Sunday, January 24, 2010

8th Swiss Biennale on Science, Technics, and Aesthetics--Part 2

Held at Lucerne's Swiss Museum of Transport, an interesting, relatively high-tech facility, the 8th Swiss Biennale on Science, Technics, and Aesthetics set out to address some of the big global problems facing humanity at the start of the second decade of the 21st century. The Biennale charged 90 Swiss francs for the weekend and drew an audience of several hundred people. With the notable exception of the first day's intervention by Latour and Stengers (about which I posted an entry last week), the tenor of the papers was mostly non-academic, which was presumably part of the design of Rene Stettler, who has organized these events from their inception. Or perhaps more accurately, the overall tone of the event was something like a self-congratulatory celebration of the possibilities of a socially conscious science to redeem the world. Indeed, for much of the weekend, science and technology were presented as the new religion and the new priesthood, offering an enlightened public a new age, pseudo-ecological theology of the inter-connectedness of humanity, nature, earth, and the cosmos.

Day 1 was devoted mainly to science, beginning with a lecture on Leonardo by Frijof Capra, whose book The Tao of Physics was hugely influential among intellectually inclined seekers in the 1970s and beyond. Capra's thesis, which made virtually no reference to any of the voluminous scholarship on Leonardo, was that Leonardo had anticipated many of the tenets of contemporary non-linear science, including fluid dynamics, organic form, ecological design, the Gaia theory, and so forth. All that was missing was the claim that Leonardo had invented the internet. Margaret Wertheim, an Australian science writer based in California, followed with a critique of the Pythagorean idea that mathematical equations could describe the natural world, ending with a critique of the misplaced priorities of such scientific projects as the Large Hadron Collider. The other lectures included a critique of the idea that humans were inherently warlike by science journalist John Horgan and a defense of systems theory as a way for science to account for conscious experience, by Michel Bitbol, a philosopher of science at the École Polytechnique in Paris, which was the most academic of the four talks. While all of the talks offered what one might characterize as "enlightened" critiques of science, none of them broke any new intellectual ground. Each talk could be seen to participate in the construction of something like a socially conscious scientific theology, belief in which could somehow lead the way to a more humane future.

This new religion was most evident on Day 2, which focused on art and science, particularly in the presentations of Kevin Kelley and David McConville. Kevin Kelley, not to be confused with the founder of Wired magazine and former editor and publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog, is "an artist, best-selling author, and entrepeneur," author of a 198 NY Times best-seller, The Home Planet, which featured photographs of earth from space coupled with inspirational prose from scientists, poets, and philosophers, among others. Kelley presented a new digital tool to visualize our place in the evolution of the universe. His hypnotic narrative of the digitally generated images was accompanied by songs and poems by Rachel Bagby, "an arts and social change innovator." The aim of their presentation of this visualization tool, which was received with awe and wonder by most of the audience, was to dramatize how brief humanity's time on earth was and yet how dramatic its impact had been. Kelley claimed that his plan was eventually to make his software into open source media and to make it ubiquitous--on computers, cellphones, watches, and so forth. At no time did he give any indication of the impact that networked digital media might have had on the planet.

The erasure of technical mediation was even more complete in the planetarium presentation by David McConville, a disciple of Buckminster Fuller and "noospheric researcher" at the Elumenati, a full service design and engineering firm specializing in the creation and deployment of immersive environments, located in Ashville, North Carolina. McConville presented a dazzling planetarium show of the observable universe, whose aim was to "invite" the audience members "to imagine stepping outside of their own perspectives to reflexively consider how suspending beliefs can enable new ways of seeing and knowing the world." While the display was impressive, what was most interesting about the planetarium presentation was the way it transformed the museum into something like a 21st-century cathedral, as the priests of a new-age scientific theology dazzled believers with powerful digital visualization technologies of mediation. Reclining in the dark among a crowd of fellow believers, looking up to the digitally projected heavens, the audience was invited to immerse itself in the power of these new technologies, which worked to erase all signs of their mediation in the presentation of a new cosmology. What wasn't reflexively considered was the role of computational and visualization technologies in producing this interactive display or the info-capitalist aims of the Elumenati.

With the exception of the intervention by Latour and Stengers, the weekend's presentations aimed primarily at feel-good solutions to complicated global problems. The 8th Swiss Biennale could be seen to represent a popularization of an interdisciplinary academic conference, one focused more on edu-tainment than education, more on celebrating a shared set of cultural beliefs about science and technology than on contesting and composing the complex interrelations among science, technics, and aesthetics today.


sms2sms said...

do you say, we should not only put the mass-media in the museum, but also conferences? (i like this idea ;-)

here our video: in front of the paywall to the mass-media...

Vitalie said...

I watched the interview on and read some of your posts. Very interessting. Also thanks for describing your impressions of the conference - I haven't been there and only read about it and wished to visit it myself.