As I discussed in an earlier post, I am in awe of the work of artist and architect, Tomas Saraceno.
My goal here is to discuss Saraceno's work in greater detail, largely by focusing on Latour's article on Saraceno, which, by definition, moves to a larger discussion of complexity art, visual complexity and complexity science in relation to the topic of globalization.
1. SARACENO'S WORK
Saraceno's work impresses me for several reasons:
it is visually very powerful. The time involved in creating his
networks or his geometrical shapes, for example, is incredible. They
are also very mathematically appealing.
Second, like many artists today that I think of as doing some type of complexity art--from Benjamin Edwards to Julie Mehretu to Matthew Ritchie--he
demonstrates through his novel visual language how macroscopic systems
emerge through microscopic relations, in the form of what can be called generative art.
In Saraceno's case, this is done through his creation of networks,
assembled one link at a time, or through the connecting up of various
Third, his work visually and
metaphorically addresses--sometimes directly and other times
indirectly--the intertwined issues of cities and sustainability,
architecture and ecosystems, globalization and complexity and,
ultimately, our complex interconnectedness with one another, the earth
and the universe. Click, for an example, here.
his work indirectly deals visually with the topic of complexity and
complex systems. I have not read enough about or gone through enough
interviews with Saraceno to know how interested he is in complexity.
But, his emphasis on visualizing networks (even in the form of spider
webs) certainly allows for easy exegesis to the field of complexity
In fact, it is the exegetical ease of Saraceno's work that seems to have led Bruno Latour, the famous French scholar, to write his article SOME EXPERIMENTS IN ART AND POLITICS--originally, as best I can tell, published in the visual arts journal, e-flux.
(or those working with him) must find in Latour's article a useful
"written" narrative because they have it connected, at least on the
internet, with several of Saraceno's shows, including his recent
installation--CLICK HERE--at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
thought a few comments on the article, therefore, worthy, given
Latour's reputation (e.g., his development of actor-network theory and
his role in the sociology of science and postmodernism writ large) and
the relevance of Latour's argument to the work many of us are doing at
the intersection of complexity science and complexity art, particularly
in connection to issues of globalization.
2. LATOUR'S READING OF SARACENO
Latour's article took me back to my 'graduate student' days when I
first became involved in the sociology of science. I always found
Latour's ideas provocative; they really made me think, even though I
went more in the direction of Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty and,
ultimately, complexity science.
Here is my take on the article--best, however, to read it, as it is only a few pages. (SOME EXPERIMENTS IN ART AND POLITICS)
it must be pointed out, the article is not about Saraceno. Instead, it
uses Sarceno's work, along with a few others, to make a point about how
art can help to create a new politics.
As I see it,
Latour sees in Saraceno's art the ability to conflate science,
philosophy and art to create room for a new form of 21st century
politics, one Latour sees grounded in composition. As best I can
figure, for Latour, compositions--like those of Saraceno--are powerful
because, in their acts of conflation, they flatten hierarchies,
particularly those hierarchies getting in the way of us understanding
globalization--a term Latour finds empty.
the term "globalization" is empty because, in his mind, those
articulating its theoretical frame (such as complexity scientists,
environmentalists, etc) have yet to make a number of important moves to
get to what, for a lack of better word, is some type of compositional,
post-human politics. Such a compositional, post-human politics, on the
one hand, blurs the 'system' boundaries between social systems and
ecosystems, human systems and animal systems, the sciences and the
humanities; while, on the other hand, integrates the notions of
habitation and connectedness, the local and the global.
make his argument, Latour breaks his essay into three sections. The
first section deals with what he calls the 'networks versus spheres'
debate--a debate that, to my knowledge, Latour derives from his
'reading' (translation through transportation) of the work of Peter
Sloterdijkm. It is this section where he talks about Saraceno's work.
second section deals with the sciences versus humanities debate--again,
Latour has a very specific view of this hierachy via his re-enactment
of Einstein and Bergon's famous debate. Here Latour is concerned with
the ability of science to handle the nuances of subjectivity and the
blurring between society and nature. And, the third deals (via Donna
Haraway and Isabelle Stengers) with an example of a post-human approach
to politics, one that tries to enact an example of composition--and one
that, it must be made clear, has nothing to do with Saraceno.
Because my post is focused on Saraceno, my comments will focus on Latour's first section: networks versus spheres.
3. MY COMMENTS ON LATOUR
me say immediately that, overall, I think I get Latour's point.
Dealing with the massively complex social problems facing us at the
beginning of the 21st century requires new ways of thinking, many
grounded in composition, collaboration, combination, assemblage, merging
and juxtaposing differences.
However, I find that, for
the most part, Latour has constructed a bit of a straw person by not
telling us who or what group he is specifically discussing. One cannot
make dismissive statements about an entire field without a bit of
evidence. For example, unlike Latour, I think that many complexity
scientists, specifically those working in globalization--such as Manuel Castells and John Urry--are already doing a variety of the creative compositions Latour seeks to promote. And, as far back as 1996, Fritjof Capra (in his book, Web of Life)
was making Latour's argument through his discussion of deep ecology (Arne Naess) and
ecofeminism (Françoise d'Eaubonne), plus without all the Sloterdijk metaphorical language.
