The Institute for Unanswered Questions

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).

Didn’t Get to Say Goodbye

Have you ever wondered what goes through a dog’s mind? I know I have, especially for two particular dogs I’ve had in my life. They were my best friends and I will always remember them.

Growing up, I didn’t have any friends and my parents thought it would be a good idea to get a dog for the family. We adopted a nine year old shepherd from the animal shelter named Tosca. This old girl became my best friend. I even like to think she saw herself as my guardian and me as her pup. But seeing her age she only lived for a couple of years. And one day while I was petting her noticed that her nipples were bleeding. I ran upstairs to tell my mother, she said we had to go the veterinarian to check her out. Her voice sounded reassuring and her facial expression didn’t change, so I thought everything was going to be okay. But I cried all the way to the veterinarian anyway, I was so scared because I knew something was wrong.

My hunch proved true when we arrived. The vet told us she had breast cancer. I remember thinking “that isn’t so bad, cancer can be cured right?” But things wouldn’t be that easy, it would have meant a lot of medical attention and she was already very old. Besides, my parents didn’t have the money or time to take care of her. At that moment I couldn’t comprehend any of this, I was so angry that they were putting her to sleep.

She was my best friend! They knew that, right? She can’t leave me yet!

That night of one of my dear friends died. I held her andshe licked away my tears comforting me. It should have been the other way around.

Until this day I am still wondering what went through her mind. Did she know she was ill? Did she understand what was happening to her? I blamed myself because I was the one who discovered her bleeding nipples. I thought that if I hadn’t anything she would have lived at least one more day.. Then I would have had the chance to say goodbye to her, to give her the best day of her life.

When she passed away, Tosca left a huge gap. I felt alone again when I came home. I missed her presence. I missed talking to someone. My mom vowed to never take a pet again, she couldn’t take the emotional drain it took to see an animal die. But I just couldn’t handle the silence. The house was so empty without her. I started looking around for a new dog, a new friend. I convinced my parents and I found a program that transfers stray dogs from Spain to the Netherlands. That’s where I saw Jimmy.

Everything you can think of was arranged by the organisation, his passport, flight, vaccines, you name it. I only had to pick him up from the airport and pay of course. When the moment was there, my mom and I drove to the Airport Schiphol and awaited him. I was so anxious and nervous. “What if he doesn’t like me, of what if I don’t like him!?” I even had nightmares about it. My mom assured me it would be fine, and gave me a bag of treats that I could give to him. We went to the assigned gate and saw more people waiting for their adopted pets. I panicked and didn’t want people to take my future friend so I made sign with his name on it. Nothing could go wrong now.

I kept wondering what kind of dog he was and if we could get along well. The first thing I knew for sure was that Jim was really good at giving paws. It was the first thing he did after he got out of the cage. I gave him a treat every time he did. But he kept doing it, so I ended up giving him the whole bag of treats. For me it was love at first sight.

In the end he became my best friend, where I went he went with me. He was the first one I saw in the morning and the last one I said goodnight, we were inseparable. He was just nine months old when I got him and I taught him everything I could teach him on my own. He understood me like no one else could and I loved him. But I grew older, made friends, started dating, got a job and started studying. I still tried to take care of him the best I could, took him wherever I went if it was possible and my parents would sometimes even look after him. On top of that I started living on my own and it became impossible to take care of him, I felt immense guilt when I left him alone at home and I didn’t have enough time for him anymore.

A couple of months ago, I had to give my best friend away.

He lives with a couple on the countryside now, it sounds ideal but I wonder if he agrees. I will never know if he’s happy there or if he’ll miss me. I threw a goodbye party the day before he got picked up by his new owners. I thought that would make things easier and it would give me a chance to say goodbye. But he had no idea what was happening and just went happily along with it. How do you say goodbye to someone that doesn’t know he’s leaving? Sometimes I wonder how things would have been if I knew what he thought. Did he bother being alone, did he wanted to stay with me? Would he have said goodbye?

Doves on their way

I often cycle from Amsterdam to the polder and cut through the Bijlmer. Yes, for the simple reason of finding pleasure and enjoyment in the cycle ride.

