ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Panamarenko - 1993 - And now About Serious Matters (Second Hand Knowledge) [EN, essay],
And now About Serious Matters (Second Hand Knowledge)
About Panamarenko’s work
"As for my teacher of natural sciences,", the Italian writer Primo Levi once wrote(1), "chemistry was a textbook, and that's it. It was pages in a book. She had never in her life touched a crystal or a solution. It was knowledge transmitted from teacher to teacher without ever a practical test. There were experiments in class, but they were always the same. They aboslutely lacked everything that is inventive in such things."
To illustrate what he meant with the myth of admiration, which he considered to be the reason for the sickening bewilderment one currently experiences while trying to appreciate sophisticated poetry or art, the Polish author Witold Gombrowicz repeatedly has described how he once played a piano recital for a select and art-loving public, while he could barely play Für Elise with one hand. The reactions were excellent: the audience was full of admiration for his virtuosity.
The physicist Tullio Regge tells how easily one can pose as an expert in areas about which one knows absolutely nothing. "All you have to do is find out what the key words are." And he goes on describing how for 20 minutes long he had hoaxed an experimental physicist, someone building accelerators, by juggling with words such as tune shift, increasing the injection current and field stability...
In Il sistema periodico, a collection of stories about his experiences as a chemist, Primo Levi tried to convey some of the charm ("the strong and bitter flavor") of his trade to the layman. He did not want to take notice of the grand chemistry, the triumphant chemistry of the large industries, because that work is mostly collective and anonymous: "I was more interested in the stories of the solitary chemistry, unarmed and on foot and to the measure of man, my kind of chemistry, but also that of the founders, who worked alone, surrounded by the indifference of their time, mostly without any profit at all, and who confronted matter without devices, with their brains and hands, their reason and imagination."
Levi describes how he, calculating and browsing through the archives of a varnish factory, discovered why a certain paint always began to liver, how he was surreptitiously grinding flints in a concentration camp, how he found out why a certain lipstick ran out in the thinnest of lines, how he detected arsenic in a bag of sugar given to him by an old shoemaker, how he tried to obtain alloxan from chicken shit which he went to collect in the country on his bike, and how a colleague of his figured out why the photographic x-ray paper he produced on wednesdays, showed beanshaped, white spots after development.
What in our culture passes for knowledge, is usualy second hand knowledge. A sterile ballet in the traces of crippled schoolmasters. Art and science are degenerating in what Panamarenko calls the protocol: an insipid repetition of apparently indispensable prescriptions.
A culture of second hand knowledge conjures away the significance and sense of experience. Panamarenko wants to experience things himself.
"In pursuit of novelty and amusement," as Stroop read in Pride and Prejudice. This 'novelty' should not be necessarily seen in an absolutely modernist sense. Each real experience, each conveyance of a real experience, may mean something new to someone.
Montagne de Miel, April 23rd 1993
(1) In: Primo Levi, Tullio Regge, Converations, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London, 1984, p. 16.