Tag Archives: exhibition


“Let’s pause for a while, follow a procedure and search for different sensors that could allow us to recalibrate our detectors, our instruments, to feel anew where we are and where we might wish to go. 

No guarantee, of course: this is an experiment, a thought experiment, a Gedankenausstellung.” 

(Field book, p. 1)


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber



That voice is familiar. It appears in many texts and lectures, navigating between directly calling on the reader – never without a sense of humour, but seriously upset about the way we continue to act out modernity – and considerately trying out new ideas and forms of de-modernisation. In short: “r-M!”

“Gedankenausstellung” is one of these ideas, coined by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, who since their “Making Things Public” (2005), have tried to open up new ways of relating to the world through the mode of the discursive exhibition. In “reset Modernity!” it signals the theoretical work to be done by the visitors once they have gone through the six “procedures” that structure the exhibition. The “field book” is another:

“As the name ‘field book’ indicates, you are invited to do a bit of research yourself.” 

(Field book, p. 2).


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber


As an impatient visitor of exhibitions, but an anthropologist passionate about analysing knowledge in the mode of the exhibition, I was most curious about the making of “reset Modernity!” when I visited it on its opening weekend. Would space be reserved for reflection on how this Gedankenausstellung became an Ausstellung? And if so, what kind of spatial arrangement could express the localising qualities of this very representational work?

As it turns out, there was. Firstly in the catalogue, which was too heavy to carry, and will be a source for future reading. Here, a seventh procedure with the title “In search of a diplomatic middle ground” had been added. The chapter provides a visual and textual documentation of the conferences, workshops, symposia and plays that took place in the context of AIME — the ERC-funded research project and network based in Sciences Po’s médialab in Paris. The website, which has been developed as a working tool for the group, contains additional materials, including interviews with Bruno Latour on the question, “What is a Gedankenausstellung?” (http://modesofexistence.org/what-is-a-gedankenausstellung/). When it comes to learning about the making-of process, the photographs of their work sessions are potential sources of information – they show people sitting around tables covered with document folders, bottles of soft drinks and plates of sweets, discussing plans that have been projected on the wall. It features photographs and an audio-visual recording of the curators visiting the ZKM in 2015, bent over plans and examining the future exhibition space. It also shows the “statement of intent”, which prompted the following comment: “It sounds exciting. Stay strong and hold on to your original vision. Alicia Flynn (a year ago)” (http://modesofexistence.org/statement-of-intent-for-the-aime-exhibition-at-zkm-2016/)


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber

Did they stay strong? And was that the right approach? (It shouldn’t be, see Latour/Weibel 2007: pp. 94-95) They did keep to their plan, and while the catalogue and website document how the research network took on the risks of interdisciplinary work (intertwining research, debate and theatre with analogue and digital design in different locations and constellations) the exhibition includes traces of their original working practice in the form of “stations” implemented in each procedure. Here, thematically related quotes, notes, images and audio-recordings are provided and loosely arranged on a single white wall. These arrangements are aesthetically reminiscent of the associative Warburgian atlas production – without claiming to be exhaustive.

Quite the opposite: These stations point directly to another, virtual actor — potentially a zettelkasten of the AIME team and its collaborators, which could be a probable source for the arrangements. The looseness of the wall arrangements and the virtual zettelkasten cautiously suggest the existence of selection, but not to the ways in which the selection took place. Which lines were drawn between those artworks and references that became part of the spatially, temporally, financially limited exhibition-project? Which artworks and references made their way into the exhibition while transgressing these lines? And which ones never did become a part of it, despite having the strongest of qualifications1 Since much of the “field book” isn’t a “fieldwork notebook”2, the stations don’t offer these types of insights into the representational work. Given that these processes are always driven by tension and passion – which shape the agency distributed between the actors – these walls have a lightness, they breathe and invite the visitor to do the same.


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber


But do they provide the quiet that, as Bruno Latour mentioned in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist (http://modesofexistence.org/what-is-a-gedankenausstellung/, 26:14), is necessary for a reset? The field book proclaims that they are “a sort of workplace … this is where you will find more information and where you can discuss the path of the inquiry” (field book, p. 2). Here something might have been lost between the original vision and its spatialisation.


