Exit counselling for the Modern?

By Kimberly Coulter

Environmental destruction has often been fueled by such taken-for-granted tenets of Modernism as “progress,” the imperative of growth, and the nature/society dichotomy. The exhibition “Reset Modernity!” at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe aims to disorient and “reset” visitors’ paradigms of (ecological) observation and representation. Co-curators Bruno Latour, Martin Guinard-Terrin, Donator Ricci, and Christophe Leclercq, all of the SciencesPo Médialab and its digital project AIME (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence), suggest that our observation sensors require a gentle recalibration:

Modernity was a way to differentiate past and future, North and South, progress and regress, radical and conservative. However, at a time of deep ecological mutation, such a compass is running in wild circles without offering much bearing anymore. This is why it is time for a reset. Let’s pause for a while, follow a procedure and search for different sensors that could allow us to recalibrate our detectors, our instruments, to feel anew where we are and where we might wish to go. (Exhibition homepage)

Accessible yet smart, playful yet serious, the exhibition offers tableaus of natural and social phenomena together with critical attention to their ecologies–the material and social environments, including their infrastructures, patronage, and discourses.

photo of the field book for visitors

A “field book” [(c)ZKM] orients the exhibition around six procedures designed to denaturalize visitors’ Modernist assumptions. Photo: Kimberly Coulter.

The exhibition is oriented around six procedures designed to denaturalize visitors’ Modernist assumptions. The first three, “relocalizing the global”; “without [outside] the world or within”; and “sharing responsibility: farewell to the sublime,” are about raising awareness of one’s positionality. The visitor is shown how “scale” is not a reified, inscribed area, but actually a relational and representational concept; visitors are instructed to notice how all views are perspectives requiring a positioned viewer, and that this viewing makes him not just a spectator, but a responsible participant.

The fourth procedure, “from disputed lands to territories,” was my favorite. One installation, by a collective called Folder, in collaboration with the Italian Glaciological Committee, reveals the ephemeral nature of the watershed-defined Italy-Austria border. Thanks to a cartographic robot arm and data transmitted from the melting glacier, I could set into motion the nearly real-time mapping of the changing boundary. One hears a lot of talk about the “global,” so it is refreshing to see a reminder of territorial boundaries, along with their complex genesis and ephemeral nature. In these first four procedures, I felt a renewed commitment to the deeply held tenets of my doctoral training in human geography: deconstruction and the examination of the material and conceptual relationships among human and nonhuman actors/actants, the “assemblage thinking” or actor-network theory (ANT). I was elated to find the pillars of my intellectual values so beautifully materialized, like the stations of the cross. Hallelujah!

The exhibition was not disorienting for me until I reached the fifth procedure, “secular at last!” This segment seemed to depart from the exhibition’s ecological focus. Through film clips exploring the often pernicious political nature of religion, this procedure argues that to be attentive to the earth, we must be mundane; it seems to conflate the need to “resist the violence of iconoclastic passions” with a requirement to be secular. This overlooks not only the homogenization and violence of imposed secularism, but also the environmental engagement of faith communities. Why not take a broad interpretation of religion, attentive to the imagined, constructed, and political nature of all communities, including national—or even academic—ones, and the violence latent in group imperatives? The transition from procedure D, “from disputed lands to territories,” would be natural.


Lights projected on a model of the Alps shows how the border moved. Italian Limes (2014) by the collective Folder

Lights projected on a 3D model of the Alps show the changed border, in the installation Italian Limes (2014) by the collective Folder, as part of the exhibition Reset Modernity! (2016). (c)2014 Folder. Photo by Kimberly Coulter.

A sixth procedure, “innovation not hype,” encourages visitors to look behind facades of objectivity to become aware of the complicated material and social projects that yield shiny new technologies. This echoes messages of procedure two, “without [outside] the world or within,” which deconstructs globes as created within ecosystems of materials and power relations. Perhaps the distinction is one of “new” versus “old” technologies. Yet to present future technologies as constructed under radically different terms from the technologies of the past, is also to create hype.

A playful presentation of didactic content, the exhibition has been criticized for being closed to unexpected outcomes. Writing for Seismopolite, Mylène Ferrand Lointier asked Latour:


But you also deliberately chose to make a dogmatic exhibition?

Dogmatic is a positive term for me! Because it is provocative. You give the directions, and after that, people do as they want. This is not dogmatic in the sense of imprisoning, but in the sense where you construct an itinerary [the field book]. …[w]hat is expected of intellectuals, is that they make a coherent proposition, and after that each and every one make their own decisions and actions. Concerning the question of modernity, there are points about which we can say that they are not to accept or refuse, rather they need to be negotiated. In any case, before knowing what needs to be negotiated, the point needs to be made. This is what the version of the AIME project does: one cannot make diplomacy between different worlds, if one has not already defined the world one belongs to oneself. The problem of the moderns is that they do not know which world they belong to. They have a vision, for explainable reasons, so it is necessary to help them identify which instrument(s) their world is built upon. (Bruno Latour in an interview by Mylène Ferrand Lointier for Seismopolite)

Helping visitors identify the instruments on which their world is built is a formidable task. The curators, though working in second, or maybe fourth languages, beautifully distilled the concepts without jargon, condescension, or artifice. This alone is a triumph, and a mark of courage and imagination. The exhibition’s use of a print and digitally accessible “field book” guides the visitor to “reset” (in the sense of replacing a dislocated shoulder) her metanarrative about the modern condition (with the assumption that not all that is modern is to be jettisoned). Themselves a product of the European Enlightenment, field guides prescribe a way of viewing, possibly narrowing focus at the expense of a larger ecology. Here the medium is cleverly turned upon itself, using Modernity’s own toolkit to point out its conceits.

Yet I’m not sure the exhibition achieves its stated aim. For the most part, for me, the exhibition felt like a refreshment rather than a recalibration. If it is intended to be a deprogramming of unexamined Modernist paradigms leading to the destruction of the earth, how to command the attention of the target audience? A person can get a lot of ideas, some better than others, from reading the publications of the movement Earth First!, but I found no mention of museum exhibitions. Museum exhibitions are, however, increasingly being held on this topic. At the Deutsches Museum, “Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands” took a thematic approach to human transformation of the earth, attracting visitors with a playful and interactive approach. The exhibition lives on in part through a companion virtual exhibition on the Environment & Society Portal. By framing the topic as a geologic era characterized by human environmental impact, the Anthropocene exhibition uses the language of science to present these transformations to the public; though it challenges some assumptions, it does not systematically deconstruct Modern thought and its representation.

Of course such an exhibition is not exit counseling—we cannot compel visitors to complete these procedures any more than we can leave our Modern world. But I admire the assemblage of exhibition objects and the brilliant field guide. I expect its visitors will continue to reflect on it for a long time to come, and it will surely live on in graduate education toolkits…and maybe even inspire a cultlike devotion.

Printing a map with real-time data, the author engages with the installation Italian Limes (2014) by the collective Folder, as part of the exhibition Reset Modernity! (2016). Video (c) Daniel Münster.

Reset Modernity! ran from 16 April 2016 – 21 August 2016 at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe.

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