Gregor Weichbrodt: No Offense

  • Julia Pelta Feldman
  • ·
  • 2015-11-01

A version of this essay was included in the program accompanying Gregor Weichbrodt’s salon at Room & Board on October 29, 2015. Julia Pelta Feldman is the director of Room & Board, an artist’s residency in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Gregor Weichbrodt recently visited a friend’s apartment in Berlin, the city where he lives (a short train ride from Potsdam, where he was born). He knew that this friend often hosts international guests, but Weichbrodt, finding the apartment’s contents labeled with their own names, was nonetheless struck by a feeling of disorientation. Der Kühlschrank on the refrigerator; die Wand on the wall: of course, these words were there to help visitors learn German, but for Weichbrodt, a native speaker, the experience had a surreal quality: the redundant explanations served to estrange him from these familiar, domestic things.

I had not properly appreciated Weichbrodt’s feeling of discombobulation at finding himself here in New York until he proposed applying the same treatment to the apartment that comprises Room & Board, where he has been artist-in-residence this month. He has learned a few new English words in the process, but the primary goal is not to orient him, but rather to disorient everyone else: to communicate his experience of estrangement in the face of gratuitous obviousness. In doing so, he both allows native English speakers to feel like strangers on our own soil and reminds us of his own constant awareness that he does not belong here. (Weichbrodt has a habit, when some minor error in his English is corrected, of saying “Sorry.” That he is both genuinely abashed and aware that he needn’t be is suggested by the fact that he has lately escalated this practice to pre-emptive atonement, apologetically explaining, “I’m German – no offense.”)

The verbal redundancy of the labels makes the perfect cognitive hors d’oeuvre for Weichbrodt’s work, which often makes too much sense and too little all at once. As in his encounter with the labeled apartment, it’s not in language’s foreignness but in its familiarity that we find the bizarre. That is precisely where Apollinaire’s sense of une sorte de surréalisme originates, not to mention most jokes.

Still, it surprised me that Weichbrodt sought to share a personal experience. Even in his native tongue, he is not given to foregrounding his own subjectivity. In fact, in his work – much of which takes the form of an insistent first-person perspective – he avoids it entirely. This is especially true of his English texts, for whose qualities he is only partly responsible.

My first interaction with Weichbrodt was online. For his book I Don’t Know, released earlier this year, Weichbrodt needed the assistance of native English speakers to suggest a variety of expressions of ignorance with which to populate his text. Weichbrodt had written a script in the programming language Python that would weave through Wikipedia from any given starting point, assembling a list of article titles that resembles the kind of internet clickhole down which each of us occasionally plummets (or perhaps an internet browser’s stream-of-consciousness). But the project of I Don’t Know was to deny any knowledge along this path: “I’m not well-versed in Literature. Sensibility – what is that? What in God’s name is An Afterword? I haven’t the faintest idea. And concerning Book design, I am fully ignorant. What is ‘A Slipcase’ supposed to mean again, and what the heck is Boriswood?” (1).

Weichbrodt’s collaborator in 0x0a, the two-person literary collective from which I Don’t Know emerged, is Hannes Bajohr, who asked if I could help by contributing phrases. Finding this an extraordinarily fun task, I provided a long list. What in the world, who the hell, where the fuck … ? I haven’t the foggiest idea. The result of my enthusiasm is that, for better or worse, the text occasionally sounds a bit like me (“I’ve never heard of People from Berlin. Is Heinz Schweizer famous or something? Who the shit is Alfred Dürr?” (229).) I feel a little guilty about having left my fingerprints on Weichbrodt’s piece, but he doesn’t seem to mind at all. His ego doesn’t trouble the work’s course; mine couldn’t, either.

In I Don’t Know, the narrator’s relentless claim to ignorance skews from the absurd – “I don’t know what people mean by ‘A Building’” (6) – to the sneeringly dismissive – “Do people even go to London?” (5) – to the perfectly reasonable: “Vinca alkaloids are unfamiliar to me. And I’m sorry, did you say ‘Vinpocetine’?” (282). Often, the text undermines itself: “I’m completely ignorant of Art Deco architecture in Arkansas. Can you tell me how to get to The Drew County Courthouse, Dual State Monument, Rison Texaco Service Station or Chicot County Courthouse?” (212). I don’t know about you, but the narrator of I Don’t Know knows a hell of a lot more about Arkansas’s architectural history than I do. [1]

And yet computers, as they constantly remind us through their shocking stupidity, actually know next to nothing. The Python program that generated I Don’t Know makes no distinction between common sense and obscure data. There is a similar mechanism of bafflement at work in Holiday, which Weichbrodt presented to the assembled guests at his salon. Holiday begins from the post-Internet premise that documentation is more important than experience: what is a vacation if not photographs and pithy captions to explain them? This is exactly what Holiday provides: photographs from Google Maps of randomly-chosen locations identified as landmarks, and text derived from the application of nascent image-recognition software from Imagga to those photographs.


