Learning from the lawless language of loneliness (working title)
Falke Pisano, Summer 2021
Text for Publiciteit, Rotterdam
Supported by CBK Rotterdam
Publiciteit was a public art project by Publication Studio Rotterdam featuring local artists Ilke Gers and Falke Pisano, and poet Çağlar Köseoğlu. In their different ways, each of the newly commissioned works considered the politics and possibilities of publishing in public space, drawing on Publication Studio Rotterdam’s aim to find alternative ways to consider the social life of the book. Wiggling into the loopholes of the civic policies that determine our movement and demarcating the invisible histories that sit beyond the public record are just some of the approaches that were chalked up, recited and considered when asking what publishing can be in a city like Rotterdam. In pushing such questions into the realm of the city, elements inherent to publishing—like distributing textual material or developing a readership—were applied to public space as a way to communicate and circulate facets of Rotterdam that may not always intersect.
The works were accompanied by a citywide poster campaign, this website and a series of guided tours by artist Toon Fibbe.
Photo: Nick Thomas
The title of this project, Publiciteit, speaks to an active disclosure, a state of (utilitarian) public visibility or awareness created for something: a person, a product, or information. After more than a year of broadly experienced crises, lockdowns, closures and a lot of collective work, Publiciteit emerges in an art world that still largely relies on visibility, even if it is slowly working through the question to who and what it is afforded, why, and how. In this context, maybe we can understand Publiciteit as a suggestion to examine once again how we relate to the material and discursive power structures within which public visibility is produced. What is public visibility for? How does it relate to the public realm in general, to the private, the collective, to relations, to change? What value systems operate before and after something is made public in an art context? What discourses around value have we internalized that continue to create such a pressure around publicness? How do we deal with the institutional and economic systems that reinforce and make use of those internalized discourses? What can we do in public? What do we want to do in public? How can we have open conversations about what we want from publicness, for ourselves and each other?
As an inquiry into these questions, the following text is more explicitly personal than the texts I usually publish. It is in process, and has only been edited for clarity, grammar and spelling. The working title of this text has been Learning from the lawless language of loneliness
For a large part of the year, I sat behind my computer on the other side of the river, in the 10th floor apartment I sublet from a friend. The amount of individual and collective work that I could perceive via fragments on different public and private digital platforms and (social) media was overwhelming. My emotional state would follow the waves of collective expression, demands and action in response to the inner and outer workings and failures of many institutions, from police to politics, from economical bodies and paradigms to art- and art educational institutions. I tried to focus on activities that felt useful in spaces that I knew, and where I estimated I had some leverage and agency on account of my position and experience. Nevertheless, I often felt completely unprepared and inadequate.
The experience of this pandemic period turned one long-standing personal habit inside-out. I was used to mulling over words in private, trying to analyse historical and present use, intention and impact, retiring and replacing words, weighing how words in different contexts connect to different past, present and future narratives, my own as well as collective ones. Before making them public, I would have completed my negotiations to the extent that I could explain them. While public words presuppose an availability to exchange and critique, the nature of my works and the way in which they would be shown often led to a certain distance and delay, a sidestepping of a conversation-in-the-moment.
I thought increasingly often about whether it was thoughtfulness, responsibility or fear that compelled me to do this work in private. In parallel, I wondered what narratives around transparency and access to knowledge, around the functionality of language, around the role of art, artist and myself, played a role in the construction of the language in which I expressed myself within the art context.
From my apartment, I talked, with myself, with friends, family, colleagues, students, an occasional lover, people with whom I shared a practice or concern. We spoke in different languages about different things: how to deal with mental and physical conditions, how to support, how to love and be loved, how to collectivise, how to politicize, how to organize, how to attend to failing institutions, how to work within them, how to practice solidarity. All the while, I wrote little. I wrote only to remember how to follow up conversations or to connect one conversation with another. I did not want to hold on to words too long or too tight.
