The Resonant Words of Vilém Flusser

Issue no3
June - July 2022
Make Friends Not Art

Twenty-five years after his death, the work of prolific writer and new media theorist Vilém Flusser is enjoying a heightened interest in the Netherlands, particularly within the arts. What are the qualities of Flusser’s thinking that have attracted this attention? If Flusser is more relevant now than ever, why? The international symposium ‘Transcoding Flusser: Synthetic Thinking’ organised by West in collaboration with the Lectorate Art Theory & Practice, held at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, set out to address these questions while exposing Flusser’s thinking to Dutch audiences through a discursive and participative program. A contemporary of Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard, Flusser was ahead of his time when it came to his work untangling the relationships between the apparatuses of media and the codes of materiality. Drawing connections between writing, history and temporality – and notably, the role of media in culture – one of the most exciting links he made was between the temporalities of writing and the image, which he developed into a theory of the visual.

Opening the well-attended two-day symposium on 15th April 2016, West’s Director Marie-Jose Sondijker and moderators Steffi Winkler and Dr. Baruch Gottlieb made it clear that the presentation model would be open, consisting not only of presentations by panelists with Q&A sessions afterwards, but rather would be ‘models for energetic dialogue’, much in line with Vilem Flusser’s interest in a non-hierarchical knowledge exchange that allows for contradictions to coexist and thrive within a multiplicity of viewpoints. Inviting dialogic experimentation through ‘energetic dialogues’ by encouraging the audience to intervene following each presenter’s 20-minute presentation, the moderators introduced the panelists, including: Dr. Fiona Hanley, Dr. Rainer Guldin, Katerina Krtilova, Prof. Dr. Peter Mahr, Dr. Marcel René Marburger, Arjen Mulder, Prof. Dr. Simone Osthoff, and Dr. Polona Tratnik. The symposium was held in conjunction with the exhibition curated by Gottlieb and Siegfried Zielinski, ‘Without Firm Ground: Vilém Flusser and the Arts’ at West in The Hague.

Winkler and Gottlieb opened the dialogue departing from Gottlieb’s assertion that Vilém Flusser’s project was “to save philosophy in a society transformed through automated processes.” They addressed the claim that Flusser’s ‘technical’ or ‘synthetic’ images’, images (also computer code) made by an apparatus, and “produced though procedural, automated processes” have the potential to free us from the tyranny of linear, rational thinking.

As with other international conferences of this nature, where many of the panelists have worked independently on their research and haven’t previously met, establishing terms and definitions became a pronounced necessity, especially when speaking about the ideas of polyglot writer Vilém Flusser, who did not shy away from neologisms. In trying to work out some of Flusser’s demands, some of the topics that came up over the course of the symposium were: how transcoding transgresses the borders of philosophy and art; the false opposition of text and image; embodied philosophy; Flusser’s iconoclasm; Flusser recontextualized as an artist; performative aspects of writing; and Flusser’s curatorial engagement – and failure – in the 1971 Sao Paolo Biennial.

This last topic may explain some of the renewed interest in Flusser at a moment when many people within the arts freely exchange professional roles and claim the freedom to be artist-writer-curator-researcher at will. Flusser, through his participation as an invited curator in the politically charged 1971 Biennale formed new relations between artists and viewers – and curators and artists – in part through his close – and tense – working relationship with new media artist Fred Forest. In his talk, “From Science to Fiction: Considering Vilém Flusser as an Artist”, Dr. Marcel René Marburger from the Flusser Archive in Berlin, elaborated on this provocative recontextualization, taking the Biennale as a case study, and pointing towards another reason for Flusser’s current popularity – which may have something to do with the difficulty we now have with defining and labeling him.

Among the highlights of the symposium were translation theorist Dr. Rainer Guldin’s presentation, “Cotton Wool: On Flusserian terminology” which addressed the many writing and thinking strategies Flusser employed, such as cross-fertilization, translation and word play. Dr. Fiona Hanley’s evocative paper, “Encountering Bibliophagus: An Aesthetics of Reading”, took an especially sensitive approach to the idea of writing as an organ of perception. Thinking through Flusser’s background as an auto-didact, and most importantly, as a reader, Hanley delivered an “attempt to return to the questionables of the world,” and adeptly united theory and practice in her text which seemed to mimic the unique rhythm of Flusser’s own writing. Subtly inviting everyone to be more present intellectually and intuitively, she quoted Flusser, “We are always conversing more rigorously about less. And we are conversing not in order to converse, but to polemicize. We are not critics but propagandists.” Hanley’s text, which was well received, gave breathing space to experience the musical and vibrational aspects of the text that it was referring to.

Still questioning the reasons for the current interest in Flusser, it seems that his popularity has most to do with his fluidity in various roles and the method that this movement offers artists, who regularly traverse the spaces of art and writing. A Czech émigré who spent 30 years of his life in Brazil, Flusser worked between languages and cultures during a period of an intense technological transition. He strove for a transformation that would allow greater individual agency and dialogue in a ‘technical’ world overflowing with electronic information; this transformation would no longer need to be based on a false dichotomy of image and language, or art and philosophy, and linear thinking would be a thing of the past.

With the now-constant reworking of any singular definition of media theory and the exciting and renewed role of the ‘artist-writer’, it’s no surprise that Flusser’s assertions and claims, which are at times self-contradictory (especially when read across the different periods of his life) are a welcome presence in the current cultural landscape.

HERE are several lectures on video


15 & 16.4.2016

West Den Haag
19.3.2016 t/m 7.5.2016


Schrijfbaarheid. Over Vilém Flusser
In de serie over favoriete actuele theorie, waarvan de vorige afleveringen gewijd waren aan Giorgio Agamben en Michel de Certeau, buigt Jouke Kleerebezem zich over Die Schrift van de filosoof en mediatheoreticus Vilém Flusser.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2022