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“At the Watersheds of Thought” 1
An essay on the binding force of signs

By Christoph Kivelitz, 2007
English translation by Nicole Gentz and Peter Kleinhempel

Can anyone draw the process of thinking? Can one think while drawing? When we think, what processes take place, where and how? “Data processing” – rather than signal transmission and signal storage – is what would seem to form the core of cognitive processes. Nowadays we have quite a good understanding of the relationships involved in the calculatory processes of logic and mathematics, as evidenced by our successful advances in computer science. But the structure of the semantic relationships that are embodied in the functional and anatomical organization of our brain and that allow us to react to others and interact with others through language and behavior – this issomething we are only beginning to understand.2

   Bizarre, entwined shapes they are, Hannes Kater’s drawings and room installations. The viewer is rather tempted to call them systems or organisms that – though they may well be based on a narrative component – primarily represent intricate contexts, concatenations of figures, objects and signs, perhaps even chemical reactions, physical processes or social relations and organizational schemes. Individual elements – faces, receptacles, buildings – stand out clearly as microstuctures, elements where force centers seem to converge and from where scenic moments unfold, polycentrically positioned, linked to each other by various strata of arrows, lines, hieroglyph-like formations. Perhaps what we are faced with here is a kind of secret language, a visual code or a scientific parameter that can be systematically analyzed and deciphered. In any case, the viewer feels an urgent need to penetrate the secrets of the puzzle spread before him, to reduce it to a conceptually logical statement. At the same time, however, he succumbs to the fascination of the objects proliferating before him in all their clarity and simplicity, like plants or organs, as though what was taking shape here was an independent reality with its own inherent laws and objectives existing beyond any rational function.

   In his exploration of “Thought and Language”, the Russian philosopher, priest and mathematician Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) describes signs as being primarily material and autonomous. He views words and images as substantial things or processes that have their own realities and cannot be reduced to the mere expression of something else. The emancipation of words and images from contentual relationships is also an element of the Suprematist and Constructivist art movements. Florensky himself recognized the close link between his philosophy of life and language and the objectives of the 19th-century Symbolist artists who sought to understand speech as something productive and words as being created anew in every speech act, in accordance with the style and nature of every language. This holistic-organic approach was, in Florensky’s view, a vital alternative to the conceptual logic of science and traditional philosophy. He saw the structure of his approach as being like a fabric with individual “thought knots” but with hardly any answers for what he called “inflorescences of questions”.

   In this network, even the one who tied the knots of the net does not immediately see clearly all the relationships between his individual knots and not all possible interacting combinations of the thought focuses. He too can take unexpected new paths from one focal point to another that have been laid down by the network without the net maker’s direct intention.3

   What is being described here is a circular manner of thinking that reformulates its day-to-day philosophy of life in a constant loop of surging and ebbing rhythms. This is an approach that is reflected in a rather similar manner in the drawings of Hannes Kater. His creative activity encompasses the production of drawings and installations on the one hand and theoretical reflection and confrontation with this work on the other. In a constant process of conciliation, he searches for a meaning to ascribe to his activity while at the same time expressing fundamental doubts as to whether his artistic work might have a function at all. Circling around the topic, avoiding it, constantly returning to the starting point, never explaining anything quite clearly, Hannes Kater adopts an amazing variety of different points of view as his own.

   When attempting to describe his artistic method, Hannes Kater refers to himself as a “drawing generator”. He sees the production of drawings not as a mechanized, purely technical process, but as a continuous scenic project that constantly reinvents itself through “performers” and dramaturgical constellations. His artistic work unfolds on a variety of levels, some of them intertwined and others diametrically opposed to each other. His drawings are governed by strict design rules. With mostly two and no more than four colors, Kater uses felt tips to pen his work on standard formats such as DIN A4 or US letter. In his execution, he draws on a repertoire of symbols that bond in associations with newly found forms, flow into organic structures and are ultimately subsumed into new compositional systems.

