Culture-shock: An Open Letter to Four Young Artists:
Arriving and Departing:
What a beautiful and varied international bouquet of final papers that
I have been sent by my friend and colleague Jacqueline Hoogeveen, as
crowning glory of her years of dedicated service to the AKI college of
fine art in Enschede, Holland -where I once worked for ten years and
she (until this year) for much longer.
I hope you will forgive me the arrogance and indulgence of pretending
to be an external examiner -but old habits die hard and I find it
difficult to resist the temptation to comment on the texts presented.
I also wish you all good luck -and hope that you will keep contact with
each other to continue the dialogue together. Hopefully, we too shall
meet again somewhere -don't know where don't know when.
Comments on my comments are also welcome....
Beware of the Ghost:
However, please also note that these are my personal reactions -my
ghosts and my thoughts. They are not a criticism of either the people
or the work. I do not wish to dampen enthusiasm -or motivation in any
way. What I would like to do is to reflect on my own thoughts,
feelings,experiences and background in relation to the texts -in the
hope that this can provide a useful clarification for me -and
hopefully, for you too.
However, I will also warn you -that this text contains some pretty
powerful statements. So, if for any reason, you are not able (at
present) to withstand some pretty heavy seismic shocks yourself -then
DO NOT READ FURTHER!
Culture-shock as Creative Motor:
Martha, from the Philippines (where by chance I am now living) talks
about "culture-shock". This too is one of my favourite themes -and as a
result of looking at her texts I suddenly realised that perhaps one
basis for making art is indeed simply as an exploration of the
"culture-shock" we all feel at some point in relation to some (or
perhaps many) things in our own (normal) lives. For some, perhaps,
there is an early (or perhaps later) dissonance between themselves and
their home, educational, national, economic and political -or perhaps
even adopted environment that makes them start thinking about their own
identity in relation to the others around them.
Superficially, I have lived in Britain (where I was born), in Holland
and now in the Philippines: Plenty of chance for "culture-shock" there
-but in fact, my experiences in the Philippines seems somehow to
resonate with my experiences as a (fairly low class) boy growing up in
post WW-II Britain (I was born 10 days after the "liberation" of
Holland -and a few days after the end of the
"European" war for Britain).
Two Personal Culture-shocking Experiences:
Amazingly enough, I now realise (while writing this) that the two
biggest "culture-shock" events in my life -probably focus around my
arrival at the aki and my departure from the aki (perhaps somewhat
under a cloud):
On arrival at the aki for the first time as a teacher (as opposed to a
visiting lecturer) I met my first student: When I asked what his
"artistic motivation" was -he looked at me as if I had just asked if I
could screw his grandmother. A few minutes later, in the middle of our
engaging conversation, he greeted his friend who had just entered the
room and then got up and just walked off to look at the latest computer
game his friend had brought on a diskette (these were the "old" days).
Directly prior to this enlightening experience, I had spent around ten
years of my life messing about (as an unpaid project assistant -working
on my own projects) in an, at that time, internationally famous
university institute for classical (studio) electronic music (Sonology)
in Utrecht. Apparently, a girlfriend of Stockhausen was a fellow
student when I first arrived. Since then, another fellow student has
been in the music jury of the Ars Electronica competition -and another
ended up running the "soundscape" project in Canada. Needless to say,
this institute was closed down (which was why I lost contact) by the
university bureaucracy -because it didn't fit in with the normal
I'm sorry to sound so arrogant -but, although there were obviously some
interesting and beautiful plants trying to survive there -when I
arrived, the Media Art Department at the aki was an intellectual and
cultural dessert based on the principle of dog eat dog. However, it
seems that my arrival did act as some kind of a catalyst -and over the
many happy and exciting years that I worked there, with lots of hard work from, and sometimes fights with,
my colleagues -the MAD became transformed into the bold, beautiful and
creative working environment that has now produced the current harvest.
A safe haven in a sea of madness. I understand that it too is being
I guess that such a MAD transformation is impossible without making
both friends and enemies. At a certain point, I felt that it was a
pointless dead-end job -teaching in a purely undergrad situation, where
after years of hard work, one's best students simply disappeared to
join the daily grind -or be transformed into clones of some
postmodernist ideal by a post-grad finishing school somewhere else.
So I played the Prima Donna and got myself dismissed. Initially, I was
quite optimistic: The Internet was getting established and although I'd
focused mainly on the aki -I did have some (pretty good) international
contacts (I'd participated in two UNESCO seminars) and I believed that
I'd soon be moving on to better things.... Unfortunately, for a number
of complex reasons (including perhaps my charming personality and
certainly the death of my beloved Amiga, which was then essential for
my work) -my optimism proved to be an illusion.
The biggest "culture-shock" at this point was the discovery that
-because I had been so busy with the aki for ten years -I hadn't
noticed that in the meantime apparently the entire world had gone
completely mad (and not even MAD)!
