tirsdag den 22. februar 2011


Three weeks ago, I posted an entry about Hugo Ball’s “Karawane” and the multimedia spectacle that can be created out of a printed version of the poem, designed by the Berlin Dadaists, a diary entry in which Ball describes a poetry reading and a photograph of him in a “cubist” outfit. More specifically, I wrote about my own (and many others’) apparent need for authenticity, which makes us combine the three pieces to recreate a lost originary event and pointed out that they could also, and much more productively, be combined to make a statement about Ball’s and the Berlin Dadaists’ interest in language. The latter means contrasting the pieces of evidence instead of turning them into the harmonious whole we apparently so deeply crave, but here I spoke out in favour of surprise instead of regularity.
The argument made me think more about documentation, and especially about the use of photographic images as documentation. More specifically, I was reminded of Amelia Jones’ book Body Art, Performing the Subject, in which documentary photographs are described in terms of the Derridean supplement. It is the supplement that is the subject of this blog entry, so read on if you are interested in supplements - or if you want to know why I have red spots in my face on this week's photograph.
But instead of moving directly on to Derrida, I want to make a detour past a performance by Stanley Brouwn at Galerie Patio in Neu-Isenburg, just outside Frankfurt, on 13 February 1964. Although the performance is hardly ever discussed in any detail in the literature on 1960s performance art, it is quite well documented: the Archiv Sohm in Stuttgart keeps a whole series of photographs of it. To the scholar, finding something like that is like striking gold – but I also vividly remember the many hours I spent after that first glorious moment, trying to piece the fragmentary evidence together to form something resembling a narrative. My efforts are especially relevant for the argument I want to present here because Brouwn’s performance was so bizarre – the events it consists of offer no help whatsoever to those who want to reconstruct the bits as a continuous narrative – and because the documentation so readily and naturally made me try to reconstruct the original event.
The series begins with a photograph of Brouwn in front of the gallery entrance, peeling potatoes and throwing them into a pan filled with water; as is made clear by a puddle of water on the floor, hard. The next one shows him in front of the garage wearing skis. On the third photograph, he is inside the gallery, next to a lady who appears to be knitting. On the fourth one, the string has twisted itself around Brouwn’s face and stomach. He has a fork and spoon in his hands and looks as if he is being pulled forward. On the fifth photograph, the string has disappeared again, but Brouwn still holds the fork and the spoon. He eats a small clump of rice off a piece of fabric, perhaps a pillow. Next, he is shown holding a balloon and what appears to be a pair of scissors; he just might have cut a piece off the balloon and then closed it again, but the photograph is too unclear to be certain.
Next comes a series that appears to depict stages of the same action; to my surprise, I found them reproduced on duam85’s photo stream on Photobucket (click here – and I would be very grateful if someone could tell me who duam85 is and/or why he or she has reproduced that particular picture). The first one shows Brouwn standing in a corner next to a chair on a pedestal of concrete blocks. He balances a stick to which a pair of high heeled shoes is attached, on his feet and holds a large transparent plastic bag in his hands. On the next one, he is sitting down on the chair with the plastic bag pulled down over his body and the shoe-stick balanced across one foot. On the third one, he is standing up, still balancing the stick but holding the plastic bag in his hands. The final shot shows the chair on its concrete pedestal, now bearing books and flowers. In front of the chair, a box is placed. There are holes in the lid, in one of which a flower has been stuck.
The next two photographs also seem to depict a sequence. The first one shows Brouwn putting a tape recorder in a plastic bag and closing it by means of a belt. On the next one, he holds the bag up, so that we can see that a microphone is hanging out of it. The last group of photographs show Brouwn stretched out on the floor, busying himself with a magnifying glass, a caliper, an egg and a notebook. On the first one, he takes the magnifying glass out of a bag. On the next ones, he studies the egg, measures it, and writes the number 4,3 down in the notebook. The last photograph shows him still holding the egg, but now writing something on a sheet of paper.
After a lot of patient research, I now know more or less how the performance was constructed - but I am not going to tell you (ha ha!). The only thing I will reveal here is that the latter group of photographs illustrates the construction of a measured object. According to the announcement, the exhibition that the performance was the opening event of featured “BROUWNaction – BROUWNdemonstration – this way BROUWN – sealed objects – measured objects – BROUWNfilm – BROUWN eats a movie – coca cola statues – BROUWNcocktail – BROUWNmusic – BROUWNbooks”. But the fact that part of the action can be isolated already illustrates that what we are dealing here is not a continuous performance, which makes it all the more important to take a look at the reasons why one should want to combine the pictures to tell a coherent story anyway. At which point we turn to Derrida.
