Essay | Jörg Heiser
Written in 2010 as a contribution
to Earth Extremes
«I believe in an infinite universe,—that is, the effect of infinite divine power; because I esteemed it unworthy of the divine goodness and power that, when it could produce besides this world another, and infinite others, it should produce a single finite world: so I have declared that there is an infinite number of particular worlds similar to this of the Earth, which, with Pythagoras, I consider a star, like which is the moon, other planets, and other stars, which are infinite.» Thus spoke Giordano Bruno before the Court of the Inquisition in Venice on June 2, 1592. The heretical Dominican friar maintained not only that the Earth was not the center of the universe (as the «delusions» of Nicolaus Copernicus had already suggested), but that it was merely one of many worlds. By July 30, Bruno had capitulated and recanted (having also expressed doubts about the Trinity and other Church dogmas). He was taken away to Rome nonetheless, and after years of imprisonment and a long-drawn-out trial, the verdict was pronounced on February 8, 1600. «Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it,» said Bruno. At the discreet prompting of Pope Clement VIII, the sentence was executed by the secular authorities on February 17: Bruno was burned at the stake on the Campo dei Fiori in Rome, where his memorial stands today.
In 1591, shortly before his fateful return to Italy, Bruno broke his journey in Zurich. It was at Schloss Elgg, about forty kilometers east of Zurich, that he met—assuming the fragmentary evidence is to be believed—the alchemist Johann Heinrich Hainzell. The encounter has a bearing on his last work, which is dedicated to Hainzell: De imaginum signorum et idearum compositione (Frankfurt, 1591; English: On the Composition of Images, Signs, and Ideas), which is a book about the art of memory, about methods of remembering using images to substitute for things and words. The elaborate art of the mnemonic is here interlaced with alchemical sorcery to create an architecture as encyclopedic as it is magical, whose content promises nothing less than the complete knowledge of the world.
The Zurich-based artist Christian Waldvogel has yet to realize a work relating to Giordano Bruno, and to my knowledge is currently in no danger of coming before the Inquisition. But his art does address the Inquisitorial persecution of Bruno’s contemporary and rival Galileo Galilei. Galileo likewise espoused Copernican theory, but after seeing what became of Bruno chose to desist from publicly declaring that the Sun was but one of many stars. Secondly, viewed in relation to Waldvogel’s work, Bruno’s insistence on his cosmology even to death is a valuable reminder that understanding the mechanisms of the celestial spheres has something to do with understanding the self, with creative self-reflection and the search for the truth. And that applies even when a kind of magic (or better still a playful «unscientificness») comes into play—be this in the tradition of the alchemy of Hermes Trismegistos, the ’pataphysics of Alfred Jarry, the conceptual art of Marcel Duchamp, or the Land Art of Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and James Turrell.
Galileo thus had no choice but to take a different approach if he was to convince his Inquisitors of his case rather than meeting the same fate as Bruno. There had to be a shift from conviction (Bruno) to convincing (Galileo). Christian Waldvogel has a suggestion as to how this might have worked. In Dialogo di Galileo Galilei sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo Tolemaico e Copernicano (first published 1633; English: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican), Galileo made little attempt to disguise his own position, and gave the proponent of Ptolemaic theory (that the Sun circles the Earth) the name Simplicio, meaning simpleton (the proponent of Copernican theory is called Salviati, and the neutral moderator Sagredo). In some places, Galileo puts the opinions of Pope Urban VIII in the mouth of Simplicio. It seems he believed that in doing so, he was complying with the wishes of the censors, who had required a concluding speech in support of the Ptolemaic model. All that he actually achieved by this device, however, was to make the publication an insult and affront to the head of the Church. A trial was called and Galileo escaped being burned at the stake only by recanting.
Would it not have been more elegant and more persuasive had he been able to provide the Inquisitors with incontrovertible, visually verifiable evidence of his thesis? The Catholic Church (and Martin Luther, too, incidentally) insisted on the standpoint that only what we actually see to be moving is indeed moving (in other words, the Sun circles the Earth rather than the opposite). In order to prove the opposite on that basis, therefore, the point of observation would have to be outside the Earth. Galileo had been able to observe the Moon in detail through his telescope; so what would happen if the opposite were possible: the observation of the Earth from the Moon? True, that would have required manned space travel, which of course had not yet been invented. But let us remain with our hypothesis. There can be no question that from the Moon it would take just a few hours—if not minutes—to prove visually and incontrovertibly that the Earth rotates on its own axis. That alone would suffice to disprove the common-sense theory that only what we actually see to be moving is indeed moving.
