The Secret Ball of Twine: A Lecture

Inscribed letters on one of the two brass plates of  A Bruit Secret , between which sits a ball of twine enclosing an object placed within by his friend Walter Arensberg, the nature of which Duchamp was not told nor about which did he inquire.

Inscribed letters on one of the two brass plates of A Bruit Secret, between which sits a ball of twine enclosing an object placed within by his friend Walter Arensberg, the nature of which Duchamp was not told nor about which did he inquire.

This talk is entitled The Secret Ball of Twine, a mysterious masterpiece by Marcel Duchamp, and uh, one of these is the recreation, by Tamara Blanken here, of A Bruit Secret, and the other is a recreation of the Egouttoir, which is sometime called the porte goutte, or the bottle rack. It wasn't a port goutte, it was a Hérisson, or hedgehog or bottle dryer that was advertised to Grand Bazar at the l’hotel d’ ville in 1912 in their catalog. And that should be at the reception. You can see that, that, uh, I found it in a shop in Venice, California in 1966, but it's an astounding piece of sculpture. Bob Rauschenberg described it as one of the most beautiful pieces of sculpture of the 20th century. So, uh, there were twelve slides. Actually, there was two extra slides in there. So that's “e” equals 12 for a cube, plus two. So E plus two from Euler’s Theorem for the 12 slides. I suppose you could run that out a little bit and say there are 12 aspects of innovation in Duchamp's early work, but I've mentioned most of them with the slides. So there's no sense going over them at this point.

I want to continue with this formal approach to, um, With Hidden Noise as a pattern--as a die. Actually they’re twelve physical elements in the piece of sculpture too. There are four bolts, four nuts, two plates, one ball of twine, and a hidden object, which I think add up to 12. Yeah. So, uh, that's fortuitous, I guess.  Art history, like other humanistic disciplines is built up progressively upon the work of previous scholars, teachers, writers. So it's not only correct and gracious to acknowledge the work of others that has proven useful, stimulating, but it's also an intellectual obligation in service to students, and mindful of our present circumstances here, Duchamp had generated enormous, massive commentary and criticism, however, his own writing, while not voluminous, is very trenchant and solicited a lot of, um, responses or elicited a lot of responses, both amateur and scholarly.

People come from all angles to come to Duchamp. There are perhaps eight topics for the eight vertices of the imaginary cube that deserve some special mention without going into great number of details, at least I want to mention their names. Andre Breton, the great surrealist poet and Duchamp's friend wrote the first important essay on him, um, published 1934-35 issue of Minotaur. There he offers an early definition of ready-mades “as manufactured objects promoted to the dignity of objects of art through the choice of the artist.” Duchamp also came in for a hard time from Breton who in 1930 railed against him for having quit painting to take up a life of playing chess.

But, uh, both Minotaur and “The Tower, The Lighthouse of the Bride”, as his essay was called relate to the myth of Daedalus and perhaps to the clue or to the ball of twine are very oddly in some way are related to the mystical aspects of this work. Robert Labelle, in 1959 made the first attempt at a serious attempt at a catalog in a monograph on Duchamp. He describes this piece as being five by five by five inches, as well. He, uh, reprints and translates Breton’s essay and he says, “Duchamp says that these inscriptions on the work of art here are made up of French and English words that have no special significance.”

Arturo Schwartz and the complete works of Marcel Duchamp in 1969, a big monograph, gives all the details about the piece. He cites a Oh, a lot of stories about Duchamp. Uh, in the early twenties, he went into business. He decided, okay, I'm going to go into business. He wasn't really serious. It was a cleaning and dyeing establishment. And the net product of that was a, a dark green, bottle-green shirt, that Duchamp, he thought the shirt was a very nice. The place lost money and he went out of business. He folded.

Calvin Tompkins wrote a series of articles on Duchamp, John Cage, Tangley, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham for the New Yorker, and eventually these were reprinted as The Bride and the Bachelor's, Five Masters of the Avant Garde.  Said Marcel Duchamp believes “that chance in an expression of the subconscious personality. Your chance is not the same as my chance, just as your throw of the dice will rarely be the same as mine.”

