Josef, the Scrivener

The first book that Josef Dabernig copied was Schönheit und Verdauung. Die Verjüngung des Menschen durch fachgemäße Wartung des Darmes (Beauty and Digestion. Rejuvenation through Proper Servicing of the Intestines), the first edition of which appeared with the publisher Neues Leben in 1920.1 There were personal reasons for Dabernig’s choice of this book. He came down with a metabolism disorder when he began studying in 1977. However, he did not recover from this illness by dieting but by doing heavy forestry work over a period of two months. As a sort of compensation he followed up this sort of radical “work cure” by hand-copying each and every page of the entire book (176 pages.) He did this sitting on the bank of a river, with the writing pad resting on his knees. He selected a school notebook in European standard A5 format and used a ball-point pen to fill both sides of the unlined sheets with legible handwriting. As the weeks passed Dabernig’s writing became increasingly smaller with the letters moving closer and closer together. Each of these sheets that he had literally filled to the brim had a perfect, regular structure, resembling a picture or a printed work which seemed to have been produced by mechanical means rather than by the human hand.

Dabernig understands the act he performed here as a sort of catharsis, with which he was able to “free himself in writing” from authoritarian school rules to which he had been subjugated for eight years while attending a boarding school. At the same time he saw it as a way to liberate himself from the restrictions of the cure which he had not adhered to. The discipline that Dabernig’s gesture of writing – with all of the duress of “sitting to the point of no longer being able to sit” and having to adapt himself to a mechanism of writing – finds its counterpart in the content of this first book which he copied. The regime, the cure against “digestive disorders” which the physician Franz X. Mayr wants to bestow upon us is extremely rigid and ideologically charged – which
is symptomatic for the time it was created, right after the end of WW1. The author links his mechanistic conception of the body, whose “digestive apparatus” has to be “serviced”, “rehabilitated” or “cleansed” with the phantasms that were generally projected onto the “people’s body” (Volkskörper) in those days – “filth”, “decay”, “decline”2 and the concomitant “harm inflicted upon the welfare of the individual, the family, the state and all of humanity.”3

With this first hand-copied work Josef Dabernig initiated a practice which he has resumed again and again intermittently. Here his conceptual and systematic way of thinking played an important role. Following the “F. X. Mayr Kur”, in 1978, he worked with an associative selection of texts taken from school textbooks on botany, protection of nature and landscape, soil science, geology, cultural history or chemistry and biology from his father’s library. In 1994, when he was in Cracow on a scholarship, which required that he create a piece in that city, he copied the 94 pages constituting the last chapters of the book La Storia di Napoli which he brought with him especially for this purpose.

In connection with a public art competition in Lower Austria4 – a joint project carried out together with the architect Rudolf Prohazka – in 1995, he copied a text, but this time he did not do this by hand but by means of a computer. As an almost ironic description of the project he submitted with the proposal a chapter he had copied in its entirety from a treatise on Awareness of One’s Point of View and How the World Relates. The Image of a Living Reflection in Leibniz and its Meaning for Goethe’s Late Work.5 The scientific theme of the mirror was selected since it related conceptually to the competition. The architect had planned to mount forty-two glass panels equipped with mirrors placed in the middle of a path leading to the church. For Dabernig it was important that a filmic experience could have come to bear here: “We are moving in the local outdoor cinema, passing by one projection screen after the other in a scene based on the laws of optics. The mere presence on the church path activates the cinema function; we move in the self-defined drama or epos of a documentary along an umbilical cord formed by the
42 lamps illuminating reality.”6

After spending a month in Berlin in 1996, Dabernig worked with city guides from which he hand-copied excerpts on architecture that interested him, and this was only buildings from East Berlin. He used texts from three guides. One had appeared in East Germany in 1976, the two others from 1991 and 1993, respectively. These text-images he juxtaposed with photographs – detailed shots from a central perspectival viewpoint which focused on the grid structure of the facades.

The most recent hand-copied piece which Dabernig made in 1998 is a 38-page
(DIN A4 format) copy of a book – Il territorio dell’architettura by Vittorio Gregotti.
He based this on a 1988 edition of the publication by the leading Italian architectural theoretician who had written this book in 1966. Here Dabernig sounded out, to a self-agonizing extent, the limits of his ability to write in small letters. An A4 format page of his Gregotti text has 87 lines à 90 characters which corresponds to a letter size of less than 8 points.

