7-9 December 2001

Experimental Cultures
Configurations of Life Sciences, Art, and Technology (1830-1950)

Conference to be held at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Konferenz FlyerIn the context of the conference, the term "experimentalization" is meant to designate the historical process in which controlled procedures for producing or provoking experience were introduced, applied and propagated throughout different realms of culture. In this sense, it is expected that the conference contibutes to a cultural history of experiment that still remains to be written, starting from multiple material cultures and historical semantics of "experiment".

Program english (PDF, 640 KB)

In contrast to the grand récits of modernization, we aim to conceive of modernity with respect to the dynamic interpenetration of science, art, and technology and thus against the background of open contexts. We expressly do not want to prescribe what has to be taken as a "valid experiment" or as "real science"--and what not. Instead, we want to reconstruct and display historical scenes illustrating the process in the course of which aspects of scientific, artistic, and technological activities integrated and differentiated themselves, e.g. configured, in such a way, that the classical phenomena of modernization such as mechanization, rationalization and scientifization could take off. In other words, science, art, and technology are situated here on one level. Thus they can be thought together within their differences and be put into perspective with respect to the converging and diverging conditions of their formation.

For a long time, historians were occupied by the idea that the dynamic evolution of modern science, art, and technology relied on the development and differentiation of well-defined entities such as objects, disciplines, and institutions. Thus, in the grand récits on modernization, important characteristics of this process were identified in the definition of specific research objects, the emergence of clear professional roles and corresponding career patterns, and the establishment of sharply circumscribed schools and paradigms. Modernization in this sense meant an ever growing specialization, organization and planning, even (or especially) where it was question of creative activities.

Against the background of recent developments, this idea has become very questionable. Today the neurosciences and genetic research demonstrate the growing interpenetration of scientific and technological developments, resulting in the establishment of new professional fields; the borders between traditional branches of the fine arts are blurring under the impact of multimedia-technologies. In this context, one may ask how the processes of mutual configurations of science, art, and technology were also decisive for the dynamic development of modernity in the period 1830-1950. Further, one is brought to inquire how these configuration processes were carried by heterogeneous collectives, that unfolded their effects transversally through established disciplines, schools and branches: experimental cultures oriented toward the experience and exploration of differences, gaining their identity only by facing their own heterogeneity.

In fact, the history of the life sciences shows clearly that the introduction and distribution of experimenal practices throughout the second half of the nineteenth century manifested itself in an extensive, complex and multifaceted process in which technological achievements, scientific research, and the creation of new realms of experience seized and pervaded very different areas of modern culture. Similar to the physiologists, psychologists and linguists, who started, around 1840, to base their work more concretely on experimentation, painters, sculptors and writers discovered the decisive role of advanced tools and methods in the process of artistic production. One may argue that, given the doubts as to the representational functions of art around 1900, the experiment became the only common denominator for the avantgarde movements in literature, painting and architecture. This development toward a radical modernity can be grasped by referring to circumscribed experimental cultures more concretely than by addressing "technological culture" or "scientific society"; it also can be studied in more detail by taking single cases of such experimental cultures to which scientists, artists, and engineers contributed in different ways and to varying degrees.

One might understand the emergence of experimental cultures as a result of hybridization processes. Indeed, the history of the experimental life sciences offers numerous examples of the transformation of existing areas of research into "hyphenated disciplines" such as physiological chemistry, organic physics or physiological psychology. Also, new kinds of disciplines transgressed or subverted the common borders between pure and applied research, e.g. scientific management (Psychotechnik), biotechnology, or informatics. Furthermore, the space between fictional and scientific texts opened itself for new genres of written expressions, e.g. popular journals or fantastic novels.

One can also detect other forms in which the confgurations of life sciences, art, and technology took shape. Among them is the introduction of new and more precise intruments and of miniaturized research objects; also, the displacements resulting from the transfer of knowledge across borders: the "migration" of instruments, books, and persons through different national and cultural contexts shows how human and non-human actors were called upon to answer questions that originally were never posed to them. Also, the acceptance of new media technologies (photography, film etc.) had lasting effects on artistic as well as on scientific utterances. Against this background, new perspectives were opened for an overarching re-arrangement of disciplines and realms in the 1920s and 1930s (e.g. Gestalt theory, theories of the general and the systemic, cybernetics).

