Mónica Belevan

Towards Metarchy Through Merz

June 20, 2018

“The elementary human unity is not the body –the individual- but the form-of-life”.
from Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War [1] 

A dearth of something—of curiosity or material—must explain the limited attention paid to the study of that rare bird of the avant-garde: Kurt Schwitters’s merz and its architectural specimen, the merzbau. Introductory courses seldom bring it up and, when they do, it’s only ever in passing. The secondary literature is built largely out of exposition catalogues owed to the divulgation efforts of his son, Ernst Scwhitters, and only a handful of books have committed fully to the incavation of the question. In the case of the merzbau, especially, it can be difficult to state too much that is conclusive about something that has left no trace outside of hearsay accounts and the treachery of just three photographs (though the practice of merz itself was extensive and substantial).[2] And so it is precisely on these grounds that I’d like to defend the merzbau as a landmark in 20th century material culture, whether as ‘purposeless’ object, political statement or embodiment of the imagination pitched against the an-auratic world.  To do so, it may help to start by stating not what the merzbau was, but what it wasn’t. [3] 

One of three surviving photographs of the original merzbau © Wilhelm Redemann, 1933.

 

Against the grain of certain academic superstitions, merz was to Dada as the théâtre de la cruauté or Acéphale (or better yet, D’Acosta) were to the Surrealist establishment: parallel worlds with autonomous practices, rather than spin-offs. When, like Artaud and Bataille in their own time, Schwitters was rejected from the hellfire club of—in his case—Berlin Dada, he seized the moment by transforming into a self-fueled (and commercially successful) one-man orchestra in the name of the ‘Merzbild’, a work of his recent completion. The term—like the bits and pieces that would soon adorn it—was lifted from the vulgate, being the label of the Privat und Commerzbank.

It’s an interesting though unexplored omission that the sociopolitical (and socioeconomic) particle in commerz— namely, the “com,” with its connection to the common(s) or the plural—was immediately excised from use, and I should like to speculate as to what could well be among the most inspired gestures of the avant-garde; one that Schwitters went about almost like an Oulippian would, but earlier. If the fact and the choice of artistic restraints is to be dealt with not just as a statement of intent but as a practice in premedi(t)ation, Schwitters settled in a single action on the metric (and material) unit of merz as mass-produced fragment; bereft, first of exchange-value, then of use-value; reduced, ideally, to something like a prelapsarian self-worth. In this sense, it could be said that merz is not of this world, though its materials are. [4] In the artist’s own words:

Merz pictures are abstract works of art. The word Merz essentially denotes the combination of all conceivable materials, and in principle the equal evaluation of all materials (…) It is unimportant if the material was already formed for some other purpose. The artist creates through the distribution of materials. [5]

Through this, Schwitters confronts us with a new sublimity borne not from the jarring remove of the unhomely, but from the immediacy of its abstraction. The triumph of merz depends on its reversal of Verfremdungseffekt and into a reclaiming of the singular discomforts of familiarity. This is why the keywords in the quoted excerpt are ‘combination’ and ‘distribution’: the measures for all things that man disposes of, and that re-place him, are based on his foreknowledge of the states of affairs in this world, such that the meaning of a yardstick is its use. [6] The officious symbiotic exchange between mastery and materials is thus laid bare, and the artist is recast as a combinatory bachelor machine. [7]

Before proceeding, I would like to weave in a digression that could bring us back to merz in unexpected ways. From the 13th through the 17th century, a variety of ars combinatoria were produced to operate as fields for the systematic integration of qualia. [8] These were systems of (e)value(ation) expressed in terms of geometrical relations of propinquity. Each tried to cram the universe into a nutshell, purporting the conceptual apprehensibility of that very universe through γνῶσις, and the connective tissue of everything within it as it related to everything else.

R. Lull, Ars Magna (ca. 1232-ca. 1315)

 

That these relations were established through geometry was also relevant to their spatialization. This is how in Bruno, for example, the ‘flattening’ into a plan of the Lullian vault can be observed, and talk of rooms or atria arises when explaining a two-dimensional universe, the abstraction of which sets it up as a mnemonic and a germinal device for predication. The grid is, in this case, the underlying mechanism for a full array of computations.

G. Bruno, Atrium altaris (1548-1600)

 

Leibniz’s example is simultaneously a translation of arithmetic into geometry, and a constructive effort at the threshold of possible worlds that I mention at the preface of my discussion on merz as not only a formal synthesizer, but a limen. While other ars combinatoria, such as Kircher’s and Peirce’s (much later one) exist, our purpose here is to introduce the trope of these ‘total works of art’ as the bases for a Gestaltteorie.

