Our darling objects
A dialogue between an artist and a philosopher -
by Emilie Gomart
Objects make our world.
Without objects we cannot exist. We spend more time with objects than with people. When we go for a stroll on the streets, we are covered with objects and carry with us a bagful of them; when we move town, we lug with us a truckload of things. And yet our common sense and our language tend to downplay the importance of objects. Things are ‘just’ things. It seems bizarre to call an object ‘darling’ and to say that we long for a long-term relationship with it. And yet, we are attached to our grandmother’s teacups and tenderly care for them. Why could we not say that things help us every day faithfully and that our intention is to help them in return for a lifetime? After all, we are committed to each other, in ways we might be committed to our human partner in marriage. And in a single day, we have more physical contact with objects than we do with humans…
This is artist Yvonne Dröge Wendel’s reflection about objects, about how we downplay their importance while in fact we depend on them entirely. Though there is no direct reference in her work to philosophy, this reflection- in exactly these terms- might also have been made by a contemporary philosopher - especially one influenced by the work of Bruno Latour and his colleagues (‘Actor Network Theory’, hereafter ‘ANT’). Though Dröge Wendel never met Latour, like him, she has struggled for the length of her career with a specific failure of our modern language and concepts: the failure to recognize the exact nature of our relationship to objects. Both the philosopher and this artist warn us that, if we are careless, if we follow unquestioningly our common sense, our cultural biases, we miss out on how objects are not just props in our lives. Without objects, we would not exist as we are. Without objects, we would not even be modern (nor ‘a-modern’, nor post-modern, for that matter). Without objects, let us face it, we would be primates!
Both this artist and that philosopher struggle to loosen the grip of our old habits, our ‘common sense’, and to set up the conditions needed to register more accurately and fairly just how much objects matter to us. As they do so, they aim to transform our expectations of objects as well as our actual relations to them. How we approach things matters: if we were to allow our usual biases to influence us, what we would be able to say about our experience of objects would be very limited. So we have to carefully shift out these biases, and try out other conditions under which our perception might be refined.
How do these two – a philosopher and an artist- set aside old habits? Yvonne Dröge Wendel devises an experimental interaction in which she -and participants- might undergo a new experience with objects. She does not produce an ‘Art Object’ with a ‘content’ or message– rather her artwork is this search for the right conditions to capture and transform ways of talking, feeling, relating to objects. And her intention is to allow for open-ended results.
Similarly, Latour does not just ‘think up’ a new philosophical argument to defend the importance of objects. Like Dröge Wendel, he sets up experimentations, or more exactly, he ‘follows’ practitioners doing their own experimentations with objects. At first, he follows scientists, designers, engineers, users, doctors, and later, also artists, law-makers and politicians because he is convinced that these practices- like his- all pivot around the issue of ‘What do things do?’. He does fieldwork -just as an anthropologist would have done in faraway villages- in laboratories or workshops and learns from the practitioners themselves how they tentatively try out and search for the right ways to relate with objects. Just as the practitioners are constantly worried about the validity of their approaches and techniques, the philosopher too is never certain and must keep an open mind. Latour would be an ‘armchair’ academic, if he preferred his storms neuronal and his work nested within the comfortable confines of his office. But he leaves the safety of his intellectual habitat and engages in interactions with practitioners tentatively interacting with objects.
Both this artist and that philosopher set up interactive experiments to register and transform our relation to objects. So, I want to set up an experiment too. I juxtapose four crucial shifts made by ANT philosophers with different works by Yvonne Dröge Wendel. I set up an artificial dialogue between people who have never met, between works that do not directly refer to each other. And yet, it seems to me, this juxtaposition constitutes the optimum conditions for registering the singularity of Dröge Wendel’s work. Just as she and ANT philosophers work to better perceive and describe what objects do to us, I tentatively set up here the conditions to better register what Dröge Wendel’s work does to us, to art and to philosophy.
Shift 1. From ‘what’ to ‘how’.
What are objects then? Are objects tokens of a hard reality, the stuff we can knock on (‘Tap! Tap!’) to remind us that there is a Reality around us, independent of us? If we stop hitting them for a moment and look at them too, we might see that they are symbols, images, mirrors of our unconscious or our culture. We see their role in the rituals of daily life. If we look at them, we might see deep within ourselves… What are objects then, do they offer a tough surface to tap on or a soft depth to find ourselves in? Are they outside or inside? Real or imaginary? What are objects, really?
ANT philosophy refuses to answer this question. It is a trap. One cannot ask ‘What is an object?’ without taking on just the habits and biases –exemplified in the few sentences opening this section- that prevent us from being able to register our own complex relations to objects.
Traditionally, there have been two ways in which this question has been answered in philosophy. Both are a handicap in our search for better descriptions of our relations to objects:
1. The ‘essentialist’ answer. Objects just ‘are’ what they are. They have (primary) properties that do not vary through time or space. For example, a chemical substance just is what it is – it does not matter where it is or how it is used. Humans might disagree about what objects are, but this conflict has no impact on what the things actually are. Equipped with good intentions and the right method –usually, ‘scientific method’- humans can begin to identify what real properties things have.