In the area that connects these two regions, I spot a large empty parking lot in the distance. There, in a small strip at the side, three aluminium boxes are piled on top of each other onto a construction with legs. Sort of like a three tiered barbeque. Beside it, a car is parked next to which a man and a woman are preparing a cup of tea. I ask them what they’re doing. Pigeons. They’ve transported these homing pigeons from Zaandam to here, where they’re training the pigeons to fly both long and short distances. Since they’ve only just arrived, the pigeons need to acclimatise for a little while, otherwise their orientation skills may falter.

There are some 57 pigeons in the aluminium construction. Later on, they’ll be released and will have to find their way home. Their sense of direction is guided by the magnetic field.

“Disruptions in the magnetic field have meant that the pigeons are becoming more prone to getting lost than before’, the homing pigeon hobbyist explains. ‘The magnetic field is disrupted by mobile phones, by everything that is sent via airwaves’. ‘Is there no more room in the air?’

‘For example, if you pay attention, you’ll see many pigeons in the Dam with a ring around their leg. These are carrier pigeons that have lost their way. In fact, the other day a man from Krommenie called me to see if I could pick up my pigeon from him. Pigeons fly in groups, first in a circle around the area where they’ve been released, then they’ll pick up speed and fly away. But nowadays they seem to get lost quite often.’

‘It’s a wonderful hobby’, the man excitedly tells me. ‘`It’s so relaxing.’ He bares his perfectly white teeth in a broad smile. When he speaks, saliva sputters in all directions, but, oh well, that’s probably just because of his dentures

Then they release the pigeons and I watch as they circle around and fly away, and they’re as beautiful as a flock of sparrows.

The Mass Observation Team

I know an elderly gentleman, a thrifty man who made a habit of saving every receipt he had ever received. Nothing was spent from the household treasury without the gaze of his vigilant eye. I imagined his house to be full of those flimsy yellowing papers archived neatly into black ring binders by date, shelf after shelf. Decades detailing the ever-rising price of a loaf of bread, his daily purchases, once in a while an exuberant expense here and there. How is a man’s life read through the records of his expenditures?

Since 1937, the Mass Observation team has been creating a record of the British people by asking volunteers to document the every day: “We shall collaborate in building up museums of sound, smell, foods, clothes, domestic objects, advertisements, newspapers, etc.”

Directives, or instructions, are given to the voluntary Mass Observers to report on specific matters like conversations overheard in the pub, what one saw on their daily route to work, the steps in their housekeeping routine, the contents of their mantelpiece:

Write down in order from left to right, all the objects on your mantelpiece, mentioning what is in the middle. Then make further lists of mantelpieces in other people’s houses, giving details of the people themselves whether they are old, middle aged, or young. Whether they are well off or otherwise. What class, roughly, they belong to. Send these lists in. If possible, also take photographs of mantelpieces.
The Back Garden
This is the area directly outside the kitchen and dining room windows. The patio area is done with crazy paving and there are flower beds round these sides with bushes and a Buddhleia tree climbing the fence side at the left side of this photograph. This photograph shows the corner area underneath the dining room window where the cat likes to sit out during the warm weather – you can just see its black shape at the back.

Others kept diaries that detailed their ordinary and often entirely uneventful existence:


Dear Sir,

Since writing to you last year, yet another high street shop has closed. These strangely enough have all been ladies dress shops. The first one closed in August and was destined to become yet another Building Society. However, the council sensibly stopped that happening, since the High Street already has four. At the moment, this shop is being used as an Oxfam store and people are obliging dump all the their “jumble sale”…

The documentation of a day’s house work:

A detailed drawing of one’s living room:

And written descriptions, too:

Through this collective social project, the Mass Observation team has created an immense archive of the ordinary, the boring, and the mundane through which a nation is chronicled.

I’ll never see the elderly gentleman’s collection for myself. A few years ago, he threw out his entire archive when he convinced his wife that they should move from their beloved home into an overpriced apartment on the third floor. He’s miserable in that boxy apartment and longs for the flowering green gardens of the old house. But the apartment was bought for more than it was worth and he has no choice but to stay put and sit out his old age.

Fail to learn


When I was asked to find a subject for my thesis, I panicked almost immediately. I felt that my subject would need to relate to my work and connect to my artistic research. It also had to inspire new work, be original, innovative, and relevant. All in all, it had to be perfect.

