Balancing acts – do you have to do everything?
Robin started off the discussion by sharing a question that had been preoccupying him lately: Do you have to do everything? There are countless opportunities and possibilities, also professionally as an artist, but is it necessary to go after all of them? How do you choose, and how to avoid the dreaded fear of missing out? Robin added that as an artist, it is often impossible to predict what will be good for your work, as you find inspiration in things and people serendipitously. This, of course, does not make taking decisions any easier. A professional type of opportunity we/he talked about are residencies and funding applications.
Once you have decided on an opportunity to pursue, the next hurdle is applying, for which there are usually strict deadlines. These often make it necessary to let go of excessive perfectionism when it comes to your application, something most artists around the table agreed they generally find very difficult. But the dilemma does not end after the application is successful, Robin explained, because even while you are in the middle of a new opportunity, a sense of guilt can creep up: Are you using the opportunity to the fullest? Are you (net)working enough? Would the other options not have been better, after all? Coming back home from a residency or work–related travel is not a refuge either, because once you are home you feel pressured to catch up on all the work that travelling didn’t allow you to complete.
“It is not easy to find a sense of calm and acceptance, a balance between what to do and what not to do”, Robin admitted.
Robin studied Greek and Latin for his Bachelor’s, because, he said, he had always wanted to become a writer. When he was admitted to the Rietveld academy he chose to specialise in Beeld en Taal –image and language– during his second year. Quite soon already, he grew discouraged because the program focused so much on the language side, which he felt already too familiar with, and not enough on the image half of it. There was a balance problem once again, this time between the two components that would become key aspects of his work.
Another artist suggested that it makes sense to want to have two specialisations –image and language– to be able to escape from one into the other when you get stuck. Robin agreed, but added that once you decide to invest in one of the two, the other can quickly become kind of a burden. You might get really good at one thing, only to have the other one weigh you down, waiting to be developed and pursued more fully.
After this initial discussion, it was time for Robin’s presentation. He had brought six of his printed projects with him, which he placed on the table in a neat stack.
“I was thinking on my bike on the way here”, he told us, “about retrospectives and presentations like this one, looking back: what a life is, what someone can do or make in a lifetime. What does it add up to.“ He gestured to the stack of books on the table: “and well: these are 12 years of mine. And I wonder, is it a lot?”
The first project we looked at together is a set of 16 postcards titled “Would you…”, each a still image from a movie with the dialogue as subtitle in white text at the bottom of the card.
“Would you care to dance with me?”
“How about a drink?”
“Will you have lunch with me one day?”
The postcards show the various indirect ways in which people go about asking the same daunting question – would you… like to go out with me? It is a question that makes you vulnerable, and Robin explained that he deliberately chose still images which do not give away who is asking the question at hand. The words are just present in the space, and leave the viewer to wonder whether it is the man or the woman in the scene, the artist or perhaps even themselves who are asking it – and who hasn’t fantasised at some point about asking out attractive people from movies? Maybe even before thinking of asking someone real and realistic.
Robin also showed us the archive that formed the basis for this work, a folder with the Dutch title Uitvragen, Wil je wat gaan doen (all files) on his computer with 207 screenshots from movies, ordered alphabetically. He shared that nowadays he almost cannot watch movies at all because he still feels the need to pause every other minute to take a screenshot and jot down the timestamp. “So on the one hand it’s a win because I created this archive”, he said, “But on the other hand I can’t just sit down with my laptop and start a movie. Well, that’s okay!”
While this was not his intention, this project has evolved into a sort of business card for Robin. He sometimes hands them out to people as an introduction into his work, a starting point for questions. “You could probably use them to really ask someone out, but I don’t know if anyone has done that”, he told us, and encouraged us to take home our favourite cards of the set.
After we got this initial insight into his work, Robin explained: “I think you could say that my work begins with questions. With asking, with repetition and exaggeration, with taking things literally. Repeating the question emphasises its literalness, straightforwardness.”
It also often circles around the relationship between the self and others, he added, which you might call an autistic theme.
Taking movie stills and dialogue out of context could also be a way of communicating the feeling of missing the context in real social situations, another artist suggested, and asked whether this was a conscious choice Robin made. “That’s true!”, he replied, but explained this had not been on his mind at the time.
Part one and Thinking in Pictures
Next, Robin showed us the two projects he graduated on from the art academy in 2010, and which he considers his first work. “It is a bit of a joke, because I only graduated at 33”, Robin said, “so I had a lot of time to think about what my first work should be”. In the end, he went for a project aptly titled “Part one”. It is a book with 101 pages, each taken from a different book, and each proclaiming Part one – The beginnings of 101 books.
Robin explained that he chose the number 101 as a nod to the sort of lists you often encounter online of 101 sites you must have visited, books you must have read, movies you must have watched.
