ESSAYS Mousse 43

Worldly Worlding: The Imaginal Fields of Science/Art and Making Patterns Together

by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev


Claire Pentecost, notebook #3 (tardigrade), 2011. Courtesy: the artist Claire Pentecost, notebook #3 (tardigrade), 2011. Courtesy: the artist 


Drawing inspiration from the “Klein bottle”, a non-orientable surface in which notions of right and left cannot be defined, and inside and outside seem to switch places, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev invites us to reflect on how the dissolution of the canonical sphere of art and its regrouping with other arenas of life and fields of knowledge could today offer a fruitful alternative to the process that has led, in the last thirty years, to the exponential financialization and corporatization of the historically determined field of contemporary art. The author’s approach, which reformulates pre-Socratic Greek thought in light of ethology, feminist science, Arte Povera and the analysis of animal behavior, proposes a sort of “humbleness about human involvement”, championing a neocybernetic, ecological perspective focused on pleasure, imagination, and playfulness, joined to a sense of justice, and a more open, hybrid approach to collecting and presenting art.


In this article, I would like to question how we can (not) define artistic practice and research, and further, to suggest how exhibits based on the accepted separation of fields of enquiry—between the various physical and social sciences and art—could be re-imagined for the purpose of a more worldly ecology, co-evolution and flourishing of all forms of life on the planet.

The most obvious reason for this is that while most artists are interested in dealing with the world at large through their embodied “amatorial” artistic, social and discursive practices, even in their most inward-looking or most exquisitely crafted artworks and projects, many curators, art critics and exhibition or collection-makers do not share their openness: instead, most of these practitioners “cut” the work of the artists “off” from the world at large in order to protect it, in what continues to be a Duchampian nominalist mode: they harness artistic practice through a system of signs and display, and within a specific genealogy and history of art, even when they are working with political art. (“It is art because the artist and ‘I’ position it systemically within that field”, they might say.) To me, this does not make much sense anymore, certainly not in terms of a worldly (Donna Haraway) alliance (Susan Buck-Morss) of cosmopolitical (Isabelle Stengers) intra-acting (Karen Barad) and cobbled-together (Haraway) human and non-human agents (Bruno Latour).

In the introduction to his seminal 1950 The Story of Art, which even today is one of the two or three most widely read art history books (from a Eurocentric perspective) to have been written in the twentieth century, Austrian-born British art historian Ernst H. Gombrich (1909-2001) wrote, “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists. Once these were men who took colored earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the wall of a cave; today, some buy their paints, and design posters for hoardings; they did and do many other things. There is no harm in calling all these activities art as long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realize that Art with a capital A has no existence.”[1]

The German sociologist, philosopher of aesthetics and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno (1903–69), known since the 1930s for his praise of the autonomous artistic avant-garde based on a form of “critical theory” and on the critique of modern consumerism and its “culture industry”,[2] in his late Aesthetic Theory of 1968, took the even more radical path of undermining all possible a prioris through a form of skeptical, open-ended critical thought he called negative dialectics, aimed at recognizing the uncertainty of any form of constituted knowledge, including the field we call Art. He wrote: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist (…) Art must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept, and thus become uncertain of itself right into its innermost fiber (…) Because art is what it has become, its concept refers to what it does not contain. The tension between what motivates art and art’s past circumscribes the so-called questions of aesthetic constitution.”[3]

These two references remind me that the field of contemporary art is historically determined and not as universal as today’s overlapping, parallel, competing and often contrasting art worlds might all still wish us to believe. (This may be the only common ground all these different art worlds share—the idea that something called contemporary art exists.) It is not even to be taken for granted that it has ever existed except as a constructed fantasy and extension of Modern art, nor that it will exist forever. I am aware that within the Western avant-garde tradition, the “end of art” has been declared a number of times, most notably in the late 1960s and 1970s, calling for the dissolution of “high art” into a generalized aesthetic society and revolutionary, communist life (Herbert Marcuse, Giulio Carlo Argan), but what I am discussing here differs somewhat from that proposition.

