Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is an author, an organizer of events and exhibitions, and a researcher of artistic practices, the histories of art and the politics of aesthetics. She is Director of Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art and GAM / Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna and Contemporanea in Turin, Italy and she is one of the Distinguished Visiting Professor in Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University. She drafted the 14th edition of the Istanbul Biennial in 2015 (SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms) and was the artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13) which took place in 2012 in Kassel, Germany as well as in Kabul, Afghanistan; Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt; and Banff, Canada. Previously, she was the artistic director of the 16th Biennale of Sydney, Revolutions—Forms That Turn (2008); and senior curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, a MoMA affiliate in New York, from 1999 to 2001. She also curated: Faces in the Crowd (2005), William Kentridge (2004), Pierre Huyghe (2004), Franz Kline (2004), The Moderns (2003), Animations (2001), Janet Cardiff: A Survey of Works including collaborations with George Bures Miller (2001), Around 1984: A Look at Art in the Eighties (2000), Greater New York (2000).
Quantum Physics and No-Knowledge Zones
Conversation transcription below
A conversation with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (full version)
A 2 minutes excerpt from the conversation
All images: Pierre Huyghe, Untilled, 2011–12. Alive entities and inanimate things, made and not made. Courtesy the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris; Esther Schipper, Berlin.
Tiziana Casapietra: Hello.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: Hello, good evening.
TC: Good, evening of course. Thank you for your time. Just two words about our project which dwells on the sharing of knowledge on a global level. This is a sustainable way of sharing knowledge, because we can connect globally at zero cost and with almost zero CO2 emission. The knowledge that we share through these conversations is publicized on our open-source platform. We are located on the Savona University Campus. Our independent research project focuses both on sustainability and contemporary art; the Campus on the other hand is a landmark of Italian research for renewable energy within the development of the Smart City. Perhaps you will visit one day and I can give you a tour.
CCB: Yes, with great pleasure.
TC: Now let’s speak about you. When I came to see the exhibition you curated of Giovanni Anselmo’s work at Castello of Rivoli (Ed. Co-curated with Marcella Beccaria: 6th of April – 25th of September, 2016), you made a beautiful remark: “To appreciate the poetics of this exhibition we need to remain silent. We talk too much.” The use of the word poetic fascinated me. Among other things, you often mention the term knowledge in your texts, which is almost counterintuitive to our times as we have little time to go into depth. Having said so, I would like to speak about these two terms in order to understand your approach. And if you want, of course, you can use the English language.
CCB: I do not use the term “poetic” in a difficult or obscure fashion. I just mean to point to something that we feel as poetic, so related to poetry. So it’s not about poiesis and referring to the etymology of the word. It’s a very simple feeling: a form of knowledge that cannot be constituted. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that I invoked silence, which is parallel to decreased amount of visual stimuli in the exhibition. So a decreased amount of words and a decreased amount of visual stimuli as well, in the Anselmo’s show. Now, of course, Giovanni Anselmo was an artist from the late 60’s, so he is not a contemporary of new media or new technologies. He certainly did not grow-up as a digital native nor, for that matter, is he particularly digitalized right now. But he does appreciate the fact that you can send a picture in a second, as opposed to sending a photo-color, a slide, an Ektachrome which entails going to the post office, walking there and so on. But he reminds everybody that, although that’s fantastic, if you are walking down the street with your cell phone you should be careful, because you might trip and fall, break your ankle. So that’s a very simple summary of an old, wise person who has seen a lot of technological revolutions. I mean what they saw, their generation, was the telephone and the television being widely distributed. Although they only started in the mid-50’s in Italy. Having seen quite a number of huge shifts, he does not fall into a naive — which I think is naive as well, having a mother who is an archeologist — naive celebration of applied science.
