Curated selection by Peter Sonderen
For our series ‘Curated by’, we invited Peter Sonderen, professor of Theory in the Arts at ArtEZ University of the Arts, to make a selection from APRIA’s archives.
Theoros Returned: Bruno Latour
When the editors of APRIA approached me to make a selection from APRIA publications, French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour had just died. Although I am not a great connoisseur of his work, I did feel that his demise should not go unnoticed. He exerted great influence on thinking about the knowledge practices of the sciences and, particularly in recent years, with his focus on the climate crisis. Think of his reuse of James Lovelock’s idea of Gaia, the denominator of a being in motion, in which human activity and the natural world make countless unexpected connections, giving way to the old idea of nature as our detached playground.
Of course, the ideas he brought to life will stay alive longer than he did, and he can no longer come up with new ideas. This is no tragedy because the communities in which his ideas end up ensure that his ideas live on. Thinking and the development of ideas always takes place within or through networks, which is shown clearly by Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT). This theory illustrates that we should no longer assume a subject-object opposition (e.g., active researchers vs. passive objects) but instead recognise that the world consists of constantly shifting networks of relationships, including non-human actors. Things and people constantly interact and therefore cannot be separated. To investigate the world of knowing, Latour did not limit himself to his study but investigated knowledge practices themselves in the places they are created, such as labs and so on. How does knowledge come about in practice?
With this approach, Latour resembles the pre-classical figure of the Theoros, the anonymous forerunner of the Western philosopher, who was invented sometime only in the fifth century BC. The Theoros wrote or told theories (the ‘Theoria’) that were based on how he actually had encountered the world outside his familiar environment. To do so, he literally walked away from all the familiar to explore the world, meeting others outside his comfort zone. Theory was the record of that journey, and the knowledge stored therein could then confound the familiar for those back home. As a result, the social order was constantly changing and under pressure. Contemporary researching artists’ practice seems to work the same way. They also are becoming Theoroi, with their practices revealing alternative orders and relationships in our connection to the world.
All the articles mentioned here bear literal witness to Latour the Theoros, but many more do so unconsciously or otherwise. They all show their wanderings in a theorotical way.
Nine Times Latour
- The first text that pops up is Martine van Lubeek’s description of the Rhine, where she visualises her relationship with water ‘as a network in which both the actors and the connections between them are in continuous movement—a web that shows our entanglement as a process of becoming.’ This is a direct reference to Latour’s actor-network theory.
- Suzanne Dikker’s article on tangible (re-)connecting mentions Latour when introducing the term ‘Earth Overshoot Day,’ to which Latour refers in his Parliament of Things. This term expresses the day when humanity has used all the biological resources that Earth regenerates during the entire year. In 2022, this was July 28 (!).
- Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s article about materials and artistic research cite Latour’s Politics of Nature in their analysis of Hugo Grotius (who insisted that ‘non-human things seem to serve human fellowship’): ‘No entity—whale, river, climate, earthworm, tree, calf, cow, pig, brood—agrees any longer to be treated “simply as a means” but insists on being treated “always also as an end”.’
- In another short text that serves as an introduction to their four-part series ‘Stories from Rainforest’, Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan refer to another text by Bruno Latour and Michel Serres, ‘The Handkerchief of Time’ in Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Here, Serres is more important because of his idea of seeing time as a handkerchief—the idea that time can be folded.
- Lindy Boerman’s podcast ‘Episode 1: Disconnecting Clothes’ concentrates on moral shame in current times by talking and reflecting with different people. She quotes Latour from his Down to Earth, Politics in the New Climatic Regime, linking him to the disconnection between the wearers of fashion and their physical clothes.
- Kseniia Anokhina’s ‘Lacing Lands: Moving in Relation’ is artistic research done during her internship at studium generale. ‘On land, politics and advocacy work, as told through the spaces I found myself in’ is her summary of her trip to find her place, while reading texts from Latour’s (online) exhibition Critical Zones (https://zkm.de/en/exhibition/2020/05/critical-zones).
- ‘Ecological Time: Natures that Matter to Activism and Art’ is Monique Peperkamp’s article for her PhD on art and the changing cultural and political notion of nature. Many philosophers, theorists and artists feature, and Latour also pops up several times—for instance, with his famous book We Have Never Been Modern (1991) and his idea of nature-culture as one word.
- Alice Smits’ ‘Othering Time: Strategies of Attunement to Non-human Temporalities’ refers to Latour’s important idea ‘…that it is not up to us as humans to extend our discourse of rights to non-human entities. … [reminding] us that it was not that enlightened people granted them rights, but that their resistance became impossible to ignore. … our oceans, rivers, glaciers, animal and vegetable beings demand that we hear them, simply because our lives depend on it.’
- In ‘Soundings of Ecological Time in Contemporary Music and Sound Art,’ Joep Christenhusz wishes ‘to find ways in which, through music and sound art, we may be able to attune to temporalities that are less anthropocentric and more ecologically minded.’ Here, Michel Serres is the head figure who started a conversation on time with Latour (Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, 1995).
Dr. Peter Sonderen is professor of Theory in the Arts at ArtEZ University of the Arts (NL). His PhD in Art History and Aesthetics (University of Amsterdam 2000) on the origin of the modern idea of art foreshadows the focus of his current research—theory, practice and research in the arts, performativity, ecology, and the role of the new materialisms. He edited Denken in Kunst (with Henk Borgdorff, Leiden University Press, 2012), The Non-Urban Garden (AFdH, 2014), Unpacking Performativity (with Gaby Allard, ArtEZ Press, 2016), Theory Arts Practices (with Marijn de Langen, ArtEZ Press, 2017).
Together with João Da Silva, he published the interactive platform Let’s Talks about (Artistic) Research (2019), and he edited The Entanglement of Theory and Practices in the Arts (ArtEZ Press, 2019). He also edited two editions of the APRIA Journal: ‘Questioning Food’ (2020) and ‘Time Matters’ (2021). On the historical origin of artistic research, he published two chapters in 2021 and 2022: ‘Hemsterhuis’s Art and Aesthetics: Theories in the Making’ in The Early Writings of Francois Hemsterhuis, 1762-1773 (Edinburgh University Press) and ‘The Ubiquity of Vases in Hemsterhuis’s Sketches and Drawings: Making Art in Philosophy, Doing Philosophy in Art’ in François Hemsterhuis, Philosophical Correspondence and Fragments (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming). In 2022, the (international) artistic research project Polyphonic Landscapes, which was developed with Joep Christenhusz in cooperation with Zone2Source and Rijksmuseum Twenthe, received funding from NWO/NWA.