“Curious Cabinets”, Bjørn Bilkstad
HALF HIS STRENGTH WAS WASTED ON FRICTION
The Mythic (re)Turn
Body of work – kunstnerskap
Skap (nor.) – shape, figure, form. Contour, but also to get something into shape; in order.
Inform (lat.) – shape, fashion, describe, to give form (into – form)
Both the suffixes -ship and -scape has close etymological connections to the old Norse skapr
Skap= The form intowhich its constituent elements have congregated.
The word congregation is usually used for a large gathering of people in religious worship, but I want to use this word to reflect the heritage of modernist’s belief in form, which in essence is a metaphysical logic and an aesthetic claim; their true legacy is our contemporary awareness of trivial objects not only being carriers of existential meaning, but also a direct (un-scaled & non-representational) expression of it. (These qualities makes it a focal point for the arts, perceiving through usership and usefulness a way out of the problems of representations and scale between life and art. Retrospectively any artefact can be seen as a true representation of its time, but in the process of it beingcreated, it is ambiguous and uncertain. The sought-after directness is believed to bring new vigour to the process of making; colouring the position of ambiguity and uncertainty with intent and purpose.)
In any congregating process, the form it ends up taking is dependent on an interplay of each constituent element having its’ say on the form. If it turns out good your lucky, if we are obliged to accept the form, based on any stated utility, we need policing. Woodstock in 1969 went rather well, the four months later Altamont Free Concert didn’t. The form of any congregation is perhaps only robust when all the participants, being people or other constituent elements, can behave generic to their “nature” or have their inherent agency and/or adjust wilfully. Congregations, as large assemblies of people gathered in common purpose does not have to be peaceful. War is also perhaps a robust form. The forming of a congregation is also where culture and evolutionary biology meet in the unresolved problem of our relationship to nature.
A typical artistic contemporary solution to this problem is “asking” what the elementsthemselveswants to do, letting them collude into place, where they stand a little back and support the collusion process, trying not to override it (e.g. new materialism). We can further home in on the issue by using Christopher Alexander’s critique of urban planning where a town’s congregating possibilities are limited by the prior planning of waterlines and sewage; a town planned like that, as most new settlements are, cannot achieve a robust form over time – where and how people actually want to settle would be intrinsic to the logistics of the sewage planning – but by a stroke of luck. One can inject that people will eventually learn to appreciate their surroundings, that they will grow into their surroundings’ possibilities and constraints and eventually inhabit them. The modernists certainly believes/d that when designing their satellite cities.
The world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims is the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival celebrated four times over the course of 12 years. It is supported by a Great Kumbh Mela which happens every 144 years which in 2001 gathered 60 million people in peaceful community. Its origins are linked to astrological mythologies and observations [Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Projects like Ephemeral Urbanism, a project exhibited at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, want to extract learning for urban planning from large congregations like the Kumbh Mela.
The origins of Kumbh Mela is both mythic and historical and the description of such large congregations as ephemeral, perhaps millennia in the making, at the same time being inspired by the forms they manifest, reveal perhaps the largest aporia of the contemporary design culture, related to the problem of culture itself; between custom, purpose and cultivation – A form’s usefulness, however intrinsic to place and time, can be deconstructed, or reverse engineered, to its constituent parts and reused elsewhere. Site specificity and portability is an old paradox of furniture design and industry even reflected in many European words for furniture; meuble(Fr.); möbel(G.); møbel(No.), meaning mobile.
Learning from Las Vegasreveal a similar stance, that you can transport the form without regard for its constituent elements. That the form is trans-portable, perhaps even universal. Learning from “Learning from Las Vegas” [Vinegar, A 2010. I Am a monument: on Learning from Las Vegas] reveal the rigour of the ‘universal’ spell – analysis and implementation are linked to articulation. But because it is impossible to account for everything, the reuse will unintentionally be dislocated from important constituent elements and factors. This is, I believe, an intervention on the de-colonization trends in the west.
In processes of art-working, its’ forms and what the forms are constituted by are fluid up to a certain point. This Point is still governed by the Author, even though it is supposedly dead. Nevertheless, authorship having received the connotation of probably being a narcissistic illusion (the decisive blows to man’s narcissistic illusion), it has instead become bureaucratic, where the Point still happens but where its ontogeny remains hidden. The effect of which is that authorship is extended to account for everyone/thing responsible for the outcome, all of the constituent parts that governs the congregation, perhaps to a whole cultural system. In this aspect the artist is only a small fraction.
