My tattoo is my Angelus Novus. It witnesses the catastrophe I produce by “piling up wreckage upon wreckage.” That the tattoo is a gift given to me by my daughter has turned the world and its time inside out. I understand: my daughter is not younger than me; we all are in the same age, the living, the dead, and the unborn; the child is only a paradigm of all the non-dissociable forces of life, of life as inseparable; we have been caught up in an eternal whirl; it makes us believe that there is succession, progress; that “what we call progress, [is] this storm,” which, in the end, is the motivated architectural potential of eternal encounter. Always witnessed by the angel of history, this storm both demands and allows further research.
Habemus Angelus Novus—The Anarchic Event
A last scene deserves attention, one that may be a continuous methodological reflection on the conditions of artistic existence and the work of art, rather than an art-project as such. The tattoo on my arm demands care or maintenance. This imperative allows me to have it, to bear it, and to use it. It is impossible to eliminate a tattoo. A tattoo cannot be dispossessed. Therefore, it cannot be possessed either. It is a paradigm.
When after a car accident I was spending more time at home, my then five-year-old daughter came to me with a black marker and said she was going to draw a tattoo on my arm. I decided to have this drawing tattooed on my arm right where she had drawn it.
The tattoo’s origin is the child and her or his relation to the parents. This relation may be denied but never annulled. While today eternal bondage has fallen into disgrace (seen as moral and as authoritarian domination and limitation), from the perspective of the impossibility of possession, the tattoo’s indisputability is liberating. Precisely because the care of a tattoo, a child, or a garden, etc., is being demanded from me, it is a borderless having. Again, this having is not possession but habit. It is not merely doing or simple agency, not the factum as such that gives permission to what is done or made, that gives permission to the facts. Permission is given because the action to take care has been demanded.
Driven by a childish joy, Walter Benjamin bought Klee’s aqua tinta print Angelus Novus in 1921 and hung it as his companion in every apartment he stayed in, even on vacations or during his exile in Paris. When he had to leave Paris in September 1940, fleeing from capture by the Nazis, he entrusted it to the custody of Georges Bataille, who concealed it in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, thus saving it for posterity. Two weeks later, Benjamin ended his life in Portbou.
For Benjamin, the Angelus Novus is the angel of history. He looks back on what the progression of history leaves behind. Embedded in times of war, Benjamin qualifies these outcomes as “wreckage” and “debris” resulting from “catastrophic” “smashing.” But the wind that carries the angel through time originates in “Paradise” and has a “violence” that makes us understand the universal condition of the angel of history. Perhaps our time has invented Paradise and history; and this violence, as a qualitative entity, comes with it. But what marks the Angelus Novus as an eternal creature beyond any current condition is the pure state of a witness to which he is reduced. In this state, he cannot but “fixedly contemplat[e]” what he is being carried away from: “His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.”
As human beings, however, we do not have wings. The “storm […] blowing from Paradise” is not carrying us steadily through time. Rather, we are doomed to build sails and sail against or into the wind, to take the wind out of someone’s sails, to be upwind or downwind, and to be blown down at times. We do not just stare at the condition of the world: we make use of it. This does not necessarily mean that we should turn around and face the future progressively, or that we should try to prevent the smashing or even try “to make whole what has been smashed.” Maybe we should try to understand the demand presented by the current state of the world, as witnessed by the angel of history, and take it as the liberating permission of creating our own past.
PhD-Study—A Curatorial Problem
My daughter came to me with a black marker and said: “I am going to draw a tattoo on your arm.” I decided to have the drawing tattooed, as a way of documenting her work. This moment marked some kind of an exit from the academic aesthetics of the PhD-study I was occupied with at that time. At once, there was another practice involved, a practice that was not directly responsive to the problems of the PhD and, nevertheless, closely related to many aspects of my work, my research, and my history. Although this practice could no longer be understood as discourse as art practice, it was still discursive: it allowed for a practical or material discursivity to speak in its own right as an equivalent part of the PhD discourse.
When I started the PhD, it demanded the answering of some methodological questions: What is the practice at stake in a research project of which practice is a major component? What is the difference between art practice and research practice? What does it mean, specifically for an artist, to engage in such research?
