Stop Knolling!! – too long for U Tube, an open letter to Tom Sachs on the fetishism of arranging objects

Donald Judd’s perfectly Knolled studio in NYC. Looks pretty cool doesn’t it? But what else is enCoded in the pattern?
[Donald Judd GNU FDL v1.2]

I was visiting a reader’s blog yesterday who tipped me off to a video, 10 Bullets, by sculptor Tom Sachs.  The video is apparently part employee training film for Tom’s studio assistants and part manifesto on the ethos of a working studio, and maybe organizing your life in general.  The video takes the form of elaborating upon The Code that all Tom Sachs Studios employees are expected to work to.

I invite you to take the twenty or so minutes it takes to watch the video before I deconstruct it. [art/design pun intended]

You’re back.  Good.

The video itself is cleverly well done and rather humorous, not your typical HR Department training film [though it does lean a little heavily on the kitty litter].  If your life or organization is surrounded by chaos, Sachs’ 10 Bullets may be just the ticket to help you keep entropy at bay.  The video has received generally very favorable comments from viewers, about a 37:1 thumbs up to thumbs down ratio.  My reaction seems to be among the minority view who’s reactions was something like, “Yes, yes, yes, but….”  I just couldn’t follow The Code to its natural conclusions without an increasingly insistent voice inside saying to me that somewhere along the line a significant and serious boundary had been crossed.

The rest of this post will take the form of an open letter to Tom Sachs.  To be fair, Tom of course is invited to respond in comments or in his own post at this blog.


So you worked for Frank, thought I recognized those chairs in the kitchen of your studio.

I enjoyed your video – mostly – there is actually quite a lot of good general information about how to run a studio, namely:  that there is an establish production system – don’t screw up the system – the accent is upon focus and attention [you should equally emphasize excellence]  –  the task isn’t done till its completely done – get receipts for everything –  put things away. – keep things neat and tidy – like things with like & etc.  I’m all about that, really.  I genuinely appreciate the intent and intentions you are trying to establish, a clear set of standards and procedures that codify good studio practices, but I have to say…

Stop Knolling!!

Using a work surface as a tool storage area is hyper-inefficient waste of time.  This is why – the work area must first be Un-Knolled before work can commence then Re-Knolled again afterwards.  You’ve just rearranged a desk load of object for no practical effect – twice.

A perfectly Knolled workspace – [10 Bullets, © Tom Sachs]

Every tool should [must!] have a home off the work surface, or at its periphery and then return there immediately at the end of the job.  If a work surface needs to be Knolled, it probably means that there aren’t enough proper places to store all of your tools, or somebody isn’t putting tools away where they belong.  Your studio seems very well organized in most other respects so why this madness?  Having at one time in my life turned a wrench professionally, and spent kilo-$ on tool storage, organization, and maintenance this Knolling fetish makes me cringe.  This is not, by the way, what Elsa demonstrates to us in her soldering demo, her work station is open and ready for the next task when she is done.  Why the epic contradiction?

Elsa’s work station, ready to go again – [10 Bullets ©Tom Sachs]

Phenomenologically speaking, Knolling is the formalizing of a complete waste of time, effort and money.  At minute 16:36  of the video [shown above] there is not one single object on that work surface that should be there after the job is complete.  The time spent rearranging the objects [I noticed the time-lapse BTW] on the table [and deciding how] instead of putting them away has gone completely to waste, because in order to begin the next job every one of those objects must be moved again– doubling the waste in effort.

Seeing Knolling in action for the first time in your video, I had the kind of reaction B.F. Skinner described having after returning to the lab from a week on vacation, seeing that his experimental subjects had developed this strange new rhythmic clucking dance behavior while waiting for the automated chicken feeder to operate – horror and fascination – ritualized activity divorced from the reality of the [completely automated] nature of the feeding machine.  What were the chickens thinking? that their little ritual was causing the feeder to operate?  What were the studio assistants thinking? that the Knolling improves the efficiency of the studio?  Chickens apparently are pretty clever, they seem to be capable of genuinely magical thinking.  Studio assistants don’t come off very well in comparison – thinking at the same level as a chicken.