G. Leibniz, Ars combinatoria (1646-1716).

 

Less than a decade prior to Schwitters’ coining of merz around 1919, Kurt Lewin conceived of a notion the regrettable track-record of which has made it risky to revisit: that of psychologischer Lebensraum, or psychological life-space, conceived as a marriage of convenience between the maiden science of psychology and the riper field of algebraic topology in its golden age. Lebensraum is a question of individual immediacy and appertains to the structures that include the individual as well as to ‘standard’ structures independent from him. In other words, this is, again, a Weltanschauung, rife with elective affinities described in terms of attraction or repulsion, in which the individual is himself negotiated as a topological (mine)field interacting with other vectorials on a number of scales.

This brings us back to the merz-Künstler as an arbiter of order in the context of a modern world that has become not just increasingly unpredictable (as with everything Dada, the shadow of the Great War towered over Schwitters), but also more organised. That his arsenal should be fragmentary, made up of pedestrian detritus and everyday shrapnel, seems to fit the circumstances of the ‘standard structures’ that he had to work with, with-in and against. The role of the merz-Künstler can be seen as that of the mythical trickster who is, and who in-being conforms, the Negativdarstellung—the extraterritorial space for contrast and contradiction—which allows for the interpretive remove that’s needed to make sense of, and reintroduce sense into, the surrounding world. Lewin’s Lebensraum also paves the way for the containment and deployment of what Wittgenstein called Lebensformen, or forms-of-life, a concept we’ll return to shortly.

The relationship between merz and its Künstler is a special one, in that the ‘re-naturalization’ of the work—from dust and to it—calls for the denaturalization and indeed, the near-machinization of the author. An artist who can singlehandedly constitute his own audience is ‘producing’—though perhaps the word should be ‘performing’—at the threshold of the fetish, without crossing over into it. A different, enriched meaning can be given to the term ‘prime matter’, where the operation that brings merz into the world (and extracts merz from it) is, from the outset, a creative gesture that takes only that which is of most immediate use—that which, in this case, coincides with the most immediately useless particle, the commerce sans exchange, the course without an inter(regnum)—so that it can be the groundwork for a new expressive grammar.

Up until here, merz-making may strike us as being very close to what should, in fairness, be considered as the founding gesture of 20th century art: Duchamp’s (in)vocation of the ready-made. But if the distance between merz and ready-made is that of irony, it follows that the preconditions for the latter are an audience and an artworld, whereas merz is only in need of an author (and an author not as endgame but as generative principle).

Despite its roundabout exiguity, merz also takes a step back from (or one step into) a more classically understood economy. It can be understood as a return from the order of the mass-produced assemblage to the general assembly of the Ancient form of life the Greeks called οἴκος, or the home. [9]

This seems to be in agreement with the quintessential expression of merz—the merzbau—as a work-in-aggregated-progress on a scale roughly in the range of interior architecture; developed in an economically improvised, domestic setting where the parts of an otherwise impartial, though predominantly mass-produced, object were gathered like fruit and bestowed with some manner of form or intention not through any conventional value, but through their unconventional assimilation into a Gestalt, or a form-of-life so formless-inclined as to subsume any Other object into it. If art is for the future, merz is always (for the/from the) present (and in this very Augustinian manner, merz is timeless).

The Sprengel Museum’s reconstruction of the merzbau by Peter Bisseger, 1982-83.

 

In each of the merzbau’s embodiments—six rooms in a Hanover between 1923-33, and three, less successful, attempts beginning with his Norwegian and then English exile in 1937 [10]—Schwitters turned rooms into highly mutable environments made of piled-on (and then cut-off, and cut-up) wood and plaster, scraps and pieces of assorted (and not generally identifiable) objects and sculptural excrescences that—in the case of the first bau, especially—first spread out crosswise; but then poured out vertically through the ceiling and back down into the foundations of their host. As with the cosmographies that came before it, the merzbau at its most advanced collapsed the inside into the out, and merged the two into a sort of liminal environment I’ll call an inmediation.

The inmediation of the self through things that are not ‘one’s own’ and that do not, and do not-not belong—even as they do remain the objects of a certain choice without, because of it, amounting to free-formspresents us with the possibility of a radical domestic practice: a sort of metarchy that, in this case, is glimpsed through merz. It could be pondered whether the restoration of the kind of household management I endorse here as both an unrepeatable architectural module composed of singly repeatable, because randomly selected, segments and a political practice capable of investing even the most solipsistic of privacies with a self-determined civitas, could help break up the encapsulation that’s become inherent to so many a contemporary form of life. Through merz, we are again reminded that “the elementary human unity is not the body –the individual- but the form-of-life”.

