“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master – that’s all.”
— Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass
Black Elk stands on a mountain at the centre of the world (it was Harney Peak in the Black Hills – but anywhere is the centre of the world). He sees in a sacred manner the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the centre grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I say that it was holy.
— “Black Elk’s Vision” from
by Peter Lamborn Wilson
The train station in Plasy, like most, primarily a place where one embarks or disembarks, or waits, is our point of departure. From here the tracks travel north through Most, and go south past Plzeň. But since many readers do not know where Plasy is, let us start instead from Prague’s Central Train Station, from the center of Central Europe. (But who today can say where the “center” actually is? This depends upon where one stands and which direction one faces.) Another “imaginary” point which orients land surveyors, geodeticists, pedestrians, and travelers is an astral body not far from the tip of the Big Dipper, known as the North Star.
This is an attempt to preface a theme in the most ordinary way possible: to ask that an imaginary road-sign or a compass pointing North and South away from a train station up to the stars serve as relatively good ways to begin. Linking unrelated phenomena, places, and words is already a rather exhausted postmodern cliché, but these two instruments, one earthly the other of the heavens, are distinguished by the difference that they are linked to the archaic; and it is difference that is of central concern here.
Peoples and their cultures, if settled (or expelled), are differentiated mainly according to their proximity to the heat of the equator, or to the more moderate territories closer to the North and South Poles. Dwellings and architecture are also generally oriented by the direction of the northerly or southerly winds. Placement upon the North-South axis was meant to increase the importance of the great pyramid Khufu in ancient Egypt’s Giza. This prime meridian splits the earth in half like an orange. It was first arrived at by Ptolemy and in the modem age by a Frenchman. It, thus, at first ran through Paris and only later was shifted to Greenwich, proof of the technological and political supremacy of the former British Empire. He who devises maps and influences cartography rules the world. The more or less last terra incognita was erased from the map in 1899 and the powers of our century have parceled out the snowy plains of the Arctic and Antarctica above which a hole in the ozone layer is now poised like a halo, like a blessing to global progress.
Maps, networks of meridians, just as national borders, are phenomena that are not only virtual, but disturbingly authoritative. They are a result of military “common sense”, commercial interests, the natural sciences, and political metaphysics. For example, the reductive polarity between the East and West, with which the last European generation still struggles, has much in common with this violent sort of utilitarian virtuality. Only recently have the sides and sections of the world been understood as infinite with each having the right to its own cartography and topography. On the other hand, magnetic poles, while invisible, actually do exist. (It is interesting to note that recent research by geographers suggests that positive and negative magnetic poles have traveled across the eras from place to place and have even switched position, much like the drifting continents.)
If a contemporary Odysseus were to decide to compare the variations of human culture along a geographic parallel, he most likely would have to admit that the conditions and customs of each do not much change, if we leave out the vicissitudes of politics or the influence of altitude. Bolstered by postmodernism and thought that is global in perspective, let us shift the prime meridian over to Bohemia and set out along the 50% parallel: Prague, Kolín nad Labem, Cracow, Yaroslavl, Lvov, Kiev, Kharkov, Kamyshin, Krasnokamensk, then Manzhouli, Raychikhinsk, Komsomolsk, Khabarovsk, Sakhalin Island, Paramushir, and then over the ocean to Vancouver, Winnipeg, Newfoundland. We then trace our finger along the map to the coast of the Eurasian countries and continue across to the new center of the European Union: Brussels, the former center of Germany, Bonn, and its economic center, Frankfurt, again back to the Bohemian setting of our own humble center of the world.
Ethnic groups and cultures are defined and oriented mostly by their neighbors, and the tendency in Eurasia is to think mainly in terms of the parallel, in the direction of East-West. Abendland and Morganland as Oswald Spengler would say. The West, “go West, young man”, a symbol in most cigarette advertisements, associated with technological production, affluence, decadence, rationalism, liberalism, Civilization, the art world, speed. This complex of associations arose as if the West signified value in and of itself. The East, meanwhile, is shrouded in political instability, mysticism, totalitarianism, fundamentalism, underdevelopment, in the propensity for the revival of mythology. Bluntly said, everyone wants to be part of the West, as if they are not the East for neighbors just beside them along the parallel.
The regions to the far “left and right” of Prague strike us as rather desolate places with exotically named villages and mountains – but what about what lies below along the southern meridian! Follow me to diverse experiences of Celsius and Fahrenheit, flora and fauna, fragrances, to a change in clothing, food, music, and skin color: Prague, Trieste, Naples, Syracuse, Misratah, Ti-n-Toumma, N’Djamena on the border of Chad, Cameroon and, Nigeria, then Kinshasa, and along the coast of South Africa right around to Cape Town and the Land of the Queen Maud and again up/down towards the ocean to the hot sands of Hawaiian beaches, to the arctic waters of the Bering Strait on the iceberg Mendeleyev Ridge and Spitsbergen, Goteborg, Szczecin, and here on the horizon we have already come to our own dear Kralupy nad Vltavou!
