But once the fruit is eaten and the skin dropped on the pavement, the banana develops an unusual singularity of purpose, sucking up all other narratives surrounding it into one plot point: the peel is there for you to slip on. Because that’s what the old joke demands. No matter that you’ve never seen it happen in real life, and that the origin of the trope in the 19th century reads very much like an urban myth. Many a London and New York news paper reported people breaking all manner of bones over banana peels... were the streets really that littered with rotting fruit skin, or did people maybe have a jauntier step and freer outlook to doom them? By the time the banana peel reached silent slapstick cinema, it had already become a cliché, and jokes would be played against expectations. Buster Keaton did not slip over a banana peel and made a gesture of triumph over that, but the public didn’t like it, so he cut in a second peel and went down. Charlie Chaplin, better catering to his audiences, had two escaped convicts dressed as pilgrims fall over a single peel in unison. Harold Lloyd slipped on a banana peel while climbing over the hood of a double-decker bus at full speed. Charley Bower gave an inventor the task of developing an non-slippery banana peel, mixing dozens of different chemical solutions to kill the germ of slipperiness (an athletic little critter rather giddy with a sense of its own fallibility) and proving the results on a specially constructed tester (pat. applied for), a moveable slippery slope to tumble down.
-1 (normalized to body weight). However, walking down a ramp increases this peak shear by about 61% for a 5° ramp angle and 128% for a 10° ramp angle. The normal forces also are affected by inclination angle, with an increase in the peak force of about 1N kg-1 for a 5° increase,’ explain Mark S. Redfern et al. in Biomechanics of Slips.) The successful scientific endeavour of Bower to invent a banana peel that stops you dead in your tracks nevertheless must remain iconographically fruitless. The banana peel still signifies The Slip, it remains sitting on the pavement, overdetermined like a work of art in the museum... like a work of art in a frame, or on a pedestal, patiently waiting for you to come by and slip on it.
In earlier times, before there was this amount of Duchampian slipperiness to cope with, reception went much easier. ‘All art is quite useless,’ said Oscar Wilde famously. And in a letter to a young man, who had asked for an explanation of that, he further took pressure from us, the viewers: ‘Art is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility...’ (thus killing the germ of slipperiness). ‘If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realize the complete artistic impression.’
So to endorse the failure to realize the complete artistic impression is what the following deliberations aim for.
Let us first have a look at how the overdetermination of a potentially slippery object may liquefy. The mere fact of a pedestal (as opposed to the pavement) does not define a work of art, though some of the sculpture selected for a sort of exchange programme for equestrian statues in Simon Patterson’s Under Cartel do have their firm place in the canon, such as Verrocchio’s Colleoni or Falconet’s Peter the Great. Others are quite feeble gestures at immortalizing worldly power. But since horses today are rather for girls, their old functions of intimidation or provocation are no longer alive (except when you put a living threat in the saddle, such as a policeman), and with no fixed meaning attached to the beast, the equestrian statue has become a quaint and most slippery genre stripped of its original authority. It also has become a welcome object for institutional critique, where you may critique the pedestal and have it too (see e.g. the Fourth Plinth art commissions in London).
It is of course important that we do not really swap the statues and only do it in our minds. If there were tons of money spent and local curators and politicians held speeches, then there’d be nothing at all left of the poor figure of historical impact sat upon his horse. It’d be reduced to art, overdetermined and demanding of a very different form of passive-aggressive reception...
And then there is the single name painting: Harry Houdini. The great escapologist, the man who slipped out of all self-entrapments no matter how deadly the setup (at least in the make-believe). Iconic in the way he hung head downwards in shackles over a gaping void. Is his name maybe strong enough to also escape the frame it comes in?
In his video Acer Pseudoplatanus, Angus Braithwaite performs the reenactment of a chance failed Houdini. The video ominously begins with burning logs, bespeaking of home and man’s victory over trees. Then the narrator tells us of a watermill he used to visit as a boy, forbidden to him because of its dangers: ‘One slip would have resulted in limbs ground to pulp between wet wood and wall.’ The boy had a special relationship to all kinds of wood: ‘I knew all the trees. Some, of course more intimately than others.’ His most favourite was a sycamore, or death maple, which held the embryo of a tree house. A rope was attached to a branch a hundred metres (sic!) up, with a loop tied at the bottom, so one could use it as a swing...
