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What’s Next? Translating Time, Transforming Objects in the Conservation of Multimedia

/ 2013

Identifying the Question
The question of “what’s next?” has temporal underpinnings. It pertains to time and how we engage with this concept. “What then is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not” confesses Saint Augustine in the eleventh of thirteen books he wrote in the fourth century titled Confessions.1
To be sure, time is one of the most mysterious aspects of the world we live in. Thinkers have been struggling with questioning the nature of time for centuries, yet the ultimate theory of time still seems to be lacking. With the end of modernism and confronted with the lack of perspective for the new beginnings, thinking about time was allegedly ignored and went out of focus in everything other than secondary literature.2 “In a sense, it is always too late to talk about time,” posited French philosopher Jacques Derrida.3 Korean video artist Nam June Paik, in turn, having acquired a vast number of books devoted to the topic of time, realised that he had absolutely no time to read them.
And although the aim of this short digression is not to be a continuation of a major philosophical debate on the nature of time, it is worth trying to realise where we stand. Facing the impossibility of extricating ourselves from the linear structures and the inheritance of the clock-time discipline of capitalist modernity, we may find ourselves, not surprisingly, in a temporal limbo.

The Question’s Relation to Conservation
What especially interests me in this regard, and what I wish to convey in the following is that in the conservation of both the most recent and older art – a discipline that is most proximate to my professional background as conservator – the aspects of time have not been scrutinised sufficiently.4 The sequential, chronological experience resulted in the understanding of time merely as a method of its measurement, time of clocks, machines, industry and labour. Yet, while critical theory, philosophy and art practice have long been engaged with anachronistic and heterochronic interpretations of history – the belated and the put-of-synch, seriality and repetition to name but a few5 – conservation remained attached to the linear patterns. How can we, then, understand and care for art that is con-temporary and that in many ways incorporates and/or processes time through and by means of its media?6 Can we intellectually retreat from our attempt to rethink time in conservation?
Asking “what’s next” thus imposes on those conceptualising conservation a profound engagement with the aspects of time that goes beyond the methods of its measurement and observation of cyclicality in nature. The “next” would signify a turn towards the understanding of time in what we conserve and in how we perform conservation. It is, all in all, time to think about time in conservation – a challenge that this essay will attempt to introduce.

Locating the Crisis
Now that the main problem has been formulated and the direction of what follows has become clear, there still remains a question of what, in the field of conservation, could be identified as a crisis. A crisis, which – perhaps implicitly – is one of the crucial thoughts that lies at the conception of this volume, signifies a certain situation that negatively affects those involved and often indicates that the system in question is functioning poorly.
It may be said that conservation’s crisis occurred with the realisation that traditional conservation principles and doctrines cannot be applied to the dynamic, evolving, changeable artworks that commenced being created in the middle of last century. Much of these media were conceived during the 1960s and 1970s, marked by social, cultural and political transformations. During the heyday of Fluxus, and the rise of new forms of artistic expression, technology-based media, conceptual art and performance, possibilities emerged for artworks to be re-performed, reproduced, repeated, recorded and replayed. This not only introduced a new temporal awareness, but also the necessity to develop new attitudes in conservation and, equally, a new way of thinking about the “conservation object.“
Before this, as an inheritance of the Enlightenment, and coming with it the belief in the objectivity of scientific analysis, the assumption that an artwork may be stabilised in one specific condition was wide-spread.7 Artworks became static in their attempt to arrest change; the notion of the “original object” being, at times, in an “original condition” was widely established. This reflected the idea of the conservation of artworks as related to the museums’ mandate to safeguard works in their custody, which leant on a certain kind of ontological assumption about their permanence. Conservation, so it seemed, was preoccupied with the material preservation of the “past” for the “future.” Conversely, it was precisely that apparent connection with the past that valorised the heritage in the numerous discussions on authenticity.
Yet in a vast number of artworks created in the second half of last century up to the present day, their “objectification” signalises a reduction to a particular material “state” or “condition” discernable by observation, measurement and analysis. Clearly, the scientific analysis is of great importance; however, if considered alone, it is insufficient in the quest for understanding the ontology of works of art with which we engage.
Artworks, rather than being “objects” are products of humans and their culture; they are dynamic entities, the materiality of which can only be defined in an entangled network of relations and under the consideration of social and temporal structures.8 In grasping the nature of artworks and their networks, the more recent conservation theories strive to convey this shift.9