Since you worked in Frank Gehry’s studio, if I were the type to mock Knolling, I would say that Gehry [earlier in his career] would after first Kolling his desk, would then crank one object 15 degrees and call it architecture.  Which, back in the day, was how my studio compadres and I would mock what we called the Gehry Crank [not very bright in retrospect, but we were young]

Look, if your interested in making an aesthetic statement with the arrangement of your studio’s tools, fine, more power to you, I really can’t criticize you [except aesthetically];  however, if you think you are making a statement about how to organize an efficient work process, you have to understand that you have crossed a very clear boundary into the realm of ritual, fetishism.

For a design studio that pretends to critique consumer object fetishism, Knolling is fetishism of another sort.

But, what is the nature of that fetishism?

What you have in fact done, is turn the work station into an altar – again not necessarily wrong considering you concern with sacralizing the work place and the work – the production of Art.  The problem is that for the studio artist, like the chef, the counter top always begins free from utensils, not with an arrangement [however artful] of tools covering the entire surface. [where in heck do you set that next thing down?]

Talk to a kaizen or lean manufacturing expert, then talk to an anthropologist they will explain the differences between process improvement and ritual.  Just don’t try to convince other people that Knolling is anything other that the ritualization of the arrangement of objects [much like feng shui] – an arbitrary and rectilinear one at that – and not some way to improve your studio’s work flow. – It does look cool though, somebody took some time with that – an extravagant waste of payroll time.

I think that our work place ecologies are actually pretty similar, we differ in two areas, Knolling being one.  If I worked for you I would have the spread sheet on your desk Monday the second week there showing you how the time I spend constantly Knolling the studio could buy me the tool cabinets I want to keep all of these things of my god-damned bench.

I understand very well the Virgo part of the brain that loves to arrange things, sort, and categorize, [I’ve got it bad too]; however, you have to realize that part of the brain is also the obsessive compulsive part of the brain, and can become a real time sink.  There is a certain bottom-line danger to codifying its more compulsive aspects into your business practices.  Channel that energy into the Art, not into arranging the tools on the damned desk.

If you’re looking for an interesting replacement workplace ritual try a rangoli.

Beautiful, Scalable, Disposable. What’s not to like? – [B Balaji, Creative Commons Att. v2.0]

I also have to say, it’s pretty remarkable the imagery you have chosen to pad your video with, and its all male dominator and hyper-hierarchical, was this intentional?  Yes, hip and memorable in a disturbing kind of way – Full Metal Jacket, the United States Marine Corps, Apocalypse Now, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Lieutenant Colonel Killgore… but.

In particular I found it hugely ironic invoking Stanley Kubric’s mythology.  Is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman really the avatar you want to be the bearer of your credo?  Remember Hartman died with a bullet in his chest [heartless, what irony] from one of his employees who was driven insane by the hyper-application of a very toxic Code.

Keeper of the Code – [Full Metal Jacket ©Warner Bros. 1987]

You and Steven Pressfield seem to want to turn Art into War.  Yes, there is a struggle involved and, yes, you must do the work.  Yes again to the discipline, focus and commitment necessary to bring it all to fruition.  Yes, yes, yes.  However when you wrap it around a mythology and a method that is, to put it kindly, oppressive, it really starts to suggest that a real line has been crossed in your thinking.  You seem to take this opportunity at every turn.

When an exercise in attention or consciousness turns into ritual, it has already crossed the line into the subconscious, the rote.  When it becomes a rule, when you put red dashed lines on the floor to it, when it becomes arbitrarily bound to orthogonal turns, when you systematically exclude all other geometries, when it is enforced by fear or coercion, it has already stopped being Art, or sacred, it is now something else.  If you are trying to cultivate an attitude of the sacred towards an activity, you can have hints or suggestions, but ultimately its every employee’s own path from the door to her desk.

Elsa’s tortured path. What’s this all about? – [10 Bullets, © Tom Sachs]

Art is a Mystery, when you start putting borders, walls and frontiers around yourself, you risk not just walling yourself in, but locking the Mystery out.  [most [all] spiritual orders fall into this trap eventually]

My buddy φ put it like this:

To be human is to be a Mystery aware of itself in the light of God.

Damned close to the center of the mark as far as I can tell.  As artists this is what our process is supposed to be aiming our consciousness towards.  Don’t miss the mark.

I have more to say on the subject of walls and frontiers at our other blog here.

