In their recent blockbuster show and doorstopper book Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel describe a horizontalised network of relations between people and things in which nothing can nor should be exluded from (political) representation. But, argues Anthony Iles, in seeking to universally include the excluded, they fail to allow for the negation of representational politics that such outsiders provoke.
Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy is the second major exhibition organised by sociologist Bruno Latour at Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, (ZKM), Karlsruhe, in collaboration with its director Peter Weibel. Like the hugely ambitious exhibition Iconoclash, 2003, it is a thematic tour de force of the not-so-new interdisciplinary museology that has characterised the aftermath of postmodernism. Both exhibitions described contentious territory in the arts and sciences and aimed at making methodological interventions therein. Like many exhibitions organised by academics in recent years, Making Things Public is a heady mix of new theory, art works and exhibition design accompanied by a series of events and a programmatic catalogue with contributors from an array of disciplines. Whilst attempts to realise theoretical programmes in the space of the museum undoubtedly feed interdisciplinary collaboration, it is clear from his introduction to the exhibition catalogue that Latour is unapologetically making his programme public primarily in the form of a book. With over one hundred essays and excerpts including new essays by Isabel Stengers, Peter Galison, Chantal Mouffe, Dario Gamboni and over one thousand illustrated pages this is a book generative of enough research points to keep one UK university afloat for several semesters. One gets the impression that what attracted Latour to curating was the possibility of making a cross disciplinary encyclopaedic doorstopper not possible in the context of academic publishing. The key term for both of the exhibitions Bruno Latour has organised at ZKM is representation. In Iconoclash, Latour tried to demonstrate that each attempt to destroy an image or symbol of mediation, each act of iconoclasm, produced a form of discourse, a material or immaterial layer to its target. After dubiously 'excluding politics' in 'Iconoclash', Latour and his cabal of writers and academics have shifted their focus to directly engage with questions of political representation in Making Things Public. The book and exhibition consider three forms of representation: scientific, political and artistic. Scientific representation presents the object of concern by 'describing' it to those gathered around it. Political representation is formed by the mediators who stand in well or badly for the interested parties. Artistic representation is concerned (in the context of this show) with how to represent the sites where people meet and discuss matters of concern. Autonomists beware, by listing many forms of representation and so few ways out of them this book's landscaping of the political amounts to more of an agenda for democratic renewal than a mapping of the politics to come. [...]
In January this year, Londoners received an unusual visitor. Apparently making a homage to the site of the UK's parliament, a seven-ton Northern Bottle Nosed whale made its way up the Thames to Westminster and floundered there for an afternoon. Pundits struggled to understand what the whale’s intentions were, was it trying to get back to the Atlantic across the land mass of Southern England, was it injured, confused by military radar, or sick? One commentator of religious persuasion came close to accurately summarising the heavy burden this beast carried upstream with him :
'For a few days, the entire city of London shared in the experience of the suffering remnant, the remnant that has been rejected by human structures, the remnant that has been forced to wander in the solitary wilderness, with no support or encouragement from man and his earthly structures. Instead of acting indifferently, the people of London sympathised with him; they put aside their schedules and their daily activities, and they did all they could to help him out.'
The sympathy of Londoners was in great evidence that day, and it was equal to the whale's fright. The whale could not begin to understand the gestures of the humans standing in the river’s edge nor could the humans helpfully interpret those of the whale, the spectacle of human sympathy and animal suffering did not coincide. The whale's encounter with the British people and its democratic institutions was, for the whale, [...] fatal.