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A Shameless Picture


One of the features of the Mindkiss Project run by Dagmar Woyde-Koehler – who has collaborated on this edition of we_magazine – is a series of “Encounters” organized at irregular intervals. An Encounter is a meeting between a person invited by Dagmar and a painting by her late husband, the artist OUBEY. The guests take the wraps off the painting selected for them and which they have never seen before and begin a dialog with it. The whole Encounter is filmed on video and posted on the Internet.

The Encounter between Prof. Peter Kruse and the painting by OUBEY took place in January 2010. Kruse was immediately “electrified” by the idea of being visited by a painting. He was fascinated to learn that after his first successful commercial exhibition, the artist OUBEY opted to withdraw from the glare of public life with its lures of celebrity, reputation and riches to dedicate himself entirely to following wherever his own inner logic and dynamic might lead. Kruse found it remarkable that there was still something to discover in an age when even the most singularly ungifted, those without a single ounce of talent, had no compunctions whatsoever about parading and preening themselves – and that this something, moreover, was born and nurtured in the sanctuary of a self-imposed seclusion.

Peter Kruse was equally enthusiastic about the unusual form taken by the Encounter – which chose to publicize original works through the channels of the Internet and not the usual shows and exhibitions of the art market. As Kruse himself is a leading expert on the Internet who has analyzed its specific ways of functioning and its special dynamics, his Encounter was particularly revealing and impressive as he brought to light the various layers of meaning inherent in OUBEYs work.

The following text contains extracts from this Encounter in which aspects of the Internet and its impact on society (= the WE) and art are very much at the fore.

A Symbol of our Times

The Internet has one very special peculiarity: it removes things from their context. And something similar has happened to this picture. Torn from its history, it’s exposed and very vulnerable. Nothing goes before it to prepare the way. There’s no information to classify it, it’s freed of its context and reaches me as an autonomous free-moving unit of information. The only thing I know is that this painting is very important for somebody – important enough for this moment of encounter to be arranged for me. This situation is very similar to what we are now experiencing with the Internet. With its hyperlink structure, information is also radically removed from the context in which it was generated, and such context is really necessary for the receiver to decipher the information to discover the sender’s intention. The explanatory background is lacking. The only thing we know for sure on the Net is that whatever is represented there was important enough to the person who sent or posted it for him or her to make it accessible to us. In other words, at the point of contact the question of meaning is reduced to a question of significance.

(He now takes the cover off the painting).

Immediately after his first sight of the painting Kruse says that for him the picture is closely related to the Internet – not just in terms of the unfiltered directness of the encounter but also in terms of its subject matter and expressivity. To Kruse the painting seems to be a symbol of the network pared down to the bare essentials. Spontaneously he removes the painting from the original spot chosen for the encounter by an olive tree in his office, and relocates it in front of a computer wall of hundreds of laptops for EDP-assisted large group events – his own ideal spot to let the painting work on him and unfold its effects.

Why am I putting the painting in front of this computer wall?

It’s exciting to put the painting in a new setting because the overwhelming presence of technology only makes its extreme vulnerability even more apparent. Normally paintings are embedded in an obviously dignified context – in museums, galleries and exhibitions – which lends them value and importance. This painting eludes any such context. The mere fact that it is quite happy to run the risk of appearing irrelevant makes it interesting. Its context is not the only thing from which it has detached itself, and this is precisely what gives it such a close relationship to network reality. Like everything presented on the Internet, it has become part of an uncontrollable dynamic.

Vulnerability, however, is always ambivalent: on the one hand the painting’s liberation from the restrictive context of museums and galleries strengthens the curiosity of viewers and their wish for their own point of view; on the other, the painting must rely purely on itself to produce its effects. There’s nobody there to explain it. It’s long been separated from the loving attention of the artist. And now the moment of encounter is critical in deciding on its value and the degree of attention it will merit. Such radical separation actually only happens to works of art in absolutely exceptional cases. When does an artist die so young and when does a painting lie in obscurity for such a long time to justify its present frameless condition? This painting shoulders its own responsibility. The artist who might explain it is no longer, nor has it been subject to the classificatory gaze of the experts. There is only the picture itself and the viewer, and the two must work together to give the picture meaning.

