“Maybe the gigantic stadiums and opera houses are the Pharaoh’s tombs of the future,” Peter Weibel wrote in March, “extravagant, bizarre works of architecture that were built with the knowledge that the entertainment forms of a society based on presence were already on the brink of extinction, and that they would soon become redundant.” It sounded like a gloomy prophecy from the “artistic-scientific chairman” and CEO of ZKM | Center for Art and Media, an institution that presides over a 15,000 square metre exhibition complex in Karlsruhe in Southern Germany. If coronavirus spells the demise of physical mass audiences, we might envisage the former munitions factory reverting to its old activities rather than idling as a pyramid-esque remnant of a culture left behind.
But Weibel’s remark was hardly intended as a pre-emptive eulogy for his own workplace, nor was it simply a contribution to the doomsday choir that accompanied the pandemic outbreak. His point was that the long heralded tele-society truly became our reality once we were placed in isolation. Considering that all cultural activities had to undergo a transition to the digital realm, we may ask what long-term effects a year or two of virtual exhibitions and tele-transferred events might have. Visionary innovators are surely going to take the format to new levels; others will follow their lead. Monastic life under shutdown has brought about numerous digital experiments in being together that are already changing how we make communities. These changes could be so sweeping that an art world and a cultural public space post-coronavirus might look nothing like the situation pre-coronavirus. Weibel’s prophecy also goes together with a crucial topic for Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics, ZKM’s virtual exhibition and streaming conference, which opened on the weekend 22 to 24 of May: Why should art institutions be accountable for all the shameful flight emissions to gather theorists and artists at a physical location, if every corner of the global village can come together at a Zoom conference?
Critical Zones is the fourth instalment in ZKM’s series of “thought exhibitions” curated by the French philosopher of science Bruno Latour, who this fall will be taking his curatorial career a step further as head of the Taipei Biennale. His freshly opened exhibition at ZKM gets its title from a growing interdisciplinary scientific field which studies the thin veneer enveloping the globe with conditions favourable to biological life. The idea is that, strictly speaking, we don’t live on planet Earth, but inside a wafer-thin membrane called the critical zone, where the biological enters an intricate interplay with geophysical and chemical processes. Life is only possible within this fragile web of interconnections that traverses the hydrosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere, and includes the organisms themselves. Having spent a few decades reconceptualising what we usually refer to as nature, Latour has now embraced this notion of a complex system of overlapping spheres; he regards the critical zone as another name for what chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis in a long-running struggle for scientific recognition have been advocating as the Gaia hypothesis. Like ZKM’s previous thought exhibitions, Critical Zones can be considered as enlightenment, but in a way that invites conversation. Latour’s grand idea is that these encounters between scientific, theoretical, and artistic resources are of urgent importance to the enormous survival project humans are faced with.
When it became clear that Critical Zones had to delay its opening indefinitely, ZKM took a forward approach. Waiting for doors to reopen, it set about making a digital edition of the exhibition, complete with a three-day opening programme comprising lectures, screenings, and talks. The museum was transformed into a broadcasting station, sketching the contours of a possible future according to Weibel. Ambitions were matched by an impressive list of conference participants, which aside from Latour included Donna Haraway, Vinciane Despret, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Simon Schaffer, Eyal Weizman, and many others.
Changing the opening to a broadcast runs into some obvious limitations. One thing is what kind of exhibition experience can be had without bodily presence in a three-dimensional space. Another thing is the fact that the entire programme unfolds in the same format as the rest of ‘coronalife’. You have to endure the same technical hiccups in already-stale video conferences. And you have to endure the same domestic distractions: while Jan Zalasiewicz, the high-profile spokesperson for the Anthropocene at the International Commission on Stratigraphy, talked about the mass death of insects, a damned fly buzzed in front of my screen and triggered murderous impulses. But you get used to it, and by day two of the opening it’s possible to gaze into Weibel’s crystal ball and say, “yes, this already works so well that it might have irreversible consequences for the event-heavy contemporary art world.” Because it also opens up new possibilities. Whereas a normal ZKM opening hardly gathers more than 1,000 people, the broadcast version can boast that it reached ten times that around the world.
Naturally, some art events are more suited to going digital than others, and Latour’s thought exhibition can partly make up for the loss of physical spatiality with clever effects unique to virtual space. In the digital edition, Critical Zones includes functions intended to stimulate reflexivity among its viewers/users. Rather than stroll and stop, you scroll and click, and your movements are registered and fed back into a system that constantly changes according to your explorations. An algorithm ensures that the discrete visual works are continuously reconfigured by the impact obliviously exerted by the platform’s visitors; the works enter ever-shifting connections with one another, as a meta-mimicry of the critical zone they’re making visible. Of course, the virtualisation relies on works that are made of a material measurable in bytes. But there are also some modifications that halfway compensate for the exhibition being reduced from three to two dimensions. For instance, the 360-degree video works Atmospheric Forest (Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits, 2019) and Topography-Time-Volcano (Andrés Burbano and Karen Holmberg, 2018–2020) are equipped with an interactive click and drag function, which at least recreates some of the immersion in the critical zone that you’ll surely experience when the physical exhibition opens.
The exhibition’s leitmotif is the observatory, which emerges as a unifying figure for the whole project. As both a concept and a technical-material apparatus for understanding our role in the critical zone, the observatory crosses from scientists’ fieldwork and data collection, via artistic inventions of new ways of seeing, to theoretical reflections on how technological monitoring and sensors are making the planet self-observing, as it were. One of the conference’s main questions was how the enhanced sensation that renders the critical zone visible might be accompanied by political and ethical sensitisation. The works of Donna Haraway and Vinciane Despret, who participated from their respective homes in California and Belgium, suggest that the road to planetary care must go through the more finely tuned sensitivity of that which is closest to us, across species boundaries.
One reason why ZKM has hurried to transfer the project to the digital platform is the highly resonant connections between the subject of Critical Zones and the pandemic itself. COVID-19 has forcefully made clear how civilisational complexity is synonymous with fragility. As this revelation of complexity and fragility unfolds, Critical Zones enters our homes to insist that the virus is but a portent of what’s to come. As we’ve now been forced to refresh our knowledge of microbes and discuss strategies on how to prevent exponential spread, we may as well keep going and get familiar with insects and pollination, phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, and hydrospheric and atmospheric chemistry, because the human life form is inescapably entangled in these processes, and in such ways that the conditions for life itself are being pushed to breaking point. In this sense, Latour and company give an encouraging salute to all the laypeople who got engaged in epidemiology more or less overnight. Critical Zones tells us that we’re on the right track, but that there’s an enormous task ahead if we are to avert the next looming disasters.