During this time, imagination appeared more haunting than hopeful. I found hope in concreteness, in the way people were picking up on urgent matters, in tangible expressions of care, in very simple presence of mind and action. A notion of art that affirmed the potential of imagination receded to the background. Too much reality to deal with. This response reflected a situated, and admittingly muddled, internalization of discourse, resulting in a rather problematic separation of action and imagination, of responsibility and desire.
I understood something about this separation in the moments when the physical isolation was getting to me. When I wanted to leave myself, I would invent ways through language. I would invent logics of dismemberment and reassembly, of breaking up into functional and dysfunctional parts. The functional for public use and the dysfunctional for the private tending to catastrophe, exploring of crises, and soothing of desire. In public I hoped the private words would not be too visible, as they were hanging off my spine, flickering in my eyes, enmeshed in my inner organs, the tensions in my neck, the ache in my stomach. In private I tried to lessen the weight of existing syntax. When I got too tangled up in words I would try to look after my body. Always accompanied by a messy negotiation around the demands of productivity and a polluted notion of self-care, settling somewhere in the realm of energy regulation.
To a certain extent I embraced this split between a functional outside and a dysfunctional inside as an ethical transgressive fantasy, a readiness to exist in division, to privatise dysfunction in acknowledgement of indisputable entanglement. Offering a clear distinction between deconstruction and construction, the split provided a space for imagination, for investigating fears and desires, incompetence and deregulation, while allowing me to function reasonably well in different contexts, for an extended period of time.
Reading the private back into the public
Reading the private back into the public
Recently, I encountered the notion of reflexive entanglement, in a scholarly article about Kafka’s well-known parable Before the Law that is also part of his novel The Trial. Challenging the idea that reflexivity (only) liberates from bias, practice or discourse, the author of the article posits reflexivity (when it is focused on oneself vis a vis power) as a practice that produces an entanglement with power and an obsession with the discourses from which the subject, through reflection, should be able to free itself. One of the ways in which this entanglement happens, according to the author, is through the assuming of personal guilt in response to not exactly understanding what is expected/wanted (of us) by others/power, due to unclear rules and/or the absence of clear values to which these rules refer.
Whatever one’s personal particularities, history and positionality, an individual response to crisis contains information about the systems at work. The article led me to think about my privatising of dysfunction, less as an ethical transgressive fantasy and more as a preventive strategy, in a way an inversion of my mulling over words. Confronted with institutional failure on so many levels and on such an overwhelming scale, I was thrown back upon myself, into an examination of my relation with material and discursive power structures and their effects. As a consequence of this examination, I felt implored to mediate myself as functional, because I assumed that individual functionality (in the way of effectively contributing according to one’s capacities) would avert personal guilt (being wrong) and compensate debt (owing to others).
The unclarity arose when I tried to determine what was within my capacities, and thus, what I and others could expect of myself. In crisis capacities both expand and contract. Without expecting to feel well, or in balance, my already shaky internal evaluation system became even more unreliable. I also did not know how to relate my individual personal capacity to historical indebtedness animated by contemporary capitalism, however much I thought through discourses, family history, personal experience and positionality. More practically, then, result of work might have been a measure to determine whether I was putting in enough, but it is clear that any result of collective work on change within institutions can hardly be measured by institutional response in the direction of what this work was aimed at. Some steps were taken by institutions, not always the right ones, it was very unclear whether it would bring long-term change.
On a personal level, at some point I realized that the only way to deal with feelings of inadequacy was by allowing a certain extent of presence in collective processes – to bear it, to continue to try to build community and/or collective practices, to slowly acquire skills and knowledge and strengthen breath to carry on. For me, this has not so much to do with words and more with learning to maintain presence and openness, despite emotional waves and storms: Lifelong learning; to be discussed elsewhere. Here I would like pull some other threads together, to see what proposal (demand?) can be drawn from this personal experience.