The image of all those fine gentlemen of the Church clad in their seventeenth-century robes suddenly standing on the Moon and looking down at the Earth is an extraordinary one—and how one wishes there had been a God who had made that possible and so put an end to all the stupidity, intransigence, and sheer malice! What makes it still more amazing is that the landscape in which they would have stood is pretty much exactly the same as the one an astronaut would find there today, it being scientifically beyond dispute that, because of the lack of an atmosphere and the absence of significant impacts by larger celestial bodies, the surface of the Moon has remained practically unchanged. That is precisely the point at which Waldvogel applies his vision. The situation is a good excuse for showing us photos of the Moon’s stony surface with the blue Earth as a moon-like celestial body floating in the firmament.
The trouble is that even if the Court of the Inquisition and its accused could have been miraculously «beamed up,» a brief stay on the Moon would have supplied visual proof only that the Earth rotates on its own axis (even though this is not immediately apparent when standing on the Earth). Indeed, as Galileo insisted, and yet it moves. But this does not prove that it also rotates around the Sun. Given a much longer period of time—ideally several years—it would certainly be possible to observe that the Earth, too, appears to move in relation to the Moon. Because the Moon does not rotate on its own axis, the Earth can be observed from its own satellite without interruption. Viewed in this way over a long period of time, it would appear to be moving in an undulating, diagonal trajectory resulting from the Moon’s eccentric, tilted orbit. This is not because it is whirled around like a ball in a washing machine (which would contradict both the Ptolemaic and Copernican models), but because the fact that the observer’s own position (in this case on the Moon) is also moving must obviously be taken into account. It follows that a similar relationship can be assumed for the Sun, whose path through the earthly skies follows a very similar pattern during the course of the year. Adhering to the Aristotelian logic that similar effects are best explained by similar causes, we can assume that the Earth orbits the Sun just as the Moon orbits the Earth, while at the same time rotating on an axis that is oblique to its own orbit (the interaction of axial tilt and the annual orbit around the Sun being the explanation of the seasons).
Even today, we can still calculate the Earth’s movement as it would have been observed from the Moon in the age of Galileo and Pope Urban VIII. Demonstrating a keen understanding of the significance of the ornamental, Waldvogel had the resulting diagram—a pincushion pattern produced by the Earth’s shifting orbit as seen from the Moon—embroidered as an emblem on a papal pallium. A photograph shows Pope Benedict XVI receiving the fifteen-centimeter-wide stole decorated with the aforementioned diagram. It is of course a photomontage. Waldvogel derives his vision from Galileo’s Dialogue itself, in which the vision of the Earth viewed from the Moon has the effect of converting Sagredo, whom Galileo initially characterizes as a neutral mediator, into an enthusiastic supporter of the theory manifested in the pincushion diagram. Does that mean he is no longer neutral? One could argue as much, although strictly speaking, it is the emphatic reference to a neutral outside position (on the Moon) that makes him neutral in the radical sense. Rather than abstaining, neutrality here means radically embracing the standpoint of reflexive outside observation, which explicitly includes reflexive self-scrutiny. We will return to this idea below.
If we could expect the Catholic Church to demonstrate openness to such neutrality in matters of science, the idea of Pope Benedict XVI putting on a pallium embroidered as described above would not be so absurd, and the Church would have followed up its rather half-hearted rehabilitation of Galileo with visible symbolic signals. In 1992, Pope John Paul II announced after a thirteen-year(!) investigation that the Church had been mistaken in Galileo’s case. (Bruno, incidentally, has yet to be rehabilitated; in the year 2000, on the four-hundredth anniversary of his death, Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano—now Dean of the College of Cardinals—announced that although Bruno’s burning had been a sad episode, he definitely still counted as a heretic.) The Church would indeed do well to take to heart the words that Galileo borrowed from a contemporary of his, the Italian cardinal and church historian Baronius: The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven and not how heaven goes.