During each and every one of my assessments and work presentations at the KABK, I’ve been told that I need to learn to let go. To dare to let go. Dare to fail. On the first day of each academic year, the head tutor Johan van Oord proclaims the necessity of failure for the student’s artistic development. In his opening speech, he refers to the academy as ‘the temple of failure,’ where one is expected to produce a multitude of ‘bad’ works rather than ‘good’ works, a place where failure is valuable. Failure is the only way in which the student can learn, improve his artistic practice and develop himself. But is this really the case?

I decided to dedicate my thesis to a study of failure within the artistic process and its influence on artistic development. I named it Fail to Learn.
But what does it mean to fail? I turned to the most practical tool first: the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary listed a number of definitions that I applied to a work of art as well as to the artistic process. In a nutshell, it seemed that what doesn’t succeed, fails, and what doesn’t fail, succeeds. The context in which the word is used is of utmost importance. An influential figure in the ‘art world’, a gallery owner, or art critic might refer to an artist as ‘failed’. But does this really mean that the artwork and the artist have failed? Or is it the artist who determines whether or not his work has failed? There’s one thing I’m sure of: we can’t control failure. Failure is dependent on coincidence and purposely failing is impossible. Maybe this is the source of my frustration when I’m summoned to take a risk, to dare to fail. Being a perfectionist, I tried to learn by doing my best to fail. In the end, I fail to learn.

I also looked at the psychological factors that influence failure within the artistic practice. For example, my greatest enemy: fear of failure. In Creativiteit onder druk, Maria Hopman writes that fear of failure is a fear that exists exclusively in our own experience. Her research uncovered that people who see themselves as fearing failure are equally tense as those who don’t consider their anxiety to be fear of failure. It seems that fear of failure is a phenomenon inherent only in the way that someone experiences or defines their fear. Still, fear of failure can have a stifling impact on the artistic practice. Hopman claims that taking responsibility and maintaining an active attitude are the only effective weapons against the blockade that fear of failure can produce. Additionally, Klaus Ottman describes the importance of assuming a certain attitude when dealing with failure. He calls it the ‘genius decision’, which boils down to the artist’s attempt at making the impossible possible. Art’s possible significance lies within this relationship between failure and striving for success.

Thinking back to Johan van Oord’s statement, I kept wondering how one could truly learn through failing. I realized I was looking for a practical use of failure within the artistic learning process. To study this further, I looked at the psychologist B.F. Skinner’s research into behavioural therapy. I attempted to apply his ideas on ‘operant conditioning’ on ‘art-making’ behaviour. According to Skinner, all behaviour (like art-making, for example) can be conditioned (taught) by giving the promise of a positive reward, which encourages and possibly even improves behaviour. But when behaviour is met with a negative response, like when your teachers disapprove of your work, this behaviour will be avoided in the future. In this sense, the ‘use’ of failure lies in its ability to teach someone to cease certain behaviour in order to avoid failure. Most important, according to Skinner, is that failure related to ensuing negative consequences, leads to a change in the artist’s behaviour and a modification of his artistic strategy. This can be seen as a positive influence that learning through failure can exert on the artistic development.

However much sense this principle might make, it’s obviously not that simple within the every day practice of art education. Here, the art student is expected to conduct fundamental research for his work on a ‘theoretical’ and ‘artistic’ basis. This sounds very broad, and it is. It’s difficult to discern whether a student has failed or succeeded to live up to these expectations. In any case, it’s essential for a student to learn how to deal with consequences such as negative feedback, because criticism from tutors and students is the most influential and important frame of reference available to the student. As long as the student remains open to the learning process inherent in criticism and feedback, the artistic crisis and failure can be overcome.

I spoke to Johan van Oord about the academy as ‘the temple of failure’ and asked him about the photo he used to illustrate this: Leap into the Void by Yves Klein. According to van Oord, this is a good example of a work resulting from failure. During the making of the photo, Klein had to fall in order to fly within the photo. Falling to fly. Failing to succeed. Failure and triumph are of equal importance within artistic development, said van Oord, upon which he concluded by saying that it would perhaps be better to refer to the academy as ‘the temple of failure and triumph’ instead.

