Notes on: Latour and Eliasson
on the Bergson/Einstein debate on time -- held in
Berlin University, Rauminstitut, February 2011
Latour: Canales seems to have made this debate
popular again: public opinion tended to say,
before her work in 2008, that Einstein had just
settled it by dismissing Bergson's work as mere
'philosophical' or subjective, psychological time.
Latour and some colleagues apparently decided to
re-enact the debate between Bergson and Einstein
in 1922. Because it wasn't really much of a
debate, with Einstein just being prepared to
dismiss philosophical conceptions of time,
Latour and the others included another Einstein in
the discussion, 'Zweistein', who was able to offer
balanced contributions after thinking about
it. This reenactment is discussed in the
video which I looked at here,
the discussion on day three. Unfortunately, the
real thing is in French.
[There is also a transcript of what looks like a
similar debate at a similar symposium here]
Latour draws attention to two 'bizarre figures' in
Bergson's contribution: the giant or god who is
able to see two events far away acting in
simultaneity, and correspondingly, a scientific
microbe who argues that at the microscopic scale
clocks might not actually be synchronised.
The point is to argue that Einstein's personal
location as a physicist in the laboratory is an
essential part of the decision to compare absolute
and relative time [in the twin experiment, where
one twin is sent on a voyage, and the other one
remains on earth, and then their ages are
compared]. Obviously this is going to mesh with Latour's work too. In
effect what's being argued is that in order to
compare absolute and relative time, there has to
be some ways to mediate 'point by point' between
the different frames of reference, and this is not
discussed in Einstein's account. Einstein is in
fact taking a classical metaphysical stance,
acting as God in effect -- and it is ironic to
call this 'relativity'. Bergson is the relativist!
Bergson knows more about physics!
Zweistein would thus stop seeing Bergson as merely
subjective, and would admit a metaphysics in his
own position -- the issue become comparing
metaphysics. B had been allocated a place as
subjective. Many artists are similarly trapped.
Some have accepted this position and its
inferiority. Revised dialogue denises this split
-- there are 2 cosmologies and no-one is
interested in subjectivity. Can B's
cosmology be accepted, where duration of time,
lived experience equally real. This is Whitehead's
position -- can we see an object as both white, as
an artist, and as made of molecules, as a
scientist? If we accept there are 2, how can we
decide on the success of the positions, as a
matter of a gradient rather than absolutely? This
is at least worth considering -- and would
have made the debate a tie?
Eliasson: What are the cosmological consequences
of this bifurcation [of cosmologies]? More than a
tie could be produced?
Latour: Do we live with the descendants of Bergson
or Einstein? If E, no more to think about -- if B,
can think of, say, Gaia and impact of ecology. Now
we know only one planet, it is hard to be
Eliasson: Good question (on to Part II). So
phenomenology ultimately subordinates art to
science? Phenomenology was very useful to be
creative -- but art is still cornered as you say
by cosmology? Creativitiy now needs a cosmological
dimension? Would art be different?. [shows
pictures of the space they are in, to show
different positions and perspectives,someof them
doing experiments, dances and shadows etc,
interactions between gyroscopes -- shows lots of
pictures etc]. Phenomenolgy allowed him to
experiment with 'atmosphere' around work -- the
people etc and the extent to which it could affect
the work. Thge idea was to 'dematerialize' the
work, offer new experiences and thus a
reconsideration of reality a path from the
subjective to speculate about reality, via new
experiences, art that disobeys [conventions]. For
example, behaviour is different if people expect a
plane to be an ice-rink -- the ice somehow has a
role, it communicates. Behaviour does not usually
flow from new thinking [so it is hard to provoke
thinking about reality? Taken -for granted views
are socially supported]. There was also a similar
experiment with bits of an actual glacier, which
showed that [people reacted when it was displayed
as art?]. It was the same with walking on
unfamiliar ground [on obsidian rock] in Iceland,
people lose track of dimensions -- no trees, no
vertial lines etc. Oddly enough, fog helps gauge
distance. How do we orient via our active body?
How are surroundings constituted? What is the role
of normativity here? [More installations are
shown]. Or the 'sun' exhibition in Tate Modern --
which was somehow linked with climate change,
which changed the meaning, even for Tate people --
they became pedagogues! The Tate was really part
of the recycling of old industrial site. Again the
installation added fog to increase the perception
Latour: Fog and air conditions no longer easy to
separate into subject and object. Heidigger showed
Sloterdijk how to refer to science and technology
but not accept their claims. Fog and atmosphere
important in Heidegger...
Eliasson: Subjectivity drove these project but we
realized plural phenomena were important. That
other people do the same [in the Tate] affects
individual behaviour. There is no full
synchronization of course.
Latour: 'Installation' marks the difference from
individual perception or construction in French...
Eliasson: Art works are not just 'things'. They
have consequences and these sometimes produce the
work. Folds are based on symmetries beyond Euclid
[and these were explicit inputs?]. Esoteric work
can be reused in art -- for example to disturb
conventional buildings, even without people. One
project was to create an 'island' -- a 'Parliament
of reality', implying a need to agree on reality,
There is another experiment, instead of talking.