The boy improved on the construction: ‘Pulling a new loop I was able to create an adjustable opening – one which, once lined with the handlebar cover of my BMX bicycle, sat comfortably around my middle. You could now swing attached to the bottom of the rope with your body in a horizontal position. As the swing slowed I found that, due to my alterations, the rope had shortened and I now found myself hanging instead from my torso but with my feet five centimetres from the ground. After some effort I managed to slip one arm out of the noose, but my feet were still well off the ground and I had exerted myself just getting this far. I hung there for quite some time, catching my breath. The next step was to get enough slack to wriggle out the other arm, thus giving me two free arms to work on removing the neck. Fortunately this was something I never managed to achieve...’
Houdini of course would have gotten out of the sling easily, but had Houdini failed, it would not have been as slapstick. Although he didn’t actually die from a stunt, as I would have thought, but from an appendix burst after an admirer had punched him in the stomach without warning to test the entertainer’s iron muscles. (By the way, as film footage of Houdini’s stunts proves, he hectically wriggled out of entrapments in quite an undignified manner that resembled nothing so much as early psychiatric documentations of hysterical fits. Which must have required a lack of inhibition that Braithwaite by his looks and measured reenactment would never permit himself. Eventually the artist’s mother had to come and free him from his predicament all dripping shoes and flailing arms. Houdini’s mother couldn’t come and save him because an appendix requires professional treatment and because she had been dead for 13 years, and all her son’s attempts to make contact since had come to nothing.)
The story of the video being as inevitable as a banana peel sitting on the pavement (we see it coming from the first image of the rope sling) frees up the modes of depiction: the deadpan reenactment of supposedly historical details, sterile scenery close-ups of brooks and tree bark, fingers drawing imaginary trees on white walls and other illustrative imagery that actually prevents the viewer’s mind from picturing the scene.
On the slippery slope between what we see and what it means, it can feel like the inclinations work against us, like all art is firmly installed on its pedestal and it is only us, the viewer, who can slip up. It may seem like most artworks have whole secret manuals of intent, yet when you enter a gallery space there is nothing on view to spell things out. (You can ask one of the guards, but good luck with that.) This phenomenon is not specific to the field, though. Even the mother of slips, the Freudian slip, came carefully prepared with its inventor’s intentions and was pre-programmed like an artwork before its actualization in the spectator.
The original Freudian slip was an utterly bourgeois affair. A young man tellingly misquoted Virgil’s Aeneid in the original Latin (of course), dropping a word but repairing the sentence around it so the grammar remained flawless. The dropped word was then submitted to all kinds of learned associations (don’t ask). The other big example of a slip in Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life was how he himself momentarily forgot the name of Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli and instead first tried the name of the better known Botticelli, and immediately noticing this couldn’t be right replaced him with one Boltraffio, an artist who today would be completely forgotten except for Freud’s famous parapraxis (highbrow term for the Freudian slip. By the way none of these appear on the blue line of Italian artists in Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear, one wonders why that is?). The sound of Freud’s replacement names in his own estimation had to do with matters of sex and death in ways too convoluted for our purpose here.
If we instead follow Sebastiano Timpanaro – who tells us that these slips were managed by Freud so he could avoid the topics that really scared him, such as being reminded of the common people – the poshness of psychoanalysis made it acceptable to the public, despite its shock value: ‘The neo-bourgeois has understood that just as Christ did not come into the world in order to abolish the ancient Laws, but in order to accomplish them, so psychoanalysis does not demystify bourgeois values in order to destroy them, but to reinstate and consolidate them. Thus as psychoanalysis gradually ceased to be a moral scandal and became a vogue, so too explanation of “slips” became a polite “pastime”. The neo-bourgeois who had learnt to play this game would himself collaborate in the explanations, and – in part against his will, in part with a touch of conscious snobbery – furnish Freud with the “free” associations needed for the smooth course of every analysis.’
Again, doesn’t that read almost like the way we play along with and subdue ourselves to the work of art and its proper subtexts? Interpreting art is like the parlour game of explaining slips. Note that ‘free’ is in scare quotes, the established order still upholds the right and the wrong, and both art and the official Freudian slip are just manifestations of a status quo.
There are no bananas in the Aeneid, but there’s pie throwing (sort of): ‘This realm rings with the triple-throated baying of vast Cerberus, couched huge in the cavern opposite; to whom the prophetess, seeing the serpents already bristling up on his neck, throws a cake made slumberous with honey and drugged grain...’
There are no bananas in Freud, where the penis is usually symbolized by a knife, a cigar or cigarette. There are also no cream pies in Freud, which is strange for a Viennese who invented the Pleasure Principle, but we do find a knife cutting through a layer cake symbolizing the layers of consciousness (also in possible reference to an American teen comedy).