The conference aims to explore experimental cultures with respect to the following intersecting levels:

Starting from the mid nineteenth century, scientists, artists, and engineers showed themselves to be ever more fascinated with things; in particular those that were ambigously simple or complex, natural or artificial, given or made, living or dead. This status was not only characteristic for the "frog machines" of organic physics (Du Bois-Reymond), the unicellular organisms of General Physiology (Verworn), and the hypnotized subjects in experimental psycho-pathology (Binet); it was also typical for the status of photography as a "pencil of nature" (Talbot) or the constructivist proun as a "changing station from painting to architecture" (Lissitzky). In a comparable fashion, computing devices appeared as descendants of a domain between mathematics and technology, symbol and matter.

The specific ways in which experimental cultures crystallized around epistemic, aesthetic or technological objects can briefly be illustrated by one of these examples. Since the romantic age, protozoa (infusoria, amoeba, ciliates, etc.) were perceived as the smallest animals standing on a border between the realms of plants and animals. However, they became an object of experimental research only when their status as unicellular organisms was accepted. Thus instituted as useful models for cells, "elementary organisms" opened multiple perspectives for experimental research in physiology and psychology around 1880. By means of a combination of microscopical and electrophysiological methods, protozoa were investigated for the simplest structures and functions of organic life: reproduction, nutrition, movement, but also intelligence, will, and consciousness. In approximately the same time period, elementary organisms functioned as a recurring motif in literature and art, in Gustave Flaubert as well as in Odilon Redon and Gottfried Benn. They also played a part in psychological and philosophical theories. Freud used protozoa as a simple model of the psychological apparatus, Peirce saw in them the origin of "man's glassy essence".

What are the specific properties that an object has to have in order to turn into an attractor for such diverse "experiments", be they conducted in the laboratory sciences, in the art avantgarde or in advanced theory? How is the choice of an object made, and what are the reasons for the refusal of another? What are the possibilities they offer, but how do they also limit the perspectives of experimental endeavors?

Configurations of life sciences, art, and technology emerge in connection with certain procedures. Besides specific speech practices (jargon, metaphors etc.) which often facilitated exchange across boundaries of disciplines and cultural realms, machine procedures in the largest sense proved to be productive in this respect. Experimental assemblages in particular, because of their juxtaposition of mechanic, organic, and theoretical components, favoured encounters and cooperations between dispersed persons and things.

For example, what the physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey promoted under the heading the "graphic method" referred to an ensemble of procedures oscillating between epistemic and technic functioning. The prehistory of its central instrument, the kymograph, can be traced to ballistics and to energy technology (indicator diagram of the steam engine). In the laboratories of physiologists the 'curve writer', as further developed and improved by keen instrument makers, served to investigate life functions such as respiration, nerve conduction, blood circulation etc. In parallel, procedures for mechanical drawing used by artists and other professionals as well as by parts of the larger public were further developed and distributed (pantograph, physionotrace, photography, etc.). Similar cross connections, mediated by instrument technology, could be brought to light with respect to the procedures of time measurement in the life sciences. Those procedures not only connect astronomy, the clock industry, physiology and psychology, but also linguistics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and economy.

Despite such connections, the results produced by means of such procedures became identified as scientific (data, values, curves) on the one side and as artistic on the other (lines, drawings, images). By means of what arguments did these identifications function, and by displaying what sort of competences could the historical actors speak in the name of art or in the name of science, and where are the transitions between art and science to be grasped?

The experimentalization of life goes along with the institution of symbolic and real "spaces of knowledge". With respect to the real spaces one can perhaps more appropriately say: configurations of life sciences, art, and technology took place on certain territories. They settled themselves on such territories, or created them according to their own needs.

Besides the circumscribed sites on which experimental cultures primarily manifested themselves (the laboratory, the work shop, the studio), more extended areas favored (or restricted) the emergence and the propagation of experimental cultures. As an exemplary territory one may point to the modern city, allowing human and non-human actors of all kinds to enter into interactions with a huge experiential potential. Thus, the city of Leipzig in the 1880s, with its auditoriums, concert halls and museums as well as with its cafés, restaurants and parks offered multiple sites where the communities of scientists, artists and engineer met and entered into exchanges. Furthermore, social formations that aimed at consciously reorganizing their members (communities, associations, etc.) were adressed as "experiments". The Bauhaus at Weimar (and later at Dessau) was not only a site for modernist teaching and crafting, but also for a new way of working and living together. From critical and pessimistic viewpoints such endeavors were often perceived as a possible threat to culture or as a dangerous social utopia. Nevertheless there were always also attempts to produce configurations that would allow technological, scientific, or artistic innovations: by means of manifestos from the social and the cultural avantgarde, by instituting new forms of cooperation and communication, or by the architectural construction of new sites for living. However, one may ask, what are the necessary mediations in order to transform the experimental cultures of science, art, and technology into cultural experiments?


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