My art practices are situated in the transdisciplinary field of art and architecture. The architectural base of my art practices generates a hybrid operational field that is always set in or in touch with the respective fields. Despite this clarity, the practical question of ethos with regard to a mixed-mode study is less obvious. To which practice does the study relate, and how, at the moment one’s main practice becomes studying itself? Intuitively, the answer from a standpoint of ethos was clear from the beginning: there cannot be a separation between research practice and art practice, between the practice of studying and the practice of being studied, within one and the same person. The only way to engage in studying one’s own practice is to use the practice of studying as one’s own practice by means of one’s own ways of doing. It’s a question of finding a way of engaging in the study as an architectural art practice.
The double meaning of the word “study” as both research practice and architectural typology presented an entry point congruent to my art practices. This duplication of the “study” also reflects the double modality of the work: as both discursive and visual practice.
To engage in studying as a visual art practice the first step is to visualize the activity of studying: as a spatial activity in a study room, i.e., by documenting it with visual media such as film. Each practice when being documented—if conscious of it—changes under the apparatus of documentation. Documentation and its inherent complications with distance and neutrality, when applied to the intellectual and architectural examination of the “study,” immediately reveals it as an inherently architectural art practice—a more particular form of critical spatial practice.
Studying is a spatial practice, albeit unspectacular. Filming the activity of studying is a first attempt to grasp it by means other than words and concepts. As the spatial conditions of a study room are often very restricted and prevent it from being fully captured on film, the means of documentation must be adapted. For example, the camera can be turned by ninety degrees in order to capture a wall’s full height. The result of this simple rotary motion is a vertical image. More importantly, however, such rotation introduces the force of gravity into the medium of film. A sequence recorded in a vertical format when projected on a horizontal screen of a conventional cinema appears rotated by ninety degrees.
Consequently, it makes the spectators’ heads turn. Documentation possibly changes both the documented practices and the practices of reception.
My study of the “study” by means of visual documentation provided valuable insights on fundamental issues of studying such as writing, reading, or thinking and its implications on the underlying trope of the “architectural.” Nevertheless, in its rather hermetic logic, it also left the tentative “artistic” definition of a universal PhD practice, i.e., the practice of studying, in a loop. Although it is proven that hermeneutic circles are a reliable means of knowledge production, there was an urgency of breaking out of these loops, not without, however, rescuing previous methodological insights into the new practice. If knowledge can be embodied, then the task at hand was the translation of my current practices into practices that would embody—rather than examine—the new methodological knowledge. This then would be what I’d expect from a PhD: a radical transformation of one’s own practices.
While the watershed of this translational move is indeed marked by the event of the tattoo, the strategic move towards it was propelled by an encounter with Irit Rogoff, the co-inventor (together with Jean-Paul Martinon) of the Curatorial/Knowledge PhD programme at Goldsmiths College, and my subsequent participation in this programme as a DocMobility fellow of the Swiss National Science Foundation. Both the thoughtful setup of the programme structure with approximately six three-day-seminars per year, thus allowing for the seminars to become a place of common experience, on the one hand, and the particular contents of the seminars, which I perceived as an advancement of post- and de-colonial studies through critical edges that emerged from a definition of the concept of “the curatorial” through the introduction of “the philosophical” as an intellectual, distantiated lens, on the other, made it possible to achieve this goal, the translation of one’s own practices.
On curating, this is where my contribution must be situated. It is driven by the urgency to say: wait a minute—let’s talk about curating, rather than just keep on curating. It is “the curatorial” as a research of “other ways to engage with our current woes” that is applicable to the artistic practice of PhD study. The production of a PhD is, therefore, a curatorial problem.