»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber
»reset modernity!«, photograph by Alexa Faerber


The very discreteness of this AIME-archive (the table with books at the intersection of three procedures should also be mentioned) is partially the result of the large, all-consuming two-dimensional artworks that surround these stations. Walking through the exhibition, these spectacular images again and again captured my attention: the more-than-realistic, staged photographs of Jeff Wall showing scientific practices; Armin Linke’s photographic work, which seemed to be part of almost every procedure, and simultaneously points to humanity’s intriguing megalomania and smallness and, visible from far away, at the end of the first exhibition hall, the floating walls of film projections in procedure five. The latter, called “Secular at Last”, resonated with the large scale of the other pictures. One work in this procedure is spatially secluded by a triangular installation of screens: “Obama’s Grace” (Lorenza Mondada et al, 2016). Here, the performative force of Barak Obama’s combination of political statement and religious “sound” is disturbingly intensified. An analytical transcript on one of the screens, however, demonstrates the extent to which this intensity stems from both the president and his parish. When standing between these three screens, the need for a way out of modernity’s binding forces could not be more obvious. Time for a Gedankensprung!

Reset Latour!

In press releases and in the impressive catalogue, the new Reset Modernity! exhibition at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe – (co-)curated by a certain Bruno Latour – is framed as a thought experiment or, in more idiomatic German, a Gedankenausstellung. Having perused through the exhibitions’ 75+ works of various origins and media formats, and thus partaken in the six successive procedures of dis- and reorientation meant to achieve the promised reset, this framing seems to us both highly appropriate and somewhat symptomatic. Appropriate, in the sense that what is being exhibited here, more than photographs and video screens and installation art, is in fact the thoughts of… Bruno Latour. Symptomatic, because in this case as well, German is more precise than English: while thoughts are literally put on display, it seems as if nothing much experimental is happening here. In particular, the detour through other materials seems to make no real difference to how the thoughts unfold themselves.

From start to end, the exhibition looks and feels like a crash course in Latour’s version of science and technology studies (STS). Guided by a field book, we move from laboratory life (a, ‘re-localizing the global’) to the anthropology of techniques (f, ‘innovation not hype’), via more recent interventions aligned to the various modes of existence of the moderns: fictional art (b, ‘without the world or within’), religion (e, ‘secular at last’), morality (c, ‘sharing responsibility’) and politics (d, ‘from lands to disputed territories’). Crashing, indeed, is what modernity is said to be doing, under the weight of ecological crises. Or, to follow the opening video of the show, perhaps the crash has already happened and we are scrambling to face up to its effects? The answer was never entirely clear; just as it was not clear just why modernity needs resetting if, as the curator might say, we were never quite modern in the first place? Perhaps resetting is what happens to critique of ideology, once we stop believing in both critique and ideology?


The article’s co-author engages with the thoughts on display, and in the field book, during Reset Modernity!, photograph by author



With so many interesting ideas flowing around; with such an impressive list of star artists enrolled; and with such a pressing eco-political mandate, Reset Modernity! frankly strikes us as something of a missed opportunity. Not that the show lacks exiting moments, far from it. Strong works of contemporary art, such as those by Simon Starling, Tacita Dean, Thomas Struth and Pierre Huyghe (to name but a few), make it well worth a visit. For anyone familiar with Latour and STS, moreover, the joy of recognition is a palpable one: if you read Reassembling the Social, you will surely enjoy watching Charles and Ray Eames’ promotional video Powers of Ten (and its critical-theatrical deconstruction); and if you follow discussions on the Anthropocene, you will like the enigmatic hybrids of humans and stones conjured by Anne-Sophie Milon and Jan Zalasiewicz (himself a leading geological protagonist). Yet, at the level of curatorial guidance – of which the show has (too) much! – the thoughts on display often curiously falls short of their purported model, i.e. the ground-breaking and thought-provoking writings of… Bruno Latour himself.

Let us give a few examples to illustrate what we mean. During procedure b of the exhibition, the visitor is treated to two striking works by Jeff Wall, the Canadian artist well known for his self-reflexive inquiries into the nature of photographic representation. The choice of artist, of course, is far from coincidental. As many readers of this journal will recognize, Latour has a history of reflecting on one of these works: specifically, Wall’s 1992 photographic rendition of Adrian Walker, Artist, Drawing From a Specimen in a Laboratory in the Department of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (as the full title reads). In the picture, Walker-the-artist is seen in the laboratory, absorbed in his work of making an anatomical drawing of a detached, mummified limb from a once-living animal. It is a wonderful piece of art, dwelling as it does on the capacity of photography to capture one of those still-rarer moments in scientific practice where artistic competence remains superior in precision to automated inscription.

