The Birds, Good and (mainly) Evil, A den of Thieves, Wiederkrieg, The Angel
Five Texts by Anna Tilroe

From: Just About Now; Ritsaert ten Cate about a working period of a year at P.S.1/MoMA New York and its reverberations after

Amsterdam, Ideabooks, 2003

1. The birds.

The birds are good. Not an ounce of evil in that little bundle of coloured feathers. The yellow and orange beaks never protested when the artist pulled on the legs, thin as matchsticks, bound the wings together, strung a rough piece of twine around the fragile bodies. The birds accept everything without blinking an eye –small beady eyes, gleaming but without light. The light they reflect is not their own, but incoming light, the harsh fluorescent light from the ceiling or the bright morning light that comes in through the tall studio windows. They have no light of their own because inside nothing is moving – no bird thoughts, no bird emotion (or whatever it is birds may have in that respect), no impulse to break into joyous song or anxious trill.
The birds are good. Nothing can touch them now. They’ve gone soaring far beyond the rocket to which their feathery bundle is attached – beyond the hissing whoosh deep in the vault of night, the crackle, the explosion. And beyond the colourful rain of stars high in the sky mingled with feathers that will drift down like yellow, red and black snowflakes – to the ooh’s and ah’s of the people below, to those who plucked them from the sky and the trees, extinguishing both light and sound. To the dark hole of the earth.
But for now their little bodies are still stretched along the colourful paper of the firework cartridges, fastened to a long round stick and standing in a bin along with grey lumps of petrified ash. Carelessly arranged like a stubbly field of dead poets, their songs turned inward, into oblivion, they wait with raised beaks for their red tapered firework rocket to spew fire and feathers into the air – to drive away God knows what sorts of evil spirits, wherever they are in the world. Because God, it is said, has only one option: ‘Maximize the Good.’ That’s become a very important matter now that the American president has marked out the ‘Axis of Evil’, which has effectively driven Good from Evil and authorized each one to do its utmost to combat the other.

Some thinkers maintain that Peace is the state of emergency by which war is interrupted. War, they say, is the permanent condition of human life, a natural situation in which everyone is pitted against everyone else. Peace has nothing to do with nature. Peace is an arrangement, an understanding between citizens and the state and between states themselves. This gives the state ‘a monopoly on violence’, as Norbert Elias writes in Die Theorie des Zivilisationsprozesses: the control of armaments and violence. The state also sees to it that conflicts are solved nonviolently – ‘affective control’. Both forms of control are at the foundation of a developmental process called ‘civilization’.

Peace and civilization are therefore not a given but an ideal, which makes them, paradoxically enough, a source of struggle and conflict. After all, ideals, whether personal or international, must be fought for in the face of greed, injustice, egotism and malice. This is why the artist has tied the birds to the rocket – as Good is tied to Evil, Peace to War. And this is why he, Ritsaert ten Cate, has hung enlarged photographs nearby of beautiful old drawings, each showing a bird’s nest with lovely eggs inside. The egg contains the Promise, the hope of new, better, ideal lives. That hope, say Ten Cate’s metaphors, is continuously being reborn, like an uncontrollable urge to seek the light.

2. Good and (mainly) Evil.

The most disconcerting thing about Evil is how unreasonable it is. Someone can come up with what he or she regards as plausible reasons for torturing, raping and murdering, but these deeds themselves – the brutality, cruelty, ruthlessness of them – escape every reasonable effort to understand them. And yet we always find them so immensely fascinating.
What is it about Evil that is so appealing? Why is it so exciting to play video games in which we mow down battalions of villains, even though doing so turns us into hideous villains ourselves? Why are the American good guys so relieved to discover that now, after reconciliation with the Russians, the Koreans and the Chinese, they have a chance to hit the bad guys in the cities and villages of Iraq with their heaviest weaponry? Why?
Because Evil is exciting, fascinating and breathtaking. It makes our blood run faster, pumps the adrenaline through our bodies, drives away monotony, boredom, depression and for some even impotence. It is, to use a modern expression, sensational. That’s why our society is addicted to Evil. It cannot carry on without sensation. With the help of advertising, TV and other mass media we’ve developed a genuine sensation industry that pervades every aspect of our lives and transmutes it into entertainment.
The discovery that Evil is an arousing form of entertainment is nothing new. Look at the imaginative ways in which the devil was depicted during the Middle Ages: a brutal, bloodthirsty, hideous monster, but ever so fascinating. Next to this, The Good in the form of God, the angels and Mary is modest, respectable and even a bit boring. That contrast provided a benefit, however, that we can no longer claim: it gave The Good a clear and well-defined image. That clarity is now gone. We have no compelling religious rules, ideological guidelines or even aesthetic ideals with which we can confront Evil, and that is experienced as a gigantic loss; even politicians are calling for a return of norms and values. That loss is also reflected in art.
True enough, there are still artists who provide a place for The Good by making Beauty their specific goal, for example. According to Plato, Beauty and The Good go hand in hand. But these artists are few and far between, and their voice is certainly not strong. Whenever we see The Good depicted in art today, it almost always comes with a touch of bitterness, or a tone of political correctness, or – to take a very old fashioned approach – it hides behind the adage of art-for-art’s-sake, the celebration of the formal.
Art, like society, no longer has any idea what the purest Good is. This is why the artist has to rely on Evil: so he can once again put his finger on what is Good. Because only the confrontation with Evil can get us to think about what we regard as acceptable, and what we don’t, and why. Only Evil shows us the necessity of finding a new morality.
This quest (and we can certainly call it that) demands that the artist assume a fighter’s mentality. He must attack what he despises, loathes, condemns: violence, dishonesty, cruelty, every scoundrel that shows his face. Not with dull-witted dogmas and clichés, but with cunning, subtlety and hidden meanings. In taking up this task, he has no other means at his disposal than that of art, and no other guiding principle than a morality that is highly individual but that may allow itself to be described as hope – the poignant but stubborn hope of ever finding something authentic.

