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Ellef Prestsæter

Standard Deviations 

We don’t live in a space that’s neutral and blank; we don’t live, die, love in the rectangle of a sheet of paper.

 – Michel Foucault, 1966[1]

Somewhat ironically, A4 – often seen to as the standard of standards – was never able to forge a world of books in its image: a book printed in the format would stand out on the bookshelf, signalling a certain idiosyncrasy. Perhaps a conceptual poet or an architectural group would be the more likely candidates for putting out a book in A4 format (in order, for instance, to underline an alliance with the desktop printer or to create an image of efficacy or functionalism[2]), and while Knut Henrik Henriksen might be squarely placed within a broader tendency towards an increasing ‘architecturalisation’ of post-Conceptual art,[3]he is neither of the above.Yet for those who have followed the artist’s practice, it was inevitable that the book intended to sum up his career to date would somehow address the Urnorm of A4. In the hands of Henriksen the so-called Aseries of paper sizes has become the object of intense fascination, something worthy of monumentalisation and able to yield surprising morphologies. Indeed, there is a sense in which standards, even more than sculpture, are his primary artistic medium. As such, however myopic his explorations may appear, the works never close in on themselves in the spirit of so-called modernist medium-specificity. Paradoxically, a standard object is both simpler and more complex than other objects, as the process of homogenisation also implies a built-in relationality (to other objects of the same kind, other standards, bureaucratic organs such as ISO – The International Organization for Standardization etc.), not to speak of all the contingent relations it might get entangled in. A standard is also generative of other forms; as Nader Vossoughian writes: ‘Systems for regulating the dimensions of paper transformed the physical design of information during the 1920s. The “rules” that dictate the design of A4 paper paved the way for standard envelope, file cabinet, and bookshelf sizes.’[4]The A series was a high point in the culture of standardisation that grew out of global industrialisation; it was also an integral part of the architectural modernism whose legacy and mode of operation is a recurring topic in Henriksen’s work. 

Intent on taking his explorations of the Aseries to the form of the codex, Henriksen learned that producing a book in the format of A4 in practice entails printing on slightly larger sheets: ‘to allow for bleed and gutters and make allowance for the area that a printing press requires to grip the paper for feeding.’[5]Now, the prospective leftover sections of paper resulting from this trimming outline a space of the kind that so interests Henriksen, whose practice hinges on making such cutaway spaces productive. He decided to let A4 define the area for the conventional content of an art catalogue (documentation, essays etc.), while the extra area, which he assumed would correspond to B4, allowed for a marginal ‘project space’, which he invited the artist Karl Holmqvist to fill. An open space emerging from within a formal system, more real than the no-space of utopia and infinitely more workable than the obdurate structures of architecture proper, the surplus beautifully and succinctly figures Henriksen’s own working space as an artist. Rather than conceiving of the artist’s space as an outside from which he can map, reflect upon, subvert, critique or embellish systems of standardisation, it emerges from within the articulations of a formal system, or rather, from several systems as they enter into composition with each other (and also with different materials, equipment, specific social sites and decision-makers of all kinds). 

The book you are currently holding in your hands, then, is ‘not exactly A4’, to use a Norwegian idiomatic expression referring to a person who comes across as unconventional, standing out, not fitting in. The metaphor suggests that in addition to standard objects we have something like standard subjects, a condition of normativity against which artists typically revolt. Consider as a case in point the cover of a 1944 issue of the Danish architectural journal A5containing a long essay by Asger Jorn on the legacy of Le Corbusier.On the cover of the magazine, whose physical dimensions matched its name, thus embodying an ideal and sober fusion of form, function, and content, Jorn splashed an aggressive, irregular, and expansive black stain.Uncredited in the colophon, this détournement bears every sign of Jorn’s artistic signature, a mark of unfettered subjectivity colliding with the given standard. Henriksen’s mode of occupying the functional space of a standard is quite the opposite of Jorn’s gesture: one of things that comes out of the encounter with Henriksen’s art is a sense for the way in which idiosyncrasy and creativity are not merely related to a specific system as its outside, as what fails to conform to a preformatted standard or template (not exactly A4), but something that can be generated through and by means of such systems, in turn giving rise to new modes of composition, behaviour and subjectivity. What emerges from Henriksen’s practice is not so much a critique of standardisation as abstract, violent, or disenchanting as an exploration of the ways in which the standard and the singular comingle and produce one another. Artworks, too, for all the uniqueness often attributed to them, are fundamentally imbricated in the world of norms and standardisation.This is not a problem for Henriksen but a condition to work with: formally, technically, conceptually and metaphorically. His humanoid paper sculptures are a case in point; they are actors in a social drama of precarious subject formation and standard forms and materials.