Reflections on Rejuvenation
My daughter’s marking may be interpreted as a form of reversed inheritance of a drawing talent. I never met my grandfather. My father told me he was a talented draftsman. He established and ran several bookbinding factories in Prague during the inter-war period, which was the time of the first Czechoslovak Republic. After World War II, the Czechoslovak Communist Party confiscated the factories. My grandfather’s talent marks my daughter’s drawing. His talent has passed through my father’s body, through my own body, and through my daughter’s body back onto my body: it is an indirect signature of inheritance. I am marked by an indirect inheritance, passed on through the younger generation: a reversed or inversed inheritance. Such a drawing clears the way for an archaeological research practice that is not scientific in the sense of an uncovering of truths but, rather, to a drilling art practice of graving graves and unhinging gravities, thus creating truths. These issues concern life and death rather than knowledge.
So, instead of asking whether there were entanglements of my family with the machinations of the Nazi forces occupying the country during World War II, or if there are Jewish roots in my family that have been subsurfaced for those very reasons, this research does not lead back to the roots, back to my ancestors and their imbrications with those historical issues that irredeemably concern all of us in the West. Quite on the contrary, it leads forward to roots. Putting my personal life and history at stake in research allows for invigorated steps to yet unknown terrains, meeting current urgencies that have seemingly nothing to do with my past. Yet, related to the potential past of the tattoo, a past that is yet to come, current urgencies attain a potential for alternate readings.
While praising the concept of the Curatorial/Knowledge PhD programme I should not forget the vivid power it has generated by attracting curators, artists, and other scholars driven by a shared motivation. For this reason, it is by no means a coincidence that it was upon an invitation of one of these colleagues, the Israeli curator Joshua Simon, that the headstone for the translation of my practice was laid—within the frame of the PhD and beyond that for the current work. It allowed me to do collaborative work with kids in Arad using and further developing my filming methods. More importantly, however, it allowed me to decide instinctively to travel haphazardly through a sort of no-man’s-land, the West Bank.
There, it was the visit of the Cinema Jenin that made me understand the importance of film in my work. No particular event or conversation testifies to this moment, except, maybe, the moment when I entered the cinema and there was a wild bunch of kids sack racing on stage to frenetically loud music: outbursts of joy!
My research travel to Israel and Palestine may be seen as a journey to my Jewish and Muslim roots. It is the responsibility, but also the privilege of an heir to Western history, a history that has always been intricately entangled with non-Western history, that gives me the permission to approach the non-West. Addressing some of the colonial realities that Western history has shaped is a way of translating my past into advanced art practice (as opposed to, e.g., uncovering and artistically wrapping facts about my own family’s history). On another level, my father’s passionate Super-8 filmmaking might also be interpreted as such a step forward to the roots, as a step away from my grandfather’s drawing talent to an alternate form of drawing. My own step towards architecture is yet another variation, retracing a genealogy from making graphs to making cavities and unhinging gravities, which point towards a further set of practices of acting. The tattoo, which might also be seen as the empty sign of contemporary melancholia, symbolizes and gives permission to become active with potential sets of new critical architectural gestures and, beyond that, new forms of culture.
Missed Encounters—Beginnings of Idiotic Research
The idiot is neither the one who does what seems rational nor the one who does what seems pleasurable. According to Deleuze, referring to Dostoyevsky, the idiot is the one who knows that “beyond consciousness and passion” there is a question, there is a question, there is a question—but what is it? Maybe research is idiotic, when it is searching for questions rather than answers. To answer this question, one would have to start with the end and then ask, by looking back, whether there is (or there will have been) a question. The result is, in short, and exclusively, a study that is a production of a mode of writing and also a production of other modes of researching. If there appears knowledge, then it has been hardly produced; rather, it has been having and using knowledge (or ways of knowing) by means of the work of art as the work that art has and does.
One could also, conveniently, distinguish between discourse and spatial practice. At least since Foucault’s discourse on language, we know that discourse is a spatial practice. However, consequently, does he not also show us inversely, maybe unconsciously, that spatial practice is discursive? When building a (research) wall parallel to an already existing wall as its inverted model, then this entire setup—the walls, the gap between them, and the territories that are both supporting them and being separated by them—enter into a relation with various sociocultural and spatial discourses. Through an original sequence of spatial “quotes” and “glosses,” the wall draws a line that is a critical sketch of original knowledge, with its own “logic” and “integrity,” by constructing nothing new, as it were. As in writing, also in spatial practice disinterested desire may shine through, thus shedding lights hitherto unknown.