The Problem With the “Object”
Interestingly, the establishment of a “conservation object” and its reduction to a specific condition that is anchored in a certain moment in time reactivates the temporal problem. For instance, if an artwork, say, a multimedia installation, occurred in a different shape during various re-exhibition procedures, while designing strategies for its future shape, conservation tends to select a singular “condition” or “instance” that is extracted from its trajectory. Such a condition is often referred to as “original” or “authentic.” Importantly, it lies (remotely) in the past, often close to a work’s conception and/or first realisation. I believe that this connection to an earlier instance derives from conservation’s understanding of time in terms of its measurement on a chronological timeline and the observations of the linearity of decay and alteration. But how could this have become a non-plus-ultra, a definitive concept?
Let us, for a moment, reflect on how time became linear.

Thinking Time
There is no universal definition of time; attitudes towards the understanding of time occupied thinkers of different persuasions over centuries and resulted in a variety of approaches. Today, too, we find ourselves facing the unsolved and ubiquitous paradigm of time. What do we think when we think of “time”? In the words of Hans Castorp, the main protagonist in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:
“… What is time? – Now is not then, here is not there – for in both cases motion lies in between. But since we measure time by a circular motion closed in on itself, we could just as easily say that its motion and change are rest and stagnation – for the then is constantly repeated in the now, the there in the here …”.10
Time occurs within a range of various intensities and velocities while reading an interesting book or watching a play; it may turn into a painful expectation when we wait for someone or something that we long for, a lover or beloved, an important message or delayed train.

Time as a Method of its Measurement
The omnipresence of the common sense definition of time as a method of its measurement – a clock – was first introduced at the end of the thirteenth century. This also marks the inception of modern homogenous time, which replaced traditional methods of time measurement based on unequal intervals calculated by the length of daylight. Mechanical clock time was initially applied in monastic life and belonged to God. Early clocks were able to remind the monk of his obligation to announce the hours; the towers became houses for clocks and all announcements of religious festivities, warnings of danger and marking the beginning and end of the working day. French philosopher Michel Foucault saw in the religious orders the establishment of discipline and a chronological way of thinking that was linked with the application of timetable.11
It was only later that the clock entered secular life to announce the hours from the town hall’s tower and to regulate work in the textile towns of Flanders and Northern France.12 It is striking that, until the sixteenth century, clock time remained a European phenomenon and was perceived in China merely as a curiosity, despite the long-standing Chinese tradition of mechanical water clocks. The modern science and refinement of the theory of entropy (second law of thermodynamics) confirmed time as a linear entity and its tightness to irreversible direction. Time became regulated with the appearance of the railway and telegraph, and was soon standardised. In 1884, during the International Meridian Conference in Washington, the world changed to twenty-four hour time with Greenwich as the zero meridian, and the first regulating time signal was emitted from the Eiffel tower in Paris in 1914. This division was only stable until the appearance of the global electronic network. The rise of capitalism and the expanding economy that tied the attachment of the employee and employer to clock time was manifest in the control over the cycles of labour and leisure. It was philosopher, economist and sociologist Karl Marx who delineated the exact measure of time as a value in capitalistic society. This standardised time led to the rise of ethical problems related to cultural and racial difference according to a linear, developmental notion of progress and amplified by the colonial imperative to conquer other than own time and space. This modern time consciousness, according to the media theorist Bliss Cua Lim, became gradually natural and incontrovertible – a sort of ready-made temporality – and obscured the plurality of our existence in time.13

