Collections of Things to Study our Times

(extended version of a talk at TEDxLakeComo, see Video's) 


Prologue: MJT

In Culver City, California, there is small insignificant building that hosts the “Museum of Jurassic Technology” (1). The museum does not talk about dinosaurs and not about technology either. It shows, amongst other things, the sculpture of a pope within the eye of a needle (to be looked at through a microscope), a horn (allegedly) grown on the head of an English woman, an illustration of how a bat entered a block of lead and remained (invisibly) stuck in it.

It is difficult to make sense out of everything you see. The fact is that when you step out of the darkness of the museum into the dazzling light of LA, you know that the world must be more complicated than what you see around you: roads, cars, traffic lights, … The museum has put you in a state of wonder, which is often also a state of doubt.

The story of the Museum of Jurassic Technology and that of its founder is beautifully described by the American writer Lawrence Weschler in his book “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder”. The book is also an original introduction to the history of museums in general, with a focus on the 16th century collections, the so called Cabinets of Wonder or Wunderkammern, of which the MJT is called a true heir (2).

 

I: The 16th century

It was indeed also difficult to make sense out of everything that was going on during the 16th century. It was the time of succession wars and religious wars, reformation and counter reformation, the sack of Rome and not only. But it was also a century of marvel. The discovery of the Americas with their news and novelties expanded very much people’s possibilities and imagination. This general atmosphere of marvel also made room again for the old and repressed arts such as astrology and alchemy. The renaissance of the classics got quickly contaminated and enriched by a renaissance of the exotic, the esoteric and the magic. All this mingled into a big political, religious and intellectual confusion that governed Europe for more that a century.

In this context, cabinets of wonder emerged throughout the continent, trying to absorb the chaos of old and new. They exhibited the most bizarre things: real and fake. The horn of a unicorn, for instance, was very much in demand. But, as if the horn was not enough, the catalogue of an English collection talks even about the tail (!) of a unicorn.

While many of these collections nurtured the taste for the extra-ordinary and led to the cabinets of curiosities of the Baroque and beyond, others became instruments for research. In Italy, between Leonardo and Galileo, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) of Bologna had a specific scope with his collection (3): he wanted to “systemize and recompose knowledge” through a “microscopic reconstruction of the macrocosm”.

At a given moment he writes: “Today, in my microcosm, you can see more than 18,000 different things, … truly exemplary of the species produced by the great Lord …”. For a long time, conducting everything to a single Creator, was the only way to maintain some coherence in the chaos of things, and maintain control over them. However, little by little, wonder had to give way to doubt about how the world was described by the classics and the Bible.

Aldrovandi recomposed knowledge, based on an attentive observation and detailed description of his objects: “… of all things collected and arranged in an orderly way each will be supplied its own history and description”, he wrote. Text and drawing helped to objectify the objects, purifying them of unnecessary subjective interpretations.

Recomposing also meant literally making new compositions: on one occasion stones were shown together with stones and animals with animals, while on another occasion spherical things were put with spherical things and long things with long things. One can easily imagine Aldrovandi and his assistants busy placing and replacing their 18,000 objects, experimenting with small exhibits until “things fell in place” and some deeper connection between objects might have been found.

A first division that seemed to work was the one between Naturalia and Artificialia: things made my Nature and things made by Man. That might seem something very obvious to do. However, it was a radically new approach because it removed God as the origin and explanation of every thing and, as such, threatened the joint power of Church and State.

The separation between Naturalia and Artificialia contributed to the evolution of Modern Thought, in which that separation developed into divisions between Object and Subject, between Facts and Values, Science & Technology at one side and Art, Politics, Religion at the other. And with these divisions once and for all clarified, with this Enlightenment, Humanity would finally evolve towards perfection.

These divisions made also an end to the big collections of the 16thcentury. They fell apart into museums of Natural History (of which Ulisse Aldrovandi is considered the founder), museums of Art, libraries, etc. (4)


II: The Anthropocene

Let’s change subject for a moment.

To explain today’s climate change, it is useful to put it in the context of all the changes that have happened during the 4,5 billion years of history of the Earth.  

The division between oceans and continents was already in place in less than a billion years. Life originated in the ocean 3,5 billion years ago, and it stayed there, for about 3 billion years: developing at an unimaginably slow pace. About 600 million years ago, the environmental conditions were right for Life to migrate from the ocean to the land, where it “exploded” into plants and animals of all sizes and colours. But it was a very slow explosion: millions of years are still unimaginably long!