We see how synchronized people are if they close
their eyes and raise their hands when they
think a minute has passed. Think of a collective
dimension if you wish. [They do it]
Part III -- questions
Q: The B/E debate was read closely by Heidegger
who published -- the Notion of Time,
nutshell of Sein und Zeit.Heidegger's
themes of locality and intentionality of the
thing. And also the role of the 'actants' in the
installations --[machines do not have
L: The cosmological turn is different from
Heidegger's interest. Whitehead is more
relevant? Bergson points out the human
interests in even buying clocks. [Not an answer at
E: I need to read more Heidegger! I think of
eating as a social activity - the origins of food,
as things, show wider relationalities and
trajectories. But the contexts often lose their
power and relevance. Art can revalue these, to
make them visible.
L: Is their interobjectivity?
E: But this can mean the modern idea of regulating
masses, eg to make them consumers
L: I am extending intersubjectivity to include
E: Our value systems are like 'sleepers' in spy
stories. We must become aware of them, through
art, especially as the end of the world is nigh
L: The ethical dimension is apparent in your art,
but is absent in the B/E debate. The glacier
example raises the issue of our responsibility --
do we answer calls like these? If so, our
responsibility then becomes cosmological, not just
E: We know about the climate but still there is no
responsibility. We should not just moralise,
although there is a personal dimension. How does
responsibility turn into action? Art is also
subjective, but it can turn the artist into an
object outside of the self, especially with
installations, but you have to be present.
L: So there is some other agency calling art for
the spectators to experience? This is beyond
morality, and, for Kant, we should exclude Nature
to develop our morality. But now Gaia is coming
back. Kant is frightened into morality by Nature?
So which call should we respond to? Is it just a
matter of size of the threat? Interestingly, the
great threat seems to have induced indifference,
people are blase. How do you manage this, to make
people responsible not blase?
E: [Another example, he walks in slo-mo -- to draw
attention to the park, not walking through it ].
This is a classic Eastern German park, and artists
were encouraged to change it [?]. He seemed
unpredictable and threatening, not engaging. There
is very little interaction in this park normally,
as a legacy of East German planning [?]. Slowness
is valorised differently in the East [Asia this
time?], but suspicious here. Photos of this walk
stimulate further thought.
L: So you are showing that public spaces have a
will of their own?
E: Another example -- deforestation in Russia
produces tree trunks drifting in the Arctic
Ocean, and, after drifting a lot, sometimes run
ashore in Iceland. He picks them up and put them
in a container -- but they got lost. The same
feeling as seeing trees on Iceland beaches
(Iceland is tree-less), a gift from Gaia. He tried
to retrace the path from the point of view of the
tree. Trees are so rare in Iceland -- the trunks
became commodified. People were awestruck.The trunks
had travelled so far...
Q: Your stories are needed to get us interested?
E: It is hard to dissect the project. Talk about
the project is separate.
Q: E's book on the driftwood -- nothing that
humans could do would be as interesting as the
presence of the wood.So objects are gripping on
their own. Objects do cause discussion etc. There
is no need to attribute consciousness to objects.
The biological evolution of consciousness means it
is no longer something unique to humans.
L: Animism is taboo, easily dismissed, but objects
do have lives of their own, agencies. But relying
on the term consciousness, big in Bergson, limits
our thinking. Inanimism is equally strange,
though, like Kant's denials of Nature. Why did we
ever imagine that trees were simply inanimate? E's
work on relativity includes strange objects with
Q: So use another word than consciousness? I had
radical intentions in using the term.
L: B used creativity --but inanimism is a creation
despite our work, even in science.
Q: I am not afraid of the implications. Art has
always thought of rocks having a soul, with art
designed to liberate it. But this led to more
humanity, and the notion of artistic genius. But
there can be authoritarian tendencies.
[Then I gave up and skipped]
E: Scientists can help relate time and
dimensionality in art. I can colonise scientific
Q: The B/E debate was very short and the issue was
a universal frame or simultaneity required a human
perspctive even to read clocks? Did E claim that
art had an effect on the space around it -- and is
this an Einsteinian line?
E: I intended to be non-phenomenological -- but I
am not unhappy to be Einsteinian.Space is full of
intentions but these are hard to quantify and
analyze -- every brick in Berlin has lots of will
and consciousness. I am aware of this in my art,
that it is performative,so is it the same for the
city? And is performativity dependent on people
being present? When I am performing, eg walking in
slo-mo, I have an effect.
L: For Bergson, the issue is the composition of
extensions, extended space. In cosmology how does
space extend and how far? B congratulated E for
grasping local spaces out of earlier experiments
--but then jumped to an absolute, abandoning
composition. The history of perspective shows an
early stage without extended space. Euclidian
space itself is a composite of earlier notions of
space. B says E extends 'too quickly': he was
composing one. We are not in space and time, but
we compose them around ourselves. E's work shows
this, but E leapt to a metaphysics.
E: These notions are found in some architectural
schools too -- combining the local and the global,
as in understanding climate. One example [LaCaton
Vasselle?] used buildings as raw materials from
different countries and assembled them together --
glasshouses, houses etc. Or put new facades on old
Q: Theatricality combines the two
presentations? L's re-enactments provide the
clue -- common in his work and connected to the
notion of actors? Scientific labs as theatres?
Also in E - - artworks as stages, perfomance.
Theatricality can be an insult, meaning not real
-- is that implicit in the work here?
E: There is a difference between staging and
hosting an event -- the former means taking a
stance, maybe moralising. It has been necessary to
play down theatrical components,although they are
good at representing time and narrativising, and
presenting immediate experience. But the
presentational issues are important and we need to
be careful. The point is to allow coproduction.
For example, he refused permission to perform at
the Tate, to keep it as a public space, and was
embarrassed when he gave into Cunningham's dance
back to social theory