Speaking of pleasure principles, one must usually admit that witnessing a person slip on a banana peel (or pretending to slip, as it’s an act that will happen only in the cinema) is usually something of an aesthetic let-down after all the build-up. The movement is swift, and while professionals will manage to kick the legs far up in the air, the peel is never more than the occasion for a fall and the scene does not transcend a simple feeling of schadenfreude. Whereas that other trademark action of silent comedy, the pie in the face, offers something considerably more sensual and cathartic. Just witness Laurel and Hardy’s Battle of the Century, which coincidentally starts out with Hardy planting a banana peel on the pavement with the intention of slipping on it to hurt himself and collect insurance. Instead a pie vendor steps in and falls first. Hardy, with another tell-tale banana still in hand, receives a pie in the face, then things escalate quickly... Sex/gender is a pronounced topic, especially in scenes of the lovingly delayed female pie on the male face. Then, in the final frame of the battle, a woman slips on a leftover pie on the pavement and drops dead down on it, with the pie now under her skirt and inside her underwear, as we learn from her movements when she stands up, wriggling uncomfortably but welcoming the discomfort, shooting guilty glances if anybody notices her secret pleasure...
‘Everything. Fucking. Everything.’ These are the final words in Benedict Drew’s video Mainland Rock, while a suspicious-looking crack in the stone emanates blue aura. Even more fucking is the intercut matter that looks like raspberry soft dough, or candied meat fibre surrogate, mucosal, slippery, yucky like a cream pie in your underpants (one German expression for which is, by the way, Slip). Both somehow seem the same, the rock and the sweets add up to the earth, together they form the stuff that makes up things...
But let us start at the beginning. We are stalking concrete buildings through layers of static made from filtering and digital degradation, superimposed drawings and other artificial detritus. The light is nice through our fingers, maybe autumn late in the afternoon, not too warm, the trees are comforting, the architecture is brutalist (in relation to the trees), and a female voice soliloquizes through delay effects and treatments like a platform announcer whose words we strain to catch, like a ship computer reporting back future knowledge through the hiss of time, like fragments of things we’d want to believe in if only they took sufficient shape. ‘Like Tiresias, I transmogrified,’ she says, and if we look that up and read that Tiresias was made a woman after witnessing two copulating snakes and killing the female one, it means she’s a male voice (the artist, maybe, or so we want to believe).
‘Of course, once, we were all slime,’ the voice remembers in the third chapter, to the images of rocks and pink dough described above. ‘Now we are somewhere in between, part slime, part solid rock.’ That is a memory of the urschleim, the slippery matter we had to selectively fuck our ways out of when our story began. It was first cooked up by one Lorenz Oken around 1800 and popularized by Ernst Haeckel, who described it in his History of Creation as a ‘mucilaginous substance, an albuminous combination, which exists in a semi-fluid condition of aggregation, and possesses the power, by adaptation to different conditions of existence in the outer world and by interaction with its material, of producing the most various forms... Oken was therefore right when, more divining than knowing, he made the assertion: “Every organic thing has arisen out of slime, and is nothing but slime in different forms.”’
(Additionally the rock and the artificial meat fibre and everything fucking in the make-believe read like a reference to the Death Valley scene in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, two flesh things fucking, then we blink and the desert’s full of them, now we blink and they’d been an illusion.)
Mainland Rock is the farthest we will go towards embracing the slipperiness of what we see, the pie in the undergarment, the farthest we will get away from language as something to believe in. ‘Not even images, connected by intensities,’ the voice said and the underlying images in the video are not even remarkable: universities, libraries, sceneries the likes of which most of us have visited as a matter of course. These are (the voice contradicting its own existence) connected by words as matter and meaning, and made uncanny by the intensities of treatments which push the neutral images closer to the insecurities of individual experience. The messinesses win out over the structured lives us flesh things try to lead, once slime, now part rock, which order can be imposed upon.
The attempts at ordering rock go back to the megaliths, stones erected as markers, gravestones, possibly sundials, or maybe just as messages to some higher beings pointing out that now we were capable of arranging things in relations. The British artist Paul Nash in 1935 made Equivalents for the Megaliths, a painting that shows an assortment of roughly geometrical forms sitting in a field, cylinders, a cuboid and a grid, forms that once constituted the vocabulary of various modernisms, vorticist or cubist. As the high forms of abstract art, they’re equally as spiritual and elevated as stones erected to unknown abstract powers, and they deserve the same admiration. Nicholas Brooks’ video Transit of the Megaliths takes its cue from here and from Nash’s road trip in 1934, during which he placed ‘several small geometric objects onto the roof of his friend’s car in order to photograph them,’ as Brooks explains. ‘He liked to travel by car to places of importance for him in his ever-expanding cosmology of the British landscape. He may have liked to see the objects up there, away from the clutter of the ground, somehow in obeyance to the clean, utopian pursuit of motoring on orderly tarmac...’