   As for the recipient, Hannes Kater does indeed recognize the necessity of verbalizing his position, and to this end he has invented a kind of “translation program”. He explains his pictorial abbreviations in terms of certain motifs or figures. The “performers” that he creates transport content, emotions and memories triggered by the artist’s own associations or personal experiences, or by texts he has been given. Hannes Kater develops a system, but again and again he suspends the structure and logic of this system or at the very least questions it with permanent transformations and shifts of meaning within his repertoire.
His personal website4 documents a growing inventory of drawings with diary-like notes organized in “year-by-year blocks”. Hannes Kater’s web presence is also a kind of self-referential system with its own codes and links that interactively involve the user in their amorphous structures. For instance, the website has a complete and regularly updated list of “performers”. The fact that all of them are catalogued and explained in this dictionary-like classification shows that the artist wants to establish a certain objective distance. Like in preparation for a scientific experiment, the individual “performers” are first isolated – put into typecases, so to speak – and then numbered and associatively described in their various connotations of meaning. This encyclopedic approach of elucidation – and simultaneous obfuscation – shows, however, that we are dealing not so much with embodiments of concrete concepts and ideas but rather with peripheral paraphrases of feelings, personal opinions and relationships that can be understood only from an emotional angle.

   Performer number 12 for instance, the “bread brain”, represents “archaic or instinctive thought”. Number 8, the “mouth chain”, is the visualized embodiment of “talk, gossip, social control”. Performer number 11, which evokes “(indefinite) negative premonitions”, is used when we “want to suppress something, to forget”, while number 26 seeks to depict the concept of a “limited idea of the world”. The chains of performers are meticulously classified in tables, their permutations and metamorphoses followed with near-scientific pedantry and positioned within a multidimensional system of coordinates. In a threshold place between individual memory, diffuse perception and verbalization, the drawings outline clues and links, conjure up contexts that are then in turn dissociated from every narrative context by a-logical links, and blast open the semantic system from the inside. What the draftsman wants is to construct models that are innately sound and articulate, models that function as self-contained organisms with their inherent logic and their own language but at the same time burst the boundaries and the rigidity of a meaningful complex of denotation and open up into a polycentric universe:
The truth as something that represents my system, my way of understanding, of interpreting and organizing the things around me. […]Naturally in the course of time I map my travels, at least I try to, but they remain strangely foreign to me, these maps of my mental journeys. There is simply no continuity, no security. Actually one is tempted to say that one always starts back from zero. […] These stories combine into groups, they approach a topic from various points of view, on the basis of various occasions, at various times, consciously relating to each other or ignoring each other, a topic that cannot be exactly defined. Because then we would have grossly deformed it and deprived it of meaning.5

   Hannes Kater’s repertoire of performers is associatively linked to a number of different drawing processes that occupy constantly changing positions in the field of tension between image and text and blur it to the point of indistinguishability. On the one hand, the proliferations of heterogeneous images can be interpreted as a kind of “écriture automatique”, from a Surrealist point of view the visualization of unconscious visions and thoughts, of hallucinations and revelations. While what appears at this level of visualization might seem to be irrational, the schematically structured works can also be related to system models taken from biology, physics or chemistry textbooks. The draftsman’s elaborations can perhaps be interpreted as diagrams meant to evaluate and visually render statistical studies on economic or social patterns of behavior, developments or structures. We are also reminded of organigrams as representations of organizational and communication processes in clearly defined social systems such as companies or closed social groups. But they might also be pictograms, universally understood symbols to steer behavior patterns in social systems by transmitting information beyond language barriers. From a scientific or functional perspective, we could certainly be dealing with schematically reduced visualizations of information about organic relationships, population structures, evolutionary processes or genealogical chains. And yet the artist, in reflecting on his own work, denies that his intention is to make an objective presentation of provable facts:
There is no definite level of interpretation for an individual drawing. There is no complete legend of the signs used in an individual drawing. What is more important than any interpretation of the sign system of a drawing is awareness of the interpretive process which forms the base of the decisions made during the act of drawing.6

   With regard to the relationship between image and text, the analytical eye gets lost in a maelstrom of possible derivations, perspectives and viewpoints, for instance when pondering the similarity between Hannes Kater’s drawn organisms and hieroglyphs or Chinese characters:
Language, signs (in their practical manifestations, in other words as forms of language or drawing) as access to the “unconscious”, to the subconscious (the drawing as an oracle). (A hypothesis on Chinese characters: they could have evolved from rules of interpretation (reading) of oracle bones; these were pieces of bone that were heated up and where the cracks resulting from the heating process were then interpreted).7

