Johan van Cauwenberghe | There seems (E)

About the work: two small black boxes. One original, one replicated. It is unknown to us which one came first. They contain letters. A confession.

There seems to be clearness in a dark head, 2011 – 2021 (photo Peter Cox)

What does it mean to ‘feel safe’? Is it the ability to hide? Or is it the need to present yourself and thereby openly ‘portray’ that you have no secrets? If you are an open book, you can be read. You will be read. You will be judged. Of course, it is a titanic task to carry the constant burden of judgment. Doing so, might not only result in killing your ego, but also a connection to reality. Is this why we humans often feel that we need to protect something? Is this why we have a need for secrets?

Often we protect secrets as if they were our dearest belongings. But there’s also something to be said for the fact that those same secrets also protect us. Our secrets enable us to be who we want to be: a kind of curator of our own life. ‘There seems to be clearness in a dark head’ neatly encapsulates that natural need for secrecy. Not for the spectator’s sake but for that of the artist. The text inside the boxes is there. It exists. One can hold the letters in his or her hands, play with the secrets in order to give them meaning… try to make them come to life and reveal their message. One could just as easily never find a message at all. It’s questionable, and unknowable, if all letters are even there. There are no clues, no guidelines. Nor are there any examples. The maker condemns us to figure it out for ourselves without judging us if we create our own words.

The ambiguity of the relationship is as follows: if we invest time and effort, we can discover the artist. On the other hand, the artist is completely impartial to the creation of any word except, perhaps, for its intended sentence. In such an interaction, in which secrecy plays a role, both sender and receiver are completely obsolete. They do not matter to the secret itself, only to each other. The sender stores her secret for nobody to discover. The receiver will make his own truth without fully grasping context and consequence. Their contact will be intimate and distant at the same time. The context will never reveal itself and that will ultimate protect the secret’s value and keep it alive.

These moments of ‘obscured contact’ are an integral part of life. To have contact means to communicate. Through bodies, through vibes and actions, through words and images. Often a contact in its purest form is helplessly at the mercy of the other’s benevolence. The philosopher Levinas once wrote that we only truly become human in the eyes of the other. But, who is this other? is ‘the other’ the person across the table? Or are there other ears listening in? Are those listening ears biased? Do they understand us as human beings? Or are we reduced to a commodity? A proverbial net of oranges subjected to the critical goods inspection of the prospective buyer. But we need not throw ourselves needlessly and unarmed into the depths that is the other’s judgement. Whether that other is flesh and blood or exists digitally, a living machine or a machine life. We have a defence mechanism called language.

What exactly is the power of language? Language allows us to conceal and reveal. It gives us power through its cryptic spells. Combine language with image and the puzzle of meaning only becomes more profound and ,if desired, even impossible to understand. Isn’t a secret the ultimate achievement? And if the secret is one that lives in our heads, can anyone ever reach it? As long as we don’t speak it or write it down, does it live for someone else? For something else? And, if we do choose to let go, does that mean we immediately let go of everything if the recipient has enough context? For this, of course, is also a danger: the more the other knows about the context that surrounds the secret, the more concrete the guessing of it becomes.

But not everything has to end in drama. Fortunately, the same rules that we use to make a coherent system out of language, can just as easily be exploited to create total chaos within that system. Chaos that only means something to the person that devised the chaos, because he or she has the key in his or her pocket. A language game can only be played as long as the rules of the game remain the same. If these rules change, everything changes. You can then immediately ask yourself: does that change the world and our interpretation of it? Or only how we name things? Are language and thing inextricably linked? Or can I call a dog “cat”? If enough others participate, language should allow it to conform to such a change. The question, however, is whether everything and everyone changes with it….

Isn’t it liberating that really anything goes? That you can control what is secret and what is blatant fact by changing something as simple as a rule? Isn’t it fascinating that superficiality can hide layering through a different narrative? 

Johan van Cauwenberghe: philosopher of Science, Technology & Ethics, cultural critic, phenomenologist at heart.

Tekst bij de expositie EVEN ODD, 10 april 2022. Reinhard Doubrawa (DE), Fabrice Hermans, Karin van Pinxteren, geïnitieerd door Jos Bosman – M_RAM Foundation Maastricht.