References are Us

December 7th, 2013 – .
Published in Sandberg, Studio for Immediate Spaces, Yearbook.

There is a cluster of words that seem to be entangled, that are often used indiscriminately when talking about making work (any type of work that involves creating something rather than controlling it): inspiration, association, reference. However, these three concepts refer to very different processes.


Inspiration could be argued to be the “thing” that sparks a work, action, ideas that sets us in motion to do something this way rather than that way. According to The New Penguin English Dictionary (2001), inspiration is the “divine or supernatural action believed by some to underlie the artistic creativity”. Seeing a great artwork and rushing to write some ideas down, to capture that moment of inspiration. Smelling something when you walk down the street and deciding to cook salmon with mint sauce for dinner. Or simply being struck, like lightning, by the best idea you ever had. Inspiration is often thought to be wild, uncontrollable, Romantic in that sense, and something you have or have not. It is not for sale. Inspiration is the slightly crazy, cool, wild, sexy girl everyone wants to be, wants to date but who is always gone after the first kiss.


Association is the more reliable sister of Inspiration, still a little wild but a better bet if you wanted to start a family. Association is the thing that nudges us closer to something: “This work reminds me of another work I recently saw and was struck by”. “This bar reminds me of that one place we once went to in France.” Association links to memory, plain and simple. It weaves objects, impressions, experiences together to make the mess of our lives into something that might resemble a woven carpet. The dictionary defines association as “a link in memory, thought, or imagination with a thing or person; a connotation”. As with inspiration, associations can work in unexpected ways. Seeing a line drawn by the sun on the pavement can create a tumble of associations.

Ryan Gander did a series of presentations under the title Loose Associations that were gathered in the eponymous book by onestar press (2007). Leafing through the book, you are caught in the rhythm of his associations, sometimes indeed very loose, sometimes more concrete (from the online “Not Found” page to a classic TV test screen to give just one example).

Associations might be a bit wild too, but they are more organized than inspiration in the sense that there is often a visual, acoustic or other link to be made between the different parts of an association. (With inspiration this is often lacking. On studio visits artists might explain their inspirations, to them perfectly clear, to you completely baffling. “So this smudgy newspaper clipping of a forest in China inspired you to make concrete tubes lying on the ground like a group of drunken seals?”) (The drunken seals are used here as a metaphor by the way, but that is yet another story.)


Inspiration and association don’t care about restrictions concerning form, situation or content. If a red dot on the cover of a book reminds you of the box of cereals you loved as a child, why not? The reference on the other hand has a more exact feel to it, more scientific and verifiable somehow. It is rather dryly defined as in the dictionary as “something that refers somebody to another source of information”. This is clearly the more organized brother of the family. The one who will breeze through college and make the parents proud, the one whose style in dress makes sense, even when you look at family pictures from the eighties. A reference points you from one source to another, less in the area of feeling, more in that of cognition. “Oh, this brings back a passage in a book by so and so”. “This work is clearly a reference to conceptual art”.

Less Romantic, less divine intervention style, more controllable. You can learn your references. Watch enough movies, read enough books, see enough exhibitions. This will leave you with a vast set of references. Inspiration is hard to capture, to catalogue, to order. Associations can be ordered (trees, funny shadow shapes, black and white images with diagonal lines) and consulted at any given moment when working on a project (“Let me browse all the articles I copied that are vaguely connected to the topic of resistance”). References allow for a systematic approach, they will survive Endnote but in certain situations they prefer a folder with tabs. Importantly, both inspiration and association need you, as the “receiver”, to be up for it (hence the word divine in this paragraph), to want to see and acknowledge them. Children that are thought to have too much fantasy are very open to this input and these connections. They see potential in the smallest things for a game, a story, a strange link.