   In a further transgression, the drawings take on an anticipatory quality and thus move into dimensions of time that allow the viewer to see possible links between image and text, narrative references and interpretive aspects, as it were, prophetically. They do not have a-priori content: their content is the result of the subjective process of viewing and experiencing, and it must be constantly relativized. Hannes Kater draws a kind of score that can only be performed in a musical impulse of free improvisations and spontaneous interpretations in the interaction of artist and recipient, image and sign. When the viewer then lets the “performers” act out certain roles – inspired by the artist’s polyvalent interpretive patterns – he contributes productively to the genesis and development of Hannes Kater’s artistic project and thus adopts the model it formulates for artistic and social action – constantly torn between understanding and not understanding, identification and critical distance.

   A multiverse in permanent state of renewal, Hannes Kater’s drawings are organically growing intertwinements that gradually proliferate into installations that can occupy entire rooms. Much like the flow of thoughts, of events, of time – in a manner akin to James Joyce’s “stream of consciousness” – is virtually endless, this proliferation of images can be limited only by external restrictions or interventions. Once again, Florensky’s network metaphor seems to fit the bill:
The network does away with the linear concept of time, with notions of a hierarchically ordered structure of reality; it stands for communication, complexity, openness. It can expand indefinitely. Unlike the ornament, which freezes the narrative of real-time experience in specific constructions and obeys universal rules as a structuring, organizing element, the network serves as a model of self-organization for a self that is constantly changing and permanently reinventing itself.8

Hannes Kater’s installations once and for all transport the monadological self-containedness and perfection of linear drawings into a continuum of time and space and radicalize, indeed absolutize their latent inclination towards expansion, decomposition and renewal. By using overhead projectors, the artist also adds the effects of light and shadow as symbolic levels of reference and visualization. Styrofoam set pieces give the impression that the multi-layered arrangement of drawings, linear abbreviations and pictorial symbols has assimilated into the architectural structure of the exhibition space. The content associations suggested in the “translation process” weave in and out of expanded processes of combinatorial analysis, editing and montage to produce a multidimensional jungle of interpretations. The difference between the image in the artist’s mind and as he has sketched it from his own point of view and the reception triggered in the viewer functions as a subversive gesture written into the drawing project. In the room installations, the self-legislated cosmos of images, signs and texts that – on Hannes Kater’s website – autonomously develops and constantly regenerates and transforms itself now invades the viewer’s experience in a plastic, corporeal manner. In a labyrinthal proliferation, this multidimensional entity takes over the room situation. The drawings, reflecting only vaguely the orthogonal order of the architecture of the original room, sprout from the walls, floors and ceilings and, with the aid of the arrows, grid structures, stilts and inserted pieces of styrofoam, join forces with other organisms and creep into ever more levels of space and time.

   With the lexical explanation in his hand, the viewer entwined in this cosmos appears intent on reaching a possible interpretation so that he can master and dominate this artistic growth shifting further and further away from narrative logic. But gradually and inexorably, all interpretive patterns evaporate. Much like Florensky, Hannes Kater implements a logic of discontinuity, and this logic, though it may well allow some sort of representation of reality, in the form of a deductive system as a formula of potentiality, ultimately excludes it in a variety of endless new trespassings. Hannes Kater breaks out of every framework in order to – as Maurice Merleau-Ponty explains –
claim an open endless treasure of meaning and thus to show, in line with the French phenomenologist, that in this immense history, where nothing suddenly ends or begins, in this never-ending bustle of deviating forms, in this incessant movement of languages, […] there is ultimately nothing other than one single language coming into being.9 In his description of this draftsmanship project, in his effort to translate this “language coming into being” into words, the exegete is bound to experience his own failure in the end. The longing to force a secret out of the drawings, to tear away the veil from the “performers” in their hieroglyphic expression dance ultimately leads us in circles into the endless depth of Platonic caves. The mysteries hidden there are only seemingly revealed. The shadowgraph shows the unbridgeable distance between sign and meaning, reflection and reality, idea and concept. This makes us skeptical: we ask, but we remain open, full of curiosity and excitement about the artist’s every gesture. Irritating, subversive, promising, Hannes Kater blurs the boundaries of picture and text, drawing and room, autonomous and narrative references – and of all other possible antinomies – into a continuum of film and music. His work provocatively calls for explanation, but at the same time it invalidates all possible interpretations and – for himself and for his art – conquers a position of what might be called anarchic freedom. At this point this author can only continue trying, continue writing and puzzling, or else simply stop, wait with curiosity to see what links and interfaces will yet be revealed to him at the “watersheds of thought”.