2. The ‘social constructivist’ answer. It is impossible to know ‘what’ an object really is, independently of the human looking at it. Human beliefs, contexts, institutions, points of view determine what one sees in the object. Representations are projected onto the object. ‘What’ the object is then is just a series of representations or beliefs -that bear no relation with what the object actually might be ‘out there’, outside of the human context.
When we ask ‘What is an object’, we get stuck. We start wondering whether objects are outside or inside, reality or representation. ‘Does what I think an object is correspond to what an object really is?’. We become obsessed with the question of correspondence. We can argue about whether there is correspondence (either essentialism or social constructivism), but we can never ever exit from this dilemma. From then on, we are condemned to describing human relations to objects in one of just two ways: either things are what we think of them; or they are entirely autonomous from us. Either they are the projection screens for our inner representations, or they are a separate reality.
The problem is that these two alternatives do not do justice to the wide range of our experience of things. There are- in our daily experiences and in our different practices- multiple relations between humans and objects. The traditional dualism (essentialism/social constructivism) has been the Charyb and Scylla of ANT – and all four shifts I describe below were devised by ANT philosophers to help them navigate safely beyond this dilemma and towards a finer description of human relations to objects.
The first shift ANT made was away from the question ‘What?’ and towards the question ‘How?’. ‘How are things used, discovered, perceived, experienced?’ We don’t have to worry anymore about whether what the object is corresponds to what we think it is. By focusing on ‘how’, we can pay attention, for example, to the techniques used by scientists in the laboratory for describing what they are. We can look at how they, in their practice, address the problem of saying what something is.
Jacques Tati in his film Mon Oncle defined the modern age simply by showing how his human characters interacted with objects (toasters, plastic jugs, cars, etc.), how they resisted each other, broke, bounced, protested… Similarly, an ANT philosopher looking at biologists would begin an investigation by making a list of all the things in a laboratory and look for evidence of how they were used : the battered notebooks, the photos of lab parties pinned to the lab bench, the graying computers, the worn and new equipment, the scribbled print outs, the old sandwich wrappings, the chemicals and caged rats stored in the next room, …
When we look at ‘how’ things are used, objects –or ‘entities’ in general- are caught up in gestures, routines, skills and are inseparable from them. There is no autonomous object with a clear contour or boundary. Rather, an object is always already seized by this hand in this way in that routine. It is
coextensive with a network of practices.
In ANT, works that focus on ‘how’ rather than ‘what’, on ‘networks’ rather than ‘entities’, typically, describe the trajectory of an object as it circulates within and between networks. The object is used as a ‘tracer’ to trace the worlds it passes through. The analyst zooms out from a traditional narrow focus on a single autonomous object to span the broader network(s) the object is engaged in and holds together.
On her side too, Dröge Wendel shifts from ‘what’ to ‘how’ : she does not focus on the esthetics or the form of an object but shifts instead to defining ‘how’ we use things, that is, to describing relations, practices or situations.
Dröge Wendels ‘Wooden Sticks’- an artists’ book published after an exhibition of the same name at Witte de With in 1995- is a collage of different art historical, archeological, anthropological descriptions of sticks. It also includes photos that document the different ways in which the artist approached the stick- her different perspectives, postures, gestures, moods- over the time of the exhibition. The book is interspersed with texts, sketches and photos. The stick is a tracer, the red thread holding the pieces of the book together: when we follow the stick through the pages, through time and space, through the different practices described, different networks (Greek vase painting, Christian iconography, Italian shepherding, …) emerge in all their specificity.
Dröge Wendel records all the networks (‘how’s’), all the ways of using a stick and she wants to devise yet more ways (‘how’). She wants to set up a process – construct an experimental set-up- through which she and participants might approach objects, perceive and use them in different ways. The ‘how’ (how to use a stick) is the topic of this work.
Does Dröge Wendel’s work really make the same innovating shift as ANT philosophy? Could this work not be taken for a social constructivist work? If the book were only about ‘what a stick is’ in different cultures – the many cultural definitions of what a stick is- it would be a typical ‘social constructivist’ work, collecting ‘representations’ about sticks. However, a social constructivist would pay no special attention to the actual stick, to its materiality and to how each use demands different physical qualities of the stick. (The saint in the Christian icon shows a stick that is as long as a man and that curves down on one end; the Italian shepherd requires a shorter, heavier stick for hiking up hills and poking animals; …) Dröge Wendel’s fastidiousness about the size, weight, color, shape of the sticks sets her apart from the social constructivists who are not interested in materialities.
