Rumours Of Non–where. By, Daniela Cascella, 2019
I’m looking at a photograph of archival boxes, with labels carrying phrases such as International Cloud Archive, somewhere on this planet, HOW TO IMAGINE AN IDEA? amongst others, About the truth to say nothing: several drawings, Content, without title so far. Mixed media, Content, Various Drawings, Not found’.
Not found, in my viewing of the photo, are instructions, certainties, clear correspondences between anticipating and seeing, between what is written and what is evidenced. I encounter instead: porosity, questions being asked, enigmatic setups, disorientation. The more I see, the less I’m sure what is label, what is content, what is material: the boundaries among these preset categories dissolve, and I begin to see clouds in a label, to imagine content without title, to sense drawings because they are not found, and to believe that saying nothing is true.
I play with the idea that these boxes might be empty, and such emptiness would not detract from the dense and complex imaginary they carry (because words carry worlds) on their labels. Like in all filing systems which are not made according to a rigorous plan, but following the patterns of imagination, there is always a not found near content, an element of displacement in the structure, a sense of otherness near the canon. Mirjam Kroker’s work exists in the speculative space of that ‘not found’, prompting a different form of research.
Value lies in the imagination, Mirjam states. Elsewhere, she remarks on the necessity for non normative thought. In front of these archival boxes I resist asking for more. I deliberately work with the constraint of not knowing, to see what lines of enquiry I can follow from there—those less written, less marked or officially remarkable, conventionally less reliable but so alluring. Like in a tale, I might not know what lies at the end of the forest, and I’m enchanted at the prospect of being taken for a walk across it.
Think of what is not written or tangible, think of the transmission of knowledge—changeable, impure, and necessary—rather than the purity or fixity of established codes. When something can’t be quoted, or read, it does not mean it is invisible: it can prompt conversations, despite its perceived opacity. Such a nuanced approach to less exposed material is a crucial position to take, in a time of nationalisms and extremisms: it places reasoning in the ‘entangled world’ as proposed by philosopher Denise Ferreira Da Silva, who encourages ‘to release thinking from the grip of certainty and embrace the imagination’s power to create with unclear and confused, or uncertain impressions.’ All of Mirjam’s works hold some stickiness of relation, wanting-to-become, tensions of critical thinking as uninterrupted glossing, speculation, so that they can say and show and sound what is not certain, but can be ascertained by means of connections. Entanglement—of selves, voices, sounds, images—appears in the video Thinking Like A Mountain, one of many projects of Mirjam’s which are part of larger settings or ‘working environments’, as she calls them.
For the artist ‘to propose to think like a mountain in a very flat landscape… addresses our capacities of imagination. How can we think like a mountain in a flat landscape and why? It is an attempt to question in a poetic way why we think what we think – why we feel what we feel – and why we hear what we hear.’ She says that the title of the project is an entrance ‘into a state of being between poetry and paradox… It’s about the materialization of an idea that I understand only incompletely… unfinished state that continues where something of it survives and inhabits another living system. Circulation is an important aspect of it – the desire to be continued in another person’s head.’
The cultural theorist Irit Rogoff has spoken of embodied criticality as necessarily entangled, generating meaning through connectedness, and indeed Mirjam’s activities can be read through this lens. Read, and heard: the acoustic realm is a crucial element enabling the entanglement in Mirjam’s most recent work: pay attention to the repetitions, variations, modulations, and echoes in the phrase ‘if you know what I mean’, an uncanny voice loop in Thinking Like A Mountain at once hypnotic and light and severe and, and, and… injecting the footage of an airplane landing with a dose of oneiric alterity, think think think sing, sing, now not only do I see the mountain on the flat landscape, now I hear its song, I hear the mountain sing, what is the song of the mountain? I open again my copy of Mount Analogue, René Daumal’s visionary and unfinished ‘novel of non-euclidean adventures’ that recounts an expedition to find a mountain as symbolic as it is real. I read in the notes at the end of the book: ‘I would not speak of the mountain but through the mountain’, and ‘when your feet will no longer carry you, you have to walk with your head.’ Miriam too does not speak of her materials, but through them. And invites to walk with our head: a speculative proposition that opens to the workings of the imagination as a very concrete state of being. In Alone With The Alone Henry Corbin writes about ‘the imaginal’: a cognitive function which, unlike ‘the imaginary’—usually considered as unreal—pertains to a real perceptual sphere, if we follow a framework of thought different from the canonical Western one. He talks of ‘Nâ-Kojâ-Abâd’, a term coined by the 12th-century Persian theosopher Sohrawardi to designate ‘the land of non-where’, an intermediary world between the physical and the immaterial, that possesses ‘extension and dimension, figures and colours; but these features cannot be perceived by the senses in the same manner as if they were the properties of physical bodies. [They] are the object of imaginative perception, or of the “psycho-spiritual senses”.’