1 Pavel Florenskij, An den Wasserscheiden des Denkens. Ein Lesebuch [At the Watersheds of Thought. A reader], eds: Sieglinde and Fritz Mierau, Berlin 1994 [2nd edition]. [back]

2 Hannes Kater verstehen. Eine Sympathiebroschüre [Understanding Hannes Kater. A sympathy brochure], Braunschweig 2000, p. 5 [back]
3 Pavel Florensky, quoted (in German) at: http://www.kontextverlag.de/florenskij.denken.html [back]
4 http://www.hanneskater.com [back]
5 Unpublished text by Hannes Kater, p. 9-10, 1998 [back]
6 ibid., p. 4 [back]
7 Hannes Kater in an e-mail to the author on 29 March 2007 [back]
8 Pavel Florensky... [back]
9 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La Prose du Monde, Paris 1969, p. 55 f. [back]

Erratic Blocks. Light structures.

By Jens Asthoff

Hannes Kater also develops his exuberant wall drawings from symbolic, partly scientific, pictorial worlds. The schematic structures of his works look like complex circulation diagrams from biology, physics or chemistry textbooks. They are full of remarkable pictorial shorthand symbols that sometimes appear in swarms, sometimes condense into strange combinations and invite us to read them like a pictorial script, but hardly ever reveal their precise meaning straight away. But it really is possible to read these symbols executed in red or light blue, along with formations of stripes, arrows and waves, if you have once learned to read them.

Cover from: "Wucherungen und Wandnahmen"
 Cover from:
 "Wucherungen und Wandnahmen"
The recurrent elements in Kater's pictorial world always stand for a clearly defined but nevertheless open horizon of meaning; they are quasi alphabetically fixed signs that the artist calls "Darsteller" (performers), as on paper and on the wall they always appear in an ensemble, as if on a stage made up of other lines and signs.

This makes Kater‘s imaginative narratives much more eccentric, involved and opulent to be accepted as mere formal surface structuring or in the semantic abstraction category. In fact they are essentially narrative, but without developing into unambiguous story lines. Anyone who has heard Kater explaining and telling the story of one of his works knows that he can distil a real wealth of links from numerous details – and most of them make almost immediate sense, but it is scarcely possible to reconstruct them again in all their sometimes absurd complexity.

The elements are droll and original enough to be sufficient to create a wild cosmos: for example, there are performers like no. 12 the "bread brain", who according to Kater stands for "archaic or instinct led thinking". Or no. 08, the so-called "mouth chain", who is seen as "talk, gossip, social control". "Draw a blank" , the thought hole, performer no. 11, can be used in a variety of ways and appears when the idea is to "suppress or want to forget something", but it also stands "for (undertermined) negative presentiments", though "always turns clockwise!" applies here. Kater also makes more abstract concepts into images, form no. 26, for example, stands for ideology, for "detail and limited world picture". It is fascinating how curious but also apposite such symbolic inventions constantly seem to be in Kater's case: for example the bread roll, no. 32, that the artist as also often used in Nordhorn, and described as follows: "Stands for memories of smells, food or tactile childhood experiences that influence current decisions, in matters of love, for example, or consumer decisions."

There are nuances here as well, as we have "the normal", but also "the particular bread roll in three variants, with different shadow settings - aware of one's own capacity to influenced by decisions taken qua bread roll." The key here: "The more shadow there is, the more particular a bread roll is for a protagonist." Kater develops unusually complex and also amusing sign-chains from a stock that is as convincing as it is fluid – an interpretative jungle with many paths through it and that will stimulate viewers to connect the images in an entirely personal way.

Jens Asthoff. In: Wucherungen und Wandnahmen" (German/English), Städtische Galerie Nordhorn, 2007
ISBN 978-3-922303-61-9
The world as a diagram of infinite connections – Hannes Kater

If the world were a web, and our picture of it a neuronal network, thinking would be a kind of gymnastic exercise on the rope-ladders of synapses. The drawings of Hannes Kater (born in Berlin 1965) have this very effect. Designed for walls and going beyond them, Kater’s strokes run wild; as if springing from the stream of consciousness (or subconscious?), they intertwine in cheerful pastel-coloured tangles. Signs and emblems are roped together in elated unity, proceed in the same and opposite directions, ensnare and get caught, tie and knot themselves fleetingly, and then branch out again and fray, form loops, cable patterns and vermiform appendices, which embrace each other anew, copulate, penetrate.

