‘Taken over by Gaia’ — A collective conversation with Bruno Latour

24 Dec

Prior to its opening, a research collective, IUP_JI@MCTS, met with Bruno Latour to discuss his recent Gedankenausstellung, Reset Modernity. Granted access to the gallery still being installed, we had attempted to follow the exhibition’s closely prescribed procedures in a setting perhaps closer studio, workshop or even construction site – one former engineer among us noting the impressive range of construction tools littering the floors – than to the contemplative environment of a conventional museum. When we later met to talk with Latour we had to confess we’d found it harder to follow the procedures than the catalogue accompanying the exhibition seemed to suggest it would be. Perhaps we had been distracted by the harried curators and exhibition designers running around us and shouting to each other. Or perhaps we had reset modernity (!) but the realisation had yet to sink in. When would we know? What if our resets were like those of our smartphones that simply ‘restore default factory settings’? The following extracts are taken from the conversation between the TU Munich researchers and Latour in which we pressed him to elaborate some of these problems. In well-humoured exchanges, Latour explained how he – and the project of resetting modernity – has been “taken over by Gaia”. The following extracts are taken from a longer transcript that moved between planetary-scale problems, issues of social design and discussion of public experiments.

Fig. 1: IUP_JI@MCTS in conversation with Bruno Latour at ZKM.


IUP_JI@MCTS: In the catalogue we find various references to your project An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME). This project is, at least in the way you present it the book of that title and in the exhibition’s catalogue, a highly systematic project. But when we go to the gallery we are presented with displays that appear, in their assembly, more like the work of free association. Clearly Reset Modernity is not simply putting the Modes of Existence system on display, or if it is then the modes appear surprisingly difficult to detect. Could you explain how this exhibition relates to your aims and method of the Modes of Existence project?

BL: Well, my AIME project itself is a descendant of the STS program I started from, because my essential loyalties are to the STS field I started with. There is no way you can begin to handle what could be called ontological pluralism without first having resituated knowledge production… so for me STS was the only way and it still is! If you talk with people who are not STS there is not much you can say, because they imagine knowledge to be everywhere unsituated. Now, the AIME project is an excessively long and elaborated, and in some way, systematic, enquiry on the modern. The horizon of the project is what I call Gaia. Currently, we have a political situation in which we have to deal with an ecological mutation in which politics becomes extremely difficult to pursue. I’m interested in multiplying the medium to deal with this question of Gaia. So, I did a theatre play last year, a big simulation with my students in Paris of the Climate Conference last year as well and this time we do an exhibition. I’m doing this is because, well, first, because I find it funny to change the medium, and also because every time you have a different medium you strengthen and deepen the consequence of what might otherwise appear a somewhat abstract argument. We wanted with the curators, my friends there, to multiply the entry points into the AIME project: so we had the book, we had the site, we had the encounters. We were from the beginning interested in trying to see if this project can be understood and make people sensitive to the argument through an exhibition. It just so happened that the exhibition does not explicitly mention AIME at all except in the catalogue, but even there it’s only in the political and, religious part. AIME too has been taken over by Gaia, basically [laughter].

IUP_JI@MCTS: Reset Modernity is presented as a Gedankenausstellung – a thought exhibition – and you and your colleagues are credited as its curators. But curators have rarely been credited as great thinkers: they are credited as technicians, administrators, sometimes even as artists but rarely as thinkers. Who is doing the thinking and the research in this exhibition?

BL: I have absolutely no principal answer to that. Bricolage is my rule and the only systematic thing I do is AIME; the rest is complete bricolage. Why Gedankenausstellung? Firstly, it’s chic because it’s a German word and a very long German word [laughter]. This is third exhibition I’ve done with Peter Weibel and there’s no other place in the world where this would be possible. In relation to the classical thought experiments from Kepler to Einstein, at least as I understand them, you actually experience what the experimental situation would be like and you share this experiment with other people. So you create a collective thought experiment, so to speak. And we are not the only ones engaging in this practice: you know Sarah Palin is producing a film on the fact that climate science is bunk?! We want to engage in a politics of climate but how can we when our politics doesn’t have a city corresponding to the one our ancestors recognised, or notions of democracy, land, territory, sovereignty, power, war that no longer matter? All of those words have to be reinvented for a politics of climate. You have to do a thought experiment, which we call here an exhibition experiment. What we are doing with the medium of art is not so different from what geologists or stratigraphers working on the anthropocene do when they imagine “what it would be if”…

Now who is doing the thought experiment? It’s of course the curators, then it’s the visitors and all of the intermediary people I love here, the dozenten: so it’s a small thought collective, Gedanken collective, to use the famous expression.