So the imaginal, and the aural, become modes of stretching perception toward that actual impossible sphere, and then, then it is possible to fly in ice: Fliegen in Eis opens on a dark icy-gray landscape, the sound of heavy wind gusts hitting our hearing with no compromise. A lonely figure walks toward the middle of the screen, holding what looks like some fabric, and lays it on the ice. It’s a flying carpet!, I think, and it’s a plastic sheet, tied to feet, the sound now flutters and I can see two birds in the distance, the figure becomes a bird too, gets carried away by the wind gusts, the movement punctuated by little screams of exhilaration: ‘Nothing is a finished project’, we continue to get carried away, in that lightness of touch that marks all mythical messengers.
A sense of precarity, of fragility is also encountered in a section of another video, Five Figures Of Thought.In a desolate blue-gray misty landscape, a figurine appears walking on slabs of ice on water, placing a plastic sheet on the ice barely held by some rocks. Nothing is stable, not even the point of view: earlier on in the video we were invited to meditate on a cloud of smoke as ‘dynamic agent’. I wonder about the place of these captions at the end of each video sequence, words that have no claims to explain, but to expand our understanding. These are works for the attentive gaze and the attuned ear. Notice the slow unravelling of the smoke, the sense that everything is shaken in the icy landscape ruled by the wind. The substance of these works is not to be sensed through amplification, but through detail and stillness. Not loudness, but attention, an expanded, entangled, embodied form of attention: don’t focus only on the movements of the sheet of plastic. Feel the ice cracking, dwell on the angularity of the edges in this vision, sense the wind gusts, the colour blue, or is it slate gray? Dismiss sterile subjectivism, think not only of yourself as ‘a viewer’ and become instead a viewer en-blued, en-iced, en-winded. Then you will be transported elsewhere, once you’ve grown your senses into the vision.
Otherness, along with the notion of the unspoken and unexplained, are the grounds of Other Languages Do Also Exist, a work at the very edge between what is read and understood, what is seen materially and what slips away through languages and makes them at once complex and elusive. Once again the invisible creeps in, and I begin to read all of Mirjam’s work as a continuous broadcast from elsewhere: sometimes the signals come from far away and they’re distorted, sometimes they’re heard as noise, sometimes they’re feeble, or loud and clear and near, sometimes other frequencies interfere, sometimes they beat. Understanding is formed in motion, in a language larger than each of our own, in which sympathies are stirred through difference. You might not perceive all the references in Mirjam’s multilayered project—I insist on the singular, as these works all look to me as instances of an overarching and interconnected lifetime artistic engagement with the materials of being—but to circle around their elusiveness generates frictions which reveal how these works are not made to protect a private and accomplished understanding: ‘nothing is a finished project’, we read before, and this tension toward the ungraspable allows the transmission to continue, away for any sheltered claims of completeness. Such tension also allows attention for what is not easily grasped, like in Fieldworks: Somewhere On This Planet, installed in sites where it is most likely that they will not be seen.
Not conforming to given systems of authority and legitimacy means that currency is given to utmost elusive material such as sound, which plays once again a central part in Values Come From—from the imaginal-aural sphere: in Mirjam’s words landscapes of the night, invisible tonalities, ripples on water, chimes. ‘The noice of being together’, she writes, and I’m startled at the misspelling/mishearing of ‘noise’ whereby the replacement of ‘s’ with ‘c’ opens instantly and magically to a dimension of enchanted aural variance and possibilities. Michel Leiris articulates the sense of opening into another perceptive dimension brought about by mishearing: ‘…this word, which I… had just discovered was not really what I had thought it was before…, enabled me to sense obscurely—through the sort of deviation or displacement it impressed on my mind—how articulated language, the arachnean tissue of my relations with others, went beyond me, thrusting its mysterious antennae in all directions.’ I like to think of sound, and the unbounded materiality of connections, as another form of Leiris’s ‘arachnean tissue’. And I hope that ‘c’ in Mirjam’s noice never gets changed.