Derrida develops his theory of the supplement in chapter 2 of the second part of the Grammatology. He does so with the help of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau’s fetish for the spoken word and his enthusiasm about being a writer. Despite the fact that he bases his argument on an opposition between speech and writing, it is easy to translate it to the world of performances and photographs. Right at the beginning of the chapter he claims that “writing is dangerous from the moment that representation there claims to be presence and the sign of the thing itself”… and automatically, the scholar in the archive is transformed into the wizard’s apprentice (beardless, pimpled) who reads out a spell when the wizard is out, not knowing what he is doing and unaware of the consequences.
What the spell does is turn writing into a supplement for the spoken word. Such a supplement is a surplus, “a plenitude enriching another plenitude”, but it fills a void as well: “if it represents and makes an image”, he writes, “it is by the anterior default of a presence”. Actually, presence does not need a supplement. It is self-sufficient and therewith irreplaceable. The substitute cannot be equal to it, neither in substance nor in quality; but even though it is always alien and inferior, it gives an experience of presence (of speech, the real thing) anyway, because that is the way the supplement is experienced. The substitute offers itself to the individual as presence, but that presence “is the substitutive symbol of another presence”.
Here, the image of the wizard’s apprentice suddenly changes. The text suddenly begins to deal with masturbation, prostitutes and the Ideal Woman. Derrida introduces the terms auto-affection and hetero-affection, and suddenly one begins to wonder where the wizard apprentice got his pimples. The substitute, Derrida argues, offers direct satisfaction, but also absolute deferral of the moment of satisfaction. It satisfies, but only because one accepts it as substitute for the real thing and one therewith gives up all hope of ever becoming acquainted with the real thing. In fact, the thing-itself, the original presence, does not exist outside the play of substitution. There has to be a substitute before the idea of “presence”, of a thing-itself, can be thought at all. The result is that any feeling of presence we may have is a chimaera.
What is more, the supplements follow each other in an “infinite chain, ineluctably multiplying the supplementary mediations that produce the sense of the very thing they defer: the mirage of the thing itself, of immediate presence, of originary perception”. The thing-itself is beyond reach, and acceptance of the play of substitution seems the only option left. But then it comes: “it happens”, Derrida writes, “that [supplementarity] describes the chain itself, the being-chain of a textual chain, the structure of substitution, the articulation of desire and of language, the logic of all conceptual oppositions. (…) It tells us in a text what a text is, it tells us in writing what writing is”. His conclusion is, that in this game of substitution, sometimes, something can be known after all, namely, the game of substitution itself.
Along the road to insight, the wizard’s apprentice has sullied the original and finally removed it altogether and has exposed himself to great moral peril during the process (but that’s quite OK in the end, because after all it is only himself he violates). Derrida’s argument is a truly postmodern story of enlightenment: insight can only be attained via and in obscurity. What I like about the Brouwn photographs is, that they physically illustrate the progression of Derrida’s text. The first sequence has so many lacunas that it automatically steers the imagination towards the original and its absence, thus creating the idea of an original in the mind. The next sequence actually has a certain narrative logic, even though the meaning of the narrative remains obscures, so one is confirmed in one’s idea that there actually is a story behind it all and that one actually can reconstruct the presumed original event by means of the photographic evidence. Already here, one begins to auto-satisfy oneself, because after having used the photographs as proof of the existence of an original, they are now combined with the idea of the original to convince oneself that one can actually gain access to the work – which at the end of the day allows us to see what we have been doing to ourselves. Not that we necessarily do so, but should we want to do so, we could. We could actually see what we are holding in our hands, what we have been thinking of and where it has led us.
At which point I would like to make a brief final remark. Apart from referring to Derrida, Amelia Jones also mentions Rosalind Krauss. More specifically, she points out that Krauss mentions both performance and photography as examples of indexicality. Maybe their relationship is different from the one between Derrida’s speech and text, maybe it is the same but of a different order, but in any case, looking at the photographs can tell us something about our relationship with indexical signs and therewith about our relationship with works of performance art as well. Once again, Brouwn’s work is extremely illustrative: it will never reveal itself as one continuous narrative because it never was one. In his early performances, Brouwn combined a lot of shorter monostructural actions, reminiscent of the Fluxus event, although unscripted, to form a more complex whole. The frustration one experiences when looking at the photographs reproduces the frustration that was no doubt experienced by those who actually witnessed the performance, just as our efforts to create a coherent whole out of the disjointed mess we are presented with, reproduces theirs. In a sense, the photographs are a satisfyingly appropriate way of approaching the performance, despite their supplementary character.

