Essay | Daniel Morgenthaler

The Possibility of an Island

«There exists in the midst of time

The possibility of an island.»

Michel Houellebecq

Once upon a time, there was. There undoubtedly is. Despite their morphological similarity these two phrases are divided by a huge gap, the gap between fiction and fact. Between science and art. Science and fiction.

Bill Clinton put his faith in science fiction rather than science. In his book Anthrax: Bioterror as Fact and Fantasy, Zurich-based historian Philipp Sarasin recounts an episode in which the then US president based his decisions on the state of facts presented in a science-fiction novel rather than believe the scientists pointing out that it was only a story.11—Philipp Sarasin, «Anthrax»—Bioterror as Fact and Fantasy, transl. Giselle Weiss (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 100 ff. In the late 1990s, Clinton was reading Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event, in which a virus let loose in New York causes gruesome symptoms including self-cannibalism. The president subse­quently began to obsess about the threat of bioterror that the novel described in ambiguously unam­biguous terms and significantly increased government funding for precautionary counter­measures. Sarasin takes this as an occasion to read the reality—or apparent reality—surrounding 9/11 from a literary theory perspective. He comes to the conclusion that in this context, «anthrax» had far more impact as a metaphor and symbol of bioterror than the real anthrax spores contained in the small number of envelopes that did appear.

Clinton may have let narration carry him away. But this can happen in the best of families: in the late 1980s, anthropologist Clifford Geertz diagnosed a tendency towards literary narration in his own discipline and thus triggered what became known as the «literary turn» in the social sciences. In Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author he notes: «Writing to please has something to be said for it, at least as against writing to intimidate.»22—Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), p. 143

In Professor Geertz’s view, cultures are systems of texts that need to be both interpreted, just like literary texts, as well as communicated, preferably in scientific texts which are just as pleasing to read as literary ones. «He was one of the earliest scholars to see that the insights provided by common language, philosophy and literary analysis could have major explanatory force in the social sciences.»

The previous quotation is from the Wikipedia entry on Clifford Geertz. It has been tagged with the injunction «[dubious—discuss]» by one of Wikipedia’s editors. And that is a good thing, for Wikipedia does not always teach us many facts—or acknowledged facts at that. Or are they only stories? There is one thing we have learned afresh from the multi-author encyclopedia, namely that all texts are dubious and require discussion, and that we can trust no one. It would be hypocritical to rant about lack of verification in Wikipedia texts. No text is ever truly verified, even if it appears in a scientific publication and has been reviewed by scores of peers. We all have to choose our own personal state of facts—or fiction—and put together our own fiction of facts. Even if we do not hold a professorship in the field.

Thus, for instance:

Bill Clinton puts more faith in science fiction than in science.

In the wake of the literary turn,

all science is science fiction.

Wikipedia is the mother of all science fiction.

How does this theorem à la Christian Waldvogel apply to the artist’s works? Waldvogel’s art is cer­tainly inspired by the literary turn. This is demonstrated in this book, which documents how the artist approached a number of experts with his questions and so assembled a narrative that merges «Once upon a time, there was» with «There undoubtedly is». It is also demonstrated by his exhibitions, in which he continues to narrate his way through space and space-time. Even though the Bill Clinton in Philipp Sarasin’s essay is not exactly a role model, Waldvogel would probably agree with his response to science fiction, which he takes as seriously as science. Sarasin uses narrative theory to explain the present and its fantasies. Waldvogel uses narrative strategies to explain the present and its fantasies. And doesn’t Waldvogel’s studious acquisition of knowledge in various fields—from astronomy to cytology—make him something of a Renaissance man, albeit one who also shares a few traits with a Wikipedia author who has written entries in several areas of expertise?

Perhaps the literary turn is not all that different from another paradigm shift with which Waldvogel is utterly familiar: the Copernican revolution.

While the latter robbed us of the certainty of being at the center of the universe, the former definitely robbed us of the certainty of being able to write the absolute truth. Waldvogel is very much aware of both these epochal developments. That is why he built an RPPM to produce one Earth-like planet after the other. That is why he is not a scientist—or do we now call them omniscient narrators?—but an artist. An artist-narrator.

Although it has often been said, Waldvogel does not really carry science over into art.