Viewed in this context, Waldvogel’s intervention in matters of belief and knowledge, motion and immobility is very much a Composition of Images, Signs, and Ideas in the sense of Bruno’s book title of 1591; in other words, it is an art of memory visualizing the complex interrelationships of subjectivity and worldview, past and present in a pithy combination of texts and images. All of which makes it Conceptual Art in the modern sense. And like Sagredo, Waldvogel achieves this by adopting a literally extraterrestrial, eccentric standpoint.
Philosopher Helmuth Plessner’s central work Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (Stages of the Organic and the Human) appeared in 1928. At its heart stands the concept of «eccentric positionality,» which can be understood more or less as the idea that what distinguishes humans from stones, plants, and animals is our ability to be «outside ourselves». We can reflect on and discuss our own thoughts and actions. Because by necessity we are not always outside ourselves, however, our eccentric position often remains hidden: The eye must forget itself when it sees. But we can equally well be acutely aware of this circumstance, experiencing our experience, as Plessner puts it. Kant’s concept of transcendental reason is still at work here, although the whole business is given a different, eccentric turn—a more strongly phenomenological, material, corporeal turn. The Cartesian separation of body and soul is dissolved («sublated» in Hegel’s triple sense of negated, maintained, and elevated). Eccentric positionality does not mean circling the body in a neat and tidy orbit, but rather permanently shooting past and through it on collision course. Or that is one way to understand it. Plessner died in Göttingen in 1985, aged 92; he is buried in Erlenbach on the shores of Lake Zurich. He also taught in Zurich from 1965 to 1972. Christian Waldvogel was born in 1971, albeit not in Zurich, where he grew up, but in Austin, Texas. Eccentric positionality.
If we take the question of orbit literally, we find a parallel between the eccentric self-reflection of the individual (i.e. the possibility of seeing or imagining ourselves from outside, perhaps through another’s eyes) and the eccentric positionality of seeing the planet Earth from outside—the end of geocentrism. This type of eccentric positionality is beautifully and graphically interwoven in the work of Christian Waldvogel. As it is in that of Giordano Bruno. Except that Waldvogel is not getting burned at the stake for his pains. Times have changed. Of course. On the contrary, there may even be people who find Waldvogel’s endeavors so hopelessly dreamy as to be pointless. If pointlessness means radical dedication to a cause whose utility in the art context—its value to the art market and museums—is written in the stars, then it is indeed pointless. For in the economy of attention-seeking, the worst punishment of all is not to be burned at the stake, but to be ignored. Not that I wish to imply that Waldvogel lacks recognition (he has his audience and will reach it, too), but the fact remains that his endeavors, which some might see as without anchorage or roots, in fact owe their radicality precisely to his choice of a place beyond, a place from which to view the planet from outside, even as it remains the locus of his artistic existence. I can think of no other artist working at present who could claim as naturally and without exaggeration—and without so much as a hint of New Age kitsch or megalomania—as can Waldvogel: Space is my studio, and the Earth and other heavenly bodies my materials.
Let us take another example of this: the planet Antichthon. The starting point is the hypothesis of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Philolaus that there must be a Counter-Earth (Greek: Antichthon). Philolaus believed he needed this hypothetical cosmological entity to complete his non-geocentric world model, arguing that all the celestial bodies, including the Sun, circle around a Central Fire. If the Earth is not the center of the universe, however, it must be balanced by a counterweight—rather like on a scales—to prevent it and everything upon it from falling into the Central Fire. Of course our modern knowledge of gravity makes this theory superfluous, but for a long time Antichthon lived on as a mystically heavenly or hellish place. Meanwhile, it became possible to calculate the orbit of a hypothetical celestial body that is always hidden from the Earth by the Sun (i.e. that is always on the «lee side»). In 2006, NASA launched two space probes to study the Sun stereoscopically from two sides at once; the mission also supplied a brief electronic glimpse behind the Sun. But there was no sign of Antichthon. For Waldvogel, however, that was not the end of the story. On the contrary, to his mind, it had only just begun: There is nothing to be seen on the images relayed back to Earth, or rather nothing larger than a few hundred kilometers across. So if we join Waldvogel in sustaining the idea of Antichthon, we must assume it to be a body with roughly the size and properties of the Martian moon Phobos—one of those cold, inhospitable lumps of rock that is neither heaven nor hell. Fitting images exist: The black lava flows of Etna in the pale light of the full Moon provide a visual equivalent of the mood prevailing on Antichthon.
