Vortrag von Bureau Archipel über die Somnatisten, Paris Art Biennale 2006

Auszüge aus einem Vortrag, den Sabine Siegfried und Christoph Willumeit am 31. Oktober 2006 an der Pariser Sorbonne im Rahmen der Paris Art Biennale über ihr Projekt „Die Somnatisten“ gehalten haben. 

Der Vortrag ist im original Englisch. Der Text ist um die umfangreichen Zitate aus den Originaltexten gekürzt, da diese an anderem Ort einsehbar sind. 


Bureau Archipel welcomes you all to hear about „The Somnatists“ – an obscure but very interesting group of artists that have been dreamed to have worked in the 1940s. 

We will tell you about the Somnatists but also want to let the Somantists speak for themselves through their writings and art work. – We will also tell you what we think about the fact that the Somnatists came into existence: It is quite outrageous that they did. That is what we think. 

In fact, we will tell you many things and perhaps it will all come off a bit confusing – but we assure you that we are no less confused than you and only pretend to be organized, clear-sighted and in command of our subject. Getting away with this kind of pretending has a name: it is called art.     

The Somnatists
A project curated by Bureau Archipel

Somnare is latin and it means to dream, to sleep. 

The Somnatists was what a group of five artists/authors called themselves when they were active from 1944 to 1948 in Zürich, Switzerland. 

The Somnatists might be described as a kind of an artist commune, their members working together on various art projects and performances. The group did not aim towards exhibtions of their work or any form of popularity; neither did they intend to sell their work. A significant involvement in post-war Zürich art circles is not recorded anywhere. It appears, that the Somnatists have even actively covered their tracks after one of the members of the group died in 1949. This would be in accordance with the criticism the group formulated toward the idea of the artistic work. 

The name of the group relates to the motif of sleeping and dreaming (the circle of waking and sleeping) that is strongly recurrent in their works and in their theoretical and poetic writings, and may serve as a metaphor for the eternal circle of being. At the „fuzzy“ edges, the areas of transition in repetitory processes, the Somnatists hoped to find unintentional and purposeless expressions of what they called „the unutterable“. Series and repeptitions and the slight differences and shades that accompany repetitory processes produce lapsae and faults which are the material of artistic expression.

Excerpts from The first Manifesto of the Somnatists.

In their writings the group stressed their independence from existentialist´ philosophies as well as from the surrealist movement. The group was particularly opposed to the somewhat naive tendencies of the Surrealists and their Freudian interpretations of dreams as a pure source of creativity and even „truth“. And to use art as a means to reach political goals – as Aragon and Breton had done with the surrealist movement – was quite out of the question. If asked to describe the philosophical tendencies of the group, while taking into account the scarcity of materials left behind by them, one would have to say that a very discriminatory understanding of Nietzschean ideas meet with the kind of „pragmatic mysticism“ that can be found in the writings Nicolas Cusanus: there is something beyond language and knowledge, but we cannot speak of it. 

The works and documents shown here are the only ones known to exist so far. Most of the works pertain to three performances/ exhibitions/activities during 1947, as well as theoretical and poetological writings that relate to these activities. The material of the show stems from the family estates Preiser (London), St. John (Inverness, SCO), Benjedid (Paris), as well as an object on loan by the Musée de Alpinisme (Chamonix, F). 

Excerpts from the first Manifesto of the Somnatists continued.

The members of the group introduced.

Excerpts from the Somnatistic Text „Setting the Sails“, written by George Latours around the year 1947. 

The first and only show/exhibition the Somnatists had as a group took place in 1947 in the German town of Bonn which at that point was a juncture of the British, Anerican and French occuppational forces after World War II. The show was organized by Wyllie Gorringer who at that time was part of a rather dubious organization that served as a cover for American intelligence operations in occupied Germany. The show was not exactly a success and was met with very derisive  comments in the local press. It appears that most of the works that were shown in the exhibition in the Hamburg Kunshalle this year were originally part of the Bonn exhibition. 

A particular part of the proceedings at the grand opening in the summer of 1947in Bonn was that George Latours and Moritz von Bamselle started digging a hole inthe garden of the small pavillion where the exhibition was held. Asked what they were doing they answered that they are workin on a negative statue of a horseman.        

Excerpts from the Somnatistic text „The Hundred Orphans“.

Part of the Bonn exhibition were Esther Weinstein‘s „Puddles of the World“ – a work which documents her travels around the world and of which she wrote in a diary entry that they were the only sights that really interested her. 

Excerpts from the somnatistic text „From a Sea of Whispers“:

Mia Moren was the painter of the group. She created drawings and paintings in great profusion but once she was done with them, abandoned them in public places. Her „Dream Scetches“   and the series of paintings entitled „The Navels of the World“ are the only works left of her. Both have been – presumably – part of the Bonn exhibition.      

Several poems of the Somnatists recited.

One of the strangest but at the same time most prophetic works of the Somnatists was the work „Permanent Permutation“ by Wyllie Gorringer, who took an – then state of the art – 16mm film projector, ran a loop of a wool thread through it and projected this image onto a big screen. Gorringer happened to have worked in a propaganda film unit of the american secret service OSS – a forerunner of the CIA - during the war. This is what he said about his work: 

„You go see a newsreel in a theatre and pretty soon you more or less dream what you see up on the screen. You know that feeling, right? Well, in the end it really doesn’t matter if it’s laughing GIs giving the thumbs-up after some battle or other - or if it’s just a strand of wool wearing thin as you watch. As far as I’m concerned they’re both mere shadows – literally and figuratively. And I guess that’s all there is to say about this.“ 

A poem about the Somnatists recited (written by Willumeit):

I dreamed all this and this is true! 
Dreams are true while they last 
and do we not live in dreams? 
As Tennyson asked. 
And what is true now, my dream or you?

