The French sociologist Bruno Latour gave the keynote address at this month’s Tate Britain’s symposium Beyond the Academy: Research as Exhibition. His address considered the environmental crisis as a particular challenge which would require natural history, art museums and academia to join forces. The challenge, he said, was that “climate change is currently unrepresentable”.
In an effort to address this, Latour has embarked on a number of projects. One is the School of Political Arts at the Sciences Po in Paris. The school, which will be formally launched this year, will bring together young professionals in the social sciences and arts to attempt to represent the political problem of climate change. Latour says the school will “not join science, art and politics together, but rather disassemble them first and, unfamiliar and renewed, take them up again afterwards, but differently.”
Latour is also working on establishing a new type of Biennale in Venice, which will incorporate social scientists into artistic production. By bringing together social scientists and artists, Latour wants to address these issues in new ways. He expressed interest in Avatar, calling it the first ‘Gaia’ film, beginning this task of rethinking the ecological crisis and exploring ways of making it representable.
His engagement with climate change includes his participation in the Nordic Exhibition of the year Rethink: Contemporary Art and Climate Change which was staged in Copenhagen during COP15. He contributed to the Rethink exhibition catalogue with the essay “It’s Development, Stupid” Or: How To Modernize Modernization. It is a response to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through – From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. In this essay, Latour argues that the separation of the subjective from the real into dichotomies such as ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ must end. In order to begin to tackle the challenges we are facing, we must acknowledge just how closely human and nature are entwined. He has given a lecture on ‘Politics and Nature’ at the Rethink The Implicit venue at the Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art.
Latour spent most of his Tate talk discussing two of his previous exhibition projects which combined the talents of artists and social scientists. Both exhibits were produced with Peter Weibel at ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. The first, Iconoclash (2002), which brought together a team of curators, including Hans Ulrich Obrist from the Serpentine Gallery, examined how iconoclasts are represented in art, religion and science. The second, Making Things Public, partnered artists with social scientists to create individual exhibits. The exhibition was centred on a number of themes: Assembling or Disassembling; Which Cosmos for which Cosmopolitics; The Problem of Composition; From Objects to Things; From Laboratory to Public Proofs; The Great Pan is Dead!; Reshuffling Religious Assemblies; The Parliaments of Nature. The exhibition sought to materialise the concept of a ‘Parliament of Things’.
Latour conceptualised his exhibitions as thought experiments, but found the exhibitions themselves to be failures, saying that most of the individual projects within the exhibition failed as works of art. The books that accompanied the exhibitions, in particular, Making Things Public, a large book created after the exhibition, were more successful.
This was one of the themes that emerged from the day at Tate: whether certain exhibitions work better as books. Latour said that working on exhibitions has been one of the most interesting parts of his academic life. Exhibitions, he said, have a different rhythm and intensity of work and creating the ‘thing in the space’ adds to intellectual life. But creating an exhibition must be different to writing. When exhibitions merely illustrate a point, no gain is made.
Latour’s interests have now moved towards ecology and the role of the arts in representing our environmental challenges and the need for artists and social scientists to collaborate on these issues. He said he himself is writing a play on climate change.
This piece was previously published as a guest blog post on Ashdenizen (http://ashdenizen.blogspot.com/2010/05/representing-unrepresentable.html).