He took this idea even further, printing 101 copies of the first edition of his book, keeping them together on a custom shelf as an installation; and 202 of the second edition, that were for sale.
Robin told us that this is a book about failing - not even being able to - start: the words Part one usually appear before the actual first sentences of any book, and in this work the first sentence is never reached. On the other hand it is also about failing to stop beginning – it keeps on beginning over and over again.
The cover of Part one contains a quote from the Myth of Sisyphus by Camus:
Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over…
Sisyphus is stuck in an endless cycle of beginning again and again, and yet Camus interprets his dilemma as a heroic act. This, ultimately, gives the work a sense of hope and freedom within limits.
Thinking in Pictures
The other project in Robin’s duo of first works is his book Thinking in Pictures. Similar in concept to the “Would you…” postcards, this book was Robin’s first, and much more extensive, venture into presenting his collection of movie stills. The central question of this book is What are you thinking about?
For the book Robin screenshot, saved and organised every instance this question is asked from 500 films, and arranged them across the pages relative to the timestamp at which they occur. Each double page represents one minute, so that a What are you thinking about? asked after 25 seconds of the film would start on page 1, continue on the second, and the same question asked after 55 seconds on page 2, moving onto the third page because of its implied duration, and so on. It is an experiment in visualising repetition at a glance, and was not easy to execute: how to solve multiple stills occurring with the exact same timestamp, or too many which should belong on the same page? After much puzzling, Robin and his designer figured it out and had 20 copies of the work printed.
We noticed that toward the end of the book, there are a lot of empty pages. “That’s because most films end after 2 hours or so”, Robin explained. At the very end of the book we found the culprit behind the many empty pages: “What are you thinking?”, asked after three hours, forty-two minutes and seventeen seconds in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Alec Guinness speaking to Claude Rains, Robin said, after checking in the book’s index.
The pages are the fullest in the middle – “I guess that’s where most thoughts occur”, Robin said. While this is just an observation, it would not be far-fetched to use this book, with its large and systematic collection, as a basis for quantitative research into the patterns of the question What are you thinking about? in film. Robin told us that the project's title, Thinking in Pictures, was inspired by Temple Grandin’s book of the same name, in which she details her life with autism and her experiences as a visual thinker. While addressing the age-old question of what thinking is, if there really is a distinction between visual and literal thinkers, artists traditionally belonging to the group, he wanted to nod at the distinct definition of thinking in pictures that Grandin propagates as specifically autistic. Pictures, movies, after all are made of many (about 24 a second), still images.
Is it possible to know what another person is thinking? A philosophically solipsistic question, addressed by Wittgenstein repeatedly: Robin said you could call this a core question of autism.
Another book on the table in front of us was Evol/Love, one of Robin’s more recent projects. In this book, which has a beautiful black and pink cover, Robin has published another gallery of movie stills. This time, the subject is love, and the quotes are various pieces of dialogue containing or pertaining to this complicated word.
As was the case for Thinking in Pictures, this second book of movie stills is Japanese bound, with double pages folded to outward to imitate the flow of time across the pages, like a leporello or a scroll. For Evol/Love there are in a way two versions of the book, one hidden inside the other, and visible if you were to cut the pages open: like mirrored twins. The mirror version on the outside contains the ‘negative’ images and quotes, where love becomes evol, but if you hold the pages to the light the text inside is unmirrored and the images are positive again. But normally you do not notice that people and things on the left are now on the right – except for the text which clearly goes from illegible to making sense again. You can also read the book in front of the mirror, of course, Robin added.
This project is clearly connected, in form and content, to the earlier book Thinking in Pictures, although ten years passed between the creation of the two projects. “Because whose thoughts do you really want to know about?”, Robin asks. “Those of the people you love.”
Finally, we also looked at Robin’s recent project Dedication(s), a thin book, about the size of a collection of poems. It is reminiscent of Part one, in that it is also a collection of pages, this time of dedications often found at the beginning of books, even before Part one begins. Robin selected only dedications made of three initials, so as to hint at the form(ula), the type or minimum of what a dedication could be: for example “To N.M.S.”, “For A.L.M.”, and “In Memory of J.V.C.”. There is one exception, containing three letters but also a word, on the last page of the book: “To you” (From Jean Websters 1912 children’s book Daddy-Long-Legs).
The dedications float in the foreground before a watermark of each book's respective title page, as a source indicating the author-dedicatee’s relationship. Robin explained that a book, like an artwork, is usually the product of a protracted period of time, research, investment, and engagement. As such, it could be taken as an expression of dedication, and Robin wondered: Is working out of dedication at odds with working out of obligation? Why do you do it? What do you do it for? Who do you do it for? The indirectly named authors included in Robin’s collection did it for, or maybe because of, C.L.S., E.A.H. M.W.B, or You, the reader.
