On top of a block of concrete sits a murky aquarium; above it hangs a specially designed light box. The aquarium is home to a living ecosystem from the upper layers of the hydrosphere. Suddenly its contents become blurred and disappear from sight as the “smart” glass of the fish tank changes from transparent to opaque. The sequences of dimmed lights and the shifts in the glass represent an accelerated variant of the weather conditions in Giverny between 1914 and 1918. Pierre Huyghe’s Nymphéas Transplant (2014) hails from the pond of Claude Monet, the site where the latter artist’s impressionist paintings of water lilies were created. The hundred-year gap between the works is summed up by two artistic gestures: Monet’s plein air painting relocates artistic activity in itself, moving it out of doors, but nature remains an external motif depicted by the artist; Huyghe’s installation transplants living nature directly into a man-made environment where it becomes dependent on regulation, intervention and technological systems – a fitting metaphor for a civilisation that has reluctantly taken on the task of carrying out air conditioning on a planetary scale.
Nymphéas Transplant is part of the section “From lands to disputed territories” in the exhibition Reset Modernity! curated by French philosopher of science and anthropologist Bruno Latour, together with Martin Guinard-Terrin, Christophe Leclerq and Donato Ricci from Latour’s university, Sciences Po in Paris. Huyghe’s pond is also emblematic for Latour’s reassessment of modernity. The short version goes like this: While modernism insisted on separating nature from culture, science from politics, object from subject it also launched vast technological interventions that prompted a proliferation of hybrids that cut across such divides. The connections between humans and non-humans grew in both scope and intimacy. The environmental crisis forces us to recognise that the moderns have in fact lived through a different (hi)story than the one they told about themselves. The result was never development, only an ever-increasing entanglement.
The art of explaining
The fact that Latour appears in the role of curator here is quite symptomatic of the status enjoyed by the most revered theorists involved in the international contemporary art scene. But perhaps it says even more about the exhibition venue itself, Zenter für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe. Studded by atrium courts, the elongated building complex is a former ammunitions factory that has seen two horrific world wars. Today it is home to the ZKM and to Karlsruhe’s museum for contemporary art. Wedged in between these museums is a state-operated art school dedicated to media art and media theory, Hochschule für Gestaltung. Established concurrently with the ZKM in 1992, the school has been an incubator for several creative thinkers that cannot be easily pigeonholed academically, including Peter Sloterdijk, Boris Groys and Byung-Chul Han. Here, art unfolds right next door to philosophy. Being an prolific author of books on theory, Peter Weibel, the director of ZKM, has declared that art’s main interest no longer centres on beauty, but on media. The place is infused by a black-and-white tech aesthetic and harbours a veritable overdose of “new media art”, presenting around ten parallel exhibitions, of which half are themed group exhibitions extending across vast spaces. Characteristically, technology at the ZKM always serves simultaneously as an exhibition medium and as an exhibit. Here you will find no seductive screen that does not also insist on its own materiality.
In keeping with Weibel’s view of exhibitions as a vibrant stronghold for democracy, a place for experimentation, dialogue and reflection in contrast to the politics and vested interests conveyed through mass media, Latour has been invited to challenge habitual thinking with a so-called “Gedankenausstellung” (thought exhibition). This is Latour’s third stint as a curator at the ZKM, having co-curated Iconoclash in 2002 and Making Things Public in 2005. Reset Modernity! pursues themes that have been theoretical hobbyhorses for Latour ever since he declared, around a quarter of a century ago, that we have never been modern: a rejection of the self-image of the moderns after the dikes between subject and object, culture and nature, values and facts, local and global have collapsed. The exhibition is located within one of the ZKM’s atrium spaces, divided into sections by tall, white partition walls that form the framework of six “procedures” associated with the injunction presented in the title: “Relocalizing the global”; “Without the world or within”; “Sharing responsibility: a farewell to the sublime”; “From lands to disputed territories”; “Secular at last!”; “Innovation not hype”.
Claiming that such a Gedankenausstellung is simply about illustrating theory is somewhat unfair. However, it does not give the impression that art is perceived as a medium for achieving insight and knowledge in its own right, nor does it seem to assign much agency to aesthetic language in itself without charitable curatorial assistance. Even though this may flatter the curator more than he merits, the relationship between theory and art may here be seen in light of Kant’s dictum on concepts and intuitions: “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”. Latour primarily looks to art as a means to aid concepts through intuitions and perceptions. This makes his curating rather confining and often annoyingly didactic. Latour has written an accompanying “field book”, which ensures that visitors read the various constellations within his theoretical framework. It is true that the texts mostly offer hints and glimpses rather than straightforward explanations, sparse enough to ensure that the works themselves only occasionally become redundant. Things could have been worse. Even so, there is a tendency towards Latour taking centre stage with the art itself serving as props.
“Relocalizing the global” opens with the video Powers of Ten (1977), an iconic educational film about relative scales and orders of magnitude in the universe, created by the designers Charles and Ray Eames in co-operation with IBM. From the starting point of the film – a heterosexual couple reclining on a rug in a park – it zooms out by a factor of ten per expansion until the image reaches a distance of 100 light years from Earth, at which point the return journey commences. While zooming in the film lingers briefly at its original starting point and then continues inside the hand of the resting man, down to a molecular level. The smooth transitions from galaxies to atoms establishes a seductive sense of continuity: a fable known as the scientific worldview where a neutral observer travels through the space-times as in a seamless res extensa.