The notion of contemporary art as a series of objects (whether material or immaterial; whether sculptures, installations, paintings, performances, films and videos, actions or gestures, transversal systems of engagement, or even symbolic and meaningful forms of life and research) that represent or embody a contemporary (cum tempore / “with time”) moment in the development of a human society, primarily emerged in the mid-twentieth century after the drama of World War II, the Holocaust, and the atom bomb. It was the heyday of phenomenology and existentialism; we were able to apprehend time as instants, occurrences, a flow of single, unique, sometimes catastrophic events through which we understood our “being” as a hic et nunc (Sein und Zeit, Martin Heidegger would say). Contemporary art developed as a concept around 1950, growing out of the European avant-garde idea of a radical, revolutionary abolition of the divide between art and life in the “here and now” of experience, eloquently described by Peter Bürger in his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974). This had been present as a trope since the late nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movements, and Alain Badiou described it as one of the twentieth century’s main underlying concepts in The Century (2005). Yet the idea and field of contemporary art also emerged from the apparently opposite European notion of the autonomy of the modern work of “high” art, which began to develop in the eighteenth century. According to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his Critique of Judgment (1790) and Johann Winckelmann (1716-1768), among others, art is a purposeless yet intentional imitation of the beauty of “nature” by the “creative genius”; while “natural beauty” is made by “nature” without awareness nor aesthetic intention, and often for a purpose. For the rising bourgeoisie, art was the opposite, necessary contemplative counterpart to the purposeful and useful products of industry, even when aesthetic criteria were applied in the latter’s design. This is also akin to Georg W. F. Hegel’s notion that art offers the way towards “aesthetic freedom”, which relates to our current view of art also being a form of play (Donald Winnicott), which radically redirects the rules of a functional system to use those rules differently, disregarding their original purpose. This idea started with the same generation that created modern parliamentary democracy and the Enlightenment; in my opinion, it arose because they were a society of makers (at the dawn of industrialization and the market economy) and at the same time, a society of thinkers who needed to develop their sphere of ‘reflection’ as a counterpoint to producing. They needed a non-useful activity as a counterpoint to useful activities. So the useful activity, in terms of leisure, is the “non-useful” activity, hence the idea of the autonomy of art. This notion of the autonomy of art that actually does serve an important purpose—to mark and embody our time of leisure and contemplation—is generally still accepted today, especially among collectors, and is at the origin of some current working definitions of artistic practice. For example, the tautological notion that an artist examines how perception is transformed into knowledge by using the subject matter itself as the means of investigation (exploring color through color, representation through representation, gesture through gesture, sociality through social activities and so on) turns art into a kind of practical embodied philosophy that employs a non-verbal “language”. When philosophers examine a physical, material phenomenon such as a jug, they will employ words and language, even to deal with the jug as a vessel. Artists would explore the same question by making a jug and perhaps even pouring something into it.

Both the autonomy of modern art and the heteronomy of avant-garde “art joined to life” are, however, two sides of the same modern coin (purposeless/purposeful), and are contingent on the apriority of the “special” nature of “aesthetic freedom” and on accepting that a field called Art exists.

Yet human fields of study and knowledge are historically determined. Anthropology and sociology were not around in the Middle Ages. There was philosophy in the classical era, but no psychoanalysis. The field of alchemy no longer exists, and instead we have chemistry and quantum mechanics, studying entanglement. While in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, medicine and psychology separated the study of brain and mind, today neuroscience merges anatomy, physiology, psychiatry, digital MRI and psychological testing. In museums of natural science, human bodies were only separated from the bodies of other animals in the early twentieth century, when the zoology museum split off from the so-called museum of anthropology or ethnology. At the time, this separation (which we now take for granted, balking at the sight of old-fashioned collections where it has not been made) was considered a revolutionary humanist act; an anti-colonial, anti-Eurocentric stance opposed to the previous, ideologically-determined racism that allowed for “primitive” people’s remains to be exhibited alongside those of a bug or a snake. Today, we might be inclined to move in the opposite direction and do away with the split between human and non-human (although from a completely different standpoint that makes no exception for Western, Northern, “white” cultures). As more and more biological research is done on a molecular and sub-molecular level, and even sub-atomic level, we see how all materials and sentient beings intra-act; they touch each other as they touch themselves, and come into the world through this touching, rather than previous to it (Karen M. Barad). Indeed, the broad division and classification of species and sub-species seem less fruitful, less topical and less useful than studying endosymbiotic evolutionary processes across species, across the mind/body, nature/culture and even plant/animal divide (Lynn Margulis).

