From the Office to Cape Town (and all the strange things in between)

I tried diligently to keep a straight face as I looked at the plate of sausages and strawberries in front of me. One of the sausages had cracked open, causing its dubious contents to ooze out right onto the fresh strawberry underneath it. The whole sad scene was covered in a filthy grey blanket of thick smoke and I wish I had dared to take a picture then and there for memory’s sake. The smoke was coming from the cigarette weged between the scrawny fingers of the woman next to me. She topped it off by harshly coughing all over the sausages, then said in all sincerity: ‘Why don’t you take a sausage, girl?’ ‘No thanks,’ I said, meanwhile heavily reconsidering my recent career decision.

Until recently, I had worked in an office where I enjoyed the company of my co-workers immensely and had thought optimistically that at each working place, there were top-notch people, in whom I would always be able to find inspiration for better days. I would continue working at this new place and keep my newly found gems with care. I would furthermore elaborate on these opportunities in texts, projects and future plans to-be-determined. Aside from indulging in this endearing optimism, I subjected myself to an experiment. How far could I go in selling my soul when it came to side jobs while managing to regularly do artistically legitimate things? When would I be an artist working in a hotel on the side, and at what point was I working in that same hotel with merely an artistically inclined hobby? Where is the balance and how far could I go?

Meanwhile, I was well underway indeed, and I felt the black void eyeing me. ‘Oh dear”, I thought, while rethinking my motives to work in this hotel. The cigarette had by then gone out, and the sausages and strawberries had been eagerly devoured by my company at the table. I scrutinised them one by one and considered their potential as part of my next project (or perhaps Sunday art session). The lady next to me was a fine specimen at any rate, and likewise the other ladies at the table wouldn’t be out of place in my collection of remarkable colleagues.

Rita, for one, had tobacco-coloured hair, ditto trousers, and chewed her sandwich in silence; Belinda entrusted me with hotel secrets, such as that it is endlessly preferable to not clean the rooms of cyclists or the Chinese; Denise told me proudly that she had left her junkie past behind her and had worked a solid thirty years for the hotel. She smiled baring her few remaining teeth and I smiled back. I was glad for her, but I’m always slightly creeped out when people at very unpleasant working places tell me that they’ve been working there for a very long time. I break out in sweat as I see my life flash before me, seeing the my future self as that person who, after art school, has begun ‘temporary’ employment, only to get stuck in it forever. People at an academy reunion will say something along the lines of: ‘Have you heard the news on Gerda? Been working in a hotel for thirty years.’ ‘The Volkshotel?’ ‘No, just some hotel. One of those along the highway whose name nobody really knows.’ ‘Oh.’

The roar of the radiators next to the room where we have our break saved me from the nightmare. My colleagues had stood up to get back to work and I considered for a moment to run off and never come back. I would like to emphasise, though, that I have no problem whatsoever with cleaning and similar jobs, as long as I manage to get some satisfaction from it. I have cleaned the houses of elderly people with great love, I have worked serving breakfast in hospitals, I’ve delivered mail for an entire summer (in my rain suit) and I have been personally responsible for planting roughly a thousand little plants in excruciatingly small pots on an assembly line. After this series of quite specific trades, I could go all out in my year long period as a teacher at an art centre, I worked in a fantastic shop (which has unfortunately closed), and, via the office, finally reached the hotel. The plan was to work there just enough to be able to pay my rent, and to otherwise get a good look at all the colourful visitors and their rooms in the name of art, and to then profit from it. As you will have surmised by now, my disappointment was considerable.

It was a characterless hotel where my job description consisted of getting the rooms to look as clean as possible. Until recently, I had enjoyed being in hotels, but those days were behind me for good. I pulled hair that belonged to strangers from shower drains and was instructed to dry toilets with towels (really) as well as to clean used cups by rinsing them with cold water before putting them back on the shelf (really). Not only was my Theory of Employment of before severely threatened, but I also began to worry about my karma as I carried out orders that turned the hotel into one big death trap of bacteria, diseases and other disgusting pests. Therefore, I decided to throw in the (filthy) towel and to look for a different side job. The risk seemed just too big to stay and find out where I would end up then.

From the one strange working environment I rolled straight into the other, where I planned truck routes throughout the whole country from a kind of control centre. As far as art school graduates go, I am pretty good at focussing, coordinating and organising things so it seemed no harder to do the same thing applied to truck drivers. I worked hard and eventually bit myself in the butt by planning everything so efficiently that I had finished the job three weeks before the intended date. But maybe that was for the best, since my colleagues knew that I was employed on a temporary basis and decided for the sake of convenience to act as if I had already left. It was a strange experience that I wouldn’t wish upon anybody.

