On Milk & Honey
Thorsten Goldberg’s Utopia Station
Montse Badia

At the south end of the pedes­trian shopping area of Heidenheim, where Haupt­strasse spreads out to resemble a square at the foot of Castle Hellen­stein, Thorsten Goldberg installed a new bus stop between a few benches and tree. The bus stop consists of a five-meter-tall stainless steel mast and an elec­tronic display that announces a randomly chosen desti­nation each day. At the very top of the pole is a weather vane. Directly below the display is a colorful propeller with orna­mented clock hands. Driven by the wind, it becomes a sort of wind clock. On the mast, a map is fixed at eye level, which features the exact loca­tions of all the desti­na­tions announced on the LCD display. Mount Lascivious, Usuryville, Jobbery, Fingerinthroat, Changeling, Snoothacking, Slovenly Morass, Mount of Venus, and Titty River are just some of the desti­na­tions announced on the display. These desti­na­tions are in a kind of Promised Land, which we can imagine visiting. This land has “rivers of wine and beer, streets of ginger and nutmeg, and ideally formed terrain and fertile ground­cover, valuable buildings, and business where one neither buys nor sells.”[1] In this land, “there is neither cripple, nor blind man, neither a cross-eye nor a mute, neither scabies nor acne nor loathsome monstrosity, but everyone is perfectly beau­tiful in every limb. And the strength of men in their lust for the female sex never fails. Women are delivered of children while dancing and making music, and as soon as the children are born, they speak, eat, run, and do every­thing all by them­selves. And when women have had children, they never have limp, hanging breasts, wrinkles and folds, or anything of the like. They cannot be distin­guished from virgins. All parts of their bodies are exactly like those of virgins.”[2]

Obvi­ously, even the most promising tourist brochure cannot improve upon this land. This land is called Schlaraf­fenland (Fool’s Paradise) and is care­fully depicted in the map displayed on the mast, the Accurata Utopia Tabula. The map was drawn around 1700 by Johann Baptist Homann, a renowned cartog­rapher who produced general world atlases, as well as celestial atlases. Homann was inspired by a 1694 book, Das neu entdeckte Schlar­raf­fenland, written by General Johann Andreas Schnebelin. This utopian country “forms an entire portion of the world, consisting of seventeen provinces and several groups of islands, with almost two thousand names of fictional towns, rivers and lakes, whose imag­i­native descrip­tions tell of both satiated wealth and bizarre super­fluity, and yet also testify to the constant threat of privation. In the middle of the continent is a country where gold coins lie scat­tered in the streets, beau­tiful clothes grow on trees, and nobody works because every­thing produces itself”[3].

Schlaraf­fenland is a fictive land, which reminds us of the biblical Promised Land, the Garden of Eden. It is not coin­ci­dental that Thorsten Goldberg has called his work Next Desti­nation, Milk & Honey. The alter­native Promised Land is a universal symbol, which can be found in many languages and cultures: the Land of Cokaygne (Cocagne in French, Cucaña in Spanish, Cock­aengen in Dutch), Tierra de Jauja, El Dorado, or Hans Sachs’s Schlaraf­fen­landt (1530).

Humankind has always needed to express its visions of a different and better world. These visions are formu­lated as utopias — the non-topos or non-places upon which people can project their visions, wishes, and ideals. Utopia is an ancient search for happiness, for freedom, for paradise. Utopia is the commonly accepted figure for the best of all possible worlds. In 1516, Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia, a book about an island some­where, which is perfectly safe because no mortal can find it. Using these premises, he imagined an idealized society. In 1900, Ida Hofmann and Henri Oeden­hokoven founded a commune with a group of people who changed their customs so that their lives would be more natural and healthy. Truth and freedom of thought were their main aspi­ra­tions. They called it Monte Verità. In 1904, social reformer Friedrich Eduard Bilz drew[4] a comparison between the “People of today’s state” (in 1900) and the “People in the state of the future” (in 2000). Bilz designed a large stained-glass window containing images that illus­trated social improvement and welfare, ranging from very specific, ordinary things to the most joyful and spir­itual. The image of the “Ten-hour work day” (1900) is opposite the “Three-hour work day” (2000), “Bedrooms with closed windows” (1900) is compared to “Houses with two covered balconies serving as bedrooms” (2000). “Compet­itive battles and battles for survival” (1900) confronts “Liberty, equality, and fraternity” (2000), the “Theatre of war” (1900) is set against the “Earthly Paradise” (2000), and finally, the image of discon­tented workers in “New form of gouvernment in sight” (1900) counter “Happy, contented people” (2000). When reading Bilz’s state­ments in 2004, it seems to me that, in some aspects, we are closer to the portrait of 1900 than to the one of 2000. It is therefore not surprising that we continue to reflect on utopias today, for doing so is as important now as it ever was. It is not a coin­ci­dence that one of the exhi­bi­tions presented in the last Venice Biennial (2003), curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tira­vanija, was called Utopia Station.