In short, most people who live in a specific historical period think that everything they experience is eternal. If we were ancient Egyptians, we would think that our pharaonic political system was the best, and bound to last forever. Today most people in the North of the world think that their system based on representational parliamentary democracy and universal suffrage is the best, and bound to last forever. It is hard to imagine anything different. But actually, the modes of living, political systems and discourses underlying the way we collect and exhibit knowledge change all the time (Michel Foucault).

Anthropologist Alfred Gell, in his 1992 essay “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology”,[4] notes that social anthropology rarely studies art nowadays because the concept of art as we still use it is fundamentally based on a belief in “universal aestheticism” that is actually ethnocentric and only relative to Western art history. (I would extend his argument and add that it’s also based on a notion of “human exceptionalism” that is speciesist, to use a neologism that originated in the 1970s: privileging humanity over the other inhabitants of the planet [Richard Ryder, Peter Singer, Marc Bekoff, Vinciane Despret].) While traditional religious belief waned during the Modern age, making religion an object of study for social anthropology based on “methodological atheism”, art on the other hand became, according to Gell (and according to Brian O’Doherty in Inside the White Cube,[5] written years earlier), the new religion of our times; because the same intellectuals who do social anthropology also believe in Art, it is not possible for them to study the field of art from without, using a form of “methodological philistinism”, as a social anthropologist would say: “this willingness to place ourselves under the spell of all manner of works of art, though it contributes very much to the richness of our cultural experience, is paradoxically the major stumbling block in the path to the anthropology of art, the ultimate aim of which must be the dissolution of art, in the same way that the dissolution of religion, politics, economics, kinship, and all other forms under which human experience is presented to the socialized mind, must be the ultimate aim of anthropology in general.” From this standpoint, art criticism is basically to art what theology is to religion—a sort of discourse by believers, for believers. Although Gell had a rather traditional modernist idea of what artistic practice was or could be, I believe his view still holds true even for the most critical, deconstructive or relational practices in contemporary art—even the most politically radical, activist art project is still grounded in a fundamental apriorism: that emerges from the path of Modern and contemporary “Art”, somehow consciously identifying itself as a distant cousin or grandchild of Manet, even if and when it goes against that legacy. Gell proposes seeing artworks not as the ends or aims of an art-making process, but rather as the means, or tools—forms of “re-enchanted technology” that have a use-value. This idea of “art as agency”, and artworks as enchanted tools, helps us to rethink the field, perhaps in consonance with other fields with which worldly alliances could be forged.

In the late twentieth century, with the rise of digital culture and life, the opposition between the two impulses (the autonomy of art and the avant-garde elimination of all distinction between art and life) waned and blurred, as daily life itself became mediated and the real and the symbolic progressively merged into an abstract world of language, numbers and cyborgs. Occasionally called “postmodernism” at the time, the virtual world, just like language, gained more and more of our affect, time and experience.


Claire Pentecost, notebook #11 (testate amoeba), 2012. Courtesy: the artist Claire Pentecost, notebook #11 (testate amoeba), 2012. Courtesy: the artist 


Another parallel process occurred during globalization: with more and more interconnectedness and travel, contemporary art was “globalized”, and began to be made even in areas where the Western tradition described above had no historical roots prior to the 1970s or 1980s, except for places where alternate modernities had been forged during periods of national anticolonial movements in the early twentieth century. This had a double-sided effect: on the one hand, art became a tool in the so-called democratization (actually financialization and Westernization) of many parts of the world, though this was not the intention of the artists practicing and traveling in the global biennale circuit. It helped foster shared cultural playing fields in which to test out hybrids and archipelagos, forms of métissage that might avoid competitive cultural conflict. Yet to be “included” in this field, the apriorism of “universal aestheticism” and its descendants discussed by Gell had to be accepted, and was indeed accepted in many urban contexts; this worked to the detriment and isolation of everything cultural that didn’t seem to fit in with that assumption, including “indigenous” or “tribal” non-contemporary artistic practices, which the contemporary art world relegated to the status of modern-day remnants of the “primitive” arts, primarily made for anthropologists, for the tourist market, or for collectors with orientalist or primitivist inclinations (such as traditional Aboriginal painting done in the Central Desert or Arnhem Land in Australia, which was not accepted into most art exhibitions and museum collections).