The War Between North and South
For ages, North and South (or up and down) have been excluded from Eurocentric concerns and discussion. Nevertheless, it is precisely along this geographic path that regions and continents have been waging a real global and thermodynamic war over environmental protection; dumping; hourly wages; the division of the labor; life-styles and philosophies; over zones connected to new travel routes, products, and wave lengths – areas splintered by borders drawn by new economic opportunities. High technology, clean Scandinavian design, relative stability, tight social nets, melancholia, and spitefulness towards the settlers from the South characterize the colder northern climate. Meanwhile, the South is more turbulent, colorful, lively, sensual, even while it struggles with overpopulation, wars, and poverty.
The East and West represent world political powers – relative, ideological, normative, and basically tragic because of their millennium-long manipulation by Roman emperors, pirates, and the Church fathers’ promotion of European racial and religious superiority, and antagonism towards neighboring enemies, barbarians, and pagans. North and South are directions which, due to the inclination of the earth’s axis, the needle of the compass and the Sun, are much more “realistically”, naturally, and climatically multicultural; the intensity of the sun, the length of the days, the food, melodies of languages and music influence the landscapes, habits, and cultures.
South and North, hot and cold, fire and ice, are gastronomic, astronomic, and anthropological measures which have borne upon the very origin and existence of Homo erectus. The entire human species is said to have emerged from a southern Paradise, from the region around Rudolf Lake or from somewhere around the South African Transvaal where Richard Leaky found bones of our predecessors. From here, during the Golden Age, we moved, god knows why, to the North. Approximately one million years ago we are said to have reached the wooded regions of North Africa; 700,000 years ago we swam across the sea. It is actually an enigma and irony of prehistory that the human race set off for the inhospitable North during the era of the climatic changes of the four Ice Ages, migrating to a zone that one million years earlier was of a pleasant and peaceful subtropical climate. When the first groups of Neanderthals came to Central Europe, an arctic cold prevailed here. Those that remained at home in the South had as much easier life and did not have to put themselves through as much exertion, or submit themselves to migration and then to “civilization”. The dissatisfied among them took off for the lands of Eurasia on sleds led by reindeer or dogs and migrated further to the North beyond the frozen plains of Siberia to the bridge towards the New World,, where they were rid of Europeans for a fairly long time.
We shared a nomadic life with migratory birds or rather with some types of mammals. It is indeed possible that the paths taken by animals were followed by our nomadic predecessors. It is thus clear that journeying in the direction from the equator to the poles and back was more influential upon the formation of our culture and thought than the horizontal orientation of the ethnic and racial dialectic between “I” and the “Other”. The minimalist twilight nostalgia of the Protestant northern plateaus, the severe mystic myths, clash with the bright, colorful mosaics of the southern seas, harmonious cosmology, and the warm climate of the tropical forests. Borealis, Tropical Heart of Darkness, and the Southern Cross. This is why the North-South paradigm better suits the more “civilized” areas of the contemporary world which have taken so well to the prefix multi- (ethnic, culture, personality, and media).
Both poles – the Arctic and Antarctica – are equally opposite extremes, distant and difficult to reach, vanishing points along the North-South path. They have been accessible only since the beginnings of our century, suggesting that these expeditions were far more challenging than travels to the surrounding regions. The polar landscape demands that members of an expedition, or of a tribe, cooperate, that they reach consensus, for they are dependent on themselves for their own survival. The polar regions could be seen (if the genocide of cetaceans and seals is overlooked) as the most pacifistic places on earth. The poles have also remained protected from advertising, taxes, the free market, the art market, banking and, to a certain extent, from the mass media.
The modeling of an imaginary “polar” country has been the goal of the Hermit Foundation for several years as an attempt to demonstrate the untenability of the lingering concepts of a single center and province; of dualism in thought about art and daily life; of the dependence of` culture upon national or political centers. The Hermit Foundation seeks to link meridians at points beyond institutional poles and create a way for a diverse group of people – from a variety of countries, working in many different fields, holding a multitude of viewpoints – to embark together on an expedition without a stated goal or destination.
The polar expeditions likewise were without instrumental ends, unlike the tropical colonizing adventures of the past. The symposium Meridian Crossings contributed to a long-term global project intended to map out the possibilities of breaking down standard ways of thinking, hierarchies, the materialistic and nationalist forces of culture, and the management structure of the existing economic, political, and social powers. The Entarctic Shelf s is part of a mosaic-like project being carried out simultaneously in multiple places.