Incidentally, should you want to read more about Brouwn and the archive (and should you be able to read Danish), I recently had an article published about that very subject in the magazine Peripeti (no. 14, autumn 2010, pp. 31-38)

tirsdag den 8. februar 2011


I just read about Move for Life, a project organised by Littmann Kulturprojekte in Basel for the annual ArtParis fair (this year from 31 March – 3 April). An announcement on e-flux describes Move for Life as an attempt “to create a dialogue between art and the public through major societal issues… using lorries!” (I have always been suspicious of exclamation marks; they propel a sentence forwards at great speed, only to make them stop abruptly at the punch line. I am much more in favour of Alcanter de Brahm’s point d’ironie (irony point, a small, elevated, backward-facing question mark) or Hervé Bazin’s point de doute (point of doubt, a kind of z or Greek zeta over a dot), because they make you stop and think instead of accept the point unconditionally. But this is an aside inside the aside.)
Move for Life wants to enter into a dialogue about issues such as “poverty, aids, violence, racism and environmental destruction” and to that end, it uses artworks created by “internationally renowned artists” (the announcement mentions Ben Vautier, Daniele Buetti, Damien Deroubaix, Jochen Gerz, Isabel Muñoz, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Titchner and Atelier Van Lieshout ). The works mean to “speak to each and every one of us”. The Rauschenberg lorry, for example, is decorated with a typical Rauschenberg silkscreen constellation with the word “OZONE” written across it. Images of the lorries are to be found on the Move for Life website.
The project attracted my attention because Knud Pedersen, whose latest book I discussed a week ago, has developed a project involving lorries, or rather, beer vans, as well. It was called “Faxe Drives With Art” (Faxe is a Danish brewery and soft drinks producer) and took place in August 1965. The idea was simple: the vans, Pedersen reasoned, drove all across the country every day with their cargo of beer and lemonade anyway, so they might as well carry a work of art, so that everybody could see it, free of charge. The image at the top is of a poster showing Fluxus associate Arthur Køpcke’s contribution to the project. It is reproduced on the website of Pedersen’s Copenhagen Fluxus Archive.  But the project was by no means Fluxus-only: Bjørn Nørgaard and Per Kirkeby, for example, who were both associated with the rival Eks-skolen (Experimental School of Painting), participated as well. The project was not designed to (re)present a certain group, style or school. It embraced no specific cause, but only reflected Pedersen’s own ideas.
A comparison with Move for Life is revealing. Pedersen’s role in the Faxe project is very similar to that of Littmann Kulturprojekte, namely, purely organisational. In fact, all of Pedersen’s projects from the 1960s were of an organisational nature; it was not until the 1970s that he began to manifest himself as an artist. But there are important differences as well. First of all, the Faxe project has no ulterior motive; its aim is directly related to the means it employs, namely, art. In Move for Life, by contrast, art is used to draw attention to other issues. Moreover, while the message of the Faxe project lies in its internal structure, the message of Move for Life is external to the art and its carrier(s).
The differences bring to mind Nicolas Bourriaud’s claim, in Esthétique relationelle (1998), that the “relational” art of the 1990s had left grand scale revolutionary avant-garde utopianism behind and merely wanted to create “micro-utopias”. For this type of art, getting people to think about issues such as pollution and poverty for just a little while is enough. Pedersen, on the other hand, wanted to abolish, not so much art, as all the institutions that insert themselves between art and its audience and make art an elitist enterprise. His is a grand scale revolutionary-utopian project, but it is much more specific than “relational” art as well. It wants to combat art mediation by mediating art in an alternative way, while relational art makes use of pretty much any type of relationship.
Bourriaud’s argument is annoyingly specific; the only art he really discusses is that of the 1990s, to the result that history appears to play no role in his argument. Underneath the surface, however, one can discern a sneaking kind of artistic Darwinism: the miniaturisation of the relational aestheticists’ micro-utopias is better than the avant-garde’s clunky utopianism and therefore represents a step forwards. His Esthétique relationelle develops a post-historic argument that is typical of the period just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and its aftermath. What is much more useful, now, 15 years later, is to focus on another aspect of Pedersen’s project, namely the alliance it forges between art and commerce. It is an extremely practical one (“those vans have to drive anyway”), but a rational one as well (“art wants to get out and meet the people and consumer goods want to be notice”). As such, it is the opposite of Move for Life, which is not practical and not rational. It may be able to strike up a dialogue, but not thanks to the lorries or the art. Pedersen’s project makes a case for systemic elegance and conceptual rigour that is still worth stopping up and thinking about today.

