all staplers that fitted. However, the task would necessitate a lot of crossing-out as well. Out of all the brand names Køpcke lists, I can only find evidence of the continued existence of El Casco, Ergo, Folle, Focus, Ideal, Jimco, Novus, Rexel, Skre, Stabil, Universal and Zenith. The simple instruction to “add supplements” generates a map of closures, bankruptcies and takeovers in the office supplies industry.
What it does as well is illustrate the way an object acquires value. Some of the staplers Køpcke mentions –Skrema, Trioh and Velos, for example – have become collector’s items and fetch many times the price of a simple stapler for everyday use. By including brand names, Køpcke goes far beyond a simple invitation to take a closer look at an everyday object. He leads the reader’s attention out into the world of commodities and confronts him/her gently but firmly with the rules that govern that world. Moreover, it does so in a way that invokes Western society’s preferred ways of organizing data: the list, the map and the archive. In this manner, the used and useless staple gets a function after all, and even a double one: on the one hand, that of conjuring up thoughts of the archive and on the other, that of metaphorically connecting data.
This also means that Køpcke goes way beyond Wittgenstein. The Tractatus is about dependence and independence in a narrow sense, ultimately a linguistic one. Reading/Work Piece No. 15, on the other hand, is about dependence and independence in an extended, social sense. At the point where Køpcke comes closest to Wittgenstein, he confronts the reader with certain material qualities of the objects he uses, in this case the staple, the stapler and the piece of paper, and the ways in which they (the staple and the stapler and/or the staple and the piece of paper) connect, in a purely material sense. However, he also underlines their function and their value and ultimately the way in which we deal with all these data.
But then, his aim was not to create a system of thought that would enable everyone to come to grips with language and reality. His aim was to enable his readers to work out new ways of interacting with the world around them as individuals, without taking recourse to pre-existing systems of thought. He needed complexity, but not in order to make sense of it. He needed it as unmapped territory that everyone can wander through as they please. In Deleuzian terms, he sought a nomadic way of interacting with the world, not an imperial one; a system of thought that shapes itself from the inside, not a system that forces a shape upon thought from the outside. Therefore his archive is totally different from the ones we are used to. He gives us the terms, but not the structure. He gives us the dynamics, but not the desired result. Which is worth keeping in mind when thinking about art and the archive.