Latour surely agrees, to a point. As he explains in his brilliant 2005 Spinoza lecture, What is the style of matters of concern?, he is critical of Wall’s gesture: Wall has been blinded, he argues, by the contrivances of this situation, failing to see that its entire aesthetics of matters of fact has been rendered improbable. To his credit, in this 2005 text, Latour re-prints a lengthy response to this interpretation by Wall himself, explaining why it misses what Wall takes to be the key point, to do with the pleasure of all depiction (his own included, of course). Here is the problem, however: at the Reset Modernity! exhibition, this worthwhile exchange is reduced to a mere assertion on the part of the curator. In particular, the other photograph by Wall allows Latour to drive home the point: here, we witness a group of archeologists at work in their field, excavating. Unlike Walker, Latour writes in the field book, scientists “are involved inside what they study”. A nice STS point, for sure. But why do we need Jeff Wall’s photographs in order to make it? Indeed, are we not presented here with a strangely realist, matter-of-factly way of appreciating what is, after all, a highly self-reflexive photographic practice? If scientists are active inside the worlds they study, then what about photographers? Is only STS allowed to determine where the frame starts and stops?



Elevated view of the exhibition layout, with Milon and Zalasiewicz' The Mystery of Brunaspis enigmatica on the floor, photograph by author
Elevated view of the exhibition layout, with Milon and Zalasiewicz’ The Mystery of Brunaspis enigmatica on the floor, photograph by author


A second and related concern arises for us as we start embracing the full diversity of materials on display in the exhibition as a whole: tactile works by world-renowned contemporary artists sit alongside amateur scribblings and installations; videos by Peter Gallison’s STS students stand around the corner from the Eames’ work of design consultancy; a (copy of a) 15th century print by Albrect Dürer shares the space with excerpts from late-20th-century movies. In fact, only the large-size photographs by Armin Linke gives to Reset Modernity! a kind of recurrent visual mark (albeit, we think, a less interesting one than Latour lets on in the catalogue). Such material diversity is of course potentially interesting. It juxtaposes times, spaces, media and genres not usually juxtaposed. It challenges how boundary-work is usually performed in artistic spaces. However, at the curatorial level, nothing much is done with this diversity and its potentials in Reset Modernity!. In fact, and disappointingly, diversity of materials and stylistic genres fails to register anywhere in the thoughts on display, in the (heavy!) narrative being told. It is as if the various thoughts and the various materials, interesting as those registers are, are just not rendered that relevant for each other. Here is a split one would have trusted an STS curator to bridge – especially when that curator has done more than perhaps anyone else to bring to attention the inherent materiality of ideas.

Third and finally, there is the narrative itself, the narrative of what happened to us during the short experience called modernity, and how we might want to reset that experience. Here, as noted, we are treated to a tour around Latour’s universe, slanted towards his more recent concerns: during the show, we move from (ancestral) land to the (modernist) globe; get lost on the way; witness the birth of the environment (out of Nature) and its later morphing into Gaia; only to realize that our imaginary land and utopian globe have both disappeared, leaving us the task of cultivating new careful techniques of attachment to our new and inhospitable umwelt, the Earth. Anyone up to date with Latour’s writings will recognize the (geo-)story. What becomes obvious in this 3-D exhibition version, however, is just hos well Latour’s own wonderful concept of the panorama fits this story of his: we are presented with a 360-degrees full-color projection, with no cracks and fissures, but equally with no visible signs of connection to the world beyond the screen. The panorama, as Latour would say, is nicely suited for preparing its audience, the public, for the collective journey ahead – such, indeed, seems to us the better way of appreciating the Reset Modernity! exhibition. Yet, even the best of panoramas eventually leave you starving for more, for something tangible, connected, entangled, engaged. For the kinds of worlds, in short, which STS is so good at cultivating, and which actor-network theory feeds on, full of gaps and fissures and translations and betrayals.

Few contemporary intellectuals have done more to completely revamp, indeed to seriously reset, all the ingredients of our common world – of science, technology, nature, politics, not to mention the study of their multifarious interrelations, known as STS – than has Bruno Latour. His recent exposition of the modes of existence of the moderns adds new and interesting layers to this already-impressive intellectual edifice, as does his engagement into transdisciplinary dialogues on the fate of our Anthropocene. In the meantime, he has managed to (co-)curate three multi-media art exhibitions, at least one of which (the 2005 Making Things Public) stands as a model for those art-science collaborative endeavors so seriously needed. In light of all this, Reset Modernity! is a parenthesis; not a complete failure, for sure, but neither groundbreaking in any way. Sometimes, resetting your computer is no big deal, just something you do to refresh your extended mind. We suggest a similar procedure here: upon visiting this exhibition, remember to reset Latour (!) and refresh your memory as to just why his thinking matters so much in the first place.