At this stage, by the early 2000s, the economy of the West had drawn the entire world into a digitally interconnected, global financial network, and the products of labor that were exchanged became progressively more immaterial, to the degree that we now live in the era of what is familiarly called “knowledge capitalism” (Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 2000; Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, 2004; Franco Berardi aka Bifo; Maurizio Lazzarato; etc.). The economic world in this post-industrial age was progressively financialized, with the rise of stock exchanges, the detachment of the gold standard from “money”, and the quoting on the stock exchange of things that had never been quoted before, such as food, in the 1990s and 2000s. Food corporations, and seeds, started to become areas of investment. And this financialization of food itself was a disaster: during the financial crisis, its price couldn’t be allowed to decrease too much, so in 2008, despite a world surplus of wheat production and food being thrown away, there was famine (as artist Claire Pentecost has noted).

Because people living under the current technological normative regime felt the disembodiment of the virtual world, they needed to hang onto “things”. Concrete objects of art, whether videos (considered concrete when projected in a room), paintings, sculptures, installations or performances, began to take on a great importance and aura, contrary to the idea that the aura was lost with the technological reproduction of artwork, and the development of photography and the moving image in the 1920s and 1930s, when Walter Benjamin was writing. We are now in quite the opposite mode: because of the disembodied nature of numérisation, as the French would say—meaning transformation both into numbers and into bytes—there is a need for embodied objects and things. This explains the quick rise of speculative realism or object-based ontologies in the mid-2000s, a swing away from constructivist discursive and subjectivist positions (from Kant to Jacques Derrida) toward neo-realist positions (Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux). So there is a dual nature (both material and immaterial, concept and thing, symbolic and real) that is embodied in the so-called artwork, as defined by contemporary art, and this dual nature makes it the perfect product for exchange today. That shift, which began in the mid-1980s with the rise of the art fairs and auction houses (which had existed for a long time, but not in the same fashion), and the consequential financialization of the field of contemporary art increased exponentially with globalization from the 1990s onwards, and has radically changed the art world over the last 30 years. Possessing information about trends in art, exhibitions, the names of new artists and their bodies of work became synonymous with possessing knowledge, possessing creativity, possessing mysterious artifacts with the magic potential to join the real and symbolic orders, to be matter, innovation and immaterial concept, all at the same time. In this environment, contemporary art became an incredible symbol of knowledge and of the power of curatorial ability—the ability to find, retrieve and meaningfully organize through numbers an overflow of digital information about artists, artworks and… numbers! Consequently, there has been an increase in collecting, in curating, and in the activities of the art market. A certain number of people have entered the world of art solely as an investment or primarily as a question of social status, people who did not previously find it glamorous. An early example of an endeavor to harness this new art investment environment was the APT—Artists’ Pension Trust (unmasked by artist Walid Raad on a number of occasions). From this perspective, art entered the stage of becoming an investment, in ways that had never previously existed (though there had always been some speculation, more in the ancient than the contemporary field). Some artists, like Damien Hirst, were well aware of this and played along (the auction of his works two weeks prior to the September 2008 financial crisis is a case in point).


Claire Pentecost, notebook #2 (stalked ciliate), 2012 Courtesy: the artistClaire Pentecost, notebook #2 (stalked ciliate), 2012 Courtesy: the artist


To dissolve the boundaries between the various disciplines and fields, it may be necessary, first of all, to make the “industry” more fragile, less predictable, so that it can open up again, become less geared toward productivity at all costs, and recover a space of reflection; especially because the financialization of art creates artificial bubbles, forms of speculation that reduce its diversity, like any ecosystem whose biodiversity is impoverished by the corporate control of life and its seeds (both literal and metaphorical—Vandana Shiva)[6]. Business measures quality according to different parameters than philosophy or poetry do, with different time frames and objectives. Artworks have become objects of investment and gained in trading “value” insofar as they are real/symbolic entities or objects of cobbled-together agency, although it seems we are only at the start of this shift. Art has been “taken over by the capitalist regime, as desire was taken over” (Bifo).

To disrupt this, it occurs to me that we may need to shake everything up a bit, and start afresh.

