Sunday, June 12, 2005

ZKM exhibition: Making Things Public II

Here's my brief response to the exhibition we all went to see last month at ZKM in Karlsruhe - Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy.

First of all it was a pleasure to be introduced to the exhibition by Bruno Latour who briefly explained the flow of ideas, overall structural intent and the ‘phantom public’ piece which I will talk more on later. The exhibition is a gargantuan undertaking; 100 pieces of work from artists, scientists, sociologists, philosophers and historians all tasked with rejuvenating ‘the political in the name of arts and sciences’. Many pieces are collaborative experiments and thus timely to view given our recent collaboration with RCA design students. In fact we had been introduced to one of the pieces on display - Pindices; Demonstrating Matters of Public Concern by Lucy Kimbell (in collaboration with Andrew Barry) - only a week before and I was eager to see this work in context of other representations. I am also currently reading and thinking on how wifi is made political by different groups so was interested in the curators notions of ‘assemblies that are not political in the customary sense and yet assemble a public around things that are controversial and therefore political’. I definitely recommend a viewing of it – it is open till August – and try to allocate at least one full day if not two starting both with a good solid German breakfast.

In my brief review of the exhibition I agree and also don't agree with kris’ call for 'more disputation' (see below).

I too found the show interesting in terms of structure as well as content. The division of four zones and a further 13 sections provides a strong narrative for the many works and a foundation for curatorial decisions. It is a structure that neither leads the viewer in a linear path nor frees them to explore unencumbered. The viewer is caught in a web of simultaneously wanting to experience the exhibition as a whole, engage with the thematic introductory essays and the pieces together as well as appreciate them individually whilst bringing to bear personal interests. And as mentioned there is an awful lot of it to work around and through. Thus the experience can at times feel overwhelming and exhausting. On these accounts and others I agree with the desire for more disputation within and between individual pieces for the purpose of drawing out individual voices.

However is not the concept of democracy a collage of many voices - the good and the bad, the weak and the strong, the interesting and the dull, the confident and the misguided - each having an opportunity to speak in some form at some time? As the curators remind us the exhibition is an 'assembly of assemblies’ and thus a space for representation of many things that may or may not interest us and do not necessarily complete a smooth and neat and always easy to interpret picture of society. Politics resides in a lot of places, not always where you expect to find it.

So perhaps in this way the melee of voices, blurred and occasionally complicated navigation and multi-layers of information works to establish the context for our accepted ruling systems. Perhaps the structure of the exhibition (as well as its contents) presents us with an ‘atmosphere of a democracy’ to make us question a number of things like; Is this how it should be? What is our role as viewers, as participants and as citizens? And how do we decipher, act upon and dispute this kind of information in this context?

It's how I now see (on reflection) the idea of the 'phantom public' piece. Though a little nebulous at first when you are actually in the space, upon gaining time and distance on the experience I have come to see it more clearly. The ‘phantom public’ is a digital artwork that captures a sense of an individual visitors presence via their RFID entrance tag and collates and translates this information into a constantly changing rhythmic collage of light and sound throughout the space.

‘You will leave countless traces during your time in the exhibition; these activate the “phantom public” and this phantom in turn leaves it’s mark in the visitor’s mind. Without ever being completely clear about this, visitors will be both actors in an invisible artwork and a screen for its projections; it is an artwork that aspires to realize a new community.’

It is this idea of influencing the conditions of democracy on a personal individual level inadvertently by unconscious or habitual actions that I find potent and tangible - because so often (especially in this country of non-compulsory voting) there is the assumption that one person alone cannot make a difference.

- kat