alltheredchairs

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When they ask me what my Master thesis project is about I will ask them

“Why are all the chairs at Konstfack red?”

“So why are all the chairs at Konstfack red?” they might then ask

Well first of all, all the chairs are not red. Some of them, the ones with wheels in the computer rooms and studios, are grey. But the ones in the seminar rooms are red, the ones in the library are red, in the student kitchens they’re red and in the cafeteria they are red too.  The floor is generally not red, it is mainly grey, apart from in the toilets where both the floor and the ceiling are red and where the chairs are white and have holes in their seats. The walls are not red they are white. In fact you could say that Konstfack is generally pretty white, but the chairs they are red.

“Why do you want to know why the chairs in Konstfack are red anyway?” they might ask.

I want to know why some of the floors are grey and why all the walls are white. I want to know why the floor and the ceiling in the toilets are red and why the seats here are white and have holes in them. I want to know why the chairs in our studios are grey, why we each have a flat white table on which to write, why the departments are organised in the way they are and why our professors sit upstairs while we sit downstairs. Most of all I really want to know why all the chairs at Konstfack are red.

“Why are all the chairs at Konstfack red?”

One answer to the question is that the chairs are red because the architect who designed Konstfacks interior likes red. I suspected this might be the case and he told me this was the case when I went to speak to him. “Red goes well with white and black. I like red.” But this is only one answer, one point of view. Of course there are many other answers to the question

“Why are all the chairs at Konstfack red?”

Hidden within the question of the red Konstfack chairs is another question. A question that is equally large and has just as many answers as the question of the red Konstfack chairs. That question is

“Why are things the way they are?”

“So why are things the way they are?” they might ask.

They want the answer just like I want the answers. I would love to give them the answer to the question but I don’t think I can, so instead I direct our attention back to the red Konstfack chair and I tell them we might begin by looking here for answers. At the very beginning of this project I had the feeling that the answers to the question are hidden within the world we inhabit, they are in the things around us and the relations we make with these things. They are right next to us, in front of and behind us, over our heads and underneath us. This is when I remembered the red Konstfack chairs.

I heard all the chairs at Konstfack are red because the floor is grey and the walls are white and red goes well with white and black and because red is so strong, so dominant, so predominant that we no longer see it as a colour. I heard that all the chairs at Konstfack are red because of lightness of Ellen Key and the red and white and black in the paintings of Carl Larsson, because of The Law of Ripolin and Le Corbusier and because of Kulturset and Peter Celsing, because of Love Arben and Gert Wingårdh, because love is red and so are hearts. I heard all the chairs at Konstfack are red because of the snow in Stockholm and the blood of animals, because “the devil is in the details” and the devil is red, because of the red facades of Swedish houses and because of the workers movement, because men like red dresses, because the tables are white and the walls are white and the floors are grey and the light comes in from above and there’s not much of it and the snow is around for half of the year and the school is open not much longer than that. I heard all the chairs at Konstfack are red.

redredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredredred

The project “Why are all the chairs at Konstfack red?” is a project about looking; About looking at a chair and looking from a chair, about taking the chair and placing it in different positions and looking from those positions. In this project the red Konstfack chair is used as a tool, one that allows us to see from a position we couldn’t see from before. The reason that the project is about the red Konstfack chair and not any other chair, is that this is the chair on which I have sat for the last two years of my education.

Within this essay I will argue for the importance of embodying our knowledge, of being clear on where we are looking from. I will also argue that it is important to try to learn what it looks like from other positions, from the point of view of others. Acknowledging where one is looking from and trying to look from somewhere else is what Donna Haraway has called a ‘feminist objectivity’ and it is a strategy I have tried to make use of throughout this project.[1] What we can see depends on where we are positioned but also on the direction we are facing, on how we are orientated. As Sara Ahmed has argued, our orientation can explain the presence of the objects which we have around us and the objects which we have around us orientate us further.[2] If I wasn’t orientated towards chairs I wouldn’t have encountered the red Konstfack chair. If I wasn’t orientated by the red Konstfack chair I wouldn’t have turned around to face it now.

The story of chairs is a long one. The first chairs were supposedly sat on by the rich, the powerful and the dignified, they were thrones. It wasn’t for thousands of years, until the 16th Century, that the chair became widespread anywhere. The early symbolism of the chair shows through in words like Chairman, or the name we give to those who hold a professorship: a chair in philosophy for example, or a chair as the symbol of the House of commons in London.[3] Of couse the story of chairs has become a lot more democratic recently but even today, certain chairs are not accessable to everyone. The red Konstfack chair can be seen as a priviledged position. There are only a certain number of these chairs within Konstfack and not everyone is able to sit on a red Konstfack chair everyday for two or three years. Students are granted this opportunity after showing their portfolio and attending an interview.

To take up a chair as a student at Konstfack is to orientate ourselves towards learning, and also to open ourselves to re-orientation.[4] When I sit in the red Konstfack chair I exhibit my readiness, my willingness to open my mind and have new thoughts put into it. If I didn’t want to learn I would not be sitting here in a red Konstfack chair. As a member of the institution I know there is a red Konstfack chair with my name on it. I need not turn around to face it, I need only face out from it. Sitting on a red Konstfack chair within the walls of Konstfack I have come to feel at home, I know that my body is allowed to be here, I even have a tag with which I can open doors to prove it. I have been selected by interview on the strength of a portfolio at the expense of others. I have been recruited to be part of the institution.