It is clear that we need to reckon with colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism and its effects on many different levels. Part of this concerns the institutions and infrastructures that we have inherited and the way they continue to animate and reinforce inequality. Institutions are not built for change. Whatever forms of action we engage in: it is long term work. There’s a lot of discussion about the role of art in this, about the need to reconsider ideas about art, the necessity of systemic changes within the field and how to work on them. I try to keep in mind the multiplicity of all processes: different experiences, different positions, different responsibilities, different needs, different approaches, different scales etc. At the same time, I see around me a certain entanglement within the current cultural context, that is not easy to work through.
In Kafka’s parable Before the Law, a man arriving at the law is told he cannot go through the door by the doorkeeper in front of it. No reasons are given for his request, neither for it being denied. The doorkeeper does not cut off the possibility of a future admittance, yet vaguely speaks of more internal doors with more fearsome and more powerful doorkeepers. The door stays open. It is not clear what happens if the man would simply make his way through the door.
The text has been interpreted many times from different perspectives. Most address the question of the passivity of the man at the door, who does not enter, does not leave and finally dies as he is waiting. A well-known interpretation by the well-known French philosopher Derrida, however, focuses on the interrelation between law and literature. I will not pretend to understand his essay, but what I get from it is this: ‘literature’ and ‘law’ are often considered as two completely separate domains, the first relating to the realm of fiction, the latter seen as secular, pragmatic and related to truth. Derrida puts this division in question and says: literature is also based on legal discourse, that of authorship and that of classification (when is something ‘literature’), and legal discourses also depend on narratives which are often classified as literary, like myths, fables and fiction (he goes into Freud, I will leave this aside and assume there are other trajectories as well).
In the text, the law is a place that the man wants to enter. It is supposed to be accessible for all, but it is guarded. He is not able to enter; a promise remains but is not actualised. The man who asks for access is left before (and outside of) the law, but so is the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper stands outside, with his back to the law that he does not have access to and is afraid to enter himself.
For Derrida, being before the law in the text is not so much different than being before literature. The guardians of the laws of literature, who decide what is allowed into the domain and judge it, stand outside with their backs to the law. They do not have access to the law on the basis of which they decide what is ‘literature’. They do not have access to those who judge the law itself. They do not have access to the higher laws that those who judge the law of literature (have to) follow.
In Before the Law there is not enough information to understand, or judge, the reason for and the extent of the man’s passivity. Similarly, there is no way of knowing what law or laws he seeks entry to, and why. What we might extract from it is a situation of hesitation in the face of a confrontation with a prior existing system, that he is told consist of many tiers of access and is largely opaque. The reason for this hesitation could very well be that what the man wants to bring to the law, into the building, will create an upheaval that none of the figures involved will know how to deal with. The building might collapse. As so much is unclear, it is also unclear what the consequences of the man’s entry would be.
Visit to the court
Visit to the court
It took me many months to realize that the blocky building on the other side of the river houses the city’s court. I would watch Sara Ahmed’s lecture on complaint amongst many other lectures, discuss dated and lacking procedures in art academies, cry to my parents, almost adopt a cat, enter another video meeting, with this building in the corner of my eye.
While I was exclusively involved in collective and collaborative practices, communicating more than ever before, I was often lonely. A personal tendency, but also one that was under discussion in at least three areas: In the mental health concerns around covid, in critical conversations against institutional strategies of individualisation, and in conversations about the persistent rhetoric of scarcity in art academies, with roots in a historical idea of art as the product of individual genius. In all these (ongoing) discussions regimes of invisibility and visibility and individualisation and collectivisation play a role, as well as the different ways in which language is used that either reinforce (by prioritising institutions over people, legitimizing inequality, dismissing experiences, instilling fear, shaming, excusing) or possibly change (by speaking to solidarity, justice, collectivisation, care, precarity and sustainability) the status quo.
