“Cliche is whatever is in use & whatever is in use is environmental, hence largely invisible.“

from Edmund Carpenter „They Became What They Beheld“

Edmund Carpenter’s sentence sounds like a magic trick. How can you make something invisible in plain sight?

The cliché is the derivative of an original and the original was at some point reality, the world out there, in all its complexity. The original contains the infinity of possible choices that the cliché lacks. Just as a photographic image one looks at is always a retrospective, a glimpse of the image taken at the moment of the moment, a snapshot from the past.

When I look at a picture of me from the past – the possibilities I had then! I could have gone in any direction. And then I went in one direction. And now I’m 49 years old, living as an artist in Berlin, with a job in Switzerland. I could have gone in all kinds of directions, and that includes staying in a small town in Bavaria, like my siblings. Then I would probably still be thinking small-town thoughts today, much like I used to think them.

I would like to ask you to imagine, to visualize this person I am now. An artist who grew up in a small town, went to the big city as a young man and achieved some but not too much success. Imagine this person – that’s me.

That was me around 1995 – you can already see that I will become an artist one day – can’t you?
(But didn’t we all look like that back then?)

That’s a cliché. The image you have in your head now, of an artist, 49 years old, who has gone from small town to big city and from there to places all over the world.

That’s all you need to know about me.

Just maybe this much: You have no idea who I am. You wouldn’t even recognize me on the street and even if you did, you still wouldn’t have a clue who I am.

You have no idea who I am – I don’t know myself. Who am I, who will I be tomorrow, where am I, where will I be tomorrow, in two years?

If you don’t ask yourself these questions, or can answer them easily, then you probably still are in a small town or have returned there, if only in spirit.

I am: just as complex as you are.

You are as complex as you are at this moment, as complex as I am, as complex as any human being. No matter where you live, whether as an artist in Berlin or as a florist in a small town in Bavaria or as a hunter-gatherer in Papua New Guinea.

Take another look at the cliché you have of me in your head.

Can any cliché ever capture all the complexity?

You think you know who I am because you have a cliché in your head, an image and behind that image I can hide. I can become like invisible. What you, what others see, is the cliché, not me.

This also explains an age-old question I carry with me from the small town: why is it so important what the neighbours think?

In the small town, I watched people constantly working on the cliché (the image the neighbours have of you). They literally worked on it, for example by “sweeping the street in front of the house because of the neighbours”. (“Small World”, 1997, begins precisely with this, “Planet Galata”, 2010, with a similar thought).

From “Small World”, 1997

They don’t do that in Berlin. Here there is a road service that everyone pays for together, through their taxes. Now, even in Berlin, we sometimes sweep the street in front of our house. But that’s only because my wife happens to have a shop. In any case, we don’t do it because of the neighbours.

In a small town, the cliché is obviously more important, maybe because you have to hide more. In the big city it’s easier to show yourself as you are because you’re anonymous. You appear briefly and disappear again into the masses. You can’t do that in a small town.

In a small town, you can only be who you are if you hide behind high hedges. Behind the high hedges of the cliché. The high hedges are the image that others have of you. Working on your own image is working on the hedge behind which you can make yourself invisible. This is true not only, of course, but especially in small towns. Just about everyone uses this magic trick in one way or another – consciously or unconsciously.

But with the magic trick comes a curse. Two curses, to be precise.

The first curse:
You are only invisible as long as you stay behind your hedge. Today I’m quite happy with my cliché of the artist in Berlin. I can hide behind it perfectly well. In the past, however, I tried a different cliché: young start-up. That was rather uncomfortable, because I was constantly afraid that people would find out about me, that they would look behind the scenery, that the hedge would practically fall down.

But the real curse is another:
It is a cruel exercise to have the feeling of having to hide all the time. This feeling makes one unfree to a great extent. Unfree, if at some point you no longer dare to come out from behind the hedge. You are then tied to your hedge. And probably for life. The only life you have.

Is that what you want? To be tied down by the image others have of you?

Audience of Collaborative Thinkers

People often ask me what I want to say with what I say. They ask me things like „What is the message of your film?“ and then they ask me „And who is the audience for your films, for your texts, for what you put out into the world?“. I used to say: „I don’t think of an audience.“ I said that for many years, at many instances, on many stages and then I learned that this is not quite true.

I do have an audience and I know my audience very well. The audience is one person, and that person is me. „So if it is only for you, why do you need to put it out into the world?“ might be the next good question and I have two answers.

The first reason is that when I put it out into the world, I put it out of my head and in front of me. Then I can look at it and I can see it in context with all the other things that are out there already. Things that other people have put out there and things that I have put out there earlier.

The second reason is that when I put something out, sometimes other people come and look at it. Naturally other people look at the thing from a different viewpoint than me. Sometimes people look at the thing in a way that I would not have been able to see myself. When they are so kind and patient to point that out to me, I then can see something that I never saw and most likely would have never seen on my own. This can be enlightening or simply helpful to better understand what I thought and what I think of the thing that I can now see with their eyes.

Many people do it like me. They do it on Facebook or Instagram on YouTube. People put things out into the world and have other people look at it and learn from what these people see.

But just few people put things out into the world to learn from the thoughts of other minds.

Most people are still in the habit of making statements. It seems they want to convince other people to think the same as they do, to look at the thing from the same angle.

Most of the time it is not obvious what the motivation of someone that put something out was when that someone put it out. And from my own experience I can tell that for the longest time I did not know myself what my motivation was.