Wolfram von Eschenbach got it right in his Parzifal, when he describes how the knights of the Round Table set forth on their quest to behold the Holy Graal – unveiled.

“Thinking that it would be a dis-grace to set off as a group, each knight entered the forest at a place of his own choosing, where there was no way or path.”

That’s it, our civilization’s spiritual imperative in a nut shell, this was what? 1220CE?? [Chrétien de Troyes got it wrong, by the way by, omitting this passage in his version of the story]  Try not to get it wrong yourself.

Yes! to what you said about Persistence, it’s true – but– without the talent, genius and education what you wind up with is derivative, trivial and rote.

I recognize that you are probably intentionally harkening back to the atelier system in some fashion where apprentices went to work for a master with the hope of obtaining some of the master’s mojo; however this isn’t quattrocento any more, this isn’t even the Beaux Arts, the accent of civilization is now upon the empowered individual, the artist/craftsman/entrepreneur being the paragon of this model.  It is important that your system have room to encourage and develop the individual genius and talent of your assistants in much the way Ghirlandaio and Bertoldo di Giovanni did for their more famous assistants.  There is a kind of social contract involved here between master and assistant, and that social contract gets updated every generation.  Don’t revert to the retro.

You are demanding extremely high levels of commitment and devotion from your assistants, allow enough room in your Code to recognize, develop, and reward their contributions, talent and genius.  And, I don’t just mean monetarily. [don’t become Microsoft]  You’re probably doing the right sorts of things already [or you’re burning your assistants out very quickly] just don’t hog the creds, and leave plenty of room for their contributions.  It’s no longer just about the guru.

Which brings us to James Brown

James Brown in concert 2005 – [Fabio Venni-Creative Commons,SA v.2.0]

James Brown was a genius and the original “hardest working man in show business”.  He also burned out a lot of talent in his career, and treated many others rather badly at times.   You can argue that with JB that it may have been worth it somehow.  I could also argue that his methods may not have been necessary.  There are other ways to do things, just because JB couldn’t find them doesn’t mean you should feel you have permission to blindly emulate him.  I also have it on the authority of bassist Christian McBride that JB gave up on fining his company members eventually, he would just cuss them out [because, despite his genius and persistence, he lacked a certain emotional self-restraint].

There is a fine distinction between the discipline of devotion, and rigidity. submission and control.  One polarity is spiritual, the other is not.  The line is crossed when all spiritual activity is prescribed and enforced by coercive culture [every culture is more or less coercive by the way].  Piety then becomes the means of social control.  As in the example you picked, the praying man’s piety, enforced upon him by his own culture, he enforces upon those surrounding him, it’s just double the irony.  [The triple irony is that the man is about to get up from prayer and immediately engage in illicit activity that will in effect rob from designers, artists and artisans in one part of the world and subsidize sweatshops, knock off artists, and organized crime syndicates in another. Kind of reframes the notion of the sacralizing of the urban terrain doesn’t it?]

You wait upon me – [10 Bullets ©Tom Sachs]

This isn’t the 1950’s, this isn’t the 1960’s, this isn’t even the’70’s.  If you think in the 21st century the way to do it is to emulate somebody born in 1933, think again.  Humanity is moving away from systems that rely on undercurrent of fear or coercion.  Fines, or the fear of fines do work [how legal or ethical they may be is another issue].  Perceiving the need for exponentially increasing penalties indicates a serious deficiency in your employee management system.  Your system has lost touch with reality here, and is being generated by some intellectual notion-or-other – punishment does not fit the crime – The Mikado was what 1885?  $5120 for leaving the lights on?  Try that with ME and see what happens.

Humans need some slack – doubling of fines every time? – that’s wack!

My apologies if I come across overly harsh, I try not to be insulting, just unsparing.  I name things as I perceive them. I see a situation, it decomposes in front of my eyes, and everything I know tries to come out the end of my fingers at once.  What I write may read like hysteria, but it actually takes 8+ hours to get it out right and still hold the edge I want.

I don’t waste my time on people I don’t think are worth it.


Hat tip to Clotida Jamcracker

1 thought on “Stop Knolling!! – too long for U Tube, an open letter to Tom Sachs on the fetishism of arranging objects

  1. Pingback: I Atticus Finch – Too Long for YouTube, again – Putting down a diseased arguement humanely | The Coraline Meme

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