‘Critical Zones’ reimagines humanity's relationship with the earth

The curatorial team of the ‘thought exhibition’ at ZKM, Karlsruhe, talks to STIR about the marriage of science, philosophy and art to address some key ecological issues.

by Jones John Published on : Aug 21, 2020

The last half century has seen the earth change in a pace as never witnessed before and, more often than not, humanity’s collective understanding of the biosphere seems to fall short when trying to comprehend all that is going on. Amongst the most vociferous public intellectuals trying to bridge gaps in our knowledge systems in order to equip our collective consciousness with the tools necessary to grasp our existence has been Bruno Latour. The key to understanding his reimagining of our lifeworld has been viewing it as a network of ‘critical zones’, a term that differentially refers to the few kilometres above and below the earth’s surface, which is capable of sustaining life while being susceptible to changes brought about by the activities of its inhabitants.

Critical Zones at ZKM Center for Art and Media is a ‘thought exhibition’ that is a result of a long collaboration between Peter Weibel and Latour, and put together with a curatorial team which includes Martin Guinard, Bettina Korintenberg and Daria Mille. Coinciding with the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, this monumental event brings together the works of various luminaries, from scientists to philosophers to artists, who are, through individual and collective capacities, invested in bringing about holistic changes in how we perceive and live with the world around us.

Soil Affinities by Uriel Orlow. Photo by Elias Siebert | Critical Zones | Uriel Orlow | STIRworld
Soil Affinities by Uriel Orlow Image: Elias Siebert, Courtesy of ZKM, Center for Art and Media

Here, STIR speaks with the team behind the exhibition Critical Zones.

Jones John (JJ): Could you briefly describe the different forms and mediums this ‘thought exhibition’ is to put across? What is a ‘thought exhibition’?

Critical Zones (CZ): Together with the French philosopher Bruno Latour, the ZKM has established an observatory in the mode of a thought exhibition. The idea originates from Critical Zones Observatories, a sort of outdoor laboratories that are installed in various sites all around the world with the aim to closely monitor the critical state of the earth in an interdisciplinary endeavour by the scientists of various disciplines studying the interaction between plant ecology, hydrology, soil science, geochemistry, geomorphology, and biology. In the context of the exhibition, observatories are not limited to scientific inquiries. They address the problematics that Bruno Latour tackles through Critical Zones, transforming an organisational concept for a community of researchers into a philosophical one, which aims to help reorient oneself in the turbulent time and space of the New Climatic Regime. Consequently, it is not a question of standing in front of the object of study, at a distance, as the etymology of the term ‘observatory’ at first glance might suggest, but rather of getting actively involved and immersed in the processes of the ever-evolving and precarious envelope of all living – the Critical Zone. The concept of the observatory points toward a different kind of sensitivity and attitude with regard to all the life-forms cohabitating in the Critical Zone. As the Latin etymology of the term reminds us, observare not only means ‘to observe’ but also ‘to look after,’ ‘to take care,’ ‘to esteem.’ Hence, at the exhibition visitors will become the observers in an active way and start into a way to reorient themselves within our living environment – the Critical Zone – including challenging moments of self-description to better understand the vast network of dependencies that make our existence possible. In this respect the exhibition serves as a living laboratory to develop, in a transdisciplinary cooperation of innovative scientific and artistic strategies, future potentials of knowledge and options for action.

The concept of a ‘thought exhibition’ is a cross between an exhibition and a thought experiment. It has been developed by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel in their previous collaborations at ZKM. It will result in the collaboration of artists, scientists, designers, activists, and intellectuals to create a small-scale model of a situation that is impossible to model at the scale of the earth itself. It builds on the 20-year-old intensive working relationship between Peter Weibel and Bruno Latour, which has resulted in three ‘thought experiments’ - Iconoclash in 2002, Making Things Public in 2005, and Reset Modernity!  in 2016; the three catalogues were published with the MIT Press.

Future Fossil Spaces and An Invitation to Disappear by Julian Charrière. Photo by Elias Siebert | Critical Zones | STIRworld
Future Fossil Spaces and An Invitation to Disappear by Julian Charrière Image: Elias Siebert; Courtesy of ZKM, Center for Art and Media

JJ: What is the nature of the physical exhibition? Could you elaborate using select examples and by expanding on their significance?

CZ: The term ‘critical zone’ is used by geochemists, biologists, and ecologists to designate the surface and near-surface environment of the earth. It is a constantly evolving layer, a few kilometres thick, where living organisms, but also soil, rock, water, and air interact, and it is where life forms have created conditions favourable, so far, to the continuity of their existence. ‘Critical zone’ also underlines the fragility of this thin layer, and the many controversies triggered by the new political attitudes necessary to cope with the New Climatic Regime – a term coined by Bruno Latour to connect the material and political transformations in the relations of humans to their terrestrial conditions of existence. To shift the orientation from the distancing conception of the globe to an entangled perception of the human within the critical zone, the exhibition will propose the critical zone as an alternative to the division culture–nature.

