Booting up the Critical Zone

This interview was conducted by Yohji Suzuki, graduate of the Graduate School of Global Arts at Tokyo University of the Arts and participant of the »Critical Zones« seminar at HfG Karlsruhe, on May 16, 2018 during the second seminar session.

The original article is available on the website of the Tokyo University of the Arts’ Graduate School of Global Arts. With kind permission by the author it is here published in a slightly shortened and edited form.

Critical Zones Study Group at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG) during the May 2018 session

To begin

For five days from May 14, 2018, I participated in a workshop at HfG Karlsruhe (Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe, or Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design) in Germany. The workshop was to help prepare for an exhibition to be held in the ZKM Karlsruhe in 2020, and this was the second such event. Around two and a half years will be devoted to preparing for the exhibition, gathering academics, curators, artists and more from around the world, and involving the students at HfG and staff at ZKM. While over half of the 30 seminar participants are from Germany, there are also members from France, Italy, Austria, Russia, Turkey, South Korea, and the United States.

According to Latour, we are approaching the next big revolution in our approach to the Earth since Galileo’s heliocentric theory. Just as Galileo tried to prove his theory through use of a telescope and sketches of the moon, a group of scientists are working to explain a new view of the Earth, called the »Critical Zone«, using new observation technology and methods of expression. With this dramatic plot as a background, Latour is aiming to make his exhibition into a public experiment to demonstrate his new view of the Earth, just as Léon Foucault used a pendulum to prove the Earth’s rotation. To accomplish this, he is willing to gather any materials needed and exhibit things in any way necessary. A faint sense of tension and excitement enveloped the participants, as if they were having their last meeting on the eve of the revelation of a secret monumental enough to overturn accepted history.

The workshop started with morning exercises on the first day. In a wide-open building of HfG as well as ZKM, the sister institution redefining its former use as an ammunition factory, a pleasant light shines in through its windows on sunny days. After refreshing our minds and bodies, we listened to the day’s topics in lectures and talks by Latour and other guests. We were given assignments before lunch and formed groups to work on them during the afternoon. The topics of the assignments were »what can we do to make ourselves sensitive to the sensitivity of other life forms?« and »think diplomatically about how we, with our new worldview, should introduce ourselves to people with an old worldview,« so we had to really use our heads. The presentations of the results could take any form, including slides, posters, artworks, performances, or skits. There were also opportunities for each participant to freely present research on his or her own topic. In this way, the participants all followed their own areas of interest, gradually becoming involved with the concept of the exhibition, and started to influence one another.

I would like to introduce this process in which I was fortunate enough to be able to participate to a wider public, so I requested an interview with Latour. The interview was held during lunchtime on Wednesday, May 16, in a break in the workshop’s packed schedule.


Update a representation of the Earth

— Could you tell me about the new exhibition that you are now preparing?

This new exhibition is about the Earth, but it is trying to understand the Earth from a new perspective. It is not the Earth drawn, let’s say, according to 18th or 19th century geographical ideals nor is it a geographical grid or geographical imaginary. Even though these notions are very useful for many reasons, the Earth is now to be understood as something that reacts to our action, as having a sort of agency. This new understanding will not be terribly surprising for Japanese people who are used to earthquakes. But now we are living through another earthquake, one in which the Earth reacts to human society, in which human society acts as an earthquake affecting the Earth. This requires a change in the representation of the Earth’s surface. After discussion with some scientists, I picked the term critical zone. This will be an exhibition on a new representation of the critical zone.

— What made you start to work on these subjects?

I have worked on the question of ecology for let’s say, 25 years – basically since I wrote Politics of Nature in 1995. At that time, we hoped that this question of ecology would only modify, not revolutionize political theory. I wrote the book in a very standard manner for political theory. I was only trying to show where this question might fit in the normal repertoire of political philosophy. However, I found it impossible to bring this question into politics. To talk about ecology required complicated changes with the cosmology of people impacted by ecological crisis. I then did a series of exhibitions, including one in Toulouse, in 2014/15, when the notion of the Anthropocene took center stage. I basically followed Gaia first, by reading James Lovelock and writing Facing Gaia, and immediately made links to the artist’s work. Actually, that case required both science and art, simultaneously. Integrating these two things is a very complicated effort, requiring a collaboration between the artist and scientists to give it shape. So my first idea, trying to force ecology into political theory, was wrong. It requires many other forms of sensibility. This led me to create »Reset Modernity!« next, which was in a way a preparation for this new exhibition on the critical zone. This argument is now under full development, thanks to the help of many of my scientist friends. There is a logical connection. I am also working on this topic because it is incredibly urgent. The urgency has continued to increase, but people’s sensitivity has not followed suit. This is why you need an exhibition to modify the repertoire by which we become sensitive to this urgency.

— Please articulate the meaning and differences between the terms critical zone, Gaia, and the terrestrial.

Gaia is a half scientific and half mythic term. I like it, but it is very difficult to define because of the reaction to James Lovelock’s writings. This is why I try not to use Gaia at public events. It takes ages to explain what exactly Gaia is… The reason it is so difficult to define is because the term comes from two very controversial but important scientists, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. Critical zone has a big advantage because no one yet clearly understands what it means. And it does not designate the whole of nature. It only refers to the surface of the earth, where life has spread. I think that the big advantage of this concept is that it doesn’t immediately jump to the question of the universe, of physics, etc. You are just dealing with the tiny, tiny surface of the Earth, which allows you to concentrate your attention not on all of the sciences, but only a select few. It also allows us to concentrate on the very influential role of humanity, not as a whole but as a part. If you study the galaxy, for example, human action is not very relevant, except for producing the knowledge. However, if you study the critical zone, human activity is everywhere. This is why I use this term now. The third one, the terrestrial, is a complete invention of mine. If you wanted to translate into Japanese…

— I think it would be difficult to do so.

There is a good word in German: Heimat, the concept of which is very disputed in Germany because of its association with reactionary politics. I’m sure it exists in Japanese. It means something like belonging to a place which has cultural significance. Usually there’s a term in all languages referring to a land to be defended. The soil of the Japanese islands for instance. The terrestrial is an invention made through contrast. If you read Augustin Berque, the French specialist on Japan, he has many terms to describe these sites in Japanese culture. Anyway, the terrestrial is my invention, so we need a definition. The terrestrial is actually a political science term to describe where all of us will finally land at the end of modernism. Thus, it is a concept to describe the Earth, differing from the Globe. There is a triangle formed between the Globe, the Local, and the Terrestrial.

Abstract map in black and white for the exhibition »Critical Zones« by Bruno Latour.
»The political attractors.« Alexandra Arènes, Atelier SOC (
— So you are trying to make a contrast against something abstract and ethereal.

While the Globe is supposed to be material, it is not, as it remains largely a cartographic abstraction. It doesn’t have properties of interest in the notion of critical zone. In a way we are re-describing what it is to be on Earth – again. We did it when geography was invented, we read it like a riddle again… Another way of saying this is that we are rediscovering geography. 


In the context of history

— Could you describe these concepts in a historical context? I think it’s very important for this exhibition.

Well, again if you take Japan as a case there is one instance of swift modernization in the 19th century, recent enough for Japanese people to remember, the Meiji restoration. So, you have the experience of having had to re-discover what the Earth was about, and what globalization was about after two centuries of isolation, of forced isolation. In a way, in Japan, it must be easier to understand what is happening now, a re-re-description of the Earth in a very short time, as suddenly we have to understand that the Earth has property and agency to react to our actions. The Earth is a system, which is not the same notion we had re-defined when we were modernizing in the 19th century. So there is a deep historical grounding in this quick succession – which lasted a long time in Europe, from the 17th century to 21st century. However, I am very interested in the fact that this took place in an extremely short period in Japan.

— May I ask you to explain from the European perspective which made a concept of the Globe?

That’s easy, because in the European tradition, the Globe was completely and simultaneously understood with occupation of other people’s lands. I mean it was completely linked to the notion of empire – and to the development of globalization. This is a cliché of historiography. For Europeans there is a complete fusion of globalization, cartography and the history of the last three centuries of war. That was a geopolitical imagination so to speak, drawing up a checker-, or chessboard of sorts. And now of course the chessboard is changing its shape. New definitions of conflict, war game, and boundaries are appearing. But again, it’s different in Japan. All of this happened in a little over a century and half. In 150 years you moved from a shogunate to the new Earth. So maybe this is easier to understand in Japan than here.

— To make your point more understandable, we have to make the relationship between history and the present more tangible. How can an exhibition function in that sense?

Exhibitions cannot do much; they can’t replace books in terms of argumentation. But their big advantage is that they provide a spatial form of understanding, which is excellent for what amounts to a shift in spatial consciousness. If an exhibition is well done it provides a bodily experience in space, a sort of muscle memory if you will, just like what »Reset Modernity!« did. It’s physical, but if it’s well done it gets into your mind as well. I think we succeeded with the three exhibitions we did here in transforming the physical space into a conceptual space and the conceptual space into a bodily experience. It helps people to make sense of the complexity of the historical situation. This is exactly what is missing in all these discussions about the ecological crisis. If you keep talking about nature being in danger, no one cares. It’s too far away, it’s too complicated. Precisely it’s associated with the old climatic regime, so to speak, what I call the cartographic imaginary, an inert thing. So in that sense I think exhibitions have a powerful role to play, a more powerful role than books. This is because it’s easier to be immersed into the spirit of an exhibition than the spirit of a book.

— How do you think about history itself? The importance of thinking in a historical context is too often underestimated or overlooked.

Yes, but on the other hand, with these questions right now, it’s almost the opposite case. The timing of news about the earth’s behaviour is so tight. There are so many things happening and the sense of urgency is so strong. However, I think an exhibition should also do the opposite, that is slow down and take some distance from the crisis. We should not have a strident, intense, urgent exhibition. We should take a more historical distance. The stories appearing in the news everyday are terrifying. Yesterday there was an article on the disappearance of ice in the Arctic saying that it had never been so small. What can you do with news like that? It’s terrifying. So I think we need to take some distance.

 Critical Zones Study Group at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG) during the Mai 2018 session
Photo by Michelle Mantel

Tackling problems, for which no one knows the answer, in a group  

— I was impressed by the very open-minded and animated discussion we had in the working group. Everyone spoke so actively. I think that unless someone carefully sets it up, it’s difficult to find a mood so conducive to discussion. Do you have any thoughts on such an educative method? What do you think about the educational effect of this workshop on the participants?

I don’t have any such method. I propose a topic and a method and then I distribute my ignorance to the participants! I don’t know the solution either. This is what I have always done. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but most of the time it works (laughs). So it’s more like saying that we should go up that mountain: I don’t know how to go there, but it is the place where we should be in a month or a year. Do you want to do it? Are you up for it? They say yes, and then we go (laughs). And you have no method; it’s the goal which is important. When I did »Make It Work« with Frédérique Aït-Touati, the assembly in 2015 around the Paris agreement, I said we have to do a COP meeting, it will be in May, and the non-human must be represented. And I found the money. The rest was done by students. When I did »Controversy Mapping« in Paris for many years I just said »let’s do Controversy Mapping,« having no idea how to actually do it. But the student did it. And then my job is to encourage people, push them forward, and try not to say negative things even if the students are not very good.

The photo shows a man standing in front of a group of assembled people.
»Make It Work« (photo provided by Frédérique Aït-Touati).

Learning from artists

— Did the approach of working at an art museum have any impact on your own thought?

Yes, a lot. That’s where I feed off my ideas, especially for this topic. This was not the case in the old days because I didn’t know any artists. Since the day I met Peter Weibel exactly 20 years ago and Hans Ulrich Obrist 21 years ago, I learned to learn from artists. Before, I knew how to dive deep into classical arts, especially painting, but I didn’t have any interest in contemporary art. Without doing an exhibition, I wouldn’t have used the art, so to speak. Now I’m very good at learning from artists. And it does feed me. Because the whole thing we do on Lovelock, Brecht, Gaia, the whole work I introduced was completely inspired by the artists and my work with them. We did plays, from which I learnt enormously. So, the answer is yes. It’s not art applied to concepts, it’s not visualization of concepts. It’s about creating a situation and an exhibition or a play, where you learn new ways from the artists to think about your topic. The idea for my book Facing Gaia actually started with a dancer.