In this dry enumeration of Dabernig’s written works his seemingly affirmative subjugation to the principle of an “aesthetic of administration” first becomes evident. Referring to Adorno, Benjamin Buchloh had noted such a principle at work in conceptual art as an expression of a “completely administered world”7: The calligraphy and copying exercise enforced with school strictness or even the precision reminiscent of an overly scrupulous bookkeeper where cigarettes are counted, gas bills and entry tickets collected and jotted down.

In a different type of copying work, though one that is related to books in terms of system, Dabernig enumerates different forms of consumer behaviour. A table drawn on the front and back side of a piece of cardboard informs the reader about his consumption of cigarettes between September 23, 1979 and September 22, 1980 which he entered by hand every day. In his statistics of filling stations and tanks of gasoline, Dabernig lists all the filling procedures between 1995 and 2000, indicating the number of liters and the place where he stopped to get gas. He began documenting another similar statistic in 2000 when he changed his type of car. As his contribution to the Manifesta 3 (2000) Dabernig compiled a list of football games he had attended between 1989 and 2000 which he, again, translated as a chronological list of a work based on copying all of the labels, even advertisements, which he found on a ticket. In both of the last pieces a computer was used to document the information.

Each document gives us insight into Dabernig’s personal history and his main interests. We get snippets of information abut his life style, his movements and acts that are defined by time, space or geography. All of this, however, remains highly fragmentary and caught up in a contingency that can trigger a certain unease. In his attempts to trace his motifs Dabernig lets his onlookers tumble into a void as he does the protagonists in his films. Referring to Rosa Coeli (2000) Georg Schöllhammer notes that they act according to an “unfazed mechanic routine”, “in a plot that boils down to nothing more than its almost uncanny presence”. Referring to the film automatic (2002, together with G.R.A.M.) Maria Hjavalova writes about “familiar gestures and movements” but also about “acts” that, however, “remain fragmented, with missing connections between one another”.8

The systems all come together in the “story” that Dabernig has been writing here for decades. On the one hand, these are ordering systems which influence his texts but with a seeming detachment. The diet, the expertise he has gathered, the history of Naples, the guide to Berlin, the architectural theory, the theory of reflection in Leibniz or the statistics on his personal life habits or processes. Dabernig presents these different manifestations in a referential loop, giving them expression in writing systems whose medium and actor he himself becomes.

The function in which the artist inscribes his history here is structurally ambivalent. With anachronistic recourse to handwriting he goes back to the early 19th century which was characterized by alphabetization campaigns – a time in which, according to Friedrich A. Kittler, a “bourgeois individual (was able) to emerge” with the introduction of an “organically coherent handwriting.”9 What was special about the “individual” handwriting was its fluidity, i.e., that the letters had to be written in a context. “ Since Rossberg’s Systematische Anweisung zum Schön- und Geschwindschreiben (1796 – 1811), which abolished the old well-separated Gothic letters, everything has aspired to an aesthetic of ’beautiful and accurate’ connection. Whoever writes in block capitals is not an individual. For this reason the indivisible being was to succumb to the typewriter letters and types of 1900. The large metaphysical entities invented in Goethe’s time –
education, autobiography, world history – create a continuous organic stream, simply because they have been carried by a continuous flow of writing since childhood –
an italic type in handwriting according to Gerhard Rühm’s ironic testimony to the typewriter.”10

The typewriter transformed in virtual terms the handwriting (male) author figure (to put it simply) into a technical-media machine with crucial consequences for both his imagined individuality and his written products. In Grammophon. Film. Typewriter Kittler quotes Nietzsche: “Our writing apparatus contributes to our thoughts.”11 “Writing for Nietzsche is thus no natural expansion of man who would create his vocal soul, individuality through handwriting. On the contrary (…) man swaps position: from the role of writing to the surface of writing. Inversely, all writing is usurped by an inhuman media engineer who Stoker’s Dracula soon calls by name” – the first typewriters had “blindly dismembered” paper before Underwood introduced visibility in 1897.12 Kafka wrote his Penal Colony in 1914.