In distilling the point of travel from the activity of it, the narrator of Weichbrodt’s Holiday calls to mind a literary precedent: Jean des Esseintes, the attenuated aristocrat of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel À rebours, translated into English as Against Nature or Against the Grain. [2] Des Esseintes, the dead-end of a long, inbred lineage, is so consumed with ennui that even decadence bores him. He cloisters himself with prints by Moreau and Redon and luxuriously-bound editions of Mallarmé, and instead of leaving home, he simulates travel with evocative trinkets, pictures, and books: “Movement, after all, seemed futile to him. He felt that imagination could easily be substituted for the vulgar realities of things.” [3]

But for Des Esseintes’s armchair excursions, exertions of the imagination are still required. Who has the time, or the energy? Weichbrodt’s Holiday improves upon Des Esseintes’s model by removing this last toil: the programming script takes on the work of imagination that itself replaced actual experience. (If the delectation of reality is refined by being purged of its messy and unnecessary aspects, then Weichbrodt – having rendered the delectation, too, obsolete – is the ultimate connoisseur.) “Travel” is the most vital embodiment of what we call experience. But its pleasure, as Huysmans remarks, “only exists as a matter of fact in retrospect and seldom in the present, at the instant when it is being experienced.” [4] Therefore, Weichbrodt has achieved a victory over experience itself.

Holiday also demonstrates that what is gratuitously obvious to me – the names of kitchen appliances, for example – may be a matter of some difficulty for someone without my knowledge and experiences. If you have been a stranger in a strange land, you know the feeling. But imagine how a computer must feel: it knows only what it is told, lacking Des Esseintes’s power of imaginative synthesis. Thus, in Holiday, the narrator’s observations veer from the superfluous to the spurious: whether the algorithm detects something that is obviously there, or apparently invents something that is not, it has missed the point of the photograph.

Holiday’s shifts from image to text certainly foreground the failure of translation: the work would be less interesting if this tender technology were more successful. This failure provides the germ of much of 0x0a’s output. [5] But then, it’s a commonplace that translation’s inadequacy is also its strength: it produces a new work. It seems highly appropriate, then, that Weichbrodt and Bajohr’s latest work, a collaboration, takes on translation directly. If any translation is imperfect, ever an interpretation, than surely more of them leads to a richer understanding of the original work. In this spirit of generosity, 0x0a has determined to double the number of English translations of Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), Franz Kafka’s indispensable novella, which was first published one hundred years ago. This project, whose initial results we were privileged to hear during the salon – Weichbrodt read aloud the opening lines of all seven of these new texts – is of course called The Translation. It is called that because “translation” is a synonym of “metamorphosis.” From there, you have a pretty good picture of where the rest comes from. In these new interpretations, the celebrated Gregor Samsa (no relation) awakens to finds himself transformed into an “atrocious varmint,” a “monstrous pest,” a “verminous glitch,” a “lurid parasite,” an “immoral louse,” a “horrific vermin,” and a “mammoth worm.” As many of 0x0a’s projects suggest, it is actually easier to create a new work than to communicate the meaning of an extant one. (Digital literature is doing its part to dethrone the tyrant of creativity.)

But why only seven new translations? Why not make the project infinite, unending, like the permutations of language itself? The execution may be impossible, but the question is legitimate. In nearly all of his projects, Weichbrodt struggles not only with a surfeit of material, but also against the impossibility of a true ending: Holiday and I Don’t Know could go on forever, or nearly. This quality particularly propels Chicken Infinite, a compilation of thousands of recipes culled from the Internet into an epic compendium of ingredients and instructions (during the salon, the text of Chicken Infinite was continuously projected on a wall of the kitchen).

“Chicken Infinite” (Photo: © Nate Boguszewski

Building on these implications, Weichbrodt made a special project for Room & Board during his residency: BÆBEL. Another work which both gestures towards and demands infinity, BÆBEL comprises an awesome aggregation and reshuffling of all the IKEA furniture-assembly instructions available online. [6] The result has a surprising formal beauty that is only underlined by its incoherence. BÆBEL’s name suggests both staggering ambition – and if you followed its instructions, could assemble all IKEA furniture into a single fixture, what could that be but a tower to god? – and its promise of universal comprehension: IKEA’s power is predicated on communicating across languages, which is why its manuals eschew words entirely for these severe and elegant images. For the salon, the full text of BÆBEL was printed into a run of zine-sized booklets, each unique.

Ultimately, of course, the experiment fails: BÆBEL doesn’t resolve into a comprehensible whole; its excess of explanation once again causes estrangement. After all, language alone isn’t to blame for our failures in communication. Weichbrodt knows this already; that’s why he wrote “dishwasher” on the dishwasher.

[1] Here, it is even more imperative than usual that we not conflate the author with the narrator. It cannot be Weichbrodt; he hasn’t even read the book.

[2] I would like to thank Dr. Maureen Pelta for suggesting the reference.

[3] Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against the Grain, trans. John Howard (New York: Lieber & Lewis, 1922), 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See, as another example, Bajohr’s Maschinensprache works, in which a poem read aloud by a computer voice is recorded by a speech-recognition program set to a different language. Tristan Tzara’s Pour faire un poème dadaïste then becomes Profound brand at least (their first lines, respectively: “Prenez un journal / Prenez des ciseaux”; “financial night / we need to see Sue”).

[6] I also see BÆBEL as a nod to domesticity, Weichbrodt’s take on the homelike side of Room & Board (artists-in-residence live, work, and present here in my apartment) that has, one way or another, inspired each of our residents so far. (Perhaps Weichbrodt was influenced by the vibes emanating from Daniel Fishkin’s Bed Piece: Pelta Feldman Variation, a musical bed in which he has slept all month.)