onsdag den 2. februar 2011


In a sense, this blog entry is a continuation of the one on Knud Pedersen (see under January), so if you have not read that, you may want to do so first. What I want to write about here is something that annoys me – not massively, but just slightly. And one of the main reasons why it annoys me is the very fact that it annoys me. It is a matter that I could have addressed in many different ways, but I have opted for a relatively safe way, namely a historical one. None of the protagonists are with us any longer.
The annoying thing is actually an assemblage of three things: a very well-known photograph of Zürich Dadaist Hugo Ball dressed in a Cubist costume, a printed version of his poem “Karawane” and a diary entry from 23 June 1916, reprinted in Ball’s book Flight out of time, in which he describes a performance. You will find the photograph on the Dada Companion website (top right hand corner) and the poem on Wikipedia.  The diary entry does not appear to have been reproduced on the internet, so I will summarise it instead. Ball writes that he has invented something he calls “poems without words” or “sound poems” and that he has performed some of them. He then describes the outfit he had made for the occasion (a collection of cardboard tubes and other constructions, more or less similar to the ones shown in the photograph), and finally he moves on to the performance itself.  He writes that he “began slowly and solemnly”, but that “the stresses became heavier” until “his voice had no choice but to take on the ancient

The three bits of documentation can - and often are - be combined to form a kind of multimedia Dada show. Word (the poem), image (the photograph) and the spoken word (Ball's diary entry) come together to create a multisensory image of “Hugo Ball performing ‘Karawane’ at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich in 1916". But there are some problems. First of all, the diary entry actually quotes one of the poems he recited, and it is not “Karawane”,but another one called “Gadji beri bimba” (you can read the poem here). It mentions an “Elefantenkarawane”, but there are trumpeting elephants in “Gadji beri bimba” as well (“elifantolim brussala bulomen brussala bulomen tromtata”). The only other title Ball quotes is “Labadas Gesang an die Wolken”, and that is not the one either – so we simply do not know whether Ball actually performed “Karawane” that night. It is very likely, but we cannot be certain.
Secondly, the specific version of “Karawane” that is usually reprinted together with the photograph and/or the diary entry is the one from the Dada Almanach, published in Berlin in 1920, i.e. four years later and 850 kilometers away. According to Berlin Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, the distinctive typography is by Richard Hülsenbeck, who moved from Zürich to Berlin in 1917 and ended up creating an alternative Dada headquarters there. In fact, the use of different type faces is rare in the publications of the Zurich Dadaists, but highly characteristic of the Berlin Dadaists. Especially Hausmann did so extensively . The Berlin Dadaists even made a collage that combined the photograph of Ball with a Berlin-style rendition of the poem, albeit not the one that is usually reproduced these days (just to make things easier). The collage was intended for publication in Dadaco, the “Dadaist hand atlas” that never saw the light of day. The combination of the photograph and the poem, then, seems to have been a German fabrication, a piece of internal Dada politics, and not the original document we would like it to be.

If I used some time and energy on the matter, I am sure I could find out who fabricated it, when and why, but I will not. Because it is at exactly this point that I get annoyed. I get annoyed at the ease with which people heap fragments together in order to create the suggestion of a coherent whole and I get annoyed at myself for getting annoyed because it is a sign that I am no better.
Perhaps I should try to be surprised instead. In an essay called “Presence” (in History and Theory no. 45, February 2006), Dutch historian and philosopher Eelco Runia makes a plea for surprise, and it is a convincing one. History, Runia claims, is all about avoiding surprises. It seeks patterns, either in history itself or in metahistory (the writing of history). “What looks like the royal road to the past”, he writes, “never takes you anywhere but to places within sight of your point of departure”; but “exploring the present might have you, somewhere, someplace, tumbling into depths you didn’t suspect were there”. More specifically, Runia wants the historian to look for “metonymies”, “displaced words”, words that connect different contexts, “holes through which the past touches the present”. Viewing Ball’s caravan as a metonymy means watching the elephants march from the past into the present and from the present into the past, both at the same time.
One very good reason for doing so is that it represents a break with the oh-so-appealing idea that texts and photographs can turn us into eye witnesses of something that happened 95 years ago. More specifically for the assemblage discussed here, it means that we can turn our attention away from the factual information contained in Ball's diary entry and towards his opening line, where he announces that "I have invented a new genre of poems, Verse ohne Worte or Lautgedichte, in which the balance of the vowels is weighed and distributed solely according to the values of the beginning sequence". Instead of connecting it to the photograph and the printed version of the poem, which makes authenticity the central subject of discussion, it can then be connected to the Dada Manifesto that Ball read out just a week earlier: "I shall be reading poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language, no less, and to have done with it. (...) I don’t want words that other people have invented. (...) I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own. (...) The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance". In such a context, authenticity could never be an issue. Language and its limits, on the other hand, could.