Meanwhile, my projects grew like cabbage and I was asked for the most splendid things. I participated in a documentary on creativity, founded a meeting place that drew a lot of visitors, interviewed artists and was told by everyone that I was doing so well for myself. It was true that during my free days I worked passionately on my projects and saw them grow, but it was still bothering me that I could not earn a living with what I did best. In this way, I dug for both dream jobs within the cultural sphere as sad job offers within the other one.

Hooked on the employment version of Russian roulette, I kept on playing. Was it going to be another miserable side job or would it be something else? The gods proved benevolent in my favour, for instead of the next grey work spot, I was granted the chance to tag along with the editors of the magazine Kunstbeeld. Not only did I discover that my heroes behind Kunstbeeld were very sociable, but also that there is paid work in this world that challenges your talents. I immersed myself in it completely; I emailed back and forth with artists and their assistants, interviewed Marlene Dumas while I was quivering like a leaf, and travelled the entire country in the name of art. I wrote my reports passionately, took in every possible experience and prepared for what would come next.

I hoped with all my heart and soul that I could do something in which I could work with both my brains and my pen, where I could coordinate and work together with people that make me happy, and so that, like the cherry on the cake, I could earn the roof above my head. After being rejected by email at least every day, all of a sudden there was the message on Saturday night that said: ‘What line of work are in you nowadays? Are you good at organising?’ I looked at my screen and up again, thinking for a second that the universe was surely playing a cruel game with me. ‘I am very good at organising.’ I replied. After many messages back and forth and one conversation, I have suddenly been equipped with a real job with all kinds of things I like and am good at; I work for two very nice people, who even invited me along to Cape Town to do even more wonderful things.

Trying to comprehend this turn of the plot, I think back to last year. The office, the trucks, Kunstbeeld and even the sausages and strawberries on a plate in that hotel. I remember the smoke blowing over them and realise I have escaped a certain destiny. A smile curls slowly upwards on my face. For now.

Théâtre de pôche – A game of language

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.

Fringe and anecdote

André Thijssen, Amsterdam, Netherlands 2011

Is there any feeling, besides happiness, that surpasses the experience of adventure? Yes, the pleasant surprise of the new. This can happen even when well into old age and pockmarked by years bygone, if you remain open to the experience of receiving these novel encounters.

André Thijssen, Aksacoka, Turkey

As a maker of images, with the camera as my tool, I’ve done the necessary travelling in search of adventure. Awakening in a strange bed, in a new location, and entering a new world after breakfast, full of anticipation, is always pleasantly charged.

André Thijssen, Amsterdam, Netherlands 2011

One can avoid an expensive plane ticket by veering from your usual routine. Preferentially by walking, so that you’ll be able to catch details that may seem unimportant

André Thijssen, Amsterdam, Netherlands 2011

I find it an extraordinary sensation to glimpse an intriguing mystery in the corner of your eye that makes you slow your pace.

When the two dimensional reproduction of such a mystery still conjures that same enjoyable feeling of the inscrutable in both yourself and in others, one could say that you have a successful work before you.

André Thijssen, Amsterdam, Netherlands 2012

The images in my archive are not always of equal obscurity; some are of a more anecdotal nature. These photos are more about situations, sometimes puzzling as to why someone would leave a situation a certain way.

André Thijssen, Aksacoka, Turkey, 2011

For editorial commissions I often delve into this part of my archive first. An image placed next to text demands a different approach: an autonomous image applied associatively results in a more exciting interaction that a servile illustration spelling all out. Editorial images don’t always need to clarify but can, as I prefer, to evoke discussion.

Approaching the subject from an unexpected angle can result in new, surprising meaning.

André Thijssen, Rincon de la Victoria, Spain 2013

André Thijssen, Sania, Hainan, China 2007
André Thijssen, Haarlem, Netherlands 2012
André Thijssen, Haarlem, Netherlands 2012


In our day and age it would be impossible to physically transport yourself to the 16th century, unlike in the Middle Ages when bilocation was still deemed possible. You may have found professor Barabas’ time machine quite useful. Otherwise a word of advice from Negro Kaballo, the horse from Erich Kästner’s De 35ste mei might be of use. I’ve also considered Hendrik Willem van Loon. As a boy I read his book, Pioniers der Vrijheid, where he receives visits from countless long dead historical figures at his home in Veere. But ultimately, I must to my dismay admit there is but one way— through the mind. This is how I first met Montaigne through his Essais, and it’s how I later found myself in conversation with him.