And, uh, Calvin Tompkins also edited The World of Marcel Duchamp for Time-Life books in ‘66. And it's interesting that Time-Life books thought to call, uh, the early part of the 20th century, The World of Marcel Duchamp and thought it was most appropriate.  Richard Hamilton who organized the big show at the Tate Museum in ‘64 also did a typographic version of Duchamp's notes for the green box; it is a very beautiful, rare book at this time. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson edited The Writings of Marcel Duchamp and, ah, a very complete series of the notes transcribed. One of these relates specifically to this piece. He says very, very early on, I think 1912/13 or so, he's writing notes for the Great Glass, ”it’s a piggy bank or canned goods. Make a ready-made with a box containing something unrecognizable by its sound and solder the box.” And then perhaps added a little bit later, says “Already done in the semi-ready-made of copper plates and a ball of twine.” A piggybank after all, it's something for putting something in, so it was most appropriate that a hidden object in Hidden Noise be placed inside.

Anne d'Harnoncourt has been mentioned as director of the Philadelphia Museum who sits on most of the extent Duchamp's now that’re on public exhibition, uh, together with Kynaston McShine added to the big volume on Duchamp, 1973. And uh, contains a well, contains a lot of information, a lot of literary references that is too complex to go into here. They require a really a very subtle knowledge of French too, which is a bit beyond me. Oh, like, well, one of Duchamp's interesting; he wasn't interested in the traditional symbolist poets. He was interested in the freaks and the odd balls we all look for--Maurice Rambaud--are well known but Alfred Jarry was closer to his heart and in fact he wound up by being a satrap in the pata-physical college late in his life.

And Jean-Pierre Brasseur, who's poetic dislocations of language in the le grand maier logic where you know, involve popular oral literature that was shunned by French intellectuals down to this present day as a matter of fact, puns, riddles, jokes, vulgarity, neologisms, average figures of speech, abstruse rhetorical usages, or quite simply syntactical structures unintelligible to most ordinary mortals. That was Duchamp's approach to language or Ramón Roussel who, uh, wanted to create entirely out of the mind having a theater deriving no relationship whatsoever from the natural world, and he did it by the words you have a secret posthumous bean-spiller that was published about Roussel, was a, ‘how I wrote some of my books’, in which he reveals his method, which has to do with taking the letters of puns and switching them around. Again, very much like the cipher that is on this piece of sculpture.

Uh, uh, in, Anne d'Harnoncourt’s book, there is a photograph of a William Wiley's piece of sculpture dedicated to Marcel Duchamp. I thought worth mentioning since, uh, we have some local representation in there “to  Marcel Duchamp, 1887-1968” is how it's inscribed “tool and die maker” and that's, ah, on the occasion of Duchamp's death in ‘68. Ed and Audrey Sable in Villanova, Pennsylvania, have the piece sitting out in their garden, ah, Ed Sable does the NFL films, by the way, that's where popular art and fine art perhaps come together in the Sables’ backyards. Walter Hopps is the last reference, I like to give him credit. He organized the first retrospective of Duchamp, which is in 1963, and people were amazed that it had taken that long for a major museum to offer a retrospective. He said ‘there was no conscious concern or for greatness, no concern for being an artist particularly and yet Duchamp's amazing having done relatively little work that, uh, such stature could have been attained by any artist. Nobody's worked less and gotten more renown for it, in retrospect. He’s a real merchant of wit.”

With the calling of Walter Hopps name, the exoteric approach to Marcel Duchamp as the wit vendor can now be bridged with the esoteric, the abstruse, the difficult to understand, the intended for a small group, the confidential aspect, the esoteric aspect of Duchamp. Because the esoteric comes through oral transmission from one living teacher to another, and Walter Hopps is the only one of the above people, I think I met Anne d'Harnoncourt at a cocktail party once, but Hopps is the only one of the above mentioned people that I've ever had an occasion to actually meet and sit down and talk with for a period of time about A Bruit Secret and about Duchamp in general, with the exception of course of Duchamp himself. So this is where the yarn picks up.

The clue of course is the ball of twine, a pretty ordinary, commercially available ball of twine in the shape of a torus or a donut. The ball of twine, that one, the one in Philadelphia Museum of art wrapped around the dark little void space within which is generated the hidden noise, is at once the best known, the most mysterious in modern art history? Hidden noise, the hidden noise? Was it just the other night there was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Michael Rennie on cable TV and anybody watch that, Mr. Hyde? You know, hidden noise. The twine, the string, the cord, the line; in this lineality, the emblem of one dimensional space, a metaphor for time passing and continuity of human consciousness and of history, geological or cosmological time. Both before and beyond the duration of time we live out as our aeon of earthly existence. Hence to spinning yarn to tell a story might also be the unraveling of a clue. And so here's how it happened.