So when I say poetic I don’t mean “The Poetics” by Aristotle. I just mean something that refers to that particular kind of knowledge that is transmitted through words that are open floating signifiers, not defined rigidly and often have onomatopoeic points. So there is a synesthesia between different senses. Knowledge is an old word, but it is not that old a word. We speak about knowledge capitalism now, and we speak about cognitive capitalism. They are used synonymously since the 1990s, we also talk about knowledge production. The word production is — I think — key to the problem. The problem is an overflow of information; bits of information and an overflow of stimuli in general. A naive idea — I mean in my view naive idea — that applied science is going to revolutionize the world. It will revolutionize the world, but not completely. There are certain things about our circadian circles. Years ago, in the 90’s, people tried to make apps and software that would make the screen of your laptop slightly dimmer at night so it would get you tired, or certain ions in the light would make you follow a body cycle that would enable you to get enough sleep. Of course, we know about the fact those applications and software didn’t actually work. Although, everything that I’m saying sounds like I’m an anti-progress, or technological progress, but it is not totally true. I think there needs to be an alliance between the most ancient knowledges in the world and the most advanced research. That’s what I think. I think politically quite a lot. I never take things at face value. I was listening to someone in the video recordings that you have done and uploaded that I find fascinating, a conversation with someone in Silicon Valley.
TC: Yes, exactly. David Orban.
CCB: That got me hooked on your website. So I’m very, very interested in cutting-edge and up-to-date research. I’m not against it, but I find that we repeat the same mistake over and over again. I find that art, when it’s good art, has a kind of skepticism. There is a bit of critique of one’s society, or one’s dominant trends in a society. One of the dominant trends, is that we are now in the era of “knowledge production.” The curatorial practice — what I do — has now extended to all fields: biology for example. Any genetic research will need curators. Once the results of an experiment, of a test, have been reduced automatically to a certain number — statistically reduced with the right algorithms — then you have these people, they are called curators, who reduce the results more and pull out certain things that they then show to the so-called scientists. I’ve seen this in labs across the world from Vancouver to Vienna, because I do visit science labs quite a bit. This is fundamental research.
So I didn’t quite answer you, but to summarize I would say that I’m interested in knowledge but I’m also interested in “no-knowledge zones.” First of all, we don’t know what knowledge means. We don’t exactly know. It doesn’t really matter if we know. Even if we define it, words change their meanings constantly throughout time and different cultural contexts. So even if we pin it down to what it means today in Italy, it won’t carry the same meaning tomorrow in London, or in Dakar. So we don’t even know what knowledge means, but if I know what you are trying to suggest, you are trying to suggest that it is an old word that applies a certain amount of synthesis of information, so that a kind of interiorisation of how to react through free judgment and make choices as a human, can occur. This is indeed is an old philosophical definition of knowledge: sapere.
I think that nowadays knowledge is identified often with who has the most information, the most data, and the most useful tools to analyze data. So that’s not exactly knowledge, in the old sense, but whether we are talking about the old sense or whether we are talking about the new sense, the problem with “knowledge production” is the “production” part. So I’m very close to art and artists — I always have been. Arte Povera, first of all, but let’s say John Cage, or artists of today like Pierre Huyghe; that speak about “no-knowledge zones.” They are in favor of zones of impossibility of constituted knowledge. That’s a political reaction against a form of advanced capitalism, which is not necessarily at the service of joy.
Another word I use a lot is flourishing. Pointing to the flourishing life of the planet. I don’t believe at all that we cannot feed the planet without GMOs. I think that’s a lie, because all my journeys and all my travels around the world, have shown me immense fields of GMO cotton, or GMO corn for the purpose of making gas and energy. Not for the purpose of feeding. And I know exactly what the problem with GMOs is in terms of the collapse of biodiversity. So I don’t really trust that this technological revolution of the digital age is all for the good of humanity.
