In the article published in NESS 2 “If the Earth is not a Globe, How to Sketch it?” Bruno Latour and Alexandra Arènes define the Critical Zone: “The Critical Zone (CZ) is defined by scientists as the thin veneer at the surface of the planet. This is the zone between the ‘rocks and the sky’ on which all human activities concentrate. The CZ is not a scientific concept, but rather an appeal from many different, previously disparate, disciplines to concentrate their collective attention on the same zone ‘in an interdisciplinary–holistic–way.’ This zone is ‘critical’ in the many meanings of the word because it is one of the main interfaces of the planet, still poorly known and also fragile, given the impacts humans have had on it.” In 2020, they will explore further the CZ in an exhibition at ZKM, Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe. Here is a sneak peek at both the exhibition and their firsthand experience of a Critical Zone published in NESS 2.
Inside the RiverLab, a laboratory for the field. Courtesy Alexandra Arènes.
Orgeval Observatory of the Critical Zone, Ile-de-France, agricultural plateau, monotonous landscape. With our feet in the mud (the most terrestrial sediment of all), we followed a Chinese delegation that came to visit the RiverLab technology. When we got there, there was almost nothing. A green container is installed near a small stream. The interior houses a fully equipped mini-laboratory: computers, measuring tubes, refrigerator, etc. Of course, we did not understand what it is used for or how it works. Scientists presented the RiverLab in very technical terms. We gradually understood that they are measuring the chemical composition of the nearby small river every thirty minutes, which is a challenge and a major breakthrough for understanding chemical exchanges in the CZ. Indeed, these measures allow them to understand, and consequently forecast, the hydraulic regime of the Seine (whose 100-years flood is approaching!). We began to understand that the CZ is saturated with water, like a sponge that swells, charges, and discharges according to climatic variations. One of us is struck by the precision with which scientists feature the behavior of the river. They do not use descriptive morphological terms, as can be used in landscape architecture, but they bring the river to life through the use of physiological terms.
We began to understand that the CZ is saturated with water, like a sponge that swells, charges, and discharges according to climatic variations.
First disorientation/change of scenery. At night, the river does not have the same chemical composition as during the day. More ions, less cations (or vice versa). The same phenomena occur in the event of flooding or seasonal change: these events are reflected by the tiny particles that are transported by the river and observed by scientists who are now able to discern them. The RiverLab is a kind of temporal microscope. Scientists capture the movement of a component, such as nitrate leached from the ground, through the ripples appearing on the screens. They can therefore, element by element, reconstruct the composition of the river under scrutiny. Scientists collect data, submit results to colleagues, try to decipher the pathway of the elements in the watershed and their temporalities, and develop the basic techniques to establish their observations. However, their work is not simply data gathering as they must constantly speculate on the composition of agents whose actions terraform the observatory’s landscape in one way or another. The Orgeval is a typical multi-layered aquifer system managed by agricultural practices for centuries.
Recently, our contact from the Critical Zone Observatories (CZO) and the scientific mentor of our inquiry, Jérôme Gaillardet, sent us a quote from Alexander von Humboldt, the famous explorer-scientist- botanist-geologist: “every corner of the globe is a reflection of the whole Nature.” This could be translated into: “every observatory of the CZ is a reflection of Gaia.”
Critical Zones. Observatories for Earthly Politics
ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe
9.5. – 4.10.2020
By now everybody knows that there is an existential threat to our collective conditions of existence, but very few people have any idea of how to cope with this new CRITICAL situation.
It is very strange, but citizens of many developed countries are disoriented; it is as if they were asked to land on a new territory, an Earth that they have long ignored having reacted to their action. The hypothesis we want to propose is that the best way to map this new Earth is to see it as a network of CRITICAL ZONES, which constitute a thin skin a few kilometers thick that has been generated over eons of time by life forms. Those life forms had completely transformed the original geology of the Earth, before humanity transformed it yet again over the last centuries.
Frédérique Aït-Touati, Alexandra Arènes, Axelle Gérgoire, The Soil Map (detail), Terra Forma, manuel de cartographies potentielles, 2019. © the artists.
Over the years, scientists have installed multiple OBSERVATORIES to study these CRITICAL ZONES and have made us aware of the complex composition and extreme fragility of this thin layer inside which all life forms, humans included, have to cohabit. They have renewed Earth science in a thousand ways and very much in a way that Alexander von Humboldt would have approved. Increasingly, scientists, artists, activists, politicians, and citizens are realizing that society is not centered solely on humanity, but it has to become EARTHLY again if it wishes to land without crashing. The modern project has been in flight, unconcerned by planetary limits. Suddenly, there is a general movement toward the soil and new attention to the ways people might inhabit it. POLITICS is no longer about humans making decisions on their own and for themselves only, but has become an immensely more complex undertaking. New forms of citizenship and new types of attention and care for life forms are required to generate a common ground.
The ZKM thus continues the comprehensive engagement and collaboration with local communities and institutions that was explored during the Open Codes exhibition (2017–2019), opening up a space for common action and discussion to recompose the world we live in: Over a period of five months ZKM will host an exhibition conceived as a scale model to simulate the spatial novelty of this new land as well as the diversity of relations between the life forms inhabiting it. It will serve as an OBSERVATORY OF CRITICAL ZONES allowing visitors to familiarize themselves with the new situation. This special combination of thought experiment and exhibition was developed by Peter Weibel and Bruno Latour in their previous collaborations at ZKM. Iconoclash in 2002, Making Things Public in 2005, and Reset Modernity! in 2016 constitute the three former “thought exhibitions” (Gedankenausstellungen) that resulted from their intensive working relationship which now spans twenty years.
Curated by: Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel with Martin Guinard and Bettina Korintenberg / Curatorial Committee: Alexandra Arènes, Jérôme Gaillardet, Joseph Koerner, Daria Mille, and the Critical Zones Study Group at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG) / Collaborating partners: Karlsruhe University of Art and Design (HfG), State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe, Hydrogeochemical / Environmental Observatory: The Strengbach Catchment