Such work of art may contribute to a formulation of art practice that spends itself in a voiding and thus becomes a critical life-form vis-à-vis dominant ideology. By looking at what has been done, a seemingly idiotic question for the work of art shows at the root of such work: How to receive the political through academic study?
This question shows its idiocy by means of showing. It politicizes a deeply rooted private use, which is idiotic. It reveals the question “What is the question?” as its foundation. To reveal idiocy is idiotic. But the question “What is the question?” is the most fundamentally critical, as the revelation of idiocy is a pure political act. What remains to be done, in conclusion, is to keep the distance and to stay in touch and to continue—go to the crossroads!
What is the question that joins three missed encounters in a research project into collaboration? First, the cinematographic exploration of the acquaintance and potential friendship between Bataille and Benjamin as an incommunicable instance of getting ready to overturn things; second, the cinematographic exploration of the current use of the prehistoric cave of Lascaux in the South of France as evidence of the current cultural capitulation; and third, the cinematographic exploration of artistic representations of the current state of Palestine as means of cultural resistance.
De-Doc: Decolonizing Documentary Film Methods in Artistic Research
An abysmal sensation of nausea or exhaustion has become prevalent for people around the globe. It is being produced by diverse colonizing conditions, all of which seem to be both universal and out of our sphere of influence: migration, climate change, digitalization, neoliberal management and politics, or private experiences of the individualist self. The powers at play can be countered through political action. Nevertheless, the question of how we can immediately cope with such divesting forces remains urgent.
The above-described sensation touches upon existential issues such as death, love, or ecstasy that are central to artistic thought and production. Art has the capacity to wrest these issues from people’s everyday economic contingencies and reflect them in quasi-timeless realms of aesthetic episteme. It is possible to convey sensation of lost ground to the viewer through a particular technique of filming: by unhinging physical forces such as gravity or inertness within the reference of an architectural space.
The constellation of the three paradigms— the state of Palestine, the caves of Lascaux, and Benjamin’s thinking in exile—provides aesthetic understanding of such states of exhaustion, which are useful for the invention of counter-strategies adaptable to everyday life. The appropriateness of the chosen paradigms is not scientifically justified. They follow an artistic intuition, in which materials associate via an aesthetic epistemic mechanism. The paradigms constituted themselves during doctoral studies as relevant and interconnected, yet largely unexplored instances for the rest of the studies. They lend themselves to further exploration with regard to one of the main outcomes of the doctoral studies: the autonomous camera. This is a camera that moves according to own logic.
These are the presumed paradigmatic counter-strategies: the Freedom Theatre in Jenin (West Bank) represents and resists the occupation of Palestine in a socio-cultural form of theatrical practice; the only everyday use of the caves of Lascaux in the South of France with precious prehistoric paintings consists in the cave keeper’s daily control of the measuring instruments; during his exile in Paris, Benjamin kept a drawing by Klee called Angelus Novus like a guardian angel and maintained a curious friendship with Bataille that to date has remained largely unexplored.
Plays, paintings, or drawings and texts can be filmed, but they cannot just be performed in front of the autonomous camera. The director and the protagonists are forced to actively relate to the dominant logic of the camera. In this collaboration, content and form translate into new cinematographic representations. The cancelled physical forces within the projected architectural space generate the sensation of nausea or exhaustion: the sensations the documentary talks about become tangible for the public.
There is a risk that the chosen approach—the autonomous camera—by reproducing the forces it aims to examine, might colonize and suffocate the autonomy of the protagonists. Preliminary tests have shown that the protagonists rather rely on their embodied knowledge and confidentially perform what needs to be translated into the film. Paradoxically, the effect of the autonomous camera is in itself decolonizing.
“and here I am”—Unoccupied Territories
“Ahmed lives in the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank. He has grown up under occupation, likes football, falls in love with a girl he spots on the street, and discovers an unexpected taste for the limelight when he accidentally walks into the local Stone theatre. However, he is also fascinated by the balaclava that he finds hidden in his parents’ bedroom, a legacy of his father’s time as a resistance fighter.