All the silly attitudes that I thought were simply local (aki, Dutch)
madness had apparently now become common usage throughout the entire
(Internet linked) English speaking world..... I was totally gob-smacked
(and perhaps I am only now starting to recover, several years later -as
a cultural refugee in the Philippines)....
Cultural Aftershocks -The Flight of the Young:
Interestingly, and perhaps logically, some of this earlier
"culture-shock" was again manifest and repeated (in different ways) in
the little seismic packet with the ex-student texts, kindly sent by
Jacqueline... However, if one lives on a seismic fault line, then one
must get used to shocks!
Perhaps paradoxically, the biggest shock of all came from Danja
Vassiliev: This work is truly impressive. The artistic motivation is
clear, the implementation reflects the motivation and there is also
evidence of intelligent creative feedback with regards to the
understanding of the finished work. The technical knowledge is far
superior to my own. All this makes it exemplary media art, in my book.
However, I have serious problems with the conceptual context that he
weaves around his work.Clearly, the task he set himself (with regards
to theory) was difficult -luckily, he also seems to be a little cynical
with regard to all the conventional wisdoms that role out of the search
A chance(?) visit to Oxford (in England) by the aki media art
department (several years ago) reminded me at the time of the
difficulties of finding a good intellectual tradition for media art
-one that avoids the useless Romanticism of Ruskin on the one hand and
the sterility of (modernist) design (and later the reactionary
post-modernist theory) that grew out of the Bauhaus
tradition (which had also influenced the philosophy upon which the aki
had been built). Actually, the Bauhaus also played an important role in
my own artistic education, many years ago.
Ruskin and the Contemporary Experience:
Perhaps (especially in the context of the aki, which somehow managed to
convert the theory of the Bauhaus into the opposing practice of Ruskin)
it is worth standing still for a moment -and contemplating the
consequences of Ruskin (the famous British art critic who provided the
intellectual cornerstone for British romanticism at the height of the
industrial revolution) -because it might have some important lessons
for us today. Our current circumstances may well be more similar than
one might at first imagine:
Perhaps if one takes a quick panoramic view of western history -three
major (and perhaps related) phenomena stick out like a sore thumb:
Imperialism, Industrialisation and World War II. The scars of these
three are still painfully felt every day around the whole world -in
varying degrees,depending on where one lives. In my view, the "healing"
process with regard to these three phenomena cannot even begin properly
-simply because the nature of the problem has never been fully revealed
Suffice it to say -that (as far as I can see) during the two worst
periods of recent (European -and by extension Global) history -19th
century British colonial expansion -and the 20th century colonial
expansion of NAZI lead Germany -both perpetrating societies showed a
similar aesthetic and social schizophrenia: In these respective
periods, Britain was characterised on one hand by an expanding network
of industrialised factories and railways -and on the other hand by
Pre-Raphaelite rustic romanticism. Nazi Germany also had Rhinemaidens,
Jet engines and the expansion of the motorway.... I will lead the
reader to imagine what the implications are for current day society
-where we have the (illegal) invasion of the middle east (by the US and
Britain) using automated rocket based warfare, expanded industrialised production
distributed via the Internet and all coupled to an ecologically
responsible love of whales, democracy and the dawning of a romantic
Italy, it seems, did not have a Ruskin -or a Wagner to inspire it. So
some of its artists choose for the direct route: They embraced the
machine -like a frustrated lover finally united with the subject of his
own wet dreams -and, indeed ended up by destroying (in alliance with
the NAZI's) almost all that had remained of humanity after the previous
almost total destruction of World War I.....
Interestingly -as far as I know -the futurists were all males. I'm sure
that women have a completely different (natural) view of technology....
In fact, I have a theory that women are the real technologists -and
that such basic and essential home based tasks as cooking, weaving and
pot making are the true foundation for all modern technology. While the
women provide us with all the comforts that practical technology can give -most men, it seems, have
not yet progressed much beyond the social rituals that keep them
focused on killing the prey (or enemy) instead of each other while out
on the hunt.
However, perhaps the Russian tradition was slightly different to the
others. I have the feeling that perhaps "futurist" tendencies in (early
post-revolution) Russia were more related to "constructivist"
tendencies -which, in turn, were much more social(ist) orientated
-perhaps relating more to some phases of the Bauhaus. Certainly the
British Computer Art scene in the 60's and early 70's -to which I
marginally belonged was (in its early phase) basically involved with a
kind of "Stochastic Constructivism" -which (although perhaps not
realized at the time) somehow seems to combine the two apparently
opposed traditions of Dada and Constructivism....
Anyhow, I believe that a more life sustaining approach must be found to
the issue of aesthetics and/of technology -if we are to avoid
techno-fascism..... and it may already be almost too late.
