Draw a house with dotted lines.
Let people imagine the parts that are missing (a).
Let people forget the parts that are missing (b).
Yoko Ono. From the series Instructions
– I bring you a message.
Ester took a cooking pot out of the basket which she had left in a corner of the kitchen. Àlex and I limited ourselves to following her with our eyes whilst she put her hands into the container to pull out something solid.
I watched with the eyes of a novice. I was only aware of the existence of this game of messages between her and Àlex Nogué because Ester had told me about it. They exchanged presents, each of them interpreting the gift received and elaborating on this with another in response. They had provoked a correspondence of pieces, images, of works, created in different disciplines, based on a private game which, who knows when, takes impetus and acquires the qualities of an artistic experiment which affords them great delight and whose plastic qualities become more than the simple anecdote, obliging them to give an interpretation to the whole. All this, they think, has a meaning. The reading of the messages-responses generates a trajectory with a character of its own, open to interpretation by a spectator from outside. The game can be public; it can be exhibited as an installation-conversation, an installation tennis match.
I knew these things. Ester had explained them to me one evening as we walked around the village of Bàscara, a bucolic place, uninhabited and silent, only disturbed by some adolescents on motorbikes. She had explained how the game started, with a present which she had given to Àlex, in the shape of a book of photographs, one of which, the face of a woman from the Amazon, tattooed with a labyrinth, had become the first message which she sent to him and in response to which Àlex put forward the idea of replying.
– This is a message – she must have said, as she showed him the photograph.
– Then that message requires a reply – suggested Àlex.
How would I have replied to that message? I asked myself this as I strolled through the streets of Bàscara with Ester. I decided, but didn’t tell her. I knew that Àlex had replied, too (this was, as I said, the start of the message games, which had reached, if my memory serves me right, 18 in number) and Ester didn’t explain to me how, with what, nor in what fashion he had replied to his interlocutor. I asked myself if my own response, which was the first thing which entered my head without having actually seen the image (and trusting that I had fully understood the rules of the game), was in any way related to that which Àlex Nogué had proposed. I also thought, quite sincerely, that I’d love to take part in it.
ÀNGEL’S MENTAL RESPONSE TO ESTER’S FIRST MESSAGE. “WOMAN TATTOOED WITH A LABYRINTH”.
“The hand which begs shows, without shame, the lines of an unpromising destiny”.
Ramón Gómez de la Serna. “Greguerías”.
I didn’t know, at that moment, what the line of thought that had linked the greguería (a kind of surrealist metaphor in epigram form combining humour and poetic insight) with Ester’s image had been (I suppose it was due to the fact that it depicted someone excluded from the world of the rich, and showed some patterns on the skin as well), but the fact is that it was the first thing that occurred to me, and that gave it a special value. This is how the message game must work.
Ester pulled two pieces of ice from the pot. They were two cylinders, one taller than the other, with small holes in them and made of ice. She left them on the ground, on their sides. At Àlex’s house in Hostalets d’en Bas the kitchen floor is made of enormous black slabs; an old floor which Ester’s ice message matched perfectly. I could see a natural relationship between that floor and the blocks of ice, a basic and highly suggestive primitivism. “The truth is that I thought of the floor of your house when creating the work”, she said to him.
The ice on the kitchen floor was the first real message-piece which I saw of the game in which the artists were engaged. That was a message! That was a certainty, a piece of evidence, a real reply! I wondered what the previous message from Àlex must have been to have provoked that icy reply from Ester.
“We’ll have coffee in the studio, that way you’ll see all the messages together”.
They had invited me to lunch at Hostalets. I didn’t know the Valley d’en Bas, and that countryside, seen from the car, one weekday, far from Barcelona, allowed me to disconnect completely. During lunch, we spoke of other things, and little by little we centred on the reason for the meeting, the message game, the last of which I had just seen before sitting at the table. I asked questions; they explained the planning, the day-to-day development of the experiment. They spoke of what was very clear to them and of other things they were unable to define; they speculated as to the importance of the significance which each conferred on their message-response, and whether it was necessary or not for the spectator of the whole to know anything about the entire process of concretion. They had “theorised” about the reasons for the replies, about the methodology of the creation. They had done this since the beginning, from a personal point of view: they tried to capture in words how they had arrived at the codification of the message which they directed at the other and what they wanted to say by means of that message. Months later, when the experiment was converted into material for an exhibition, they shared the phases of the process, reading to one another all that they had written about the pieces. They also decided to include the intermediate levels of concretion, prior to the final message (images from which they had started, rough drafts, photographs, etc.). They were thinking of exhibiting that, too, together with the final pieces. They had even contemplated the possibility of exhibiting only two or three messages adding evidence of the phases of the process (related documentation: photographs, texts, images, writings, etc.)
