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Sarat Maharaj

MARION VON OSTEN (1963-2020)

Marion von Osten, 2019

Marion von Osten, 2019

In Berlin, Marion had spent the weekend at her sewing machine running up a skirt. After another deskbound day in Malmö, we dawdled along the health and well-being walk at the Ribersborgsstranden lapped by the Baltic. Fit Lycra bods, not an inch to spare, shot by: in their sights, the Öresundsbron of Scandi-noir fame. We shuffled along, mulling her skirt design. What was its drift? How did it touch on the stuff of her thinking, its mien?

By virtue of being “cut on the bias,” by scissoring a length of fabric “neither along nor against the grain of the weave” but athwart it, at a 45-degree angle. It gave the skirt’s peculiar fall: seamed panels taut across waist-hip-knee flaring out to ankle, at the hem, floating surplus yardage, weightless. The angled drape summed up Marion’s tackle: seldom head-on, almost always a sideways gambit. A crosswise move, “the cut” is a transversal ploy. It mirrors her cheeky penchant for cutting across disparate, incongruous activities: from crafting, curtain dyeing, and printing to curating, data mapping, talks, and songwriting to pottering around with seedlings and saplings to her more exotic involvements – horse whispering.

Yet not even a herd of wild mustangs could coax Marion to make a methodological meal of the “bias cut.” She was wary of rendering it an airtight system of procedures. The idea of an off-the-shelf methodological toolkit smacked of corporate R&D mania – a death kiss to the open-ended, DIY tenor of art practice. The “bias cut” was a plain figure of thought. If thinking was seepage from doing, then it doubled back to cast a self-reflexive eye over it: the vagaries of doing made the former “think twice.” The trope of the bias – “the swerve away from a straight course” – opened onto reference material galore on “method” not least by the serried ranks of French brainboxes expounding on “clinamen or inclination.” She raised her eyebrow at lesser hands that saw this as godsend for “theorizing methodology” for its own sake. Such jabber bogged them down when the job at hand was to muck in with the trope simply a low-key rule of thumb. She saw the acts of “figuring-fashioning-fabricating” as a single blow of the cerebral cortex–wrist–gut rather than in terms of the mind-muscle division of labour.

Is the gist of Marion’s credo “Against the grid of the weft, for the 45-degree diagonal shear”? Wouldn’t that contradict her abiding attraction to Alison and Peter Smithson’s “Urban Reidentification Grid” (CIAM 9, Aix-En-Provence, 1953)? Its appeal lay not in that it was a purist modernist grid writ large but because it was a sly, arched version that sidestepped it. A columnar arrangement of concepts, it lent itself to criss-cross readings of how urban dwellers cluster or are classified: the family-domestic pod of a London East End locale; less intimate social-municipal grouping; hard-nosed statistical-bureaucratic categories and the like. The UR Grid – we dubbed it a Proto-Google Dashboard – put the spotlight on busy, streetwise goings-on, an everyday “design for living.”

With hindsight, Marion came to see it as tinged with postwar interest in the shantytowns of the colonial cities bristling with calls for decolonisation. For planners of reconstruction of the war-wasted Euro-cites, they represented the welter of life, the capacity to survive adverse conditions. Were these more than vague intimations? They registered as distinct rumblings by the time the Smithsons did their Lean-to–Patio–Pavilion mash-up with Eduardo Paolozzi (“This is Tomorrow,” 1956). For Marion the UR Grid mirrored conditions of her own world – industrial decline, inertia, rust belts with half an eye on the teeming postcolonial slums and their resilience. She seized upon both the urbane street-smart optic and its oblique gaze on the colonial “outside” to rewire the Grid as her own conceptual vehicle. This is clear across her projects: “In the Desert of Modernity,” “Vietnam Discourse,” and “Bauhaus Imaginista,” to mention a few. She tailored the Grid to each project, on each occasion, “cutting the skirt to suit the cloth.”

I fancied that the “Grid as dashboard” she had in mind was not unlike Duchamp’s “squinted contraption”: To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour, 1918. Hers was an optical-lingual, double-crossing device. It gave both a recto and verso account of the world around, both a straight cartographic and an acute angled one – a skew-whiff version. In the frame of the modernist-colonial grid, the former mapped the mundane surface of her environs – her research stomping ground from Alpine hinterland to far-off Moroccan Atlas. The skew-whiff charted its underside – an unevenly opaque, “beneath the radar” reality. Both added up to show the Euro-urban world as coextensive with the Afro-Arab postcolonial – as coalescing, globalising realms of translation. If a borderless trans-space was unfurling, it was spawned by ever more knotted circuits of contemporary migrations, by transits and movements of people sans frontières.

