Thuistezien 159 — 27.01.2021
In her engaging and quick-witted talk for the Laws of Form symposium, the artist Vanilla Beer shares with her audience a couple of stories about the cyberneticians involved in the life of the English polymath George Spencer-Brown. Best known for his book ‘Laws of Form’, the life of Spencer Brown seems puzzling and rather uncommon, hence why it may attract the curiosity of many admirers of his well acclaimed book. The personal associations are entertaining but may, nonetheless, only affirm the interesting nature of this figure. The way in which Beer is introduced to Spencer-Brown’s life is through her father, Anthony Stafford Beer. Stafford Beer was, for a time period, his employer in the company Sigma. From the beginning, it is clear for Beer, that Spencer-Brown may have been a rather unusual person, as her father and her one evening were pondering over what to do with an employee whose work performance was declining. Later, Beer is once again acquainted with Spencer-Brown, when visiting Gordon Pask and his wife Elisabeth who happened to be housing the English polymath during his employment at Sigma. Elisabeth Pask was able to share some information about Spencer-Brown, one of which was her bafflement over the fact that the man used to use her gin to clean himself when taking one of his rare showers.
Beer’s first personal meeting with Spencer-Brown was in the early 1990’s when she asked him if she could make a portrait of him. The agenda of this personal meeting, other than the creation of his portrait, was to dig up some information regarding the assumed likeness between ‘Laws of Form’ and ‘Hieroglyphic Monad’ by John Dee, dating back to 1564. Her aim to acquire knowledge from Spencer-Brown regarding this matter, however, happened to be harder than it seemed. Instead, she was well provided with a large number of stories from his life, such as the time he used to be Ludwig Wittgenstein’s lover as well as how he, despite what everybody thought, were not a mathematician but rather a magician.
The talk is less an investigation of the previously mentioned book whose name gives title to the symposium but more an dwelling into nature of the author himself. The pragmatic question of who George Spencer-Brown is remains somehow blurry, but the viewer surely gets closer to his figure, thanks to Beer’s many insightful accounts.
Text: Rosa Zangenberg