Another example is the embodied mind work of Francisco Varela. Or, how about the cutting-edge work on the sociability of bacteria being done by Eshel Ben-Jacob? There is also an increasing network of artists, some of whom I have discussed on my blog (e.g., visual complexity, Benjamin Edwards to Julie Mehretu to Matthew Ritchie),
who are blurring distinctions between society
(socio-systems) and ecosystems, humans and animals, science and the
humanities. Still, to defend Latour a bit, he is right that certain
forms of ideological or economic or environmental globalization, as Joseph Stigliz often critiques, remain firmly entrenched in a modernist paradigm, as one sees throughout the global banking crisis or the global warming debate.
Despite these critiques, I very much like Latour's
descriptions of Sarceno's work. In Section 1, Latour focuses on
Saraceno's show, Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Stands of a Spider's Web. I have read these descriptions several times and I find more in them each time.
But, even here, when Latour is discussing Saraceno, I
find myself once again struggling. What I do not get are the concepts
Latour uses to make this argument. Specifically, I have a hard time
with the concept of spheres and other related terms (e.g., envelopes,
etc) that Latour borrows from the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. By using Sloterdijk's work, Latour translates through transport
a series of metaphors in which I easily get lost, as I search for their
empirical utility outside the simpler points they seem to make, which
do not require metaphor. Said another way, metaphor works best when one
cannot otherwise make a point. But, complexity science, more
specifically, network science, already has a very good and empirically
high-yielding vocabulary connected to method that can easily be used to
make Latour's point.
For example, the main concept Latour takes from Sloterdijk into the vocabulary of network science is spheres. For Latour,"The word “network” has become a ubiquitous designation for technical
infrastructures, social relations, geopolitics, mafias, and, of course,
our new life online. But networks, in the way they are usually drawn, have the great visual
defect of being “anemic” and “anorexic,” in the words of philosopher
Peter Sloterdijk, who has devised a philosophy of spheres and envelopes. Unlike networks, spheres are not anemic, not just points and links, but
complex ecosystems in which forms of life define their “immunity” by
devising protective walls and inventing elaborate systems of air
When Latour employs
this type of metaphorical language I think to myself, 'hey, these
spheres he talks about, they seem to be a type of weak-linked or
strong-linked component; that is, they are networks within larger
networks; with no hierarchical structure; where the inside of these
networks is conditioned upon their connections to the outside. So why
not just say that? Or, spheres seems to get at the idea that nodes are
real things: people, animals, plants, buildings, social groups,
organizations. In other words, these nodes and their links are their own complex systems that, through
their relationships, create the conditions in which they live, just as a small group of friends or animals or fish or plants do to help each other make it through the daily grind of life. Again, why not just say that?
Here, yet, is another example from Latour's argument. In the next paragraph Latour states: "The two concepts of networks and spheres are clearly in
contradistinction to one another: while networks are good at describing
long-distance and unexpected connections starting from local points,
spheres are useful for describing local, fragile, and complex
“atmospheric conditions”—another of Sloterdijk’s terms. Networks are
good at stressing edges and movements; spheres at highlighting envelopes
This time, with this statement, Latour is just flat wrong. For complexity scientists, networks
are scientific maps that do not, unless tied to an actual set of
geographical coordinates, have any inherent spatial meaning--in other
words, and this is a very important point, local and global are not
spatial concepts in networks; they are relational concepts. Distance is
entirely relational. Furthermore, as I suggested above, networks do a
very good job of highlighting boundaries and revealing the internal
'spheres, envelopes and wombs', as Latour, pace Sloterdijk, calls them.
Easy examples are plant networks or friendship networks, or, perhaps,
the obesity networks studied recently by Christakis and Fowler,
which they found reveal internal groups, cliques and communities within the larger
network, that, over time, 'wall out' or 'wall in' healthy eating or
I can go on, but i will stop. I
think I have made my point. The metaphorical language Latour employs,
to me, is unceessary and, in my mind, confuses things.
having said all that, I still like Latour's article. And, I think he
is on much more solid ground when he focuses on describing his
experience of Saraceno's work. In fact, in doing so, Latour admits that
spheres are really just networks. See, when you look at Saraceno's
work, Latour is right: spheres are little more than the densely
connected sub-networks where movement along its edges "might' slow down
due to the density of connections; but these sub-networks are
nonetheless nested. That is an empirical point worthy of study. Can,
for example, a sphere be a type of network that has a certain
density--some sort of tipping point or threshold level--that protects the nodes in it, whatever these nodes be (fish, people, social
groups, etc) from outside influence, as in the case of contagion spread? Can a sphere network (for example, some type of
socioecological complex system such as a local fishing community and all
the living things connected to make it up) act as a wall, an immune
system against wider movements or trends? Or, conversely, as we see in poverty traps--see, for example, Bowles, Durlauf and Hoff--can such a density threshold 'wall-off' a community from socioeconomic well-being and improvement? Or, is density really able to slow globalization or other processes down, or is this just a myth?
Critique aside, these are the types of things that Latour
and Saraceno's work inspires me to think about. And, at the end of the
day, that is what good art (written or designed, compositional or not)