November 25 2015, 10:00
Dorothea von Hantelmann
Transforming Exhibition Formats in Transforming Societies
Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall tells us as much about the state of Western society in 2015 as the Crystal Palace reflected mid-19th century productivism, or as early modern curiosity cabinets connect to the rise of consumer culture. Art institutions are mirrors of the socio-economic order of their time, whose basic parameters they practice and enact. We can retrace the entire history of individualisation by following the increase of wall space between paintings in 19th and 20th century galleries. We can comprehend the transition of early market societies into consumer societies alongside the transformation of 19th century museums into white cubes. And we can analyse the contemporary experience society on the basis of the way it transforms the white cube into time-based experiential spaces. Art institutions are deeply linked to the values and categories that constitute a given time, which is why they have to keep transforming in order to adjust and to remain what they always have been: a contemporary ritual. Looking at art spaces from the 16th century to the present day as a series of decisive moments of transformation, we may find that the transformations of our epoch are asking for a new kind of ritual, after that of the exhibition.
November 25 2015, 14:00
Look but don't Touch: The Role of Tactility in an Era of Visual Excess
Western culture’s obsession with images began over a thousand years ago, when sacred icons displaced the relics of saints as a medium of access to the divine. Until that moment, touch prevailed as a direct experience, with the ocular acting as an extension of the tactile. This can be appreciated in the popular medieval display of relics, which gradually shifted from the immediacy of touch to the “ocular caress” via the mediation of glass. Like the Benjaminian aura, whose value is enhanced by its inaccessibility, glass conveys meaning through proximity and promotes value through the transparency and brightness of light. The transition from the tactile to the ocular was greatly accelerated in the 19th century, when industrialization and mechanical reproduction rendered nature secondary, covering, displaying and suffocating it under glass. In our technological era, glass has become the new skin, the great intermediary between human beings. The digital has replaced the tactile, and the ocular reigns supreme over a world of images.
November 25 2015, 15:30
A Way in Untilled, Human Mask, De-Extinction
This program gathers Pierre Huyghe’s most recent films: A Way in Untilled (2012, 14 min), Human Mask (2014, 19 min), and De-Extinction (2014, 13 min). Echoing both the cinematographic form and the scientific documentary genre, these three films mobilize frames and figures situated at the hinge of several conceptual divides (the human and the non-human, the organic and the inert, the animal and the vegetal, the natural and the artefactual), in a exploration of the exhibition of nature and the nature of exhibitions.
February 12 2016, 10:00
Charles T. Wolfe
Materialism and artifice: natural history and the cultured brain
Materialism – the doctrine that everything that is, is material – does not appear at first glance to be very friendly to la chose artistique, or more broadly, to the sphere of invention, fantasy and artifice. Materialist philosophers claim that everything real, is somehow material inasmuch as it belongs to the physical, ‘spacetime’ world of causes and effects, from microbes to volcanoes, from tables and chairs to paintings and love letters. In modern times (starting in the Enlightenment and reaching full velocity in the twentieth century) materialists have specifically been interested in the particular ‘region’ of minds and brains. That is, from a general metaphysical position on how we belong to the material universe, materialism focused on the particular case of how our minds would be material in the sense of being brains, i.e., how mental states are brain states. Aesthetic and moral theorists (including existentialists and phenomenologists) tended to react with horror to this thesis, since – in random order – it strips us of our free will; it is blind to the universe of values and emotions; it is similarly blind to the symbolic realm, to fictions and lies, and by extension to art.
In this lecture I return first to an apparently quite different case, that of cabinets of natural history, to explore the interpenetration of materialism and artificiality that 20th-21st century ‘physicalism’ appears blind to. Natural history is the (immediately pre-Darwinian) project to understand Nature as a whole, including the place of humans in Nature. Dispositifs such as zoos, curiosity cabinets and their near-cousin, natural history cabinets were an integral part of this approach to Nature, which was closely connected to the materialist tendency of some ‘philosophes’ such as Diderot and the natural historian Buffon (the curator, so to speak, of the Jardin du Roi, today the Jardin des Plantes in Paris). In selected texts by Diderot, I examine the interplay between materialism and the recognition of the irreducible nature of artifice, in order to arrive at a provisional definition of Diderot’s vision of Nature as “une femme qui aime à se travestir.” How can a materialist metaphysics in which the concept of Nature has a normative status, also ultimately consider it to be something necessarily artificial? Historically, the answer to this question involves the project of natural history.
I then turn to the case for how materialism is not necessarily blind to artificiality, as regards the brain. Additional cases of embarrassment for materialists include ‘neuroaesthetics’ which purports to find a neuronal basis for understanding art, with childish claims like ‘neuroscience confirms Cubism!’. It thus comes as something of a surprise to find that theorists from Terrence Deacon to Warren Neidich, along with passing aperçus from Gilles Deleuze and Daniel Dennett, have developed a view in which the brain belongs to the symbolic realm, and its plasticity embeds it in the world of culture. One key route to take is that of what I’ve called elsewhere a cultured-brain materialism. If the brain is (always) already social then the gulf separating cerebral materialism and art, or Natur– and Geisteswissenschaften, disappears in a puff of smoke. Cabinets of natural history and cultured brains (a.k.a. brains in development) turn out to be (a) part of a parcel of a thriving materialism and (b) irreducibly embedded in the sphere of representations, phantasmagorias and creation.
February 12 2016, 10:00
Recontextualising Les Immatériaux
In 1985, Jean-François Lyotard curated with the design theorist Thierry Chaput the exhibition Les Immatériaux at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition, or more precisely a “manifestation” according to Lyotard, displayed industrial objects, scientific objects and art works within a scenography from the architect Philippe Delis inspired by Denis Diderot’s Grand Salon. Les Immatériaux exhibits what Lyotard calls the postmodern from the perspective of its material condition in related to language, sensibility, time and resistance. The new materiality, which he deliberately calls immaterial in order to break from the modern conception of it, was the point of departure to conceptualize the exhibition, its aesthetics and its medium/message. It is not only an exhibition that reflects on the immaterial materiality, but that also helps to understand what an exhibition can be under this condition. This talk aims to situate Les Immatériaux within a genealogy of “exhibition as medium” –which involves a redefinition of medium in contrast to the modernist approach of Greenberg – by contextualizing it firstly among the writings of J.F. Lyotard between 1983 (Le différend) and 1988 (L’inhumain), and secondly in relation to the initiative of Pontus Hulten (1973) on the informatisation of museums against the backdrop of cybernetisation.