And yet what sounds like tentative descriptions with an attempt at discerning the underlying principles of the designs, might actually work the other way around: ‘The text is a meditation on making images,’ the artist says. When we follow a plan that pictures beforehand what we can see only after the mechanized realization, then a description of the resulting image should be reverse engineering the plan. Along the two-way traffic in time, our thoughts become rearranged: ‘We assembled due to an escapement something caught, limited,’ the voice says.
It has long been a dream to sidestep the slipperiness of language altogether, to devise of a communication system where each sign corresponds to a piece of information. Such a system seemed to exist in the Egyptian hieroglyphs as long as they remained impenetrable. But when the means of translation appeared, ‘when the Rosetta stone was discovered in 1799’, as Johanna Drucker writes in The Visible Word, ‘it not only allowed the final veil do be drawn back from the mysterious image of the hieroglyphs, it also ended the long-standing belief that hieroglyphs functioned as a form of language which was directly apprehendable through the eye. The clue to hieroglyphic decipherment was the relation between visual signs and a spoken language for which they were the representation. Once it was clear that hieroglyphics corresponded to this spoken language, the properties to their identity as visual signs ceased to be significant to linguists – except insofar as they provided access or recognition. Here the linguistic notion of the present signifier serving a function as surrogate substitute for the absent signified is apparent in its most fundamental form. The hieroglyph, for so long the site of fantasmatic projection onto the visual, material image of writing, was reduced to serving an incidental function relative to the all-important linguistic text. The price of decipherment was that writing lost its autonomous existence...’
(The text on the Rosetta Stone by the way is quite boring, mostly about a monarch being fair about taxes, and the only topic of any relevance to us is that monarch on his pedestal, because ‘a statue should be set up for King Ptolemy, living forever, the Manifest God whose excellence is fine – which should be called “Ptolemy who has protected the Bright Land”, the meaning of which is “Ptolemy who has preserved Egypt” – together with a statue for the local god, giving him a scimitar of victory, in each temple, in the public part of the temple, they being made in the manner of Egyptian work; and the priests should pay service to the statues in each temple three times a day, and they should lay down sacred objects before them and do for them the rest of the things that it is normal to do.’ Normal to do things like recognizing the name on the title card, ritually expressing the right amount of admiration and generally hoping not to slip up.)
But since the horse is officially agreed upon, O’Brien can say: ‘I find the security of this piece of work appealing, it is a chalk horse made from the Chalk Horse.’ So there would be no slipperiness to what we see and no slipperiness to the chalk horse drawn on a blackboard in reference to the one in Uffington, though I guess that could change any day in the light of new translation means to be discovered for hieroglyphical chalk horses (and the stone circles as well).
Truly overdetermined like a work of art in its frame, This drawing is displayed here upside down by Maria Theodoraki on first blush seems to offer a drawing of the text of the title in a careful serif font. Except that, if we accept its meaning, the drawing immediately contradicts its own condition, as it looks right side up. And furthermore if it’s true what the text says, then presumably the drawing must have been executed with its motif standing on the head. The main hint pointing our eyes towards this process behind the drawing is a pleasing awkwardness that makes every limb of every letter an infinitesimally different font size and the spaces between them uneven against their flow. And on further study we might even detect smudges in the surface revealing the position of the artist’s hands (for which one would have to see the actual drawing instead of the photograph I have before me, so I’m solely relying on a text mail from the artist for this detail). This process implies that the image was drawn as pure form, irrespective of the text’s meaning (if indeed it remains a text... I’m not sufficiently theoretically minded to go there, though we easily might). The treatment of the letters as form not information was probably facilitated by the fact that the sentence is in German: ‘Diese Zeichnung ist hier umgekehrt abgebildet’, a language that the artist is not familiar with. All of this adds up to a deconstructively self-referential double-loop of two distinct possibilities (the immediately received text message and the syntax-free drawing only apprehendable through the eye) that contradict each other but have overlapping connotations... the most slippery state a work of art might aspire to. Yet it is also a most stable slippery state: it is all contradictions at once, and never one after the other. (So on the slipmeter, we are a notch above Magritte and his Treachery of Images postulating: ‘This is not a pipe.’ Because if we accept the existence of a shared language of representational art, then when it’s not a pipe it is a representation of one, raising questions of how we interpret reality irrespective of the pipe’s use and meaning in everyday life. The connotations are quite manageable. It gets more slippery, though, in a preparatory drawing by Magritte: a study for the pipe that wasn’t to be a pipe. No matter if drawn from life or constructed as the perfect signifier of a pipe, this study occupies the same perfectly stable slippery aggregate between contradictions as Theodoraki’s drawing, though running through some different loops.)