The institution Konstfack needs bodies to survive. Every year new bodies are brought in, other bodies leave and the student body is refreshed. An institution will always recruit those who they hope will ‘fit in’ and this means those who share its’ likeness. How could it not? As a member of the student body I agree to fit within that body. When Konstfack shouted “Hey You!”[5] I realised they were shouting at me. Not everyone could hear that shout, not everyone had the opportunity or the things in their background which would allow them to respond. Now here I am sitting (relatively) comfortably, looking out from a red Konstfack chair. I have come to feel at home here, sitting and talking, sitting and writing, sitting and listening. If I need to get up from my chair I can do this without thinking. I can walk down corridors, get a coffee in the cafeteria, bump into a friend and never be confronted by the presence of my body in a space where it should not be. When I move around the institution my body trails behind me, I am not forced to think about my body I can think about other things.[6]

Institutions do not come out of nowhere, neither do interiors. They are formed around some bodies and the routines and habits of those bodies. Those bodies are the somebodies who have been recruited to ‘fit’ in the institution. The space we occupy at Konstfack is an extension of our bodies and it extends our bodies. The chairs we sit on are made for us to sit on them, they are tools which allow us to do things we would not otherwise be able to do. Looking into the smooth red surface of the red Konstfack chair we might see reflected our own image. Looking at the way its back curves, the way its seat is formed we might notice the curves of the body of the institution we are part of.[7] It is not by chance that the parts of the chair, the legs, the arms, the back, the feet, have come to be named after the body. Why can I sit so comfortably on the red Konstfack chair while others can not? Why does it fit me so well?

What does it mean to sit uncomfortably in a chair? What would I gain from taking my chair and placing it in a position where I might feel uncomfortable, where I might notice my body again? What might I learn from doing this? I might learn how comfortable I am in my body in everyday life. I might learn how in Konstfack and in the other places that I sit in or move through I generally do this in free and easy way, while paying very little attention to my body. I might remember that my comfort in these situations is not shared by everyone but is the result of my body being priviledged in the environments I occupy. I might take a step back, or a step to the side and see my own position from another angle.[8]

Of course I would only be sitting in a red Konstfack chair in a place where you don’t normally sit in red Konstfack chairs. I wouldn’t be in danger, I wouldn’t be under threat, I would only be sitting down. If it all got too much I could always get up and move away from it, leaving the chair behind, standing alone, and return to my former position. If someone asked about it I could always make a joke, say something like “its always good to bring your own chair with you”, or maybe say that I had just bought it and was on my way home, or claim that it wasn’t mine and I was just sitting on it. It is not everyone that can take a red Konstfack chair out of Konstfack in order to claim a different position.[9] To claim to see from another position is always a power move. However, maybe in making this move, in taking the chair outside of Konstfack and away from its other red friends, the chair would become a little redder. And maybe while sitting on this redder Konstfack chair, I might feel a little redder. And maybe I would have some conversations I wouldn’t otherwise have or see things I wouldn’t otherwise see. And the world might become a little rounder and I might see a few more shades of red amongst all these red chairs.

* * * *


[1] “I would like to insist on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signidy a leap out of the marked body and into a gaze from nowehere….Feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges.” Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges:The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective” in Feminist Studies p.581

[2] “What you come into contact with is shaped by what you do: bodies are orientated when they are occupied in time and space. Bodies are shaped by this contact with objects. What gets near is both shaped by what bodies do and in turn affects what bodies can do.” Sara Ahmed, A “Phenomenology of Whiteness” in Feminist theory vol 8(2) p.152

[3] For a short summary of the history of the chair see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chair 2012/03/15

[4] “It is no accident that such recognition is symbolically given through an item of furniture: to take up space is to be given an object, which allows the body to be orientated in a certain way. The philosopher [student] must have his seat after all.” Sara Ahmed, A “Phenomenology of Whiteness” in Feminist theory vol 8(2) p..160

[5] “To recruit can suggest both to renew and to restore. The act of recruitment, of bringing new bodies in, restores the body of the institution which depends on gathering bodies to cohere as a body….The ‘hey you’ is not just addressed to anybody: some bodies more than others are recruited, those that can inherit the character of the organisation, by returning its image with a reflection that reflects back that image, what we would call a good familiarity.” Sara Ahmed, A “Phenomenology of Whiteness” in Feminist theory vol 8(2) p..158

 

 

[6] “A system of possible movements, or ‘motor projects’ radiates from us to the environment. Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space. It implies itself to space like a hand to an instrument and when we wish to move about we do not move the body as we move an object.” Merlau-Ponty in Sara Ahmed p.53

[7] “To be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins. One fits, and by fitting the surfaces of bodies disappears from view. White bodies are comfortable as they inhabit spaces that extend their shape. The bodies and the spaces ‘point’ towards each other, as a ‘point’ that is not seen as it is also ‘the point’ from which we see…. We can think of the chair beside the table. It might acquire its shape by the repetition of some bodies inhabiting it: we can almost see the shape of the bodies as ‘impressions’ on the surface.” Sara Ahmed, A “Phenomenology of Whiteness” in Feminist theory vol 8(2) p.158

 

 

[8] “These are lessons I learned in part walking with my dogs and wondering how the world looks like without a fovea and very few retinal cells for colour vision but with a huge neural processing and sensory area for smells.” Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges:The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective” in Feminist Studies p.583

[9] “One cannot “be” either a cell or molecule – or a woman, colonized person, laborer and so on – if one intends to see and see from these positions critically. “Being” is much more problematic and contingent. Also, one cannot relocate in any possible vantage point without being accountable for that movement. Vision is always a question of the power to see – and perhaps of the violence implicit in our visualizing practices. With whose blood were my eyes crafted?” Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges:The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective” in Feminist Studies p.585

 

 

Written by alltheredchairs

March 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm

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