Further, what fascinates her most is the moment of encounter between the object and the human: the moment the object is actually seized and used. Many photos and sketches zoom in on the point of contact – the handle or grip- where the hand takes hold of the stick to use it. The images document that this point of contact has different physical characteristics (forms, surfaces, textures, colors, etc.) in different practices of use. She investigates how in each practice the handle is fashioned differently to anticipate on the hand that will take hold of it – anticipate on its various expectations, skills and techniques. The handle moulds itself to the hand for better use. When the focus is on use, the boundaries of the human and the thing become permeable to each other. (At such a moment, one cannot be worried about defining what each entity ‘is’. An essentialist would be concerned that the entities remain clearly separate from each other; a social constructivist that the object is abstract and merges with the subject symbiotically.) As the focus shifts to the ‘how’ (‘how’ to grasp, handle, hold), the object melts partially with the subject. The materiality of each in the encounter is crucial. Just as ANT philosophers, her topic is the ‘how’ and her attention turns to the permeable boundaries of things in use.
In ‘Hospital’ (1992), an installation work that evolved in collaboration with Marianne Theunissen and Eulalia Valldosera, the idea was to create an artificial environment where objects and people interrelate according to an arbitrary yet coherent system of rules. Again the focus is on the ‘how’, not the ‘what’. What happens to human and objects when the conditions of their encounter are transformed beyond recognition?
In Hospital, human visitors do not enter the usual way into the space of the installation, through the main door, the grand entrance. Instead their coats –usually relegated to the cloakroom – are hung on moving hangers high above the ground- and they are the ones that swoop dramatically through the hall. The humans walk in through narrow trenches dug below the level of the floor. The visitors can look up and see the coats spinning elegantly around above them.
Further in the space, objects are lit in such way that their shadows are completely incongruent to their size or shape. For example, the coffee cup is now the size of a grown man, and the viewer’s shadow shrinks to half the size of the cup.
The work might have been social constructivist if it had simply aimed to question our cultural beliefs about what objects are and how we interact with them. It might have been post-modern, if it had tried to make us distrust what we saw and to shake any essentialist belief that objects just are what they are.
Hospital plays with ‘how’ we relate to objects- not to shake our convictions about what they are- but to broaden the range of our experiences of objects. In classical philosophy, there are only two ways we relate to objects. But here, with each network, under each new condition, another relation is tried out.
2. From ‘being’ to ‘doing’.
A second way out of the social constructivist/essentialist dualism is to shift away from the study of what objects ‘are’ to what objects ‘do’.
ANT philosophers- influenced by semioticians- listen very closely to the stories they hear from the people they follow around and pick up on how nothing - not objects, not humans- is an autonomous entity with a stable identity. What practitioners describe is more like a cast of characters in a story, ‘actants’, who ‘act’ in various ways. They rarely say anything about what anything ‘is’; but they are preoccupied with what things do (faire), and what they make others do in turn (faire faire).
Louis Pasteur found it very difficult in the late 19th century to say what the controversial yeast ‘was’; but he could describe how it ‘brewed’, ‘grew’, …
What does it change to shift to ‘doing’? If we focus on ‘being’, we have to settle for one definitive definition and argue about whether this definition is ‘correct’, whether it corresponds to the truth. But with ‘doing’, we can allow for a variety of qualifiers. ANT philosophers follow meticulously other people- scientists, designers, etc.- to observe the trials (épreuves) and experiments they set up in order to test and discover what an object ‘does’.
One story goes something like this. An ethologist says, ‘I wanted to know if the female rat would be active in the mating game. So I dropped her into the male rat’s cage. The cage was narrow and the female practically fell on top of the male rat. He just pounced on her. I couldn’t see that she was active at all. Later, I used a bigger cage. I let the female in on one side and the male on the other. The female repaired to a corner and let the male approach only after she did a little ‘dance’. I had never seen such a ‘dance’! Then it dawned on me how she was active after all…’ The rat ‘does’ different things in this story: first, she does not move; later, she does a ‘dance’. If we had focused on what rats ‘are’, we might have missed this variation. We might have also missed why the female rat suddenly acted differently. When the size of the cage is changed, the female rat – which ethologists believed to be sexually passive for decades- suddenly ‘danced’. The cage – its material configuration- matters: things matter.
The shift from ‘being’ to ‘doing’, then, allows us to take seriously the observation that objects and humans ‘do’ different things in different settings. They have different capacities and properties in different settings. So by varying the setting, you (tentatively at least) vary the capacities of things. In the first cage, the rat did act passively; in the second, she did acquire the capacity to participate in the mating game. ANT philosophers like to say that the setting ‘made it possible’ for the rat to act differently: the rats are ‘performed’ in the setting and ‘acquire’ new properties. Rather than speak of autonomous entities, they like to speak of ‘associations’ and about what such associations ‘do’: a female rat associated to a large cage is an active rat.
Female rat + large cage= active rat.
Michel Foucault in the 1970s showed us that even human ‘individuals’ cannot be divided from the ‘dispositifs’ , the techniques and networks, through which they are achieved: schools, military barracks, prisons and other ‘disciplining’ institutions. For ANT philosophers too, what we do, what anything does, has everything to do with that to which it is associated. Clearly, there is a deep and intimate relationship between what we do and what (things or people) we are associated to.