The fossil record talks about several mass extinctions that occurred during the past 600 million years. They were caused by natural cataclysms: meteoritic impacts, tectonic shifts, volcanic eruptions and the climatic changes that resulted from them. These mass extinctions took place over thousands of years, during which, little by little, some life forms could not cope with the changing environmental conditions and died off. Life subsequently recovered over the following tens of millions of years. These mass extinctions, and the fossil layers that resulted from them, divide pre-history in geological periods and epochs. For instance: the Jurassic period (you remember the Jurassic?) went from 200 to 150 million years ago. The periods of the dinosaurs ended with a meteoritic impact 65 millions of years ago. New epochs with new life forms came along: they were called e.g. the Plio-cene, meaning “more new”, the Pleisto-cene “most new” and finally the epoch in which we officially live: the Holo-cene “entirely new”.

The first humans arrived 7 million years ago. Homo Sapiens entered the scene only 200 thousand years ago. If 600 million years would be equal to one hour, 200 thousand years would be about 1 second; we just arrived.

But with Homo Sapiens and his newly acquired intelligence, things start to go a bit faster. There are the various revolutions that made of Homo Sapiens the dominant species; the cognitive one about 45,000 years ago, the agricultural one, 10.000 years ago, and the industrial, only 200 years ago.

And so, all of the sudden the so-called Illuminated and Modern times arrived, with, in 1800, one billion people on Earth. There is still the music of Haydn, but already the noise of steam machines. Machines that allow for even bigger machines. Ships, exploration and exploitation, colonialism and the brutalization of man and women. There is social revolt. Bombs and fertilizers: the First World War and the explosion of the global population. In 1927 we are 2 billion. The Thirties, with New York competing with London and … Berlin. The first deployment of weapons of mass destruction, followed by the Declaration of Human Rights. Oil, hence raw material for plastics, fuel for cars. Sprawling cities. 1969: three billion. There is demand and supply, mass production and mass consumption. The glorious Sixties: an explosion of creativity.! The throw-away society. The first heart transplant. More plastics, plastics everywhere. 1975: four billion. Pesticides and Genetically Modified Organisms. Freons and the ozone hole. Space travel. The personal computer: Pacman and Super Mario, CCN and MTV. East and West. 1990: five billion. North and South, with China in between and Africa forgotten. Internet, financial markets. The search for sustainability: open pit mining. Biodiversity: burning forests 2000: six billion. Global networks, global warming, global terrorism. 2010: 20 billion … chickens. Automatic slaughterhouses. Head transplants. Virtual life. We are now more than 7 billion of which 2 billion living in extreme poverty. Inequality and insecurity that generates conflict after conflict, emergency after emergency, war after war.

Now, we are literally in the midst of an explosion! We, humans, have acquired a power that equals that of the prehistoric natural cataclysms. Now, we (!) are causing changes in the Earth system. We are changing its climate by excessive use of coal, oil and gas. We are littering the most remote corners of the Planet with the wastes of mass production and mass consumption. Even without using atomic bombs, we are driving plants and animals extinct, not in thousands of years but in a few decades.

Man has become a geological force and thus it makes sense to call our times the Anthropocene: the epoch of Man (5). The history of Man, irrelevant as it always looked on the geological clock, is now tied up with the history of the Earth. Man and Nature, humans and non-humans, collectively define the Anthropocene. We change the Planet while the Planet forces us to change. We have to find our role in this interplay or we  will be remembered, millions of years from now, by a layer of fossils, ours, mixed with cement, radioactivity and plastic …


I+II=III: Back to the future via some Political considerations

Of every thing that was listed before one can easily find images and videos on Internet. Scholars have called e.g. Youtube a Wunderkammer of the 21st century, but without clear curatorship (6). Youtube, internet, the blogosphere show our chaos, our confusion. Together with Man’s enormous power over Nature goes a lack of Man’s comprehension and sense of direction.  After describing the history of Homo Sapiens in 500 pages Harari writes: “ Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” (XX)   How come that the Illumination,found after150 years of Renaissance, again results a global mess, only 500 years later ? Have we been modern at all? Could it be that we still live in that same 16th century mess and that “We have never been modern” as Latour polemically wrote(7)?