It is safe to assume that most people experience or know these three siblings. Something or someone will at a certain moment in life inspire us. Everyone knows the power of associations; how they can jumpstart memories, allow us to make unusual connections, set our minds loose (depending on the person, this power is put to use or ignored). And we all love a good reference, it makes us feel smart, knowledgeable.1


Countless artists, architects, designers, and writers keep archives of associations and references. Why do we keep these archives? Why do we endlessly collect? Why do we believe that they hold the key to great works? For many the countless newspaper clippings, pictures, magazines, pieces of paper, leaves from forests, notes from lectures, will serve as a foundation, a backbone, the structure on which claims are built. Any argument or work is only as strong as the basis on which it is built. Or so we seem to think.

Add to this the fact that the sources and options for hoarding have been multiplying with the advent and development of the Internet. The start of most projects today is a Google search, and for many people, a Google image search. These online image searches throw, very often, a wide net that leads us to see the strangest combinations of images. Here is an example. I am preparing a talk on the artist studio and the images or clichés attached to it. When doing a Google image search on the words “artist studio”, I get your typical images of cluttered rooms destined for great creations. But I also get an image for an Eastpak backpack with a tuxedo front. I keep that image too, in the category mash-ups. Later on, when working on mash-ups for another project, I can use this crazy Eastpak backpack image without remembering the moment, context or search that brought it to me. As soon as we claim an image, sound or text (but images mainly) as a reference, they become work material and their original source is often lost, no longer important. References can travel from contexts to contexts and adapt without effort to a new environment.

References have become an intrinsic part of the contexts in which we work, in which we make works. We cannot escape them. There is too much to know, to see, to find, to relate to. You have to know and be aware of your references.


With online image searches, the incompatible are combined on one screen, the strangest jumps and leaps of imagination are made for us. Referencing, hoarding, seeing connections was never as easy as it is now due to online search options. The whole Tumblr, mood-board movement is based on our love for creating image databases from loosely connected images. We weave sense out of digital overload. And in doing that, we also construct our identity, make a claim, show our position. You are what you associate with, your references are you. (This can become even more prominent when we use auto-references, when we start self-referencing).

So what we are talking about here – the function of the reference – is fundamental, not just frivolous. This is serious business. References are identity defining, references are a way of working, references jump-start our projects, references can make us happy. If referencing (the act of collecting, using and presenting references) is indeed something we can learn (as suggested above), this means that it is also something we can get better at. When it comes to referencing, one of the key skills is knowing what to choose, how to make a  “montage” or edit out of the (found) reference material.


A well edited selection of references or associations can make us happy, the sort of happy connected to logic, to things that make sense. We all know this beatifying feeling, it can happen when entering a room, seeing a person, tasting a dish. Some people might call it karma, or Feng shui, aura or whatnot. Whatever we choose to call this feeling, the core of the matter is that we feel it when something is right.

And there is humor involved with associations and references. Loose Associations by Gander makes you snigger with the funny leaps and jumps he makes (from the famous Arne Jacobsen chair to Homer Simpson sitting backwards on a chair resembling this famous design). The book Oeuvre sculpté, travaux pour amateurs by Koenraad Dedobbeleer (2012, ROMA publications) playfully (and often absurdly) mix and matches the artists works with old sculptures, everyday objects and strange designs.

With a book of references, part of this feeling of logic, of things making sense, can also be attributed to the type of “tricks of the brain” that make you see a bird in a cage even though the images flashing before your eyes are of an empty cage and a free bird. We connect things, make sense out of distributed objects, jump to conclusions and try to fix gaps. The loopy lines and the walking house, the esthetic ruins and centuries old caves, the chairs and turntable popping up in different images, a matching viewpoint, mountain ridges and waves. Reference books are more about looking than knowing, more about the recognition of shapes, angles, mass than documentation.

Our brains are constantly trying to convert chaos into order because we long for the beatifying effect of order, of things that fit.

  1. Needless to say, the borders between these three concepts are not always so clear-cut as suggested here. They are often trespassed and permeated. An image that inspired us can become a reference later on, many an association will in the process of making a work, become a reference.