Hermit is a word that can mislead. The Foundation is not involved with sequestering itself from the world or escaping from reality or with experimenting with current esoterics; it is not a secret society in retreat within the underground which appears in the writings of Foucault and Baudrillard. The Hermit Foundation’s project does however engage in a certain departure from the banality of postindustrial, neurotic, consumer society in its search for a quiet place where communication and discussion can occur. Real dialogue is heard and comprehended in seclusion, far from the noise of advertising and the mass media. The concentration of culture, media, and power within the cities has emptied the countryside, the incompleteness of which is much more conducive for the creation of possible “autonomous cultural zones”, as, for example, monasteries had sometimes been. In a system free of any valuation of mystery and intimacy, hermetics can mean, paradoxically, precisely the openness to a space among people. The hermeneutics of such an autonomous zone is marked by a silence which empowers the sounds from the peripheries and the echoing word of the people.
One such place was founded several years ago in an old, half-abandoned monastery in Plasy, which was built 850 years earlier as a symbol catholic hegemony over the land and paganism, as an expression of the wealth of the Cistercian Order. The estate later became the property of Prince Klement Metternich, who sought to protect the European absolutist’s status quos from the pernicious influence of the French revolution and libertarianism. The ideologies f both inhabitants did not allow much understanding for the freedom of art or for tolerance of any sort. The need for autonomy, personal liberty, and free cultural expression has not at all perished in secularized post-capitalist society, which has devised different ways to control our lives.
The somewhat Spartan symposium in Plasy was different from the majority of art projects in its very multifaceted, hybrid character, which brings it closer to traditional folk festivals, potlatches, and campsites of contemporary nomads than to exclusive exhibitions of artistically selected trends by “important” artists. In a place originally intended as an enclosed, hermetic dwelling for the uniformity of a single Order, the symposium inspires the qualities of liberalism, openness, celebration, hybridization, solidarity, and brings out the chaos naturally occurring within disciplines, aesthetics and “social conditions” as well as the polyphony of the arts. This is a glimpse at what a warming of the climate might be like after the long Cold War season, after the melting away of political polarity, dogmatism, violence, the orthodoxy of a single correct way of thinking, of pure art, of universal and timeless truths, of official stupidity, chauvinism, and racial prejudice.
The dissolution of the “standardized” singular interpretation of art, of linearity, of the instructions for captive thinking and for life according to a handbook, all signifies first and foremost liberation from the masks of “professionalism” and patterned behavior among those light, dark, electricity, iron, a radiator, sun, bread, copper vitriol, water, a pump, onions, video, photography, fishing boots, a basement floor-plan, alpine plants, an Irish boulder, branches, copper tags, time, text, flour, wax, a slide projector, tea, porcelain, stone, canvas, a paintbrush and acrylics, a tent, crates of soda water, weights, beef tongue, a scourge, a plate and cutlery, linoleum, a tennis court net, voice, musical instruments of all types and sizes, feedback, neon, a phonograph, wire, a MIDI computer, cotton, puppets, a magnifying glass, foam, UV light, beeswax, string, dance, gold leaf, 16mm film, a camera obscura, a film projector, a ladder, coal embers, a tape player, aluminum and iron armor, fire, cellophane, a sewing machine, sand, a vacuum pump, a radio, beer, an old military uniform, cardboard, Silicon Graphics software, an inflatable globe, the ticking off the clock tower, a rear-view mirror, jaybird feathers, blood, tobacco and linden wood, a clock, alloy, a timer, a relay, telephone wire and a bicycle bell, horsehair, words, movement and fantasy.
For a month the whole area of the former monastery was available for accommodation, relaxation, and work, for common meals, chats around the kitchen table at breakfast and around the fire in the evening. What people spoke about here – that shared, immaterial, truly inter-medial and chaotic structure of discussion, which is hardly possible to document, express, or evaluate – was equally matched here by all the installations, performances, concerts, and workshops. In of the symposium, of the experiences and impressions which the guests and visitors now carry only in their memory. This is something which cannot be archived or preserved on photographic emulsion, by video, in text, not even on a digital disc. It is something which is actually not possible to put into words. It is something which could be a modest promise of changes for the better, because six years ago a project like this here was a mere utopia. This belated catalogue is only the imperfect, fragmentary sediment of real events of the past. It is, however, published as possible inspiration for each reader on the way towards the uncertainty of tomorrow.
The future is never only a result of the past. A reminder is not simply something that calls forth the past. It is a reconstruction of the absent in the present and thus opens up to the future, just as an open book is an intersection of the recorded past and the future of the present. And just as change is not possible without history, memory is not thinkable without thought of the future.
1995, translated by Jo Williams in 1996
Comments: In this essay, written back in 1995 I hoped to articulate something, which is not really clear to me after 20 years. I promise, will read it, comment it, and decipher my old metaphoric rhizomatic thoughts, MV, Prague 2017
Dedicated to Roald Amundsen