Mostly people still put out things into the world with the intention to deliver a message without even being aware that it is usually not them who came up with the message in the first place. Usually, it is a message someone else put into their head. So, without knowing these people broadcast the messages of somebody else.

This happens a lot. But as new generations grow up with these web-based tools that make it easy for anyone to put out things, more and more minds start putting out things into the world before they have gotten a message stuck into their head by someone else. These people more and more use the tools to look at things and think collaboratively. They use these new tools not as tools to broadcast opinions but as research tools, tool that help them learn about the world, tool that help them to collaboratively build and maintain vast collections of meaningful things. They use these new tools to collaboratively look and evaluate the things they collected. And while they are doing that, they learn to better use the tools and further develop the tools simultaneously.

This enables them to see patterns that humans have never seen before that no one has realized before and they do that by using not only one brain but many brains, the brains of all the people participating in looking at the same things and start to communicate what they see without starting with a message.

These people don’t need to dumb down reality into messages, they don’t need to tell simple stories, they are able to embrace and enjoy the beauty of complexity.

The phone beeps

It’s because of the mobile phone that he’s so stressed, says the friend in a small group. Because it terrorizes him, he says. It beeps all the time and wants his attention because some company is making a lot of money with it – with his attention. And then he tells us what a clever system he has devised to set his mobile phone so that certain messages are only allowed to arrive at certain times and not at others. And his watch, which he has tied to his wrist and which is also connected to the mobile phone, he has also set so that only very specific messages are displayed and the vast majority are not.

I wonder how much energy he has invested in figuring out how to do all this, with turning off certain messages and not others. And how much energy it takes to maintain this sophisticated system.

How would I handle that problem, he asks me.

I don’t do anything. When the phone beeps because a message has arrived, I leave it when I don’t feel like it and when I do feel like it, I look to see what the message was. Most of the time I don’t feel like it.

“I can’t do that,” he says, “I always have to look at it.” He doesn’t say that, he doesn’t say anything but his look reveals that he thinks I’m a fool.

But the silly ape I am I say what I think anyway, because I think it might be a clever tip that could improve my friend’s life. But instead of accomplishing that, I only earn more stupid looks that chill my zest for life by a quarter of a degree even days later when I think about it.

That’s why I’ve written it down made a story out of it. From now on, I can enjoy the memories of the stupid looks because they have born a story, and I like stories.

And if anyone ever wants to know how I do my little trick of letting phones beep, just ask.

The discussion about Facebook

There is something fascinating happening at the moment. It is the debate about Facebook. However, it is about something quite different than the question of whether Facebook is good or bad or even whether the new communication media are good or bad in themselves.

We can currently observe an important step in the development of the new communication media. It’s just not that obvious, because this process is being negotiated by people who speak as if it were a question of good or bad. Sometimes it sounds as if the new communication media have reached a point where they may not be able to carry on. As if the downfall of Facebook or something is imminent. The way it is reported, one could get the impression that the system is on the verge of collapse. This is not the case. In the hearings that take place in the US Senate, for example, the example of the tobacco industry is referred to again and again, where a branch of industry knowingly accepted the suffering of millions of people in order to make a profit. Even if the comparison is obvious, it is not particularly helpful, because unlike the consumption of cigarettes, the negative effects of the consumption of new communication media are offset by much more and much stronger positive effects. What is true for the new communication media as a whole is probably even true for Facebook itself.

FB is not as bad as most can surely understand if they are willing to follow the following reasoning:

The negative effects of FB are offset by many positive ones. I think anyone who uses FB can see that. Who uses FB despite everything that most have to criticise about FB. So what is to be criticised is counterbalanced by something else. And for most people (all those who continue to use FB) this thing is bigger than everything that is admittedly negative about FB. And this thing that stands opposite the negative is the positive that FB has.

Of course, it could go badly for FB and FB will be broken up in the course of the discussion. But that would certainly be the most dramatic thing that could happen. The long-term trend that the new communication media are becoming more and more important will not change at all.

What we can observe is simply how, with a large share of the public, mistakes in the system of the new communication media are being illuminated and the prerequisites for correcting these mistakes are being created. No more, but also no less.

TV is Easy (e)

A few years ago, I pitched a TV show format together with a friend of mine at a festival in Barcelona. That means we were allowed to present our idea to television producers from all over Europe. The event was set up like a competition with a stage, audience and everything. Our idea was one of four. I think we came last. Afterwards, a few people from the audience came up to us and said that the project had been the best …(*)

I have to say, I didn’t understand for a long time why our idea wasn’t accepted, I think it really had the potential to move the world forward through television (and the internet).

A TV producer I hung out with a few months later at another festival explained it to me:
No matter what show is produced on TV, it always has an element, like a spice that must not be missing from any dish, a spice that every TV show tastes like. Anything without this element doesn’t stand a chance. Audience research has found beyond doubt that no show can succeed that doesn’t have this element. As beautiful as your project is, it lacks this element.

What is that element? I think it’s important that every time you watch a show on TV, or hear a conversation about a TV show, or read about a TV show, you should recite the following to yourself:

The viewer in front of the TV should always feel superior to those who are being paraded in the show.

I think everyone should know that, because it explains a lot. Not only in terms of television.

(*) …and way ahead of its time. I’ve been hearing that at regular intervals for twenty years. There’s probably some truth to it, but if that’s the case, then I can say from my experience that those who are too far ahead of their time don’t change anything 😉