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"Some Place Enormously Moveable": The Collaboration of Arakawa and Madeline H. Gins
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"Some Place Enormously Moveable":
The Collaboration of Arakawa and Madeline H. Gins

We wanted some place enormously moveable, started from that. I cannot make a map for you but . . .

ARAKAWA , in conversation

There seem endlessly those situations of particular experience wherein one knows and doesn't know, all at the same instant—which is to say, the information is inherent, actual, in the given system, but (itself a word of this qualification) we cannot step out of its context to see "what it is" we thus "know." As it happened then, Arakawa had been asked by the city of Hannover to design some ennobling "monument," an artifact which would dignify that city, enhance its self-respect, etc. His first question, of course, concerned the seriousness of the city's commitment to their choice of artist and whether or not they would permit him to exercise a determining choice of artifact. Therefore, at an early meeting with the city officials, he took a large sheet of drawing paper, signed it, and said, that's it—pay me. And as one of the officials began, in fact, to make out the check in payment, Arakawa stopped him, asking for two months' time to complete the design, etc., etc.

So far, so good—one wants to say. That is, "who they are" and "who he is" would seem to have come to some sort of resolution and/or reassurance. But a person, no less (or more) a city, is not so simply to be known or, more accurately, to be presumed as a "this" or "that." So in two months the same people regathered, to consider the now completed design. First there was the question

Artforum , Summer 1980.


of materials, which in this case was a sizeable amount of Carrara marble—in short, the most precious marble we, as a history of peoples, have actualized. Somewhat abashed but amenable, the city officials agreed to its purchase; it would be used to make a block of impressive steps within the city's park, an approach to the crucial "point" of information. But what then would "it" say? Very simply, on the face of the top step, incised with appropriate care, this: the words, in German, Welcome to Berlin . . . . But this is not Berlin, said the officials. This is Hannover . In fact, Berlin was their rival and in all respects a most odious object of comparison. All of which one might presume Arakawa to have known. Or not to have known—since he is Japanese, an artist living primarily in New York, whose factually indispensable collaborator comes from the Bronx, is a poet, etc., etc., etc. So that was the end of that.

If it were only a question of some misappropriation of names, we could no doubt move to resolve any number of human conflicts by the mere shifting of names themselves, e.g., calling New York Moscow , and vice versa. And men women , women men . That would certainly be a step in the "right" direction (or left, up, down, backwards, forwards). Consider the heart-breaking wistfulness of Hart Crane's "A Name for All":

Moonmoth and grasshopper that flee our page
And still wing on, untarnished of the name
We pinion to your bodies to assuage
Our envy of your freedom—we must maim

Because we are usurpers, and chagrined—
And take the wing and scar it in the hand.
Names we have, even, to clap on the wind;
But we must die, as you, to understand . . .[1]

Such dependence on nominalism, sadly enough, leads only to the least attractive possibilities regarding Hannover/Berlin , whichever is which. And more, it cannot be that living has as its primary definition only the physical resolution of death. I know that Arakawa and Madeline Gins met at a time when both felt a harshly flat despair, hardly uncommon in this world as we presently think it. Yet (to paraphrase Arakawa's recent conversation) Life has to have choice . . . Yes, an extreme beginning . . . There were hard times in the war . . . dreary  . . .


having to check the physical body all the time . . . like a potato . . . cut, slice, disappear . . . so, above all, first we must study how not to die  . . .[2]

In the preface to their collaboration, The Mechanism of Meaning: Work in Progress (1963–1971, 1978 ), Arakawa and Madeline Gins write:

If we had not been so desperate at that time, we might not have chosen such an ambitious title for this work. Yet what else would we have called it? After all, the phenomena we were studying were not simply images, percepts, or thoughts alone. Our subject is more nearly all given conditions brought together in one place.

Death is old-fashioned. We had come to think this way, strangely enough. Essentially, the human condition remains prehistoric as long as such a change from the Given, a distinction as fundamental as this, has not yet been firmly established.