Accretion through curation, which is what Schwitters did, has never been a lost practice, but modernity has rendered it increasingly unselfconscious. The urban crunch of time and space experienced by the West since the onset of the Industrial Revolution does not predispose domestic living to the filigreed forms-of-life merz explored. Today, a house makes sense enough as a machine because it is an economic hub the emotional navel of which has been replaced by its increasing role as a logistic pit-stop. In our day and age, home is where one goes before one sets out elsewhere. The exercise of merz as a domestic practice, though, addresses the νόμος as a manner of self-government through the constant re-enactment and reification of voluntary associations that are not immediately subject to sociopolitical or market forces.

In returning to the role materials play in the enactment of merz, we are made to remember how use-values stem directly from the physical attributes of things. As stated in Das Kapital, use-values “provide the material for a special branch of knowledge, namely the commercial knowledge of commodities’ that is fulfilled through consumption”, [11] and this special knowledge of commerce is the first convention to be visibly excised by merz. Merz does not partake in com, although it sometimes takes from it, and com has no access to merz outside its incidental stock of it. The worlds of production and merz may coexist in similar spaces, and even overlap in their objects, but they embody diametrically divergent forms-of-life. Merz is the negative space of commerce.

And so it is that, when as with merz, “we make abstraction from (…) use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value. It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn or any other useful thing”. Were one to abide by Wilde’s most political dictum—”all art is useless”—then the generative purposelessness of merz can be rewritten as a useless composite that, in failing through its almost Heisenbergian incompleteness to be, or to do, some-thing; is finally left open to the forces of its autotelic processes. This in turn invites the voiding of the labour variable: in being neither measurable by nor commensurate with external standards, the ‘duration’ of the merz-Künstler’s prowess is best interpreted not under the Marxian auspices of ‘labour-time’, but from a vitalist perspective of durée. [12] In a passage that evokes the defamiliarization strategies later proposed by Schklovsky and Brecht, Marx himself writes that:

If commodities could speak, they would say this: our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however, is our value. [13]  

The genius of merz is most apparent when it strikes that target no one else can see. And if the intimacy of the home is not this hidden place, what is?

A few things should be said in closing on life-forms, total works of art and material death.

The combinatory machines presented as a sort of proto-merz set their limits by enacting them: hence the deliberate geometric articulation of every part as it stands in relation to all others. Though lacking in this overriding sense of totality, merz shares a spirit with them because, for every thing to be in its right place, said place must be decided by the interplay of every thing with every other: that is, the thing must also be the other to compose itself as such. This playspace is the Lebensraum, the Gestalt and the life-space that informs the Lebensformen, or the life-forms, that can spring from it.

Part of the reason why Bruno’s ars, for instance, strikes us as ‘closed’ (and merz as ‘open’) has to do with how each is presented. Bruno’s grid suggests a binary rigour that can transform into a basis for all permutations, but merz relies on a material repertoire so scattershot and vast that the chance encounter of any of its objects by the merz-Künstler renders any of its parts a singularity. [14] In this sense, merz is an exercise in power as much as an admission and a challenge to the author’s powerlessness: it can encompass both and become engulfed in their struggle, making merz a privileged condition for the staging of psychomachies.

The caveat, of course, is that materials are—regardless of appearance—finite, and the work of art, even when total, can only be fulfilled in its extinction. The existential rift between merz and—to give a dramatic example—Velasquez’s no-less troubled Rokeby Venus, is that merz can embrace and sustain being stabbed in the face by the horrors of everyday life. As far as life-forms go, merz is a profuse asceticism. And Schwitters, whom Huelsenbeck once mockingly berated as “the Caspar David Friedrich of the Dadaist Revolution” understood, perhaps far better than his own, louder colleagues, that “the craftsman who produces works that last is by that very fact conservative”. [15]


[1] Tiqqun. Introduction to Civil War. 11 December, 2012. n‹http://zinelibrary.info/files/introcivil_print.pdf›

[2] For more, see the essays included in Kurt Schwitters: Vanguardia y publicidad. Fundación Juan March: Madrid, 2014.