The mechanization of handwriting and its mass-production facilitated by the typewriter –
a process which in the late 19th century was carried out almost entirely by women –
subverts the writer’s authorship. The automated society of modernism is pervaded by a new form of structural violence which disciplines man and subjects them to rules.

When, in 1977, Josef Dabernig began copying texts in his drills, he was less under the sway of Body Art, at the time nearing its completion, with its staging of the vulnerable body as a medium or material with a pathos that was at least in part radical. He proceeded from the conceptual approaches which Buchloh referred to as the “aesthetic of administration”. According to Buchloh it had pivoted on “replacing the (traditional artistic) object of spatial and visual experience by linguistic definition alone (the work of art as analytic proposition)”, thus making “the most momentous attack on its appearance and visibility, its status as commodity and its form of distribution.”13

At the time Dabernig had begun studying with the sculptor Joannis Avramidis. One thing about his stele-like, abstract anthropomorphic figures was important to him: the “constructed model of a person” (Dabernig) which had also interested him in Hans von Marées or Oskar Schlemmer. Without wanting to interpret his first hand-copied pieces as being a step already consciously taken toward conceptual art, they can be seen as anticipating something characteristic of Dabernig’s entire work, i.e., a contextual way of thinking and working that combines linguistic (or mathematical) and visual signs in a structural way.

Buchloh sees the “integration of both language and visual sign in a structural model”, as Sol LeWitt had carried out in his piece Structures, as being paradigmatic for conceptual art. In this logic, Dabernig was actually brought into relation with LeWitt, since he fulfilled his demand of working “like a clerk” by “cataloguing the results of a premise”, thus allowing “a high degree of rationality” for the artistic process by eliminating “emotional and aesthetic considerations.”14 The seeming rationality characteristic of Dabernig’s work at first sight, however, has its aporistic flipside, comparable to what Rosalind Krauss noted critically about those interpretations for which Sol LeWitt’s “geometric emblems are the illustration of the mind, the demonstration of rationalism itself.”15

Krauss compares Le Witt’s “System” (which is “shot through with order”) with the passages in Beckett’s Molloy where the narrator describes how he sucks pebble stones according to a ritual he has developed himself and then distributes the stones in the four pockets of his coat. In a strictly structured sequence he transfers the pebbles from his mouth to the pockets and from one to the next in search of a solution to his goal of “not sucking the same stones as a moment before, but others.”16 As Krauss notes: “What we find (in LeWitt) is the ‘system’ of compulsion, the obsessional person’s unwavering ritual, with its precision, its neatness, its finicky exactitude, covering over an abyss of irrationality.”17

Josef Dabernig introduces an important factor in the obsessive practice of the systematization of concept art, namely, the performative physical exercise. In the series of letters on pages of hand-written text and their transformation into texts congeals in a paradigmatic way while he has committed his body and made it the instrument and mirror of (internal and external) system constraints. It is an act of writing that is posited as a sort of renunciation of a “reasonable” artistic activity. In a sort of reversal, Dabernig has taken a literary mode he was not familiar with: Bartleby, the Scrivener by Hermann Melville (1853)18, the tragic-symptomatic figure from a time in which the typewriter had not yet been invented but the Morse machine already existed.19 In Melville’s story which takes place in a notary’s office on Wall Street Bartleby becomes transformed from one day to the next from a hand-copier of documents to a refusenik. By constantly repeating the phrase “I would prefer not to” he categorically refuses any further copying assignment only to then “prefer” in repetitious monotony – to the point of self-destruction – to no longer eat. Bartleby dispenses with being human, he renounces being an individual and with this radical turn also his life. With this unemotional and absolutely unrelenting stance he acts like a machine that no longer functions or to put it more colloquially “has simply given up the ghost”.

The aporia of the emerging modernism echoed in Bartleby’s “irrationality” is reflected by Josef Dabernig in terms of its postmodern implications. Man moves and acts in system of self-control and circuits according to different, intransparent rules. He functions like an instrument and a medium, as a computer or processor but also as a writing or mirroring surface in a world of contingent systems in which, to paraphrase Baudrillard, he remains caught in the “anthropological uncertainty” of being either “man or machine”.