I think that it is also used to enslave humanity and to increase profit and to concentrate wealth. Although, I understand that when you were speaking and introducing you often used the word sustainable. That word ten years ago, I thought was ok. Now I find the word very problematic because sustainable usually means financially sustainable. That’s what it usually means. A museum is not sustainable; there are not enough visitors, not enough tickets and money to turn it into a private enterprise. But who said museums should be private enterprises and make profit or self-support themselves? That’s contrary to the whole history of museums. Who says that the medical services should all self-sustain themselves through insurances policies? I’m not a communist, because that’s an old vision of things, which is based on human knowledge and human production, and it has a Stakhanovist principle to it. So it’s just about how you share the profit, and ownership or means of production. But it’s not about sharing the planet with all the other species. So, I’m not a communist, but I am certainly worried about the collapse of a certain socialist prospective on how to run and how to apply things. I see a catastrophe in the universities, with the collapse of the humanities, or the interest in the humanities only for the purpose of the so-called “knowledge production,” like in the movie “Matrix” in which slaves produce information that will turn into entertainment. So the humanities are okay, in this sense of privatization, only if they are directed to a kind of application, which is the application of leisure time. This is why I don’t use the term sustainable anymore.
TC: Yeah. I used the this term in order to point to radicate.eu’s engagement with persons that work in different parts of the world, thanks to new technologies, without which we would not have the economic possibility to proceed in this knowledge exchange.
CCB: Yes, yes. I understand very well. That is the other side to the coin. I’m not against the digital age. Obviously, you wouldn’t be able to do any research at all in science, or in humanity without these technologies. It’s an enormous contribution that revolutionized research in the humanities, because when you are talking about sharing knowledges it means that before there was somebody who knew A, somebody who knew B, and somebody who knew C and you needed to study E.
It was very hard to find out A, B and C in order to get to the point where you could study E. But in the last 10 years, or 15 years, since the early 90’s you have researchers in the humanities and in science all over the world who are connected and collaborate. Quickly, you can get to A, B and C and finally D or E.
I realize that it’s not all bad. The watch for example, when they invented it, after the sundial, it wasn’t a bad thing because it helped us to tell the time. When you noticed what happened with the crystals and how that effected movement inside something — or even before that in just winding up the watch in the 1500 or in the 1600. Of course, it’s great that we can make an appointment. But at the same time, every technological advance is done for the purpose of a prosthetic device, something that enhances whatever ability. For example, we can’t calculate so fast, or we can’t count, so we invent the calculator and so on. It’s hard to tell what time of day it is exactly, so we invent watches, but at the same time as you make any invention, there is another thing which happens which is a loss of ability. You perform a prosthesis other things are atrophied. My task in the world as a skeptic, because I am a skeptic like Sextus Empiricus, like Pyrrho the Great. I am not old fashioned, I am just a skeptic. Thank God there were skeptics throughout history, it is not that Michel de Montaigne was old fashioned, Montaigne was a skeptic. Descartes was not, Friedrich Nietzsche was. I mean skeptics are very useful, because they play the devil’s advocate and they see the other side of things.
TC: Yes, of course.
CCB: So I’m just observing what atrophy occurs at the same time as this prosthetic thing, which means that you and I can do this interview and I can watch your interviews, which is great and it has no huge cost. But if you study more holistically the whole economy, you notice that the faster we decrease cost the faster we also lose jobs and the faster we also impoverish certain areas of the world, or certain parts of society. Yes, in our little corner of making this online magazine, we are doing something which is sustainable, but there is always another side of the coin. In the industrial revolution we made the machine that helped us do very hard tasks. The minute we made it we put little children to work in factories, because their fingers are smaller and they could do things that adult can’t do, so we suddenly enslaved children.
TC: That which you were saying is very interesting and it contradicts that which David Orban was saying. He spoke about exponential technology, and the fact that we will arrive at a point in which technology will produce itself.
CCB: Yes this is true.
TC: At a certain point there will be no need for human labour, but only technology. Robots will replace us. There will therefore be a mutation of paradigms and a shift in labour. This will necessitate an alternative model of co-existence.