[3] In other words, this essay wants to move away from Werner Schalenbach’s completely safe—because completely comprehensive—1966 definition of the merzbau as an “Expressionist-Dadaist-Constructivist fantasy in the spirit of Dr. Caligari”. There is that to it, yes; but I’d rather address the issue in terms of substance than style. My hope is this will  ground and drive an understanding of it as a matter of exception even in a time of very great ones, reinforcing its role as a banished singularity, rather than the vanishingly whimsical divertimento it is frequently mistaken for.

[4] By the manner of an ursonate to Eluard’s almost yogic il y a un autre monde mais i lest dan celui-ci.

[5] Elderfield, John. Kurt Schwitters. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985, p.44. Something must be said for the declared “unimportance” of the material’s pre-formation for another purpose, with the emphasis being in that materials’ form, rather than the circumstances of its in-formation. It is subtly conveyed the material will, however, have been formed “for some other purpose”, which makes it worth remarking Schwitters’s early forays into merz dealt exclusively with man-made materials. It was only once the merzbau grew its ‘insides’ out, so to speak, that Schwitters began to introduce organic elements into the mix: his own flasks of urine, fingernail trimmings, clumps of hair. Though objects for human use—such as Mies’s spectacles or Hannah Hoch’s pen—had been put into the merzbau, organic compounds were extracted from it only by Schwitters himself, bestowing the space with an intimacy gradient that further complicates its reading.

[6] See Duchamp’s 3 stoppages étalon (1913-14) for a comparable example.

[7] The literary work that’s premised on a pantheon of such creaturely objects and adheres to a kindred method of permuting with imaginative rigour is Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus; a novel that, again, is not—but should be—required reading in design education.

[8] A notion most contemporary philosophers oppose, cfr. Daniel Dennett, Paul Churchland, Michael Tye and others. Among the critics of the concept of qualia was also the late Marvin Minsky, who considered them to be the (logical) result of an essentialist simplification of complex processes, such that thoughts or feelings should each have their quiddities. In terms of the design question concerning the “interior complexity” described by Hans Ulrich Olbricht in his introductory essay to Merz World, my tentative proposal is that merz sits at the intramundum of a new essentialism: one where qualia are the shorthand for the theoretical bookmarking of otherwise ineffable and floating signifiers that need to be incorporated in our dealings with reality regardless of their ontic status. In brief, the need-not-be can merit study, even if it cannot cast a shadow.

[9] If a continuum were to be traced between the scales of manufacture, architecture and infrastructure, merz representations would likely function at the level of the first two. It would be remiss of us, however, to ignore the infrastructural implications of merz once we consider Schwitters actually referred to interventions on the urban scale:

Judicious excision of the most offensive parts, the inclusion of ugly and beautiful buildings within an overriding rhythm, and sensitive distribution of the main accents, that would together enable the metropolis to be transformed into a colossal work of Merz art.

In true pre-industrial fashion, the central economic attitude of merz is not inclined towards production and consumption, but more aligned with a hunter/gatherer’s (distributive) mentality.

[10] Also the year in which Merzbau I was bombed.

[11] Marx, Karl. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One. New York: Penguin, 1976 [1867], p. 126 and ff.

[12] Which remits to our earlier mention of merz’s capture of an Augustinian ever-present.

[13] Marx, op. cit., p. 176-177.

[14] Even Peter Bisseger’s reproduction of the merzbau is, in this sense, a failure of sorts. Being painstakingly reconstructed from photos, the merzbau auf Sprengel has a fossil quality that makes it suitable for a museum’s commerce, even as it is entirely antithetical to the lifelike quality of its source.

[15] Loos, Adolf. Adolf Loos: On Architecture. Riverside, California: Ariadne Press, 2002, p. 141. 

With gratitude to Brian Kemple for our philosophical discussions and his stabscotch powers of observation. 


 

Elderfield, John. Kurt Schwitters. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985.
Loos, Adolf. Adolf Loos: On Architecture. Riverside, California: Ariadne Press, 2002.
Marx, Karl. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One. New York: Penguin, 1976 [1867], p. 126 and ff.
Tiqqun. Introduction to Civil War. Web. 11 December, 2012. ‹http://zinelibrary.info/files/introcivil_print.pdf›.
Various. Kurt Schwitters: Vanguardia y publicidad. Fundación Juan March: Madrid, 2014.

 


 

In her slightly more persuasive human guise, Mónica Belevan, is a writer and entrepreneur based in Lima, Peru. As The Nightjar, she wields air rights in Hell and is a stateless salonniere for the numerous underground networks that converge on this site.