In Atrium 2 of the ZKM | Karlsruhe you are going to enter into one of the described Critical Zone Observatories. We have chosen the Strengbach Observatory, set up in the Vosges near the village of Aubure, 150 kilometers from Karlsruhe. Equipped with many instruments, it has become a sort of outdoor laboratory covering 80 hectares, getting data from the top of the tree canopy to 150 meters underground. This view of Aubure, built by two architects Alexandra Arènes and Soheil Hajmirbaba, is very different from a tourist’s view of a Vosges landscape. Rather, we want the visitors to experience, as close as possible, how scientists themselves follow the behaviour of some of the phenomena making up a landscape: the water cycle, forest evolution, chemical weathering, patterns of rain, etc. Most elements that sustain this landscape are invisible, except through long-term data accumulation and close monitoring. A CZO is composed of multiple sensors that give scientists another feel for the land. In this zone of observation, the visitors can experience how scientists observe the Critical Zone with highly technical instruments and will discover that they too are part of the natural cycle of atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere and the lithosphere. We do not only live on the earth, but from the earth, and by doing so we are changing the earth. In this way, a feedback is established between what we are doing to the soil we live on, and how the soil reacts to our collective action. This mode of an inquiry to sense the critical zone through a set of different sensors and to develop an alternative sensorium including our own actions, to which the Critical Zones is sensitive to, is at the centre of the exhibition.

Critical Zone Observatory Space by Alexandra Arènes and Soheil Hajmirbaba. Photo by Elias Siebert | Critical Zones | Alexandra Arènes and Soheil Hajmirbaba | STIRworld
Critical Zone Observatory Space by Alexandra Arènes and Soheil Hajmirbaba Image: Elias Siebert, Courtesy of ZKM, Center for Art and Media

JJ: Could you elaborate more on the idea of making a network of critical zones?

CZ: One of the most important ideas of Bruno Latour that are fundamental for the exhibition is that there is a need to work analytically as well as aesthetically on realistic and sustainable alternatives to the globe and the land that are no longer attainable as conceptual framework for our all lives: the first because the planet is too small for our numbers, and the second because neo-nationalists offer a space that is much too small for us. Therefore, we need to step aside, to find a third attractor besides the non-alternatives globe and land. As a ‘map’ for our research, we want to employ a triangulation to determine the exact position of a third attractor in addition to the two apexes land and globe; a third reference point whose pull could make things move again. This is what we call the terrestrial. The goal of the research and exhibition project is to accept the epistemological challenge and give sense to this third attractor. This is why the collaboration with the Critical Zone Observatories’ network is so important. Each of the many sites they study offer a way to realise how little is known about the thin layer of the earth, but also how difficult it is to understand the various impacts that political decisions have on it. Clearly, there is a huge gap, scientifically as well as politically, between the older idea of the globe and the local terrestrial conditions which allow a civilisation to thrive. What counts is that activists, artists, scientists, and politicians everywhere have clearly diagnosed the implausibility of the two main destinations towards which the present political dilemma is leading them and are all, in some ways, exploring the other. The hypothesis the exhibition curators would like to propose is that the best way to map this new earth is to see it as a network of Critical Zones. Generated over eons of time by various life forms, these critical zones form a surface only a few kilometres thin. Those life forms had completely transformed the original geology of the earth, before humanity transformed it yet again over the last centuries. Over the years, scientists have installed multiple observatories to study these critical zones and have made us aware of the complex composition and extreme fragility of this thin layer inside which all life forms, humans included, have to cohabit. They have renewed earth science in a thousand ways and very much in a way that Alexander von Humboldt would have approved.

Flash Point (Timekeeper) by Sarah Sze. Photo by Elias Siebert | Critical Zones | Sarah Sze | STIRworld
Flash Point (Timekeeper) by Sarah Sze Image: Elias Siebert, Courtesy of ZKM, Center for Art and Media

JJ: Could you elaborate on the role of art at the exhibition, and on this significance by taking the examples of select works.

CZ: Critical Zones will allow us to shift the conversation away from ‘ecology’ understood as the study or the defence of nature, into what should rather be called politics of life forms. In that sense it opens another conduit for the collaboration between science, art, and politics. This is why we are building a vast network of institutions and experts from various disciplines to participate in the development of the exhibition. Among others we joined forces with the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, the Hydrogeochemical Environmental Observatory: The Strengbach Catchment, Harvard University, Karlsruhe University of Art and Design (HfG), State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe as well as with local initiatives in and around Karlsruhe (public and private actors, activists, scientists, artists, entrepreneurs) and the participants of the Critical Zones Study Group at Karlsruhe Uni­versity of Arts and Design (HfG), which ran for two years in order to co-prepare the exhibition. Together we have tried to find ways to build up assemblies and modes of becoming terrestrial, and we invite visitors to participate in this manifold process.

The great paradox of the New Climatic Regime is that it has no public, no shared representation. This is why great attention will be paid to earth science, particularly earth system science, as well as to attempts to represent alternative versions of the shape of the critical zone. This is also where artists can help, not through illustrating, but by proposing works that could enable sensitivity to develop about the current situation caused by ecological mutation. It is actually a characteristic of the Critical Zone Observatories network upon which the exhibition feeds, that scientists are willing to collaborate extensively with artists — the geochemist Jérôme Gaillardet with the architect Alexandra Arènes, the artists Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits as well as Marcus Maeder with the WSL – Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape, the archaeologist Karen Holmberg with the media artist Andres Burbano etc. General art, with its imaginative, speculative, and aesthetic power, takes on the important challenge of developing new representations and options for action in a situation that is still unclear.

Oceans in Transformation. The Architecture of the Continental Shelf by Territorial Agency. Photo by Elias Siebert |Critical Zones | Territorial Agency | STIRworld
Oceans in Transformation. The Architecture of the Continental Shelf by Territorial Agency Image: Elias Siebert; Courtesy of ZKM, Center for Art and Media

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