‘My work consists of modules of in_complete collections of information and ideas and can be described as situated practice.’ Situated does not equal still, or neatly defined: ‘situs’ in Latin is site, place as well as dust, mould, detritus that deposit in a place across time: to be situated means to be with residue, impure, outside the confines of norm. Mirjam’s situated practice holds history as much as storytelling, fact as much as fiction, form as much as formlessness and informality, legitimate channels as much as illicit ones: works such as The Visibility Of The Invisible channel such modus operandi, which I’d be inclined to replace instead with modus vivendi in their insistent gestures of bringing up alternative points of reference, alternative histories and materials against the hegemonic ones: for life. Mirjam’s work often holds moments when something commonly regarded as opaque or invisible becomes accessible, visible, audible—even if temporarily. The attention is shifted toward the need to train ourselves to see and hear such moments, even when our understanding appears incomplete, imperfect, even more so because of that incompleteness. Her work does not request permission for us to touch it, sing with it. We move among missing links, misreadings, apparent absence: nothing is finished.
I am going to conclude my response to Mirjam’s work with a feeling of absolute wonder, and with a speculative proposition. The wonder is for the short video The Performance Of The Moon, which I received in my email one evening and the immediate reaction was one of bedazzlement at the simplicity of means used by Mirjam to set up this most magical work of fiction and make-believe: the image of the moon, the sounds of clapping hands, the lighting and the setting are all so blatantly artificial and yet so uncompromisingly directed to achieve an effect of stupor, that I was reminded of Victorian magic lantern shows and shadow plays in all their mixture of artifice and enchantment. The speculation is around an idea which Mirjam is in the course of developing as I write—a project I know nothing about except for the title, Read Me I Read You. In the spirit of Mirjam’s approach to research with art through the immaterial and the unspoken, I set for myself the challenge to write about something which I literally, or apparently, do not know. And yet, and yet: in the mirrored and slightly out of synch rhythm of the title—both a statement of reflexivity, and a gesture of reaching out—I can see and hear other clues pointing at a different way of knowing, through listening and through connecting. Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti is the title of a book by the Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero which conjoins too looking and telling: although pragmatically translated in English as Relating Narratives, the literal translation from the Italian is ‘You who look at me, you who narrate me’. The second part of the title is in fact quite ambiguous, and could also be read as an open question: ‘You, what do you tell me?’ An appellation though looking asks me to speak. Each life-story is unique, Cavarero says, and yet there is no life-story if it is not heard through the voice of another. You see it when you see it, not before, and yet you’ve been drawing it all your life: you hear it when you hear it, not before. Yet, you’ve been singing it all this time. Look at me, narrate me, read me I read you. You, what do you tell me? Tell me of the critic as echo: but doesn’t the critic listen to the work she’s studying in the same way as the artist listens to whatever she’s responding to? Called by and speaking with art, having gone through it, alchemically: charged with all the time spent with it and the plurality of unique voices which speak together by means of consonance: being with, sounding with. Read Me I Read You: like the labels at the beginning of this text, another title, another string of complexities, another encounter—unfinished, unknown, and enchanting.
Denise Ferreira Da Silva, “On Difference Without Separability”, 32th São Paulo Art Biennial, Incerteza viva (Living Uncertainty), 2016
Irit Rogoff, “From Criticism To Critique To Criticality”, EIPCP, January 2003 http://eipcp.net/transversal/0806/rogoff1/en
René Daumal, Mount Analogue, tr. Carol Cosman, New York: The Overlook Press, 2010 (1952)
Henry Corbin, Alone With The Alone: Creative Imagination In The Sufism Of Ibn ‘Arabi, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998 (1958)
Adriana Cavarero, Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti: filosofia della narrazione, Milano: Feltrinelli, 1997 Adriana Cavarero, Relating Narratives: Storytelling And Selfhood, tr. Paul A. Kottman, London and New York: Routledge, 2000
Published, Bundespreis für Kunststudierende, Mirjam Kroker, 2019.
Close Your Eyes And Listen. By, Shona McCombes. Based on an interview with Mirjam Kroker, 2019
Cultureland is a residency program that aims to fundamentally rethink the relation between nature and culture, by providing its artists with the opportunity to explore the cultural and scientific life that the city has to offer. The program kicks off in Amsterdam, after which the artists retire to the rural area of Starnmeer. Drawing inspiration from both locations, the theme for this season is ‘The end of nature as we know it.’ I spoke to current artist in residence Mirjam Kroker, whose project is titled ‘Think like a mountain (because colonizing heaven might not be such a good idea)’.