Both cartographics ply their trade under the banner of the “Centre for Postcolonial Knowledge and Culture” – a moniker that makes the institution sound a bit of a staid outfit leaning towards dry academic know-how. From its outset, however, its driving force, novel for the time, had more to do with artistic knowledge production and its research gear – with processes of thinking through art practice, exhibitions, performative events, and the like. This marked a palpable shift both in mode and in locale of knowledge production.

The shift in “mode” was about stepping out beyond “academic bookish textuality” towards “everyday street orality.” It is a testimony to Marion’s ability to ease herself into an emerging polyglossic milieu, her capacity to think with and through “other” tongues, to tune into “migrant and alien” vocalities. She got under the skin of sonic difference, got to grips with it from the inside. These immersive transactions had a random air with unpredictable twists and turns, sporadic translation hitches. She took them on board as creative mishaps, as detours full of promise at odds with the regularities of social science method. The latter collated data and the lowdown on “other presences and migrant cultures” according to readymade units of analysis. At its heart was the linear, binary structure of the questionnaire. The black/white know-how it churned out stood apart from the variegated shades of understanding, of gradations of insight, transitions of “feeling at one with” that counted as components of art knowledge.

She steered the “shift of locale” deftly by venturing beyond the placid city core towards the urban edge of jam-packed “alien” pockets, outlier enclaves. They were criss-crossed by migrant tracks, traces of refugees sans papiers and clandestini trails. As zones they were flagged as “in the shadow of the tower blocks and walkway mazes,” “on the wrong side of the tracks,” “beyond the Paris Periph,” “beyond the pale,” in the banlieues with Abdellatif Laâbi and the hodgepodge of North African diasporics and émigrés, in the non-places of passers-by, of chance hook-ups, in the haunts and hang-outs of the souk, maidan, and kasbah.

Why should place and voice, the cross-hatch of “locale” and of “orality” matter? A lesson of his American exile, Adorno noted, was that knowledge was produced neither in a vacuum nor through an abstract theoretical system. Rather, it brewed up in the pinch of empirical circumstances but was unfettered by Empiricist rules. It emerged in the peculiarities of a situation, its bent – not unlike the “situatedness” of Marion’s art knowledge projects – in what Adorno called “empiria.”

The thrust of Marion’s ruminations on the creative industries in the digital age centred on the intensified division of artistic labour with decisive changes to the artist’s role. Today the “artist-curator-critic” lingers on in the shadow of a host of new-fangled functions – “creatives-developers-blaggers-influencers-trolls.” A parallel in the music industry saw the split up of the songwriter’s role into that of “top-liner–beat-maker–track-writer.” Diversification showed up the fact that the artist’s work was less solo act and more collaborative endeavour of a network of agents and sundry contributors. It also brought to light some questionable developments.

Marion touched on these in “The Creative Imperative” (2002–2003) and “Once we were artists” (2017). The wry second title reminds us that she is hardly wringing her hands over the loss of artistic identity. The artist had become a chameleon capable of slipping into an array of functions. The “artist-shaped gap” had not so much been plugged as had an “indeterminate practitioner” placeholder slapped over it.

In this fluid situation it seemed as though anyone – data visualizer, info-displayer, social scientist, theorist, and the like – could step into the artist’s shoes. Their interest was clear-cut: How to give their material in hand an aesthetic makeover? Such “data visualization” might be valid in its own right. But the focus is on the narrow task of making information easier and more pleasurable for the viewer to consume. They are at odds with the artist’s interests – wayward, difficult, and obscure to spell out, even opaque and untranslatable. These are upended. With these developments, the wistful note in Marion’s title does understandably hanker after not so much the “artist figure” as after strands of the critical-creative elements it stood for. The artist’s avatar – the “indeterminate practitioner” – is obliged to remain for the while the blank space of the “unnameable.”

10 May 2018. The Thames: spotless sky, breezeless river.

No sooner had I set foot on the ferry than Marion rang: Were we meeting for a vegan? She was prepping near the Tate for a Bauhaus talk. My mother and I were on board the Governor for the trip down the river to scatter my aunt’s ashes.

Marion and I agreed to wave at each other, she from the Tate embankment, I from the passing barge.

It was not to be.

Sarat Maharaj