3. A den of thieves.

‘Dear father, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you. It’s a den of thieves here. Everything underlined in red is dangerous. Thanks so much for the delicious chocolate. A great big kiss, dear father, from Ritsaert.’

No, this is no psychology. The artist’s father fought with the Allies during the Second World War, and peace was something his son never knew. But that’s no explanation. Some people are just born sceptics. For them the world is a den of thieves in which nothing is what it seems. Material objects, people’s behaviour, words and emotions may give shape to the world, but at the same time they show themselves to be inconstant, impenetrable, fleeting and unreliable – an illusion, certainly not reality. Reality is something else again, something that may expresses itself in phenomena but is so complex and fundamental that we cannot comprehend it in one lifetime.

This age is not interested in reality. Instead it mesmerizes us with illusion, the outcome of the ideal of the ‘engineered’ world: a world, in other words, that does not bend to the whims and caprices of nature; a world that we have furnished and organized according to our needs and longings. The spectacular world of dream holidays, Prada shoes, breast enlargements, organ transplants, free-range pigs, housing blocks, theme parks, dildos, one-armed bandits and golf courts. To maintain this contrived world of ours, our emotions must be kept under permanent and ubiquitous control, a control that is eagerly wielded in a symbiotic alliance of politics, the media and the entertainment industry. For nothing may be given the chance to cast doubt on the idea that our eternal pursuit of happiness has finally reached its goal, that the earthly paradise has been realized. This goes without saying for anyone in possession of a credit card.

The controlling society in which we now live follows our comings and goings every step of the way. It uses bonus cards, bank statements, random sample surveys, website visits and other registration systems to collect our physical and mental movements, preferences and longings and classify them into data structures. In this way, we as a target group can be given tailor-made service in accordance with our ‘data profile’, preferably in the form of consumables to which, by means of shrewd advertising techniques such as branding, a ‘surplus value’ is added that in itself represents yet another controlled world: that of the brand name.
A social system that is so firmly based on control creates its own weakness: it draws borders, defines an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’, a ‘safe’ and an ‘unsafe’, a ‘good’ and an ‘evil’. It resents any disturbance of the desired order, any deviant behaviour or rebellious elements – anything that reminds us of the uncontrollability of decay and death. It is a system of fear.
 ‘Fear’, writes the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri, ‘is what holds the social order together and keeps it safe. Fear as a control system is the leading feature of the society of spectacle.’  The developments after ‘11 September’ confirmed this. All at once you saw, with great clarity, the dangers inherent in a society that is organized to arouse, direct and channel emotions on as massive a scale as possible. In the climate of fear kindled to fever pitch by the sensational symbolism of the attack, Americans banded together with patriotic zeal around the flag, designed a bearded enemy image and imposed a strict system of self-censorship. From that point on the control couldn’t go far enough; it even had to extend way beyond the borders. For the sake of preserving peace, let the war begin.
    In Washington, D.C., closed-circuit security video systems have now been installed throughout the city. The images are checked by quasi-military organizations. Elsewhere public areas are set up so as to allow maximum surveillance, and cars bearing explosives cannot get near the surrounding buildings. American and European financial institutions and other institutions that are decisive for the economic and political system have built alternative work stations in inconspicuous places equipped with computers, telephone lines and data terminals so they can function as normally as possible in times of crisis. The fear is now fully institutionalized.

This does not surprise the artist. Well before ‘11 September’ in the display windows of fashionable New York clothing establishments, toy stores and bric-à-brac shops he saw Dior children’s dresses done up in camouflage, gas masks for children, survival kits, T shirts with the American flag and military decorations. The war was already fully visible: as reality.

