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Making Things Public

Looking at Making Things Public
Andrew Nealon

Making Things Public debuted March 19, 2005 at the Karlruhe Center for Art and Media Technology. The multi-media, multi-theme exhibition, curated by German contemporary artist and film artist Peter Weibel and philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, followed Latour’s previous exhibition on iconoclasm (Iconoclash). Concerned with “the things of nature, of people and of art that constitute the political,” Making Things Public was an exercise in exposing the threads that attach our things, to the political, how things become public, the “republic.” The theoretical space between the two exhibitions was easy for Latour to bridge — as he put it, politics is a “subject about which people are easily iconoclastic.” And while people might be disinterested in looking at politics because it is so divisive, Latour hoped to uncover a deeper, ubiquitous quality common to all political beings (human and non-human, living or non-living); those techniques of representation. While Iconoclash was a mediation of politics, a show about politics — viewing the political sphere as an “atmosphere of democracy,” a meta-ecosystem of sorts, making political space palpable — Making Thing Public follows the same deconstructive theme, asking how is the political thing made real by representation, what is the “assembly of assemblies?” 1

In Latour’s own words from the exhibition materials, “You are invited here to experience in a new way the presence of political matters. We ask you to be open-minded about the object of politics…. This is not exactly an art show, nor is it a political rally but an experimental assembly of assemblies.” 2

An example will help us better understand the theoretical motivations: Latour asks, “How can we represent all these nonhumans?’” Nonhumans being all the nonliving things that hold sway by means of realized representations; the river, flexing it muscles on cartography and geography, its water enough to fight wars over; the supermarket, where votes are cast with purchase power, public interest is cast and gagged, and nutrition legislation takes effect, but most importantly, where modern humans gather. Once seen as forces of representation, these ideological assemblages should be questioned before political action can truly progress. Once we recognize representations, we can then ask “how does the river act politically?” and the question has meaning.

Divided into 13 “thematic areas,” the exhibition hosted works that attempted to break apart the “atmosphere of politics,” of which the entire show, existing in physical space, was a metaphor. Beginning with NO POLITICS PLEASE, the viewer — hopefully without the lens of their personal politics — is exposed to political assemblies from different cultures throughout the globe. Other exhibits exist to expose the political elsewhere, as in THE PARLIAMENTS OF NATURE, where the viewer encounters the river from before, as well as virtual cartographers, that draft maps automatically from aerial data. 3

Making Things Public also looked to expose the semiology of Politics, and really, all things, in one thematic area, FROM OBJECTS TO THINGS. In another, NO MEDITATION, NO REPRESENTATION, projects were aimed at the scientific process, and how scientific knowledge had altered our systems of representation over time.

Not all of the sections were as abstract. A NEW ELOQUENCE, the penultimate thematic ares, looked at emerging tools of the Web (“new media” for lack of a better term) and declared that creative, Web interfaces would deliver a new eloquence to political discourse. One such project, Govcom.org’s Issue Ticker, displayed a constant stream of thoughts, news clips and opinion over a particular issue, all while maintaining a link to the language of the original document. Sound familiar? The project is still alive at Govcom.org.

Like NEW ELOQUENCE, the eleventh section of the exhibition was more straight forward. THE OBSCURE OBJECTS OF POLITICS looked at political rhetoric, spin, and deception — concepts Latour blames for the burden of modern politics. “‘it doesn’t move straight’, ‘it doesn’t move fast’; it always implies that ‘if only we didn’t have this load, we’d achieve our goal more directly’.” Documentary films such as Brian Springer’s Spin, a look at Bush I era political spin, and Michael Light’s 100 Suns, stark images of nuclear destruction, showed both ends of the spectrum of political rhetoric.

The exhibit itself existed as a jumble of pathways through multi-media, colorfully lit, attention-grabbing landscape of works. Five years later, information about the multiple artworks that composed the exhibition is hard to come by. The show was not well archived by the digital age. Only a sampling of small, context-less photographs and the official proposal documentation from Latour are easily accessible. The theoretical side is well represented, but the individual exhibitions are rather poorly documented. This makes passing judgment on the exhibition rather hard. While the theoretical ties that Latour put in place are wonderfully thought out, and raise important questions about the modern state of political engagement and understanding. But without better documentation of the works, the point and puncture of the exhibition are lost to time.

Relating to the Week’s Readings:

Appadurai’s The Thing Itself
Appadurai is addmittedly engaged with the “idea that persons and things are not radicall distinct catagories, and that the transactions around things are invested with the properties of social relations.” This is perhaps a more political economic way of making the same connection between Latour’s humans and nonhumans, and the representations that rise out of nonhuman political interaction. For Appadurai, this can be reduced to terms of abstraction — market vale, sentimental value, gifts and commodities. Thus, the question becomes, “how to create human relations in a world where all things are potentially” of the market? He seeks the system of knowledge behind the market of objects. Is this much different from Latour’s pursuit for the system of knowledge under politics?

McLuhan’s The Gadget Lover
While McLuhan is more interested in the individual and sociological amputation humans undergo by technology, a very basic point of McLuhan’s argument fits nicely with Latour’s exhibition. That is McLuhan’s statement that the myth of Narcissus is concerned with “men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.” Isn’t Latour’s main point — that humanity represents itself and its political processes in the objects it interacts with — captured perfectly in this age-old myth? So while Latour argues he is uncovering something about political life, would McLuhan say Latour’s exhibition was, in fact, furthering the amputation of man from the political process by adding levels of abstraction through technology?


1 Latour, Bruno & Sanchez-Criado, Tomas. (2007.) Making the ‘Res Public.’ Ephemera. 7(2). 365-371.

2 Latour, Bruno. MAKING THINGS PUBLIC: Atmospheres of Democracy. Retrieved from: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/expositions/002_parliament.html

3 ZKM. Retrieved from: http://on1.zkm.de/zkm/stories/storyReader$4581#

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