Preoccupied with the question of what entities ‘are’, essentialists would adamantly reject this proposition that the properties of something or someone vary with its associations. For them, properties are inherent and immutable. Social constructivists too would not accept that objects have different properties in different settings – since, for them, we cannot say anything about what an object really does, only about what we think it does.
Dröge Wendel, like ANT philosophers, also argues that humans cannot be detached from the objects they are associated to: ‘I spend more time with things than with people. I get very attached to things. I hardly ever see people without a thing in their hands.’
In her photographic work, ‘Men wearing…’ (1991), Dröge Wendel selects a series of photos of people performing different activities. To each photo, she adds an uncanny legend, always structured in this way: ‘Human wearing…[whatever object happens to be in the photo]’. For example, the caption ‘Man wearing rollercoaster’ accompanies the photo of a man riding in a roller coaster. And the caption ‘Nixon and Kennedy wearing the same table’ accompanies a photo of the two politicians standing at two separate pulpits during a televised debate. Here, Dröge Wendel investigates how our language – with terms such as ‘next to’, ‘near’, ‘on’- allows us to underestimate how intricately we are attached to objects . But if we compare the human in the rollercoaster to the one standing behind the debate pulpit, we see that when humans are associated to different objects, different (human) capacities are ‘performed’. The tables, rollercoaster, etc., are not merely juxtaposed to us. By describing humans as ‘wearing’ these objects, she implies that these objects have the power to deeply transform our capacities each time. What we do cannot be pried loose from the things we associate with:
Dröge Wendel: ‘At the time of the ‘wearables’, I was impressed by the stories of the Spanish conquistadors in South America: the natives saw them as one being together with their horse, just because the textile they wore covered both the horse and the rider. How can the material covering a thing and a person create a new entity with its own surface- and blur our perception of where the living thing stops and the inert thing begins? Do our senses penetrate the object and vice versa? Can we feel inside the chair we sit on and do we feel the chair inside our body? Where is the border between person and thing, where do we make the border? … I am interested in this direct physical attachment of persons and things’.
Dröge Wendel is preoccupied with this same question - how what we are, do and feel cannot be detached from the things we associate with- in a later (2004) version of ‘Wooden Sticks’ developed for the exhibition ‘Lustwarande04’ in Tilburg. There, she designed a trajectory through the woods with different stations – much like the exercise stations of a sport’s training circuit. Each station is set in a sheltered spot, with a soft ground and, next to it, a rack with several sticks standing. Next to the rack, a billboard with instructions about how to hold the stick, how to stand, gesture, imagine. When visitors did what they were instructed to do with the stick, they achieved different feeling states : feeling ‘saintly’, ‘venerable’, ‘magical’, ‘like a dancer’, ‘like a slave’… At each station, human + stick + movement performed each time a different capacity, just as the ethologist’s cage performed each time a different rat.
She experiments further with this proposition – of the crucial importance of association- with her work ‘Black Ball’. A black felt ball of over 3.5 meters in diameter is transported to different locations around Europe. In each location, it is dropped in a public space –street, square, garden- and passers-by are allowed to roll, touch, move it. In each space, it is only in association with the context that the ball acquires its properties. For example, in the small streets of inner cities, the ball becomes an appalling obstacle blocking the road for people and vehicles. In a French-style garden, it is a friendly toy for the children… Only as it is associated again and again with new elements, does the ball acquire any property at all. Before the association, its capacities could not be defined at all. To use Dröge Wendel’s terms, it was just ‘a challenging form of nothingness’.
In La Benedizione della Macchina (Prix de Rome 1994), she begins to experiment with the quality of associations: not all associations have the same force, the same power to influence and transform us. In this work, an old Renault 16 TL is driven from Amsterdam to Rome to be blessed by the Pope. The car with its technical conditions structures the journey. The landscapes of Tuscany – so determinant for earlier artists on their Grand Tour- are eclipsed by the car’s nagging demands. Dröge Wendel and the crew spend the trip with their heads bent under the hood of the car or buried in maps and manuals... The car is an object that has the power to affect its humans with more force than any other thing in their surrounding. In contrast, the black ball is an object that allows users some play in the actions they undertake when associated with it.
Like ANT philosophers, Dröge Wendel wants to be precise about the exact strength, the quality of the association. How to describe the effect of the cage on the rat, of the street on the ball, of the car on the driver?
3. From ‘cause’ to ‘effect’
To sum up, ANT’s second shift was to turn away from descriptions of stand-alone entities and towards descriptions of ‘associations’. In each association, each term of the association acquired new properties. When the associations varied, so did the properties of its terms. Such an argument granted considerable power to our ‘associates’, that is, to the things that surround us. We can say without hesitation that we design and shape objects, but what exactly do we mean when we say that they design and shape us? What is the exact quality of their influence on us?