I have always been fascinated by that concept of art based on their interaction with life. I think that the creator holds the power of decision, and decides what he creates, what he understands to be creative act. Art, by definition, is an act of decision. “That is not art”, is often the opinion of the incredulous, the methodical, those who compartmentalise and put things into pigeonholes. Art is the world vision of he who creates; art are those parts of life which he decides represent his perception of things. To create is not only to do, but also to decide. It is based upon a direct implication with your surroundings, with the scenery, with human relationships. The twentieth century propitiated the mixing of art and life; the artist freed himself from representing reality and valued instead a parallel one, his own, that of his quotidian life, that of his thoughts. Duchamp signalled, with the finger of the creator, an object which was ready made; Schwitters worked upon his own habitat in order to construct an alternative one for himself. The material was deconstructed; colour was subjectivised. The creative being achieved the freedom to express himself and represent his unconscious, his fears and his joys.
Ester and Àlex’s experiment, the game of exchanging messages, is full of personal and vital references. Everything starts with a present (a present which is given to someone, but also Pleasure given to the senses), an expression of friendship, love and gratitude between the two artists, and from that object with images, the first message is born, the first sentence of a conversation which they have continued over recent years. Conversations on themes which interest them, shared attitudes towards life. Ester’s message is silent, because it contains no words, only the face of a tattooed native, and the contemplation of the photograph, but the act of sharing it almost certainly will have fomented a lively verbal discussion. Perhaps the silent beauty of the woman and the labyrinth on her face, the serenity of the plastic image, conditioned the silence of the replies which followed. There are two screen images, a video with a clip from a Buster Keaton film (Àlex, message 10) and a CD for computer: the first is a silent film, the other only allows one to hear the beating of a heart. I ask myself if that first message, Ester’s finger indicating the photograph in the book (the finger of Duchamp indicating a ready-made) was exactly a question, or no more than the confirmation of that of which she was already aware, their shared admiration of beauty; an “Àlex, I know that this will please you” and, effectively, he proposed initiating a conversation.
The life of the two artists appears and conceals itself in the consecutive messages. They have shared a long and friendly relationship since their days at the faculty of Fine Arts of Barcelona; there is a journey to India; there is a broken romance; there is an experience of work, a period of doubts, a search for oneself and an ending up in the same place, having gone around in two hundred circles. In the messages, the social reality of the time and place in which they live, the Catalonia-Spain-Europe which still does not know how to deal with immigration, which it approaches tentatively, and to which it is both open and closed at the same time, can be found. So too, can the reality of the rural world that has still not totally disappeared, following the massive exodus to the cities and industries, but has gained new adepts amongst those people who have tired of the advantages of the big cities. But “modern life”, the imaginary one of the technological revolution, necessarily invades the rural modus vivendi and also transforms it, obliging it to readapt. How is it possible to organise, in only one unstructured exercise book, the variety of telephone numbers and different addresses? “Adela address”, “Adela landline”, “Adela mobile”, “Adela fax”, “Adela e-mail”, etc. (Ester, message number 17)
The quotidian life of the interlocutors, their experiences, their desires, inevitably enter the conversation. It is about, this much is evident, all that which they want to say and that is why they speak. Objects from their surroundings, from the furniture (the force of five wool mattresses, from double beds, covered only with striped ticking, embracing, both in form and content, the ethereal and volatile dimension, of an intricate telephone book. Ester, message 17); clothes; people with whom they spend their time and many life experiences, partner, pupils, friends. Ester and Àlex take out of context and isolate tools and pieces of junk to elaborate the messages. From time to time, they confer movement on the objects, they charge them with life (the vibrating ladder. Àlex, message 18); personalise and humanise that which is inanimate (the wrapping paper designed with an egocentric “I want” and “today I start”. Ester, message 11); they stop and freeze that which is mobile through inertia (the heart which stops beating, the toy lorries loaded with flowers and stopped on a steep ramp). Ester gives a gardenia to Àlex in reply to the image of the heart which stops beating in an ecography. Ester’s plant (message number 5) carries instructions similar to those poetic instructions by Yoko Ono: Àlex, recipient of the message, has to observe how the gardenia grows, he has to control the rhythm of its growth in the same way as he does his own respiration as he walks.