4. Wieder Krieg

‘Whoever isn’t for us is against us,’ said the American president, with a smoking Pentagon gleaming in his eyes. My first thoughts went to the animals in the zoo, the old people in the nursing homes, the patients in intensive care, the children playing in the sandbox – sentimental images, but realistic. What would they be for, or against? On what grounds? And yet the pistol is being held to their heads, because modern wars are ‘asymmetrical wars’, to use the technical term. That means that soldiers no longer fight against soldiers, but against unarmed civilians, especially women, children and the elderly, because that’s what demoralizes the enemy most. If you can call that fighting...
For or against, good or evil: the side you’re on is no longer determined by moral attitudes but by circumstances. And they’re dictated by whoever is in power. Killing children is ‘good’ as long as they’re the opponent’s children. The president denies so much inhumanity, but in the meantime he prepares for a ‘preventive’ slaughter of non-American civilians without respect of persons.

The artist is always the opponent’s child. He looks at power but he cannot identify with it, no matter what power it is. So he must pay. That is his choice. It sharpens his eye for ‘the theatre of power’, for the grotesqueness of human pride. In addition to the machine guns, hand grenades and anti-aircraft guns in his helicopter he’s also loaded elephants, panthers and penguins: he who possesses a weapon possesses the world. The machine hovers in the air like an armoured worker bee, all windows and hatches open. Out tumble an army jeep with armed soldiers, a complete tank and assorted ordnance.
Hanging from the wheel of the jeep is a large red sling containing animals –pathetic creatures that children happily recognize as kangaroo, pig, lion. The elephant’s tusks protrude helplessly from the cargo space. What does his defence system amount in comparison with all the weaponry swirling about him? Never in his entire life could he manage to sow as much death and destruction as are hidden in this arsenal – even if he wanted to, which isn’t likely. Animals do not have the desire to murder on a grand scale, even when their children are killed for no other reason than the pleasure of the hunt or money.
What kind of creature is that: a human being? What kind of animal is that hanging upside down on a rope ladder from the tail of the helicopter, the national flag in his hand, ready to be planted? Are his urge to possess and his bloodthirstiness driven by no other force that his fear of the unknown?
The helicopter is transporting weapons and soldiers – and animals from zoos, wildlife reserves and children’s farms. A present-day Noah’s Ark, but without the longing for a new tomorrow and a new man.

5.  The Angel.

The dream of the New Man has been blown right out of the water during these first years of the 21st century. What good is it to us, now that the accompanying ideologies have been proven unsound and have even resulted in war, dictatorship and exploitation? The current leaders of Cuba, North Korea and China are silent on this point, as are the false prophets of the New Economy in America. The New Man – the free, frivolous and creative man living in a custom-made New World – is no longer an option. Philosophers and scientists even shy away from any talk of ‘progress’. Too optimistic, is the current thinking, and impossible to substantiate anyway: progress with respect to what?
But how are we to think about the future if we can no longer regard the human individual as a creature with unprecedented possibilities? How can the old ideals of peace, justice and equality be realized if we regard ourselves as incorrigible?
The artist struggles with such questions. He is no longer young, he’s felt death to the marrow, and now he’s taken the ideals that inspired him as a theatre maker during the sixties and seventies and, with a sceptical heart, has turned them round and round in photographs, sculptures and installations. What he sees is abomination: burning cities, hacked off limbs, fighter jet pilots as angels of death. The phrase ‘Made in China’ is printed on the war games, army hats and gas masks that he comes across in New York and Amsterdam. For him these are symbols of exploitation, fear and legalized vengeance. Is this the world? Not as long as he’s around! The world may be imperfect, bloodthirsty and primitive, but it’s his world, too, and he’s got every right to plant his flag in it – a flag of longing, innocence and incorrigible hope.
He is cautious, though; he doesn’t take risks by designing new symbols. He wouldn’t know how, now that the world has taken cover behind its old positions. So he turns to something that reflects his pain and indignation as a cliché: the symbol of the Angel, young, white and innocent, a porcelain doll with a saintly face. Irony, of course. But it rubs us the wrong way to see her in the backpack of a tramp, a broken man in army issue underwear. Attached to his head is a searchlight that shines on his opened hands and bare feet. He’s taking a step, but in what direction? Beneath his feet is the earth – a big, round, flat dish of water, to which he has nothing to offer; his hands are empty.
Does this man know what he’s carrying on his back? Can’t he feel that unearthly being freeing herself from the black, stiff fabric of his backpack and holding up her arms? She has a white dove in her hand, wings ready for the Blue Yonder. He feels it, but he can’t see it.
That’s what hope is like: sentimental, almost melodramatic, but at the same time inescapably moving, because it constitutes our will to live. Hope looks for the human in the inhuman, the good in evil, freedom in captivity. It is the longing for something located elsewhere in time/space, something different, bigger, better, more beautiful perhaps than what we now know, than what we now are. That’s why people throw coins in the water under the man’s feet, as if the earth were a fountain that could bring happiness in exchange for a sacrifice. And maybe that’s just the way it is sometimes.


Amsterdam (NL)


Anna Tilroe, Five Texts for: Just About Now. Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier