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Colorful roots

Peter Weibel: Introduction to the exhibition

Exo-Evolution

The industrial revolution was clearly machine-based. From the steam machine to automobile and film projector, it was dominated by a technology based mainly on the technical principle of the wheel. These machines were, on the one hand, accelerators; but, as artificial tools, they also assumed, in improved form, the tasks of natural organs: What the leg couldn’t achieve, the wheel did; what the eye couldn’t achieve, the telescope did; what the voice couldn’t, megaphones and microphones achieved. The machine-based industrial revolution and the information-based postindustrial revolution have created the technical prerequisites for a development we may call the »exo-evolution.«

The human is the first of creation let free; he stands upright. The scales of good and evil, of false and true, hangs inside him: He can research, he is to choose.

Johann Gottfreid Herder

Already in 1791, Johann Gottlieb Herder presented a vision of the impact of the industrial revolution as a turn in the history of ideas, when he formulated: “The human is the first of creation let free; he stands upright. The scales of good and evil, of false and true, hangs inside him: He can research, he is to choose. Just as nature gave him two free hands as tools and an overlooking eye to guide his steps, he has the power not only to place the weights, but also, if I may say so, to be a weight himself upon the scale.”1 Herder’s equation “our earth is a star among stars”2 prefigures Richard Buckminster Fuller’s idea that the earth is a spaceship with limited resources and a missing operating manual:

“So, planners, architects, and engineers take the initiative. Go to work, and above all cooperate and don’t hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another. Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short-lived. These are the synergetic rules that evolution is employing and trying to make clear to us. They are not man-made laws. They are the infinitely accommodative laws of the intellectual integrity governing universe.”3

It is not only the modern era that is an unfinished project – the human being, the earth, and the world are unfinished, open projects too, that will be transformed by further revolutions. We currently find ourselves at the beginning of the digital revolution. Herder indicates the key idea, that the upright walk was nature’s way of freeing humans’ feet to become hands, allowing them to transform from natural organs into technical tools. This pre-formulates the development of humans during the industrial revolution; i. e. the transition from organs to tools; from natural sensory organs to machines, media and apparatuses; from nature to technology. Herder defines this transition positively, as a moment of freedom. Released from the prison of nature, human beings wind up as »freehanded cultural beings«4 (Kurt Bayertz) in the free port of technology. Yet this freedom of choice also always entails human beings submitting themselves to choice – and facing choices. Herder’s metaphor, that the human being not only has the power to place the weights, but is himself a weight on the scale, highlights the idea of recurrence, of going back – the human being is part of the system that he observes, in which he selects and weighs.

I call this exo-Darwinism.

Michael Serres

Through the technical and industrial revolution, humans have once again become beings let free, namely let free from evolution. This process, this stepping out of the process of natural evolution, I call »exo-evolution.«

From exo-biology to exo-planet, from exo-skeleton to exo-pregnancies – the increasingly differentiated contours of a new world appear, one with a profoundly technological stamp. The term exo-evolution is an extension of Michel Serres’ term »exo-Darwinism«:

“But what is true of purely physical functions – with regard, for example, to hammer, wheel, etc. – is also true of intellectual functions (fonctions intellectuelles), and indeed you can clearly see that memory has become materialized: in writing, in printing, in computer science. The body actually loses – it loses these objects, which become conveyors of an evolution that we call technical evolution, scientific evolution, etc. I call this exo-Darwinism.”5

In 1877, in his »Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik« [Principles of a philosophy of technology], Ernst Kapp formulates his organ projection theory, which states that, in the final analysis, all technical artifacts are reproductions and projections of organs; for example, the hammer reproduces the fist, the saw reproduces incisors, telegraphy reproduces the nervous system, and so on. Therefore, the technical evolution is a multiple exteriorization, an outsourcing of natural physical organs and functions, as well as mental functions, to technical machines: human arms to bow and arrow, speaking to writing, memory to clay tablets and computers, and so on. The media theory that follows this paradigm of extending bodily functions is thus an »organology,« describing the transformation from natural organs to technical tools. The particular technology of an era is thus understood as the outsourcing – exteriorization and externalization – of already existing organic and intellectual human properties. At the same time, this understanding of technology and media is based on an anthropology that defines the human being as a deficient creature being improved by technology. This dialectic of human being and mechanics, of nature and technology, of organs and tools was first formulated in ancient Greece and is still alive today, for example in psychoanalysis. The Greek goddess of helplessness was named Amechania. In Greek, »a« stands for negation (atomos, for example, being that which is not divisible). Mechania thus means help, helpfulness. If a rock is too heavy for a human, he uses a lever to move the stone – this is the idea of mechanics: an enhancer of human ability, or a compensation for lacking natural abilities. Technology is thus nature humanized by humans; in short: Technology is human-made nature.

Man has, so to speak, become a kind of prosthetic God – quite magnificent when he dons all his auxiliary organs.

Siegmund Freud

In his 1924 »Notiz über den ‘Wunderblock’« [A note upon the »Mystic Writing Pad«] Sigmund Freud writes, “Auxiliary apparatuses […] are all built like the sensory organ itself or parts thereof […].”6 And in his 1930 »Das Unbehagen in der Kultur« [Civilization and Its Discontents], he explains,

“With all his tools, man is perfecting his organs – the motoric, as well as the sensory – or is removing the limits to their functioning. Motors place gigantic forces at his disposal, which, like his muscles, he can send in any direction […]. With spectacles, he corrects defects of the lens of his eye, with the telescope he gazes into remote worlds, with the microscope he overcomes the bounds of visibility set by the construction of his retina. With the photographic camera, he has created an instrument that captures fleeting visual impressions, which he also demands from the gramophone record with respect to his equally ephemeral auditory impressions […]. With the aid of the telephone, he can hear at distances that, even in a fairy tale, would be respected as unattainable; writing is originally the language of the absent person; the dwelling a substitute for the womb, the first housing, for which we probably still long, in which we were safe and felt so good. It not only sounds like a fairy tale, it is a direct fulfillment of all his – no, of most – fairy tale wishes: the things that man through his science and technology has created on this earth, on which he first appeared as a weak animal creature, and on which each individual of his species must once more make his entry as a helpless suckling (‘oh inch of nature!’). […] Man has, so to speak, become a kind of prosthetic God – quite magnificent when he dons all his auxiliary organs, but they have not grown onto him and still give him much trouble at times. He is entitled, by the way, to console himself with the thought that this development will not be completed precisely with the year AD 1930. Future ages will bring with them new, probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization, and will increase man’s likeness to God even further.”7

Thus, every technology is tele technology, the overcoming of chronical and spatial distances (»tele« in Greek): telefax, telephon, television. With these machine or media supported, as well as unnatural or superhuman, skills of man, every tele technology – indirect and secretly – becomes a theo technology; a technology, that makes humans godlike in their imagination.

Each new technology is the reprogramming of sensory life.

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan laid out his understanding of media as an extension of the human sensory organs (an understanding that is quite similar to Freud) in 1964, in his »Understanding Media: The Extensions of Men.« Earlier, in a 1956 essay, he had written, “Each new technology is the reprogramming of sensory life.”8 What he meant was, firstly, that the relationships between the sensory organs are reprogrammed; and secondly, that the relationship of the sensory organs to their surroundings is reprogrammed. In a word, our entire sensory life is reprogrammed by the media, the machines, and technology.

Another witness of the connection between machines and life, exo-evolution and evolution, is Samuel Butler. A few years after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – in »On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection«, or the »Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life« – in 1872, Butler published his utopian novel »Erewhon« (the title is an anagram of the word »nowhere«). In the chapter »Book of the Machines,« he projected his concept of natural evolution onto the mechanical world. Nine years earlier, in the essay upon which this chapter is based, Butler had already described the idea of mechanical life, i. e. artificial life; and compared the idea of natural evolution with the evolution of machines: “We find ourselves almost awestruck at the vast development of the mechanical world, at the gigantic strides with which it has advanced in comparison with the slow progress of the animal and vegetable kingdom.”9

George Dyson expanded on this idea in two publications. In 1998, in »Darwin Among the Machines. The Evolution of Global Intelligence«, he presents the theory of the Internet being a conscious living creature. In »Turing’s Cathedral. The Origins of the Digital Universe« (2012), he accurately describes the evolution of the digital universe. Accordingly, from manual to mental tools, human beings have over the course of millennia evolved a tool culture, an engineering culture, extending the bounds of perception and of the world.

From microscope to computerized tomography, the technologies of perception in science have advanced. Objects undetectable to the natural eye were made visible by means of apparatuses. The new media are introducing the technologies of apparatus- aided perception, from photography to computer, into the realm of art. This creates a new awareness of the interconnectedness of natural and apparatus-aided perception, of object world and media world, of art and science. Media are not merely image and sound machines, but also interfaces for constructing new realities and new communication forms.

By not only leaving the field of engineering culture to the sciences, art follows up to other epistemic systems, which explain and change the world.

Peter Weibel

Now that artists and scientists have a certain range of tools in common, the studios of artists occasionally look like the laboratories of science, and vice versa. Modern-day artists are less focussed on seeking subjective expression; their frames of reference are social systems, as well as the structures and methods of the sciences. Against this background, such new research methods and perspectives as art-based research (AR) and art & science labs are evolving. A scientification of art like in the Renaissance epoch of art history is emerging: a »Renaissance 2.0«.

The exhibition »Exo-Evolution« sets its focus on the artistic application of new technologies, offering views of the future and the past with its modules. It shows us a new reality formed by 3-D printers and robots, cyborgs and chimeras, molecules and gene pools; by wearable technologies and medical miracles; by synthetic beings, bionic suits and silicon retinas, artificial tissue and biotechnical repairing methods; by findings from aerospace research, molecular biology, neurology, genetics, and quantum computing. And it shows us visions and solutions for problems of the 20th century; for example, splitting off oxygen from CO2 (carbon dioxide) to cope with the climate crisis. With their natural organs of perception, humans can only cover a limited frequency range, and operate in a narrow sphere. The eyes, the ears, the hands, and the lungs are evolution’s responses to natural conditions including sunlight, sound waves, and atmosphere.

Painting and music – the art forms of the hand and the mouth for the eye and the ear – are the human being’s first responses to evolution that utilize these two natural sense organs, brought forth by evolution itself, and manufactured instruments contrived by human beings within the limited range of frequencies or wavelengths visibly or aurally accessible to humans. New electronic and digital art forms, such as film, video, and computers that use the extended spectrum of electromagnetic waves conquered by humans 130 years ago, began to appear around the mid-20th century. With these tools and meta-tools, man creates a new exo-universe. By not only leaving the field of engineering culture to the sciences, art follows up to other epistemic systems, which explain and change the world. This new form of art aims for solutions like the exo-evolution itself and thus itself becomes part of the exo-evolution.
 

Index

  1. Johann Gottfried Herder, »Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit« [Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Mankind], 1784–1791, 2 vols, vol. 1, Berlin, Weimar, 1965, p. 144; translated from the German by Lonnie Legg.
  2. Ibid., p. 17.
  3. Richard Buckminster Fuller, »Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth«, Simon Schuster, New York, 1968, last paragraph.
  4. Kurt Bayertz, »Der aufrechte Gang« [upright walking], C.H. Beck, Munich, 2012; translated from the German by Lonnie Legg.
  5. Michel Serres, interview in: Regards sur le sport. Michel Serres, philosophe imagess. Une documentaire de Benjamin Pichery, Insep, Paris, 2009 (DVD); English translation by Lonnie Legg.
  6. Sigmund Freud, »Notiz über den ‘Wunderblock’« [A note upon the »Mystic Writing Pad«], 1924, in: Studienausgabe, vol. 3: Psychologie des Unbewussten, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 1975, pp. 363 – 369, here p. 366; translated from the German by Lonnie Legg.
  7. Sigmund Freud, »Das Unbehagen in der Kultur« [Civilization and Its Discontents], 1930, in: Das Unbehagen in der Kultur und andere kulturtheoretische Schriften, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 1994, pp. 57f; translated from the German by Lonnie Legg.
  8. Marshall McLuhan, David Carson, »The Book of Probes«, Gingko Press, Corte Madera, 2003, pp. 162f.
  9. Samuel Butler, »Darwin Among the Machines. To the Editor of the Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, 13 June, 1863,« in: idem, A First Year in Canterbury Settlement With Other Early Essays, A. C. Fifield, London, 1914, pp. 179–185, here p. 180.
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