  1. M. Hopman, Creativiteit onder druk, omgaan met faalangst en kritiek in kunst en kunstonderwijs. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1999
  2. K. Ottman, The Genius Decision: The Extraordinary and the Postmodern Condition, Putnam, CT; Spring Publications, 2004
  3. J. van der Tas, De muze als professie, Onderwijsvernieuwing aan de Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten. Raamsdonksveer: Drukkerij Dombosch [z.j]


21.05.2014 BY KOEN KLEIJN

Let me tell you a story about bananas.

I was a staff writer for De Groene Amsterdammer for about five years; I was also editor in chief ad interim for one of those five years. This meant that I chaired the weekly staff meetings, looking for things to fill next week’s edition with.

Usually, these meetings were fun. These were truly intelligent, intellectual, experienced journalists. When they mentioned Marx, or Weber, or Pushkin, you could be sure they had actually read Marx, and Weber, and Pushkin. This included the strange guys who did the corrections and the guys who did the tele-marketing, calling people at home to sell subscriptions. Most of these were published authors, philosophy students. De Groene was a bit of a sanctuary, a reservation or, if you like, a zoo.

But a clever zoo.

I remember distinctly a young intern. In his second week, I asked him if he had anything to contribute. Yes, he said, I’d like to write about bananas. De Groene has many faults, but it also has a great tradition of trust. Bananas, I said. Fine. Two pages? 1500 words? By next week? Yes, great, the intern said. It was only after we had jotted down the word ‘Bananas, 2 pages’ on our list that someone in the group asked ‘What’s with these bananas, then?’

Out came the story: banana’s are a monoculture, every banana is genetically the same as all other bananas in the species, there’s a virus raging through banana-plantations and as all bananas are vulnerable in the same way, the traditional chiquita banana (the Cavendish variety) may actually disappear. There are other banana varieties, of course, just as healthy and wholesome and nutritious, but these are usually a bit smaller, and have darker skin, and customers in the western world don’t like them much. So: crisis.

A very good story. Got picked up by all sorts of other media – radio, TV. If you don’t believe me: VPRO’s Labyrinth has the story again, next Sunday. Well done, for an intern.



Raymond Roussel

At nineteen years of age, Raymond Roussel worked feverishly at his first grand novel, La Doublure. With great care, he shut the curtains of his study to prevent the light of his genius from escaping through the windows. Above all, Roussel refused to be distracted by the banality of the everyday world. His books were fuelled by nothing more than his endless imagination.

Many contemporary artists are just as fond of hermetically shutting their studio off from the rest of the world. There’s one artist I know who meticulously keeps the sliding doors to his studio, directly annexing his living room, firmly shut. Sometimes, when he leaves the room to fetch a book, I try to peek inside, but it’s absolutely impossible to catch even a glimpse. His scanner is in The Studio. but there’s not a chance in the world that I might make a scan myself, or even to accompany him to the other side of that door while he does it for me.

Having become slightly apprehensive at so much secrecy, I sometimes fantasize about an illegal photographer hiding in there, making all his work. Or that my friend copies all his work from old encyclopaedias or from smutty porn. That’s the great thing about art today, everything can be used as a source, which means that everything is possible.

The studio is traditionally seen as the place from which work originates while at the same time, it’s the prison in which the artist must endure hour upon hour of lonely isolation. Doubt seeps through the walls of the workplace like damp, and the artist asthmatically gasps for air. Every artist in the studio is a lonely hero.

Pollock’s studio

Replica by Joe Fig

Artist Jackson Pollock needed the loneliness of the studio to come to his unique expressive drip paintings. “I am nature” was his response to the artist’s endless attempts at replicating nature. Like a gladiator, he stands in the middle of his canvases, allowing the paint to drip from the stick in his hand. The artist and his work are one. It’s precisely this location, laden with expression and drama, which is seen in replica form in a photo by Joe Fig.

Within the miniature sculpture, the studio is recreated in minute detail (based on Hans Namuth’s photos) and shows the master in the midst of his canvases on the ground, surrounded by paint in shades exactly corresponding the photo. Each detail is correct. The sculptures demand knowledge of the perspective, of the colour, and insight of the artist. Joe Fig’s craftsmanship is praised, and so it seems that a genius is needed to make a perfect copy, However fascinating the work may be, it never quite extends past the original, nor does it exalt kitsch nor the Gepetto-syndrome.

Charles Matton, too, makes replicas of studios and presents them as photographs within a catalogue. His studios are equally miniature and precisely fabricated as Joe Fig’s.