Procedures to deal with modernity without irony

My own interest in this exhibition

Having only witnessed Bruno Latour live in a lecture over two decades ago and having recently (re-)read a large fraction of his work, including his Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013), I gladly accepted the invitation to take part in the opening event of his exhibition Reset Modernity! My own interest in Latour’s work, including his philosophical work, stems from his combined empirical and theoretical analyses of practices of dealing with uncertainty. Besides having studied Latour’s approach to science and politics (in particular pertaining to global climate change) I was recently triggered by his approach to science and religion (in, e.g., his Rejoicing, 2013). I will here reflect how his exhibition added a useful dimension to the readings I had done before.


Executing procedures with more senses

Latour’s approach in his books is already unconventional, for instance by using fictive narrators. In the exhibition, a whole other dimension of the problématique appears, through a variety of media, alongside what can be addressed through the ordinary mode of reading and thinking. During the opening symposium (and in the book accompanying the exhibition) Latour emphasised that in order to be able to deal with the future ‘our individual instruments’ need to be ‘reset’ (from a false modernity) by a sequence of ‘procedures’ that the exhibition carries out with the participants. And to be honest: I took a whole day to dutifully execute all the suggested procedures, using my guidebook and walking through the exhibition and looking carefully and reflecting on what was shown, and indeed got sensitised to several aspects that had escaped my notice from reading his books. This happened already in procedure 1, relocalising the global, when watching the precursors and Latour’s criticism of the film Powers of Ten (Charles and Ray Eames, 1977). I immediately ordered a copy of Kees Boeke’s Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (1957). Latour highlights the ‘complete implausibility’ of the moves in Powers of Ten. One should not jump too quickly to the ‘big picture’. Or, as Latour writes, ‘Earth is not visible as long as it is hidden behind the globe’. Of course I was already open to it and quite prepared, but still the exhibition is accessible to a large audience (actually, it is more accessible than some of Latour’s books).


No irony

Another observation that Latour made during the opening was that none of the work in his exhibition has any form of irony: none of it is critical in the 20th century modernist sense. And he deemed that to be something positive. According to Latour, you do not want to exit from the successes of modernisation. And indeed the exhibition, although it addresses – among other topics – global problems such as climate change, embodies a pragmatist philosophy of hope. Indeed several pragmatist elements are recognisable in the exhibition: avoidance of dualisms; the flux of experience and of the experienced world; reflexivity; responsibility; creativity and inclusivity. The exhibition hence confirms that Latour’s work refers back to the early phase of pragmatism (that of James and Dewey) combined with a sharp analysis of present day connections.


Religion as politics

The least attractive procedure, at least for my own project, was the procedure called ‘secular at last’ focussed on the crossing between politics and religion. The procedure focused on religious film and highlighted the politics of religion. While the crossing of politics and religion is no doubt a problématique of global significance, I had hoped to learn more about Latour’s analyses of science and religion, which he both sees as the result of transformations. In the case of science the interest is in information and representation; in the case of religion the interest is in translation and ‘saving’. In Rejoice, Latour had focused on alterations that happen to people when they utter religious speech and engage (models of) beings that ‘have the peculiar characteristic of bringing persons from remoteness to proximity, from death to life’. I would have liked to see demonstrations of how models of God are used in practice, and how deep uncertainty and ignorance about these models are dealt with and expressed in religious practices. And maybe to explore the crossing with the mode of reference, how science models nature.



To be honest, I have always been sceptical of references to ‘Gaia’. Especially of the popular reception of the Gaia hypothesis as it was put forward, defended and refined by the inventor and independent scientist James Lovelock (the hypothesis being that biota influence the environment in a way that causes a homeostasis in the face of a changing external forcing). While Lovelock and his supporters have consistently tried to accommodate scientific criticism of the Gaia hypothesis by seemingly getting rid of the metaphysical versions, the attractiveness of the Gaia hypothesis for the general public remained precisely what Lovelock cannot suppress himself to say about Earth: ‘It is most certainly an organism—and alive!’ Latour in this exhibition, however, does not at all allude to these metaphysical versions and is able to take a fresh look at Earth, in a grounded way. I found his visual distinctions between globe and Earth enlightening. And also what he indicated during the opening: speaking about Gaia is not about animism: it is to indicate that there was no modernist deanimation in the first place.