Conservation’s Clock Time
It occurs to me that in conservation, as an Aristotelian inheritance of linearity, we have too easily accepted this ready-made temporality manifest in mechanical follow up of instances in the manner of replacement rather than organic continuity. Although, admittedly, the temporal irreversibility of decay and alteration (leading to entropy) implies a certain type of linearity, this concept is not sufficient to encompass the complexity of the existence of artworks in time.
The concept of reversibility, for instance – a much contested conservation theorem that, for a considerable time, was one of the main rules in conservation – presumes that a process or treatment can be reversed. It also somewhat approximates the idea of the return to an earlier condition of an artwork reflected in the term of re-storation, which, from an etymological point of view, already involves the notion of “redoing.”14
Paradoxically, the return to the “ideal” or “original condition” contradicts the linear progress of time. It is precisely the impossibility of the return to the original condition that the very idea of reversibility is based on. Why would we wish to return to something, if we have not lost it already, as in Origen’s Garden of Eden?15 So this understanding of time as linear, in various attempts to restore an object, in other words, is predicated on the notion of reversibility, which does not change the fact of its misinterpretation (as one cannot turn back entropy).
“World-withdrawal and world-decay can never be undone” – contends German philosopher Martin Heidegger.16 “The works are no longer the same as they once were. It is they themselves, to be sure, that we encounter there, but they themselves are gone by.”17 This could be understood as a reference not only to time, but also to the “world.” Even if we could restore the object to its original condition (which is not possible, as I have argued), we would not be able to restore its world, so it will always be different from “how” (rather than “what”) it was. This also signalises an attempt to impose our own concept of timelessness18 and uniqueness of a temporal context, in which artworks are accessed.

Multimedia and Beyond
Although this critique can be applied to many art forms, both traditional and non-traditional, I will narrow its scope to multimedia installations.
Multimedia installations are heterogeneous, compound entities created from a range of materials and elements rather than in a singular medium. Due to their characteristics, they introduce aspects of dispersal and reassembly following the repeated cycles of their materialisation. These works, unlike traditional painting or sculpture, do not exist in an assembled form beyond the duration of an exhibition or a technical test-run. The ontological shift between the appearance and disappearance, a series of iterations characterised by the potentiality for change occurring throughout their lifespan, places them in a discursive realm of authenticity. This realm leans on the presence of the material evidence on the one hand (physical, performative object) and, on the other, the possibility of an authentic experience created in the course of the artwork’s re-performances with entirely or partially new components under the exclusion of its material origins (performed work). In museums, it also causes tension with regard to the aforementioned ontological assumption about permanence of artefacts.

One of the main characteristics of multimedia works of art is changeability. Encompassing extrinsic and intrinsic change, and independently of its desirability and the questions of judgement (good or bad), changeability goes beyond any reference to some kind of a mean value and may involve a fundamental change as a historical practice. Changeability places an artwork in a universe of the already realised but also potential transformations. The key to understanding these transformations lies, I believe, in offering a conception of time that is different than the conventional, sequential one and that may supplement the certain linearity of decay and ageing.

Towards Alternative Conceptions of Time
In response to these new characteristics introduced by multimedia, in what follows, I propose supplementing the temporal irreversibility of decay and alteration with an alternative conception of time. I suggest that the key to the acknowledgement of changeability of multimedia works of art expressed in the variety of their instantiations lies in the recognition of the temporal equivalence of the plurality of their occurrences.
The privileging of one instance over another and thus freezing of a changeable artwork in the gesture of its conservation that accords with the conventions of a particular epoch and its ruling set of values reflects the understanding of time as progress, as succession from one point to another. Here, progress may be understood in a twofold manner: as the progress of time that enables the conservator to employ the newest technological and scientifically informed methods to obtain the preferred result, but also – and relevant for this argument – the progress from the “then” as the object’s “most precious” and “original” state to its changed reality. To be sure, instead of turning back to an object’s assumed state that has been but is no more, restoration/conservation is adding new values that result in manufacturing historicity and is actually producing something new.19

