warehouse warehouse

Forms of very analogous ethnologic research

von Ariane Müller,  translated by Pierre Schwarzer

During my stay at the Cité des Arts in Paris, I moved from the Annexe (with only a milk-glass-window towards the street on the one hand, but on the other, a double-door to the courtyard of the Cité, the outside world being just one step away) to the uppermost floor of the main building in the past months. The latter had beautiful views on sunrises and sunsets on the Seine, following a perfectly fitting path for my gaze, but it was also separated from the outside world through hallways, staircases or elevators, and last but not least by the very peculiar concierges. From there, I began to film the work on a very special garden right in front of my window, but very much separate from my studio, through many staircases, but also through an explicit ban on access, issued by the directors of the institution. This garden in the back of the property of the former palais (now the French ministry of finance) seemed to be a baroque ornamental garden, but also an installation in which every coloured arrangement is realised not through flowers but through vegetable plants – with slight exceptions due to the inclusion of fruit-plants, but rather around the frame of the garden, consisting of apple trees. Despite not exactly being separate from the outside space of the property in the back or the courtyard – for instance, there is neither fence nor wall – the ban of access, which I assumed to exist mainly because one thought us artists too uncivilised, too ravenous and at the same time too poor, with too little empathy, basically unworthy of it, was largely respected. I think this was mainly due to roughly 200 windows, including the one of the director, pointing exactly to that very space. It must have been different at night, for I was seldomly invited to artist dinners in the cite, where there was not at least a tiny branch of rosemary in the kitchen of the respective studio. For this garden area of roughly 1000 square meters, eight or nine gardeners were assigned, mainly having to pay attention not to trample on each other in that narrow space.

When I began filming their work daily through my window, it was february and they were mainly occupied with tending to the flowerbeds. Despite them sometimes spending hours with some sort of nail clipper on the edges, they had many impressive tools, among which many were linear- and circular-shaped ones to align the flowerbeds in their exact geometries.

Thus, a few weeks very little happened on both sides – I recall two highlights, once one of the gardeners angrily kicked a non-functioning pair of electric scissors, another time another one pissed on his flowerbed – until I was surprised by the suggestion of a studio visitor to go down and film there. A bit more dedication and confrontation, less distance, more liveness, he claimed, was to be expected from something worthy of the term “art”.

To be expected, probably; I had up to this point imagined this work to be classical, albeit not entirely traditional ethnology and had a few acquaintances in mind which for instance created and published an ethnology of Mexico City by filming from their terrace above the Zócalo.

This sounds more cynical than needed. For which distance would be the right one if one considers the terrace above the embodiment of a return ticket, health insurance and other balconies of such fashion.

Pathos of distance

Back in Berlin I go to the window of my studio offering an extensive view on Kottbusser Tor from a height of about 10 Meters, third floor. This is not the kind of distance which characterizes the nobleman that I have to add in thought when pondering the concept of the pathos of distance first posited by Nietzsche. That would be the Bel Etage. But, having been watching the not exactly noble Kottbusser Tor from above for ten years, the distance became the signifier of an inner ideological battle of myself. It is a mediated distance including physical aspects. Physical qualities I have learnt from Joseph Beuys to include in the concept of art (sculpture in his case), that is, into the representation, as immediate qualities. Scent, Weight, Noise, Warmth, air movement, how something concerns or affects me. This mediated distance enriched with physical qualities forces me to think of my situation in space. – It does not leave me unaffected, one might say. This is my problem. Because the last thing I would wish to do, is deal with a situation for which I am in a certain sense a total stranger, to which I was randomly stranded to randomly hear, see and sense.

For a short while I play with the thought of reducing the distance and see myself fleetingly smoking crack with those from the square in some staircase in my thoughts.

To increase the distance on the other hand, I look for other apartments online. While I am highly happy not needing to seek greater proximity, for instance because unhappy circumstances legible on the faces of those on the square would affect me, the greater distance scares me, the position from which “the high-minded man”– as written on the Wikipedia entry for “Pathos” – “takes the right to create “values” and develop their meaning”. Values for exactly those on which I look from above through my mediate distance. Those values created in the pathos of distance by well-meaning persons, which – as the entry continues – lead to “the judgment that something is good” does not arise from those “upon which good has been done, but from the good ones themselves, the powerful, the more senior and the noble”.

From my third floor I thus spread the good (public restrooms, basic income, legalisation of drugs, equal spread of cell phones, credit cards and even cash, better weather, lower pollution-values) onto the square. But there is something inside me, that wishes to lunge at all of it with great rage, destroy everything, “reassess” all that is, end all this unjust suffering in an act of violence, something one could call distanceless. I dislike my lack of distance. In its violence it has a proto-fascist character, something I know from many ethnological works. It is also clear to me that my undistanced impulse arises from the pathos of distance, from my terrace above the Zócalo. Perhaps because something shook one of its pillars.

Now there’s two possible exits. Ethnology has turned the fight between the pathos of distance and the lack of distance arising from it, when this distance is reduced, into theory- and fact-based instructions, which would be building a sexual relationship with the other and thereby incorporate him, so to speak (to then fight with the now internal other in an undistanced way). This path between pathos of distance, lack of distance and incorporation has been undertaken by many in a position of judgment of what is good in the past years, towards Ethics.

The other way, which I chose as a usual one is to have Google News and others tell me every day, what went on on the Kottbusser Tor. In a world, in which nothing has an odour, a weight, a noise, a temperature or air, which moves and concerns me. My pathos of distance integrates into another one, I begin to know again what good and evil are – and in case of emergency, I still know SPSS.

Ariane Müller is an artist and founder of Starship Magazine. Among others, she published in Texte zur Kunst, Spike Art & Artforum. Between 1996 and 2013 she was part of the Austrian delegation at UN-Habitat, the division of the United Nations responsible for housing development. Her first book Handbuch für die Reise durch Afrika [Manual for travel through Africa] was published in 2013 by the Basel Museum of Contemporary Art.