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June 1, 2016

Bruno Latour on the show Reset Modernity! at the ZKM

Interviewed by Mylène Ferrand Lointier

Bruno Latour, could you please tell us a bit about the origins of your exhibition at the ZKM in Karlsruhe?

Reset Modernity! is the forth materialization of a much larger projet, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME).[1] (In French, Enquête sur les Modes d’Existence EME), which was initiated at the Sciences Po (School for social sciences, literally means “Political Sciences”) six years ago. This project, which I have been working on for 25 years now, has partly resulted in a book, Enquête sur les modes d’existence, and partly in a collaborative internet site which made it possible to create groups of fellow researchers investigating the question of how to “reset”, or somehow redefine the anthropology of the moderns, which is by the way also the subtitle of the book. This has been possible thanks to The European Research Council (ERC). During a five year period meetings were arranged, diplomatic reunions over the ontological questions of pluralism, as well as workshops in different countries with different subjects. One of them was held in Weimar in collaboration with Antoine Hennion, and addressed the question of the benefits of fiction. Since the beginning, my intention has always been to realize this forth materialization of the project as an exhibition that restored its outcomes, to see if it would be possible to create an archive of tools and resources – not meant for the book reading audience, or the people who take part in a complicated academic tradition, as demonstrated by the website, but for interested people in the streets; an audience that is unprepared, or perhaps rather too prepared – something in which the exhibition succeeds very well. I am not at all curator, but I have realized two larger exhibitions whereby I learned the profession, or at least the direction, the thought experiments, the search for a means to overcome the opposition between the intellectual who possesses the ideas and illustrates them with artworks, and the works that are just there for uncertain reasons, except for the fact that the curator decided to combine this with that, or commercial interests, etc. With Peter Weibel, we have called these approaches “thought experiments”, which have become a genre for me in addressing the questions that cannot really be materialized because it is impossible to “reset modernity”, neither is a face to face with Gaïa possible, but we may fabulate, as our friends from Ding Ding Dong[2] say, and create artificial worlds, not out of imagination but out of the imaginary; a dive into the quest. These works interest me both as a writer and as a professor at Sciences Po.

What is the difference between a “thought experiment” and a “thought exhibition” (“Gedankenausstellung”)?

In the sciences, we call something a thought experiment when one does not succeed in making a real experience, for example because one lacks the right equipment. A large part of the sciences consists in thought experiments. The thought exhibition is a bit similar, you put yourself in a situation that is not objectively realistic, but you are nevertheless able to make anticipations and real experiences. We did this for Making things public: Atmospheres of Democracy,[3] a kind of fair displaying the different modes of assembly that made possible a renewal of politics. This exhibition was the origin of SPEAP;[4] of the program, of the realization in the form of research, of the exhibition project. This was an exhibition which created a school. With Reset Modernity! it is quite the contrary: a fundamental research project which is completely inaccessible to most people, results in an exhibition. At the beginning of the project, I asked Donato Ricci, designer and scriptwriter for the AIME project, if he found the idea interesting, and he responded in a positive way. After this, we recruited a young artist, Martin Guinard-Terrin, a student at Saint Martins in London and in Montreal. He has a very subtle understanding of works of contemporary art, which is not the case for my part. We worked together for a year, based on his propositions. My criterion was: I’m not interested if it is only aestheticizing, if an artwork is only illustrative; the same is the case if it is an artwork which deepens the subjects that interest us by offering a demonstration, because at that point we are really into a very dogmatic and systematic version of things, that leaves no room for the work of art.

But you also deliberately chose to make a dogmatic exhibition?