Fig. 2: Tools for Resetting Modernity

IUP_JI@MCTS: We can’t help but be alarmed by urgent tone you adopt in the Reset Modernity catalogue. Do we need to speed up STS to keep pace with the barrage of facts being produced in contemporary technoscience?

BL: Well I am also for slowing down… I think the two are not contradictory. We need to slow down, which is one way of stopping having been modern, but also to register the urgency of the present situation. And, I think it’s exactly the same movement: slowing down is avoiding the panic, and the angst, which is not conducive to any sort of thinking. Jan Zalasiewicz, a great stratigrapher, and the head of the anthropocene commission, I think has this tone of, how could I say, quiet anxiety.

If we undervalue and underestimate the threat it is because we are using old reason and old idea of science. Paul Edwards showed in his book on the Vast Machine of climatology the deep tragedy of all these scientists who are taken out of the usual, slightly comfortable, epistemological view, and then dropped into the anthropocene and having to deal with all sort of strange things like ethics, morality and art and even sci-art. They are scientists, but they are scientists, of alarm, it’s a new role for a new situation. We can help those scientists navigating this very difficulty. If it’s not our field of STS who deal with this situation then I don’t know who will do that.

IUP_JI@MCTS: Is this exhibition just about the presentation of your research or are the procedures you’ve prescribed also designed to give visitors the experience of researching?

BL: Well the distinction is hard to make because my aim is to build a dispositive where, people are supposed to be co-inquirers. Now, of course, I haven’t done many exhibitions, only three or four, but I’m always surprised by the complete indifference of the curators for the reaction of the public. They do care, of course, about things: the happiness of visitors and do people find the ticket too expensive and so on. But, they never actually use exhibitions as an experimental setup. As an STS person, for me this is an occasion to bring thousands of people into a dispositive. We should be able to share something with the visitors, not simply exploiting them for data, but for this we need a protocol. Usually, curators don’t have so many ideas: they, put things together, assemble things, and they say “let the public do the work”. But you never know what the public will do with a gallery display. That’s why people often go through galleries, especially art shows, very quickly, because nothing is constructed experimentally. For me that’s a huge waste of time. With an exhibition you can do an experiment, you just set it up, you have a protocol and you observe what’s happening: I mean this is basic [laughs], basic use of a scientific dispositive.

Fig. 3: Curating in action

IUP_JI@MCTS: Don’t you think some people might feel uncomfortable with the whole idea of a procedure for an exhibition experience, not least for an exhibition addressing the controversial and complex political topics raised in Reset Modernity?

BL: The procedures are simply for resetting. The notion of reset, as I mean it here, is in the sense of the laboratory where you have one measurement and you cannot do the second measurement without resetting the balance. It’s a very simple idea: reset is not to restart again and there’s a whole chapter in the catalogue by Donato Rici about this metaphor. In the beginning I was not convinced by the title, but now I like it more and more because it’s not a tabula rasa, it’s not a revolutionary term. By resetting you become sensitive to registering information. I mean this is why I’m so excited by the museum: we’re using a classical technique to do STS-style cartography to mix and overlap territories in 3-dimensions.

In the exhibition we talk about the compass. The compass of course is a simplified metaphor, but we are in new, territory, and we need “regrounding”, to use an expression of one of my students. Regrounding is not nation construction, it’s earth construction. The earth is not a nation state, it’s not a sovereignty, it’s not the globe it has very different characteristics, and that’s the task, the political task, is to describe it. If we fail to reground we will be back to ethnicity and nationalism very fast; and things are moving fast in that direction.

Reset, is not a modernist metaphor that requires us to choose between progression and backwardness. A reset is not backward, but is absolutely necessary to get information again: with a balance or set of scales you don’t go backward. But, unfortunately, this is what politics today is all about. Politics has become entirely reactionary, about movements back to the land of old, and it’s everywhere – well, I don’t know about Indonesia but certainly in Europe, America and England it’s everywhere. To finish on STS, then, this is a most important, task: do we try and find a third position which is neither the land nor the globe but which is the earth? The earth is very different from the globe because it’s flat, it’s small, it’s not nature, it has very different features, the earth is a different beast.

Author information

author IUP_JI@MCTS is a loosely assembled collective based at TU Munich that pursues earnest and sceptical questioning of researchers acting in the name of modernity. IUP_JI@MCTS is dogmatically committed to actor-network theory concepts from the 90’s and has been called idiotic, apparently a compliment. The collective may have wilfully misunderstood the concept of “reset” as it is deployed in this exhibition.

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