Category Archives: Tate

Representing the unrepresentable

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).

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Filed under Bruno Latour, Climate Change, Exhibitions, RETHINK, Tate

When art meets science… successfully

I have attended numerous ‘art and science’ events, the day-long symposium Rising To The Climate Challenge: Artists and Scientists Imagine Tomorrow’s World held in March was particularly successful.

The Tate had paired with the Royal Society to present an impressive line-up of speakers, including artists Lucy Orta, Tomás Saraceno and the eminent land artist Agnes Denes. But its success could be attributed to another reason.


Rather than framing the question as: ‘how can artists help scientists communicate climate change?’, last Saturday’s symposium Rising To The Climate Challenge took the view that art and science had two very different perspectives to offer and much could come from their collaborations. Art’s role isn’t simply to reformulate and appealingly package the scientific messages; instead it has a more fundamental exploratory and imaginative role.

The climate science programme largely reflected the Royal Society’s priorities and included, along with the expected division of adaptation and mitigation a third one, geo-engineering. However, oceanographer and earth scientist Corinne Le Quéré , who introduced the topic, revealed that she was stuck with presenting it because none of the other speakers wanted it. Professor Le Quéré gave a well-balanced presentation comparing the various options’ effectiveness (predicted ˚C temperature change) versus the level of risk.

With more controversial options such as the frightening volcanic method, where artificial volcanoes are created in the atmosphere to reflect and reduce solar radiation, she demonstrated that even this was only a temporary fix. The volcanoes would need to continually be created because as soon as they ceased, CO2 levels in the atmosphere would rapidly return to pre-volcanic levels. A less risky option, managing earth radiation through afforestation was shown to be less effective, with a possible decrease in warming projected at only 1˚C.

Agnes Denes’ land art was incorporated into the topic of geo-engineering because her large-scale works often drastically alter the landscape. In Finland she created Tree Mountain- A Living Time Capsule, building a conical mountain and planting it with 11,000 trees, and planting and harvesting a wheat field in central Manhattan (Wheatfield: A Confrontation). During her slide show, Denes explained that she likes to investigate the paradoxes of human existence: logic, evolution, time, sound, etc. and believes that by shaping and structuring the future we can control our own evolution.

Tomás Saraceno presented with an infectious energy, bursting with novel, if impractical ideas that included his floating ecosystems.  Saraceno makes bold and imaginative attempts to stretch the boundaries of our conceptions of space and gravity with his experimental floating pods. His presentation was paired nicely with Oxford social scientist Steve Rayner’s on adaptation. He focused on cities of the future and the importance of instituting greater flexibility within existing infrastructures in order to cope with future climate events such as extreme flooding. He admires Saraceno’s work, in particular his innovation with new materials, shapes, and possibilities of new patterns of organisation.

Rayner highlighted three typical art/science interactions. The first was demonstrated by a photograph of a diseased liver cell and represented the mode of seeing beauty in the scientific. The second was art’s influence on science (mainly through science fiction such as HG Wells and Jules Verne), the model of artists stimulating scientists with their work leading to new ideas and discourses. The third – which Rayner thought the most compelling – were the interactions between scientists and artists that occur when artists ‘do science through art’. Essentially, where the borders between the two are eliminated and artists employ scientific methodology in their creations, as demonstrated in Saraceno’s work.

The collaboration between scientific institutions and artists was illustrated in a discussion between the Natural History Museum’s Robert Bloomfield and artist Lucy Orta , whose upcoming exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery Perpetual Amazonia is extensively researched using the NHM’s entomology, botany and palaeontology collections. The exhibition will also be informed by Lucy and her partner Jorge’s expedition to the Peru with Cape Farewell in 2009.  Bloomfield specialises in biodiversity and stressed the importance of the interrelations between climate change and biodiversity loss and ecosystem services.

The event was recorded. Podcasts will be available soon on the Tate website.

This piece was previously published as a guest blog post on Ashdenizen (http://ashdenizen.blogspot.com/2010/03/when-science-meets-art.html).

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Filed under Climate Change, Contemporary Art, Royal Society, Science, Tate