Rhinoceros: Homage to Eugene Ionesco​​

Diorama by Charles Matton, mixed media

Matton wanted to find a modern way to create realistic interiors like the painters of the 17th century, without having to rely on their level of craftsmanship. Initially, he wanted to photograph his friends in their studios and paint over these images. Not too difficult. In the end, he made dioramas in which he carefully made an exact replica of the studio that he photographed. These works were incredibly time consuming and ultimately, the complete opposite of the quick method he initially aspired to. The dioramas were a success (because secretly, everyone loves a doll’s house.)

The dioramas take things a step further because by portraying some sort of primal idea of the sculptor or painter. The spherical sculptures of the modern sculptor fill the space, while in Francis Bacon’s studio chaos prevails. A hippopotamus models in the middle of a studio. These strange boxes, with all their fantasy and precision, explore a world that exists out of our line of perception, even out of our presence.


Replica of Fischli und Weiss’ own studio by themselves

Fischli and Weiss also made a copy of a studio, their own studio, in full scale. Everything, even the juice packages have been precisely replicated. Just as painfully exact as Joe Fig. But instead of peering through a keyhole into the artist’s sanctuary, you walk through their reality, their reality which is just as banal as our own daily existence. And it’s exactly this deconstruction of the world and it’s enormous ability to place things into perspective that makes this copy genius.

Instead of locking their doors, Fischli and Weiss invite all to enter their holy land. But there’s nothing left to steal here, they’ve already stolen it themselves.

Warhol’s studio

Replica by Joe Fig

Boites Comme Fins en Soi

by Charles Matton

The Neighbours


Since I began working on my project The Neighbours (2006) every sound started to have an impact. At first I couldn’t work properly as I was constantly irritated by the sound of the upstairs neighbours. I was cross with myself that something so trifling could loom so large in my head. I lay on the bed. I tried for a while not to hear anything; it forced itself on the periphery of my consciousness, like a hum, like a dripping tap. I was quite astonished when I realised that this could lead to my making a work. Precisely because it is so trifling. Precisely because it is on the edge of my conscious perception.

The more I became preoccupied with my neighbours, the more sounds I’ve begun to notice. My ears have become more sensitive to detail since listening to my neighbours even for the subtlest of sounds. When visiting someone, I hear more. It is amazing how often you hear someone coughing in the house next door.

This applies even more to hearing the neighbours above me. In the six months they’ve lived here, my home has changed. They have taken over my space. I went mad with irritation lying awake on my bed and so I decided to reverse the roles by taking the noise they made as a starting point for this project . Ironically, I now miss them if I don’t hear them for a minute and I am glad of any strange new sound they start to make. Listening to them gives me a feeling of being busy with something (acute and exciting). I was devastated when they insulated their floor with new underlay flooring. I think it is new but I can’t be sure as I only hear their sounds and I have never met them.

Imperceptibly, the process of being aware of the upstairs neighbours in my daily routines reached the point where one Friday night I realised I was waiting for their shoes to fall next to the bed. I knew how this would sound. I knew that this would be followed by the dreary hum of the satellite dish above my window. I was, I realised, constantly preoccupied with them: people I once briefly spoke to over the phone but with whom I never actually met. I know their bedroom habits down to the most intimate (acoustic) details.

I try to imagine them, but the image remains vague. I imagine them as people who often go to the local gym (on the corner), with something inflated about them, as if they’ve been carefully pumped up to a critical point. But what am I actually basing this on? Also, it isn’t their physical appearance that keeps me awake. It is the space they take up in my home with their sound, since this makes me always aware of them.

Because I hear my neighbours, they’ve actually infiltrated my space: not with their bodies but with their sound. They disturb what my home is for me – a place where I can do what I want and others can’t.

The silence of my home is my home. My private space. But what is this silence in fact? It is not what I would term real silence. There are the birds, my fridge hums, and cars drive past. However, that is the background noise to my home, I am used to it.

There is a prodigious link between sound, space and awareness.

The notion of background sound, already has something spatial about it like a kind of environment, a private room you can always – when it is quiet – take with you. Certain people might feel exactly like this about a lot of sound, which is then their ‘background’ and perhaps they feel uneasy when it is missing. Unexpected noise is saying that this private space doesn’t exist, especially noise from which you can’t escape and about which you can’t do anything. A dripping tap is less frustrating as I know I can also switch it off, but the neighbour’s noise is uncontrollable. The only thing I can do is adjust to it, or phone them up and hear my phone upstairs, or have the music very loud, which gives a kind of temporary satisfaction.

