‘Hell is the cosmos’

Peter Weibel and Bettina Korintenberg, the curators behind the exhibition Critical Zones at ZKM in Karlsruhe, want us to turn our eyes to the earth.

Claudia González Godoy, Hidroscopia Loa, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and ZKM | Karlsruhe. Photo: Elias Siebert.

We do not live on the globe, but in the “critical zone.” This is the central claim made in the exhibition Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics, which opened at ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe this summer. Bettina Korintenberg, who curated the exhibition alongside ZKM’s artistic director, Peter Weibel, describes the critical zone as a thin, complex, and very sensitive biofilm in a state of continuous transformation. If we are to avoid a catastrophic ecological mutation, we will need to become better acquainted with this still-unexplored terrain, they claim.

Critical Zones is the fourth monumental gedankenausstellung (or, ‘thought exhibition’) created by ZKM and Weibel in collaboration with the philosopher Bruno Latour. The format gives Latour an opportunity to elaborate on his theoretical programme in exhibition form. The previous instalment in the series, Reset Modernity! from 2016, dealt with Latour’s by now familiar reassessment of the moderns’ worldview. For more than two years now, the circle around Latour has been collaborating with scientists working on the critical zone. At the end of May this year, ZKM launched a digital conference and exhibition platform, exploring these issues. Originally intended to open at the same time, the exhibition Critical Zones was postponed until the end of July. In October, the book Critical Zones – The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth will be published by MIT Press.

With a background as an artist and media theorist, Weibel has been director of ZKM since 1999. Korintenberg is a cultural theorist and curator associated with ZKM. They set aside time to be interviewed via Zoom and e-mail for a few afternoons in July while setting up the exhibition. In the following conversation, they discuss, among other things, the need for a new definition of progress, the challenge of translating an awareness of endless ecological complexities into action, and the exhibition as a way of bridging the gap between art and science.

Director of ZKM Peter Weibel during the virtual opening of the exhibition Critical Zones. Photo: Felix Grünschloss.

Marie-Alix Isdahl Voisin: Our current forms of knowledge and aesthetics have proven incapable of enacting effective behavioural change in face of the climate crisis: we are aware of our problem, but seemingly not able to do much about it. Why, in your opinion, are we experiencing such a deadlock, and how are we to overcome it?

Peter Weibel: The first thing we have to do is to think beyond the concept of “climate crisis.” The term ‘climate crisis’ is the pretext for our current idea about the planet, which is wrong. We think we live surrounded by the climate, by temperature, clouds, and humidity, and that there is something wrong with the environment. This idea means we do not have to change our attitude towards the Earth. From the Enlightenment, we have inherited the idea that the human being is on the top of a hierarchy, and that we are not dependant on others. The view of the critical zone forces us to think of how the human lives situated in a thin skin, entangled with microbes, animals, and plants. The planet wouldn’t function without the critical zone. Solar winds would swipe the Earth and make it look like the moon. We have always been looking upwards, up to heaven, and perceived what is underneath us as hell. But hell is the cosmos – it’s cold, nothing to live from, no oxygen. What we see as hell, what is underneath us, is what we have to live from. So we have to redirect our vision and look down on Earth, towards the soil – this is why Latour and I are talking about the metaphor of landing. The modern project has been in flight, unconcerned by planetary limits, but it has to become earthly again if it wishes to land without crashing.

Bettina Korintenberg: If you ask someone to think of the Earth, most people immediately evoke the image of the globe – an astronomical body with a grid of longitude and latitude. This image subordinates the complexity of the Earth in a universal, unifying, and superficial system. The globe as a reference to define our human relationship to the Earth means that we position ourselves outside of the ecosystem – we imagine ourselves in a position of distance and domination. However, this is an impossible point of view as we are left suspended in nowhere. This powerful image has informed our understanding of where we live. It is an icon of modernity—a view which indeed, leads into a deadlock provoking profound disorientation.

Curator at ZKM Bettina Korintenberg during the virtual opening of the exhibition Critical Zones. Photo: Felix Grünschloss.

MIV: With the exhibition, you propose that we should see the Earth as a network of observatories situated in the critical zone. Can you give an example of one such observatory and how it works?

PW: The critical zone is in itself a network of observatories. An example of an observatory is water. A water surface contains lots of tiny insects. If the life span of these insects decreases dramatically, the water surface can tell us that the water is poisonous. The water speaks to us. The scientists in the growing field of critical zone studies have invented instruments and sensors which can observe such miniature events which can tell us what is going on in the critical zone. It’s not the best, and it is not yet complete, but with this exhibition, we have for the first time attempted to make a full-scale mapping of the critical zone.

BK: When you enter the exhibition space, you enter a Critical Zone Observatory like the one you will find at Aubure in Alsace [FR], on a reduced scale. As a visitor, you are confronted with a landscape that has nothing to do with the picture of an idyllic landscape you are used to perceiving. There are no trees, no river, no hills, but measuring instruments which render visible a different kind of territory. This shift in perception makes it necessary that you dedicate yourself to understand step by step a variety of geochemical, geological, and biological processes interacting together to form this landscape. The observatory as a principle of perception and attitude challenges us not to apply abstract concepts or previous assumptions, but to be attentive to a specific situation. To monitor transformations occurring at a particular site on Earth can make you understand not only local, but also global effects and interconnections.