At some point I attended a high security court case. Despite all regulations and procedures, I was surprised about the informality I encountered. I had not expected to be friendly chatting with the lawyers, the guards or the suspects. During the proceedings, the flowery language of a philosophically inclined male lawyer made me suspicious, I trusted a young female lawyer who spoke much more pragmatically. I laughed about another lawyer, who I could see was shopping online for a new robe.
Of course I was surprised, because I have no idea how a court works and I also do not know the culture. What I knew was that a court is a highly formalized infrastructure, built to facilitate processes on the basis of an enormous amount of connected texts, rewritten throughout centuries of collective work, in a language that has been polished in consecutive documents, in procedures, in collective agreements that claim to protect ‘us’ and what is ‘ours’. Of course, law is never fixed, but this is not how most of us can approach it. In the court, people speak from demarcated positions, to certain values of truth, limits, rights and possibilities to appeal to these rights, laws and possibilities to demand or hand out punishment when these laws have been deemed broken. One might enter, in one or other position, as a guardian of this language or accompanied by one. So, when entering while remaining an outsider, a visitor, I genuinely thought, how can it be that everyone seems so friendly? There was a large part I did not have access to, because I did not speak the formal language, and at the same time it seemed I had some form of access through other, more informal, languages.
But I was not there to make any claim to the court. I entered, as is my right. I was not asked why; I was accommodated as a visitor. While watching the court proceedings, I wondered what would happen if I (or someone else) wanted something from the law, that it could not answer within the existing language, framework and procedures of the court. Leaving the content to imagination, of course the question was, why would I bring to the law a demand, that it anyway would not be able to respond to? And leaving reason aside, how would I articulate a demand as a demand to the law, outside the language that it knows?
I considered my experience of informality, of the languages at the threshold of the law. The comfort it gave me, could have implored me to adopt one of these minor languages to approach the law. This may have elicited a friendly conversation from its guardians (those that in the story, stand with their back to the law and did not seem to be very intent on mediating access, for reasons that, again in the text, do not become clear) but most likely would not have reached the law itself.
Back to the possibility of the collapse of the building.
In the end I want to talk about risk.
Is it conceivable that there was a hesitation ‘before the law’, not because of any individual passivity or deception, but because both the man at the door and the doorkeeper, understood that entering (with a demand that we as readers do not know of) was a risk not taken lightly? The art world, the field of cultural practice and production in general, is – in accordance with capitalism – divided in spaces where risks can be taken and spaces where risks cannot be taken. In the spaces where risks can be taken, certain types of risk are encouraged and insisted upon, whereas other types of risks are not only discouraged, but actively opposed. The risks that are encouraged and insisted upon are valorised on the basis of prior existing agreements. These agreements are not fixed, but this is not how most of us can approach them. As echoed in the strategies of individualisation of injustice and struggle within institutions (‘risk management’), risk resulting in loss or failure often comes on the account of the individual. When risk results in added value this is (by the system, not by individuals) largely distributed along neoliberal lines. This is scary, and not a sustainable situation for any individual, whatever their capacity.
One of the things that I try to do in this text, and probably the reason why it is so long and took so long (each morning the text read very differently than the night before), is to overcome a shyness about the intimate sphere from which I draw knowledge. I give a lot of value to the taking of risk within artistic context. I think this is how we reckon with that what exists prior to us. I also know how risk is valued within a certain art context, that is why I try to approach this reckoning by taking risks as an ethical practice. In the face of many anxieties, some produced by this linkage of risks and ethics and others by pressures around performance and visibility, I experience my strategizing of risk as a necessity. This personal entanglement brings with it a sensibility that I try to draw and learn from. In the context of Publiciteit, I want to do so by thinking (and feeling) through what it would mean to intensify risk, and what an intensification of risk would demand from the collective. Continuing, I will link risk to dysfunction, this time not as a privatised experience, but one that is made public.