If thought were meant to accomplish anything, surely it was meant to do this. Yet why had history been so slow? Was there something wrong with the way the problem was being pictured? What if thinking had been vitiated by having become lost in thought, for example? What is emitted point-blank at a moment of thought anyway? Let's take a second look at these comic figures, we decided. There did not yet exist even the most rudimentary compendium of what takes place or of the elements involved when anything is "thought through." Why not picture some of these moments ourselves, we thought, just a few?[3]

In like sense Arakawa said, we don't know what it is that is mind, what it could look like. From Plato to the present so many different maps have been tried, but we still don't have a model. This is because probably all our language is one-sided. Nothing is left to hold the "form." We have not yet formed even a profile. So far, using only one or two senses at a time mind has been felt out a bit, but that's all, so, so far only it has been a question of singing a song .

One dilemma apparent is that "mind" has been used primarily as


a means of significant association, humanly, and that the usual scientific understanding of the term meaning would be the context described by "association" itself. One can recognize the resourceful power of this mode of "tracking"—and also the inherent confounding of phenomena that cannot be "associated," for which a "ratio" or reason cannot be found. Therefore, these are "meaningless," however determinant they prove in the actual fact of living. Moreover, a present commonplace would be the fact that "facts accumulate at a far higher rate than does the understanding of them," which "understanding" or "rational thought" " . . . depends literally on ratio, on the proportions and relations between things. As facts are collected, the number of possible relations between them increases at an enormous rate."[4] A small instance of this would be the present monitoring of "signals" from "outer space" (or "inner," for that matter), which constitute such an immense bulk of possibly significant data that the mind boggles at the idea of "containment" or "subject" implied.

Thinking elsewhere, here is a sequence of "things said" by Arakawa and Madeline Gins (roughly, directly), noted during conversation:

A : First, Leibniz's proposal for an amusement park to be based on scientific principles may be considered a coherent precursor to what we are preparing to do. Yes, as you suggest, also, Hegel's absolute world is of course related. . . . But language, any language, always runs parallel to the world, so is consequently a representation of only one side. With such a tool you cannot pinpoint, always only point out generally. What you arrive at is always only some sort of agreement. All art depends on agreement, of course. If you don't play the game of this agreement it all becomes abstraction.

G : About fifteen years to do the book—how to do art without being seduced by doing it. Through desperation, we chose: 19 subdivisions [cf. The Mechanism of Meaning , p. 3].

A : Forget about meaning after all. . . .

G : Old book requires you use everything you have as you have before—(interesting, but no new moves . . .).

[reads preface, The Mechanism of Meaning ]


A : In 1971, our book was published in Munich. At that time we were lucky enough to meet some physicists, some of whom were using our book in their work—in a very strange way, I guess. At an international, but informal, meeting of 29 quantum physicists, we were the only non-physicists. We are working on something so small, beyond description, they told us. But, we said, we know something smaller than that. These particles are so split, there is nothing whatsoever to see, they are that small, we can't even imagine how small they are, we were told. After we heard that we said: But your thought about that (or this) is a quantum which is even smaller. To which they replied: What is your field? The answer was: Nonsense.

By the way, later on in his life, Heisenberg, interestingly enough, began to write what on the surface appear to be rather high-school-like poems, yet I find these to be often ingenious descriptions of what cannot be seen or said in ordinary physics. To paraphrase one of these:

When I wake up at 7
I drink coffee
I look at the window
I see blue, brown, grey
Then after lunch
The next time I look
There is light blue, light brown, light grey
At night
At the window
Dark grey is modulated.

One window changes that much "in time." He's trying to say to us, don't focus, if you want to see anything. As for intention, you have to spread intention—a single 'I' does not exist . . .

G : Thought itself is a blind spot . . . Have to look at that again.