You might argue that its detachment from its original context could expose it to any and every kind of interpretation. But that can only be the case when the direct encounter with the painting is refused. In the Internet there is a radical shift of power and thus of responsibility: a tip in the balance from supply to demand. Effectiveness is no longer a function of how much energy you invest to get your message across but is increasingly becoming a question of resonance: the trend from push to pull. What kind of importance do I give to what I see, what I hear, what I read? How do I categorize it? What meaning does it have for me? I like or I dislike.I ignore or I affirm.

This is why I put the painting in front of the computer wall – so that it doesn’t swagger up on me and force my attention with spotlights, cord barriers and please-do-not-touch signs. It’s just there before me and I take my own sweet time: I like, retweet. This painting is alive with my own life history.

I find it astonishingly easy to open myself up to this painting. It seems as familiar to me as a forgotten notebook I suddenly come across when tidying up. The number of associations it evokes is clearly much bigger than the number of those actually represented. Each line negates the edges of the canvas to continue far beyond what is visible to the eye. The painting seems to me like an intelligent discourse on intricacy and complexity. The dynamics of processes of order formation as described in modern network and self-organization theory could hardly be represented in a finer and more apposite way than they are in this painting. When I first looked at it, that famous line of Nietzsche from Thus Spoke Zarathustra went through my head: One must still have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star. This painting carries sufficient chaos in itself. From a blurry distance it seems like the cross section of a human brain, unquiet and agitated with the audible hiss of electrical discharges. Move closer in, however, and it seems like an entry into the earth’s atmosphere from outer space, a panoramic view of the infinite diversity of networks in nature and civilization, rivers and lakes, streets and cities, connecting lines and nodes. The painting is most certainly one of those original works which cannot be satisfactorily reproduced. The mind is not part of the world; the world is rather created in the mind. I wonder if the painting is the product of rational analysis, intuitive insight or an exuberant joy in the act of creation? Is it possible that OUBEY had read the same books and learnt from the selfsame teachers who drove me to rage and fired me with such enthusiasm? Did he immerse himself passionately in the thought experiments of constructivism? Did he perhaps take part in those heated discussions on autopoiesis and self-referentiality? Was it important for him to search for patterns of connectivity? In OUBEYs painting a wave-like motion runs through the filigree of branches and the overwhelming plenitude of the network structures. What a stroke of genius to use this to symbolize the interaction of micro and macro levels in the self-organization of complex systems! From this vantage point the painting’s parts and layers coalesce almost too coherently to form a meaningful whole. Upon whose authority can such interpretive certainty be based?

This painting is shameless ...

... because it forces me to assume total responsibility for my own point of view, and since in spite of – or rather because of – its vulnerability it draws me into it with such insouciance. As in a good conversation I lose all feeling for time and follow the drift of my own associations. It’s not just the structure of the painting that reminds me of network dynamics; it also evokes similar feelings in me. I delve into the depths of the picture and follow a chain of loose connections as if I were surfing on the Internet – naive, curious and always pushing myself to the limit. With the painting I embark on a very personal voyage of discovery switching between surface and depths – which is also the key fascination of the Internet. The more I delve into details, the quicker the overarching contexts reveal themselves, and the more connectivity I discover the longer I can delve into detail. The message is potent and is given the viewer in an off-hand manner that borders on arrogance. The density of networks in the world increases the risk of losing both meaning and context. Networks are worthless without knowledge of patterns that reduce complexity. Radically, responsibility always remains with the viewer.

Peter Kruse is managing partner of nextpractice GmbH and honorary professor for general and organizational psychology at the University of Bremen. The main focus of his work is on the development of new methods for the promotion and use of collective intelligence and the professionalization of entrepreneurship as a means of building a stabilizing form of culture.

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02_peter kalvelage
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