If we admit that we have different and new capacities when we associate with different objects, does that mean that we admit to being caused, determined by objects? Have we lost our freedom and submitted to outside, inhuman influences? If I carry a gun, does it ‘make me’ shoot and kill?
Classic philosophy offers us here again no help at all. Social constructivists would say that humans determine what objects are. Essentialists, on the other hand, would say that objects cannot be determined. They are what remind us of what is real. They are the causes and determinants and might even force us into actions we do not fully choose. The old philosophy opposes determinism versus freedom, complete passivity versus full activity. Either we are free or we are determined. It does not help us understand the give and take that seems to occur between objects and humans – that subjects gain (often desirable) capacities as they are associated to things. (The female rat became active in a new cage and the human – to follow Foucault- becomes an ‘individual’, with the techniques of discipline of the school and the barracks …)
ANT’s third shift is to exit from the determinism/freedom dualism and instead focus on the exact quality of the ‘effect’ things have on us. In particular, ANT philosophers insist that there is something positive, constructive about these influences. Forces exercised in a network are not necessarily forces that ‘determine’, ‘reduce’, ‘impoverish’, ‘limit’ the entities that they perform. Being forced is a moment when the capacities of an entity might be expanded- not reduced. As Michel Foucault said, power ‘produces’, it produces the real. It produces the individual and our knowledge of this individual. Or as a commentator of Gilles Deleuze suggested:
‘If you reduce force to violence, [not only] do you not see that a force exercises itself upon another force but you deprive yourself of understanding the phenomenon of affect, that is of a force which exercises itself upon another force less to destroy it than to induce it into movement. No doubt it is a ‘forced movement’ [rather than a voluntary one]… it is however a positive effect, which cannot be explained by destruction.’
To describe this ‘force’ that does not limit or impoverish, this force that actually grants qualities to things that they would not otherwise have, ANT philosophers devised new terms. For example, they came up with terms usually reserved for relationships among humans: they called objects ‘mediators’- using the language of diplomacy- or ‘attachments’- using the vocabulary of emotion.
In ‘Objects make our world’ (1992), Dröge Wendel experiments with the force with which we are attached to objects. She weds a piece of furniture and goes on a honeymoon with it to Portugal. The project is a series of photographs taken during the ceremony and the honeymoon accompanied by a text. By using terms and rituals usually reserved for humans (‘love’, ‘commitment’,’ marriage’, ‘long-term relationship’) to describe our relations with objects, she suggests how deeply we are affected and forced by objects – while avoiding the language of determinism.
In the catalogue the project is introduced in these terms:
Dröge Wendel: ‘There is a desire for a lifelong companionship and generous sharing of the help that an object and a person ought to have for each other through whatever circumstances’.
Because this use of words takes us so much by surprise, there is something very humoristic about this project. We want to just laugh out loud when the priest asks whether the cupboard will honor and cherish Yvonne, and a secret door pops open to reveal the word ‘JA’. Nevertheless the joke is philosophical. The language of love and commitment is unexpected yet very efficient to describe the power of our attachment to things. We can be ‘committed for a life time’ to objects without implying that we are ‘determined’ or ‘reduced’ by them:
Dröge Wendel: ‘Isn’t it true that we all touch objects every day, and live with objects. Without them we cannot exist. That mere fact is what distinguishes us from other beings and makes us so special. Objects make our world and without them, we are nothing. Deep in our hearts we love objects- think about your daily use of cups, chairs, tables, etc. We have more physical contact with our dear objects than we have with our best friends…’
4. ‘Generous constraint’
ANT writers, thus, have tried to get away from the pessimism of reductionism by showing that forces ‘produce’ qualities. Forces are productive. Some of them also go a step further. For them, it is not enough to describe the productivity of forces- the new capacities they grant us. These philosophers also describe moments when the effect of an association is not what was expected or planned. Forces do not necessarily ‘oblige’ objects to act exactly as they are expected to act.
For example, physical substances might ‘resist’ the scientists’ manipulations: they might break, explode, or remain inert- and in this way ‘do’ things which scientists had not expected. And this resistance is key for the scientist’s understanding of a substance and what it does. Without this resistance, the scientist would not learn anything.
To develop an example used earlier: rats in ethological experiments do not always act in the ways that the scientist had predicted. A good ethological experiment is the one that allows the animal to be ‘recalcitrant’ and to contradict and transform the investigator’s initial hypothesis. Animals ‘mediate’ the action of the scientists when they are constrained and forced in such a way that they do not simply obey the scientist’s plans but prolong and deform them. This difference between what was expected and what actually occurred is crucial: it means that the animal is indeed forced, but it is not a slave because it can give its own spin to events.
To insist on the productive yet uncertain character of constraints, I developed elsewhere the term ‘generous constraints’ : these are constraints (techniques, objects, materials, concepts, humans) that force us and generously grant us competences we would not have had without them. And yet before we were constrained by them, we would not be able to predict exactly what their effect would be on us, what we would become able to do under their influence.