If my upstairs neighbours are unexpectedly quiet, something strange happens. The quietness drives me mad. It is like a story I read about a man who every night was resigned to hearing his upstairs neighbour throwing off his shoes one by one. One night, the upstairs neighbour, in a sudden fit of awareness after having taken off one shoe, thinks the sound is antisocial. He is overcome with guilt. With the precision of a moon landing, he then places the right-hand shoe next to the other. After fifteen minutes he wakes up with a start. He hears a voice crying: ‘For goodness sake, take the other shoe off, then I can get some sleep!’ I am now so used to my neighbours’ routine sounds that they’ve become almost my background noise and indeed I now notice when they’re missing.

Computer art

08.10.2013 BY ARIE ALTENA

T.V.C. 20 68179 71, 1971.

During the fifties and sixties of the last century, the first pioneers in digital art used computers to realize their visual experiments to create algorithmic art. They would write computer programs, otherwise known as algorithms, to generate images, usually by using advanced programming language such as COBOL or Fortran, but also by using machine language. They would often work in the dead of night, whenever a university or research institute would grant them a few hours to make calculations on their expensive IBM-mainframes. These computers were built for computing punch cards, which meant that using them to make visual art became an abstract and mathematical procedure that called for the formulation of rules to determine the construction of an image. The computer carries out the algorithm after which the output is made visible on a plotter (a drawing machine) connected to the computer.

Cubic Limit, plotter drawing, ink on paper, 1977

Artists in this field of visual computer art, such as Ben Lapofsky, Lilian Schwartz, Frieder Nake, Manfred Mohr, Edward Zajec and Vera Molna, were strongly influenced by cybernetics and closely linked to the informational aesthetics developing during that time. It became evident that composing algorithms that performed repeatedly to produce the same image was not particularly artistically interesting, however valuable this development would appear for the later advancement of computer graphics. Much more interesting are the algorithms that, when repeated, produce different results. Although the first generation of computer artists created an output of unique plotter drawings, their main artistic interest lies in fundamental research into composition. They also touch upon complex questions concerning the essence of the artistic practice, by often bluntly addressing the question of authorship with computer generated plotter drawings. The question, what is art, is approached conceptually through an algorithm that automatically spits out one unique drawing after another, as though produced on a factory assembly line. Generally, the question was answered by assigning authorship and artistry to the actual formulation of the algorithms. The construction of algorithms for artistic purposes was seen as a scientific form of visual research that opened up a new stage for the development of art.

P148, “inschrift”, plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1973

The works made by these pioneering computer artists is closely linked to the avant-garde movements of the sixties (like GRAV, de Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel), and conceptual art. After all, Joseph Kosuth and Sol Lewitt likewise made works that consisted of formulations. Indeed, the end of the sixties saw a short-lived convergence between computer art and conceptual art. The computer artist’s attitude towards technology was incomprehensible to those involved in conceptual art and classical art criticism, and was to some even suspect. Nevertheless, many computer artists (like Frieder Nake) were even more radical in their rejection of the bourgeois art system than the conceptual artists, who were operating within the galleries and museums.

P-133, “cluster phobia”, plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1972

The innovations made by the first generation of computer artists are simple when compared to what’s possible now, fifty years later. But their experiments laid the foundation that makes the prefab box of tricks possible. What’s more important – for art, that is – is that the computer artists also pioneered in the exploration of conceptual questions that still remain fundamental for computer art.

144 Trapèzes (16 variations), plotter drawing, ink on paper, 20×25 cm, 1974

P91, 1971, plotter drawing, ink on paper, 50 x 50 cm

P-122, “scratch code”, plotter drawing ink on paper, 50cm x 50cm, 1972

P-71, “serielle zeichenreihung”, plotter drawing ink on paper, 40cm x 50cm, 1970

T.V.C. 20 68179 71, 1971.

Quadrate, 1969/1970.

Plotter drawing, ink on paper, 1965

51/80 Scratch Code, 1970-1975.

P-050/R, “a formal language”, Ink/paper/wood, 1970, 100cm x 100cm