Portet van Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne’s library

Mister Montaigne, it is a great honour to be here in your extraordinary library and be granted the opportunity to exchange thoughts with you. My first question, if I may, concerns how you write. Do you have a method, and if so, could you describe this?

Dear sir! My arguments arrange themselves to but one order: coincidence. I record my thoughts just as they enter my mind. At times they appear in such great masses that they crowd one another, at other moments they siphon in one by one. I would like to show how it is in my nature to proceed, however unorganised it may seem. I express my thoughts in the same manner as they manifest. Luckily, the subjects I describe are of such a nature that it would not be unacceptable to speak of them while being essentially ignorant, or by speaking of them in superficial terms. There are certain things I’d like to understand better, but I’m not prepared to pay the price for such insight. I’ve decided to live my life on a pleasant note, avoiding exertion as much as possible. I wouldn’t break my head for the world, not even for science, however worthy it may be. All I expect from a book is for it to entertain me; and when it comes to studying, my sole desire is to know and understand myself and to how to live and die. This is the finish line for which I’ll allow my horse to break a sweat.

You write associatively, do you also read in that way?

When I’ve had enough of one book, I pick up another. I only start reading when doing absolutely nothing begins to bore me. Because I find the classics most rich and exciting, I hardly bother with modern works. I likewise avoid the Greeks because during my youth I learned too little of them to properly understand their literature. There are modern books that I find simply entertaining, like Boccaccio’s Decamerone, Rabelais and The Basia by Janus Secundus. If they belong to that category, they’re certainly worth the attention. The Amadis and similar writings couldn’t interest me, not even in my youth. It may sound audacious or arrogant, but I must admit that my old, slow mind is no longer stimulated by Ariosto, not even by the good Ovidius: his nonchalant, imaginative style that used to spellbind me can now hardly keep my attention.

But you quote many classics in your work. For example, Cicero comes up quite often.

Cicero! Now there’s somebody. I find his way of writing, and for that matter all similar styles, to be irritating. His forewords, explanations, planned formats, and idiomatic discourse take up the grander part of his work. The lively and essential is smothered under his endlessly fabricated sentences. When I’ve read him for an hour, which is a long time for me, I ask myself what I truly gleaned from it. I usually come to the conclusion that he’s merely blasted wind, and that he has yet to come to the arguments that support his plea, and hasn’t even touched upon the core of what interests me. Because I only hope to grow wiser, and not more eloquent or smart, his Aristotelian tricks of reasoning are not my interest.

I prefer for an author to begin with the essence. I’m perfectly acquainted with definitions of death and lust; there’s no need to dissect these terms for me. I long for a plea that immediately cuts into the core of the issue, but his constantly circumvents the essence. I’m not waiting for someone to grab me by the hair and, like a herald, declare “Listen carefully!’ fifty times over.

During their religious ceremonies the Romans said: Hoc age (pay attention), just as we say ‘Sursum cord’ (lift up your hearts) during mass. These words are absolutely redundant for me. Generally speaking, I long for books that supply knowledge, not those that blow air into knowledge. Seneca, Plutarch, Pilinius and their contemporaries do not make use of Hoc age; they want their readers to be on their qui-vive all by themselves.

So you actually find Cicero to be a bit of a nag.

Well. When it comes to Cicero, I share the common opinion that he did not have many exceptional qualities besides his knowledge: he was a good citizen, and kind-hearted like most fat and boisterous folk. But frankly, he was quite a big wimp and his ambition was an exercise in vanity. I can’t forgive him for believing his poetry decent enough for publishing. It’s one thing to write bad verse, but to be ignorant of the blemish that his poetry places upon his glorious name shows an utter lack of insight. But his eloquence is unparalleled. I doubt anyone will ever equal him in that respect.

Thank you for your answers. The future reader will surely have an understanding of how you read and write. Now I’d like to ask you a question concerning a wholly different matter, namely your thoughts on death. One of your statements on death is ‘philosophising is learning how to die’. Could you clarify this for me?

My apologies, but to answer you I must continue on the subject of Cicero. Cicero says that philosophising is nothing more than preparation for death. Study and contemplation, in a sense, detach the mind from one’s self and situates it outside of the carnal. This is a condition that is similar to death and within it embeds a lesson; all wisdom and human reasoning eventually teach us to not fear death. Death is inevitable. But, if we fear it, it becomes an on-going source of suffering for which no relief exists. We cannot escape it, regardless if we keep a constant watchful eye as though in enemy territory. Death perpetually hangs over us like the boulder of Tantalus.