Bergsonian Duration as a Survival of the Past
To fully understand the durational character of artworks and acknowledge the continuity of change that they undergo, it occurs to me that the conception of time as durée of the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s (1859–1941) may be helpful. The Bergsonian conception is but first of all a critique of time of natural sciences conceived on the basis of specialised, fragmented time. Rather, it is the movement of time itself, the permanent, unstoppable changing of things. The concept of duration rests on the idea of there being a present involving a past and the anticipation of a future – an idea that I propose applying to the understanding of time in conservation that contradicts the fragmentation of an object’s identity into externally related moments.
Although my argument is based mainly on Bergsonian theory, it is difficult today to think about Bergson without including his most significant interpreter, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. In fact, Bergsonism as I understand it, is, nowadays, barely separable from Deleuze’s contribution.20 In his book Bergsonism (1961), Deleuze provides us with a comprehensive insight into Bergson’s method, including his own ideas about the ontology of things. One insight is Deleuze’s assumption that “things must, of necessity, endure in their own way,” which reconfirms Bergson’s assertion that “…we do not endure alone, external objects, it seems, endure as we do.” This is based on Bergson’s argument that duration was from the start defined as multiplicity, and qualities exist in things no less than they do in consciousness.21 Bergson’s assumption of duration outside the “self” elaborated by Deleuze introduces a dimension that may have further consequences for the “object of conservation.” One possible way of its interpretation may suggest a horizon of time not only inherent to the subject (psychological time), but a time that enables objects and artworks to have their own duration. Artworks will thus cease to be “screens that denature duration,” a form of exteriority as it were, and will become temporal multiplicities on their own.
Bergsonian visualisation of the idea of the contemporaneity of the past in the form of a cone metaphor may be helpful for rethinking time in conservation.22 The cone is divided into three sections AB, A’B,’ A’’B’’ symbolising a state of coexistence of all layers of the past with the present. The past AB would coexist with the present S under the inclusion of all the sections A’B’ and A’’B.’’ The sections are virtual, symbolically representing the distance of the past in relation to the present, yet including the entirety of the past rather than its particular elements. The identity of duration is presented as an ever-growing image of the past in the present and “the conservation and preservation of the past and the present.”23 Every following moment contracts and condenses with the former and, simultaneously, “always contains, over and above the preceding one, the memory the latter has left it.”24 Deleuze maintains:

We are too accustomed to thinking in terms of the “present.” We believe that a present is only past when it is replaced by another present. Nevertheless, let us stop and reflect for a moment: How would a new present come about if the old present did not pass at the same moment as it is present? How would any present whatsoever pass, if it were not past at the same time as present? The past would never be constituted if it had not been constituted first of all, at the same time as it was present. There is here, as it were, a fundamental position of time and also the most profound paradox of memory: The past is “contemporaneous” with the present that has been. … The past and the present do not denote two successive moments, but two elements that coexist: One is the present, which does not cease to pass, and the other is the past, which does not cease to be but through which all presents pass.25
So in the contemporaneity, the past and the present that has been coexist, but the past also preserves itself endlessly in itself, while the present passes. Following this line of thought, would an artwork’s present preserve all its pasts?

Bergson speaks of the acting, abiding, actual past:
Like the universe as a whole, like each conscious being taken separately, the organism which lives is a thing that endures. Its past, in its entirety, is prolonged to its present, and abides there, actual and acting. How otherwise could we understand that it passes through distinct and well-marked phases, that it changes its age – in short, that it has a history?26
This duration of the past is crucial when rethinking the notion of time in conservation that is preoccupied with searching for the past authentic condition of an artwork as the one that ceased to be present. The past, for Bergson, is alongside the present – a concept distinct from conventional ways of thinking about past, present and future as separable realms.27 Duration is the survival of the past, an ever-accumulating ontological memory that is wholly, automatically and ceaselessly preserved. In duration, the current moment does not depose that which came before. Following the Bergsonian conception of time and its Deleuzian interpretation, I propose that in changeable multimedia works of art, the present is the survival of the past. In the process of conservation, the past is actualised in the present, the latter being the only status we are able to analyse from our inhabited temporal perspective.28 Duration is, I argue, crucial for understanding the continuity of artworks and essential to divorcing conservation from its traditional views of time. A possible consequence of the application of durée to works characterised by change is that their changeability expressed by the multitude of instances may unrestrictedly exist in a continuum of duration. In other words, each instantiation of a changeable artwork preserves, as it were, the former.

