The Sound of Two Hands Thinking

 

Essay

 

In Art + Australia, Issue Five (55.2): Brutalism, edited by Edward Colless and published by Art + Australia, Melbourne.

May 2018 

Issue 55.2 will explore the topic of Brutalism. The stark, raw truculence of the post-World War II architectural style of severity dubbed brutalism has been enjoying a renascent taste. Countless images of bunker-like and helmet-like megaliths of social housing, immobile monoliths of governmental inscrutability and mammoth corporate hubs tiered like Aztec pyramids that might have sacrificial blood running dark in their guttering now spill across Tumblr, Instagram and coffee tables with the ubiquity of food pornography. But there’s clearly something about the pugnacious strong-man allure of this mode of monumentality and its ruin-value ostalgie that goes beyond the architectural example. Are we exiting the economic, political and artist legacies—good and bad—of the world order, international and then global, established over the past fifty years only to enter the court of a swaggering, bellicose autocracy? In collapsing the borderless cultural free-trade archipelagos that forged ‘the contemporary’ are we being driven towards new cultural values of survivalism and of brutality?

View entire issue here

Konrad Klapheck, Reife [Maturity], 1986, oil on canvas, 150 x 170 cm

Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, A Letter, 1974, zincography, 10.5 x 14.5 cm

Ruth Wold-Rehfeldt, Untitled, 1970s, zincography, 10.5 x 14.5 cm

Recently, the works of Konrad Klapheck have emerged from the rubble of Germany’s totalitarian past and positioned themselves firmly at the front of my mind. Again and again Klapheck painted typewriter after typewriter, each with its own elongated, anamorphic adjustments, its own slight alterations. Punctuating the proliferation of administrative buildings across East Germany at an almost chronological rate, Klapheck’s typewriters at first appear like relics of another time. Their resolute and angular architecture—reminiscent of early incarnations of the typewriter, such as the legendarily bulky Remingtons—seem fossilised in comparison to the lightweight keyboard we know now. It is said that Klapheck’s paintings are surrealist in nature, his metamorphic illustrations being a kind of self-actualisation that could mean only one thing: he wanted to be a writer. [1] Yet unable to put pen to paper in the way that he had dreamt, Klapheck instead put brush to canvas and constructed an image of the brute monumentality of postwar institutional architecture. Given the rise of and the now renewed interest in totalitarianism across the world—the fact that Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, became a bestseller in 2018 is proof enough of this—Klapheck’s typewriter buildings, in all their unshakeable glory, stand not just as an emblem of a state power we assumed to be of the past but also as a timely depiction of the current administrative apparatus.

 

In their article, ‘Bureaucracy’s Labour: The Administrator as Subject’, Andrea Francke and Ross Jardine write that ‘Current critiques of administration . . . are a reaction to the administration of the body and the way bureaucracy is used to control the flows of our everyday life.’ [2] But within this dynamic, they argue that the administrator is often overlooked, either deemed invisible or blamed for single-handedly, but anonymously, exacting the excruciating banality of bureaucracy and its de-subjectivising tendencies. In overlooking the administrator, are we forgoing the potential of this position? Between the lines of the spreadsheet, breathing life into protocol from nine to five, might it be possible to envisage someone acting otherwise? After all, administrative work has been historically regarded as women’s work. It was the invention of the typewriter at the turn of the twentieth century that saw women eventually take a seat at the desk of the modern office. Male enlistment during both World Wars also saw women rise rather rapidly to a standing of relative importance in the workplace, as their departure left many positions needing to be filled. As such, women were destined to become proficient typists. The numerous typewriter advertisements directed towards women—in which the typewriter is marketed as an extended limb, tailor-made for the female body—clearly suggest this trajectory and the gendering of the work. It is then unsurprising, given the invisible nature of gendered labour as we know it, that the potential in the role of the administrator to amend systemic failures has also been overlooked.

 

Klapheck’s 1963 painting titled Patriarchat [Patriarchy] offers an image of this doctrine of male supremacy. In this depiction of a typewriter, the keyboard is divided into two distinct compartments. Rather than transmute the exterior of a building, as many of his other typewriter paintings do, Patriarchy depicts the interior of what appears to be a court room: a set of keys occupy the ‘bench’ traditionally reserved for the judge; just underneath, positioned below the judges yet still elevated, sits the jury. Klapheck has seemingly replaced humans with typewriter keys, framing the patriarchy as both judge and jury of societal proceedings.