How to do Things with Doubt

Not exactly A4, but rather B4. What Henriksen is staging with this book is a clear instance of what he refers to as ‘architectural frustration’ or ‘architectural doubt’. Standards are means of removing, or rather, black-boxing doubt. The crucial decisions are made beforehand, built into the standardised object, so that they don’t have to be made each time by everyone. As such they make the construction of buildings (to take just one example) easier and more efficient. This power standards have serves Henriksen well when he harnesses it to create large-scale sculptures intent, as he says, on expending a minimal amount of energy for ‘maximum effect’. Ally yourself with constraints, let a standard, or a manual of regulations and restrictions, do the work. No cutting (of the wooden planks) or subversion (of the rules). Maximise the constraints’ propensity for expression. Sometimes the result may instil a certain doubt as to whether any artistic intervention was made at all. At other times Henriksen works in the opposite direction, cutting into, opening up, scrutinising and instilling doubt into a given system, which is another way of making a standard stand out, revealing the intricacies of the assemblages it partakes in. As Matthew Fuller explains, ‘A standard object is a recursive function, the one that calls its same into being. But as we have seen, solutions create problems, local stabilisations or the development of the concrete generate reverberations that tip other elements out of balance. And this provides an opportunity.’[6]

Scales, Bodies, Abstractions

When Walter Porstmann submitted the formula for the A series to German standards organisation in 1922 he was drawing on the previous work of scholars such as the Nobel laureate Wilhelm Ostwald. Together with Karl Bührer the latter had conceived of a world formatin which, to quote Bernhard Siegert, ‘a standardised index card in a standardised filing box in a standardised cabinet in a standardised office building amounts to nothing more than the nth subdivision of a global standardisation system.’[7]This global format was introduced in the Munich-based organ Die Brücke in 1912, and that this fantasy coincided with the Expressionist movement that shared the magazine’s name is sure to interest Henriksen, who has been devoted to researching the broader legacy of modernism, intent on ‘bridging’ the idea of singular expression with the imaginary of standards. In his hands a sheet of A4 paper is not an empty container, a clean slate, but a very concrete thing with highly specific properties. The beauty of the A series lies in the way it scales according to a specific mathematical formula (1:√2), as well as one of the basic affordances of paper: it can be folded. A0 folded once makes a spread of A1s, folded again it yields four sheets of A2, etc. The aspect ratio remains the same across scales, which is why the series works so well with a Xerox machine (the content can easily be magnified or reduced in size; printing an A4 brochure is both easy and economic: choose A3 and fold once – no paper wasted!). It is also what makes works such as Henriksen’s ‘Herr Porstmann’ series of sculptural ‘portraits’ of the A series’ inventor and the corner sculpture Endless Column A2 A3 A4 (2008) (made from diagonally bisected mirrors in standard sizes) appear so harmonious. 

(Not exactly A4, but rather B4. Does the book weigh heavy on your arms? When the architects of Oslo City Hall decided to deviate from the standard brick size itis said to have led to widespread muscular tendinitis among the construction workers. Similarly, not all books scale well. Consider how scaling down a hardback original makes the paperback almost illegible, its tiny writing causing the reader’s head to ache. Quentin Fiore and Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 paperback The Medium is the Massageteaches us that scaling up can be equally problematic. A crucial point in McLuhan’s media theory was that media are extensions of the human sense apparatus, a point he expands over sixteen pages in his collaboration with Fiore. Fiore zooms in and out on body parts: a foot running across five pages, an eye extended across a double-page spread, half a naked woman. In only one instance is the human body reproduced in life-size, namely the spread where a book is held open by two thumbs. ‘The book is an extension of the eye.’ This hinging of the sensorium and architecture of the book to the reader’s bodily proportions speaks beautifully of the fundamental graspability of the book, but is disrupted in the hardcover edition Random House published later the same year in a bigger and slightly narrower format compared to the original paperback published by Bantam Books [measured in inches: 4 1/8 x 7 vs. 6 3/8 x 11]. The thumbs grow gigantic, giving us a frustrating sense of being Lilliputian readers. In other words: the book’s massage was specific to the scale of the paperback.)