Dabernig, a keen observer and documenter, uses provocative means to play with various forms of “conditioning” only to subvert them – in his films in particular – by means of irony. In his fundamentally ambivalent works he succeeds in tracing what dictates how we become conditioned in the seemingly conventional and correctly formal aspects. Over and beyond this, he is able to write a meta-text on a possible manifestation of an everyday biography.

1 Franz X. Mayr, Schönheit und Verdauung. Die Verjüngung des Menschen durch fachgemäße Wartung des Darmes (1920, Verlag Neues Leben), 5th ed., Verlag Neues Leben, Bad Goisern, 1975
2 Klaus Theweleit, Männerphantasien. 1st vol.
3 Mayr, op.cit.
4 Artistic competition – Weg Hagenbrunn, 1995, joint project with Rudolf Prohazka, did not materialize.
5 Jürgen Nieraad, Standpunktbewusstsein und Weltzusammenhang. Das Bild vom lebendigen Spiegel bei Leibniz und seine Bedeutung für das Alterswerk Goethes, 1970, Studia Leibnitiana Supplementa, (ed. Kurt Müller and Wilhelm Totok), vol. VIII, Franz Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1970, pp. 118 – 136.
6 Josef Dabernig/Rudolf Prohazka, text accompanying competition submission (1995) reprint in this publication, p. 42.
7 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique (Some Aspects of Conceptual Art 1962 – 1969), in: Claude Gintz, L’art conceptuel, une perspective, catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989, p. 41 – 53.
8 Georg Schöllhammer, fahren, stehen, fahren. ›automatic‹, ›Parking‹, ›Rosa coeli‹– three new films by Josef Dabernig, in springerin, Hefte für Gegenwartskunst, Sommer 2003, p. 60. Mária Hlavajová, Fade In. Films by Josef Dabernig, in: catalogue Fade In. Films by Josef Dabernig, 2003, BAK/basis voor actuele kunst Utrecht.
9 Friedrich A. Kittler, Aufschreibesysteme. 1800.1900, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1984, 4th ed. 2003, p. 101.
10 Friedrich Kittler, Aufschreibesysteme. op.cit., p. 102.
11 Friedrich Kittler, Grammophon. Film. Typewriter, Brinkmann und Bose, Berlin, 1986, p. 293.
12 Ibid., p. 305. “A text that blindly dismembers parts of the body and perforates human skin, stems by necessity from typewriters before 1897 when Underwood finally introduced visibility. Peter Mitterhofer’s Model 2, the wooden typewriter prototype from 1866, did not even have types and a color ribbon as opposed to Malling Hansen. By contrast needles perforated the paper – for example, in good Nietzschean style, with the inventor’s name.”
13 Buchloh, From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique, op.cit, p. 41.
14 Günther Holler-Schuster, Betreff: ‘Montage – System’ 1996, in: catalogue Josef Dabernig Montage System, Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz 1996.
15 Rosalind E. Krauss, LeWitt in Progress (1977), in: R. E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., London, England, 1988, p. 246.
16 Kraus, LeWitt in Progress, op.cit., p. 256. Quote from Molloy: “Pausing then, and concentrating, so as not to make a ball of it, I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, in which there are no stones left, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat. At this stage then the left pocket of my greatcoat is again empty of stones, while the right pocket of my greatcoat is again supplied, and in the right way, that is to say with other stones that I have just sucked (…)”. Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Grove Press, New York, 1965. All excerpts appear on pp. 69 – 72.
17 Krauss, LeWitt in Progress, op.cit., p. 254.
18 Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener. A Story of Wall-Street.
19 Kittler, Grammophon. Film. Typewriter, op.cit., p. 281, “And when, in 1840, Samuel Morse had his cable telegraph patented there was a news-transmitting technique on the market whose speed of light surpassed anything produced by hand.”

Dabernig, Josef. Film, Foto Text Objekt, Bau
German/English. 212 pp., 280 b/w illustrations. Edited by Barbara Steiner on behalf of Museum for Contemporary Art Leipzig. Published by Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 2005. Authors: Silvia Eiblmayr, Christian Kravagna, Matthias Michalka, Barbara Steiner and Igor Zabel

Silvia Eiblmayr