“Some say the word Odradek is of Slavonic origin, and try to account for it on that basis. Others again believe it to be of German origin, only influenced by Slavonic. The uncertainty of both interpretations allows one to assume with justice that neither is accurate, especially as neither of them provides an intelligent meaning of the word.No one, of course, would occupy himself with such studies if there were not a creature called Odradek. At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colors. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle. By means of this latter rod on one side and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs. One is tempted to believe that the creature once had some sort of intelligible shape and is now only a broken-down remnant. Yet this does not seem to be the case; at least there is no sign of it; nowhere is there an unfinished or unbroken surface to suggest anything of the kind; the whole thing looks senseless enough, but in its own way perfectly finished. In any case, closer scrutiny is impossible, since Odradek is extraordinarily nimble and can never be laid hold of.He lurks by turns in the garret, the stairway, the lobbies, the entrance hall. Often for months on end he is not to be seen; then he has presumably moved into other houses; but he always comes faithfully back to our house again. Many a time when you go out of the door and he happens just to be leaning directly beneath you against the banisters you feel inclined to speak to him. Of course, you put no difficult questions to him, you treat him–he is so diminutive that you cannot help it – rather like a child. “Well, what’s your name?” you ask him. “Odradek,” he says. “And where do you live?” “No fixed abode,” he says and laughs; but it is only the kind of laughter that has no lungs behind it. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves. And that is usually the end of the conversation. Even these anwers are not always forthcoming; often he stays mute for a long time, as wooden as his appearance.I ask myself, to no purpose, what is likely to happen to him? Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek. Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.”
The Cares of a Family Man (Die Sorge des Hausvaters), Franz Kafka (1884-1924), translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
BETWEEN THE BODY AND THE OBJECT
I like to start with some basic assumptions.
Theatre is a medium that represents society; a mirror. Actors represent death. The theatre building and all its technical fittings serve to support the lie; to enable the creation of magic. I like to see the theatre as a dream machine.
On the other hand, an object chiefly represents itself. It simply is. The artist makes every attempt to allow the object to be an autonomous artwork. Perhaps even timeless. It is certainly a product of the period in which it is made, but it can easily be abstract; pure form. The museum, the white space, displays the object as nakedly as possible. As honestly as possible.
In my work, Objects (dead matter) and Subject (people, living matter) are constantly intertwined. Objects are often infused with “performative characteristics”, whilst people have “objective” characteristics. Objects carry out dramatic actions, and actors are put on display in the museum.
When R2D2 ‘dies’ in Star Wars, the audience is emotionally affected. We are upset when a machine breaks. “A machine dies” is an incredible sentence. Homo sapiens has a genuine, empathic relationship with his objects and machines. Our most intimate relationship was arguably the one we had with our teddy bear. We think something is missing in life if we accidentally leave our smartphone at home in the morning. The globalised world would be impossible without computers. Our daily life: sex, communication, information, production, all takes place via a screen. Everyone here in the room will spend around eight hours a day sitting in front of a screen.
When the differences between people and things, between ‘subject’ and ‘object’, disappear, then the boundaries between the museum and the theatre also vanish. When things are no longer simply dead and people are no longer simply alive, the white cube and the black box become interchangeable. The result may well be a Beckettian grey. My work is a series of designs, which are consequences of this way of thinking.
Over the course of history, the relationship between man and machines has repeatedly been compared to his relationship with God.
Indeed, the essence of godliness is to have control over everything, to achieve omnipotence. The human, as an imperfect, unpredictable, uncontrollable and mortal being, longs for the domain of the perfect, the controllable and the immortal. The human longs for the mechanical; he wants to make the robot or be the robot in order to escape from his own imperfection and mortality.
My ‘figures’ find themselves in the eye of the storm of this desire. They make the transition from human being to machine, and vice-versa. They are almost cyborgs. But the tragic thing about them is precisely that ‘almost’. They are in-between beings, in the midst of transition and suffering from the fact that they are neither one thing nor the other. However, the result is not a big dramatic shift; all the drama is internalised. As a result, they often stand still, frozen to the spot like a broken machine, or one that endlessly repeats the same nodding movement.
The ‘muselmanner’ or Agamben’s ‘figure’ is perhaps the central figure in my work. The half-dead or half-living, half performer or half thing: there is no longer much evolution in this state of being. My figures are mostly the result of a system. Humans have created this system themselves (I am the one who creates it in the theatre) and have then lost control.
And yet we cannot stop ourselves from carrying on. The half-living ask themselves how things could have come to this, and are left in despair. The half-dead are bogged down by indifference. When the human being or the performer takes up a smaller space, space is freed up for something else.
Contemporary ecological and technological developments lead to a drastic change in human beings’ place on earth. I think that humans themselves specifically long to make themselves superfluous. The age-old idea of the homunculus, artificial life, has never been so close.
In my work, I start from the idea that humans will disappear from the world. Heiner Müller said in an interview with Alexander Kluge: “But the thing that occupies that space can change continuously. This does not have to be a human being; it can also be a computer or a plant-based substance, whatever.” According to some philosophers, we now find ourselves in a kind of post-history of satiety, stagnation, resignation and the slow crawl towards extinction. Likewise, Benjamin’s Angel of history can only look on as the rubble piles up, while the end sucks him in. All humans seem to have the same apocalyptic urge.”
So what would the world look like if humans were gone? This is a challenging notion for Westerners. A single image or starting point is already illustrative of the emptiness that will remain after our destruction: a robot that is sent out into the no-go zone after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima to pray for the victims.
Kris Verdonck studied visual arts, architecture and theatre. His creations are positioned in the transit zone between visual arts and theatre, between installation and performance, between dance and architecture. In his work he examines the state of being between object and subject and between absence and presence.