— Could you explain using a concrete example?

Let’s take a good example. Take Galileo looking at the moon for the first time with a telescope. If he had not been a good craftsman, he would not have recognized what he saw. But it’s only because he used to paint and draw that he saw the shadows of mountains etc. That’s a classical example. Now if you take Gaia for me, it’s a dancing movement inseparable from the book because the dance still remains an enigma in my mind. It’s like a myth. It’s deeper than any form I could develop in the book. In that sense the concept in the book is a work of art developed, revealed if you wish. The critical zone, the very concept of the critical zone is not my invention. Scientists use this concept but in a narrower sense than how I use it. The reason why I extended it to materialization and images and so on, like the paper we did with Alexandra, is that it is of great interest to scientists. These diagrams are scientific, so to speak, but without art, science would have failed to represent what it wishes to show. So you have a constant exchange because science is entirely about representation and visualization, and so is mythology.

Graphic to visualize the position of the sun in the earth sciences.
The »energetic maelstrom«: Axonometric view rendering visible the position of the sun in a cartographic view, but also its role in a dynamic hydrological and geochemical perspective. Matter and elements are activated by a cosmo-tectonic circulation.
Source: Alexandra Arènes, Bruno Latour, and Jérôme Gaillardet. »Giving Depth to the Surface: An Exercise in the Gaia-Graphy of Critical Zones.« The Anthropocene Review (2018).

Exhibitions curated by Bruno Latour

— Please talk about approaches you have tried for making exhibitions in the past. And could you illustrate cases of both success and failure?

I began with a bit of adventure with Hans Ulrich Obrist called »Laboratorium,« which was at the time staging famous scientific experiments in public. I would say it was halfway a success, halfway a failure, but it was very simple. »Iconoclash« was a big success in terms of the exhibition, and the catalogue even more. »Making Things Public« was actually a failure in terms of art, since we did not produce any really worthwhile art pieces. The exhibition was always more of a design thing, but it worked as an exhibition. And that was really the meaning of the show. We were trying to establish a comparative basis between all of the practices of representation, no matter if they were about politics proper or politics extended to other forms. I don’t think it worked as an art show. In that sense it was a failure. »Reset Modernity!« was the best so far, because of the collaboration with Martin Guinard-Terrin. It was simultaneously beautiful and had enormously important works of art, and the exhibition was very informative, so for me it was a success. For Toulouse, I was not directly involved in the choice of the art pieces, but I organized an interesting series of lectures. However, the theme was too close to the Anthropocene, so I think it was a bit naïve. That’s my experience. I’m not a curator and my career is short. I like the collaborative aspect. Of course, you need to know what grounds you will use to judge whether something is a failure or a success. For me, changing every time gave me perspective. The problem in exhibitions is visitors. And although those three exhibitions have achieved a sort of mythical status, not many people came to see them. However, Margit Rosen told me the most often asked about exhibition here at the archives is »Iconoclash«. So it has become a sort of success in terms of reputation.

View of the exhibition »Reset Modernity!«
View of the exhibition »Reset Modernity!« (2016)
© ZKM | Canter for Art and Media, Photo: Jonas Zillius

— Can you tell me any more behind-the-scenes information? Have you always had workshops like for the »Critical Zones« exhibition?

Yes, we always have. Hans Ulrich Obrist already involved multiple curators for the show »Laboratorium.« For »Iconoclash,« we were seven curators. I was the main curator, but I delegated things, and we worked for 2 or 3 years, meeting in Paris, Bern, and many other places. For »Making Things Public,« we worked together with Valérie Pihet, who had been helping me in Paris for 2 years. Actually, »Making Things Public« was really my show in the sense that I made all the decisions. However, lots of friends helped me. »Reset Modernity!« was again a collaborative work. The process took about 2 years with a small team and was very intense. We met almost 3 times a week. But again it was a small group, not trying to be bigger than it needed to be.

— So this time it’s bigger than…

Yes, it’s bigger because also I want to involve a lot of scientists. I also want to conduct fieldwork simultaneously. I do a lot of fieldwork and visit many places, as a member of Critical Zone Observatories. I go from one city to another, I have already visited many and I keep traveling. I hope to travel more in October and November.

— I have to ask more about the Observatories. What are you doing in the CZOs?

I observe (laughs). I do very classical science studies, like I did when I was a young sociologist of science.

— So, you are observing scientists who are observing the critical zone.

Right. It’s not so useful right now because everything is on the web now. I’m actually observing what Daniel and Martin do on a daily basis, so to speak, when they visit the artists’ studios. I take pictures, visit them and get involved in their activities.


Practice in China and Iran

— Please tell us about your experience of »Reset Modernity!« in China and Iran. What does it mean for you?

I think it was too complicated. Martin did something interesting in Shanghai, holding a three or four days meeting. In Iran it is immensely complicated because Iran is an immensely complicated country with an even more complicated political situation! The idea was to replicate in other countries the preparatory work we did in Europe for »Reset Modernity!« I mean, the whole idea of »Reset Modernity!« is good, but the problem of modernity in my rendering is linked to the anthropology of We Have Never Been Modern, which is not so widespread. Without the knowledge of my work, we keep falling back into clichés of West/East and modern/non-modern. It’s very difficult to escape from those tropes. It’s not easier in Japan, as far I can tell. In China and Iran, they are obsessed with East/West considerations which of course means nothing anthropologically since we have never been modern in either Europe, Japan, China or Iran! The only difference in Japan is that you are not completely submerged by colonialism, or a postcolonial attitude. The view of our workshops was to say: »Let’s put aside all this nonsense about East and West and focus rather on this new climatic regime that concerns all of us.« It takes a long time for people to really grasp the concept. You need to read We Have Never Been Modern to understand what it means, you need to read about the sociology of science, but it’s too complicated.


Alliance: an exchange between art and science

— Could you tell me more about peers who have attracted your attention recently? For example, you praised Richard Powers’ new novel The Overstory.

Richard Powers is my alter-ego in novelist form. As far as I can tell, he does exactly the same thing I do but as a novelist, and of course much better (laughs). That’s another way to answer the question of what the connections between art and science are. I’ve exchanged ideas and opinions with him for 20 years. But he is a great novelist, and I’m not. He is concerned about how you can bring the non-human into the plot of history. I’m sure that his book The Overstory will be translated into Japanese. So in literature, Powers would be my friend, so to speak. I think he is much younger than me. He is about 60.

— Also, could you introduce some other novelists, scientists or academics? Donna Haraway is very famous and she has also been introduced in Japan. But for example, the work of Isabelle Stengers is not yet translated into Japanese. Who is in your alliance?

Donna, certainly, and Isabelle. I have known Isabelle for 40 years. We work together regularly. Her work is not so easy to translate because she writes a bit abstract. She is a very important philosopher, though. And then of course there are a lot of younger thinkers like Didier Debaise, who is a student of Isabelle, and another student of hers, Vinciane Despret, a philosopher of animals from Belgium. She is very good. And of course, there is my master, Simon Schaffer.[35] I don’t know which if any of his works are translated into Japanese. And then there are artists of course, such as Saraceno, who I like a lot.


A task to undertake

— To wrap up this interview, please reveal as much as you can about your upcoming plans.

I don’t have any concrete plans beyond the 2020 exhibition. That’s already a lot of things. I’d like to go back to AIME, »An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.«

— Is there still something left to do with it?

There are many things to do with AIME. It’s endless. But I have no time to do these because I have been seized by Gaia. However, if I were really a philosopher, I would work only on AIME, since in the long run this is what will be most important. AIME might be more important but it’s not on the same timeline as Gaia. There is a point where we have to feel the weight of the new climatic regime. It’s too heavy. I did what I could, but what can you do? I would like to say that AIME is the most interesting thing I have done philosophically. Let’s see what happens. The political situation right now is so awful that we cannot afford to just sit around. I mean you have to move, you have to act.

— Thank you very much for such a wonderful interview.

My pleasure.


An Interview with Bruno Latour by Yohji Suzuki