Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, some tables

I Wander and Therefore I Am? - Wandering as Deviant Practice

Issue no1
Feb-Mar 2019

How can we think of art as a generator of alternative knowledge? How does art interact with the unknown and the marginal? The three-day symposium Unfinished Systems of Non-Knowledge: On Wandering explores the relation between wandering, art and knowledge.

Unfinished Systems of Non-Knowledge: On Wandering looks at alternative knowledge that art opens up to. This is not knowledge in terms of hard science but rather a space for coming to terms with the unknown. The unknown can be taken literally as that which we do not (yet) know or as the marginal or the uncanny. Showing the possibilities of alternative knowledges, the symposium invites us to challenge the hegemony of Western linear thinking based on the model of the wanderer. As children of modernity, Western individuals inherited a mode of thinking that works along a straight line. It is a mechanical way of knowledge-production that is valued for its apparent efficiency. We move comfortably from a fixed beginning to a clearly demarcated end: a final solution or conclusion. What happens when we discard this linear thinking, leave the paven path and start wandering? According to the symposium’s initiator, Christel Vesters, and the invited speakers, wandering as a thought practice counteracts linear thinking.

Unfinished Systems of Non-Knowledge is a long-term research project by Vesters which explores the potential of art as the producer of alternative knowledge. The symposium On Wandering is the second public symposium that she has organized as part of her research and is stretched over three consequent days. The various meandering lectures tend to be quite heavy on subject matter which the scarcity of breaks does not ease, and as wandering is the central theme of the event, the various subjects the speakers discuss can feel quite scattered.

In front of De Waag on the Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam a small crowd gathers for a key-note lecture by Sigrid Weigel (former director of the Zentrum für Literatur und Kulturforschung (ZfL, Berlin). The Theatre Anatomicum, situated in the top of the building, serves as both the scenic backdrop and “discursive participant”, as Vesters puts it in her word of welcome, to the symposium. Behind the audience a replica of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1623) is a reminder of the anatomical experiments that were issued in this place upon corpses, often of poor people, to discover the workings of the human body.

Christel Vesters, photo: Vika Ushkanova

Keynote Sigrid Weigel, photo Vika Ushkanova

The human body, although not its interior but its situatedness, is also central to Weigel’s lecture. The distinguished, somewhat aristocratic-looking, professor gives a dense historical overview of the Jewish-German academic members of the Kulturwissenschaft (Erich Auerbach (1892-1957), Georg Simmel (1858-1918), Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), Leo Spitzer (1887-1960), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Helmuth Plessner (1892-1985), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and Aby Warburg (1866-1929) in 1930’s Germany. Partly due to their marginal position in society and their forced migration their, still influential, ideas have spread over the globe. Weigel focuses on the life and thinking of Benjamin and Warburg. Their outsider positions enabled them to travel across disciplines, thus establishing a transdisciplinary approach to research. Placed at the margins of academia and society because of their Jewish backgrounds these thinkers found themselves, mostly out of sheer necessity, transgressing physical and mental borders as well as disciplinary borders. This bodily experience of being at home in the border area influenced their thinking. In her lecture, Weigel shows the effects of imposed circumstances and the subsequent bodily experience of these thinkers on their efforts to think of the border-zone and beyond. The thinking-in-motion of the Kulturwissenschaft group resonates in the other lectures.

Sigrid Weigel on the left, Christel vesters on the right, photo Vika Ushkanova

The most dominant of these resonances is the Mnemosyne Atlas, the life’s work of Aby Warburg. The atlas is an attempt to catch the travel of images, whose symbolic meaning shapes culture, from East to West and from Antiquity to present in a tangible archive. Warburg’s desire to combine spatial and temporal relationships in a single encyclopedic archive has ultimately, as some claim, driven him mad. The three-dimensional atlas, a cartographic and encyclopedic approach to re-mapping knowledge, was left unfinished at the time of his death. It is an attempt to understand the transformation of images when they travel through time and space. Warburg shows specific interest in the Renaissance as, according to him, this was the era in which the opposition in reason and irrationality was most tangible. His aim was to make his contemporaries rethink the dualism between logic and unreason. In associative clusters reproductions of images are combined in mobile sets. As the example par excellence of transdisciplinary research the Mnemosyne Atlas fits well in the image Weigel draws of the Kulturwissenschaft group.