CCB: Well, I think that’s the idea of the 1950s. Norbert Wiener and Gregory Bateson had this idea of cybernetics. Cybernetic means that the machine does it by itself, self-pilot. In the 50’s and 60’s there was an incredible development of this exact idea, which resurfaces in the 19th century when they invented the steam engine.
The point is that what I do becomes the work. What I do, exhibitions, art becomes work because we either die of boredom or we have to feel our brain. It has to be constantly stimulated or we get physically sick. We are going to have a lot of leisure time and that means art. The creative industries in the 21st century are the ones people engage with in a leisurely manners and that requires a lot of work and time. For example, to take pictures of people, like taking a selfie and then putting it on Instagram or Facebook, it’s a hell of a lot of work. I mean you may not call it work, but it’s a new kind of labor, it’s the production of images that other people can aggregate around with “I like, I don’t like.”
Because what we call work just changes and the new work is not regulated politically, all the kids that are alienated with the selfies… This is not regulated work. There is a lot of anthropisation of things that we forgot. Since the watch was invented, we are no longer able to look at the sky and say what time it is, and so few people are able to make fire. As soon as we have one prosthesis we atrophies something and the brain does not necessarily expand. Certain things get atrophied and we out-source, it is like out-sourcing the brain. And it’s dangerous, you know, like the Google glasses.
The thing that we take picture of our whole life atrophies the ability to select memories, for example, there is a huge increase in attention deficit disorder in the young generation, ADD. There was a huge increase in anorexia ten years ago. Take for example that little machine that flies, the drone, which takes things to your doorstep; of course it is progress but there is no legislation, even in the US that regulates the proximity of the drone in relation to residential residency. What happens if it falls?
It’s funny because it sounds like I am against it, but what I’m trying to say is that I’m informed and aware that there are buttons and programs that you press on your washing machine and it automatically orders the soap, and the soap gets delivered. But, I think that the important thing is to realize that number one, we are losing a kind of connection with the embodied. There are many other species on the planet that do not use the Internet and cell phones, but their societies are being destroyed like the bees for example. There is more and more research that says that all these damned cell phones are causing the collapse of bee communities. This is not the only reason; there are many, many reasons, but bees just as worms are very important. Without worms there is no soil and without soil there is no agriculture, there is nothing to plant on it, even with the best machine. GMO fields are homogenous. And that means that…
That’s my dog, by the way… Multi species…
CCB: Anyway GMO fields are very susceptible to diseases because they are uniform whereas a non GMO field is not uniform and therefore diseases will kill much less of the plants. The question of capitalism is also important. There is no reason why GMO seeds should be terminator seeds. They have been designed to be terminator seeds, which means that they cannot produce new seeds next year. It’s not a necessity, but it’s a design. It’s an intention that suggests for the first time in 10,000 years, if GMOs were to be used all over the planet — and they are illegal in Italy, by the way — the human species, people, do not control the means of production of their own food. That’s dangerous because if the human species cannot make their own food then if there is a financial crisis as occurred actually in 2007 and in 2008 — that year there was starvation on the planet and there was an overproduction of food. That’s because with the financial crisis the prices would have gone down but by then food stocks were on the stock exchange but they couldn’t sell it so they had to through them away, food was thrown away on the planet and there was starvation. This is just a small sign, if we privatize water and GMO seeds means privatization. It’s synonymous with privatization because there are terminator seeds, so you have to buy them every year. My view, which is represented the exhibition “Organismi,” (at GAM, May 4 — November 6, 2016) includes looking at the most advanced research in alliance with the most traditional knowledges…
TC: The Skype call dropped.
CCB: The laptop is complaining about what I’m saying!
TC: Probably yes.
CCB: For example, I was in Alexander Tarakhovsky’s lab at Rockefeller University in New York. He is a geneticist. He showed me that machine that is mapping the genome of each individual actually, and that is going to make personalized medicine.
TC: Yeah, personalized medicine.