Walter Hopps organized the first Duchamp retrospective. I was teaching in New Zealand at the time. I returned in 1964 to take up ah, teaching at Princeton and at that time finished up a dissertation, which happened to be about twentieth-century sculpture, about certain questions about art under a totalitarian political system that interested me at the time. I wish I'd realized that the career of Marcel Duchamp had certain lessons for me, even with such an unlikely topic. During the Second World War Duchamp devised a most imaginative and practical response to the Nazi invasion of France. So this is really how his life became his work of art in a way. Having secured papers as a traveling cheese merchant from Roquefort--that's true, every word--Marcel Duchamp made several trips between Paris and the free zone of France to remove the works of art that came to be known as the Boite-en-Valise, finally making his way in 1942 from Lisbon to America. Since it was Roquefort cheese, the Nazis never opened it up to see what was inside. Many years later, after the Second World War, I did eventually have good fortune to meet Marcel Duchamp, just once, in New York City. It was just before the opening of the Cordillon Extrom Exhibition of the Mary Siscal collection, and that would have made the date January 13th, 1965. There was nobody else in the gallery, so we just walked around. Duchamp was previewing the show that was scheduled to open the following day and I remember he was particularly delighted to see the camera, the anemic cinema, spent a lot of times come here and look at this and go inside and fiddle around with it.

It is very beautiful wooden camera that I guess he does, spent a lot of energy in making as well. He and Man Ray had shot the film with George Alegre, but that's another story. In the fall of 1965, I took a teaching position at UCLA and very soon I visited Pasadena hoping get together with Walter Hopps who was, as they say, one of the live ones in town. And late in the evening after one of the exhibitions at Pasadena, I was over at Walter's house having a cup of coffee or drink and--‘65 is probably a drink--and we're talking about this famous readymade piece of sculpture A Bruit Secret, With Hidden Noise. Duchamp's version of the original piece was sold to James Johnson Sweeney. Duchamp was being interviewed for a TV program, a 30 minute film made by NBC, in ‘56, I think it was in ’55, they made the film.

It was finally showing on American TV as the Elderly Wise Men series and Duchamp was quoted as saying “this readymade is a ball of twine between two squares of brass, and before I finished it Arensberg put something inside the ball of twine and never told me what it was and I didn't want to know. It was sort of a secret and it makes a noise, so we called this ready made “with a secret noise” and we listened to it. I will never know whether it is a diamond or a coin.” And Walter Hopps then told me the following anecdote. During the ‘63 retrospective Marcel had come out to Pasadena. Of course, he stated the Green Hotel. I mean where else for somebody who issued an edition of his replica's as the green box. Duchamp's longtime friend Walter Arensberg, the collector and his previous collaborator with this piece and a friend in, ah, since 1915 till his death in 1954--Arnsberg had died--so that was nine years before the retrospective, uh, so at that time there was presumably no one who actually knew what the secret of A Bruit Secret was, since Duchamp himself did not know, nor did he care to spoil his part in the game, at such a late date, he authorized Hopps to peek inside. So the twine which could be separated--it's difficult but possible to separate it--and to find out what the true nature of the mysterious object was. Of course, it's not the mysterious object, according to Duchamp’s own title of it. It’s the noise, that's the hidden noise, but there's a secret object.  I did not for a minute believe that Walter Hopps, would have betrayed the secret to anyone. Nor can I imagine Duchamp having condoned, and letting anyone else peek inside the original. It was his first retrospective after all, and this was a piece of information that somebody should know.

An edition With hidden noise was produced by the Schwartz Gallery in 1964. Eight pieces, eight replicas, Duchamp authorized them, which his wife Teeny Duchamp inserted the small secret object. I have no idea what those presumably eight secret objects might've been, nor what combination of analytical and divinatory processes might've guided Teeny Duchamp to make her insertions. Presumably, Duchamp still did not know, nor did he ever care to know the answer to the enigma. I did, however, and Walter, ah, endowed me with a clue. It may not seem like much, but since I was very curious about it, it proved to be immensely and essentially helpful. He told me that if one really thought about it, the secret could be figured out. Well--figured out. That was almost all I really needed to know. Consider the secrecy surrounding the Manhattan project; you know, America’s effort during the Second World War to developed atomic energy, atomic bombs they were developing, and has been called the world's best kept secret and it was for a while. But once the secret was known, then, once the secret of atomic energy, once people knew that it could be done, then several other nations have been able to do it, too, and right away, Britain, France, and Russia, and subsequently China, probably Israel, South Africa, India, and may Allah have mercy on us all, even Pakistan.