The Somnatists are now hanging in a museum, 
Bought and paid for by public funds.  
Does that make them a fake?
(And me an odious rake?) 

Are we operating in the realms of forgery?
Is it mere mimetics or is it – how embarrassing - poetry?
This is not a fake!, I challenge you
Because a fake always needs the other, too.
A fake will not stand by itself, 
must always gesture toward something else
Something outside which is not itself. 
The fake may only live and work when annexed  
To the realm of use, of morals, or economic context.
When you fake it, you always have a goal, 
Expose and provoke, tell someone they’re a fool.  
From here to satire it’s just a step, 
A step easily done, because there’s a lack
A step that is a neccessity, because those who fake 
Have nothing to give and merely take. 

We salute the forger, may he forge the entire world! 
We’d buy his work and call it art.
But those who want to pass their feeble thoughts off
As  art, calling it „fake art“, those I scoff!
Because faking means pretending and hoping
To catch some of that glamour, some of that shine 
That surrounds a work of art and lends it its life.
A fake always pertains to something else, another,
It is opinion, satire, bad journalism, but art it is never; 
It deceitfully pretends to be more than mere mimetics,
But in fact it just uses and abuses us – devoid of poetics. 

A fake: pretending to be something that it is not:
Putting on a face in order to deface,
Wear a mask in order to tear it off at the right moment: 
Exposing to ridicule what lies beneath. 
But what lies beneath is the other that is always needed,
Without it the fake cannot exist. It can never be itself.   
It is never it’s own sujet.  

The Somnatists were dreamed-up and the sleeper was well rested. 
The Somnatists have been sold before they even existed. 
The Somnatists are not a fake, 
They are true because they can stand alone:
They do not pertain to something else, 
They do not gesture towards another.
They only want to be 
(If they want anything at all)
Something we might have seen. 
They are a window in time, a mere possibility,
And you may apply all you know about their times,
Subject it to the closest scrutiny, their works, their words
And find that you have spend time on a dream 
You might have dreamed in front of another work entirely. 

The Somnatists are themselves, nothing more and nothing less.
They are truly like a dream: occurring in my mind and thus
Are wholly fictitious and ephemeral as that Nietzschean Birth
Whom we dragged into all this with not a little mirth. 
(We had to mention this because it rhymes ever so nicely!)


A somnatistic happening: The Cosmic Betting Shop in Zürich in 1947: 

The „Cosmic Betting Shop“ was a performance/work of the Somnatists that took place in the spring of 1947. The work consisted in renting an empty shop in a busy street in downtown Zürich which served as the location for the cosmic betting shop. People would come in and bet against themselves and received a betting slip/receipt which they would have to turn in at the shop upon fulfilling (or not) their respective bets. Some of the bets on times, places, actions and dreams generated interesting results: The bettors did and said absurd things – things they would’ve never said or done otherwise -  in order to win their bets against themselves. According to a text taken from one of Moritz v. Bamsell‘s notebooks the interesting question behind als this was: „Did the bettors forge their own lives? Did they actually live another life or temporarily appeared in another life when they did things they would have never done, save for the bet?“

The poem about the Somnatists continued (written by Willumeit):  

Somnare, to sleep, to dream – in Latin, we are told.
The dream might be seen as the ultimate realm of possibility,
Where POSSE and EST fall together for all eternity,
(This is where Cusanus makes his entry!) 
Where everything we see and might have seen
In what we call the „waking state“ 
(Cioran could tell you something about this one...)
Might be combined or born anew into something else entirely.
The things we might have seen are made seen to us,
But they need not have an effect, 
They are exempt from the world of use and utility. 

And when we wake...
(Who is this, who has the power to wake us from this state?)
We have to admit that the dream just happened to us, 
And that we have no reign over it.
A dream is composed of the world we know, 
And strangely enough also of worlds 
We will never know at all.
A dream does not want anything, 
But does something nonetheless.
Is it so strange that we call us Somnatists?

My voice in this room, reaching YOU - if bored or interested 
Or indifferent altogether already fantasizing of lunch. 
The mind is always in danger of getting lost in its own works
And to confuse itself with what it has done. 
It is a game to think of something that might have been:
To understand  one’s works as part of one’s own mind,
And never to confuse it for one‘s  own identity.

A fake borrows identity for a purpose that is not identical with itself. 
A fake is a lack of Being. 
A fake  is devoid of any of those transcendent qualities 
We so longingly look for  when appreciating art. 
A fake always pertains to only one thing: that which it pretends to be.   

This is not a fake. The Somnatist are true. 
They are yours. 
Take them. 
By the hand. 
And lead them anywhere you please. 

Art is a promise of which we do not know if we gave it or received it.  

And finally: 

Please be so kind and adore the maker in the made. 

Here endeth the lecture. Thank you.

If you have any questions – let me assure you, you are not the only one. 

(End of lecture. Bureau Archipel 2006) 

Présentation des Somnatistes par Sabine Siegfried et Christoph Willumeit à l’Université de la Sorbonne/CERAP. 30.10.2006.