Ever since communication has emancipated itself from the textuality of the Gutenberg galaxy and catapulted itself into the world of the networks, we have at our global fingertips coarse-meshed and fine-meshed webs, permeable and flexible. The most important thing about network is the nodes. It is here at the node that the ephemeral is concentrated, and crystallises; this is where information converges. It is here we can dock; it means "access". Hannes Kater organises his drawings as if around the ovaries of exotic blooms; fantastic butterflies flutter here, sucking up the food of their linear eloquence. Here, too – if we consider Kater’s cosmos to be a liquid medium – cyber plankton, synthetic sea anemones, ciliates and slipper animalcule may settle.

Cover from: "Drawing Links"
 Cover from: "Drawing Links"

 Take a look a the 4 pages with reproduc-
 tions of work from Hannes Kater...
Regarding them from a medical-endocrinological point of view, we see biocatylists and pheromones in action; synthetic spermatozoa and exotic intestinal villi follow the hidden laws of a mysterious peristalsis. Hannes Kater not only superimposes and combines drawing and projection, real and virtual lines, and surfaces of lettering and script: he also reaches into the three dimensional spatial sphere with installations. Lines become lianas, and grow rampantly like knotweed and bindweed through the White Cube. But Kater’s graphic world goes beyond a striving cheerful associations. He is a subtle brooding illustrator, whose repertoire of signs refers to other things, and forms analogies with the flood of clipboards, statistics and diagrams with which graduates of management training courses are inundated. Hannes Kater stages concepts such as "Daily Life", "Individual", "Group" or "Sex", "Taking a break" or "Smart Aleck" as complex structures, as an intelligent interwovenness of diverse strands, currents and synergy processes, where indices and fragments of symbol fuse and emerge as splendid new vehicles of meaning and hope: "Beloved arrows" or "Heart’s limpet", and occasionally even a "Hole in the thoughts". This is drawing in the age of Poverpoint and Infratest.

Rainer Berthold Schossig. In: "Drawing Links / Zeichnung vernetzt" (English/German), Städtische Galerie Delmenhorst, 2004
ISBN 3-89757-261-3
Future Generator

Watch the lines. Give thinking space. Approach that which is actually to be communicated. Make it more complicated, more explicit… Hannes Kater’s works function as interfaces. They open fields of play and fields of tension for the expression and deployment of individual memory, perception and language. The drawings create clues and connections; they free contexts from their narrative chaining and make relational structures visible. By translating the one-after-the-other of the words into a next-to and within-the-other of character strings, the artist puts the complexity of life at disposal in a new way.

Even before the inspirations from his environment there is Kater’s own task. Give the drawings back their forgotten dimension. It is the goal of the draughts-man to create conclusive and self-explanatory systems, organisms with an inherent logic and an own language – universes of meanings in which one can stroll around and get lost. The sources of Kater’s pictorial language are open (www.hanneskater.de).

His symbols and signs can be copied and used, employed and extende. The ensemble of "Performers" – thus the artist designates the recurring motives of his pictorial program, a repertoire of signs with which he works, varying itself with time – is described and presented on small trading cards, so called "Performer-Info". As calling cards and trading cards, the collectibles do not only offer the services of the "Drawing Generator" ("Write about an event or situation from your life and your thoughts and feelings on the matter. Send the text to Hannes Kater by snail mail or e-mail. Soon after, you'll receive your own custom-made drawing. For free!"), but also, at the same time, an insight into his microcosm: as Kater mostly draws using the Din A4 (or US Letter) format, the work remain conveniently sized and the thoughts mobile.

The artist’s installations give new dimensions to the delinearisation and respacing of the told sequences of time – they can extend themselves and adapt to the space the are in by the employment of overhead projectors and computer simulations. The drawings then grow and take a grip on space, the signs wander and circulate – and suddenly it seems possible to see through walls and think around corners.

Patricia Holder, 2002

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