Paperclip, or another device fit for collation

 

Catalogue essay

Published in The Sign of the Stars: Sandberg Instituut Graduation Catalogue 2021, by the Sandberg Instituut, Amsterdam

March 2022

Let’s start with a pressing image: a pile of governmental envelopes, unopened. Reassuringly, I’m told that’s the point; these envelopes were never meant to arrive at the intended receiver. Instead, their accumulation occurred because they were intentionally rerouted—a reshaping of the narrative through an act of defiance. [1] The story goes like this:

 

A ticket inspector pulls aside a ticketless man on a local Melbourne tram. He tells him what we all already know: there is no such thing as a free ride on public transport. [2] As a first attempt at escape, the man conjures an excuse from thin air: he had no change, but he’s happy to buy a ticket directly from the inspector now if that’s possible, he offers, knowing full well that it’s not. The inspector shakes his head. According to him, a crime of unethical proportions has been committed here, a different crime altogether to the daylight robbery of the price of the ticket in the first place. Out of the corner of his eye the man then spots a discarded ticket on the ground, it having appeared from thin air as if miraculously written into the code of the saga like a lifeline. [3] Nonetheless, the inspector shakes his head for a second time while reaching to retrieve his infringement book from his pocket.

 

I remember these inspectors well, completely distrusting by nature, absolutely not in the business of taking one at their word. Unwilling to shatter this founding tenet of the inspector’s belief system, the man offers up a fake name and address. After taking your details, as a precautionary measure the inspectors would then ask you for the name and number of someone you lived with, before calling them on the spot. A two-step verbal verification procedure, the result: your existence confirmed by a network of human geography. The man had this contingency covered too. He had briefed his actual housemate—therefore not a liar in his entirety—who was on permanent standby, primed and ready in the event of a call of this nature. In welcoming the task, said housemate said he saw the likelihood of its occurrence as his own opportunity to laugh in the face of authority. To them this was a foolproof system and a negation of any risk. [4] And, as they predicted, the phone rang, the housemate answered, and the letter was sent into the void.

 

The man is someone I know to be real, but for the sake of this text he has become a character, a protagonist invented as a device. [5] He goes by the name Dean Hamm, and through the piling up of letters Dean is put to work as an administrative loophole—a way in which to gather together otherwise disparate iterations of time. [6] The irony is that each infringement, each letter sent, probably affirms the identity of Dean, for it is through the repetition of inscription that figures become known. [7]

Over the course of a number of years 399 Station Street, North Carlton, was a holding zone for Dean Hamm’s accrued debt. It still remains so to this day. In many ways, his identity became a community-held secret, with each new generation of house dwellers never reporting the wrong address, themselves acquainted with the dread of the governmental envelop, themselves aware of the contradiction at the heart of public transport, themselves driven by these feelings when disregarding an envelope’s arrival in an act of transformative support. [8]

It would be a stretch to call it an insurrection, but there is a rallying call at the heart of Dean Hamm, who exists not in actuality but at least a little bit in all of us. I laughed when I first heard his story, thinking of the ink on the paper, the saliva on the stamp, the fingerprints bonded to the envelope—these material traces of something utilitarian handled. [9] But in the end, I also think of his nerve, rewriting the established contract between the people versus the state with a force of the former's hand, in turn recentering the humans caught in the midst of it all. Dean Hamm confirms the existence of the loophole and, therefore, other possible ways.

 

Yet still, behind all of us there lies a paper trail, plotting the narrative arches of our lives in bureaucratic poesies, ordering information so that a wanting enforcer or a dedicated viewer can follow along as they connect the dots. Birth certificates, infringement notices, exhibition wayfinding—it all piles up somewhere, neatly collated in a paperclipped bunch as if to portray a sense of continuity. But regardless of the packaging, even when grouped together each instance of publication betrays its singularity. [10] Just like Dean Hamm, it can’t be pinned down. We look closely enough and we see this for ourselves. We can imagine a site the size of a munitions factory and yet still, even when grouped within it, organised and categorised, subjectivities abound.

 

 

[1] In Mylou Oord’s film QC-2020 (2021), the Amsterdam Queer Choir gathers in the grand halls of De Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. This medieval church was once a site of Catholic worship, but now functions both as the home of a Protestant congregation and as a contemporary art space—an instance of multiple identities co-existing in architecture. While rehearsing within the walls of the church—an institution that has historically proven itself to be an oppressor of queer life—the choir resists, pondering the existence of a gay god through song, among other instances of queer expression.