In Dröge Wendel’s recent installation, The Item Store, the work is not an object or a product, but the confection of a ‘dispositif’. The work is a search for the right constraints – ‘generous constraints’- for influencing how participants touch and look. It is the search for a set-up in which relations between human and object might be performed and yet where such relations would not be prescribed, planned out in advance but left open-ended.
The Item Store is a cupboard with shelves that display slightly different blob-shaped objects with a variety of tags attached to them. The textile covering all the objects is an unassuming greenish grey color: the color one might expect for a background not for the surface of an artwork. Nothing attracts and confines our attention to the surface of these objects: no details, no shine. Each object carries a tag, with different images, graphs or words- like ‘New arrival’ or ‘Agha Khan’.
In its previous showings, when participants approached the Store, they did not look from a distance – but walked right up to the objects, picked them up, fondled them… twisted the tags to read them, held up the object as if to say ‘What relation between this object and that image?’.
All these choices in the Store are choices about constraints. The color, shape, size, labels, etc. are all conditions for looking and touching Dröge Wendel sets up to configure the relation between object and human:
Dröge Wendel: ‘All these choices I made in the Store were about the mechanisms of approach… The jumping between label and thing, the physical appearance, the material artifact that is in front of our eyes, …’
One important constraint is the unassuming character of the objects, their color and shape: it is a carefully thought through aspect of the installation and aims to allow for unexpected (‘open ended’) results.
Dröge Wendel: ‘Getting away from the surface enables me to talk/think about objects in a more abstract or open ended way, without me or the viewer always falling into the same trap as reading the symbols, arguing about the right color… The object becomes a challenge: there is a fairly narrow set-up on the one hand but there is also an absence of completing clues on the other hand… Usually, the surface of objects is like a mask. It ‘dresses up’ naked objects. By getting rid of the surface, I want to disarm them, so they cannot fall back on their usual abilities to trick you. Like when you unmask a spy, then only you can relate to the person he really is. With objects, when you can get through the surface, you can go further inside them, the treatment gets more open. … They become like a container, with a space inside. Something to take care of. A materiality that can affect you. You can approach it differently.’
The unassuming surface is a constraint that entices the viewer to walk up to them, bring her body- and all its skills- into contact with the objects, weigh them, look and touch at them, even ‘care’ for them in a much more intimate manner. The grayish green color and the blob shapes exercise upon us a very calculated force: it attracts us, but it does not plan out for us what we will think or do with the object. The color and shape are ‘generous’ because they are ‘just enough’: not so strongly appealing that they over-determine our encounter with the object; not so weak that they cease to intrigue and puzzle us. ‘Just enough’ to initiate and support our open investigation of them. Like ANT authors, Dröge Wendel here seems preoccupied with the just right quality, or ‘generosity’, of a constraint.
Dröge Wendel: ‘The meaning of the object should not be hermetic, nailed shut, glued tight (dichtgetimmered, dichtgesmeerd, dichtgeslikt). Not so loaded. Like a Rasta guy –if you don’t go for Rasta- who when you meet him has all the clothes that tell you how the person might think and feel. Everything about him is obvious and so you might not be interested in getting to know him. Instead you’ve got this category ‘Rasta’ and you can fit him in it perfectly. There is no detail -no kink in the surface- to attract your attention and make you ask questions…’
The ‘just enough’ objects remind me also of the half-completed exit ramps on the new Chinese highways . The off-ramps are made at regular intervals, and end in mid-air. They are made there because of the possibility that new cities and towns would crop up sometime in the future at these points on the highway. The exit ramps are neither impulse enough for a new city to grow, nor can they determine that one would grow there; but they do open a possibility. They are the ‘just-enough’ condition for a new city to possibly grow there.
Like ‘generous constraints’, Dröge Wendel’s ‘just enough’ constraints open up possibilities without obliging. This quality of constraint is described further by YWD as ‘listening’ objects in a poster that accompanies the Store:
Dröge Wendel: ‘Looking for objects that are open-minded, flexible and willing to take on a wide variety of different meanings and functions. Are you an object that is tired of the short, pre-determined and competitive life span? Are you tired of being limited to expressing one specific thing and being seductive solely through your surface material, color, and form? Are you looking for a more durable and enriching experience with humans beings? Get away from pushy, shouting and talking objects- develop your capacity to have an open ear for humans and be part of a high quality, un-demanding, pleasant and sustainable environment. Be part of the item store!’.
An object that ‘listens’ (unlike the Renault 16TL that ‘talked so loud’ in the Benedizione della Macchina) incites the participant to slow down and use her own investigative skills for discovering objects.