Knowing the problem has a solution that could be figured out was itself the essential clue. Later I discovered that Arensberg had been an intense amateur fan of cryptography. This helped too. It meant that he wouldn't have put just anything inside, now would he? Having some understanding of the sophisticated and highly intellectual, but also playful frame of reference of both of them--Duchamp and Arensberg too--that was a boon, but the big breakthrough came when I really began to look at the piece itself intently and analytically by the numbers. The traditional art that has been made by human beings over thousands, tens of thousands of years of our global history has been done by counting. There are venerable artifacts that go back to the Paleolithic, such as in the Shango bone that that Alexander Marshak writes about, it’s engraved with clusters of series scratches, almost microscopic, that turn out after careful counting to have been objective records of lunar cycles.

It’s Paleolithic, 20,000 BC. And there is the highly ritualized, incredibly intricate secret and secret process of Ikat dying and weaving, still practiced, admittedly in a rather debased form, but still done, by Iban Dayak on Borneo or Kalimantan, as the island’s now called. In fact, most people's throughout history have made their art by the numbers. A well-known example in our own time is Andy Warhol’s famous series of paintings by the number and then there's William Wiley's portraits painted by the number. So let's look at it from, counting from the outside in.

It became clear that the With hidden noise could be eloquently and accurately described by the numbers and can be done in either direction if we do it from the outside in because we can describe it objectively this way. It is a six-sided cube-shaped piece of sculpture, measuring five inches more or less along each edge, held together by four bolts and nuts with three lines of ciphered text in capital letters, actually in an edition of three, too, and the text is inscribed within an engraved matrix in descriptive language.

And then there are two cursive lines of plain text indications written in injunctive language, that are inscribed on each outside surface of the two bolted brass plates between which is compressed one ball of twine, the clue, inside of which was a zero space--dark and void--into which, however, shortly before the piece was completed, there was introduced an object, and here we call it “i” or the imaginary form of unity you conventional notation mathematicians use for the imaginary unity; poetically appropriate, since we can only imagine what the object might be inside, which potentiates the piece of sculpture thereby producing when the object strikes either of the other two plates as it were, by the effect of three hands clapping, the hidden noise. We should know particularly the importance of the number six, which is the number of faces of the generalized exterior form of the readymade.

And as we've seen, it's also the number of the principal conceptual elements of a piece of sculpture. But the void inside the ball is then counted as zero space and the imaginary object counts as “i”. So there are six pieces, six steps to it, that Duchamp made. Adapting the ancient Hermetic dictum “as above, so below” for our present enigma, we might declare “as without, so within.” Thus we might expect the general shape and form of the secret object representing an imaginary form of unity inside the void to recapitulate the exterior form of the piece; how perfect. How perfect indeed. Text by Leonard Eugene Dickson called History of Theory of Numbers is a model of objectivity in that it does not offer one opinion; this is all the more impressive because it's published in three volumes of some 1,600 finely printed pages. Professor Dickson begins this monumental enterprise on the first page of chapter one in the first volume where appears this sentence; actually, it's the second sentence.

“A number like six equals one plus two plus three, which equals the sum of its aliquote divisors, is called perfect, vollkommene. Six as the first perfect number is of course rich with connections in the associative mind. Carbon, the central atom of life has the atomic number six. The most elegant design of a binary logic circuit sufficiently complex enough to generate an imaginary value requires six gates. So electrical engineers tell me. That’s two down. Both the Hopis and the Tantrics count six chakras inside the body. Water, the so-called universal solvent, in its crystalline state is a snowflake, invariably has a six part structure. Salt in the traditional alchemy symbolizing sexual energy, also essential for life, forms a cubic, six-sided crystal and salt is, ah, the element Duchamp identified with when he published a collection of his own writings that Sandhu edited with the anagram, pun title “Marcel Duchamp, Marchand du Sel”--salt cellar,--Marchand du Sel is a salt seller in the French. There are, ah, if we had time, six aspects of Duchamp's biography, too. It's not trivial. I mean after our Giorgio Vasari, the father of art history began by writing biographies--The Lives of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors and Architects. And so you could go through Duchamp's life in the same way, but the crucial question about six faces or sides is quite simply which way is up?