A : 'I' is always forming something, disembodied. . . . Rimbaud's "I is an other"—but how so? is the question—this peculiar distance from and within time. . . .

Alchemists, very much looking for/had intentions very close to ours (present). . . . When research is divided into subjects such as art, philosophy and science, at that moment we tend to lose the Subject. The Subject such as: we are here . . . .

G : Lenin: Best title I know for a book is, Lenin's What Is to Be Done . . . .


A : We have to go as far as possible. Shakespeare's "To be or not to be" is no longer the question—in our time we must only consider to be! Nothing is too much in this world.

Remember always to consider more than 360 degrees. One more thing is that for all our talk of "there" and "here" it is always in the same place.

G : Localization and Transference [cf. The Mechanism of Meaning , pp. 11–14]—how would you make any interchangeable point or location into something?—this is demonstrated here. And then, once we know we do that, we can relax and just know we do it—and not rely on it and believe into it, mindlessly for 100 years.

So many conveniences we don't have, that we should have—such as a helium belt. . . . We wanted to make a helium belt that everyone could wear, so that whenever you'd walk, you'd be just a few inches off the ground all the time.

A : Wearing this would alter your sense of balance, you might find a new kind of center. . . .

We are not talking about "artificial intelligence"—far from it—I should say—a new nature (nature, I hate this word!)—a new given . . . .

G : And to develop a new nature. . . .

A : How will you recognize a new nature anyway? That's another problem. That problem is not a problem.

Albeit a layman in all respects, I am impressed by these preoccupations as increasingly, often brilliantly, explored in a diversity of informational "fields." For example, Paul Kugler, himself a Jungian analyst particularly involved with consciousness and language structure, had previously given me information of Ilya Prigogine, the Belgian physical chemist who was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1977 for his theory of dissipative structures. Simply put, Prigogine's theory demonstrates that order "emerges because of entropy, not despite it. . . . The new state occurs as a sudden shift, much as a kaleidoscope shifts into a new pattern. It is a nonlinear event; that is, multiple factors act on each other at once. . . . With each new state, there is greater potential for change. With new levels of complexity, there are new rules." As Prigogine puts it, "there is a change in the nature of the 'laws' of nature. . . ."[5]


The same friend referred me as well to René Thom's catastrophe theory as presented in Stabilité Structurelle et Morphogénèse: Essai d'une théorie générale des modèles (1972),[6] and here again the parallels are most interesting for an apprehension of the range and significance of The Mechanism of Meaning as a continuing collaboration. As Dr. Kugler has suggested, this work too has much to do with semantic "catastrophe," and lest that aspect of it be too simply "understood" as either a convenient surrealism or a speciously engaging humor, one might well consider Dr. Thom's proposal of "les signifiants abusifs": "Le comique apparaît donc comme la manifestation d'une obstruction á la signification globale d'un message localement signifiant ."[7]

Further, one must recognize the absolute necessity of collaboration insofar as the information will not resolve itself as a linear and/or "singular" pattern. Prigogine, for example, refers to "a book, a crystal, a cup of cold coffee" as equilibrium structure, "closed and finished, not taking in and dissipating energy. . . ."[8] In like sense, William Carlos Williams attacks a presumed "containment" in Paterson: Book Three, II:[9]

We read: not the flames
but the ruin left
by the conflagration . . .

Dig in—and you have
a nothing, surrounded by
a surface, an inverted
bell resounding, a


white-hot man become
a book, the emptiness of
a cavern resounding

If presently our world is experienced as a vast and insistently conflicting spectrum of "special languages," of locked and crippling conceptual patterns, clearly the human need becomes unavoidably explicit: change . Williams' "The Orchestra":[10]

Say to them:
"Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to
know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them,
he must either change them or perish."

        Now is the time
                           in spite of the "wrong note"
                                                I love you. My heart is
                          And this the first
                                               (and last) day of the world.