 

Der Wille zur Macht [Will to Power] (1959), one of Klapheck’s early typewriter paintings, depicts row upon row of typewriter keys, certainly more than what is needed for the standard German alphabet. The painting gives a sense of a gathered mass, or an army. With each key standing in for a citizen or loyal follower, Will to Power is one of the most active of Klapheck’s titles. While the human touch conventionally activates the mechanics of a typewriter, here the typewriter is made animate—not as an inanimate object that has come to life but as a representation of the social mass in the first instance. This performative element of the social, in its ability to will something into being, can also be scaled down to the individual administrator herself. In his article, ‘The Sound of Two Hands Thinking’, from which I borrow the title for this text, Richard B. Woodward wrote:

 

Anyone typing on a keyboard is a performer, consciously or not, in a way that a hand writer is not. Whether you are alone in a garret or plugged into an electronic network of others, your facility on the keyboard tells listeners how well you can play the instrument and coordinate your hands. [3]

 

In a workplace geared towards streamlining production and in which the administrator, like the individuals they process, is given a number rather than name, measuring the productiveness of workers based on the vocal chords of their machines underscores the fact that the administrator is similarly subject to rather than agent of the administrative powers that be. Francke and Jardine articulate this when they write that ‘the administrative worker functions as an object, a piece of infrastructure, invisible until something goes wrong’. [4] While on the one hand the administrator is expected to maintain uninterrupted rhythms and meet performance criteria according to the requirements of the work, on the other she is positioned quite strategically at the chokehold of power, sworn to relative secrecy by nuanced contract writing—for which she penned her signature, probably on one of the few occasions, on her own behalf. The will of the administrator, disguised by this uninterrupted rhythm of keys, establishes a position from which she might act: she may take the risk of disavowal in her stride (and face potential job termination), or may engage in possible power play, becoming a whistleblower, a blackmailer or setting her own criteria of confidentiality. [5] 

 

Given this reading of Klapheck’s brutalist typewriters as representations of governmental buildings and their administrative apparatus, the provocation in the title Will to Power could be read in line with historical desires for women’s self-determination in the workplace. In a now seminal article, ‘Typing Our Way to Freedom: Is It True that New Office Technology Can Liberate Women?’, Janine Morgall calls for office technology to be used for liberation, so ‘women must be made to see that they can be authors’. [6] As is the nature of administrative systems, workers are forcibly collectivised into operating without individual authority, yet with traceable accountability for all action. In this sense, and as Francke and Jardine note, ‘Documents, forms and templates are constructed on top of each other, each time by a different unnamed worker. Absent from the document is a signature. Responsibility but also credit.’ They continue:

 

The process of denying authorship (in the sense of denying the subjectivity expressed in the construction of a spreadsheet, not in the copyright transforming into an asset) is, in itself, a process of de-subjectification. It creates a hierarchy of work and labour, categorizing the administrator as maintainer instead of creator. [7]

 

While Morgall argues for the subversive misuse of office technology to promote the feminist cause—citing out-of-office-hours use of photocopiers as a means to generate pamphlets, for example—she also endorses Francke and Jardine’s endeavour to invert the stereotype of women’s work as supporting the structurally sanctioned male creator. These two positions collide perfectly in the work of German artist Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt. Working as an artist throughout the 1970s and 80s, Wolf-Rehfeldt used her typewriter to make a series of ‘typewritings’ while she was employed as an administrator for the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Engaging with the genre of mail art, she managed to distribute her work through the postal service and beyond the Berlin Wall, using her insider knowledge of GDR protocols to evade the all-seeing eye of cultural censorship in East Germany. Operating discretely as a malfunctioning office machine, Wolf-Rehfeldt took control of her channels of communication, showing the administrator could take up the role of author in the creation her own work. Just prior to reunification, in 1990, and as a result of her severance as an administrator for the GDR, she ceased making art as she felt there was simply no need for it anymore.

