© 2019 Galerie Stadt Sindelfingen; Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart; authors [and translator] ISBN 978-3-89790-559-7

(Extracts from one essay)

Signs Are the Material Now

Paul Klee wrote a phrase that is commonly cited: “we construct and keep on constructing, yet intuition is still a good thing.” The grand master makes this pronouncement in his text Das bildnerische Denken (1956), in the fashionable lower case so provocative to us German speakers, which delighted me, too, at school in the 1950s.

The act of constructing, which Klee sets off against intuiting, was not exactly remote to him either. We need only to open the catalog accompanying the admired art of this artist, with his large, profound eyes, and constructed elements are instantly apparent in one or the other of his paintings and drawings. At least we may suppose (should we be worried) that after all, with Klee, whatever looks constructed is not, for heaven’s sake, permitted to be constructed.

At the Bauhaus—where, as we know, he liked to be—Paul Klee was surrounded by a number of other people who took rational construction very seriously. This, however, he now opposed with rather emotional intuition—we may well assume his intuition. And I would not wish to hesitate one second in regarding Klee’s construction as initiated and guided by Klee’s intuition. For how could it be any other way? Separate the two? Never!

We digitize and keep on digitizing, yet the algorithm is still a good thing. We four-point-oh and keep on four-point-oh-ing, yet a clear concept is still a good thing. Two phrases created after Klee’s intuition lemma are permissible. Paraphrasing of this sort is easily a parody, and I would be sorry for that. A solid reason is required for so cheaply lending some weight to one’s own statement. I want to give it a try.

Material! Art, as we know it, is often—very often—about material. A material’s specific properties are put to work to make an object that is presented to the audience with artistic intent. We are now in an era—no: we are now actively and apprehendingly participating in an era—that is often enough and, at least since the 1970s, labelled as an era in which material is vanishing. Software, the stuff of which programs are made, is still occasionally described in speech and writing as immaterial. There is truth in that, too; it cannot be denied. After all, a remarkably strange feeling takes hold of some contemporaries when, smartphone in hand or with laptop in front of us, we are confronted with an apparition on the screen that does not really seem intelligible to us.

But we can shed some light on that feeling! Computers, and precisely the really small ones, are machines in the first instance. We need only to look at photos of early computers and in a second we will be saying, oh yes, that is a machine. The fact that in the 1970s, a supercomputer (price: eight million dollars) boasted roughly the performance of a present-day smartphone, and the latter nestles easily in a little girl’s hand, alters nothing of this machine status. This absurdly powerful performance finds only trivial use today.

The truly exciting thing, though, is that computers began making the transition from enormous machines into tools the moment they began to shrink. They were obliged to shrink, because they were becoming consumer goods. […] […]

Computers are the devices of the mechanization of intellectual labor—in exactly the way the conventional machine mechanizes physical labor. Intellectual labor, though, calls for material that exhibits a semiotic character. Because of that, computers are on hand for processing signs that are fleeting, impalpable. Therefore computers can be described as semiotic machines. Before being constructed, they are described. What they do (programs) also needs to be described. In the world of computing and the computable, we regard everything as a sign. “All that is solid melts into the air,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in 1848. That is the semiotic dimension.