Design is situated in the middle of this because it actively attempts to accommodate for new emerging constituting elements, by tethering it to the consensual. Or the other way around: design needs to conflate the consensual with every emerging constituent in order to continue to build/grow. Design through industrialisation/communication, a structure that necessarily must harvest emerging trends and translate them into, or onto, its consensual platforms of presentation, reveals a utilitarian core. To me, from the perspective of speculative design, utilitarianism is just that.
As Design canbe seen as an ever-increasing set of new constituting elements congregating into its overall form, Design, by its debt to the “pitch” [a proposals’ success is intrinsically linked to the ability to convey its utility immediately], is an assimilator of cultural emergencies. Conversely, designers need to make e.g. cultural misappropriation/decolonizing part of it set of constituting elements, embrace it and make it immediate.
Because we demand consistency, by aesthetical logic between form and function / form and its constituent elements / form and its in-formation, in times of anomie design must readjust to accommodate for the current and any postulated congregates. The new constituting element we currently are struggling with is accurately described by a heated argument during the 2017 riots at Evergreen State College, Washington, recorded by the rioters and uploaded to YouTube:
You need to stop demanding that everybody use logic and reason and white forms of knowledge to fucking prove yourself to the world!
Why this is difficult to include into the set of constituting elements are twofold, like a coin. On one side is the hope we have for artistic research being an alternative knowledge provider to scientific knowledge, or in the words of the protester, an alternative to white forms of knowledge. The second, is in order to do so, we first must overcome a larger problem presented by Kierkegaard in 1843 in Fear and Trembling.A problem, by his use of words didn’t seem insurmountable. As in passing, he writes:
On the whole, it would be desirable if aesthetics, one day, would attempt to begin where, for so many years, it has ended, with the illusion of magnanimity. Once it did this it would then work hand in hand with the religious, for this power is the only one that can rescue the aesthetic from its combat with the ethical
However, with contemporary lenses this reads as near impossible to overcome. The initial question we must ask is how design, as a developer of goods for the betterment of the average life, relates to magnanimity. The first clue is obviously the meaning of the word magnanimous (høimodighetoriginal Danish word). I think Kierkegaard simultaneously express that magnanimity both was, and is, as well as didn’t, and doesn’t have to be, an illusion, because we should begin where it ended. To Aristotle magnanimity is one of the forms of Virtue, but the contemporary currency of Kierkegaard’s use of magnanimity is of course also related to the forming of councils of equity and community, diversity and inclusivity. They too, could be both a beginning and an end.
[Kierkegaards native country had it first king titled Dan den Høimodige(Dan the Magnanimous from which Denmark has its name, Danmark). In both Danish and Norwegian høimodig/høymodig would be an ambiguous title, meaning both loudmouth and brave and noble through storlåten. It is quite common that Viking kings and leaders received ambiguous titles from their bards. Outside Norse territory, Elector of Saxony John Frederick I the Magnanimous(1503-1554) received the same ambiguous honour.]
The rest of the quote is a lot more complicated to analyse, because of the interwoven nature and the troublesome aspects of the words: religious, aesthetics and ethical. But it is the attempt of this reflection to open this topic up through the phenomenon of making ornamented cabinets and reflecting on their (designed) ontogeny.
End of introduction
What doesn’t add up on paper, must play itself out in fates (or in the workshop)
CONTENTS OF CONTAINERS. CONTAINERS OF CONTENTS
The Norwegian word skapis both related to a piece of furniture and the act of creating something. In addition, it is also a suffix as in e.g.: kunstnerskap(artist’s body of work), vitenskap(science), galskap(madness), lanskap(landscape) and eierskap (ownership). The English suffixes of -scape and -ship are both etymologically related to the Norse skapr.The definition of the Old Norse word skap; form, contour, figure, but also, to get something in order, is similar to the English word inform;shape, fashion, describe (into form). The noun shapefrom Old English sceap, meaning form; created being, creature; creation; condition; sex, genitalia, had in plural form in Middle English “a sense of a woman’s private parts” [etymonline.com]. Remembering Salvador Dali’s purported state of being when he put drawers on Venus de Milo, it is all summed up in the 18thcentury word shapesmith;one who undertakes to improve the form of the body. Then going back to an artist’s body of work, kunstnerskap, i.e. artistship, as an embodied knowledge of the art of being, two worlds collide; branding and artistic responsibility.