While the ‘Herr Porstmann’ worksrender in three dimensions the diagram underlying the A series, combining the dimensions of A8 and A7 in different ways, Henriksen’s 2008 series ‘Monuments of Doubts’ enacts an alternative diagrammatisation of the system, producing an entire sculptural grammar out of lines that are implicit in the geometry of the A series. The outline of all the sculptures included in the exhibition of the monuments at Hollybush Gardens in 2009 featured in the press release in the form of a diagram, perhaps suggesting that these were sculptures you could build at home. Furthermore, as the sculptures had wooden freight boxes for pedestals, the exhibition foregrounded their fundamental mobility, indicating that the very ground of their existence was their capacity to travel and be exchanged: a standard implies trade and relations. What is monumentalised in ‘Monuments of Doubts’is not only doubt as something inherent in the stable geometry of a standardised system but also a displacement of the dialectic of abstract and concrete, so central to modernist art, which is here brought to the point where it becomes hard to tell the one from the other. Like money, standards are at one and the same time ‘very abstract and terribly concrete’.[8]We can say with Bruno Latour that a standard object is an ‘immutable mobile’ – i.e., not context-dependent – or with Mathew Fuller that it is an instance of ‘misplaced concreteness’ brought into the world by a ruse of abstraction.[9]Standards are here and everywhere, and Henriksen’s work simultaneously has an extreme site-specificity and an extreme generality, making the former transportable and the latter concrete. The space of the A series and the irregular floor plan of Hollybush Gardens are equally interesting to Henriksen, and each of them can be mapped by similar means.


Architectural Tools and Toys

With the Modulor system, Le Corbusier’s attempt to develop a universal scale of proportions and a system of measurement anchored in the proportions of the human body, the goal was not only to create better machines to live in, but to make international trade more efficient. His new standardised scale was intended to create global harmony in a world split between two nearly incompatible systems: the metric system and the so-called imperial system of feet and inches. Le Corbusier regarded it an advantage of the latter that it referred to human proportions and believed that the abstract metrical system had made architecture lose touch with its purpose: to contain people.

The architect’s insistence on relating the standard to the human body may be one reason why Henriksen keeps engaging with Le Corbusier. Another might be the arbitrariness by which this correlation was created. At first, when the incarnation of the standard, the Modulor Man, measured 1.75 m, Le Corbusier and his partners had great trouble converting the standard into inches. A pulp fiction–reading colleague provided the solution: ‘The values of the “Modulor” in its present form are determined by the body of a man who is 1.75 m in height. But isn’t that rather a French height? Have you ever noticed that in English detective novels, the good-looking men, such as the policemen, are always six feet tall?’[10]When the Modulor Man grew to this height (182.88 cm), the conversions all fell into place. The universal standard was forged in the image of a fictional English detective. 

Henriksen does not approach modernism as a crime scene, to detect its mistakes or failures. But he shows an interest in tracing its purportedly universal standards or iconic masterpieces back to the specifics of their emergence. Thus one of the defining dimensions of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye leads back to the turning radius of the architect’s own 1927 Citroën, while Henriksen sees Brancusi’s Endless Column, in a more speculative mode, as emerging out of an architectural tradition Brancusi was intimately familiar with, in that it echoes the forms created by the way logs are notched together at the exterior corner of traditional Romanian log storehouses.The latter observation would be worthy of inclusion in the Danish communist Rudolf Broby-Johansen’s seminal Hverdagskunst – verdenskunst (Everyday Art – World Art) from 1942, an art history from below written in the guise of a history of style: ‘The same spirit that has received a complex and refined expression in the great works of art, expresses itself quite straightforwardly through the thousands of things we deal with on a regular basis, through tools and houses, garments and means of transport, town planning and services, furniture and machines, hairstyles and bridgework.’ Broby had no problem recognising the superhuman achievements of master artists, but underlined that their precondition was ‘an environment consisting of hundreds of thousands of capacities’.[11]

A similar spirit informs Henriksen’s work, in which door handles, whether at the entrance to the Deutsches Institut für Normungor the Galerie Denise René, are treated with the same interest as artworks proper. Modernist icons are handled as black boxes whose myriad capacities can be unleashed by reverse-engineering and circuit-bending and then subsequently reenacted as if by a singer performing a standard tune: the Endless Columnby means of mirrors and the A series; the Villa Savoye redrawn with a 2006 Opel Astra.