The current “system” avoids coming to terms with many current activist artistic practices that are “dropping out” of the art market, intentionally retreating and withdrawing from what has become a stifling and inhospitable field; it ignores the transnational alliances between art and other fields, as well as complaints from critically-minded artists who fragilize the field from within, or wonder whether it could be redefined in new cosmopolitical aggregations. It also ignores the critical artistic practice that uses all this as a space for post-conceptual investigation of power structures in the digital age, and for whom the entire system of art fairs, collections, exhibitions, art advisors and artworks is one huge simulacrum to be observed, analyzed, deconstructed and critiqued, in the name of aesthetic freedom. When participation, free time, leisure, play and aesthetic pleasure, detached from worldly concerns of justice and flourishing, became products of our financial system, then activist art for some artists became a way to drop out of the current art system, as well as the 24/7 lifestyle (Alexei Penzin, Jonathan Crary), using art as a means rather than an end, and dropping into (rather than out of) the world. Another approach is not to “drop out”, but to shift perspective and reconfigure one’s interactions and alliances, telling different stories, engaging researchers in many fields. I celebrate incoherence, uncertainty, and the condition of the maybe, of testing ideas as I go along, of creating alliances with non-human forms to create a trans-species flourishing that is difficult to invest in and harness. To embrace creativity, or to consider it from a broader perspective than the human one alone. In an act of almost spiritual perspective on what compassion might mean, and what being together with, or thinking together with, might mean. To recognize that human forms of knowledge are only a very small part of the knowledge that is constantly being shared and co-evolving through intra-actions. It is important for me to adopt a few other a priori principles: that the flourishing of life on the planet is a good thing, and that looking at naturecultures from a third-party human perspective which would see them as forms of “animism” (paradoxically, betraying an anthropocentric viewpoint that would see as naïve any human endeavor to translate, mimic or relate with non-human cultures) would only repeat the problem one is attempting to address (Anselm Franke).

But why would disrupting the economy of art be a good thing? Don’t artists need sustenance, and don’t curators need the funds to produce and display art? Aren’t artworks the creation of our legacy? The past for our future, through which we will understand our era, and help those who will come after us understand it? And how will we function without these forms of support? One reason for attempting this is because for something to enter into the system, it must be subjected to the disciplinary norms of capitalist regulation, and the corporatization of art limits a fundamental ability, faculty, or need of humans and non-humans alike: the drive to live life, understand and re-imagine the world, and enter into dialogue with other makers of the world, translating what they do into their “civilizations” and their forms of architecture, art, agriculture (Atta ants developed an agricultural society based on growing and harvesting food millions of years before humans did), and so on. Culture, poetry, dance: these are not activities limited to humans, and I would extend our field of “art” to include the patterns of plants and peacocks, the dams built by beavers, the elaborate architecture of bees and termites, the games of seduction and mimicry that flowers and animals play together. Other beings have desires and intentions; they dream and love. The fundamental activity of all life, of all sentient entities in the world, has come under a kind of threat—of extinction, even, I would say.

While some art thinkers are attempting to critique systems and power structures that the virtual world strengthens through surveillance over the public and private spheres of people’s lives (the NSA, etc.), and while technology and neuroscience are being applied by industry to develop more and more sophisticated artificial intelligence and robotics, I argue instead (as I also argued with dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012) for a broader vision of the situation, and for alliances between art and organic life, new materialisms, and scientific studies, so that forms of art and forms of life can be combined, sharing architectural and creative knowledge with bees and butterflies and beavers, with bacteria and microbes, with eukaryotic cells as well as with software; cobbling together desires, sensibilities and abilities on a par with the microcosmic world within our bodies and the macrocosmic “music of the spheres” in a multi-species dimension, extending the “we” to all living sentient beings (Margulis, Tristan Garcia). This neocybernetic, ecological perspective is committed to pleasure, imagination, sensuality, expression, and play, joined to a sense of justice in the world, foregrounding diversity, complexity, depth, appreciation, equanimity, and compassion, rather than the depletion of the world’s potential, stupidity, fascism, extinction, monoculture, unhappiness, fear, conflict, suicide, the death drive, and the exercise of hoarding, control, and power. This is not a “naturistic” backlash against the urban or the artificial, a turn which would simply be neo-Romantic, even detrimental to the scope of becoming-with, and of doing so outside the frames of current production/distribution/finance systems. It is not that I celebrated “Nature” in some neo-Romantic way in dOCUMENTA (13). It’s more that there is no difference between nature and culture. Even a painting is made of subatomic particles that go through certain reactions in space. So a painting is not exactly a human-made thing, but the fruit of combined agencies (Latour). It is only partially a human-made thing. Anything that’s in the world comes from something else, so everything is culture, or everything is nature, depending on how you wish to define these words.