[2] To question the systems that privatise access to education, such as paywalls and tuition fees, Maria van der Togt presented an open-source publishing studio with which viewers could print and bind material that had been collected, centralised, and therefore made freely-available on a public server. In rescuing material from the clutches of corporatisation, the work, titled Hard Copy Soft Copy – Impermeable Domains (2021) upheld the true definition “public” through the simple gesture of providing resources without any expectation of return.

[3] In Jeroen Exterkate’s film Death Play (2021), the viewer follows a videogame character aimlessly traversing his digital environment, engaging with the landscape on his own terms rather than through the controlling orders of a player. In pushing the story beyond what is only seen on the screen, it becomes possible to imagine this character having a life of his own, happy to relax and explore when the console is switched off. The result is a film that ponders what it means to disrupt the fabric of expectation—a videogame character is not meant to have a life of his own, a tram ticket is not mean to appear out of thin air to assist a wanting passenger, a citizen is not meant to give a fake address to an officer and yet, undetected by controlling factors, they do.

[4] Use at your own risk (2021) is a series of furniture-like objects made by Daphné Keraudren that can be attached to window sills or hung from railings, allowing the user to take a seat on the outside of a building or suspended from a bridge, legs dangling over a canal. Despite the warning present in the title, the works seem resolutely safe thanks to the inclusion of a series of photographs documenting their use. Smiling, secure faces beam back at the camera, assuring us that the privatisation of public space is undone through these objects that reclaim its use in small ways, negating the risk of exclusion present the way it's organised and policed.

[5] Noé Cottencin’s film Reality and Fiction (2021) works with the device of characterisation to montage together a stable of actors, both real and imagined. Completely disparate in composition, this cast list includes a shaggy monster pacing atop a building, a wolf, two skateboarders in the midst of a filming session, a dancer going through the motions in what looks like a rehearsal space, and a slogan-painting protestor. Interspersed with footage of an industrial plant rendered fluro-orange in early evening light, these elements come together on screen as a chorus of eco-activism and resistance.

[6] Not unlike the heterogeneous nature of the work presented at this Sandberg Graduation Exhibition.

[7] In Jeanine van Berkel’s presentation, titled A Score for Silence (2021), over 100 small clay sculptures litter the floor. On closer inspection it becomes clear that the pieces all largely take the same form—that of clay molded by the inside of a clenched hand. Because of their accumulation, the pieces imply a procedural action, one that is perhaps given to the axiom “practice makes perfect,” or rather, that it is through repetition that memory becomes inscribed. Written in the first person, an accompanying script for a reading recounts van Berkel’s reckoning with the impermanence of memory when it comes to the lineage of cultural identity. Here, each piece of clay figures as a kind of haunting, a determined, revisited act geared toward remembering.

[8] Suspended from the structural support provided by the building’s industrial beams and hovering over our heads as if a message from above, Eleni Papadimitriou’s installation of black text on white flags reflects on the collaborative practice of transformative work. Titled The Interior Architecture of Negotiations. Conversations on Hidden Layers of Transformative Work (2021), each flag—a tool, or, a peace offering, given its material composition—carries an excerpt from a series of conversations on negotiation as a method. Bearing quotes refigured as slogans, such as “It’s better to start with a no,” and “You need three yes to be sure,” the piece stands as a kind of public service announcement, at once airing the dirty laundry accrued through the difficult work of collaboration, while normalising the productive conflict present in these processes—the ones which ultimately hail instances of transformation.

[9] When encountering Sina Egger’s presentation An Outline of Things, Sound Cartography (2021), you are first faced with a collection of plywood and chipboard, stored leaning against the wall in varying shapes and sizes, as if off-cuts from the local timber yard. On closer inspection the pieces of seemingly ordinary construction material have each been labelled with individual descriptors, like “the lush board.” Through attributing personality traits to these materials and then attaching a sonic narration and an accompanying piece of writing, Egger maps the emotive traces present in these chosen materials, despite them being practical and everyday enough to appear otherwise detached.

[10] Mariel Willams’ work for the gesture support (2021) sits separately from the rest of the graduation presentations, trading in the cavernous industrial sheds of Het HEM for a perfectly positioned parked car on the nearby F20 ferry. While the car remains stationary, a text, rendered in vinyl lettering affixed to the car windows, is set in motion through the use of the automated up-and-down window function. This instance of publication relies on the infrastructural support of the car, the encounter with the ferry-goer, and even a collaboration with the weather—just some of the many contingencies that align in different, idiosyncratic rhythms throughout the day.