Like Plessner and Philolaus, Waldvogel pursues the possibility that the Earth as a whole might possess eccentric positionality, a Counter-Earth as its foil; that like us humans, it observes itself observing (even if only through the agency of individual humans thinking about cosmology and ways to interpret it scientifically and artistically).
Incidentally, this means that it is productively impossible to tell where Waldvogel’s artistic work is genuinely located: Does his art take place in space or in the image-text relationship referring to it? Is it simply the idea, whose manifest traces in the form of actions, photographs, descriptions, and books are indeed just that—traces? Or is it the realization itself, the process by which the work of art becomes a work of art? This uncertainty concerning the location and motion of the work of art itself reflects the uncertainty concerning belief and knowledge, body and soul. The unscientific use of Heisenberg’s concept of uncertainty from quantum physics is permissible in this exceptional case. The principle was first formulated in 1927 (while Plessner was still working on his book) and basically states that the more we know about the position of a particle, the less we can say about its momentum or velocity, and vice versa (because positioning interferes with momentum and measuring momentum interferes with the position). Or as the British chemist Peter Atkins aptly puts it in his book Galileo’s Finger (2003): The uncertainty principle is the quantum version of getting lost: you either know where you are, but not where you are going, or you know where you are going, but not where you are. What we find at work here is the almost universal principle of relativity, which appears to be relevant to areas other than quantum physics as well: Certainty about a given relationship cannot be obtained from any one place of observation or from any one movement (if we only look without thinking, then we will think the Sun does indeed revolve around the Earth). In order to know not only where we are, but also where we are going (and vice versa), therefore, we need the logical linkage of several different standpoints or observer’s perspectives. And we need concepts for how such linkages are to be created in the first place. This applies to individuals, and all the more so to societies.
Swiss Fluxus artist Ben Vautier (who was born in Italy and lives in France ) caused a stir when he furnished the Swiss pavilion at the 1992 World Exhibition with the slogan la Suisse n’existe pas. The more «well-meaning» placed the emphasis on the la, interpreting the slogan to mean that there is no one single Switzerland, but many different ways of seeing and experiencing the country (through its languages, regions, cultural facets, etc.). This echoes Jacques Lacan’s famous (and infamous) statement la femme n’existe pas, in which the la is mentally deleted, as it were—as an entity that eludes symbolic order. The less generous interpretation corresponds roughly to that of Libyan revolutionary leader Muammar Gaddafi, who has taken to vehemently demanding Switzerland’s dissolution (Daniel Binswanger was the first to make the connection between Vautier and Gaddafi, in a contribution written for the June 2010 issue of frieze). Underlying this confrontation, sparked by legal and diplomatic wrangling over the brief detention of Gaddafi’s son Hannibal (Hannibal of all names! And in the Alps of all places!), is the military idea of wiping out the enemy: la Suisse n’existe pas. Here, the emphasis is on the negation of identity, which is what feminists, not without justification, accused Lacan of doing, claiming that for all the signs to the contrary, his emphasis remained on FEMME, thus excluding woman from the psychoanalytical discourse.
Yet Vautier’s statement is open to a third interpretation resting on the uncertainty that exists between the emphasis on la and that on Suisse. What if we take Switzerland’s proverbial neutrality to be the real crux of the statement? In that case, it would imply—especially after 1989 and the end of the Cold War—that neutrality in the sense of standing aside has lost its validity, meaning that Switzerland no longer exists in this specific sense. Neutrality is no longer attainable through the special position of the uninvolved outsider, but on the contrary only through an absolute commitment to the ideas of mediation, the concepts of truth-finding. Just like Sagredo, who in Waldvogel’s version sheds the role of mediator and takes sides—albeit for the best solution rather than the best party. Put another way, true neutrality is not be to be had through the provision of anonymous numbered bank accounts, but through the commitment expressed by the International Committee of the Red Cross founded in 1863, which alongside the Vatican is one of the few non-state parties to international law.
And that brings us back to eccentric positionality. When Waldvogel takes the hypothetical extraterrestrial standpoint, he is creating—like it or not—a different idea of neutrality. It is a neutrality that does not stand aside, but takes a radical position dedicated to discovering truth. The observer includes himself in his observation.