Challenging categories and order
The Cultureland flat was sparse the last time I was here; now it is cluttered. The walls are adorned with what Mirjam calls “document drawings”, playfully poetic lines of stencilled text: sound is seeing without light; what does it mean to live according to listening? The tables are strewn with books and pens and miscellanea, and in the center of the studio floor there is a large tree branch, wrapped at intervals with bright scraps of paper – fragments of the things she has been reading. “I took a lot of walks to record sound. In the park, these branches talked to me, so I decided to invite them in to see what they could tell me.” She is not here to make visual art, she tells me, but still she found herself making this – wrapping text around bark the way language wraps itself around the world. “We shouldn’t take the world like this, but that’s what we often do; we cover it, but we could try to let ourselves be asked and embraced by the world in turn.”
Mirjam is resistant to categories and order, critical of how we slice things into pieces to make sense of them. “For many centuries, western knowledge production has tried to dominate the world. We still tend to believe that if we can categorize or label things, we can know their ‘nature’. But is this really true? How we perceive the world is shaped by how we gain knowledge, and vice versa; the challenge is to be aware of this and try to make autonomous decisions.”
This project is attempting other ways of knowing. Much of her previous work has dealt with text, but at Cultureland she is immersing herself in sound. “Sound offers us a different way of engaging with reality. If I close my eyes while we are here in this apparently limited space – what happens if we just listen? I can hear the tram and some other strange noises, sounds that are already difficult to verbalize. And then I realize that the space is not so limited. In a visual interpretation of the world, this room has these four corners, and it ends here and it ends there; but the acoustic world extends beyond the walls, makes connections between different moments, a certain expansion of time. Images you can look at from a distance, but sound goes through your entire being. It doesn’t stay over there.”
Participatory realism and digital commons
I ask Mirjam about the project’s title. “It’s funny, maybe, thinking like a mountain in a flat landscape. But the idea was exactly because of the flat landscape. It’s important that we activate our imagination. I love to give something a title, I find it delicious, but I don’t want to give a title in order to make a work work, to make it understandable. It’s more like an entrance into a state between paradox and poetry, or something like that.” She sees this mode of imagining as “a starting point for a participatory realism. Somehow the research itself is the work; it’s the materialization of an idea that I understand only incompletely. It’s a kind of unfinished state that continues where something of it survives and inhabits another living system. Circulation is an important aspect of it – the desire to be continued in another person’s head.”
The second part of the title – colonizing heaven – is not a reference to technoscientific dreams of space exploration as I had initially assumed, but to the digital cloud. Clouds have always had an aura of utopianism, “this romanticised idea of the ever-shifting and ever-transforming,” but Mirjam is also
alert to the dangers of the “digital commons”; like everywhere else, it is a space structured by power relations and global inequalities. “The globe is a thin horizontal surface – networked, controlled, dominated, developed, defined, mapped, controlled and capitalized in a certain homogenization of knowledge. But the earth goes deep and high. So instead of colonizing heaven, instead of homogenizing knowledge, I propose think like a mountain, think vertically, make interruptions, against this flat worldview.”
Originally trained as an anthropologist, Mirjam is fluent in the language of academia, which “gives you a certain kind of authority,” but she’s trying to get it out of her system, practicing what Gayatri Spivak calls unlearning: “I’m trying to find other ways of producing and circulating knowledge.” She was drawn to the Cultureland theme, she says, because it “proposes not the end of nature, but the end of nature as we know it. It’s about questioning this very dominant western, European, North American claim to define the truth about everything on planet earth. Nature has been colonized through rationalization, exoticization, idealization, utilization – a complex pattern of control to maximize resource exploitation. So what we call ‘nature’ is inextricably connected to culture, economy, technology, social organization, law. It’s connected to the militarization of borders, to indigenous rights violations, to the corruption of what we call democracy. But this also tends to come with a certain fashion for apocalyptic thinking. I want to move away from dystopic ideas about the future or the end of nature; I’m more interested in inventing narratives outside of or beyond this disaster of capitalism. It’s about imagining and practicing another form of engagement with what surrounds us.”
When I ask if she sees her work as political, she turns the question on its head: “As an artist you are so often asked about whether your practice is political; why not the other way around? It would be interesting to ask politicians about whether their political practice has an artistic dimension! The theme of this residency is obviously entangled with the debate around climate change, which is first of all a political crisis – but you don’t have to address political issues in the language of politics. I prefer a poetic approach, not relying on the already established vocabulary to explain things, but giving space to small moments of reflection. I am not doing this project because I know something, but rather to find out something. It’s about accepting uncertainty, trying to listen, and welcoming the instability of knowledge for a moment.”
Published in: Amsterdam Alternative, Issue 022 – March 2019: https://amsterdamalternative.nl/articles/6656