July 29, 2012

The Right To Be Lazy. John Knight and Siegfried Kracauer

John Knight, The Right To Be Lazy, Berlin, since 2009.

The first thing I do upon arriving in Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin, is to check out my favorite piece of art (for more current news on this piece, click here and even more current click here). It is in the courtyard and it changes all the time. It goes unnoticed by most visitors because, at first sight, it is very common. The installation of the piece took place in 2009. I was present when the Californian artist John Knight had a simple request for the gardener: the grass in the rondel had to be left untouched from that moment on. The piece is then also titled The Right To Be Lazy. It is inspired by a 1883 manifesto by Paul Lafargue. Lafargue, who was the son in law of Karl Marx, wrote his manifesto as a protest against the dominating working ethics, including Marx'. Only in laziness, so he argued, ideas can come and culture can exist. Therefore Lafargue pleaded for the 3-hour working day: also the worker has a right for his/her own culture.

In Berlin John Knight's The Right To Be Lazy has found its perfect setting. In the city there are still many of these in-between-places that are not invested in. Yet Hamburger Bahnhof's environment shows that things are changing rapidly. The no-man's-land around it has turned into a happening place with a high-rise building and a new station that features in futuristic crime thrillers such as Tom Tykwers The International. In the 1920s Martin Heidegger taught at the Humboldt University in Berlin about boredom as a philosophical issue. The train station was according to him the place par excellence for getting bored. In the new Hauptbahnhof such boredom is hard to imagine. Waiting rooms are non-existent, benches are rare. Instead there is time to consume. The Berlin cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote about this culture of distraction in the upcoming metropolis of the 1920s. Nobody as boring, Kracauer stated in his 1927 essay Langeweile, than those who are never bored. During the day one goes to work – business - and at night one is kept in the state of busy-ness in the cinema. The kind of boredom that originates out of this culture of distraction was addressed by Andy Warhol in his Do-It-Yourself paintings, also on show in Hamburger Bahnhof. No talent is needed for this “painting by numbers”, own ideas are not necessary. The result is predictable, yet there is a feeling of satisfaction upon finishing it.

what is the name of this yellow flower?

I can reminiscent for hours on John Knight's The Right To Be Lazy, expanding on topics such as the beauty of the German word Langeweile, immigration debates about the economical value of a person, Valeska Gert's proto-performance Pause, Marcel Duchamp's reluctance towards the art market, the pressure to perform. Yet, The Right To Be Lazy can also be admired for its pure aesthetics. Each season brings a new beauty to it. Yesterday I met another admirer standing at The Right To Be Lazy: Mark from Hamburger Bahnhof Walther König bookstore. The Right To Be Lazy is an ideal place to practice the art of observation. I mostly check in vain if the Californian flower seeds that I threw in last spring are showing up. Yet Mark has a better eye. He pointed out an Asian plant and called it a pioneer species: pioneer species are the first to colonize previously disrupted ecosystems. Mark elaborated about biodiversity in the city, the mono-culture of the countryside, singing birds and their new urban melodies.

Pioneer species

By the way: today is a great day for The Right To Be Lazy. Sunday is an institution and, according to Kracauer, one should take the opportunity “to rouse oneself into boredom.” Here is his suggestion (the rainy wetter of today will make this easier):

On a sunny afternoon when everyone is outside, one would do best to hang about in the train station or, better yet, stay at home, draw the curtains, and surrender oneself to one's boredom on the sofa. Shrouded in tristezza, one flirts with ideas that even become quite respectable in the process, and one considers various projects that, for no reason, pretend to be serious. Eventually one becomes content to do nothing than be with oneself, without knowing what one actually should be doing – sympathetically touched by the mere glass grasshopper on the tabletop that cannot jump because it is made of glass and by the silliness of a little cactus plan that thinks nothing of its own whimsicality. Frivolous, like these decorative creations, one harbors only an inner restlessness without a goal, a longing that is pushed inside, and a weariness with that which exists without really being.

If, however, one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly. A landscape appears in which colorful peacocks strut about and images of people suffused with soul come into view. And look - your own soul is likewise swelling, and in ecstasy you name what you have always lacked: the great passion. Were this passion – which shimmers like a comet – to descend, were it to envelop you, the others, and the world – oh, then boredom would come to an end, and everything that exists would be ...

Yet people remain distant images, and the great passion fizzles out on the horizon. And in the boredom that refuses to abate, one hatches bagatelles that are as boring as this one.

July 16, 2012

Good Moves / Bad Words. Justin F. Kennedy, Ali Mongo and Kate Hers

Kate Hers' "deutschsprachliche Projekt", 2012

In Berlin I used to participate in a great hip hop course taught by Justin F. Kennedy. Justin always reminds me of my one-year stay in San Francisco - a year of pure sun, light, and happiness. His dance is invested by this positive vibe. Now living and dancing in Berlin, he returned to SF for a residency in 2011. In the Uferhallen of Wedding I went to see the result: Flitter, Flutter, Glitter, Gutter (or any combination of the four). Modern dance has a way of confronting you with your greatest agonies. Not so in Justin's SF dance piece. It made me laugh and it was as if the spectators' smiling faces were intrinsically part of his choreography. Also in the hip hop course we learnt plenty of good moves, which I still use to tackle daily life in Berlin. There is the “drop bounce bounce” movement, bouncing off a negative comment like a basketball. Brushing the dirt off the shoulder exactly three times à la Michael Jackson works too.

Only recently I discovered that happy moves are not necessarily only triggered bodily but also by using words. It was while re-reading Andy Warhol's Philosophy book that I became aware of this – his favorite word being “so what”:

“My mother didn't love me.” So what.
“My husband won't ball me.” So what.
“I'm a success but I'm still alone.” So what.

The Mongolian, originally SF and now Berlin-based painter Ali Mongo has a similar way of ending tough topics: “Why not?” Ali Mongo goes through life with an ease that is remarkable. Traveling around the world he encounters trouble regularly. Yet, when the trouble is not too big (in which case a change of name will do. I once used to call Ali Mongo Sammy.), a “why not?” suffices. In my search for a German equivalent Sebastian Jehl of the Walter König book shop in Hamburger Bahnhof came up with a proposal: “Was soll's.”

Ali Mongo in his studio in Berlin

It seems, however, that a lot of people moving to Berlin are anticipating a harsh culture. Therefore they are eager to master a “bad” vocabulary to face the situation. The Singapore artist Ming Wong prepared for his move by doubling Petra von Kant in her terrible breakdown in Fassbinder's Die bittere Tränen von Petra von Kant: “Ich bin im Arsch ... ”. On June 29 I attended the screening and presentation of the work of Kate Hers in Art Laboratory Berlin. Kate Hers is the brain behind the amazing website estherka.com which brings together the latest updates about jobs and residencies for artists and useful information on, for instance, how to apply for an artist visa in Germany. Born in South-Korea and raised in the United States the issue of transmigration is key to Kate Hers' artistic work. Living now in Berlin she started this year an interactive language project called “Das deutschsprachliche Projekt” (germanproject.estherka.com). Mostly in collaboration with the person who offers her a peculiar German expression or word Kate Hers makes “teaching” podcasts, which are published on her blog. Swear words fill the main part of the project. Through repetition the viewer is taught the correct pronunciation because, of course, you want to get these things right.

The statistics have not been made yet, but Kate Hers told me that she noticed a few particularities. Plenty of variations came up to insult a woman as “old hag”: Kackbratze, Schabracke, Schreckschraube, alte Schrapnelle. Swear words for an elderly man are harder to find. Plenty of words also for “idiot”: Dulli, Trottel, Halbdackel, Kloppi, Vollpfosten, Schwachmat, Arschgeiger, Dumpfbacke, Hornochse, Saftsack. Whereas in the United States swear words using genitals are much more common (asshole is the most famous one), in Germany it is apparently a bigger insult to affront somebody's intelligence. Indeed, one would go so far as to fake a PhD just to avoid the offenses. Kate Hers' “deutschsprachliche Projekt” is not exactly a happy words projects. Yet by tracking those bad words and tackling them in a humorous way she opens up a space where they lose their weight and power. Additionally, it might bring you in a good mood to be able to recognize an insult while also proposing your offender a few alternatives. Recognizing an insult is not so easily done when you are new in Berlin. Berliners have a way of saying the most harmless words, such as “bread”, in an, at first hearing, angry tone. An Icelandic friend of mine learnt it the hard way at his local bakery. After a while he finally barked back. Since then the bad vibe has vanished into thin air.

See for Justin F. Kennedy's dance piece: http://vimeo.com/36000917
and Kate Hers projects: http//:estherka.com; http://thegermanprojectpart2.wordpress.com/http://usartberlin.org

July 5, 2012

Short and Sharp. Andy Warhol, Dieter Roth, Valeska Gert and Colleen Becker

Valeska Gert's advertisment in Aller Lüste Anfang. Das 7. Buch der Werbung, 1971

Yesterday I met my friend Elias on the street, who was waiting for his pizza to get ready. He was a little tired but satisfied. During a few intensive weeks he had been working on the advertising of a chocolate bar, which had brought him enough money to last for a while. Sweet. I offered him my own creative writing in case he needed a one-liner of some sort. Something about soccer was coming up, he said. I refused, of course, I could not imagine having to think about soccer for a minute. Still, advertising has its attractions. I never watch it on TV and I'm not, at least consciously, looking at it on the internet. But I do love Mad Men, the American TV-series about a 1950s New York advertisement agency. Since those uptight 1950s, advertising might have become more broad-minded (although, also that is to be doubted). Yet without the daytime whiskey, cigarettes and secretaries, the fun must be gone.