This is one of the oldest canards about modern art. You know, the museum exhibits the piece upside down and then the artist comes in and says, oh, oh, sorry, got it all wrong. Not that this should be a clause of shame or embarrassment, remembering that a pure approach to abstract or non-objective painting, was initiated in—what, 1911?-- the same year as the coffee grinder by Wassily Kandinsky who was working on a canvas on his easel and he went out and took a walk and he came back in and he didn't recognize the painting. I mean, this was the birth of a nonobjective art. It was the same paintings seen on its side. As we approach Duchamp's original sculpture sitting on its pedestal in Philadelphia, most of us bring a very typical set of expectations. This has to do with the way we see furniture, we tables set up on four legs, chairs are set up on four legs. We walk around ourselves and we're on our legs, so we think that the piece of sculpture should be standing up on its leg. Not necessarily so. Quite the contrary. In fact, there are certain reasons for concluding that while the ideas admittedly upsetting, for all these years A Bruit Secret has been approached and displayed, upside down.

Not that such thing is a big deal; in the June 23rd issue of Time magazine, when you want to talk about big deals, upside down, well, Time magazine, there it is, the star wars logo is behind General James Abramson. The logo features a shield of Ajax, which as a matter of fact has been copied by the Defense Department from a 16th century BC, Mycenaean dagger called “the Shield of Ajax.” Ajax ‘s Shield and the blade, the dagger, ah, shows the shield of Ajax and shows other figures so, so we know which side is the right side up, but the Star Wars logo has been copied upside down, and check it out for yourself. Ah, Time magazine says, well, it doesn't matter because in space there is no direction in space. Well, I don't know. You've got star wars out there. You want to know which direction they're coming from, where they're going to go. I think probably directionality is important, but that's another issue too. Um, and uh, Anne d'Harnoncourt’s book on Duchamp, she quotes ah, one of Marcel's famous ideas “’C’est sont les regardeurs qui font le tableau ’, his conviction that it's the spectators who make the pictures and that this idea rendered him an interested and impartial audience for theories about the meaning of Soeuve, issuing as it were, a free pass to those wishing to explore the enigmatic regions of his creative activity.”

So we've got Anne’s free pass and we're exploring the enigmatic regions of this creativity. This theory about the proper orientation of With hidden noise, to be believable, has to be shown. The showing of the thing as theorem and theater derive from the same Greek root thea, “of viewing.” Viewing the piece in Philadelphia, we can only read the underside by looking in the mirror upon which it sits. This is stratagem of display that might've amused Duchamp because the reading of the initial written clue inscribed on the bottom of the piece was thereby made all the more difficult. The way we see it now, it's inscribed on the top and you'd walk up to it and read it and you see that there is a clue and it's injunction tells you what to do and if you follow the directions, you pick it up and you move it, you turn it over and then you get to hear the hidden noise.

Let's count down by fives. In our concise description of the Bruit Secret the number five refers to the dimensions, the five inches. And this is generally been reproduced as five by five by five. However, in, um, in Schwartz's catalog, he gets it down to centimeters that he's majoring in. This seems to miss the point, I mean Duchamps’ in America, 1915 and he's, ah, interested in new ways of thinking and counting and measuring as English inch. And why you may say the English inch? Do you think that, uh, we know that the meter was a purely arbitrary standard unit of length. Napoleon devised it in fairly late on in seventeen-nineties. And in fact, uh, the French scientists got it wrong. They went back and went back three different times and it’s still wrong. It was supposed to be based on the measurement of degree of latitude at Paris. The reason why Paris made no sense at all, it's a, well, that's where Napoleon wanted to have it measured. So that's why the meter, uh; the English inch and English foot however, are very ancient and while they are based on a true geodesic, uh, the degree of latitude at Winchester, in fact, they have a much more ancient source. It's done by the same way that, uh, the Pharaoh Akhenaten discovered the, reestablished the archaic standard units of length in ancient Egypt. The English inch was first established by law, by King Athelstan in the 10th century, legally defining the foot known as the king's girth. The king's girth. Um, well, since it's a matter of precision, you might want to know what the Kings girth is: three miles of 5,280 feet, plus three furlongs of 600 feet each, plus nine acres of 66 feet, plus nine palms of three quarters of a foot, and nine barleycorns of one third of an inch.