Robin invited us to find connections between his books, and I couldn’t help but think that Dedication(s) relates beautifully to the other projects we have seen. Part one, its most obvious sibling project in form, but also in content: without the people behind the initials, there would likely not be anything to start from, or for. Thinking in Pictures relates insofar as a book is often deemed to be a product of thought, and the relation of thinking to images, words as images, is usually less talked about. Often, I imagine, the people inquiring after your thoughts and the people who end up in the dedications of your book are one and the same. They are in the midst of a relationship of which the courageous question “Would you…?” might have been the beginning. Finally, I believe that dedications have everything to do with (evol/)love.
What is a book?
Robin told us that he often thinks about where a book belongs – where they are most at home, as he put it. Are books at home on the bookshelf, or in your hands, when you read them or leaf through? Even if they are made to be held and read with the eyes, they will still spend most of their time on the shelf.
Out of this sentiment of affection and concern, Robin has worked together with professional carpenters to build custom ‘homes’ for his own books. This way, he created a bookshelf for the first edition of Part one to exactly fit the 101 copies of the book, and later did the same for Dedication(s) and Evol/Love.
“What is a book?”, another artist at the table asked Robin, to which he replied: “A book is a container for possibilities.”
Robin Waart is an artist who makes books who makes books
The medium of the book seems to run like red thread through Robin’s work. He shared with us that this consistency was neither planned, nor does it come easy. There is a constant negotiation between discovery, repetition and trying to contradict yourself or breaking with the rules you set once they become an obstacle or too much of a constraint.
After he completed his first two projects, Part one and Thinking in Pictures, which were quite successful, it dawned on Robin that he would from now on likely be labelled as a book artist. He refrained from wanting to make another publication, and there are eight years between Part one (2010/2011) and Dedication(s) (2018).
“Robin Waart is an artist who makes books who makes books”, a curator once (mistakenly) wrote in an email introducing him to someone else. It stuck with Robin –this doubling implying you can make and unmake something at the same time, like when in a double negation the ‘not not’ cancels itself out– as a position he should celebrate, actually exaggerating, “consciously, generously and more humorously” what had felt like a restriction for so long.
“At first I thought that was terrible!”, he remembered, and reflected that when you are an artist, people will remember you for a certain thing, one standout work, piece or a first impression, and you cannot really control what it will be.
What would Robin like people to remember, if he could have such control? another artist asked, and Robin thought about it for a moment before saying that he would rather have the freedom to always be able to change directions, and to not be remembered for only one accomplishment, project, product.
This is why, after his graduation, Robin decided not to make more books for a while. But consistency creeps up over time even when you are trying to avoid it, and unavoidably Robin found himself once again working on a new book. “I guess I am quite consistent actually”, he admitted. “I do keep coming back to this thing, this container, the book, and there is also a sort of joy and pleasure in that, as long as it doesn’t become a limiting rule”.
There was only about a year and a half between Dedication(s) and his book on love, but ten years passed between Thinking in Pictures and Evol/Love (2020). However, to Robin’s audience it will seem fully consistent: another book with movie stills. The same is true for the book projects Part one and Dedication(s): they are both projects made up of loose book pages, but separated by almost a decade. Robin thinks that the temporal distance is a good thing. Over time, a line becomes apparent in the work, and illuminates the strengths of the artist. But it is not a straightforward process, it doesn’t come by itself, he stressed. The consistency might seem obvious in retrospect, but it took him a long time to recognise it as such – to accept it and not think of the repetition as a lack of progress. “Perhaps the books are equally good or equally bad. In a lot of ways they are very different while very much the same”, Robin said.
Up next: everything that is wrong with my books
While it is easy to look at all of these books and be impressed, Robin himself shared that he was often disappointed at the time because the process of making them can be so complicated and frustrating. When it comes to putting an idea onto paper, and especially with the execution of Thinking in Pictures, a lot of things initially went wrong or didn’t turn out as planned entirely. To get the binding right, make sure no letters are cut off in the double pages when they are spread open, and to see to it each still image is in its correct spot on the page took a lot of effort, time and also money. Robin admitted that he felt very drained after the book was finally completed, a fatigue that took him years to fully recover from. That also added to a pause in his book-making. He did however say that while the work can of course be a source of stress, he would rather feel stressed because of something he is working on, than to do no work at all. The question is how to recover after the intensity of production when you are on a deadline and the overstimulation that comes with it – not how to avoid stress completely.
Of course there is always a difference between an idea and the finished artwork. Not everything can be put into practice, and there is no book without typos. Something always turns out differently than planned, and Robin said that he has gradually gotten better at accepting that difference as a challenge and even a quality, not just an impediment – learning to embrace it.
“I should do another talk, about everything that’s wrong with my books”, Robin quipped, but the idea was met with genuine enthusiasm around the table.