Another reason for my interest is that a few of my favorite artists have worked in/on advertising. Of course, the first one that pops to mind is Andy Warhol. The profile of my blog reveals that I'm a die-hard fan who caries a bag with on it straps the famous quotes “I've never met a person I could not call a beauty” and “In the future everybody will have 15 minutes of fame”. It is amazing how Warhol can entertain and be extremely funny, and at the same time be so acute and accurate. Saying that, I'm stealing the promotion pun on my edition of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (such a great subtitle!). It's by Truman Capote: “Acute. Accurate. Mr. Warhol's usual amazing candor. A constant entertainment and enlightment.” It does happen rarely that the combination of humor and critical analysis occurs in art - especially in German art seriousness seems to be equalled with in-depth analysis. The quality of Andy Warhol's art and writing is that with an essentially simple image or with just a few words, written always in a playful way, he is able to express the most radical critique. Most people need an overload of paint or a whole book and even then they have a hard time getting the message across.

Dieter Roth, Advertisments / Inserate, 1971-1972.

Also Dieter Roth was fascinated by advertising – at least by the advertising pages in the newspaper which he called “ein grosser Schrotthaufen” (“a huge heap of junk”). In 1971 he decided to advertise 220 of his own invention - short sentences that made no sense, signed as “DR”. He only made it to 130. The newspaper refused to publish any more, having received too many angry reactions from its readers. Recently I learnt that another favorite artist of mine participated in advertising. Wolfgang Müller showed me his newly acquired book, also of 1971, entitled Aller Lüste Anfang. Das 7. Buch der Werbung (Emeriten-Press). In this mockery on advertising the Berlin dancer and performer Valeska Gert is presented with the sentence: “Jeder Käufer von zwei Sargen enthält als Zugabe einen Kindersarg.” (“Each buyer of two coffins gets as a bonus one children coffin for free.”) Valeska Gert had a way of leaving people speechless. Her work still does, as I noticed a few weeks ago when I showed her performance in the W.G. Pabst 1929 film Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (Diary of a Lost Girl) to an acquaintance / art collector . I have not heard from my acquaintance since. No doubt, if Valeska Gert had stayed in New York in 1945 instead of returning to Berlin, she would have worked together with Andy Warhol. She herself thought so. This fall Karl Lagerfeld is republishing one of her four autobiographies: The Beggarbar of New York (the first one Mein Weg (My Way) was republished in Wolfgang Müller's Valeska Gert: Ästhetik der Präsenzen).

Valeska Gert's one-liner advertisement reminds me of the shortest story I ever read. It's by Ernest Hemmingway: “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn”. I heard about it from Colleen Becker, who is a flash fiction writer herself. Flash stories are five hundred to one thousand words short and as such the narrative depends mainly upon the reader's imagination. Also Valeska Gert had a flashy dance style: she danced the jump only in its offset, leaving it up to the audience to fill in the rest. In 2009 Colleen Becker participated in a Shortness conference that was organized by Tate Modern "tackling topics ranging from aphorisms, text msgs and short attention spans to nanophilology, sampling, ephemeral relationships, punch lines, short narratives and other short-lived entities and phenomena (insects and fashion)". On the occasion Colleen Becker read one of her flash fiction stories titled “B&I”. The short piece was also published in the anthology Tales of the DeCongested. Here it is:


When I lived in Chicago I shared a house with five other people: four Scorpios and a Pisces, all artists. Our place was spacious, but we spent most of our time in separate bedrooms to avoid conflict. When we needed to communicate, we would do so via ESP, sending each other psychic messages to "please get your crap out of the living room" or "please stop eating my food". When that didn't work, really bad things would happen. Like maybe you would walk into the bathroom to find all of the silverware in the toilet.

I rarely saw or spoke to my flatmates, with the sole exception of B. The two of us were very social. After work, B and I often sat together on the front porch swing; I made up fake blues songs while he played the guitar until one of our flatmates would psychically tell us to "please shut the hell up". One day B took apart the television and connected it to our stereo. Instead of looking at the boring stuff that's generally on TV, we watched the colored lines that are usually hidden inside of your television move around to the music. We did this for hours at a time.

B and I eventually moved into our own place. We lived on the third floor, which meant that when we sat on our back porch, we had a great view of all of the crime in our neighborhood. As we watched the crime, B told me stories about the Rosicrucians and bear constellations that were actually really scary.

Later, this stripper from New Orleans named Poppy moved in with us, and although the number of kitchen fires increased dramatically after she became our flatmate, B was still
psyched that she was around. I moved shortly thereafter, but I left her my mattress 'cause it seemed like she needed extras. I later learned that B had been sleeping with her in secret the entire time.

Tales of the DeCongested is published by
Apis Books
Flat 9, 50 Roman Road
Bethnal Green
London E2 0LT
ISBN 0-9552538-3-7 / 978-0-9552538-3-6
Contents © the individual Authors, 2008