Dogmatic is a positive term for me! Because it is provocative. You give the directions, and after that, people do as they want. This is not dogmatic in the sense of imprisoning, but in the sense where you construct an itinerary (we could easily have done it otherwise). I think that today, we are no longer in a situation where we need to accumulate the breadcrumbs of things without knowing exactly how they are supposed to be connected to each other, because this is something everybody is occupied with. The world is already in a state of chaos and total disorder. Rather, what is expected of intellectuals, is that they make a coherent proposition, and after that each and every one make their own decisions and actions. Concerning the question of modernity, there are points about which we can say that they are not to accept or refuse, rather they need to be negociated. In any case, before knowing what needs to be negociated, the point needs to be made. This is what the version of the AIME project does: one cannot make diplomacy between different worlds, if one has not already defined the world one belongs to oneself. The problem of the moderns is that they do not know which world they belong to. They have a vision, for explainable reasons, so it is necessary to help them identify which instrument(s) their world is built upon. “Dogmatic” means that you propose a clear and distinct definition that is open to everybody’s free interpretation. This is translated into an exhibition in which there is a trajectory, more precisely a “field book” given to each visitor at the entrance, a procedure for how to follow the red thread through the exhibition. This is the specific medium for this exhibition, which was not at all the case for the last one, and which makes it possible to say to the people passing – after all an exhibition is constituted by the passage of people – that something experimental is happening to them. This was the part that was started during the opening days and the symposium, which notably included the workshop/exchange sessions on different themes related to the exhibition, on Friday 15.04.2016. I am not sure if we will be able to continue this work in the future in a way that is truly useful. How to restore the results, and how can visitors produce results from their own itinerary and invent alternative procedures? Somehow, they are put into a position as co-curators. Regarding the thematic of the sublime, for example, we asked if this was working or not, if they would have proposed a different work, if the exhibited works created a tension or not; all these questions that are so inspiring in the exhibitions and that one cannot evoke through any other medium. It is impossible to make them come alive inside a classroom or a book. Perhaps it would be possible to do this at the theater, if the theater was an exhibition. I am passionate about all this because each and every medium has its own capacities. The medium that I know best, and which is my own practice, is philosophical writing, a very versatile and powerful medium. Thanks to Martin Guinard-Terrin and Donato Ricci, we managed to do something very explicit inside a different medium, which provokes visitors to perform other actions. In addition, we put together a very beautiful catalogue with Christophe Leclercq, yet in doing this we also returned to my daily routine once again!

Will you work on one or several other exhibitions that involve the results from the participants at the workshop?

In principle, this is what we wanted to do. For me, the workshop session was the beginning of a rewriting process. We tried to rewrite the field book, one group started to reinvent the parts of an alternative mood board, etc. The other problem with an exhibition is that you may have enough money to realize it, but no money to use it as an experimental site. Sometimes you make surveys, sometimes there is a guest book of free opinion, however, the production of an experimental site is, regrettably, never really worked through. It is such a pity to refrain from using it. Every time, the same concern faces us: in AIME, the processing of the results that the fellow surveyors brought back with them, posed a lot of problems because people are not used to respond to subjects that are so abstract and speculative. You would in fact need as large a budget to be able to work with the lecturers who bring people to see the exhibition and to maintain a team that stays with the exhibition for the 3 or 4 months it is open. We will do this next time, if there is a next time!

How have you involved your own students at the Sciences Po in this exhibition?

I already did this through the theme of the year 2015-2016 which was: “A mise-en-scène of territories? Landscapes, grounds, undergrounds”. Furthermore, they worked with Donato Ricci on the question of what it would mean to take part in an exhibition. Then, together, we elaborated the field book. As we innovated this exhibition as an archive of tools and resources – a few innovations of the exhibition that took place through the field book – we also made a few innovations of the exhibition itself. However, we should have invested much more in the creation of the exhibition as a scientific instrument. I did not know if this would work. If you construct an accelerator, you need to be able to measure, amplify, etc. From that point on, I have kept this well in mind for an eventual follow-up. We need to prepare a double budget to be able to continue experiments from one month to the next. According to the plan, I will return to ZKM with the students to start the workshop again, but this will be sporadic.

How did you select the works?

It has been a year of negotiations and discussions about Martin’s proposals, considering questions about what is available and not, etc. Something that is very good, is that artists like Tacita Dean, Pierre Huyghe, Sarah Sze, Jeff Wall... have become interested; they helped us procure the works. These are artists who are interested in what I do. For my part, for so long time I had been wanting to work with Pierre Huyghe. Together with Jeff Wall, we are already involved in a critical discussion. I did not know Sarah Sze, her works are sensational. I learned this from Martin Guinard-Terrin, everything was a collective effort. What I wanted to avoid, was an art exhibition, and what he wanted to avoid, was an exhibition of ideas. We debated, with Donato Ricci making the links between us. After that, Christophe Leclerq and I added the documentary part, which is very important. The signs and the mood board are in fact parts of the AIME site that I think made it possible to differentiate between an exhibition of art objects that are linked to a dogmatic form of argument, and a documentation. To clearly separate the documentation visually, makes it possible to do something very interesting; to escape the danger that the rest becomes nothing more than illustrations of ideas.

Yet, certain works have been transferred from their status as works to documentation, for example Caspar David Friedrich?

In my opinion, this was a complete error, but this is because we were not able to borrow Caspar David Friedrich’s painting. I did everything, I was in Dresden, I am even in the museum committee, but there was nothing that could be done, the canvas is too fragile and precious. I would have wanted to display it in very large format, to enlarge the reproduction, but nobody is particularly interested in my ideas for an exhibition… Martin and Donato know a lot more about this than I. And apparently, the reproduction ended up being shrinked instead. My opinion is not always followed, even though I am the curator. It is a collective work, and most of the time, they were right. What I wanted, and what I think I also managed to do, was to avoid displaying fashionable artists, and particularly to preserve the fact that each work is linked to an experimental trajectory, with the procedural metaphor of “reset”. You enter the exhibition in a certain way, and exit from it in a different way. After that, the visitors do as they please.