[…] Ahmed Tobasi performs his own story, written for the stage by Hassan Abdulrazzak, which charts his journey from being a member of Palestine’s Islamic Jihad to becoming an actor. Along the way he asks if the stage really can be as powerful as an AK-47. The enthusiasm with which the audience claps at the end suggests that it can be, even if it’s not entirely clear whether we are clapping the show itself or Tobasi’s remarkable personal voyage of transformation that saw him imprisoned for four years at the age of 17 before coming under the influence of Juliano Mer Khamis, one of the leaders of the Jenin Freedom Theatre.
[…] Mer Khamis was a stern taskmaster, and a man who believed that ‘theatre can be as violent as the gun’. He was gunned down outside the theatre in 2011.”
The continuous occupation of Palestine by the Israeli State creates a sort of unoccupancy of the territory, which is the fertile soil of Palestinian aggression and recalls the impotent angel of history. Such aggressions need outlets, and the Palestinians have become involuntary experts for the potential guidebook: How to engage with an occupying force? The Freedom Theatre in Jenin in the North of the West Bank has found a cultural means to deal with the on-going traumatization of the population. In workshops, it practices theatre mainly with kids and women of the refugee camp, and it broaches the issue of occupation in professional plays, which are shown throughout the West Bank and internationally. Instead of letting culture be oppressed through occupation, the theatre practices cultural resistance by disseminating its own narrative to the world.
“What is the question?”–De-Doc Also Reads As: De-Doctoral Study
Can the curatorial collaboration of a white, male, Western artist with a Palestinian cultural institution be de-colonial?
Can there be a de-doctoral practice, as opposed to a post-doctoral one?
Is there an “extreme” of advanced curatorial work of art that succeeds in evacuating domination to such an extent it leaves everyone—those living, the dead, and those yet to be born—rejuvenated to the same age?
Like an idiot, who asks what the hell the practice in a practice-based PhD is supposed to be, I’m haunted to continue searching for questions. No construction can possibly be erected above the merit of a PhD. Rather, there is lateral displacement that puts the work in yet another unknown light—and thus makes it advance.
And here I am, documenting particular cases of lost ground, thus telling these stories and my own in a unique collaborative invention, the invention of a new past. By means of using and translating their and my stories into new forms of representation, there might be a chance of saving us from becoming lost causes.
Rather than capitalizing on outcomes and climbing to post-doctoral heights, the study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation is a de-move, a kind of back-folding or ritornello, a dwelling on the same, a moving still image, a decolonizing contemplation. “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet”: and here I am.
Ronny Hardliz is an art practitioner researching, filming, curating, writing, and building on discursive art practice, the concept of architecture, correlations in the thinking of Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille, cinematic prehistoric art, Palestine, rejuvenation, Kunst und Bau, art and public spheres, and decolonizing documentary art practice. He studied architecture and urbanism at EPF Lausanne and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. As artist fellow at the Swiss Institute in Rome, he began exploring the concept of architecture. He holds an art practice-driven PhD from Middlesex University in London (in collaboration with Goldsmiths and ETH Zurich), curates exhibitions on Kunst und Bau, and is actively involved in discourses on art-space-media-public relations. He holds a CAS in Documentary Film from Hochschule der Künste Bern. He lived and worked in Rome and Prague with his partner, where his two daughters were born. Today, he lives and works in Berne with his family and is active at Kunstkommission der Stadt Bern, as president at BAKUB Verein Basis Kunst und Bau, as member of the foundation council of Progr Bern, as board member of the Swiss Artistic Research Network and as artistic researcher at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. His exhibitions are regularly funded by public and private funds, and his research by the Swiss National Science Foundation.
 The quote in the title of this article “and here I am” comes from the title of the play staged by The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, which in turn was taken from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish: ’Take Care of the Stags, Father’.
 Lyn Gardner, “And Here I Am review: remarkable story of how a member of Palestine’s Islamic Jihad became an actor,” The Guardian, July 5, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jul/05/and-here-i-am-review-arcola.