Taking part in a flourishing world means taking part in naturecultures where stories are told and translated (what does the bee dance say? how do photons dance?) so that other stories may be told (Haraway). And the people we call “artists” forge stories so that other stories (not of catastrophe, or conflict, but of worldliness) can be told. What the people we call “artists” do will continue to be done, of course, in many different ways, but the field itself, its discourse, as the art of the “now”, of “our time”, is not a given. As a matter of fact, different aggregations of humans and non-humans may develop into fields we have no names for today.

Dissolving the canonical field of art and re-aggregating with others is also rather normal in the digital age: there is no good reason why we should be able to have multiple tags on the internet, but not in life on the ground, below the Cloud, in our museum displays. Standard disciplinary fields have weakened in our internet age because it has become easier and easier to look all sorts of things up on the web; we can google or wikipedia almost anything, it seems; we can learn how to grow pot, leaven bread, or do quantum physics. While highly separated sectors continue to exist in universities and art institutions, this already seems to clash with how we negotiate different fields of knowledge in our daily lives on the web, and collections and museums could try to reflect a more hybridized mode of collecting and exhibiting as well.

So the figure that comes to my mind, in this illogical rambling, is the Klein bottle.

The mathematical object called the Klein bottle was first described in 1882 by German mathematician Felix Klein. The Klein bottle is an example of “a non-orientable surface; informally, it is a surface (a two-dimensional manifold) in which notions of left and right cannot be consistently defined. Other related non-orientable objects include the Möbius strip and the real projective plane. Whereas a Möbius strip is a surface with boundary, a Klein bottle has no boundary (for comparison, a sphere is an orientable surface with no boundary).”[7] It is a distracted thing, a structure where inside and outside can switch places, as an image for a “distracted exhibition”. Also, it speaks to how an interior space (the exhibition) can create a different exterior in relation to itself. In this 3D Möbius strip, there is a container (outside), a contained (inside), and an uncontainable (neither of the two).

In this Klein bottle, which could be a model for an exhibition, or for a variety of new museum displays, I would like you to focus on how objects function in relation to the experience of being within and without the field of art, in a space of co-presence of elements found in the world, made in the world, expressions of agencies cobbled together—witnessing and wit(h)nessing (Bracha Ettinger) each other. It is a question of understanding that we dance together with the elements, and there is no “I”, or human “we”. We ourselves are made up of billions and trillions of small components that each have their own intelligence, whether it’s a cell or something smaller, a subatomic particle. So even the “we” doesn’t quite exist. It exists as a provisional, fragile equilibrium of coalescence between different things. And how that “we”, which has a multiplicity in itself, is constantly acting together with all the other makers of the world, animate and inanimate.

Of course one could say there’s a slightly rhizomatic, Deleuzean undercurrent to this, which may be true, but I was not an early reader of Deleuze. (I read Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Mille Plateaux only after everybody else started saying to me, “Oh, that’s like Deleuze.”) So my thoughts do not really come from Deleuze at all, whom I see as fitting into the vitalistic Nieszchean and neo-Romantic trajectory of devenir animal—as if there was a pre-human part of humanity, shared with other animals, that we have now lost and need to recover (Daniel Heller-Roazen). They come more from pre-Socratic Greek thought, which is much older than Deleuze, and from ethology, feminist science studies, and ecofeminist alliances between social, political and ecological struggles; they come from Arte Povera; they come from the analysis of animal behavior, from Uexküll, Whitehead, Vandana Shiva, Bateson, Goodall, Stengers, Despret, Butler, Jane Bennett, Elizabeth A. Wilson, Elizabeth Grosz, and Haraway.

So of course there are artworks that are made by humans, for humans, and that concern questions which are primarily of interest to humans. But it is the overall state of mind through which we engage with them that is different, from my perspective: a kind of humbleness about human involvement in the whole thing. It is about building an inside that is also an outside, and vice-versa, like a Klein bottle. Which is why, in dOCUMENTA (13), I suggested the outside be inside and the inside outside. There were the little houses in the park, which are insides placed outside, and Ryan Gander’s Wind—an invisible, beautiful, yet very mattering form of material, minute particles of wind blowing through the ground floor of the Fridericianum—was about the combined agency of human-made and not human-made.