So it defines every step in the standard units of measure, ah, established by law in England. It makes a total of a radius of 18,250 feet, or three minutes of latitude, six minutes of latitude north to south, extending as a radius, you see. So you'd get the north and south six minutes of latitude, or one 10th of a degree. So one degree was understood as 365,000 English feet--365 days in the year, which is in fact the length of the degree of latitude at Winchester. It was at the time of Athelstan also that the tradition of free masonry first enter England as a Sufi society, long before being introduced into Scotland, disguised as a craft guild by the Knights Templars in the 14th century,

The words of law of Athelstan were repeated exactly in the legislation about measures issued by King Henry the First, too, in the twelfth century. The law of Athelstan provides the fundamental texts for the study of English measures, but it has been so far ignored in the opinion of a scholar, Livio Petula Stechini’s is a marvelous name, was scholar who used to work in the books of ancient measures down in the dusty basement of Marquand Library when I was a graduate student back in Princeton. That's what he's doing is making this book together. So, uh, let's consider it five by five by five in terms of, um, English inches, a la cinco de la tarde is when we started here. And I think it was 5:00 in the afternoon. Garcia Lorca has a wonderful song about that, of course that was about a bull fight. Maybe that'd be okay if this were a lecture on Picasso, but anyway, uh, Garcia Lorca did write a beautiful poem “Verde qui te’quiero verde”; verde is promise, a poem about green, like a Chinese poem about greenness, a whole poem about greenness, which is Duchamp's favorite color, obviously.  

A mystical interpretation of a secret history of the United States; it's what Robert Graves calls it, reads cabalistic significance into the number fifty-five. And what was it just last week, you know, fifty-five Russian spies were expelled, and five; it was all done by fives last week, right? So as we read there were five American spies, five Russians, but fifty-five, I'm waiting until they get the 555 of something or another. But it was fifty-five delegates to the grand constitutional convention held in Philadelphia in May of 1787. So that'll be the 200th anniversary next year of that. And it will be the 100th anniversary of Marcel Duchamp's birth. And Philadelphia is where they have all the pieces. So that ought to be a lot of fun.

Let's go to the number four. The associative analogical mind has suffered from a rather bad press lately, ever since the intellectual conquest of the enlightenment in the West, no doubt in part because of the associations that become swiftly, tedious and threaten to become unending, that ever demonstrating direct, convincing or causal connections. Therefore, let's pass rather swiftly over the images brought to mind by the number four, the four nuts, the four bolts that hold the piece together. Actually, maybe they should be counted as eight, you know, that's the way the I Ching counts, the number eight as a double number that really has the value of four. So, uh, without getting into Chinese mystics, however, but ah, number four was a favorite number in ancient Egypt too, together with the number seven. It holds things together. The four parts of year or what's important, the two solstices and the two equinoxes and the date for celebration of Easter is determined by the vernal equinox, so that as one quarter of the solar year would have some significance. By extension, of course, by God, they're the four ages of man. Uh, the structure of James Joyce's Finnegan's wake is built on the four Dublin eternals, you know, the four pages that flip over at the beginning of the book. So it's all built up. And the symbolism of the cyclicity of the number four, the histories of Giambattista Vico based on the number four, where a group theories sets of four. They're all, all things four. The four directions, the four this, the four that.

The problem is not that the world of things in there fourness is not true, but rather than it's all too true and therefore it's frequently difficult to maintain perspective.  So to set everything in a suitably grand context, Mike mentioned the Hopis talk with the four purifications. Some anthropologists have interpreted this as a reference to the races of mankind, in part because of Hopi color symbolism deals with white, black, red, and yellow, but for anyone who's seen the movie Koyaanisqatsi, the marvelous score by Phillip Glass, the purifiers might be recognized as the paramount threats to life on earth as we now know it. The first is by war, either accidental or by design. The second is by pollution. Radiation is the worst form of pollution, ozone depletion, climatic change, pollution of water, all those are important. The third is by population expansion and with its consequences of starvation, disease, and the fourth is habitat destruction; misuse of resources, rainforests, misuse of water. Or to put it in local terms, there was a survey published by San Francisco Chronicle on October 20th this year. It lists the four biggest problems for Bay Area residents. They took a survey, a poll, said transportation was number one, pollution, overpopulation and housing were numbers two, three, and four, so last three checkout, right, but from this we can only see that getting to work in San Francisco takes the place of thermonuclear war, I guess.