So, the final destination is death. We must remain aware of this. But how can we, if we fear death, take one step without falling into a nervous stupor? Any man who hasn’t reached the age of Methusalem will believe he’ll survive another twenty years.

Horatius writes: ‘Take every day as your last. Then, each surplus hour will be a happy one.”

Yes, that’s true. We don’t know where death awaits us, let us expect him at every moment. Awareness of death is awareness of freedom. If you’ve learned to die, you’ve unlearned to be a slave. If you’re prepared for death, you’ve freed yourself from subjection and constraint.

I found Nothing when I was not looking for it

When I was a child, my father used to ask me “What are you thinking about?” . And when there was just a rush of thoughts, or nothing special, or something too embarrassing, I just said, “nothing”. To this he would also reply in a very sarcastic tone: “Nothing? How is that possible? Is your head totally empty? Is there a vacuum inside?” Of course that was not the case, and although I replied “Yes, kind of”, my head was always full of thoughts, but it was an easy way to end this awkward conversation.

Void particles

Then, when I became a teenager, my head got filled with too many thoughts, so I started to think about cleaning it up, and I came across the Buddhist philosophies. According to these, the goal of life is to get rid of these thoughts, get rid of the Ego, and be one with the “nothing”. This would be the key to end the suffering of daily life. This is called “Nirvana”. In fact, I tried very hard, but apparently this was the key to not succeed, because the more you want the nothing, the less you get there. And actually I never experienced or saw nothing until I reached the point when I didn’t want or expect it to happen. I did not even realise it was happening, it was just there. And it was there in several forms.

Last year I was working in fashion retail. Sometimes I had to watch the top floor of the store, and greet all the people coming up. As greeting is a starting point of the communication, I had to look into the face of every customer. I believe, when you look into someone’s face, you can normally see what is inside. And there it was: nothing. It is hard to describe, although I tried to explain it to myself so many times, that I could really see that emptiness, that vacuum, or not even that. Just nothing. No expressions, no real goals, no sign or inner processes, but also no sign of interpreting the information of the surroundings. It was there. At this time I always asked myself, what could have possibly happened on the floors under me that washed away the content of their cranium so efficiently. And I was also wondering if it could happen to me as well, me, who spends more hours in that building than any of them.

Dawn of the Dead, 1978

Zombies in the shopping mall

And yes. Afterwards I went home, and I was sitting on the couch, staring at the wall in front of me, and there was nothing inside. Nothing to say, nothing to feel, no urge to eat or do something, but no thoughts either. It was even more shocking that I often tried to think, and I could not. I just could not grab an idea and stick to it, because it floated away, like when someone tries to grasp the water in a river. So this was the state the Buddhists wanted to reach? This is annoying! Actually there was still something that is not perfectly nothing, namely the longing for something, the willingness to do, to think, to be. The last cry-for-helps of the ego, who was not ready to disappear, but not cared about enough to function in a meaningful way.

The Value of Void, Navid Nuur

Luckily this period ended before any tragic consequences could have happened. Now, as a fresh art student, I was free to think again, and do, and create. And then it really happened. I was travelling across Europe in a bus. During all the days of the journey I was overwhelmed by impressions, I was realising how many opportunities there are, how many artists there are to learn about, how many ways exist to place letters on a sheet of paper, how many relationships… On the last day I was extremely tired. I was walking around an unknown city for days, I was drinking too much beer, smoking too many cigarettes, and had not really slept. Instead of sleeping this night we decided to travel back. I decided to lay down on the floor between the chairs and try to sleep. It failed. As it was useless to complain about it, I started to accept the situation, just as I accepted the dirt around myself, the chewing gum stuck into my stockings, the random objects falling on my head… As I was lying there, I realised that my feelings and memories were vanishing away, and I welcomed the open emptiness in their place. I stopped thinking. My motivations and intentions were no longer there. I did not want. I did not want to sleep or eat anymore, but I also did not want to not sleep or not eat.

The Neverending Story, The Nothing

Just the same was true for everything. I did not think, and I did not want to think, thoughts just “were”. My ego was gone. It stopped working. There was the “nothing”. The nothing inside me, lying on the bus floor, among the falling-down jackets, scarves, cigarettes and who knows what else, staring at the cloudy sky or a science fiction movie, feeling the waviness of the German highway in my whole body. There was an unexpected, inglorious moment of Nirvana.