“All we can do is what we are actually doing already: the self-organization of cognitive work is the only way to go beyond the psychopathic present… I think that the dissemination of self-organized knowledge can create a social framework containing infinite autonomous and self-reliant worlds…The process of creating the network is so complex that it cannot be governed by human reason. The global mind is too complex to be known and mastered by sub-segmental localized minds…”[8] (Bifo). Just as politics need to develop through networks of linked, localized and situated grassroots projects, so too the display of cultures and making of cultures can be more flexible and complex. At times the research of certain physicists and certain artists has more in common than those same artists do with other artists. So it is possible that in the future there may no longer be museums like Tate Modern and MoMA, the way they look and function now. There may well come a time when those collections are completely reorganized, including things that have to do with quantum physics or biology, and others related to literature, or ancient history, or film, on top of what we call art today. I am not suggesting that we start all over creating multidisciplinary projects. When you put an artist and a scientist together and ask them to come up with something, you usually end up with bad science or bad art. The question is more how to bring these various practices into dialogue, how forms of discovery like philosophical enquiry, scientific enquiry and artistic enquiry can be brought into relation, as was already partly attempted in Laboratorium (Barbara Vanderlinden/Hans Ulrich Obrist) years ago. There is of course a similarity between this striated exhibition or museum collection in the age of networked local knowledges, and the pre-modern Wunderkammer, prior to the separation of the sciences and humanities. And it is interesting to imagine creating these aggregations and experimental displays with artists, farmers, scientists, writers, filmmakers, hackers, potters, weavers, software writers, storytellers, and butterflies, inside and outside our existing buildings. Artists themselves, from Rosemarie Trockel to Goshka Macuga to Pierre Huyghe, have conducted their research and constructed their works this way, so there is no reason why art institutions and those in public policy should not render the boundaries between collections more porous as well, so that associations and projections can be made, and more flourishing can occur.

The problem with exhibiting science next to what we call art is, however, huge: while artists tend to take a holistic and critical approach to their presentations, where every element is meaningful, from a plug on the wall to the shade of white paint in the room, from the display cabinet to a wall label, most scientists and even architects are not so sensitive to the politics and poetics of display. Nothing could be worse than a pseudo-contemporary display of minerals alongside a wonderfully minimalist, understated space of art. Perhaps one proposition might therefore be to work with artists curatorially, in order to create these pluri-aggregate exhibits, to tell these stories of constellations, as Mark Dion has done at Manchester University. And the stories are many—just to cite a few, for example, I could think of “time, wave, seed, food, composting, symbiosis”; or “earth, dust, sedimentation, particles, termite architecture, pottery, sculpture, ruins, archeological shards, matter”; or yet another could be “image, imagination, the brain, the imaginal, hypnosis, mirrors, the bee dance and mapping”—re-imagined for the purpose of a more worldly ecology, co-evolution and flourishing of all forms of life on the planet.



[1] E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, Phaidon Press, London, 2006, [1st edition 1950], p. 21.
[2] T. W. Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”, originally published in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Vol. VII (1938); in J. M. Bernstein, ed., The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, Routledge, London/New York 1991, pp. 29-60.
[3] T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, University of Minnesota Press, 1997 [first published by Surhkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1970], pp.1-3.
[4] A. Gell, “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology”, 1992, in Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. J. Coote and A. Shelton, eds., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994, pp. 40–66.
[5] B. O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space, a series of essays published in Artforum in 1976. An expanded version appeared in 2000 (Oakland: UC Press).
[6] Today, one direction of this same market moves more and more towards “outsider artists” (non-academically trained artists who do not know the history of modern and contemporary Eurocentric art; psychiatric patients who used art as a form of psychic release or therapy; or artists who simply did not intentionally inscribe their work in the field of contemporary art) as way of finding new terrain for the market to grow again. So-called “outsider artists” had always been on a number of people’s radar, from Jean Dubuffet’s interest in Art Brut and the Geneva Museum, to the Henry Darger exhibition in New York in 2008, etc., but this expansion of the field of contemporary art to embrace this practice officially is very recent, and was publicly marked by the last edition of the Venice Biennale (Massimiliano Gioni).
[8] Franco Berardi (Bifo), “What is the Meaning of Autonomia Today?”,, 2002-2004.


Originally published on Mousse 43 (April–May 2014)

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