According to Latour, we, in the Western world, only tried to operate according to the alleged divisions between Nature and Society, Object and Subject, Science and Politics, Facts and Values …. We tried but we never really succeeded. Even scientists, producers of “Objective Facts” par excellence, deal with all sorts of non-scientific issues: budgets, patents, guidelines, requests for information ”tomorrow”, … . And symmetrically, the agendas of politicians, the mediators of Societal Values par excellence, are ever more guided by scientific-technological issues: climate change, oil reserves, nutritional balances, GDP, … . The point that Latour makes is that many scientists and politicians of Modernity, have always performed their work, NOT admitting, less so describing, that they were constantly crossing the divide between Science and Politics,and not always in orderly and transparent way.

There has always been quite a difference between Modern Thought and Modern Practice, the latter not being modern at all. However, the results of the messy operations of scientists or politicians (or artists or clerics or …) kept being presented as rigorously scientific or political (or artistic or religious or …), because that turned out to be profitable, at least for some. Especially the alleged separation between Objective Facts and Subjective Values allowed Science & Technology to achieve and present its results without being hampered by thoughts about their costs or benefits for humankind; the latter was for Politics to discuss. Nuclear energy has long been a prime example: according to Modern Thought nuclear research is neither good or bad, it is what you decide to do with the results of that research that is good or bad. The same now goes for information technologies. The same for everything Science & Technology invents: if it can be made it will be made, it is how you consume it that might create problems.

This enforced separation between facts and values, between what “is” and what “ought to be”, gave and still gives  Science & Technology the enormous freedom and efficiency that are essential characteristics of Modernity. New goods and services are constantly being produced, whether they are needed or not. They are produced faster than man and woman can reasonably consume, but consumed they will, to be substituted as quickly as possible for the newest, more promising, more performing, ultimate product: smartphones, medicines, travels, ... After decades of denunciating the throw-away society, we still live in it. It fact, it has now spread from the West to the Rest, to use another division invented by Modernity.

As is elaborated elsewhere with great lucidity (8), the tight link between Science & Technology & Consumerism  is leading to a terrible waste of human and natural resources and to a confused and dissatisfied humankind, because largely based on illusions. There are damaging global scale consequences for society and the environment, that quibbling politicians have difficulties to control. More and more it is the market, the likes on Facebook, the artificial wants rather than the essential needs that are in control.

Considering all people on Earth, the Anthropocene has so far been characterized by inequality, waste and confusion. This first part of the Anthropocene is characterised by entropy creation: the creation of prosperity in the smaller part of the world at the cost of misery in the larger part of the world. It could indeed be called the Entropycene as well.

In the end also Latour admits that Modernity exists: Modern Thought has such a profound impact on society that it cannot be denied.  But the time has come to recall and re-set Modernity (XX)

So far this Political excursion. What we take away from it is that in order to reset Modernity and  tackle the chaos of our times and the collective problems imbedded in it, it could be useful to start again from pre-modern times, from the 16th century indeed.  That means that some sort of a Wunderkammer approach, i.e. collecting objects, could be useful to find a different order, or better: an other way of looking and seeing  that does no longer follow the failing separations of Modern Thought. That a collection of the objects of our times might help us to move beyond the first part of the Anthropocene and overcome the wastes, inequalities and chaos that it created, in the same way the collections of objects of the 16th century were helpful to get out the chaos left by the attacks on the dogma’s of medieval thinking.

If you think of it, the objects of today are not totally different from those of the 16th century. Back then, before the work of purification began, objects on show were more than just objects. They were shrouded in stories, legends and myths. Those stories made them much more interesting than what a mineral or an ostrich egg or a tusk of the narwhal fish, objectively speaking, could be. Today we have become aware that despite Modern Thought and because of Modern Practice, the recent past has again created objects that extend far beyond their physical boundaries, their technical descriptions and in fact the limits of Nature itself. They have been named quasi-objects or hyperobjects. They are hybrids that are neither just natural or just man-made. Examples are: Climate, Soot from Diesel Cars, Radioactive Fall-out from Atomic Bombs, Health, Terrorism, Intelligence, … But also ordinary objects can be considered hybrids (see Epilogue). Hybrids cannot be described and tackled by either Science or Politics alone, because they are the results of the un-admitted crossing of boarders between Science, Technology, Commerce and Politics. They are produced by Nature and Society together, they are no longer either Naturalia or Artificialia. Hyperobjects are clearly representative of the Anthropocene, in that they illustrate the insoluble link between Nature and Man. It is admitted only now that these hybrids exist (10). They often extend widely in time and space. They are always lurking around the corner affecting daily life. Because of their complexity they are never fully visible. Hyperobjects exist in a multi-dimensional space (11) , including environmental, functional, aesthetic, … dimensions. Only their footprints on environment, society, art, etc. can be seen.

