Roll On Roll On
Phenomena

Prologue: The Door Ajar

I have been thinking a lot about openness and not knowing and what it is to work with or in an art institution, particularly one that is public. So here are some thoughts:

‘To live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue, par excellence’, said Walter Benjamin referring to the glasshouse in Breton’s Nadja[1]. Benjamin was in Moscow in the late 1920s, staying in a hotel with its doors always ajar. At first, it didn't to bother him that his fellow hotel guests seemingly forgot their privacy, yet over time it began to concern him a great deal as he walked past door upon open door in the hotel hallways. Later he found out that a Buddhist sect was staying at the hotel for a congress that had vowed never to occupy a closed room.

Although I don't think that Benjamin entirely meant the connection that I am suggesting, the door ajar is incredibly helpful in understanding not knowing as intimacy. As the door ajar can induce encounter both based on trust and risk, it acknowledges that there cannot be trust without risk, and vice versa. Life is different for those that choose to live openly, with an awareness that anyone can enter into the room. For the monks, it certainly was, as it was a dangerous time to practice Buddhism on the brink of Soviet suppression, yet they continued to keep their doors open. Benjamin calls it moral exhibitionism, but for the monks, it was based on knowing that trust and risk both rise and fall together. This is radical. Not knowing as most intimate.[2] This form of openness is very different from institutional transparency; this is laying bare, it is being vulnerable.

But in our case, whose doors am I talking about? This is where it gets complicated, particularly when trust has dropped in value and risk is extremely costly. To complicate things further, the question of who has the right to enter becomes apparent. As we know very well that access and openness are not equal to every entity and organism, as much as we would like to discuss targeted audiences and social inclusion.

At times when searching to fill the gap in knowledge, you will find that you do not have the right or the privilege to fill it. For example when I was trying to understand ‘Welcome to Country’ a ‘ritual’ performed at all public events in Australia whereby the traditional owners of the land give a welcome. It is a ceremony intended to open up a dialogue between Australian Indigenous people and settlers, a strategy of reconciliation and decolonisation. I met Jenny to learn more about the ceremony, what it meant to her as a Noongar woman, and to find out how it came about. We spoke about the expectations White Australians have on Indigenous Australians to perform their culture and explicitly share their knowledge without question. ‘Eloise’, Barbara said, ‘you have the right to ask questions, but you don't have the right to have answers’. In this situation I don't know can be linked to how strangers meet and assess the risk and potentiality of trust, here it is heavy with what makes us up as women and as representations of historical and institutional pain. But as two persons we did not owe each other anything, and she answered my question, making me realize that through my wish to be sensitive and knowledgeable I was, in fact, enacting the very same problems that welcome to country was creating. Not knowing does not mean that an answer will be immediately received, or ever given. How can we understand this when thinking about public intimacy, care, and responsibility? The door ajar does not mean that you have the right to enter, but rather stand at the threshold and knock. I like to think that this is what the poet Lisa Robertson means when she writes about thinking of your companions first, she writes:

Manners, connecting also to gestures—the ways our bodies meet the world. Many things are better accompanied by manners. Even the largest political events. A reminder—good manners mean that generally you will think of your companion first, before acting. Even if your companion is a tree, and trees, along with dogs, books and the weather, do tend to group among the better companions. [3]

We can think about this when encountering plants, chemicals, animals, art, artists, workers, and audiences with the full understanding that they in return may be indifferent to our care. Art creates an opening for all us others, organic and inorganic, to enter into the call and response of becoming with the world. Like the element, art can permeate our very being, something that we are unable to get away. It also enables us to participate in the call and response of not knowing. All of the above brings me to the artist Charlotte Posenenske whose work every couple of years returns to remind me of the art institution and its relationship with the audience.

Her DW series (1967) requires shared labor and shared decision making with the exhibition team, and at times with the audience to build the work. They are responsible; they do not know together, they care for the work in the open, and to take a position. DW series (1967) is a work that is infinite and continuously reconfiguring, like a community of not knowing that breaks apart and reconfigures itself again and again in intricate and complex ways. Whereas her Revolving Vane (1967-68) and Series E Kleiner Drehflugel (1967-68) are works that encourage passing through; the doors are always a jar, until someone deliberately closes them. You can say that is the same for the institution, where doors should always be ajar, but are so often not. For those that think about the institutional and political behavior of the art institution and the capacity of art to make room for others, this work is thrilling. It is brilliant.

Posenenske was driven by the not knowing to what extent art could change society. She took this to a point where she started giving away the work and eventually disappeared from the art completely, becoming a social worker. I take the position that art’s role in the complicated and intricate web of the world is to be an engaged space of not knowing. Disciplines such as Zen Buddhism, anthropology, biology, and physics look to art to deal with the issues that they are unsure how to articulate. They speak about art as being a space to transmit the abstract, the social, the political or the philosophical to a wider audience, toward a public. Deborah Bird Rose looks to Australian eco-feminist Val Plumwood for a way in; Rose writes: [Val] called for a philosophy to:

converge with much of poetry and literature” because poetry and literature have better methods for “making room” for understanding the vivid presence of mindful life on earth. The quest for poetic forms of writing articulates her understanding that inside a world of dynamic inter-action, knowledge arises through participation; to “make room” for others, one needs to do more than represent. Somehow, one needs to vivify, to leap across imaginative realms, to connect, to empathise, to be addressed and to be brought into gratitude.[4]

Art is powerful. Moreover, institutions should not fill the gap of not knowing; they are the gap. Art eases us into coming to terms with not knowing through the becoming with the world in an intimate and vulnerable way. More than this, however, it shows us that we are continually breaking apart, iteratively and continuously like a Charlotte Posenenske work. Becoming with the world through every breath of air and light of the eye. What is at stake is to recognize that the world does not begin and end with humans getting accustomed to an intimate community as theoretical exercise, but is within the very depth and surface of being of the world. Art’s role, and so, in turn, the exhibition’s and the institution’s, in the complicated and intricate web of the world is to be the space of not knowing, to rehearse different ways of living, but also to live and enact them. It is here in a myriad of possible modes of life, of caring, of being angry, of making space for the whole sweep of others and entities. We need to stay inside the gap of not knowing as a form of resistance, to shift power through intimacy, and try to stay inside it as long as it is possible.

[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘W. Benjamin on Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,’ Generation Online. Accessed September 16, 2016, www.generation-online.org/c/fcsurrealism.htm.
[2] Marc Lesser, Not Knowing is the Most intimate (March 1, 2010). Accessed on November 14, 2016, www.marclesser.net/not-knowing-is-most-intimate/.
[3] Lisa Robertson, Revolution: A Reader (Portland: Publication Studio, 2012), 520.
[4] Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Val Plumwood’s Philosophical Animism: attentive interactions in the sentient world’ in Environmental Humanities, vol. 3, 2013: 93–109.