The intense self-preoccupation of the arts in our time has usually been thought of as a defensive and socially hostile conduct, insofar as the presumed audience has been, for the most part, significantly ignored. In short, there are no publicly evident institutions—either religious, as in the past, or widely political—that serve as sponsors or patrons for a collective information. There is, therefore, no "center" in that respect. Even more to the point, however, is the intellectual self-consciousness of this period in which "humanness" would seem not only the most dominant but the altogether determinant factor in its powers to appropriate "reality."

Therefore Arakawa's and Madeline Gins' emphasis upon "escape routes,"[11] however wryly the term may echo civic plans to evacuate various urban populations out of cities under nuclear attack, is entirely appropriate for the "place" our conceptual patterns and modes of conduct have made. "Meaning" is again the crisis:

The vagueness of the term was suitable. Meaning might be thought of as the desire to think something—anything—through; the will to make sense out of the ever-present fog of not-quite-knowing; the recognition of nonsense. As such it may be associated with any human


faculty. Since each occurrence of meaning takes place along one or another of these paths, we roughly derived our list of subdivisions from them. The list as a whole is not intended to be any less inconsistent, clumsy, or redundant than the original on which it was based, that is, the composite mechanism of meaning in daily living viewed point-blank from moment to moment.[12]

The list itself follows:

1. Neutralization of Subjectivity

2. Localization and Transference

3. Presentation of Ambiguous Zones

4. The Energy of Meaning (Biochemical, Physical, and Psychophysical Aspects)

5. Degrees of Meaning

6. Expansion and Reduction—Meaning of Scale

7. Splitting of Meaning

8. Reassembling

9. Reversibility

10. Texture of Meaning

11. Mapping of Meaning

12. Feeling of Meaning

13. Logic of Meaning

14. Construction of the Memory of Meaning

15. Meaning of Intelligence

16. Review and Self-Criticism[13]

One will note the topological nature of their procedure here, that is, its primary concern with the function of meaning as a process of mind. Presuming meaning to be the crisis of consciousness, whether collective or one's own (if that is possible as a thought), the visual/verbal materials of the text itself effect an intensive place , in Wittgenstein's sense that "a point in space is a place for an argument." Because—the experience of the mind's response to verbal imperatives in relation to visual context is a sharp and displacing body of information. Thus one begins to know , as a differentiating response, how it is that one has both presumed to know , and is knowing . Here is the response of one astute "reader," Arthur Danto:

Here is a panel that commands us to count the lines in a ragged grid. We are not to point. But counting is successive pointing, associating the set of numbers with the set of things. There is no counting without


pointing. But then there, in the next area, is a single line. If it made sense to count a single thing, we could count this easily, there being nothing else to count. But is this counting? If there is one person in the audience, does the discouraged manager inform his actors of the fact and expect them to ask him to count "them" again? Do we see there is one or do we have to count if we are to use the word "one" in its cardinal sense? If there is only one item, is it a list? How many items are then needed before it is a list? Two, three, four, five? So the game continues—or it is a new game, silly and serious, dumb and sharp, inane and profound, at once playful and lethal, a samurai slash at the throat of Reason.[14]

Apropos the situation here evident, Madeline Gins said to another "reader": "We are making a 'text' between you and this text. You're making that text. You are the ostensive 'definition.' It's going to keep going back and forth, echoing . . ."[15]

To which Arakawa added:

Because functions can be repeated, we can say that they are somewhat stable. This is better than to really think of a stable "you" or a stable "I." But the reader is the one who functions according to the subdivisions we propose, so, even if you never get a "right" answer, that's the answer—you're getting it constantly.[16]

At present Arakawa and Madeline Gins are at work upon the invention of a "situation," a construct which will embody (texturalize ) the modes of mind with which they have been engaged.[17] Obviously


their work thus far has been a remarkable service to anyone whose mind has been somewhat less to him or her than that once proposed "kingdom" of stable assumption. In short, it is not that any one of us is going anywhere. Very simply, we are here. Think of that.


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