Wednesday, March 31, 2021

In Memoriam Urs Jaeggi (1931-2021)

by John Kinsella

Urs Jaeggi has recently passed in Germany at the age of 89. As followers of this blog will know, we saw him in Zurich as recently as January 2020, just as and before the world fragmented and writhed with the Covid crisis. It was an incredible interaction — bringing with it an entire notebook of collaborative fusings and dialogue, for which I will always be grateful. And Urs finally got to meet Tracy and Tim in person, though he had spoken with Tracy on the phone from Berlin to Paris decades earlier. 

A remarkable person in all ways, Urs challenged and changed discourse as an academic, and as an artist pushed his practice into completely original and absolutely committed modes of articulation. In all his creative work he was able to converse between interior and exterior worlds — within himself to test the boundaries of what arts practice might be, committed to enacting his work honestly, and uninterested in the ‘fashionable’. He was a practitioner of great integrity. Writer, sculptor, painter, drawer, poet, performer, creator of texts, he was one of the most widely informed, read and sensitive people I have ever known. His imagination merged with knowledge, and both were remade.

Urs was born in Solothurn, Switzerland, and though spending much of his life in Berlin and later Mexico City, he made frequent journeys back to Switzerland, often to see his very long-lived mother. I remember Urs saying that the journey on the train was useful to him for his work, allowing him to focus; I have often wondered if that was because he was so interested in the tension between ‘permanence’ (unattainable) and flux (what we live in). He seemed fascinated by the in-betweenness of things. 

I first met Urs at the 1995, 62nd World Congress of PEN, and we immediately sparked. He was moving between zones in a physical sense, and he was also deep in a change in his practice: from more conventional narrative to a highly disrupting alterity of expression — one that energised language/s, offering an alternative fluidity of philosophical encounter with ‘being’ and materiality. 

We both discovered we had a strong interest in Deleuze and Guattari, and agreed we could write a cross-language textual work that operated as a body without organs we would reterritorialise and also deterritorialise. We promised each other to keep in contact and work together. 

It happened sooner than I expected, because within months we were swapping constructed typography-orientated texts via fax, and this continued when Tracy and I took up a residency at Varuna writers’ house not long after (Blue Mountains, New South Wales, far from Western Australia... and these ‘shifts’ would be part of the dynamic of our interaction from then on). 

Faxes would come into the communal fax at Varuna overnight, and I’d collect them in the morning and send off as soon as I’d configured my D & G response. This continued when Tracy and I moved to Cambridge. Eventually, the book was finished — or had completed being ‘compiled’ — and I photocopied half-a-dozen sets and sent them to various people, none of whom have any idea what became of them now. Long time ago. Urs had a set in his art studio, and I am hoping it remains among his papers.

Urs and I went on to read/perform together (Hamburg, East Berlin, etc), and to conduct a variety of collaborative textual experimentations. We fell in and out of contact over the decades, depending on the run of our lives. At times our exchanges were intense and all-consuming. Each of us took work done with each other into our way of seeing, into our wider ‘practice’.

Looking back to the first time I published Urs — Salt Number 8, 1996, I remember the excitement and dynamism of our earliest encounters. He was an enthusiast for challenging textual and knowledge conventions within Euro-paradigms, and dismantling narratives to investigate what informed them. An investigation that always had purpose: to find ways of liberating text that convention might force upon us. Urs provided the cover image of that issue, and a couple of pieces that are below:

Over time, I will try and place some of our other collaborative work on the blog (there were about half-a-dozen extended ‘projects’), but for now I will sign off with a poem I wrote after hearing of Urs’s passing, and also one (accompanied by a note of thanks and greeting) I wrote a decade ago as part of a celebration of Urs’s life.

Villanelle In Memoriam Urs Jaeggi

You’d have broken the form down into fragments
of speech, questioned the mechanism, undone the quotes
that bind the philosopher to a position, a circumstance.

I will remember for us the interplay of documents
and voice in the East Berlin literature house, the notes
of breaking the form down into fragments.

I will remember for us the non-alignments
of syntax and image, freeing picture house endnotes
that bind the philosopher to a position, a circumstance.

I will remember Deleuze and Guattari enjambments,
the wolf in a shadow of the tower — unlearning rote,
as we broke up the form and followed the fragments.

I will remember the depth of ink and the dénouement
of a rocking horse in your Berlin flat, later of Zurich and litotes,
refusing to bind the philosopher to a position, a circumstance.

For more than a quarter-century we worked by increments —
our ‘Tractortatus’ trying to respell propositions and essences — afloat
on your sculptures of consequence, lines worked into fragments
freeing the philosopher from a position, all circumstance.


           for Urs’s 80th birthday:

Happy birthday, Urs. I thank you for your friendship and for sharing your work with me over the years. Working with you on various collaborations, including D & G and most recently the Tractortatus texts, has been an ongoing revelation about the possibilities of art and language. You are the embodiment of the Renaissance artist and thinker — all is in your ken — but in a truly contemporary way. 

Here is a poem based on a few factors: visiting your apartment in Berlin in the mid-90s; the painting used as the cover image for Salt magazine number 8 (1996); and very distantly, your wonderful poem-text ‘Miles’, published in the same issue of Salt

I often think of our performances together in Berlin and Hamburg. You are the liberator of the word! 

for Urs Jaeggi’s 80th Birthday

In the room the room
you offered the staying 
place the rocking-horse
room where night-fright
made no horror and no
shadows just the zoo-light
carried in from wanderings
about the wall machine
down ergo silence of cabinet
of sketches expressing
shudders and stillness
an ergonomics of presence
where comfort allies
with friendship and intensity
with sincerity and circles
wavering circles and souls
stepping down and out
through window and image-bank
in book-frame and covering
voices with plausible trance
or entrance — thankyou
for the cover the glint
and gleaning of salt
and movie-time rescue
like risk like announcement
overtalking to echo
through theatre and audience,
failsafe nor forget-me-not rhizomes
tunnelling streetworks
cloistered or blossoming in window
of multilingual fruitfulness,
no imprisonment in artifice
or maybe freedom in artifice
but not ‘officialese’ (you made
your escape! you sculpted
plastic form office throne
choke of narrative, storyline
fame left on the altar),
degrees of ranks blown
in by Peter the Great
and no notice taken
or left freehold resurrection
poem of provinces — dead 
souls — no, no estates
made from transfer or silence:
third persons telling their tales,
folk tales and heritages,
red and blue witches,
sagas   epics   prophecies
I heard Khlebnikov asleep
reciting asleep I was awake
asleep near the rocking-horse
childhood recognition of apocrypha
I was part of we all were you’d think
or you were too and I detailed
the twists and scrunches
of paper that made up
your eternal poem your
challenge to rock the horse
to rock the boat
to rock the monastery
of learning and blight,
chronicle   recital   ode
paint hunger form
of inner-city apartment
as generous as caverns
and sky, ‘(dritte Lektion)’
in the mineshafts of wonder,
investigation, breakthroughs,
loyalty of palette is body
of palette is opening colour 
outside its spectrum
without the inducements
of colour, refraction, spectra,
prism analogies, dispersion,
diffractions the clamour
for laws we never want,
we pass without pause:
sharing is silence and noise
and the joy of knowing.
Bonding and making,
rooms to fill and empty,
all made in the shades
of living contrapposto.

with very best wishes, 
from John Kinsella