Preserving the Present
In sum, the orientation of conservation towards the past is a gesture reassembling back-and-forth movements between abstract times, or at best a misinterpretation of linearity – we allegedly “take care of the past” and “pass it over to the future.” If the past is exactly as contemporary as the present, then we do not need to “preserve the past” in the traditional meaning of the word, but preserve the present. In fact the present seems to be the only reality given, and the only one to be preserved. In the case of multimedia installations, conservation could thus be defined as a process that shapes the changeability of artworks, yet does not prevent it. If anything, it could contribute to the reduction of the degree of changeability, if desirable. So in my thinking – and following Bergsonian durée – artworks that undergo transformation abide in their present (and only) “condition,” which is constituted by their many different pasts. In other words, they are constructed by their “present” as much as by their “past conditions.” This may not only result in abandoning the search for authenticity somewhere in the remote past, but may also shift conservation from its attempt to manage change (measured in an artwork’s former conditions) to a process intervening in the artwork’s temporality. Furthermore, it will unquestionably release conservation from the drive to “recover the past” and “the original” or “give back the authentic object,” which, in my view, are misguided approaches based on an incorrect conception of time.
The applicability of this proposition may not only offer conservation the possibility to overcome the aforementioned too easily accepted ready-made temporality and the difficult relation with its ‘object,’ but also reach beyond the conservation of multimedia works. If taken seriously, it could have an impact on traditional art.
Whether related to traditional art or multimedia, it should not be left unmentioned that conservation may by no means claim to be neutral. Each intervention is a process that transforms the work of art. Furthermore, conservation is, according to the Italian conservation theoretician Cesare Brandi, a moment of the methodological recognition of a work, an instantaneous appropriation in which the consciousness of the observer recognises an object as a work of art.29 In discussing the significance of the past and opposing the idea of permanence, the British heritage theorist David Lowenthal holds that “every act of recognition alters what survives.”30 He adds to it a positive value – the past can be used fruitfully when it is “domesticated,” “to inherit is to transform.”31