So, to conclude: there is a beautiful but challenging work to be done: collecting the things of our times: quasi-objects, hybrids, hyper objects, or call them simply: issues, and use these collections as instruments for study. Try out different exhibits, until “things fall in place”, until hyperobjects become fully visible, create wonder and doubt and show that things are more complicated than what is taught by consumerism. Use all of this to recompose knowledge. Use curatorship to cure. If the separation between Naturalia and Artificialia no longer works, what can be the new categories? Could, for instance, things be divided into Light ones and Multiple ones, or Quick ones and Consistent ones (12)? Could these qualities be useful to see and live the world in a different way and to better tackle the collective issues of the Anthropocene?


Epilogue: MAT

In Laveno Mombello, at the eastern shore of the Lago Maggiore , there is a small museum, a Wunderkammer: the “Museum of Anthropocene Technology” , a due reverence to the “Museum of Jurassic Technology”.

The MAT talks about the Anthropocene and somehow about technology. There is , e.g., a work that sheds light on a light bulb, a photograph printed with the very air pollution that the photograph is showing, a pair of glasses. It is again difficult to make sense of all of this, but now we can try.

Take the glasses: they seem like a simple object, made of plastic and glass, with a specific function. On the inner side of the frame there is written: Made in China. This makes explode the object, these glasses. in a thing much more complex. They are designed in Italy, but we can see the Chinese workers who produced them, polluting the air and the waters of their city. We remember the wars in the Middle-East for petroleum, the raw material for plastics. Then the ships that transport the oil to China, and those that bring the glasses to Italy. And why made in China? Because Chinese labour is cheaper. So are we earning too much, or are they earning too little? All that makes of this seemingly simply object, a thing, a hyperobject, a marvel that cannot be simply thrown in a waste bin. On the contrary, it is put on a pedestal for contemplation.

In this sense the Museum of Anthropocene Technology is Political, Political with a major “P” because it tries to address the question how we want to live on this Planet, among ourselves humans and with our non-human companions.


References

(1) The Museum of Jurassic Technology, 9341, VeniceBoulevard, Culver City, CA 90232. www.mjt.org 

(2) Lawrence Weschler , 1995, “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder”. MJT’s founder, David Wilson, tells that he had understood the purpose of his life while still being a boy: he had to create physical conditions that would allow people to change. After making some money in the film industry and experimenting with small exhibits, he opened his museum around 1988. 

(3) Alessandro Tosi, 2005, “Wunderkammer vs. Museum? Natural History and Collecting during the Renaissance” in “Fom Private to Public. Natural Collections and Museums” edited by Marco Beretta. 

(4) Of the 16th century Wunderkammern and their baroque descendants only catalogues and drawings remain. The collection of Aldrovandi has been partly reunited and can be seen in the museum of Palazzo Poggi, of the University of Bologna.  

(5) Paul Crutzen, 2002, Geology of Mankind. Nature 

(6) Robert Gehl, 2009, “YouTube as archive. Who will curate this digital Wunderkammer?” Int. J. of Cultural Studies. 

(7) Bruno Latour, 1991, “Nous n’avons jamais été modernes”.  

(8) Papa Francesco, 2015, “Laudato Si’ Lettera enciclica sulla cura della casa comune”. 

(9) Bruno Latour with Christophe Leclerq, 2016, "Reset Modernity!" 

(10) Timothy Morton, 2013, “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World”.

(11) In geometry, hyperobjects are objects in multi- (i.e. larger than 3) dimensional space. The projection of a hypercube in 3-dimensional space (or a section of the hypercube by 3-dimensional space) can be a cube. Just like the projection of a cube in a plane (or a section of the cube by a plane) can be a square.

(12) Italo Calvino, 1985, “Lezioni americane. Sei proposte per il prossimo millenio”