 

Directly preceding Wolf-Rehfeldt’s period of art-making, Klapheck painted Der Gesetzgeber [The Legislator] (1969), a typewriter masquerading as a piece of brutalist architecture, complete with the line-space lever raised in fascist salute. Returning to it now, and understanding The Legislator as a manifest spectre of administration as we know it today, how might we begin to think of the administrator as an unofficial legislator, beyond the autocratic legislators as Klapheck understood them? Wolf-Rehfeldt could be seen as an example of this. By using resources allocated to her by the state, she forged alternative ways of operating, quite literally overturning the mechanisms of totalitarianism in the process. Instead of viewing the government as an impenetrable fortress with which the citizen was bound to comply, Wolf-Rehfeldt—the typist—interrupted obsessional state surveillance with a machine and its capacity to register prose.

 

Of course, arguing for this kind of subversion puts dangerous work in the hands of already precarious workers. But what seems most synonymous with Klapheck is not a shared history of totalitarianism, but the desire for new forms of poetic subversion. Maybe we all just want to be writers? The word ‘typewriter’ has come to refer to both the word-processing machine and the female typist. [8] Just as Klapheck painted these writing machines while supposedly wishing to be a writer, women have been hired and put to use as machines, producing endless ‘authorless’ words in an attempt to write their own futures through economic independence. It is said that ‘many writers never find a way to take what’s in their heads and put it in rows of words that are satisfying after the results are seen on the page or screen’. [9] What if this were so of the administrator? To watch over someone’s shoulder as they type is to wiretap the freedom of forming one’s own thoughts. The difference between typing and writing, then, is only a matter of self-identification. The administrator types her way to freedom, only to have her words written for her. Should the administrator type and write at once, then the sound of two hands thinking could be a patter of minor adjustments, slight alternations in the brutality of administered life—a barred welfare cheque that slips silently through the cracks, a rogue tick of approval, an institution that uses its status as a school to grant immigration papers. These are all active misuses of the register—deviations from our inherited aesthetic obsession with straight lines and ethical infatuation with utilitarianism, or with function as it totalises form.

[1] The small catalogue that accompanied the collections exhibition at Kolumba, in Cologne, states that Klapheck apparently painted typewriters as a result of a failed childhood dream of being a writer. Pas de deux, exhibition catalogue, Kolumba Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, 2018.

[2] Andrea Francke and Ross Jardine, ‘Bureaucracy’s Labour: The Administrator as Subject’, Parse Journal, no. 5, 2017, p. 24.

[3] Woodward’s text chronicles his childhood growing up with the sound of his mother’s typewriter ringing throughout the house. She was busy working on a biography of the Suffragette Carrie Chatman Catt until the birth of her many children eventually saw an unavoidable decline in her professional ambition. It is from Woodward’s article that I borrow the title for this one, in salute to the women authors who, despite the ways in which their lives played out, continued to consider themselves writers even though they put down their pens and ceased publishing. Richard B. Woodward, ‘The Sound of Two Hands Thinking’, The Threepenny Review, no. 127, Fall, 2011, p. 9.

[4] Francke and Jardine, p. 26.

[5] The following incident can perhaps be seen an example of the latter. On 22 January 2018, WAGE (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) issued an open invitation to artists participating in the forthcoming Whitney Biennial to ‘use [their] exceptional status as a worker who can claim both the freedom to dissent and the right to be paid to withhold [their] labor in solidarity with Whitney staff who cannot’. Such demands were set by the Whitney staff, as the board’s vice chairman, Warren B. Kanders, owns the defence company that manufactured the teargas canisters and smoke grenades that were recently used against asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border. WAGE states that this action resulted from a number of Whitney employees speaking up anonymously, hoping to take action through proxy of the artists, who have less at stake than they do.

[6] Janine Morgall, ‘Typing Our Way to Freedom: Is It True That New Office Technology Can Liberate Women?’, Feminist Review, no. 9, Autumn, 1981, p. 100.

[7] Francke and Jardine, p. 28.

[8] It was noted to me that the word ‘computer’ was also notoriously used to refer to female staff who carried out routine mathematical work en masse, from solving meteorological calculations for forecasting in the 1920s and 30s to undertaking decryption tasks during World War II, prior to the advent of the Turing machine.

[9] Woodward, p. 8.