How were the two modules of Armin Linke and Territorial Agency added?

For years I have been working with Armin Linke who, in any case, had decided to take part in the exhibition during the three hundred days of GLOBALE.[5] We share the same ideas about the meaning of “global”. As Armin Linke always has shown us through his films and photography, the global does not exist. I have written extensively about Armin Linke, because he makes works that deal with an in-person relocalization of the global. We commissioned a really beautiful work by him at the Sciences Po, with Les Nouveaux Commanditaires. I also know very well Territorial Agency which I mobilized for the simulation of COP21 at the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre (West of Paris) in May 2015. We worked with Frédérique Aït-Touati and SPEAP on the question of petrol. John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog’s works have always inspired me, so I asked them to work on the question of soils in resistance, the new political question – overlapping soils that battle and resist against each other. There is a need to visualize these territories. Initially, Tomás Saraceno, another friend, was supposed to be shown in the hall where their works are installed, but the project was abandoned due to its high costs. Finally, Territorial Agency conceived of a very beautiful project. In the beginning I had second thoughts about it, fearing that it would be nothing more than documentation, but with the use of inclining signs, this works well. This was a real strike of luck, because it could just as well have been cancelled.

Could you tell us a bit about the three aesthetics – science, art, politics – that are put in place in the exhibition?

In the old paradigm, one would oppose science, art and politics, something that has absolutely no meaning whatsoever, as these are three modes of representation apt to make oneself sensible to... There is no history of science without the history of art, and inversely. Political history and art history are equally important. You cannot embark upon ecological questions without all these three. They are means to construct a dialogue, like I did in the exhibition Anthropocene Monument at the Abattoirs de Toulouse in 2014.

What does the link between art and ecology say to you?

It is a catastrophe, because people do not reflect for one second on what art is, neither on what ecology is, and this is the reason why one communicates poorly. The ecologists have never really made considerable reflections, and therefore, when they work with artists, the product is communication. Still, there are a few exceptions. The only efficient, and to a certain extent, complex exception, is the work Saison Brune (2012) by Philippe Squarzoni, in the medium of comic strips. Within cinema, we have, probably,Melancholia (2011) by Lars von Trier. Art and ecology often form a sort of disregarded duo, because one assumes that ecology means what is outside, birds, etc.

What importance do you attach to Les Trois Écologies (1989) by Félix Guattari?

I do not think that this is his best work. It was important at its time, when one began paying attention to ecology. Ecology implies a new and very profound understanding of philosophy, of law and of politics, etc. The ecologists have completely given up on this aspect. Immediately, when they enter in contact with the artists, they hold on to the smallest common denominator, as often seen in the exhibitions of ecologic art. It is a bit unavoidable, it takes time to digest ideas.

What about ecofeminist ideas?

I would really have liked to make this a part of the exhibition, however, we were ignorant with regard to artists that are capable of working on these questions. It is only an exhibition, it is not an encyclopedic account of the question. The point was to be able to make a sufficiently complete trajectory so that some of the procedures of reset could have a sufficient number of strong works. Even if people do not understand the reset of modernization – which is very complicated – they attempt a displacement and a “re-grounding”. This is the thing that is only possible inside an exhibition: Even if you do not understand anything about the ideas, the works are there. For me, an exhibition functions when the catalogue, the arguments resonate with each other, like in a book. In Reset Modernity! I find such harmonies to be conciliated. We are not talking about translations, but about harmonic conciliations between different and dissonant media. For example, Jean-Michel Frodon’s work on politics and religion is sensational, as much in his choice of works of cinema as in their installation. In addition, we profited from the support by ZKM’s extraordinary team!

What is the place of the non-human in the exhibition?

The audience is currently appropriating this really obvious idea about the non-human. This has been the subject of ecology ever since the beginning, but it also implies a rewriting of all philosophy and in particular a rewriting of a large part of the philosophy of science, which I have been attempting for a long time. About animals, for example, I have very little to say, since the animal is no subcategory of the non-human. I make no borders around the question about animals, neither around the questions about humans by the way. Otherwise, meat is a question I am very interested in. I concentrate more on the animal sub-categories; not on the animal as an organism, but on parts of animals. A steak is something I better understand. I am an associationist, like my master Gabriel Tarde; I relate to sub-individual entities.

[1] For more information, see:

[2] The institute of coproduction of knowledge on the Huntington, an association co-directed by Emilie Hermant and Valérie Pihet:

[3] From 19.03.2005 to 07.08.2005 at the ZKM.

[4] Sciences Po École des Arts Politiques, created in 2010 by Bruno Latour and Valérie Pihet.

[5] A programme which was inaugurated at the ZKM in June 2015, ending mid April 2016.


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