We cannot disconnect dysfunction, as a category of internal and external perception of not being able to operate according to what is deemed functional, from fear. When our dysfunction is not directly harmful for us, we will still have to navigate fear in relation to, or from, the outside. When our dysfunction is harmful for us, we will have to deal with fear within ourselves as well. Dysfunction as a category of perception might be the result of fear, of failure, of not being able to meet expectations or demands, of seeing expectations or demands not being met. In this text, I want to suggest that we do not need – and are not able – to eradicate the category of dysfunction, before it has been thoroughly responded to on an institutional level (even then I am not sure). Instead, I want to propose to practice a genuine externalization of dysfunction, with as a consequence, not an intensification of personal risk, but an intensification of risk that is borne collectively, in full sight and solidarity.
To understand what this would entail we could return to how we deal with risk in the cultural context at the moment. What do we mean by taking a risk? What is the function of risk-taking? How do we assess whether we are able to take a risk, and if it is worth it? When is it necessary? How do we valorise it and its outcome? What level of risk of failure do we allow from ourselves and others? How do we take risks? Where do we take risks? How do we respond to a negative outcome? Most of the answers to these questions will refer to highly functional cognitive, affective, and material operations. It seems that with the taking of risk, the notion of dysfunction is often suspended and only held as a possible outcome that we most likely will know how to absorb.
We could then go back to the experience of the man arriving at the law. He arrives at a door, waits at the door, and before he dies, he asks the doorkeeper how it comes that, in many years, no one else has ever asked to enter. The doorkeeper tells him that this door was there only for him and that he will now close it. We do not know where the man was coming from. We do not know what he might have wanted to bring to the law, nor what kept him before it for this extended period of time. What we know, is that, in the face of its many powerful doorkeepers, he was not able to enter the law with his demand, in a functional manner (gaining permission, stepping over the threshold). The door closed; the building remained the same. Whatever the man’s demand was and whatever the reason for, or form of, his demand, I think few would suggest that he risk entering alone and provoking an unpredictable situation that neither he or anyone else would know how to deal with.
Over the threshold
Over the threshold
What if we foreground dysfunction, instead of risk, as that what can take the man over the threshold of the law? The man is not able to gain permission and enter the law by stepping through the door. This does not mean that entering is impossible. What we can draw from this is that the man can only enter the building in a dysfunctional relation to the law and its modes of access. As I experienced at the courthouse, the law accommodates visitors. So, to be in a dysfunctional relationship with the law and its modes of access, means a refusal to be captured in the role of visitor. Dysfunction comes with entering with a demand that has to be responded to, but that cannot be answered within the law’s existing language, framework and procedures.
We now arrive again at the question of the content of the demand, which I left earlier to imagination. And, picking up the question of content, we might as well ask once more why he would bring to the law a demand, that it anyway would not be able to respond to? Funny enough (it’s a classic question within art education, that I intend to emphasise more next semester), I think this all comes back to the how: How would the man articulate a demand that has to be responded to, but that cannot be answered within the law’s existing language, framework and procedures?
We are all subject to power in different ways. Our personal experience tells us how power works on and in us. If we are in a situation where the idea of liberating oneself from power makes any sense, we might try to liberate ourselves. In the context of the contemporary cultural field, we might resort to reflection, to figure out how to do so from our specific relation to power. This self-reflection, can lead to further entanglement. I would not say this is necessarily bad. There is information in the entanglement as well, however paralysing the experience. We can draw the reason for, and the content of the demand to the law, from the very particularity of our personal experience of entanglement: by paying attention to the divisions that the law (or ‘literature’ or ‘art’) prompts us to make within us, and the internal disarticulations that it produces. Our demand will take shape in the mobilisation of the information in these internal divisions and disarticulations, towards the law (also the law within us) as dysfunction. For this we will need our imagination. The reason to do so could be that want the law to be in service of the possibility of undivided life.
