On Croissants & Architecture
Now in the global economy, coffee is grown across the entire subjugated Third World. When Starbucks sells a bag of beans, it’s always marked with the region from whence it sprang, making the consumer an imperial cannibal connoisseur.1
– Ian Svenonius
Croissants and sandpaper. Could there be more different things? In texture, in feel, in volume. Powder of flour, flakes of glass – imagine the first applied onto thin sheets of paper and the other made into a batter with sugar and butter, and then baked. Imagine touching these things. Now put them in your mouth. ‘Sandpaper is the only surface I can think of that I react to physically’, Nicole Wermers told me. ‘It makes me cringe and causes my mouth to go dry. My physical reaction is, I think, rooted in the fact that I detest the sound of its friction with other surfaces, especially other sheets of sandpaper, even the anticipation of the sound makes me feel uncomfortable.’
In the way croissants and sandpaper are paired together they embody – almost in the literal sense of the somatic experience of the body – what negation is. Inflated dough and a carving tool, greasy fluff and a device for shaping negative space, food and building hardware, lifestyle and labour. Nicole Wermers’ Croissants & Architecture sees the fronts and backs of sandpaper sheets juxtaposed randomly on a split screen with photographs of croissants shot in various situations, mainly outdoor cafes in different European cities. The sculptural nature and formal properties of the pastries are emphasised by the seriality of the images. As the artist put it:
Croissants’ typical inflated crescent shape is constructed by rolling and repeatedly folding a triangle of dough. The visible volume of a croissant is somewhat misleading as it is hiding a lot of layers forming air pockets inside; a well-made croissant crumbles into next to nothing when subjected to pressure. The visible volume of the croissant seems proportional to the amount of energy value croissants have.
Thus, although existing only as two-dimensional images, Wermers’ sculptural interests are clearly visible in her piece for Out of Focus through the suggestive juxtaposition of materials. Indeed, the shape and tactility of each in relation to the other intensifies the qualities of each as an object. Through their mutual negation in this setting, their physical features are heightened. This technique of montage by the artist constitutes their presence as oppositional and at the same time complementary: the sandpaper’s sparkling particles make the croissant’s shine seem oily.
As is the case with Wermers’ sculptures, here too the object has a concrete relation to reality: it is both a participant in the world and a marker of a certain condition. A metonym if you will. Her sculptures show an un-readymade quality, by which the authored artefact is reporting on the world from which it came and in which it is displayed – forms of living, spatial usages, standardised proportions, lines of distribution, production protocols and marketing strategies. The artist’s own introduction to croissants has to do with the changing realities of 1980s peripheral West Germany. ‘Outside of France’, she says ‘croissants can be considered lifestyle pastries.’ They can be defined therefore as a symptom of ‘globalised taste’, as she calls it. This globalised taste she is describing relates directly to the way our cities have changed. Wermers is very clear, in her work, about where her interests lie. Her practice is invested in contemporary urban material realities. That is how this pastry we treat ourselves to becomes such a charged object in her Out of Focus project. Yet the croissant is, of course, a sample of an outmoded formation of the good life: ‘croissants are actually passé’, Wermers admits. The macaron craze might be a more recent example of franchised French treats transformed into globalised taste, but the croissant – now displayed on the counter in most local cafes in the West, resting like a bloated invertebrate – epitomises the tremendous spatial and social crisis we have been experiencing in relation to housing for the last 30 years. For, since the introduction of croissants as a standard globalised taste, our cities have felt the growing tide of organic stores, superfoods and health stores, Instagram foodies and the food-stall revival, in addition to all kinds of marathons and cycling races – together they synchronise bodily metabolism with the processes of urban gentrification.