To anybody fluent in Greek, of course, this will be a completely different work. They will be able to evaluate the efforts of Smith, measure his growing success in hitting the right inflections. It might appear as if he had learned something by the end, if only for the length of a short-term memory. On the other hand, his efforts will appear more pronouncedly useless (as all art should be). For us, who do not speak Greek, the spoken language remains freed ‘from serving an incidental function relative to the all-important linguistic text’, to quote the passage by Johanna Drucker on the Rosetta Stone again. The sounds of speech slowly take shape as the ear gets accustomed to the process, their forms become more detailed as they return in ever more laboured enunciation, producing infinitely varied little sound objects on the slippery road to an unattainable perfection, which gather meaning only in relation between them.
‘Dear connoisseurs, in a few minutes you will see Ingmar Bergman’s much-vaunted but also very controversial film The Silence. You will probably think you know what to expect, yet quite possibly you will still be shocked. The film challenges the viewer mainly in two respects: first, through its graphic immediacy in all things erotic, and second, through its surprising eventlessness...’ (its eventlessnesses). This is from a trailer in which a cultured male voice prepared German moviegoers before a screening of the film when it first ran in theatres, to spare their better feelings – with a surprising amount of spoilers to avoid all slipperiness of meaning. The silence of the title was explained with a quote by Bergman, in that it was the silence of God, which made it so hard for mankind to cope with the world.
When Rudolf Reiber projects The Silence, it is as a Braille transcription of Ingmar Bergman’s film as a 3D movie. It looks more or less like endless opening credits seen from the cockpit of a star ship crossing the universe, and now and then the passing stars move into formation and show us an undecipherable message in dot language. The internet tells me that not even three percent of blind people can read Braille; the percentage will be much lesser for the seeing, though their task is in nonsensical theory made easier by the use of 3D technology. ‘What does that mean?’ are the first words of the movie after two minutes, but we can’t read that. ‘I don’t know,’ is the correct answer, before another six minutes of silence.
If we know these connections while watching the video (and we can make out as much from the title card), there is no slipperiness to what we see. There’s also no slipperiness to what it means, as long as we do not follow it by activity of any kind (such as to learn Braille). The work is a complete triumph over the medium.
(‘The questioning and searching face of the boy shown in the last frames of the film reflects his desire to understand what has happened,’ the German instructional trailer ends its message. ‘The boy might succeed at that, because he knows how to ask questions and he wants to be friendly. Distraught viewers should not overlook this aspect of the ending.’)
‘The more closely we examine actual language’, says Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘the greater becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming vacuous. We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction, and so, in a certain sense, the conditions are ideal; but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!’
As a work of art, Losing Ground makes a pedestal of the floor. So maybe, out of respect and for better admiration, we should enter through the back door.
Maybe there is a back door for us, the viewers, to escape our fear of unleashing slips or getting art wrong, and it might well offer a fresh point of entry. Harold Bloom’s A Map of Misreading is an ode to empowerment for the reader, whose interpretational grasp must change the works as it receives them. Misreading is a creative act that requires a strong character full of disregard and an eager anxiety of influence. Misreading is work cut out for the artist hero type...
And then Bloom commits a welcome slip, right in the introduction, where he gives an account of the philosophy of one ‘Isaac Luria, sixteenth-century master of theosophical speculation’, who ‘formulated a regressive theory of creation, in a revision of the earlier Kabbalistic emanative theory of creation’. This theory has three main stages, first: ‘the creator’s withdrawal or contraction so as to make possible a creation that is not himself’. Second, ‘the breaking-apart-of-the-vessels, a vision of creation-as-catastrophe’. Third comes ‘restitution or restoration – man’s contribution to God’s work. The first two stages can be approximated in many of the theorists of deconstruction, from Nietzsche and Freud to all our contemporary interpreters who make of the reading subject either what Nietzsche called “at most a rendezvous of persons”, or what I myself would call a new mythic being – the reader as Overman, the Überleser...’
The Überleser! ‘Überlesen’ in German means to quickly read over, to skip a part of the text. So as a Überlesers I am not, as Bloom supposed, an overwhelmingly awesome reader in analogy to the Übermensch. No, if we follow his model, then the more paragraphs we skip reading, the less we take in, the more that slips our minds, the more powerful we become. No art can hurt us now. We are the Justified Slippers.
So here is a beginning.