Let's move onto number three. Returning to the piece of sculpture, consider the three inscriptions. There's some of the most cryptic and puzzling in the whole history of modern art. Tamara was able to observe and to confirm a number of very important details about Duchamp’s descriptions, which enable us to correct several widespread misreadings and erroneous transcriptions. We have to do this with three different inscriptions of the piece. First of all, there is an injunctive sentence that’s scratched by Duchamp in a cursive hand that extends in a single horizontal line over each of the two plates, beginning with a capital “R” for “Remplacer” on which it has hitherto been mistaken as the lower plate, which we’ll now call the upper plate, I guess. Secondly, the cipher text studiously painted in the original by Duchamp, yellowish white paint, composed of 88 separate capital letters, 20 dots, and two Commas set in a grid pattern on one side it's three by 20 spaces, and on the other side, three by twenty-five spaces. Thirdly, the inscription, a signature and dates scratched by Duchamp on what was hitherto known as the underside of the upper plate, but which we may now call the top side of the lower plate, I guess, and, ah, here they are transcribed in full detail for the first time. Nobody's ever seen them before. Nobody ever cites them or records them before, absolutely astounding. Such a piece of modern art and nobody, nobody who has published the piece has mentioned its signature or the date that it cites.

So while it may usually rest as a static work of art and you know how museums don't like you to touch the art, it becomes dynamic and sonorous if we should actually pick it up and rotate it in space. This is made exceedingly difficult by the Guardian spirits of the curatorial profession. Nevertheless, it becomes necessary in order to realize fully the intentions of the work of art. Indeed, in order to read the full text of the inscription, as we are enjoined to do in accordance with the indications, there is a clear sense of order, a logical sequence for reading the inscriptions. If we assume the zero state to be resting with its legs up in the air, then we can begin to read at the beginning of the sentence indicated by the common convention of the capital letter. Here is the text of the injunctive sentence: “Remplacer cheque point par une lettre convenablement choisi dans la meme colonne Replace each dot with a letter conveniently chosen by the same, from the same column. Afterpar une lettre” there is an arrow scratched there. So you know that, that the capital letter in the arrow, that has to be the first part of a two-part sentence. The letter--there is no capital letter “c” in “convenablement” conveniently, so, uh, even though it's transcribed erroneously, that way.

Uh, three, three arrows, Arturo Schwartz confirms that you have to read it from the bottom up though, when he talks about the, uh, the other inscriptions in the, in the matrix, “the words inscribed were nothing but an exercise in comparative orthography of English and French” as he quotes Duchamp  saying. The periods must be replaced with one exception of “De Barrasse”, which, uh, the “e” is replaced. It's a repeated eight to the side and by one of the two letters and the other two lines, not in the same vertical, not in the, ah, in the same vertical list, period.

The French and English are mixed and make no sense. The arrows indicate the continuity of the line from lower plate to the upper. Ah, few texts managed to transcribe the ciphered text accurately. Uh, they, they repeat it linearly and they read it all from the grid, read from one side of the line was clear with the arrows there. You've got to take it and actually turn it over and read it in sequence, then turn it back to get the beginning of the second line. And the Arrow tells you to turn the piece over again, side by side, by the way, to finish reading the second line turn it back. If you do this, of course you're going to rattle a piece and you're going to hear the noise.

Transcription of some of the letters is curious. Um, some of them transcribed to make English words and others French words. Fire, a dot IR dot could be translated as, as f-i-r-e, fire or as t-i-r-e, tire, uh, referring to, uh, to, uh, a pull in printing. In fact, Duchamp had a piece called Tiré a quatre épingles”. You were pulled at four pins or dressed to the nines, so French, English, pun that the original piece, it was already made. It's been lost. But he did a later on in the sixties, he did a, uh, a graphic work based on that piece. A “Car.é” could be the square or the cube as a cube of dies, uh, as, uh, any kind of a square; it could refer to his friend Carrie, Carrie Settheimer who he was acquainted with at the time.

