February 26, 2014

Reality Bites. About Making Art, Stripes, and Slacking

This year I am teaching art history at an art university. I took the occasion to subscribe for an art course myself as a way of integrating into the community. I picked a beginner course on the stripe and the aim was to create an art object dealing with the stripe. Yet I got totally caught up in its cultural history and I failed miserably in being an artist. I just stopped going to class. My friend Cornelia gave me the perfect excuse: I’m too intelligent to make art, she said - that is: I’m too much stuck in my head. Now I finally understand Joseph Beuys’ “I think with my knee anyway” or “where would I have got, if I had been intelligent?” As a surrogate to making an art piece I started talking about the stripe a lot and since then have entertained/bored many people with my long elaborations on the topic. Still, guilt kept nagging me, so in the semester vacation I subscribed for a silkscreen workshop. That’s easy, so I thought, and it is, if nothing else, at least a reference to Andy Warhol. I did succeed in getting some stripes on paper. But in the end I noticed it is still more satisfying to talk about stripes, so i’m gonna write about it here, in the hope that it leads to catharsis.

Made at Supalife Kiosk, Prenzlauerberg

Stripes, as we all know, were already present in Roman times - the outfit of Obelix is burned into our cultural memory. Yet why do we imagine prisoners wearing striped clothing? That comes from the Middle Ages. For the Middle-Age eye stripes were very irritating. The Middle-Age people preferred a clear distance between the fore- and background. Therefore in painting the outsiders of society were depicted in striped clothing, since they represented disorder and the unfamiliar. Insiders were shown in monochrome style. Stripes, however, got a positive connotation with the American Revolution and in modern times. Now stripes were used to illustrate freshness and order. In the 19th/20th century stripes became a real fashion, especially for beach equipment but also for bed linen. The stripes in bed protected your body (symbolically) by hiding certain parts, and made clear there has to be order, even in bed. In these modern times the outsiders were no longer striped and the king no longer wore a crown. “How stupid they were!” Kurt Tucholsky wrote in 1929, referring to an image of a golden carriage. Power had become anonymous and hierarchies went underground.

Kurt Tucholsky in "Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles", mit John Heartfield, 1929

Hard to believe, I was surprised myself, but starting with the stripe I was able to arrive at my favorite topic of all times: free time and laziness. That happens when you make a chain of associations about the stripe, which was the first task we had to do in class. Somehow most of my classmates started out with order and ended up with disorder doing this chain of associations, and so did I. Mine went like this: Streifen - Zebrastreifen - auf den Strich gehen - Strichjungen - Straßenstrich - Autobahnstreife - Streifemädchen - Herumstreifen - durch die Stadt streifen - Streunen - Herumstreunen. In short: from patrolling (streifen) to roaming (streunen): Instead of walking the line, moving slowly with no purpose. This brought me to one of my new favourite words: "slacking". "Slacking", my friend Catherine explained to me, refers to a loose rope or casual loose trousers. Slacking as an activity is done in relationship to other people. It is a social thing: hanging out together, doing nothing “productive”.

For slacking one has to go back to the 1990s.The 1960s were the time of clutter, the 1970s were empty, the 1980s were about free time, and the 1990s belonged to slacking. The first independent movie of the 1990s was Slacker by Richard Linklater. Who would have thought that the revolution of slacking would take place in Austin, Texas? Richard Linklater, so 1990s expert Craig Shuftan told me, “was interested in people who only seemed to be doing nothing by the standards of the society they were living in, but were in fact doing everything but the two things you're supposed to do - work, consume (repeat)”. Reality Bites followed up in 1994, filmed in Houston, Texas, featuring Winona Ryder as Lelaina and her perpetually unemployed musical slacker Troy (Ethan Hawke). They could have a blast about just the fact that Evian is naive spelled backwards.

Maybe I‘ve gotten too far off track but let’s finish with quoting Karl Lagerfeld, who had an excellent answer ready in an interview for Gala magazine: "Darf man sie faulenzend vorstellen? Ich tue nichts anderes als Faulenzen, nur kann ich mein Faulenzen gut ausschlachten." (Can we imagine you being lazy? I'm lazy all the time, I just know how to exploit it.")

Karl Lagerfeld in Gala