Rembrandt and audience, photo: Vika Ushkanova

Roberto Ohrt and Alex Heil, their lecture taking place on the last day, have researched the Mnemosyne Atlas for many years which has resulted in the exhibition Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas at ZKM Center for Arts and Media, Karlsruhe in 2016. This exhibition included a complete reconstruction of the atlas. Ohrt tells me there is hardly anyone who has not worked on Warburg’s legacy in Hamburg’s cultural field, Ohrt and Heil were surprised to find out that the actual materiality of the atlas had rarely been accessed as most of this research had been conducted from a distance. They decided to take matters into their own hands.

René Ten Bos, photo Yvon Ariese

René ten Bos, laureate thinker of the Netherlands, takes up the notion of the deviant line more directly on the second day in the programme A thought never unfolds in one straight line. His lecture is fundamentally a plea against hodology (the study of pathways). Ten Bos, legs dangling from the table he sits upon, takes his audience on a journey along Plato’s cave, the Cartesian division of body and mind and the relation between the shopping list and bureaucracy. René Descartes, philosopher (1596-1650), once urged people who are lost in a dark forest to follow any straight line as that would ultimately lead them out, thus implying the metaphorical forest to be a perfect wheel with various spokes that one could easily track. This logical solution, Ten Bos urges us, dismisses the complexity of certain situations. Without aiming to dispose of logic, bureaucracy and methodology completely, Ten Bos makes a claim for a multiplicity, a concept taken from the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, of thinking as it enables human beings to take the specificity of a particular situation into account.

Being lost in the metaphorical forest and refraining from explaining the uneasiness and chaos away is a quality inherent to artists and cherished by the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821). “Negative Capability” is how he phrased this state of being in a letter to his brothers. Keats coined the idea to describe the ability of artists, and Shakespeare’s talent in particular, to remain in a mental state of uncertainty. Vesters mentions the idea of Negative Capability in passing during her introduction to the second day. Without explicitly referring to it, Lucy Cotter (independent curator and writer) emphasizes the intellectual ability of contemporary artists of remaining in the unknown in her lecture which is mostly based upon her forthcoming book Art Knowledge: Between the Known and the Unknown and the volume Reclaiming Artistic Research.

Lucy Cotter, photo Yvon Ariese

To Cotter art is a form of thinking. The artist’s job is to come up with new ideas or to revisit the breaking points in Western thought that determine for example whether the straight or meandering line is the way to go. Cotter emphasizes the importance of matter for artistic research as materiality informs and guides knowledge-production. Cotter also expresses her dislike of thematic exhibitions as they tend to group artworks for the curator’s purpose while neglecting the thought process inherent to one artist’s oeuvre. Ultimately art refuses clear-cut answers and is capable of stretching a state of being-in-between. This is what Cotter calls the rich accumulation of (non)knowledge in artworks.

The final day is composed of various shorter lectures and a performance by Jeremiah Day. Highlight is the lecture by Nick Dunn (professor of Urban Studies) who elaborates on the relevance of the nocturnal city as a site of deviancy. City night-life shows the other side of the coin: it is full of illegal practices, the unfamiliar and the unknown, yet relatively close to the familiar. The nocturnal city as threshold zone is something we need to cherish through nightwalking. Dunn has recently published a manifesto on the subject entitled Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City (2016).

The build-up of the symposium (from historical, philosophical, art historian and curatorial approaches to wandering to artistic practices) appears to be somewhat conventional and therefore contra-intuitive to the idea of wandering. Furthermore as it relies heavily on dominant Western thinkers the symposium made me wonder whether it would not have been more productive to discuss some lines of thought that are diametrically opposite to Western thinking. Perhaps we could really lose our way in contemporary spaces of border-knowledge in the third edition of Unfinished Systems of Non-Knowledge.

New knowledge arrives from within the margins. It is to be found in deviant thought and through an intimate engagement with materiality. When one wanders one is able to be shaped by the unexpected, the unknown. What Unfinished Systems of Non-Knowledge shows us, which is not a completely new idea, is that matter and thought are not separate entities but interdependent parts of the same process. For that is another quality of wandering that we have not yet touched upon. Wandering is ultimately an activity, developing over time. As a thought process it has no predictable outcome but is dependent upon constantly changing circumstances and a certain degree of attentiveness to the world, whether that be a dark forest or a studio, in which one finds oneself.

Unfinished Systems of Non-Knowledge Part 2: On Wandering, De Waag and Het Trippenhuis, Amsterdam, 8.02.2018 t/m 10.02.2018

Zoë Dankert
is webeditor at Metropolis M

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 1 — 2019