For his project The Earth Turns Without MeWaldvogel needed a supersonic flight. The solution he found of cooperating with the Swiss Air Force was probably only plausible because as a small, neutral country, Switzerland has not been directly involved in armed conflict for a very long time. One need only imagine an American artist proposing something similar with the U.S. military to appreciate how risky such an apparent legitimization of armed conflict by art can be. Which is not to say that Waldvogel’s work with Switzerland’s very small armed forces was completely innocuous. A sense of unease remains, but it is a productive unease inasmuch as here, the military is symbolically cast in the role of Sagredo. Like Sagredo, the military was asked to take on board the idea that the Earth rotates without it. This was symbolized by the mission patch Waldvogel designed for everyone involved to wear on their gray overalls: a globe with a red arrow indicating the direction of flight. Not without a touch of irony, a mission that was artistically meaningful, but militarily senseless was given its rightful place as part of masculine military garb.
Over Switzerland, you have to fly faster than the speed of sound—at 1,158 km/h—in the opposite direction to the Earth’s rotation in order to stand still in relation to the Sun. A two-seater Northrop F–5F Tiger made this possible. Waldvogel flew with it and turned the aircraft into a double camera. For the four minutes it took the Earth to turn through one degree of longitude, a video camera in the front of the cockpit documented the Earth’s rotation with a horizontal panoramic view of the Alps, while the rear cockpit was turned into a giant pinhole camera pointing diagonally at the Sun. The jet’s supersonic standstill meant that the Sun on the photograph remained a circular dot (allowing for the slight blurring caused by the inevitable buffeting). For comparison, Waldvogel repeated the exposure for the same period on the ground after landing. This time the Sun appears as a short line. Mission accomplished. What remains is the aftertaste of what, in technical, material, and logistical terms, was a madly extravagant and quite obviously pointless undertaking. While the ethos of non-instrumental art legitimizes lack of function, the pollution caused by such a flight is delegitimizing (even if the training flight would have taken place anyway). But Waldvogel integrates even this issue in his concept: The 23.4 tonnes of CO2 released by burning 3,860 liters of kerosene for the flight were compensated by a corresponding payment of 870.17 Swiss francs to the Swiss non-profit organization myClimate, which funds scientifically based climate protection projects. Here, too, neutrality is not mediation from a distance, but a form of commitment. Yet the strongest and most lasting impression is that of a military flight mutating from the earnest fulfillment of duty (or the pilot’s ecstasy) into a vision of supersonic standstill in the service of a stratospheric work of art: Le militaire n’existe pas.
In astronomy, the term eccentricity describes the degree to which the orbit of a heavenly body deviates from the circular. Johannes Kepler, mathematician to the imperial court in Prague, discovered the laws of planetary motion that came to bear his name when calculating Mars’ deviations from a circular orbit. Kepler’s sight was poor, unlike that of his master Tycho Brahe, who had very good eyesight and had made numerous astronomical observations, but was a less gifted mathematician than Kepler. In 1600, Brahe asked Kepler to explain the inconsistencies in the data on Mars’ orbit. It took Kepler almost five years, until 1605, to find the solution, by which time Brahe had been dead for four. Having wasted several years adhering to the traditional conception of absolutely circular orbits that fitted in so well with philosophical metaphysics and the idea of the essential harmony of divine creation, Kepler at last tested an elliptical path, whereupon all Brahe’s positional data suddenly fell into place. Kepler’s opus magnum Astronomia Novum, in which he describes the consequences of this key discovery, was published in Frankfurt in 1609, three years after he finished it. In that same year, 1609, Kepler wrote another work that was not to be published officially until after his death (in 1634, one year after Galileo was placed under house arrest). Unfortunately, however, Kepler began circulating the manuscript soon after completing it, and it was this that was to cause both him and above all his mother great suffering. The book in question, Somnium: The Dream, or Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy
The comparison between the soul’s capacity for self-observation and the orbit of a satellite that is repeatedly on collision course, shooting through the physical, «forgetting itself» in it, just as the eye «forgets itself» when it sees, has already been made in connection with Plessner’s concept of eccentric positionality. To Kepler’s mind, the tranquil observer’s position on the Moon (which is what Waldvogel proposes, in Kepler’s spirit, to save Galileo) called for a space traveler with the necessary degree of asceticism—nobody who is lethargic, fat, or tender. But if, in the same spirit, we now move on to the asteroid named 433 Eros, a crater-pocked potato shooting through space on an elliptical orbit, which like Mars would have been an ideal object for Kepler’s eccentricity calculations—except that was not discovered until 1898—the opposite perhaps applies: Only the happy-go-lucky should come into contact with this body that traces its orbit between Earth and Mars. Forward calculations of its trajectory show that in a few million years, it will plunge into the Sun. Before that happens, there is an extremely small, but nonetheless extant risk of a collision with the Earth. So 433 Eros, which belongs to the Amor class of asteroids that come close to the Earth’s orbit without crossing it, is seeking contact. The effect would be comparable with that of the asteroid whose impact 65.5 million years ago is thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs—and thus made way for the rise of the mammals and ultimately of humans. Eros meets Thanatos (or Moros?). Instead of waiting for the impact, Waldvogel simulates the formation of Eros through collision by bombarding a piece of styrofoam with plentiful rounds of pepper and gravel. As much as one could muse on the penetrating role of Eros (arrows, sperm, etc.), we prefer to move on, and instead simply consider what kind of a process this actually is. First to spring to mind is Niki de Saint Phalle, who of course in the early 1960s used a gun to fire paint balls at a canvas to generate abstract compositions. In the case we are dealing with here, however, there is no other agent involved meaning that this is a sculptural rather than a painterly process; the impact itself shapes the piece. It cannot be denied that the violence—be it oh so sublimated in the smell of the exploding pepper and the controlled situation of target practice in a quarry—hints at the dimension of eccentric positionality at the moment of its «impact» on physical self-perception. There are moments when the self-reflection described by Plessner gets out of hand, when we observe ourselves observing, yet still cannot do otherwise. Madness and infatuation. In 1912, psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein published a paper called «Destruction as a Cause of Becoming» in which she explored the question of why sexual desires are so often tied to thoughts of death (thus preparing the way for Freud’s theory of the death wish, though she never received any recognition for this). Unlike Freud, however, Spielrein sees the urge to destruction not as an antagonist of the sex drive, but as an integral part of it: The act of conception itself consists in self-destruction. The Classical myth of Cupid (the Roman counterpart of the Greeks’ Eros) and his lover Psyche contains a scene in which Psyche attempts to catch a glimpse of the lover—whom she has never seen—who comes to visit her at night, and in doing so accidentally drips hot oil from her oil lamp onto his shoulder. The scene is reworked as farce in Giordano Bruno’s comedy Candelaio (1582; English The Candle Bearer), in which a betrayed wife awaits her unfaithful husband disguised as his lover and then, by candlelight, proceeds to punish him cruelly. The collision course of the asteroid 433 Eros, which will one day plunge into the Sun, reflects this connection of love and destruction.
2005, Darmstadt—3005, Olympos Mons
On Friday, January 14, 2005, images of the surface of the Saturn moon Titan taken by the ESA/NASA probe Huygens and transmitted to the European Space Agency in Darmstadt accidentally became freely accessible on the Internet. The vision of another world «leaked» online. Christian Waldvogel himself was one of those who got wind of it and within just a few hours he had succeeded in using the photos to reconstruct a digital panorama of the surface of Titan as if seen from an earthly hot-air balloon. ESA and NASA published a photograph taken by the probe after it had landed and showing its immediate surroundings, the color spectrum restricted by spectrographic measurements to a single shade of orange. Waldvogel reworked the image accordingly, and published it on the Internet where it was widely circulated. On January 21, 2005, The Times of London drew attention to Waldvogel’s coup, the media naturally stressing the fact that it had been an «amateur» who had supplied the first image. What counts for Waldvogel himself is the «Neil Armstrong effect», meaning the fact that his reconstructed panorama made him the first person to gain a relatively authentic visual impression of what Saturn’s moon looks like. At this point, eccentric positionality turns away from looking back at the Earth, and begins looking out into the expanses of space. Seven Years From Here is the title of this work, seven years being the time it took the probe to reach Titan. Even though the data are relayed back to the Earth, the focus here, compared to the works discussed thus far, is more strongly on the aspect of drifting away—away from an orbit around the Earth or the Sun and away from the objectification of the observer’s position in relation to relations between celestial bodies. Instead a strange, unknown world, a floating across into a radical Other.