Visu­al­izing utopias has always been an act of imag­i­nation. But every attempt to realize one of these visions has failed (very often they become dicta­tor­ships). Utopia is “some­thing that is missing,” said Bertolt Brecht. The awareness of this and the discon­tentment asso­ciated with it force humans to think, wish, and imagine. And imag­i­nation no longer has a place in politics. The most important reason to reinvent politics in today’s world — to (re)introduce indi­vidual respon­si­bility and a scheme to improve commu­ni­cation among groups — is to find these fictional places. Utopia becomes the secret garden whose door can be reopened…

… or the place where we can be trans­ported — and this is where Thorsten Goldberg’s bus stop instal­lation in the center of Heidenheim comes in. Goldberg has created a fiction. When passersby walk next to the stop, their attention may be caught by some­thing out of the ordinary. The desti­nation announced on the display does not entirely match their daily expec­ta­tions. Next stop… Mount Lascivious? It cannot be real. It must be fiction. At the mercy of the wind, the hands of the clock move play­fully in different direc­tions and at different speeds, confirming the suspicion. But the instal­lation also perplexes the passerby, creates a moment to pause and question. Somehow it provokes a change. We will not look at the things in the same way anymore. We have been distracted on our direct path through the city, as we go from one place to the other, from home to work, occa­sionally stopping to shop — as we move through places with well-defined purposes in mind. We have been confronted by the possi­bility of a random ramble, by the unex­pected, a pause to think.

This is the way Goldberg approaches an inter­vention in the public space. For him, “working in public is a research assignment, which, in every case, should always start again at zero… A piece must commu­nicate within the situ­ation; it must simply function in the situ­ation. Public art objects should function as consumer goods in an intel­lectual sense and at the same time, have a prac­tical value. They should not simply occupy public space, but add space”[5]. Milk & Honey adds this space. By very subtly awak­ening our attention, making us think for a moment, we suddenly become more critical. We have the chance to become polit­i­cally active citizens again, instead of simply consumers.

For a while now, Goldberg has been dealing in different ways with the material provided by the Accurata Utopia Tabula. Each time he has worked with this material, he has care­fully taken the specific situ­ation into account. In spring 2003, for example, he placed a version of the Accurata Utopia Tabula in a lighted display case in the Unter den Linden train station, located at the Pariser Platz in Berlin. Besides the maps and direc­tions providing necessary infor­mation for passengers, this historical train station also contains texts and pictures of old Berlin. Pariser Platz, in front of the Bran­denburg Gate, is a square of tradi­tional signif­i­cance. Built in 1734, it is today an eminent location, featuring not only distin­guished buildings housing large banks and insurance companies, but also the Adlon hotel and the embassies of foreign coun­tries. Here is how the Stefboek describes the houses in the Land of Milk and Honey: “The houses are entirely made of finest gold, although the gold is worth nothing, since it is not possible to buy anything in this domain. And this abun­dance prevails throughout the country, so that purses full of coins simply lie around on the fields; one can find masses of Arabic and Byzantine gold coins — gratis and of absolutely no use. Nobody buys or sells there. Anyone who works is beaten; things are only bestowed or received. Nature is exag­ger­atedly fertile and auto­mat­i­cally renders up her bounty to humanity.” The act of putting this utopian map in this situ­ation —without any kind of expla­nation — becomes an addi­tional comment on the fictional aspect of the whole context.

Last year, too, Goldberg sent a repro­duction of the Accurata Utopia Tabula, with a complete list of its two thousand toponyms, as his contri­bution to a book project. This collab­o­rative project, initiated by Andreas M. Kaufmann, consisted of an invi­tation accom­panied by a CD-ROM, which contained images taken from news­papers, the Internet, tele­vision, and other public sources, which the artist had compiled over a period of more than twenty years. The almost four hundred images contained on the CD showed war, violence, and disasters, but also record and magazine covers, or scenes from films. Kaufmann asked one hundred people — including artists, curators, writers, archi­tects, musi­cians, etc. — to react and respond with complete freedom to his invi­tation. Goldberg sent Kaufmann a repro­duction of the Accurata Utopia Tabula. In response to the density, crudeness, and unbearable pain of Kaufmann’s world portrait, Goldberg sent an image of a world where violence does not exist and people live in peace, without worries. A place to escape, at least mentally.

The situ­ation in Heidenheim is completely different. The Accurata Utopia Tabula is located amid trees and benches, where a little side street joins Haupt­strasse to form a small square: a place where resi­dents mix with tourists, thanks to the area’s prox­imity to Castle Hellen­stein, “Heidenheim’s main attraction,” as the artist points out.[6] “The castle is located high on a hill, about 100 meters from Haupt­strasse as the bird flies, so it is actually above Haupt­strasse. In this multi­faceted situ­ation, it is easy to imagine some vehicle stopping in front of the object, but it is unclear what kind of vehicle it might be — a bus, a horse and buggy, a ferry, a private car, or a tourist coach. The spot might even be a meeting point for guided tours. So the site is func­tional, but the wind clock and the weath­ervane give it a playful touch. There is no expla­nation for the whole thing — neither for the names of the desti­na­tions, which change daily, nor for the map. I believe that the sound of the names creates a picture in the mind of the reader. The whole story is, of course, as naive as can be. But as a public statement, it has a diag­nostic relevance.”

