Thuistezien 42 — 03.05.2019
(English translation by Baruch Gottlieb)
Art is what makes life more interesting than art
Artist Robert Filliou said it just right. When I’m professionally in despair - and that’s quite often - I think about this statement.
But does this wisdom still apply?
▶ Amsterdam, Day 19
Just as you can print money when there is too little of it, or even put a new currency into circulation, so you can start a new era when the circumstances are right. I write this so many days into the new calendar. From day 1, it’s been quiet on the street, and in the sky, with the sun constantly shining. Private and professional life flow into each other even more than usual. The work that does goes on, does so without our bodies. The head alone is enough.
In old cartoons the prisoner counts the days by making marks on the wall of his cell. A personal timeline, one that begins and ends when the sentence is served. Our new calendar is both indeterminate, and fixed in time and space. It is everywhere, but in a different phase in each place: in Brabant they are somewhere else than in the Randstad, and in Asia they are months ahead of us. Almost everyone is forced to stay home. When everyone is in the same situation, it is no longer a punishment, its just reality.
▶ Day 14
On the granite staircase in front of our house is a circular saw, and on the steps a pile of wide planks. Through the window I see three people in their twenties gluing the planks together into a panel. Two of them are struggling with the material, one of them makes a vain attempt to use paper towel to clean up drops of wood glue that have dripped out onto the street. They try to clamp the boards together, but this is apparently difficult. They stop to consult each other. Then they talk and laugh. About themselves, about each other or about the situation itself. In times of crisis, tinkering around trying to build something togeher rarely leads to a quarrel.
On this windless spring evening, most of us are obliged to sit inside. We netflix. A verb that expresses how one shifts like a sack of potatoes from from couch to bed and back again for weeks on end.
Sick of their screens, a lot of people have taken to clipping, pasting, crocheting and baking. Clay? Sold out everywhere. Kneading dough and spinning wool have become the sensual placebos of the single person. More ambitious projects move to the sidewalk. There’s more space there, and more importantly there’s more time.
For a while I stare at the neighbours tinkering away, and worry about work drying up. Luckily I still teach virtually at the academy in Eindhoven. There’s a department there, which, without knowing it, has been preparing for this kind of situation for twenty years. The course is called ‘Man and Leisure’. Man and Leisure. From now on, the school can proceed as The Man and Leisure Academy.
From my room I can see the three neighbours in front of the door with man-sized wooden panels. A boy next door stops right in front of my window and asks the group: ‘What are you making?‘ The hammering stops, and it’s quiet for a while. Then one of them, just out of sight says, ‘A box. We’re making a box.‘ The little boy turns around and yells ‘Mom! They’re making a box!’ as he runs home. ‘Oh, okay.’ I hear his mother say just before the front door closes.
Life goes on, but without moving one’s body much, because that is not allowed.
But it’s still possible.
Against all recommendations, I want to drive to see Iris Marie in Leipzig. The emergency supersedes the law. Iris Marie is my child. The studies she started? Poof! Gone. The pizzeria where she worked? Bang! Closed. The boyfriend she had? Dude! Get out. I’ll take her to Amsterdam and make her a child again. Things that always seemed to go one way - forward - turns out, against all odds, pretty easy to reverse, so why not now?
As I walk out the front door, the neighbours apologise for the Workmate blocking the sidewalk. I kick the sawdust off my shoes as I get into the car.
I shouldn’t but I can. At least as far as the German border. I justify my behaviour by repeating to myself that the emergency supersedes the law. Then on Day 15, I am driving on an abandoned German Autobahn to Leipzig. Not at the promised 260 kilometres per hour inscribed on my ex’s dashboard, but I drive fast. I see on the speedometer, there is no difference between 80 and 180 when there are no other cars on the road. Relaxed, in cruise control, I imagine what it would be like to be the last motorist on earth. Yeah, that’s what I am right now! But it doesn’t work, my imagination is too weak.
It’s getting busier online now. I’m starting a trimester class from Leipzig with a new group of ‘Eindhoven’ students, whom I might never meet in real life. They have in theory started a Masters in Contextual Design. In practice it’s a group conversation via Gyro Gearloose’s videophone. Suddenly I begin to notice that what technically is possible, may not really be appropriate biologically.
Video: Babara Visser, 2020.
The students are simultaneously in the Korean night, a sunny Viennese mansion and on a cattle farm in Indiana at dawn.
The situation itself is more Contextual Design than one can imagine as a teacher, but to keep up credibility I still give the students an assignment.
Wherever they are, they are all stuck somewhere. It must be a frightening reality for these children, who are used to taking a plane as if it were a tram, to indefinitely not be able to go anywhere. When asked about this, it turns out that as digital natives they are hardly bothered. Physical or virtual, there is no clear distinction for them.