MIV: And what is the role and position of the viewer here?

BK: This shift I am talking about does not mean to build up a new utopia based on an abstract idea of a genius human mind. To live inside the Critical Zone means to open yourself up to a new kind of sensitivity and understanding of the various entanglements and co-dependencies of all life-forms, including humans. And without the guarantee that these life forms or processes are a given and will be there forever because they are in constant transformation.

Otobong Nkanga, The Weight of Scars, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and ZKM | Karlsruhe. Photo: Elias Siebert.

MIV: What specific political strategies, or responsibilities, arise from this insight of everything being connected with everything?

PW: The climate problem is, above all, a political problem. Today, we have the science of critical zones; we have Lynn Margulis’s ideas about the symbiotic planet, we have [James] Lovelock’s Gaia-hypothesis, and we have the earth system sciences. What we have to do is to turn it into a political movement to arrive at a new earthly politics. Now that the ZKM is an observatory, it is no longer a museum where people come to look at artworks as trophies; the visitors are taking part in the experimenting and development of the ideas we are presenting. We have created a questionnaire asking the visitors what we should do, in what we can call field research, to explore how to turn the exhibition into political action.

MIV: The exhibition positions itself on the borders of science and art, or rather, presents science in the context of an art museum. Like several projects that address ecology and global warming, the idea seems to be that there is something more to be found in this intersection that is of importance. What is it?

PW: I think we are heading into a new era where scientists and artists have the same tools: computers. They have different problems and different approaches to their problems, but they are in the same area of tools. This situation is a prerequisite of real democracy. The change in the technology of sound and image alters the possibilities of art, and it changes the options of how art interacts with its audience. Today, wealthy collectors dominate the market and define what a good painting is and what is not a good painting. Museums no longer play a role. We have to invent a new public sphere of the museum beyond the market. It is not the case yet, but it is my goal. Science, on the other hand, is not bound by a market in this sense; it is a community, which receives millions in public funding, but has no visitors. CERN is an example. There is a gap between science and art, but we can close it by making art and science converge on different levels within the museum.

MIV: When the pandemic prevented you from opening the exhibition to the public earlier this year, you created a digital exhibition platform and streaming conference with the show as a backdrop. Donna Haraway, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and others participated via Zoom. Will you stick to this new format from now on?

PW: With the pandemic, we have had to learn some new forms of presentation. You usually have a catalogue, but no visitors ever read the catalogue! Now, thousands of viewers can see people like Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers explain their ideas live, and they can continue these conversations in our Telegram group. The museum, as a public sphere, has been expanded. The link between the press and the audience is broken since the media has excluded art. So, the museum must become its own medium.

Sarah Sze, Flash Point (Timekeeper), 2018. Courtesy the artist and ZKM | Karlsruhe. Photo: Elias Siebert.

BK: The Critical Zone became a conceptual starting point for the digital platform. The artworks, texts, and various content elements of the exhibition react with each other over time and create a generative space. The users’ movements and actions are a factor in the recomposition of the interface and its evolution. For us, it was essential to think the digital platform not as a substitute for the physical exhibition, as it is impossible to mimic the bodily experience of art which intended for a physical space.

MIV: The ruins of the climate crisis in which we are currently living are said to not only force us to re-evaluate the central role of the human in the modern project, but the very notion of progress, which has also shaped the sciences. Can you imagine a science beyond the idea of progress?

PW: Bruno Latour thinks I believe too much in science…

MIV: Do you?

PW: My hero is the famous Austrian scientist Boltzmann. He said the most practical thing is a scientific theory. You can have several theoretical models about the same phenomena that can be proven right by verification with empirical experiments. But they don’t necessarily go together in a larger unified model. Scientific theories are like tools.

I don’t think we have to condemn this idea of progress. We have to go back to the roots of progress and find out what progress means and for whom. In my opinion, progress must be what degrees of freedom we have, but not only for the individual. Freedom was always bound to the individual. Your freedom ends when you enter the space of the freedom of the other. This is problematic. When you go to the opera in Zurich, a sign says, please leave it as you want to find it. But if an anarchist visits this opera, they want to destroy it because they think we should destroy all opera houses. You enter a toilet, and a sign says, please leave the bathroom as you want to find it. But then you have people with fetishes where they want to smear it with shit. They left it as they wish to find it. This shows the paradoxes of the idea of freedom for the bounded individual. Instead, we must come up with a sense of progress that implies that the individual must take into account the freedom of the other.

MIV: And this could also be the freedom of an ocean, a river? How would it work in practice?

PW: Yes, or a machine. Finding out exactly how to do this is a tough task. But we have to do it; otherwise, we won’t be able to survive on this planet.

Uriel Orlow, Soil Affinities, 2018–2020. Courtesy of the artist, VG Bild-Kunst, 2020 and ZKM | Karlsruhe. Photo: Elias Siebert.