The image of this confrontation with a radically different world is nonetheless recomposed using the existing means of photography and digital image manipulation. In Waldvogel’s major project Globus Cassus, the radical Other emerges out of the Earth itself by sheer force of imagination (assisted by the digital tools of synthetic image generation). The dialectic of observation of the Earth and turning away from the Earth that I have just outlined is thus immediately negated. The project is as crazy as it is compelling. It proposes the scenario of a world literally turned inside out. First presented as the Swiss contribution to the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale, it conjures up roughly the following sequence of events: Driven by sundry natural disasters, humanity takes its fate into its own hands. First of all, four large satellites are placed in geostationary orbit and from there grow steadily both towards and away from the Earth, rather like space elevators. The Earth now looks like an orange, pierced by four drinking straws. Rigid beams are then spanned between these four nodes, gradually creating a frame encompassing the whole Earth. In the next step, magma is pumped out of the Earth and into this frame, where it is foamed to form a shell one hundred and fifty kilometers thick. The capsule now surrounding the old Earth also contains gigantic window panels made of silicates from the Earth’s crust, fired using solar energy. These windows provide sufficient sunlight for the new life zones inside the shell (inside because gravity has to be replaced by the centrifugal force of rotation). Then come the great rains: The withdrawal of magma dramatically reduces the Earth’s gravity, causing water and air to be ejected and caught by Globus Cassus, which in this way gains its atmosphere. The humans, flora, and fauna that have survived in the nodes during this process will now slowly begin to colonize their new world. The Earth is now nothing but a small glowing lump—before it disappears entirely, having been replaced by the tower axes which by now have grown together to form a cross, thus shortening the distances that have to be traveled between the various zones of Globus Cassus.
By the time I got to the image of the great rains, I could not help concluding that Globus Cassus is in fact an inverted ark. Instead of creating a small vessel in which a small selection of species can escape drowning, however, Waldvogel envisages a gigantic capsule saving them all. Instead of protecting humanity from the great rains, the great rains are protected from humanity (air and water are unleashed so that they can find a new home). As unrealistic as the realization is (and even if it turned out to be technically feasible, it is unlikely that anything would survive the forces involved), it is still compelling as a model. While most classical utopias (i.e. visions of concrete, locally specific, and promising non-places) presuppose either insular or otherworldly isolation, Globus Cassus is the first utopia to be born of the radical organizational, structural, and physical eversion of the place already in existence. This creates the opportunity for intelligent reordering according to the principle of specific egalitarianism. In principle, everything is available everywhere, thus rendering material transport and nation states superfluous, and the exchange of information all the more intense. We are reminded here of Rudolf Steiner, whose principle of inversion, and of the threefold social order of economy, polity, and culture was espoused as a third alternative to capitalism and socialism. Unlike anthroposophical ideology (even if this is not to be equated with Steiner himself), however, the customs and cultures of Globus Cassus are not enslaved to a holistic model which denies and eliminates flaws and imperfections, but are in fact permeable and superhybrid. It is more the anarchic wit of one of Giordano Bruno’s ilk that is at work here. The palace of justice and the casinos are always to be found near crèches and cinemas. Here again: «neutrality» is meant not as standing aside, but as uncompromising commitment to whatever appears to be the best solution. The eccentric positionality of humanity becomes the potential for the starting point. The Earth reflects itself; it becomes its own heaven.
As in Bruno or Kepler, what today is considered rationalistic is intermingled with the products of dreams and myths. Here, we can naturally find parallels to modern science fiction in the sense of narratives about the future rooted in both the literary imagination and in speculative science. The more interesting contemporary exponents of this genre are very good at fusing the mythological with a scientific and technological underpinning based on current hypotheses. Let us briefly examine two examples of this: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) and Dan Simmons’s Ilium (2003) and Olympos (2005). Snow Crash describes a future in which most nation states have fragmented into small, commercially run units, from gated communities through the CIC (the commercial successor to the CIA) to a mafia able to operate unchecked by the law. The main figure, Hiro Protagonist, is a hacker who previously made a decisive contribution to developing the Metaverse—an intense, socially fulfilling anticipation of Second Life to which people escape from the grim reality of a society that has spiraled into an anarchocapitalist chaos. Hiro and his sidekick, the fifteen-year-old skateboard courier Y.T., attempt to get to the bottom of a mysterious virus drug which works both in the real world and the Metaverse and turns its victims into mindless vegetables. The diabolical idea behind it is the binary programming—based on the pre-Babylonian language of the Sumerians—not only of devices, but of human brains so that people can be remote controlled. The motif that interests us most in connection with Waldvogel, however, is the fascinating and shockingly realistic idea of a gigantic fleet of ships, lashed together to form an island-like raft, which drifts around the Pacific like a dystopian Atlantis and every two years spills a payload of East Asian refugees onto the shores of the American West Coast. Here, too, the Earth becomes a ball on which absurd circular or linear movements are traced which, if they do not serve any cosmic perspective, then at least a yearning to be saved.
