What the Hell Is Water?

A defence of naivety in the age of information

I think I might loathe information. As I sit writing this, I am faced with a barrage of open letters, e-newsletters and fraudulent letters; on-the-ground reports, conflicting reports and unconfirmed reports. I see push notifications, promoted posts, alternate facts, live-streams, live-chats, live lives and now, I think, I am done. The overload has finally overcome me and I am overwhelmingly, overdramatically, over it.

As we are often told: ‘Context is key.’ It teaches us how to see, understand and react. But, in an age of excessive opinion and opinionated excess, uncompromised context can be a difficult thing to maintain. On an hourly, minutely, secondly basis, we are forced to shield our eyes from a barrage of unqualified reportage. We struggle to keep pace with the ever-evolving modalities of (mis-)information. We equate visibility with value, volume with validity and conten­tion with personal attack. And as these data vultures begin circling – gathering pace with each accusation of appropriation, elitism or dissent – it’s hard not to seek shelter within the fortified camp of the ‘good fight’ (however you may choose to define that) and lose sight of the broader landscape. It’s hard not to trail those of like mind and then huddle for safety. To relay the advice of Annie Courrèges, associate curator of the fictional Tate Postmodern gallery in William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral (2014): ‘Be quiet, darling. Let pattern recognition have its way.’ Leave your opinions at the door and join us. Everyone’s doing it.

Seeking commonalities that could one day engender solidarities is understandable and, to an extent, unavoidable. (The process is akin to the quest for love in the face of loneliness.) In search of security, we pledge our allegiance to a likeminded hive that works towards a shared goal – even if that goal sometimes remains obscure. But the closer we draw together, the harder it is for us to see and, every now and then, it can be beneficial for some rogue soul to break from the pack and let a little light in. Maybe now, as we feel our way through darker times than many of us have previously experienced, we might prosper from constructing a defence of this breakaway representative of the blissfully naive.

Naivety is ordinarily seen as a weakness. But what does it mean to be naive? It means that you reside at arm’s length from a situation, that you are not bound to a single doctrine. Perhaps – inadvertently dedicated to main­taining stride – we could profit from the opinion of that outsider who throws us out of step; a figure who, unfazed by convention or popular opinion, is confident enough to question the commonplace. I cannot argue that this would provide all of the answers, nor that information should be cast aside in favour of ignorance, but rather that naivety has the potential to draw our attention to the things that, buried within the digital superabundance, we might just have missed.

In 2005, David Foster Wallace opened a commencement speech at Kenyon College, Ohio, with a joke about the true nature of intelligence. Two young fish, out on a morning swim, bump into an older fish. He says: ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ The younger fish nod in appreciation and swim on. A few minutes later, one looks to the other and says: ‘What the hell is water?’ Our elder fish has the years, sure, he’s done the rounds, but it’s our two young fry who are equipped with the naivety required to question the unquestioned.

Recently, this aphorism rendered itself actual in Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof museum, where I was walking through Marcel Broodthaers’s Un jardin d’hiver (A Winter Garden, 1974), a conservatory of potted plants, folding chairs and prints of tropical beasts. On the one hand, Broodthaers’s work evokes those most grandiose and grotesquely bourgeois of Europe’s enlightenment museums; on the other, it thrusts an accusatory finger at the expansionist colonialism that such museums were built upon. Amid these loaded connotations, something wonderful happened: a small, attention-starved child upended a pot. The invigilator, troubled, shouted: ‘That’s art!’ The parent – curly locked freedom fighter in tow – replied: ‘That’s a plant!’ Of course, both parties were correct: the one constitutes the two, which forms part of Broodthaers’s original lampoon of those who fetishize, imitate, anaesthetize and profit from ersatz representations of difference. But, what beauty! Ceci n’est pas une plante: an age-old argument reignited by a child with zero understanding of context. A child of naivety who, unversed in the reverence with which we are expected to treat objects in an exhibition space, had no qualms about turning it all on its head.

Harry Thorne is assistant editor of frieze. He is based in Berlin, Germany.

Issue 188

First published in Issue 188

June – August 2017

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