CCB: Yeah, that’s fantastic, I mean of course that’s great, it’s a great advancement. I’m not against advancement in Western medicine, but anybody who knows anything about the body nowadays is understanding how the combination of Western medicine with say yoga can bring to a much healthier lifestyle. Yoga is expanding all over the world, more and more people are doing Kundalini yoga or yoga and that connects the energy. It connects the so-called prana, the energy that you access through controlling of your breathing, which controls your mind and your mind controls your breathing and your breathing controls your mind. And you exercise certain parts of the body in a certain order. From the bottom, your root chakra all the way up to your crown chakra: your head. It’s like squeezing and turning things. Now that’s sounds like magic or superstition, but it really isn’t. If we think in terms of other fields of science, I’m specifically thinking about physics, not applied mathematics, not digital, but physics. Now the most advanced physics is in Quantum theory and it’s always been since the last forty years. You can’t think physics without thinking Quantum. We know this very well, because those old ideas of observed dependency have been proven. Anton Zeilinger with his teleportation experiment in the Canary islands — which is really not teleportation, it’s just about entanglement— has shown with many other people that it is true that on a small infinitesimal scale the consciousness influences the result of the experiment. So if one scientist does the experiment the result is different, than if another scientist does it or the same scientist in two different moments. There is two things he has been working on and they have been working on: one is entanglement which is the fact that spooky action at a distance, was what Einstein called it. He said we can’t go that direction, because if we go there we can go crazy, or we have to believe in God, which is silly, there is no point in believing in God. But entanglement means that two things that are very, very far on opposite ends of the universe are acting concertedly, without any transmission of information via anything that we humans on planet Earth could call a transmission.
So there is something we really don’t know that’s going on, which make the universe folded, and which makes all these theories of parallel universes — which I don’t ascribe to — emerge. But it certainly tells us that time doesn’t really exist in the way we think it exists. Obviously digital time, which is totally human, controlled synchronization, is the most banal and basic idea of time. So the stock exchanges open at the same time and we can send messages at the same time; those ideas of time are from the stone age. That’s why they are doing a little bit research in Quantum computing also, because they are trying to figure out how to entangle things so that you don’t have to encrypt anymore. You just have entangled elements that are larger than protons, which can make two computers communicate without any wireless connection or transmission of data. But that’s maybe never going to happen, because it’s an idea similar to 60’s cybernetics. We are really, really primitive compared to what we know about how the universe functions. So that’s one thing, entanglement, and that is how little we know.
TC: Yeah, sure.
CCB: The other point is on a small subatomic scale, you can certainly say that our thoughts are made of electrical charges and inversions of electrical potential monosodium channels open and the neuron cells, fire and synapse works. So on one hand, we can say that our thoughts are also physical. They are just as physical as a waterfall, but just on a small scale. If that’s true, telepathy is going to be proven very soon. We know that people doing a lot of yoga and meditate, a lot of meditation, are very good at telepathy. We don’t know how it works, but it actually works. And it’s probably connected with the physical nature of thoughts. Annie Besant wrote “Thought-forms” surely before Einstein’s theories in 1905 — and they might prove very, very in advance. But not only are thoughts physical and therefore they can be sent. Maybe we don’t need all of these softwares, not even implants under the skin, but one could say the opposite. There are so many scientists that say “physics, physics, physics” and that the universe is produced by consciousness. If consciousness affects the universe constantly, the universe can also be a product of consciousness, like in “Twilight Zone.” So if that’s true, we are in a scale of reflection that is so far beyond what the people from Silicon Valley are thinking about how to run the planet. So I am interested in science, I’m interested in fundamental research more than in applied science.
TC: Now, I would like to ask you something in regards to the Castle of Rivoli, the programming of which includes conversations with individuals from disciplines that exists outside the art-world. These points to your focus on multidisciplinary approach. I would like to therefore address your visions for the programme at Rivoli and in Turin.
