The Great Plane
English translation of Dick Raaymakers' essay 'Het grote vlak' (1992). Re-published in the 'Monograph', and from 2008 – 2012 available on the website www.dickraaijmakers.nl.
We simplify our complicated world and reduce it to a single plane. This plane - a vast one-dimensional horizontality with no horizon - represents absolute nothingness. There is nothing; no sound can be heard; nothing happens. Time stands still.
There is one exception. Somewhere in the distance, this endless expanse is interrupted, not to say ruptured, by another plane: an immense verticality reaching to the heavens, a colossal dividing plane that splits the horizontal world plane in two. This plane - we call it The Great Plane - is simply there. It appears to be there for no apparent reason, and without event. It is completely isolated there, surrounded by total nothingness.
We are considering going to this plane. We realize that the point of this lonely existence, and thereby the plane's reason for existence, will be profoundly damaged by our mere presence. In addition, through our arrival we place the reliability of our perception in peril. Yet it is not out of the question that this plane is there solely in order to be seen by us, and that the reason for its presence acquires a deeper sense and meaning only now, merely through our proximity. This thought encourages us to set off.
When we have come sufficiently close to The Great Plane, we halt. From nearby, it is apparent how completely abstract the plane is as a dividing plane, in spite of the fact that it remains concrete in a material sense and retains its volume and plasticity. Abstractly and concretely, the plane expresses pure verticality with respect to the horizontally extending world plane. Its "one-foot-forward" establishment only reinforces this impression. Its skin is shiny and reflects the sun. There is no trace of any inscription, line or marking that could give the plane's surface any relief; if there had been, it would have immediately attracted our attention. There is nothing to indicate that the plane is planning to give us - we who have come so close in order to make contact with it - any message. Other than its verticality, the plane as a "sign" expresses solely itself. (That is, itself in all its solitude.)
The Great Plane, however we look at it, has a relationship to nothing. Nor does it appear to relate in any way to us, who wish to know it. It is possible that we are occupying our position as observer in the wrong way, literally and figuratively to the side of the plane, and thus far from ideally. Maybe this incorrect position makes having a relationship with the plane impossible. On closer inspection, our position is that of a voyeur who stays at a safe distance rather than a serious observer who would move continuously around the plane without allowing himself a moment's rest.
As we watch, motionless and irresolute, from a fixed point some distance away, we realize all too well that under these same circumstances, the serious "ideal" observer would be perpetually busy acquiring as many impressions of the phenomenon as possible. It is evidently of great importance to this ideal observer to amass, as it were, all these impressions without pausing until he has a clear picture of The Great Plane with respect to the horizontally extended world plane. (This picture is not solely one of its exterior but of everything the plane thinks it must mobilize in order to be able to manifest itself "this way," and no way other than "this way," to this observer.
We know that once the ideal observer has acquired enough impressions of the plane, he will take the image of it away with him in order to study it elsewhere in peace and quiet and seclusion. And he will do so while we - we who can be counted as potential observers and researchers at least as capable as the ideal individual - get little further than staring at what appears before our eyes, riveted to the ground of the world. We decide to take this ideal observer as a model and break through the status quo.
We do this by formulating a "plan of approach."
A Plan of Approach
Our plan is as follows: we want to literally touch The Great Plane. We will not be satisfied with solely "orbiting" the plane in order to be able to form the most faithful possible picture of it. No, we wish to enter into physical and tactile contact with the plane! In this, our reasoning is as follows. The plane's closed form may imply an "inside" that is hiding itself from us. And this "inside," we think, must come out sooner or later in one way or another; for example - and preferably - at the moment we dare to touch the plane, even if only for a moment. And should this almost passing contact have no visible consequence, then we can intensify the contact between us and the plane.
It seems obvious to us that the firmer the contact is between us and the plane, the more unreservedly the plane will open itself to us. Should things come to a true exchange of plans, ideas and thoughts between us and the plane, our deepest wish will be to be allowed the opportunity to enter the open plane. The Great Plane will then no longer signify a closed façade for us - a façade that conveys pure refusal - but a three-dimensional open house that will embrace, protect and warm us.
Buoyed up by this reasoning, we now actually set ourselves in motion. Once face to face with The Great Plane, we come to a halt once again, and decide to give things - things! - a minute. Nothing happens. (Science fiction.) We decide once again to come a few paces closer and extend an arm in the direction of the plane with utmost caution. Again the plane refuses to respond, persisting in its closed and impassive state. We hesitate. But then we move forward resolutely and brush the surface of the plane with the very tips of our fingers, making one palpable, irreversible contact. Irreversible contact! After all, we can still break eye contact by quickly averting our gaze - but hand contact is irrevocable! (Even the lightest, briefest pressure of the fingers can sometimes feel like a balled fist on the other's skin, and be experienced as an unexpected punch ...)