I can distinguish three types of relationship between the message/question and the message/reply. During the first phase of the project, the replies from one to the other have a certain formal link, by which I mean that the form of the received image (the formal content) conditions the reply. The facial labyrinth of Ester’s aboriginal woman (message 1) receives as a reply a tangle of wire netting imprisoning a hazelnut (Àlex, message 2). Ester responds with the photographs of a paper-chain which adopts various different forms (message 3), one of which resembles a heart, perhaps the heart of the ecography which Àlex sent her (message 4). Later, an engraving by Ester (message 15) which shows an encircled leaf, received by way of reply a very subtle construction by Àlex: a glass column made with small glass pots full of blue pigment and crowned with a spent light bulb. All the glass content of the piece (message 16) has a form which is similar to that which encircles the leaf of Ester’s message.
A second type of relationship between messages is that which I shall term MESSAGE-REPLY, which, both formally and conceptually, bears a direct relationship to the previous message. This is the case in Àlex’s reply to Ester’s gardenia: a series of pencil drawings of the plant, dated to the minute and done over a few days (message 6), like when he made a tape which is a recording of his own breathing as he walks. The third kind of reply, the most common, is that which has undergone a process of reflection which escapes the understanding of the novice observer and offers no clues to be able to relate it, formally and rapidly, to consecutive messages.
ASKING ONESELF QUESTIONS
It was a beautiful evening in the Valley d’en Bas the day that the artists invited me to the workshop in Hostalets to see the messages. They recreated the chronological order of the messages to offer me a vision of the whole according to the order in which they had been produced. From time to time, I asked them for guidance as to the reason for a particular reply, and then they let me read, if such a thing existed, the verbal message, written down, which they had thought of for that piece.
I was unfamiliar with Àlex Nogué’s work, but knew that of Ester Baulida, whom I have always admired sincerely. I am convinced that the previous work of both, their creative experience, frequently emerges in the conversation which they maintain by means of this message game. And the fact is that the aesthetics do succeed in blending, they match perfectly and manage to confuse me. Messages from Ester which I would have said were from Àlex; replies from Àlex which, as soon as I set eyes on them, upon entering the studio, I had thought to be the works of Ester Baulida. The act of concentrating upon a theme (the conversation informal, but sincere) has bought them closer formally, in the sense that, in my view, the figure of the person has prevailed over that of the artist. In the experimental pieces they have allowed the creative “I” to identify completely with the personal “I”, and Àlex and Ester have much in common. That which makes them get on so well together as friends, makes for a formal coherence in the messages. They opt for simplicity, clarity, for the subjective experience and for sincerity. They opt for immediacy, for the primitive and basic force, for heart before head, for senses over thought. The project’s pieces transmit cleanliness, light; they keep their feet firmly on the ground, turning to fundamental things, to the view, to nature, to the hand.
As I walked amongst the works and wrote a few observations in my notebook, I thought about the creative techniques employed by Pina Bausch, the German choreographer, with her troop of dancers at Wuppertal. Pina’s method, of which Ester and I are great fans, is based upon a series of basic questions which she asks the dancers, and the configuration of the new show is based on their replies. She demands sincerity of them, investigating the intimate experience and a certain choreographic sense of movements and actions. As in the case of the plastic artist, the choreographer decides. She decides which movements are dance, and finds them in the most quotidian actions, in the most habitual gestures, in people’s way of relating to one another and in the instinctive part of the self.
Pina Bausch’s messages in her work “Walzer”, launched in 1982, were, amongst others: “Make a trap for someone. Think of a very simple phrase and express it without words. Who knows how to do a handstand? Hold a cigarette. Do you know how Red Indians crawl along the floor? Tell a story without making any noise. Submission. Defend yourself. How do you kill an animal? What can you do with one hand? Rituals carried out by someone else and which really annoy you...” For “Für die Kinder von gestern, heute und morgen”, 2002, the questions were of the type “What would happen if we imagined that we were birds, free of any ties? What would happen if we found ourselves newly at the dawn of life, with all our options still open”? Pina Bausch’s shows are so forceful that you feel an uncontrollable impulse to climb onto the stage and act with the company, scenify their games and answer their questions. Enter their story. Intervene in their conversation.
This is the sensation which I myself felt upon admiring the dialogue between the two artists: I wanted to join in, give my point of view, suggest a different reply. It annoyed me not to be able to join the conversation, to be a simple spectator/listener limited to standing there, marvelling at the beauty of the words/images to be heard and seen.
– You can participate in some way, if you wish – Ester had said to me during our first encounter at Bàscara, and they would repeat this at the studio in Hostalets, the two artists in front of the displayed works.
I was not able to resist.
THE GAME OF ÀNGEL’S MESSAGES.
I decided to take one of the messages in the chain and describe it in words to a group of acquaintances from the world of literature. How would a novelist or a poet respond to the messages? What reading would they give them? Would I allow fiction to be introduced or would I let the first person and personal experience speak? I chose a message by Àlex, that of the ecography of the beating heart, given that the piece was ideal for my purpose: it was not limited to graphic language; it referred to quotidian experience; it left no-one indifferent and in addition, it opens the doors to the most pure fiction, in that it speaks of the act of dying.