Of the almost 2000 desti­na­tions, only one desti­nation per day is shown, meaning that it will take more than five years for the display to show them all. In a society where speed is a funda­mental prin­ciple and desti­nation does not really matter, Goldberg’s statement becomes implacable.

Like many other contem­porary artists, Goldberg adopts Duchamp’s strategy of turning everyday objects into art, but unlike Duchamp, he does this by taking real-life situ­a­tions and turning them into forth­right ques­tions. Goldberg’s approach is tremen­dously critical and political, but far from being either provocative or dogmatic, he confronts the viewer, in a very subtle and playful way, with small displace­ments or “differ­ences,” inviting us to change our perception of things and question matters.

This subtle play­fulness is always present in Goldberg’s other inter­ven­tions in the public space. This is the case in Rock Paper Scissors, which marks the former urban frontier sepa­rating West and East Germany at the Oberbaum Bridge in Berlin. This location is a perfect example of Berlin history from the nine­teenth century to the present: a symbol of metro­politan modernism as well as a Cold War barricade, it is also a bridge for all kinds of inter­secting objects: pedes­trians, cars, bicycles, subways, tramways, and boats. Goldberg inter­vention at this emblematic point is seem­ingly innocent, as he has installed a children’s game. Above each bank of the shipping channel, he placed two round neon sculp­tures. Each features different-colored neon tube lights, which outline the shape of three different hand posi­tions. A generator randomly changes the hand posi­tions and color every six seconds. As they face each other, the two objects play “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” a game played all over the world. Although the game is appar­ently innocent, Rock, Paper, Scissors clearly exhibits a power play in which no one option is stronger than the others, but depends entirely on the combi­nation (rock breaks scissors, scissors cut paper, but paper wraps around rock). At the same time, it testifies to how deci­sions are made: neither by argu­men­tation nor by violence. By installing this children’s game at a location fraught with historical refer­ences (and where the power play between East and West is the most relevant factor), play­fulness and apparent naïveté join to make an ironic comment, thus serving to open up a deeper level of thought and analysis.

Subtlety is another very important aspect of Goldberg’s works. They never impose their presence upon the public space. They are highly visible, but in an incon­spicuous way. Or in other words, as previ­ously quoted, “they don’t simply occupy space, but add space.” They merely stim­ulate the perception of the passerby. They ask for a kind of latent attention, which makes us aware of what is going on around us. This is the case with the red curtain (curtain.mov) located in the Martin Gropius Building in Eber­swalde. A sixty-meter-long glass walkway, built on stilts three meters above the ground and leading through a park, connects the clinic’s main building with the admin­is­tration building. Here, Goldberg installed a moving red stage curtain, whose motion is very subtle, hardly percep­tible. The red curtain moves at a rate of 1.2 mm per second, which means that it takes twelve hours for the red curtain to shift from one end of the corridor to the other. Although barely percep­tible, the change in its position is visible after a few hours, and this provides us with a sense of time. With its imper­cep­tible movement, the red curtain reminds us that forced accel­er­ation is not the most elemental dimension of time, but that constant, calm movement is. We can sit in the park and contem­plate the slow progress of the red curtain.

We can sit in the center of Heidenheim and wait for a vehicle to take us to some­where in the Land of Milk and Honey. We can wait for the bus that never comes at the new Heidenheim bus stop. But our wait is different than Vladimir and Estragon’s wait for a Godot who will never arrive. In our unstable world, we need to believe in utopias — at least in mental utopias. Although the word utopia has been discredited, utopian thought has not suffered such a fate. As Brecht does, we think that “some­thing is missing,” and that is why it is important not to forget about utopia, to remain steadfast in our belief in it. The fact that there is a stop whose desti­nation is Schlaraf­fenland means that there is a chance that we could possibly go there, even though it might be very far away. We know today that utopias fail as they are realized. I am not sure if I would like to live in Schlaraf­fenland forever, where things are so easy. But it is good to know that it is out there some­where, that there is a stop whose desti­nation is the utopia station.

Montse Badia, September 2004

[1] From a Sterf­boeck or Ster­bebuch of 1491. The purpose of this kind of book was to demon­strate correct behavior, so that after death, a person could reach the right place in heaven.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Susanne Krauss, “Der Traum von Schlaraf­fenland” (review of the book of the same title by Herman Pleij in Phitrat, 40, May-June 2001).

[4] The perspex soffit of glass and lamps, which is based on Bilz’s vision, is at the Institut Mathildehöhe in Darm­stadt, Germany. Recently it was part of an exhi­bition entitled The Failure of Beauty, curated by Harald Szeemann (Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, 2004). Illus­tration on p. 103 of the exhi­bition catalogue.

[5] E-mail corre­spon­dence with the artist, August 2004

[6] Ibid.