Rather, Waldvogel extrapolates what is artistic in science and returns it to the art context. It is more of a homecoming than a deviation, which may be what the literary turn is all about: perhaps science is a by-product of science fiction, rather than vice versa?

Certainly the personalities that Waldvogel mentions in this book as his sources of inspiration were all scientists. But they were much more than that and in a sense they were artists, too. Giordano Bruno (unknown — The Orders of Randomness cf. pp. 32 f.), because he used his cre­ative and intellectual organs of perception to imagine a narrative—with God firmly in the leading role—that contradicted the «grand narrative» of the anthropocentric universe. Why should omnipotent God create only the one world? Bruno did not have the computing capacity at his fingertips that is available to someone like Ben Moore and was therefore unable to estimate the number of possible worlds at ten billion (see «A Discussion with Ben Moore», unknown — The Orders of Randomness p. 60). And yet there he was with a science fiction narrative confirmed by modern science. And was burned at the stake for telling it.

Tycho Brahe (unknown — The Orders of Randomness cf. p. 53) also relied on his vision—certainly one of the artistic senses—to observe the death of a star. And to tell the tale. Bruno and Brahe are only two of many science-fiction authors in whom the Bill Clintons of their time could better have put their faith. (And naturally there were countless others who, like Richard Preston, propagated stories that would have been better read and enjoyed as fiction rather than taken for solid fact.) In fact, these two personalities may have used their senses of perception more creatively than their artist contemporaries, who, with a staff equalling that of Jeff Koons today, preferred to shed light on kings and queens rather than on reality.

One of Waldvogel’s interview partners, the astrophysicist and cosmologist Ben Moore, is also an important exponent of scientific narration. On the back of his business card he lists a number of facts that seem fictional, to say the least. For instance, that there are ten billion planets similar to Earth on which life did, does, or could exist. While it is not yet possible to prove that this life does indeed exist, it is possible to tell the tale of its possibility. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must narrate.

And that is precisely what Christian Waldvogel does, although he eschews the role of omniscient narrator who, citing the authority of science, rattles off a list of definitives. His narrative is visual, based on the authority of the artist, and the story he tells is the story of randomness. In doing so he rewrites Bruno’s story by actually producing (by means of his RPPM) the worlds that Bruno only imagined; he condenses the story of cyanobacteria by cultivating a sample in a 150-square-meter pool at Helmhaus Zürich. The bacteria themselves play a slow part in the story. Indeed, their role was so crucial to the story that at the time this book went to print, the author had no idea how the project would end.

Science tends to prefer the language of classification, but this is narration as the language of possibility—«writing to please, not to intimidate». There is a clear affinity to a novel by Michel Houellebecq that even names «possibility» in its title: The Possibility of an Island.33—Michel Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island, transl. Gavin Bowd (New York: Knopf, 2006) The plot involves a scientist who, funded and encouraged by the prophet of a cloning cult, invests in the reformula­tion of human life. The resulting neohumans are no longer bound by inefficient metabolisms but survive on the basis of photosynthesis. While Waldvogel refers to the photosynthetically active cyanobacteria at Helmhaus Zürich as «antecedents» (see unknown — The Orders of Randomness pp. 91 ff.), Houellebecq provides us with fictional descendants able to live on sunlight alone.

Houellebecq’s story centers on the re-creation of human life. (Incidentally the clones read about and comment upon the biographies of their original selves, allowing for identity to be transferred via narrative.) In an earlier work Waldvogel addressed the re-creation of Earth itself: in his 2004 project Globus Cassus, Earth is reconstructed in such a way that its surface is forty-five times larger than that of the original Earth. Waldvogel’s science fiction is utopian, Houellebecq tends towards dystopia. Yet any meaningful utopia always has an element of dystopia, too—and vice versa.

While Houellebecq proposes the idea of the island as both a geographic as well as a temporal possibility, Christian Waldvogel floats the possibility of an Earth, countless Earths, a larger Earth, a different Earth, an Earth oxygenated by bacteria. The tiny possibility of our Earth.

Neither «Once upon a time, there was» nor «There undoubtedly is» is a suitable opening to his narration. Perhaps «Once upon a time, there would be» is more apt.[dubious – discuss]

Written in 2014 as a contribution to unkown — The Orders of Randomness

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