To acquaint the writers with the antecedents, I wrote the letter, the transcription of which follows, and sent it to the e-mail addresses of seventeen people who are fairly well-known within the world of Catalan literature. As can be appreciated from the note, I insist on freedom of action and absence of coercion when taking part in the game: so that each one was free to answer the heart’s message according to their own disposition, interest or desire to experiment.
Dear Friends! My name is Àngel, and I’m about to ask you in good faith for a few words, a brief message, in order to continue in some way a message/game which has been suggested to me. Let me explain:
Àlex Nogué and Ester Baulida are two plastic artists. He is a professor at the University of Barcelona and she, in addition to having been a friend for many years, is one of the Gerona artists whom I most admire. Ester and Àlex are preparing an exhibition which has been commissioned by l’Espai Zer01 of the Museum of Olot, a gallery specialising in contemporary art, which will open next September. Their proposal started from a shared idea, an idea which arose from their daily lives, unsought, and is based on the exchanging of messages. One day, Ester made a present of a book of photographic images to Àlex, and she chose one of the photos (a native Peruvian woman with a face tattooed with a labyrinth) and announced to him that it was a message which she was sending to him and which required a reply, also in the form of an image, from him. They have maintained this relationship for a year by means of the messages-images-gifts, which they have exchanged regularly. Each one received a message and codified it according to their own viewpoint, ignorant of the sender’s explanation, and sent another one back, which had to be interpreted as a reply. Questions/answers which have accumulated and ended in the formation of a group of exquisite pieces, the exhibition of which, like the phases of the process, will fill the gallery at Olot.
A book-catalogue is to be published which will explain in detail the creation and exchange of the visual messages. I have seen the complete pieces and their authors have explained the whole process to me. My task will be more literary than documental, and seduced, as I have been, by the message game, I thought of suggesting to my friends that they write a parallel mini-game and compose, in this way, a written counterpoint based on the visual game.
It is far from my intention to inconvenience you, nor should I like to think that, lacking the time or wish to do so, you reply to me out of obligation. As I have told you, this is nothing more than a test, an experiment.
For this reason, and here is what I propose, I am sending you the description of one of the messages which Ester and Àlex have exchanged. This was sent by him, in the form of a visual CD, and was given to him by doctor friend. Ester replied to the message (which was the fourth in the series) with another, which I don’t need to explain. They have reached the figure of 23 related messages.
Well, the case is that I would be very pleased if you could reply to this message from Àlex with a simple image, with a phrase, with a verse, with a proposal, with anything which occurs to you after receiving it. I don’t know, the first thing which enters your head, a name, a place, a saying, a poem by someone. Or send an image to me in JPG format. I should like to start a brief correspondence of messages with you, and finally, include this series in the artists’ book.
I insist: you must not feel obliged to reply. But I am deeply interested in trying this experiment.
The message is as follows:
THE GENUINE ECOGRAPHY (IT LASTS 36 SECONDS) OF A HUMAN HEART WHICH IS CEASING TO BEAT. IT BEARS THE NAME OF THE PATIENT, THE EXACT DATE OF THE RECORDING, AND THE CURVES OF THE RHYTHM OF THE ELECTROCARDIOGRAM AT THE BOTTOM. THE HEART BEATS, IT ACCELERATES, AND SUDDENLY IT RELAXES. FINALLY IT STOPS, BECAUSE THE PATIENT EXPIRES.
The image is in black and white, blurred. It could be anything organic which moves and then moves no more. The image is abstract, and moving if you know exactly what it represents.
What does it suggest to you? What would you reply to me if you received this message?
Allow me to greet you and thank you for your attention. It is much appreciated.
Of seventeen possible interlocutors, only five replied to the message. Others made excuses for various reasons and the majority said nothing. Of the five, three included in the message-reply a comment on the interest which the experiment had awoken in them. In the letter, the possibility of continuing the game with a reply to the message which they had sent, from me, was not made clear. But I tried it. After their messages, I sent them a second message, this time personal and in the form of a reply to the message which they had thought of, in this way recreating Ester’s and Àlex’s dialogue. Only one of the writers replied to this second message of mine.
Eduard Márquez replied to the heart message with a poem. Presumably it is a poem by him, I imagine unpublished. It says:
Les onades s’enduen mar enllà
El reflex del passat.
A la vora de l’aigua,
Només queda la sal muda.
The waves carry out to the sea
The reflection of the past.
At the water’s edge
Only the silent salt remains.
An image of desolation, without a doubt, and of silence. My reply was motivated by the fact that it was a poem, which described a scene, an