At the beginning of the lesson I emphasised that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ circumstances for a Contextual Designer. The conditions you encounter, including all the seemingly undesirable details, are your starting point. Their playing field, however limited, is full of possibilities, be it an anti-squatting room in a former office in Woensel-west, the oppression of the parental home in rural Austria or a locked hospital room. Being reflected back on yourself, that’s where the challenge lies. A big story can happen right in front of your nose, if you let yourself see it.
As homework they were assigned to read Voyage autour de ma chambre by Xavier de Maistre, which can be found online in an English translation from 1871. Apart from being a feast of associations activated by the objects in a room, the historical book is also a healthy relativisation: there’s nothing new under the sun. Psychologically, we are still the same wretches as in 1794. Yet there is a big difference. The mere fact that the text of this book, as well as entire libraries, video libraries, blogs and vlogs, are all within reach at the touch of a button changes a lot, if not everything.
When I asked the students what they would do in this situation without Wifi, they went quiet - and stayed quiet. Not because they didn’t know what they would do, but because they couldn’t imagine such a situation at all. For them Wifi is not a service or even a right, but a natural phenomenon, like the sun.
Shortly after Trump had labelled ‘China’ as the villain on television, Chinese student C. noticed that the people on the streets of Eindhoven were suddenly hostile towards her. From one day to the next she was seen as a threat. Because she could not leave, she decided to make the best of it. She worked for days on a representation of the virus in the form of a Carnival suit, put it on and intervened in the festivities. Many people got infected there aerosolising the virus with their shouting.
C. herself, of course, didn’t suffer. For me she had already earned her grade for the whole trimester, but we still had two months to go.
H. from Taiwan managed to get home on one of the last flights. With only one other passenger she flew in the last Boeing 747 from Europe to Asia. That was an historic event in itself, because, irrespective of any crisis, the era of the 747 is over.
Once in Taiwan, her two weeks of strict quarantine followed - she complained via Skype of suffering having to speak to Uber Eats three times a day.
A final mandatory test would show that she was virus-free. In the nearest clinic they took some blood and X-rayed her lungs - a formality, she thought. But the doctor didn’t like what they saw in the picture. Without further explanation she was locked in a room with only a bed, a toilet and a crackling intercom. She’s still there. A surveillance camera observes her day and night.
Totally in shock and shrouded in a blue hospital shirt I could see her through the videophone yesterday. Taiwan wasn’t normally like China, she cried, this couldn’t be true! She is trapped there, out of luck, and it is unclear for how long. The latter condition applies to everyone, but being able to choose where you are trapped affords a certain feeling of freedom.
I try to help her get some distance from the situation through the professional perspective. The smartphone makes it possible for her to write, film, photograph, record sound, look up information – the tools are not lacking. The most important thing is to imagine what she wants to do. The question is whether the fear allows this.
The urge to make things does not arise because we want to kill time, but because we want to give time meaning.
▶ Day 17
Back in the Netherlands. The population of Amsterdam has been halved. Not because of the plague but because the tourists have evaporated. Everyone prefers to be sick in their own country, except my child. And she’s right, the beds here are almost gone.
Only the locals live here now. That’s why every day I think of the Car Free Sundays from 1973 - when tourists only came to the Leidseplein and it was always nice weather, just like now. The city now resembles the old days, when it wasn’t better but dirtier, more fun, with free parking. In the meantime, the millions of roving tourists have polished the historic city centre smooth. What has remained is a sterile decor that hasn’t aged but even looks younger and younger as the decades pass. Botox Town.
▶ Day 18
No more tinkering in front of our house. There are flowers on the neighbours’ doorstep, and the box is, just as I arrive, lifted outside by its makers, together with some older people, maybe family members. Pete, our neighbour, is dead.
That we’re living in interesting times is a fact. Robert Filliou’s statement is still valid, but the opposite is also true:
Life is what makes art more interesting than life
Amsterdam, Dag 36
Barbara Visser (1966) is a visual artist. She is also former chairman of the Academy of Arts of the KNAW (2014 - 2017), interim artistic director of film festival IDFA (2017) and as of this year head of the Sandberg master program F for Fact.
Art and crisis — Thinking about art in times of corona
The arts are taking a break. Theatres, museums, concert halls and galleries are closed. To a large extent, the art that is so desperately needed right now is inaccessible. Imagine being quarantined at home without films, without books, without music.
Though we may not access the art, we can still think about it. The enforced rupture of this isolation can also be an opportune moment to reflect on and from, the arts.
Every Sunday for the coming weeks we will feature new writing on the arts under quarantine. Today we have the first offering from the initiators of this series: Akiem Helmling and Christiaan Weijts.