As soon as we experience palpable contact with The Great Plane, two practicable scenarios for what must follow present themselves. In scenario I, this extremely brief initial contact meets with no reaction from the plane, meaning we must continue our approach with increased determination, at least if we wish to stick undaunted to our plan to get to know the "inside" of the plane. According to scenario II, by contrast, things proceed as we silently feared they would: at the moment of our contact, the plane's charged "inside" leaps free and strikes back at us, the touchers (not to say "molesters" from the plane's point of view), with deadly force if necessary. Evidently the plane does not "just" exist here in this desert like expanse but maintains aconnection to an outer world invisible to us from which it derives its unheard-of strength. And it uses this strength to unequivocally and resolutely repel every attempt to open the plane from outside. Its closedness very likely protects an "inside" that is there not because of us but because of a "plan" hidden deep within it. This plan has apparently turned against all our plans at first sight, for why else would the plane be as closed as it now appears to be? And why would it attack us like this at the moment we seek to make acquaintance with its interior? And why, we wonder, does the plane not open itself invitingly to us, inducing us to come inside it?
An example of such an unrelentingly closed plane, such a massive monolithic verticality, is the Great Pyramid of Cheops. The pyramid is not "just there," as we have long known. It is therefore not unthinkable that in spite of its closed aspect, in the long run and after much pressing on our part, it will consent to divulge its suspected inner life to us - we who wish to get close to it and enter into a relationship with it. One day we will understand its message and pass that message on to third parties. Fortified by "faith" in this, we resolutely proceed to act. We formulate scenarios we are convinced will give unambiguous direction to our insistence on making contact with this immense pyramid-shaped plane. We use these scenarios to devise ingenious methods of penetrating its deepest and most secret parts. It is clear that we will allow nothing to deter us.
Yet all our efforts will ultimately prove to be in vain, for the pyramid, too, in its capacity as a Great Plane - however concrete and present in reality - functions in the first instance as an abstract "sign" and last of all as a three-dimensional "building." (One does not force one's way inside signs, but touches their surfaces with one's hands and eyes. One stops for signs; this is true for all of them, including spatial systems of horizontal and vertical planes that are organized as "signs" for that purpose.)
For now, we are forced to conclude that the world described above, with its single, unrelentingly closed, dismissive vertical plane, is definitely not ours. On the contrary. Such a world strikes us as profoundly alien and cold. It is a world we cannot live in, devoid as it is of any form of relationship or contact, and thus of any kind of exchange of plans and ideas with respect to us and our existence between us and third parties around us.
This strange, empty, rejecting world, which seems, with that single plane rising high on its back, to have a mind of its own, comes to life immediately as soon as we decide to establish a second plane directly facing it. Not too far away from each other nor too close together, but at some distance apart, we position two motionless, timeless planes facing one another in such a way that they can enter into a spatial relationship with each other. We do not enter into a relationship with the lonely, desolate Great Plane ourselves, but instead mobilize this second plane to do so, a plane created by us which will represent our presence and our position. To this end, we superimpose this second plane directly in front of the first. The spatial relationship thus created between the two planes brings a "certain action" under way: an apparent excess of potential that was undetectable well before the actual superimposition occurred and can now come to light, as it were, out of nowhere.
The "remote action" in question (comparable in a sense to what was called actio-in-distans beginning in the seventeenth century) possesses a plastic, architectural quality as well as a physical one. We will examine in detail below all the implications surrounding this prevailing key concept. After all, we experience the superimposition of these two opposing planes as the ideal solution for breaking through the aforementioned status quo. For we have called into being a proto-plasticity, a prototype that will bear lasting, expressive-architectural witness to our intention and desire to enter into communication with The Great Plane, in a factual and metaphorical sense as well as in a technological and artistic-expressive one. To be sure, this Great Plane may not be of this world, but the proto-plasticity we desire, as it has now been established on The Great world plane, most certainly is.
We take a step back and examine sidelong the superimposition we have constructed, and we turn it over in our mind. We reflect, for we now face a fundamental and decisive choice. We must decide what to do next.
Certainly it is impossible to retrace our steps at this vital moment and deconstruct proto-plasticity in order to keep the reason we have called it into existence hidden from the world! (What would we be doing then?"Zerstörung, der Konstruktion zuliebe," to use the words of Paul Klee in 1912 - deconstructing what has just been constructed? Is this, then, our method of preparing to construct and communicate?)