The rest of the procedure is devoted to shedding light on what the representation conceals. Right next to the Eames film is the installation Superpowers of Ten (2013–16) by Andrés Jaque and The Office for Political Innovation. A video shows a performance where Powers of Ten is re-enacted with people and sets. The heterogeneity of the different levels and the breaks of scale become tangible, and the gender bias of the original film is pointed out (why the man’s hand?). Offering a contrast to Eames’s sleek images, the awkward sets from Superpowers of Ten lie scattered between the two videos. The next monitor shows a rougher, sketchlike version of Powers of Ten from 1968, in which the cracks of the montage have not yet been smoothed over. The point is made general: The seemingly neutral depiction of the universe – from macro to micro level – hides a pluriverse of heterogeneous images stitched together. The medium of representation serves to support an ideology of science. A stack of five monitors plays a variety of videos that offer a more accurate image of the sciences: not the polished, popularised results seen in e.g. Eames, but detailed close-up studies of diverse processes that produce facts; what Latour, referencing Donna Haraway, calls situated knowledges.
Latour believes that he finds kindred spirits among artists as regards their shared interest in representation. Art can signal an awareness of its chosen medium that is often absent in science. What is more, Latour’s positive concept of research – which he separates from a positivist ideology of science – also appears to partly include the kind of research conducted on the art scene. The next two procedures seek to connect art history and philosophy of science.
“Without the world or within” takes its point of departure in the claim that art has directed and shaped the Western gaze by creating spectators who observe everything from without, as if through a window frame. According to Latour, this line points ahead to modern epistemology and its strict division between subject and object – observing the world as if you were not in it at the same time. Thomas Struth’s photograph Musée du Louvre IV (1989) quite literally goes behind the back of this set-up, showing a group of museum visitors as they observe Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. A display case next to the work holds a book opened on a page showing Albrecht Dürer’s Underweysung der Messung (1525), in which the device of observation is established as a kind of partition between the observing artist and the observed object – which is, quite tellingly, a woman. Canadian artist Jeff Wall is awarded the honour of completing the reassessment: In Adrien Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Department of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (1992) the artist is shown with a sketchbook while facing a mummified right arm. In this photograph the artist and his subject occupy the same level; there is nothing in the picture as such to distinguish subject from object. Latour believes that if we simply observe what Wall’s picture shows us we can unlearn the projections that modernity has instilled in us. The procedure is completed by the film Leviathan (2012) by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing, following a fishing boat through continuous shifts of perspective between crew, sea, birds, machinery, fish and tackle. Rather than aiming for a total overview, Leviathan shows a sideways movement that follows the flow of the current without privileging any particular perspective on the basis of a traditional distinction between subject and object.
The work of art in the age of the anthropocene
The third procedure, “Sharing responsibility: a farewell to the sublime” takes the reassessment evident in the second procedure to a higher, ecological level. In many ways this is the most interesting section in the exhibition; it is also the one that struggles the most to match its own ambitions. In Kant’s aesthetics, the sublime is described as the awe that a human being can feel when facing the vast forces of nature. To Kant this also involves a realisation of the freedom of human thought, the mind’s ability to go beyond its situation, all while regarding nature as a force to which we are not subject. Latour not only wants to take issue with this separation, but to show that the reverse is in fact true.
Across from two classic depictions of the sublime – Jean-Joseph Baléchou’s La Tempête (1757) and John Martin’s The Deluge (1828) – hangs Fabien Giraud’s unassuming photograph Tout monument est une quarantaine (2012–14). Measuring just 15×20 cm, the photo cuts a solitary, solidly framed figure right in the middle of one of the huge walls. It shows a small heap of radioactive soil resting on a mounted canvas in the forest of Fukushima. The photograph is printed on the same canvas it depicts. The work is in itself radioactive. In this context those aspects almost become a declaration: when there is no longer any “outside” called “nature”, realistic representation requires a unity of motif and material. Not even art can claim to stand outside a system where humanity has become a geophysical force on a par with plate tectonics and meteorites. Like an echo of this declaration, another wall is cut through by Simon Starling’s five hand-made platinum prints, One Ton II (2005), showing identical photographs of a mine in South Africa where the metal used to produce the prints was extracted from one ton of ore.
A weighty enough argument for waving goodbye to the sublime of the Kantian variety. However, the procedure does not include a single work that succeeds in establishing a direct link to the spectator, activating a sense of responsibility and agency. Creating a real sense of the anthropocene, a paradoxical conflation of omnipotence and impotence, would require something like the patchwork between micro (my actions) and macro (the chemical composition of the atmosphere, ocean acidification, the extinction of species, etc.) that was criticised by the first procedure. Given the complexity of the feedback loops of this planet, the dizzying distance between causes and consequences, the ecological cliché about how everything is connected to everything else would have to patch together across vastly different scales and time frames in order to demonstrate how everything is connected. In this part of the exhibition – one senses that it is particularly important to Latour – the prompts and reflections of the field book do not, in fact, find sufficient support in the works themselves.
Not until the final procedure, “Innovation not hype” do we find something approximating what was missing from the third. Unknown Fields Division’s installation Rare Earthenware (2015) shows a display case containing three Ming-like vases. The ceramics are in fact made out of barely liquid mud from a radioactive lake in Inner Mongolia, which has been used as a landfill for toxic wastes from the production of consumer electronics. The sizes of the vases correspond to the waste generated by a laptop, a smartphone and a battery for an electric car. The video next to the display case follows the journey of the rare earth-materials from the point of extraction to production at the Guangdang factory onwards to the landfill. Each link in the process is addressed, accounting for its social and environmental effects; all those unintentional consequences of the cycle of production that are invisible in the final commodity. As a product the commodity represents development. But when its history is unravelled, another picture of modern life emerges: a way of life that has – through technology, industry and markets – become deeply entangled in the planet’s processes.