CCB: In the last three, or four months I have dedicated my time to studying the situation and have reflected upon possible models for the museum of the future.
TC: What is a museum of the future, Carolyn?
CCB: At this point, almost all the museums are transforming into private institutions. My choice was to work in the old, public museum, even though the financial support is also sustained by bank foundations. My choice was very clear; because in the art world the element of innovation is represented by the birth of private foundations such as the Louis Vuitton, Garage, Pinault, Prada. I respect their work, because they compensate, in some way, the absence of the public museum, but for me it also represents the return of an art oligarchy, in which art indicates one’s social status.
TC: Certainly, this is clear. The golden palace of Prada certainly represents status.
CCB: Yes, but this is not a criticism to an individual; it is an observation on the tendency to privatize museums. Privatization is not the problem; the problem lies in the transformation of knowledge in “knowledge production.”
TC: As you were saying before.
CCB: As I was saying earlier. On one side, the museum could return to the old model of the museion in Alexandria, Egypt. Which is a space for Muses, where the activity revolved around research and objects served as inspiration to poets. The museion is the first museum that constitutes a part of the library. I am not the first to suggest that we must institute an alliance among the universities, research institutions and the museums as a means for collaboration. I wish to develop the library. I wish to create spaces where people can live and reside while researching. The library, nonetheless, represented the place of memory, the place where we question the role of memory today. The culture and art have always been battlefields. Art history does not proceed inexorably. It’s not like this. Today as in the 16th century there have been people that make choice: selecting, Janet Cardiff yes, and Damien Hirst no.
TC: Very interesting, Carolyn. What do you mean by battlefield?
CCB: It means to be engaged in creating that which tomorrow will be labeled as that which was created in the 20th century.
TC: It is a selection.
CCB: It is not simply about the selection process. Art does not exist if you don’t facilitate its existence.
CCB: If there is not exhibition, there is no artwork. If there was no Documenta there would be no “Untilled” by Pierre Huyghe. There needs to be a garden, the Karlsaue Park, etc. etc. etc. It is an encounter between an artist such as Pierre Huyghe and myself around non-human knowledges, for example.
Huyghe, on the other hand, could realize this artwork thanks to Documenta. As a consequence many things followed, such as the encounters reflecting upon the geological era of the planet being the being the Anthropocene. All these things happened after, so things can take one turn or they can take a different turn. It’s not just about selecting and about the memory of that which you want to remember.
It changes the course of things; it changes the course of history. So if I pull out Arte Povera now, and put it in a collection, I’m speaking to new materialism. I’m speaking to Duke University without doing it directly but I am, I’m speaking to Karen Barad. I’m speaking to a certain number of things and so you can see that after time. Yeah, it’s just like art, it’s a kind of challenge, but I don’t really think that art exists as a specific field as you may know. I have been saying that it was invented in the 18th century and then the past was read through that definition of Modern Western, bourgeois idea of what art is, which then is followed by the invention of art history, which is invented in the 19th century at the same time as photography. So there is no real art history, in the sense that we ascribe to it as the study of styles and movements according to this idea of historical development in relation to society, or not in relation to society. All that is an idea that emerges with the association between historical parameters, the invention of something called art and photography. So, art-history has been around now for two hundred years, I’m not sure that it will exist tomorrow. There will be different fields of aggregation of things. Maybe some people in Silicon Valley are sort of the artists. If you think about it, YouTube for example.
TC: Of course, yeah.
CCB: YouTube was invented by these two, three guys in 1996, or 1995, or 2006. They wanted to share videos to prepare parties and they invented some software to upload videos more quickly. One of those two guys was an artist; he studied art. He made bad paintings, but he invented YouTube. So art is just not invention, art is certainly connected with creativity. But it’s also very much connected with critical consciousness, with skepticism.
TC: Certainly, at this point we have returned to the word skepticism with which we started this conversation.
CCB: Yes, and perhaps we can conclude with it.
English proof-reading: Emma Siemens-Adolphe