So, we pass the threshold dysfunctionally. Of course, we refuse this idea of one-door-for-one-person. We can find other ways of entry. We enter together. We direct the demand decisively to the law, and to the law that exists within minds, bodies, collectives. What will happen inside the building? We do not know. We now come to the point of risk. Collectivisation does not mean that we all have the same dysfunction to share, that our demands are the same, or that they are disarticulated in the same language. It also does not mean that the risks we individually take are the same. Going inside (going public) with multitudes of dysfunctionality, in a highly governed context, while drawing from it demands that cannot be responded to within the existing system, might lead to chaos. The risk that we will need to collectivise cannot be assessed. What we can do is to accept that we will have to deal with opacity, uncertainty, difficulties in communication, tensions, and to work on suspension of judgement, on presence and responsivity – while sharing consequences in solidarity (which does not mean equally). We collectivise risk by visibly and concretely supporting each other in taking risks, by not performing functionality, but by sharing dysfunction fully. Over time, by experiencing that we can rely on the collectivisation of risk, we will disentangle ourselves from power. We might laugh at the law and ourselves. We might follow desire to other sites of struggle and to new pleasures. We might forget about power increasingly frequently, slowly forget who it wants us to be, and never revisit it. Let’s see what imagination springs from there.
I’ve been drawing a parallel between the man at the threshold of the law and a contemporary cultural practitioner navigating demands and expectations within a certain context, largely based on my experiences in 2020/2021. Finishing this text, I realised that it is also a response to the many conversations I’ve had students and colleagues about navigating demands and expectations, within a European art educational context which over the last decade has put increasing emphasis on artistic research and the social-political situatedness of artistic and cultural practice. This text is not to paint myself or cultural practitioners as those who should, want or can bring down a system. I also do not want to consider the context of cultural practice and production as hopeless, although I think we need to continue to demand more from it and it should demand less (or different things?) from the people that work within it. I see this text more as a personal attempt to reconnect with the potential of imagination, also in the context of art education. One of the ways in which I ended up doing this, is by coming to a proposal which seems, on reading it back, quite a (dramatic) task. But, as usual, I arrive with a long detour at that what many artists, cultural practitioners and workers, and activists already know and are already doing. Nevertheless, I hope that this detour contains information that is somehow valuable. I’ll gladly open any part of it up for conversation.
 I do not take for granted the way Yin Yin Wong and Isabelle Sully guided this project through a series of necessary postponements and changes. While this text speaks to the many internal and external expectations and demands within the current cultural context, the development of this project felt very gentle. I think that the late start of publicity and a public closure event instead of an opening contributed to this.
 The other side of the river from where the public work “Before the Law” is installed, on the walking bridge just in front of the court house of Rotterdam
 I learned many things from many different people in different contexts and constellations, in particular in all kind of assemblies around matters of art education.
 In Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’: The participation of the subject in its subjectification (Organization Studies Journal Volume 40 Issue 12, December 2019) Christian Huber interprets the text from the perspective of organisational science and mirrors it against the example of performance evaluation in academia.
 Before the Law is also the title of the sticker and audio installation in relation to which this text is written.
 Being open to information in situations that are affectively loaded and difficult to grasp is one of the things I learned in the astrology classes I started in spring 2020 with Luz Peuscovich.
 “The debts that might have seemed obscurely intimate might turn out to be irreducibly collective, and those that seemed essentially universal might be faced only by crystalizing them in absolutely singular ways.”, reading The Bonds of Debt, Richard Dienst (Verso 2011)
 In exchange with students and colleagues at HKU MAFA, with special thanks to Annette Krauss.
 I use my own experience as a Dutch artist based in the Netherlands and mostly working there, teaching at different academies, as a source of information, which of course is a situated experience.
 Astrologists could be consulted about the three Saturn-Uranus squares in 2021
 ‘we’ is a bit problematic here. I keep it in, as I think that it speaks more to the existence of a system (culture in neo-liberal context), not to an equalizing of experience within or in relation to this system.
 Here I follow suggestions that I liked from Christian Huber, in Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’: The participation of the subject in its subjectification(Organization Studies Journal Volume 40 Issue 12, December 2019)