Dröge Wendel: ‘In the item Store, the objects are designed specifically so that the viewer cannot jump too fast to answer what the object ‘is’ but stays busy with how to approach this object. With some objects you can do that, go fast, when a nail goes into your naked foot, you know very quickly what it is and does. But with many other objects- like a cracked mirror- it requires another timeframe to arrive. …’
If Dröge Wendel’s object really ‘listen’ (allow the experiment to stay open and the constraints to be ‘just right’) then this participant’s search does not end with a clear conclusion, a decision about what an object is- but remains an ongoing investigation- much like Dröge Wendel’s own.
Dröge Wendel: ‘I see my work as an ongoing investigation, finding out what is an enriching experience between human and objects…In human-human relations we have quite concrete ideas about how much they form us, in how far we are determined by them, what we want other humans to do and what we do not want them to do. With objects we – or at least I - miss the words and ideas that would describe the exchange and the ideal, exciting relation for me. … We could have a lot more fun with objects than we now have’.
The Store engages the viewer in a search and is itself an ongoing search for the right conditions for this search. It is the search for the right constraints to be deployed for an experiment about our relations with objects. Unlike much art work interested in relations, however, the objects are not lost and diluted in the practices and events designed by the artist. Objects remain central to the work of Dröge Wendel. When she turns to attend to relations, the materiality of the object – how it is used, how it enters into contact with participants, how and how much it constrains- is and remains a central preoccupations in the work of Dröge Wendel. The colors, textures, shapes are carefully thought through in just these terms- as ‘just right’ constraints. Her persistent attention to objects and to constraints could not have been perceived or understood without its juxtaposition to ANT works on objects and generous constraint. This unusual attentiveness is the most striking competence to arise from this artificial association – dialogue- between Dröge Wendel’s work and ANT writings.
The association of art and philosophy
Here, I associated the art works of Dröge Wendel and the philosophical works of ANT. I juxtaposed this artist and that team of philosophers -not because they knew each other or referred to each other’s works- but because they were all equally intent on describing in the finest detail the intimate relations we have (and could have) with our darling objects. Indeed, for both, objects are our Darlings, those intimate associates without which we simply would not be ourselves. At that moment, this artist and that philosopher have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of their respective fields.
One cannot help being intrigued by the fact that the work of philosophers -working since the 1960s in France, England and the United states- might come to converge so beautifully with the work of an artist -working in the Netherlands since the 1990s. One might even be tempted to wonder how two such different disciplines could possibly have come to develop such mutually relevant solutions to similar problems? Was it chance? Or was it ‘l’air du temps’ and the ability artists and inspired thinkers have to pick up what really matters in a certain historical period?
This might seem to be a particularly interesting question because of the recent debates on the fruitfulness of art-science and other inter-disciplinary collaborations. Here is an encounter between two very distinct disciplines that -despite the fact that an actual collaboration never took place- worked! Why did it? How could it?
Actually, these are all the wrong questions. You can ask why two things (art and philosophy) converge, why they have come to possess so many similar qualities, only if you assume that these qualities belong to separate and autonomous entities rather than to their association. If we were talking about objects – now that we have shed our old habits- we would no longer dare to say that the ‘similar’ qualities objects manifest might exist outside of the associations that performed and revealed these ‘similar’ qualities. And so would it not be just a little awkward -at this point in the argument- to say that this convergence between these two things –art and philosophy- exists outside of the setting of this convergence, outside of this text and the constraints it deploys to perform them as similar?
If you really wanted to hold on to your old habits of thought, you could start worrying right now. You might say: ‘Does this convergence between art and philosophy ‘really’ exist, then, or is it an artifact of this text? What is the work of Dröge Wendel ‘really’ about, apart from its association to ANT? Can you not detach the artwork from ANT?’
We know by now that if we tried to detach ourselves- humans- from the objects that make us - ‘Get! Out of my life! Stop making my world!’- we would find that we had become primates with fragile tea cups hanging precariously from our fingers. Without objects, it is clear to us now, we would not be human.
So what about detaching art from philosophy, or at least Dröge Wendel from ANT? As ANT-Dröge Wendel suggested, it makes no sense to ask what things are ‘in themselves’, outside of their associations. A much more important concern is to be able to describe exactly what effect the association had on the artwork and the philosophy: what exactly does this association do to each term of the association?
I cannot say that this juxtaposition merely revealed an already existing convergence between this art and that philosophy. If I did, I would assume that these similarities existed outside of this setting or before this setting was put together. I would have to put out of my mind what this art and that philosophy did in other settings but ceased to do in this setting.
For example, ANT has over time described its main purpose differently in different settings: in the beginning, when associated to other actors, it even described itself as a form of social constructivism! Just as the ethologist had to notice that, only in the larger cage, the female rat ‘danced’, I have to acknowledge that, in this juxtaposition only, this art and that philosophy are performed in this new and unexpected way.