While I am making this document, which is a reflection and dissemination on the intentions and reasons behind the recently finished Påfuglskap (“peacock-ship”), I am building and designing Selvskap (“self-scape”). They are both cabinets with pun names related to the word skap,which in English would conflate the words cabinet, closet, create. The English names I have given the cabinets I have made, which is more in line with branding, are The Curious Peacock Cabinet and TheCurious Moustache Cabinet. However, a proper semantic translation would for the name påfuglskap, through the symbolic interpretations of the peacock; from evolution; the all-seeing Argus eyes; male vanity, be selfawarenessship. Selvskapstill hasn’t a good English equivalent, I am not even sure what it is yet, but it is part self-portrait, part self-image, part self-conscious. None of them look like anything I have made before. Probably because as I reinvent myself through the job of doing artistic research; I have made artistic research – from interior architecture and furniture design, through Oslo National Academy of the Arts, to the government – my client. The client’s expressed desire is “form”, via kunnskapdirectly translated to English as “knowledge-ship”, i.e. contributions to the form knowledge takes. One could claim that knowledgeis on those terms more tangible than e.g. in-sight or sense, at the same time remembering that insight of something can produce knowledge of something else. (and vice versa?)
The semantics is important because in and behind the meaning of the words is a philosophy of what the world is, what knowledge is and what we are.
I like this, because it aims directly at what the arts refuse to provide; specific representations of anything specific, i.e. something that has been givenform, and is true because it is a gift. Rather, it insists on infinite complexity. It propagates probability (Schröedringer), while it yearns for the actual. It is shapeless, like the Void, while the client asks for Utterance. Can we have knowledgeof something shapeless? Can knowledge be without form? Is it possible to embody the infinite? An existentialist paradise.
It is now about four years ago that I got the notion of wanting to try my luck as an author. I remember it quite clearly; it was on a Sunday, yes, that’s it, a Sunday afternoon. I was seated as usual, out-of-doors at the cafe in the Fredricksberg Garden. I had been a student for half a score of years. Although never lazy, all my activity nevertheless was like a glittering inactivity, a kind of occupation for which I still have a great partiality, and for which perhaps I even have a little genius. I read much, spent the remainder of the day idling and thinking, but that was all it came to.
So there I sat and smoked my cigar until I lapsed into thought. Among other thoughts I remember these: “You are going on,” I said to myself, “to become an old man, without being anything, and without really undertaking to do anything. On the other hand, wherever you look about you, in literature and in life, you see the celebrated names and figures, the precious and much heralded men who are coming into prominence and are much talked about, the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railways, others by omnibuses and steamboats, others by the telegraph, others by easily apprehended compendiums and short recitals of everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who make spiritual existence in virtue of thought easier and easier, yet more and more significant. And what are you doing?” Here my soliloquy was interrupted, for my cigar was smoked out and a new one had to be lit. So I smoked again, and then suddenly this thought flashed through my mind, “You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must, with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as the others, undertake to make something harder.” This notion pleased me immensely, and at the same time it flattered me to think that I, like the rest of them, would be loved and esteemed by the whole community. For when all combine in every way to make everything easier, there remains only one possible danger, namely, that the ease becomes altogether too great; then there is only one want left, though it is not yet a felt want, when people will want difficulty. Out of love for mankind, and out of despair at my embarrassing situation, seeing that I had accomplished nothing and was unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, and moved by a genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I conceived it as my task to create difficulties everywhere
-Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard
Perhaps one strength of the designer is precisely the ability to interact seriously with the client, or integrate the clients desires, to be able “self-brainwash” yourself enough in order to utilise something personal in the outcome of the project, so you can at least enjoy the consistency of it. Artistic autonomy as a perquisite for critique to happen is not applicable to design. In later chapter in this text it will also relate to medieval polychromy and the late medieval abandonment of it. If we are venturing into a world of post-truth and post-art, post-critique will also ensue] However, it is not without its difficulties because at some point you will face something that simply does not blend, and you’ll learn something about both; yourself and your client. As the client can’t be budged, as is in my case is government, I am faced with a fragmented image my self; Who I was, who I am and who I think I am becoming. Sometimes all three can be radically different. This is a neglected point concerning designers doing artistic research, in particular, because in some sense design is already artistic research, as it experimentally embodies a speculative reciprocal agency. If that is the case, isn’t what the government asks of artistic research, then, to design something that helps counteract the nihilism brought about by the propagation of the materialist scientific paradigm?