A certain pragmatism pervades the art of Henriksen, who comes across as a hands-on tinkerer, a hobbyist developing techniques suited to the uniqueness of specific tasks such as measuring, scaling, tracing, transporting a volume in space and time. A number of his works are explicitly framed as tools. Some of these tools may be useful for others (how do you store and transmit the floor plan of a room using two sticks and coloured adhesive tape?), others seem more playful (how do you measure the slope of a roof using coloured sheets of A4 paper?). In this his tools are akin to toys and they provide a key to his overall production. There is a sense, in fact, in which all of Henriksen’s sculptural works (not just the tools, but also large pieces such as Architectural Doubts [2004]) are a means of ludically confronting highly specific, historically layered and charged spatialities (ranging from the A series and the Modulor system to the historical trajectory of the Galerie Denise René in Paris to the entire city centre of Bergen) whose less obviousqualities and capacities are made as tangible and potentially operable as a door handle. 


After Modernism, Smartness?

Clearly there is method to the doubts in KKH’s work: doubt in some sense or another provides the opening allowing him to occupy a space with his works. When he speaks of doubt, it often comes across as something concrete, like a material that can be moved around at will in order to obtain effects, just as wood panelling techniques from Norway can be displaced to the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin or a medieval village in Switzerland. Is doubt then something we should want to stack away, or something to cultivate in the open? While misplaced doubt can stifle thought (Wittgenstein) and action (Hamlet), doubt also signals a certain openness, at least a modicum of freedom. 

Is architectural doubt perhaps all we have left in the wake of the perceived failure of the utopias of modernism? And, further, how does Henriksen’s work relate to contemporary architecture? The current hype around so-called smart cities gives the notion of architectural doubt a certain critical urgency while at the same time posing a threat of anachronism for practices engaged with such old-fashioned things as buildings, books, door handles, and sculpture. Referring to a new paradigm of smart architecture with embedded and networked sensors and devices, Rem Koolhaas recently claimed that architecture has entered a ‘new engagement with culture and capital’ amounting to nothing less than the ‘most radical change within the discipline since the confluence of modernism and industrial production in the early twentieth century’: 

For thousands of years, the elements of architecture were deaf and mute – they could be trusted. Now, many of them are listening, thinking, and talking back, collecting information and performing accordingly. The door has become automated, transformed into an extension of the smartphone, with each opening and closure logged; elevators predict your intended destination by listening to your conversations and tracking your routines; toilets diagnose potential illness, building a catalogue of the user’s most intimate medical data; windows tell you when they should be opened and closed for maximum environmental efficiency.[12]

Such machines for living promise to modulate human life by means of mathematics in a wholly different way from the modernist standards that emerged in the wake of industrialisation (such as Le Corbusier’s attempt to reconcile human bodily proportions with the golden ratio and Fibonacci numbers). Smart cities are actually designed to remove doubt from people’s lives: they are intended to manage uncertainty algorithmically, leaving decision-making to the grey mediations of computational systems. Interestingly, some proponents of the smart city argue they are able to provide what modernism failed to deliver. In a discussion of Songdo, a South Korean prototype of the smart city, Orit Halpern reports that some of its developers emphasised that they were ‘well acquainted with Le Corbusier’ and claimed that their practice ‘adopted the best of modern architecture without its utopian and failed elements.’[13]

Instilling a little doubt seems to be in place here, but at the same time the smart city presents a challenge to the very notion of architectural doubt, not only because it claims to be smart rather than doubtful, but because this smartness (computational systems and infrastructure) entertains a more or less arbitrary relationship to the concrete architectural structures they are embedded in, subverting the expectation of a straightforward relation between form and function. If this new kind of intelligence fails to register in architectural form, its complexity, its standards and protocols, its successes and failures will also evade the reach of the tools Henriksen has developed to make architectural doubt visible, to make the standards stand out. This situation calls for other forms of tinkering: extrapolating strategies of architectural doubt to smart cities suggests notions like the architectural glitch, leak, hack. 