I also cannot say that the juxtaposition determines the content of Dröge Wendel’s work. The larger cage did not ‘cause’ the female rat to ‘dance’, it offered her a possibility that she had never had before. Similarly, the depth and humor of Dröge Wendel’s art is not determined by the philosophy. Rather, backlit by ANT, it becomes possible to see how and why Dröge Wendel’s preoccupation with materiality is actually a central move in her investigation of our relation with objects. The specificity of the art and of the philosophy is re-structured, re-organized and highlighted anew by its association to the other. Through a peculiar give and take, each term comes out changed and also more vivid. In this way, in this association, this art and that philosophy become mutually relevant.
I do not care what ‘pure’ Dröge Wendel or ‘pure’ ANT is. All I know is that associated to each other, I like the effects. Here is a final shift: I no longer want to know what things really are –even the things that define me the most, my work, my practices, art and philosophy. I am satisfied with the performed qualities that emerge in associations. I let go of my old standards of purity and authenticity; and I experiment with –along with ANT-Dröge Wendel- new criteria that determine what is a good association. It does not matter what things ‘really’ are. What matters is the tentative testing out and the proliferation of qualities.
The more we experiment with the associations, the more chance we have to create interesting qualities. What would another setting have brought to Dröge Wendel? What, for example, would have happened if I had drawn a parallel between her work – its tentativeness - and philosopher Jacques Rancière’s Ignorant Master? She would have gained other interesting qualities in that association too. The more we associate, the more qualities we have!
This is why inter-disciplinary work is so important -and also why so many collaborations flop. Inter-disciplinary work is by definition the association of practices in the hope of interesting results for all, but rarely is much attention brought to the concrete conditions of that association. For example, it is not enough for an artist to ‘visit’ a scientific lab and have coffee with the white coats at break time; nor is it enough for her to read about the end-results of a scientific debate without getting involved in the debate itself. In such situations, the artist and the scientist do not take any risks and do not allow themselves to be seized and transformed by the association. As ANT-Dröge Wendel suggest, for such associations to have any effect at all, a lot of care must be taken with the trying out of different constraints, with bringing the one in intimate contact with the other, with the careful fabrication of this association. They have developed ideas like ‘generous’ and ‘just right’ constraints to describe just such associations where actors are drawn in, transformed, performed again in unexpected ways. ANT has worked on this question for several decades and Dröge Wendel will be further developing her contribution in her Object Research Lab (2009).
I want to end here by suggesting what this paper adds to these reflections on how to construct interdisciplinary collaborations. According to Dröge Wendel, this encounter between ANT and her art ‘worked’ (i.e. had interesting effects) because, the collaboration did not concern the outcomes. No artist tried to grapple with an already completed scientific concept or discovery. In other words, I opened up the black boxes of each practice (art/philosophy) to identify the inner workings of each: what were the governing issues, the main biases, the methodological preferences of each; how did their reflections evolve; what structured their search; what questions emerged on their path; what techniques evolved in these settings? On this deeper level, the level of the ‘how’ and of the ‘networks of use’, the two works were exposed to each other and they could be entangled, interwoven with each other in an intimate way. It was a little as if the artist had actually taken the risk to let herself be seized and transformed by the work of the philosopher, enrolling in a PhD with Latour at the Paris Institut des Sciences Politiques and initiating with him a joint paper. On that deep level only, the artist and philosopher become true collaborators investigating in an exceptionally tight and original manner our relations with objects. A dialogue about the end products of art and philosophy would not have allowed for the mutual engagement necessary for such a transformative association.
In other words, an inter-disciplinary collaboration about objects requires paying a lot of attention to the work-in-the-making not just to the end-product. Latour always said that he preferred to study ‘science in the making’ not ‘science made’ because only when science was in the making –when scientists were still uncertainly testing and working out the facts- were practitioners actually open about the deep philosophical issues they were wrestling with. In order for different members of different disciplines to become colleagues in a collective investigation, they need to argue, reflect and cooperate at this deep level where questions are openly asked. The practitioners must allow others to interfere and contribute before they have resolved all their questions and black boxed all their answers. It is at this vulnerable moment, when one might be proven wrong or might fail, that, it seems, collaborations have the most chance to succeed. We need to give our full attention to designing such ‘vulnerable’moments in interdisciplinary collaborations.
Inter-disciplinary exchanges are not self-evident processes and yet, when they do ‘work’, they can be intensely innovating and exciting. Therefore it is crucial to learn to develop the skills for designing the concrete settings for such collaborations. No one discipline can today claim to have such skills, to know how to set up inter-disciplinary collaborations. One would have to be aware of material constraints like a designer, theoretically astute like a philosopher, careful with interactions, like a mediator, deeply familiar with content, like a scientist ... One would also have to be willing to experiment each time anew with defining the conditions of the exchange (should we aim for ‘vulnerable’ exchanges in every case?) and to remain open about how to evaluate results (when do we say that a collaboration ‘worked’?). I can imagine a new meta-discipline, or rather a discipline which aims to create, each time anew, the appropriate ‘meta’ level for the players in a specific collaboration. We could start with an Institute for Inter-disciplinary Listening and Exchange and invite Droge Wendel and Bruno Latour to be its first honorary members!”
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