1.) Saint Augustine, Confessions, transl. by Edward Bouverie Pusey (Kindle Edition: Evinity Publishing Inc., 2009 (397–398)).
2.) Frederic Jameson, “The End of Temporality,” in Abstraction: Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Lind (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013), 121.
3.) Jacques Derrida, Marges de la philosophie (Paris, 1972), 47, quoted in Jameson, “The End of Temporality,” 121.
4.) For a study on the concepts of time in the context of conservation, see Hanna Hölling, “Re: Paik: On Time, Identity and Changeability in the Conservation of Nam June Paik Multimedia Installations” (PhD thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2013).
5.) Amelia Groom, ed., Time: Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, forthcoming), book overview available at https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/time.
6.) I use the expression “con-temporary” to expose its plural meaning that is related to the question of time: something may be con-temporary with something else in terms of synchronous existence (which nota bene implies a relation), and, equally, it may have a temporal characteristic pointing to the present. Online Etymology Dictionary, s. v. “contemporary,” accessed 10 August 2013. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=contemporary. For a brilliant discussion of the “contemporary” in art, see Richard Meyer, What Was Contemporary (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2013).
7.) Cf. Pip Laurenson, “Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations” Tate Papers 6 (2006), accessed December 12, 2011, www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/7401; Salvador Muñoz Viñas, Contemporary Theory of Conservation (Oxford: Elsevier, 2005). 3.
8.) For the “social” in conservation, see Miriam Clavir, Preserving What is Valued: Museum, Conservation and First Nations (Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press, 2002); Miriam Clavir, “Social Contexts for Conservation: Time, Distance, and Voice in Museums and Galleries,” Journal of the Canadian Association for Conservation 34 (2009); Glenn Wharton, “Heritage Conservation as Cultural Work: Public Negotiation of a Pacific Hero” (PhD diss., University College London, 2004).
9.) See, for instance, Laurenson, Muñoz Viñas, Clavir and the recent international initiatives such as the research project New Strategies in the Conservation of Contemporary Art (http://www.newstrategiesinconservation.nl/) and its outcome in several doctoral dissertations that are being written on this subject matter.
10.) Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain: A Novel, trans. John. E. Woods (New York, 1995 (1924)), 339.
11.) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, translated by Allan Sheridan (New York and Toronto: Random House, 1995 (1975)).
12.) J. J. A. Mooij, Time and Mind: The History of a Philosophical Problem (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005), 105.
13.) Bliss Cua Lim, Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique (Duke University Press, 2009), 11.
14.) “Re-” word forming element; C. 1200; from Old French and also directly from Latin re- “again, back, against.” Online Etymology Dictionary, s. v. “re-,“ accessed April 24, 2013, http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=re-&allowed_in_frame=0.
15.) Alessandro Conti refers to the story of the Garden of Eden as a wish “to return to a primitive state that is better that the present one.” According to him, rooted in mythology and Western religious tradition, this vision becomes dangerous in restoration when it induces to pass over the ageing of materials and impose the concept of the return to the original at all costs. Alessandro Conti, The History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art, trans. Helen Glanville (London: Elsevier, 2007), 1.
16.) Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Low, 1975), 40.
17.) Ibid.
18.) Albert Albano, “Art in Transition,” in Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, eds. Nicholas Stanley Price, M. Kirby Talley Jr. and Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 1996), 183.
19.) See, for instance, David Lowenthal, “Fabricating Heritage,” History and Memory 10/1 (1998): 5–24.
20.) I have in mind his books Bergsonism and Cinema 1 and 2.
21.) Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, transl. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991 (1966)), 48.
22.) Ibid., 59–60.
23.) Duration, according to Deleuze, is essentially memory, consciousness and freedom. Ibid.
24.) This is also expressed in the illusion of the difference between recollection and perception – the image cannot actualise a recollection without adapting it to the requirements of the present. Deleuze refers to contraction and recollection memory. Deleuze, Bergsonism, 51.
25.) Ibid., 58–59.
26.) “How otherwise could we understand that it passes through distinct and well-marked phases, that it changes its age – in short, that it has a history?” Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1998 (1911)), 15. For the Deleuzian view on the virtual past, see Deleuze, Bergsonism, 55. This matter is also discussed in Suzanne Guerlac, Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006), 187–188
27.) According to David Lowenthal, the differentiation of past and present is a rather recent development and can be associated with a chronological time scale. The past as a state of things no longer existing emerged during the Renaissance when the remoteness of ancient Rome and unlikeness of recent medial times became apparent. David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 390.
28.) Much of my thinking here and in the subsequent section is inspired by Bliss Cua Lim and her book entitled Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and the Temporal Critique. Drawing from Bergson’s (and Deleuze’s) philosophic project, she takes on the discussion of time in relation to fantastic cinema. Cua Lim, Translating Time.
29.) Cesare Brandi, Theory of Restoration, trans. Cynthia Rockwell (Nardini Editore: Florence, 2005), 48. For coherence, I replaced the originally used “restoration” with “conservation.”
30.) Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, 390.
31.) Ibid., 412.

[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 1 auf S. 251.]

[Es sind keine weiteren Materialien zu diesem Beitrag hinterlegt.]

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Augustinus  ·  Bergson, Henri-Louis  ·  Brandi, Cesare  ·  Castorp, Hans  ·  Deleuze, Gilles  ·  Derrida, Jacques  ·  Foucault, Michel  ·  Heidegger, Martin  ·  Lim, Bliss Cua  ·  Lowenthal, David  ·  Mann, Thomas  ·  Marx, Karl  ·  Paik, Nam June