The grids themselves are interesting. They're 20 rectangles to a line on one side and 25 to a line on the other side. And as it turns out, there are a total of 20 dots and 25 blanks. So it's a real tight cryptographic piece; Duchamp seemed to hit the positive and the negative spaces to add up to a, uh, with the 88 letters in the two commas, there are 135 spaces altogether. Plus the three arrows and the puns on arrows; I mentioned the arrows in the coffee mill, Rrose Sélavy written three times in the frontispiece of, uh, uh, Schwartz's monograph or Rrose Sélavy, his alter ego or [unintelligible], which is a toast to drink it up, and to live life. The, ah, signature says Sophie and Marcel, pac. 1916, 31 day, Decembre 1916. So the name Sophie. Um, nobody knows who it is. Um, I find that, uh, Duchamp's maternal grandmother was named Marie Sophie Jean Galet. She was born in Havres in 1830, so if she were still alive in 1915, that would make her 85 years old in a, I don't know when she died, so that may have, may have been that occasion or maybe somebody else he knew socially named Sophie. The Greek source of the name of course is Sophia, which means wisdom.

The readymade is always dated Easter 1916, but I've seen no explanation nor scant mention of the second date, the last day of that year, 31, December 1916. We know that Duchamp executed an edition of three of these readymades, but it is unknown how long it took him to accomplish this. The other two examples from 1916 didn't have an inserted object as far as I know, and both of them have been lost along with almost all of the other early readymades Duchamp made. The Comb, I think is one exception. And, and the piece in Philadelphia. The title contains three words, whether in English or in French as announced exercise in comparative orthography.

The French title can also be read in English, A Bruit Secret, which becomes an oxymoron, a bruit secret, or a noisy secret. The word bruit is usually used with a preposition about to bruit, about to spread a rumor or to spread the news; to repeat, it comes through the old French for bruier, probably deriving from a vulgar Latin brugere, as a variant of the Latin of rugere “to roar”.  In the Tibetan tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, the coming Buddha, The Buddha of future generations is called Maitreya and he is to speak with the lion’s roar.

In their version of Duchamp's chronology Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine include a fascinating entry for the year 1922 where they talk about “his experiments with the secret truth of numbers applied to games.” Ah, but what is the difference or the similarity for that matter between a truth and a secret truth?

Perhaps we take the initial letters of three English words of the title With Hidden Noise: W H, N. And we perform a standard cabalistic transformation. The “W”, let's see the W's two Vs. The “V” equals six. So the two “V”s is 12, the uh, uh, “H” is eight and “N” is 50. Add them all up and you get seventy. And so the piece is 70 years old and cabalistically the capital letters all add up to 70. So, hooray for secret truth!

Only one of the three pieces made had the secret noise. The other two have been lost. Nevertheless, the aspect of mass production according to the principles of one, two, three infinity is one of the most significant aspects of the piece.

The number two. Duchamp was one of the first artists to appear willing to let go of the precious overblown self-defensive ego of the romantic notion of the artist. He cooperated with others and art projects, Man Ray, Markella Gray, John Cage in reunion in 1968, the year he died. He admitted collaborators, A Clang, the sign painter who painted the pointing finger in his tomb picture was even invited to sign his name, which he did on the painting in minuscule letters. Duchamp gave credit to the whole world of mass-produced objects in popular culture by showing the way to create readymades. The two plates of brass can thus be taken to symbolize the intimate spirit of collaboration between Arensberg and Duchamp. The work of art becomes only the most striking and expressive monument to a very long and affectionate friendship.

In his famous talk on the creative act, given by Duchamp in 1957 at Houston, Duchamp said this, “Let us consider two important factors, the two poles at the creation of art. The artist on the one hand on the other, the spectator who later becomes posterity. To all appearances, the artist acts like a mystic being, who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space seeks his way out to a clearing. The phenomenon of the spectators’ reaction is comparable to an aesthetic osmosis taking place through inert matter such as pigment, piano or marble. The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation. All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone. The spectator brings to the work, brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contributions to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives its final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.”

One. The string is the organic element, the single piece analog to one dimensional line. This is wound and contorted to form a torus and thus potentially to enclose and define the symbolic void, the space inside. Nobody knows who first invented twine, string, quarter, rope.

[End of Tape]

Kurt von Meier
1986