Proust’s Madeleine cakes are famous for taking him back to his childhood memories, but our croissants transport us to someone else’s dreams of condos and urban development. Their taste brings our fantasies of a good life back to the realities of accumulation by dispossession, which surround us. Sandpaper, on the other hand, is part of the object category of tools, and, Wermers points out, as such creates negative space by removing matter. It involves a form of production by reduction, constructing by detracting. The late-Soviet computer game Tetris presents this logic perfectly: players gain points by eliminating lines. In our urban reality, where destruction is profitable, we call it gentrification. Wermers’ croissants confront us with how everything behaves as real estate now, and in so doing echo Fredric Jameson:
Today all politics is about real estate. Whether you think of the question of Palestine, the settlements and the camps; or of the politics of raw materials and extractions; whether you think of ecology and the rainforests for example; or the problems of federalism, citizenship and immigration; or whether it’s a question of gentrification in the great cities as well as favelas and townships, and of course the movement of the landless – today everything is about land.2
The enormous new buildings erected in cities all around us are not homes. They are currency. Money that has to be materialised somehow: wealth accumulated and stored temporarily in concrete and glass. These empty buildings represent the imaginary stability of unsustainable markets that put these buildings themselves in a state of constant speculation. The debt we are subjected to through mortgages and other financial devices, makes every single thing around us, as well as our living spaces, a form of negative space. If we think of education, housing, health, transportation, communication and culture – from being services that are paid for or are subsidised by our taxes, they have become privatised commodities. This does not mean that we can do without them, but rather that now they are life-taxes: routine expenses we are subjected to even before entering the employment market. We get into debt in order to enter the employment market. Debt is the anti-matter that allows for matter to appear. In Marxian terms debt is anti-value through which value is produced. Therefore, objects are debt in the form of a thing; they are anti-matter materialised. In Wermers’ Croissants & Architecture, both croissant and sandpaper perform, through their physical attributes, the notion of plasticised debt. The generator of negative space and the inflated structure of an air pocket both seem to embody this idea of the thing as relying on debt – anti-value.
Wermers’ Croissants & Architecture for OoF coincides with the publication of a book by the same title (published by Motto Books), where her croissant photographs are paired with randomly inserted, actual sheets of sandpaper, which will eventually destroy the images and the book from the inside, thus making it an object that operates as a perfect model for both gentrification and online labour. While working on her Out of Focus piece, Wermers began collecting sheets of sandpaper from different decades and different parts of the world; a kind of sandpaper archive. The back and the front, the levels of coarseness and softness, the places they come from – all made these assisting tools into actual objects. As your computer monitor, phone or tablet screen is basically a lamp, the sheets of sandpaper on your screen now, while you are visiting Out of Focus, may lack their tactile qualities. But the continual process of rubbing that they perform on the objects they are applied to, seems to be repeated by you right now through your fingers and eyes – on your mouse mat and touchscreen. It is not by chance that your workstation is also your entertainment outlet. Our job is to absorb surpluses of production. Our attention, our abilities to socialise and the fact that learning how to read and write is still covered by our taxes, all become immense resources. The business model of online corporations is to profit from monopolising these human capacities and the value that they generate. The Samsung vs Apple patent court case, for example, revealed that it is not the technological inventions that are in dispute between these two communications giants, but rather the feel of the product – the interface of locking the touchscreen, for example. The case revolved around the bodily gestures of users; the choreography of the palm of the hand. This makes these products first and foremost ergonomic performance devices. In Croissants & Architecture, scrolling is put directly in relation to sanding. And the logic of subtraction, which is what this form of labour is about, is being brought back to us through the screen. The repetition of scrolling is part of a whole set of postures and actions we do around our networked computed units. These are not only new ergonomic choreographies of labour, but – like the subtraction by the sandpaper and the gentrification marked by the croissant – they impoverish us.
- Ian Svenonius, ‘The Bloody Latte: Vampirism as a Mass Movement’, in The Psychic Soviet, Chicago: Drag City, 2006, p. 39.
- Frederic Jameson, ‘The Aesthetics of Singularity’, in New Left Review 92, March–April 2015, pp. 130–31.
Joshua Simon, director and chief curator at MoBY-Museums of Bat Yam. Co-founding editor of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa based Maayan publishing. Vera List Center for Art and Politics fellow (2011–13). Author of Neomaterialism (Sternberg Press, 2013), and editor of Ruti Sela: For The Record (Archive Books, 2015). Recent curatorial projects include ‘Factory Fetish’ (Westspace, Melbourne, co-curated with Liang Luscombe), ‘Roee Rosen: Group Exhibition’ (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, co-curated with Gilad Melzer) and ‘The Kids Want Communism’ (year-long project at MoBY, in collaboration with State of Concept, Athens; Tranzit, Prague; Skuc gallery, Ljubljana; Free/Slow University of Warsaw; and VCRC, Kiev). Holds a PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London.