Presentation, Interpretation and Dialogue -Martha Atienza:
Regarding Martha, I believe that I understand absolutely her problems
of "presentation" -I have had similar discussions here in the
Philippines regarding the problems of how the public will "interpret"
certain images.... Indeed, as my earlier comments perhaps show -I have
similar problems with my own work, which does not sit easily within the
context in which it would superficially seem most similar.
In my view, art is a personal therapy for the artist (and perhaps for
society working through the artist) -the "audience" is also the person
creating the work -the "public" is irrelevant (except perhaps for
funding).... I see the work as a (externalised) dialogue between the
artist and themselves. It is a way of clarifying their own thinking
process. Of course, this is not to deny that an important part of the
creative strategy involves "looking" at the work from different
(external) "perspectives" -and of course this can also include thinking
about "presentation" and how to clarify one's ideas for an imaginary
So, despite the taboo -I do like "therapeutic" art -but I don't like
"pedagogical" art (although I may sometimes be a bit guilty of this
I think the answer to "presentation" (or at least the approach that I
prefer) is to question what exactly is the "function" of the work -who
exactly the work is made for -and how the work can actually fulfill its
function effectively. Perhaps too, it might be worthwhile contemplating
a shift of focus away from "images" and towards the underlying
"processes" that create the phenomena behind the image. To a certain
extent, you have already done this in your comparison of Finland and
In fact, should for some horrific reason Postmodernism be correct -so
nothing means anything at all (because it also means everything) then
there is no point in saying anything.... and so "presentation" or even
making art at all becomes a pointless mind game at best -or, at worst,
the commercial production of fetish items for the mental masturbatory
fantasies of a public too lazy to produce its own...
In my view, the real value of art lies not in what it does for others
-but what it does for the mind of its creator. The good programmers
programme themselves -and not others....
The Specter of Postmodernism:
Oh such cruel irony: To be confronted so inescapably by the specter of
one of my own ghosts giving birth before my very eyes... to bear the
personal weight of being directly responsible for a piece of
polymorphic multidimensionality that simultaneously declares its own
futile redundancy while also insisting upon its own
infallible supremacy. Am I really so?
Can there be a form of cultural imperialism more disastrous than the
playful destruction of all meaning and the earnest focus on games which
distract all intelligent thought away from the global crimes against
humanity committed by consumerism? Can you not see?
How can there ever be any poetry left alive after the destruction of
all meaning and beauty? Did you not hear from Dante that purgatory is
the mindless and endless repetition of the once meaningful? Is
postmodern life truly so perfect that you wish to remain in the
time-worp, endlessly repeating things until the brain grows weary of
its own weariness. Do you not understand how futile this is?
From whence this urge to steal and destroy? We do not need this
thievery: The early computer art was creatively aleatorical (it is said
that even Bach played the same games) -I grew up on nonsense poems -and
Alice in Wonderland was my mental playground: Although I suspect that
my interpretation would kill poor Carrol if he were alive today.
Apparently, even Humpty-Dumpty understood the problem only too well
-and all the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put poor
Humpty together again. So what on earth are we going to do with you?
Why can't things be what they are -instead of being encapsulated into a
false, hypercritical and pernicious philosophy.... So chop up these
words and throw them to the winds.... In future, go for the
(nourishing) originals -and don't waste time and energy with the
(poisonous) fakes. Your texts are good -they can survive on their own
and don't need a false alibi.....
The only thing I can give you in return is a nonsense poem. I wrote it
to tease my love. It is the best that I have to offer to exorcise those
that haunt me most. Please take it and cherish it, but please, please,
remember: It does have meaning, so please don't destroy it. The poem is
very precious to me. IT IS NOT POSTMODERN -it is the opposite!
-A silly nonsense poem:
There was a silly man
and he said a silly thing
His wife looked sad
and said: "You're mad!"
He said, "Better mad than bad"
and she said "Did y' say I'm bad?"
"No", he said,
"But why" she said...
"Did you say what you clearly said,
if y' didna mean what you said you said?"
"Ah," he said.... "But if I said
'better a nutter than a piece of butter'
would you be a knob of butter?"
"Aha", she said, eyes all a flutter,
"I will be your knob of butter
if that's the price of loving a nutter!"
Now they live as fish and batter
and nothing ever seems to matter
He spreads her butter and she nibbles his bread
and they're both happy and well, it is always said
So what does it matter if you marry a nutter,
as long as you batter the fish and not the butter.....
Due to the personal nature of both the work and your remarks about the
work there is little that I can say about them: Except that you
certainly seem to be applying the concept of "art as therapy" in a very
positive and practical way.
If I was working with you, then I too would be fascinated by the
question of how to keep the spontaneity and originality of a personal
vision within a large scale (and formal) collective production system.
I also sincerely hope that your "therapy" can bring sanity to a
troubled region (and not just to a single deeply troubled nation). It
is exciting to think that the aki could potentially play such an
important role in future world history.
Good luck to you all!
Manila, September 23 2006