Thomas Kuhn, the twentieth century’s most influential historian of science, coined the term paradigm shifts. “In science (…) novelty emerges only with difficulty”[i], he wrote, influenced by the reading of a paper titled “On the Perception of Incongruity: A Paradigm”, in which psychologists conducted an experiment that showed how people process disruptive information by trying to force it into a familiar framework. “Signs of mismatch are disregarded for as long as possible (…) At the point the anomaly becomes simply too glaring, a crisis ensues- what the psychologists dubbed the ‘My God!’ reaction.”[ii]
On the night of September 21th I found myself climbing a hill in the Peak District National Park, Derbyshire, with other 29 people. We were heading the Cliff Cavern, a formation from the Carboniferous period, where an exhibition called Digital Dark Ages was curated as part of the Abandon Normal Devices festival. The group, invited by Barbican, British Council and AND, was there to spent three days discussing the future of art and art institutions.
As we went down the cave we could read the written history of Earth’s geology in the layers of stone around us. Somehow, we were to face the unexpected. Our own ‘My God!’ reaction. What we were about to experience was not only a deep connection between fields of knowledge and expression but the displacement of our very conceptual frames of perception.
The experience got me thinking about deep geological time, and I remembered a shifting paradigm in science that took place in the eighties when the theory of a meteorite impact became the most plausible explanation for the great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period.
It turned out that the scientist explaining how a massive extinction of species occurred were not paleontologists, as everyone –especially paleontologists- expected, but geologists, biologists and geochemists who detected a clay layer with amounts of iridium –a metal found on meteorites- beyond the normal ranges, between two radically different registers of fossils. No one expected answers to the conundrum of the fifth extinction coming from that fields of science, but it turned out that after all evidence supported that theory.
If an event is to be seen in the future as a landmark or a turning point, at its present time it’s mostly an anomaly, therefore something that’s going to be distrusted or, at least, interrogated.
Giorgio Agamben[iii] reflects on the notion of “device”, tracing back in time the concept of dispositive used by Foucault, as a network of elements -abstractions, technologies, and polices-. The components of such a network, following Agamben´s path of thoughts, plays a fundamental role in shaping individuals -as living beings- systems of beliefs and feelings.
An art festival is also a device for experiencing contemporary narratives rendered by the work of artists who are thinking the world, and by doing that, shaping how we think ourselves within it. As we entered Cliff Cavern I found myself thinking that the art festival device had changed at it’s very core, like if some tectonic plate has moved, shaking the way things are on the surface, but changing the foundations.
The themes of this year’s edition were deep time, dis-location, freefall, listening to the dark and strata. The festival took place in Peak District National Park, and boundaries started to fade. The art-festival device rendered itself into its topic of exploration. The works of the artists inevitably became part of the landscape. They were forced to dialogue with the environment, so powerful that left little space for an opinion. And yet there they were, having a voice.
What occurs in a 350 million years old cave where an art exhibition is curated, are displacements and feedbacks in many levels, connecting the environment, the works of art, the artists and the audience in an ecosystem of inter-affection.
A Tendaguru dinosaur’s bone reimagined by an artificial intelligence was the first bound between deep past and deep future we came across. It was the work of Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles. In a glass box, the 3D printed bone was questioning our place in a future world. Standing in a cave 350 million years old, overwhelmed by the confirmation of the ephemeral feeling we have about our lives, and looking at the bone of a dinosaur re-imagined –and printed- by machines, the foundations of the place we think we have in history crumbles. I continued to think about the layer of clay containing iridium as the evidence for the impact of a meteorite on Earth at the end of the Cretaceous when dinosaurs got extinct. Now, almost sixty-five million years later, a primitive form of A.I. can reimagine how the bone of one of the specimens of that period would look like. Will a more advanced A.I. form, someday reimagine our own bones when we are gone? Will we be re-imagined by A.I? Will we be re-designed?
As is the fear of disappearing in the sixth extinction took over, another piece of work acted as the answer to the previous question. Martha McGuinn’s Everything is in Slices Part V is a machine that reduces the process of petrification to days, preserving today’s objects for posterity. A hat was being petrified before our eyes. It was a virtual acceleration of time, compressing a natural process that takes thousands of years to happen, and making it available to the human sensorium. We were faced again with the undeniable truth that our time span –as individuals but also as a species- is barely significant compared to geological timescales. Are we aware that it’s us, ephemeral creatures, who are shaping our own possible futures? And isn’t that process a byproduct of our own intelligence?
What a magnificent context to think about our meaningless existence, and yet to wonder about how we managed not only to endure and create meaning around us, but also to become the main force driving the changes made to Earth system. Despite the narrative’s discussions, the Anthropocene is a new geological epoch under consideration by the ICS (International Commission on Stratigraphy). Before us lay the timeless and fragile evidence in a stalactite that took more than a thousand years to grow, and yet had to be protected from us.
Nature has its own way of making metaphors. Thousands of tons of stone above our heads, hundreds of millions of years telling us we’re nothing but a fading spark in the realms of time, and yet we’ve managed to change its course forever.
If that was the beginning of an art festival, many things had shifted. To abandon our normal devices was in one hand a proposal and on the other hand a consequence of a sharp, clever setup. It was a displacement of our perception spheres and expectations.
No human mind can grasp the concept of deep time. That’s disruptive information for the context of an art festival. People experiencing it will try to force that disruption to make it fit into a familiar framework –let’s say, try to match it to a conventional art festival device-, and that effort can lead to conceptual gaps, a no-place. And what is better than a no-place to think about the unreachable?
Aren’t paradigm shifts –displacement from the common, detachment from the self- the better way to find new approaches to concepts that are difficult to convey? And if that’s so, how can we provide ourselves with the tools for that kind of shifting? Certainly, such a movement from our familiar approaches won’t come out of the familiar itself.
Poetry, George Steiner said, is the dark matter of thought. It has the power to depict anything without mentioning it. Poetry is an impossible task. It is, in itself, a metaphor for poetry’s own task. Ben Lerner nails the idea in The Hatred of Poetry:
“You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. In a dream your verses can defeat time, your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (…) but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic”[iv]
Our social and cultural world is a translation of a deep, complex and somehow terrible archetypical world into a language. Normal is what we can frame in the realms of our understanding, and our understanding limit is our own language, outside of which we cannot think. Poetry helps us to get closer to that deep and complex world, by subverting the order of language and the meaning of words and signs.
But poetry doesn’t work exclusively in the domain of language. Poetry is a way of thinking and acting. It’s a way to create the devices we use for sense and experience. We can find poetry in every shift of meaning, in every implausible connection that happens, in a no-place.
To abandon a normal device means to dare and put ourselves in a place in which we can create a bound to the world –a deep, complex world- beyond the limits of our language, the device of all devices. By doing so we get closer to the impossible task of poetry. To achieve that we need a disruption and a context that deprive us of the possibility of making that disruption fit into a familiar framework.
We certainly need more of that.
[i] Kuhn, T. The Structure of the Scientific Revolution. In Kolbert, E. The Sixth Extintion: An Unnatural History. Kindle Edition
[ii] Kolbert, E. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Kindle Edition
[iii] Giorgio Agamben, “What is an apparatus?” and Other Essays, Kindle Edition.
[iv] Lerner, B. The Hatred of Poetry. 2016. Fitzcarraldo Editions. London.