Dan Simmons’s two-volume epic is based on the zany idea that intelligent beings in a far-off future might get it into their heads to stage a technological re-enactment of the Trojan War as described by Homer, complete with the gods of Olympus that influenced its outcome. So this is not a fantasy story about ancient gods, demigods, and heroes, but a science-fiction novel about the technological generation of the same at some point in the future. Immortality, for example, is not some kind of magical property here, but is based on a combination of nanotechnology and quantum physics. Furthermore, and crucially, there appears to have been some kind of exchange of planetary entities, for the Trojan War is fought not on the Earth, but on a terraformed Mars (with the Martian mountain Olympos Mons serving as Mount Olympus). Only one million people still live on Earth itself and like the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s Time Machine (1895), they are spiritless half-wits looked after by mysterious machines. The Earth has also acquired two rings, like Saturn’s, to which people supposedly go when they die. Machine-beings pass their time thinking about Proust and Shakespeare, while quantum teleportation is used to bring back to life Thomas Hockenberry, a historian and Homer expert of the twenty-first century, who is to act as academic advisor to the Iliad re-enactment. None of this connects directly with Waldvogel, and the decisive difference remains that what Waldvogel seeks is more conceptual brevity than any epic narrative format (the «narrative» details are few and far between even in Globus Cassus). Yet there is still one important connection: Like these two outstanding contemporary science-fiction writers, Waldvogel, too, rejects the false choice between flourishing fantasy and rational thought.
Ultimately, however, his place is in the conceptually rooted tradition of Land Art established in the 1960s, two examples of which spring to mind: Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973–76) and James Turrell’s Roden Crater (since 1974). Both works are located in the desert (Holt’s in Utah, Turrell’s in Arizona) and although the relative absence of civilization undoubtedly played a role in this choice, the main reason for it was of course the better observability of natural light. Both works operate—to use the minimalist idiom—with negative space whose purpose is to make the heavenly bodies an experiential reality. Holt aligns four horizontal concrete tunnels so that they point to sunrise and sunset and to the winter and summer solstices. Holes drilled into the top of each tunnel allow a different constellation to be projected as dots of light into the interior of each pipe. Or as Nancy Holt herself says: It’s an inversion of the sky/ground relationship—bringing the sky down to the Earth. Turrell seeks to bring the sky down to the Earth on a much larger scale. He has hollowed out an extinct volcano, riddling it with tunnels and chambers in order to turn it into both an instrument for observing the skies and a sound sculpture. The way the construction frames particular celestial phenomena (e.g. the northernmost sunrise, the southernmost moonset) lends the work a sacred quality (one is reminded of the Pyramids or Stonehenge). Roof openings, moreover, shape the sky into an ellipse or a circle (just as Waldvogel turns the Earth into sky), although for Turrell it is also Sooner or later… Roden Crater. The permanently unfinished studio of his light art is a scene of material perfectionism—and of the spending of seven million dollars to date. Waldvogel does without the cumbersome and costly process of realization. Ideally, this is delegated to space agencies or to the proper motion of the stars. The artist is thus moving away from the substitute religion of contemporary art and towards the playful mental models in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp. All it takes is a constellation, a place, and an action (with documentation)—as in Space from Space, in which Waldvogel attempts to get as close as possible to the impression of the stars as seen by an astronaut in space, while himself remaining on Earth, on the Jungfraujoch; or in Top of the World, in which he goes to the «highest» point on the planet (in relation to the Earth’s axial tilt) in Swedish Lapland at the exact moment when the Sun is at its highest; or when he visits the Earth’s theoretical West Pole, which he defines as the nadir, the point exactly opposite the zenith of the Sun, and illustrates beautifully with a perfectly horizontal half-moon vertically aligned with the 2IFC skyscraper in Hong Kong.
With all these works, so complex and yet so simple and transient, Waldvogel shows that you can make space your studio without being a megalomaniac. Rather than bringing the sky down to the Earth, Waldvogel takes the Earth up into the sky.