The very notion of smart architecture, Koolhaas wryly notes, implies the stupidity of the former paradigm. But smart cities will still have to deal with dimensions, materials, constructions, floors, doors, windows and ceilings, the various ways in which ‘old’ architecture can be stupid or smart, fail or succeed, so many of which are drawn out tangibly in Henriksen’s practice. It is worth questioning not only the hubris of the proponents of smartness, but also the too-easy condemnation of any algorithmic processing as inherently reductive, as hostile to life, politics, subjectivity and heterogeneity. Here Henriksen’s take on standards, the working space figured in the ‘not exactly A4’, suggests new avenues for practice. Can we imagine tools or artworks that explore and play with how architecture and computation relate or fail to relate to one another, interfering with, subverting, improving, undermining and displacing the intelligence or doubts of each other? A formulation of Asger Jorn’s from a 1958 Situationist text on automation is surprisingly apposite here, providing us the perfect motto for Henriksen’s practice: ‘It is up to us whether standardisation opens up more interesting realms of experience than it closes.’[14]



Not exactly A4, but rather B4. This book’s gesture is not of contained self-reflexivity, but one already pointing towards other scales, socialities, and systems. The seemingly straightforward decision to expand to B4 did not put an end to doubt or complexity. It turned out that in order to end up with a B4 book, the pages would have to be printed on still larger sheets of paper, thus creating an even greater amount of waste, a larger ‘project space’ which would be unrecuperable in the final book state, unless one decided to use yet larger sheets of paper, and so on . . . . What we glimpse here is something a bit more unruly than a perpetual series of matryoshka dolls nested neatly one into another, not quite the linear mise-en-abyme of standardised dimensions suggested by Henriksen’s Endless Column A2 A3 A4. What seemed like a perfect solution threatened to turn into the failure of increased expenditure and deforestation. As one supplier of printing services warns prospective customers online: ‘NB do not fall into the trap of designing a print job in an ISO “B” size – it is very uneconomical!’[15]


As I was finishing this essay, the artist called me up and explained that the B4 plan had been based on a misunderstanding. His intention, of course, had not been to increase the amount of waste, but exactly the opposite: to throw away as little as possible, treat the ‘waste’ as sculptural form, use the ‘frustration’ of paper waste to generate further ideas. So: not exactly A4, but by no means B4! It’s hard to think of a more poignant allegorisation of Henriksen’s standard deviations than this story of how a tragedy of deforestation was warded off to reveal a comedy of standards.   


Ellef Prestsæter is a writer and curator, as well as a founding member of the art and research group Scandinavian Institute for Computational Vandalism.




[1]Michel Foucault, Les Hétérotopies, France-Culture, 7 December 1966.

[2]See for instance Kenneth Goldsmith’s Theory, assembled ‘in the form of a ream of paper’ and published by Jean Boîte Éditions (2015), and the Danish architectural journal A5(1941–1962).

[3]For these concepts, see Peter Osborne’s Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art. London: Verso, 2013. 

[4]Nader Vossoughian, ‘Standardization Reconsidered: Normierung in and after Ernst Neufert’s Bauentwurfslehre(1936)’, Grey Room54 (Winter 2014), 34–55, 49.


[6]Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture, 107. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007.

[7]Bernhard Siegert, Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, 116. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015.

[8]The formulation derives from one of Henri Lefebvre’s discussions of abstraction in modernist art. See Lefebvre, Key Writings, p. 94. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003.

[9]For the notion of ‘immutable mobiles’, see Bruno Latour’s “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together”, in Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, Jai Press vol. 6 (1986), 1–40. Fuller draws on Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” in his discussion of standard objects in Media Ecologies, 97–107.

[10]Le Corbusier,The Modulor: A Harmonious Measure to the Human Scale, Universally Applicable to Architecture and Mechanics, p. 56. Translated by Peter de Francia and Anna Bostock. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.

[11]Rudolf Broby-Johansen, Hverdagskunst – Verdenskunst, 5, 132 (my translation). Copenhagen: Forlaget Fremad, 1942.

[12]Rem Koolhaas, ‘The Smart Landscape’, Artforum (April 2015), 212–217.

[13]Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945, 31. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

[14]The text was originally published in French in the first issue of Internationale Situationniste. See a.h.s. boy’s English translation.


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