Deciding to act further is number one; deciding how to act further is number two. Once more, two scenarios present themselves - scenarios whose directions are as oppositional as the two planes of proto-plasticity in question. If we act on the first scenario, we give in to a longing slumbering deep within us for proto-plasticity to function in the world as a fact and not a sign. We wish to convert our "soft" intuitive idea of how proto-plasticity will act in the world into hard facts. The only question is what exactly "conversion into hard facts" and "action" mean here. Will proto-plasticity literally become hard, like stone, and work for us as a hard artifact, organizing the empty world around us to suit our purposes? And what about the way the formerly "dead world" suddenly came to life when we decided to superimpose a second plane on The Great Plane? What exactly does this action, an action that evidently caused this life, amount to?
The question in all this is how we were able to form a soft idea of possible action between the two planes. Did we become conscious of that action at the moment we completed the superimposition, or did it only occur to us directly after that, in an on-the-spot discovery that took us completely by surprise?
Did we then experience something "in reality" of which we had previously had merely an intuitive notion, an inkling, and did this notion come to life within us through this action, in more or less the same way as a mother-to-be feels her future child coming to life? How, then, did we come by this notion - our potential child - before having had any opportunity to acquire experience in that direction? Who implanted this notion deep inside us? How did this apparent conception come about, and when?
If we leave these questions aside, we come to the next consideration. We do in fact see and experience the action that holds sway between the two planes as genuinely active. We have gradually become conscious of this action and now understand how it can ultimately lead to transforming the empty world into a full, "hard" one. This world will be filled with mechanical structures: constructions which, in turn, we can use to produce and reproduce still greater numbers of works, and we will keep this up until the world is saturated with our products and no longer "empty" anywhere.
If we desire, think and act in this way, then we are practicing technology. Practicing technology means turning soft notions of "things" into hard facts.
Moreover, these "things" can then be involved in the specifically technological aspects of the action between the superimposed planes as well as between the superimposition as a whole and the surrounding world. If we give in to our wish to practice technology, an insight into the action of the technological superimposition which slumbers within our soft way of thinking can literally break out into the "hard world." We experience this breakthrough insight as correspondingly clear, powerful and "hard." Through a clear insight obtained in this manner we can lucidly see how the superimposition will act and continue to act in the world; yes, we almost literally see its action before us. This breakthrough insight makes it possible for us to place our previously soft ideas in the world in hard, materialized forms and "technologies."
The other scenario leads us in precisely the opposite direction: not toward technology but toward art. Immediately after establishing proto-plasticity, we constructors face a fundamental and decidedly irreversible choice: do we wish to assign the superimposition a technological function in the world and thus practice technology with it, or do we have a more expressive, plastic duty in mind for it and prefer to see it as art? The choice is between these two extremes; there is no middle course. It is one or the other; we cannot choose two opposing directions at once - unless we have in mind a more architectonic application that stands midway between the other two and involves technological as well as arty elements. (In order to keep things clearly separate, and also because it is not really relevant to our subject, we will otherwise leave aside this derivative and composite constructional application in our further discussion.)
Choosing the technological direction implies that we wish to reproduce and disseminate proto-plasticity in the technological sense in the world. If, on the contrary, we wish to understand it as an abstraction rather than as a technological artifact, then we will treat it as an abstract sign that refers to an objectless immaterial world. Our idea of it will be "soft," founded on feeling and based on faith. We will then be thinking in terms of art.
Apart from that, the immediate consequence of the second scenario is that we do not experience the superimposition of the two planes in the empty world as a rudiment that must be multiplied, modified and distributed in a massively expansive, dynamic way, but on the contrary as an expressive decree existing in deep peace: a unique, one-time-only work of art that asks only to be viewed in contemplative quiet. As soon as we take up a position in favor of proto-plasticity, we charge it with an expressive effect which swings into action and will not cease "acting."
This action is a direct consequence of our position: the way we position ourselves determines the work of art. This positioning can even be seen as our contribution to the work of art's right to exist; it therefore partially determines its quality. Our positioning thus comprises an integral part of the work's presence in the world.
In the topographical and cultural emptiness of the world within which proto-plasticity is ordained to exist, our position creates an order of battle that elevates the viewing of art to a "work of art." This order of battle dictates - and this holds true for the observation of all works of art, visual and musical - that the work of art is here, the observer is there, and the empty space of the world is all around. In this array (which, by the way, is timeless), the true work of art in its time enters the empty space of the world and turns out to be transparent, in the sense of "uncloaked" and "open." The careful observer can, as it were, enter into this open work of art without having to give up his place of observation. He does not have to revolve around the work, for the work revolves before the eyes of the observer. True art thus unfurls space: it creates space. And this makes clear why the former GREAT PLANE appeared so closed to us. In every sense of the word, it was unfinished, in the sense of incomplete. There was nothing to go inside of. (Only in the world of science fiction do such monolithic planes and blocks turn out to be enterable, but that is another story. Those tales are based on fictitious desires and not, as in our case, hard facts.)