Coactivity : Notes for The Great Acceleration, Taipei Biennial 2014

  • Publish On 19 April 2017
  • Nicolas Bourriaud

As a prelude to the Taipei Biennial, Nicolas Bourriaud presents a panorama of contemporary art and its transformations in the era of the Anthropocene. The impact of human activities on the Earth system has led us to the geophysical epoch of the Anthropocene. This condition affects our world view and is bringing about new philosophical perceptions on the world, considered in terms of substance, as the speculative realists invite us to do with their holistic school of thought in which human beings, animals, plants and objects must be treated in the same way. This philosophy resonates strongly with contemporary art, as the relationship between biological life and the inert seems to be the main tension within contemporary culture, creating a “space of coactivity” that provides a new meaning to form and gives birth to what he calls “exformes.”

Nicolas Bourriaud is an art historian, art critic, theorist and exhibition curator. Since 2016, he is the director of the future Montpellier Contemporain (MoCo).

Mechanical activity

1. The extent and acceleration of the industrialization of the planet has prompted a number of scientists to hypothesize the advent of a new geophysical era, the Anthropocene. Following the ten thousand years of the Holocene era, this new age reflects the impact of human activity on the terrestrial system: climate change, deforestation, soil pollution—even the structure of the planet has been modified by humankind, whose effects now outweigh any other geological or natural force.

But the idea of the Anthropocene also points up a paradox: as the collective impact of the species becomes more real and more powerful, so the contemporary individual feels less and less capable of having any effect on his or her surrounding reality. This feeling of individual impotence thus goes hand in hand with the massive, measurable effects of the species, while the techno-structure we have generated seems impossible to control. The human scale has collapsed. Powerless before a computerized economic system where decisions are determined by algorithms capable of performing operations at the speed of light (high-frequency trading already accounts for three quarters of financial operations in the United States), human beings have become spectators or victims of their own infrastructure. We are thus witnessing the emergence of an unprecedented political coalition between the individual/citizen and a new underclass: animals, plants, minerals, and the atmosphere, all attacked by a techno-industrial apparatus that is now clearly detached from civil society.

Anthropocentric activities

7. Today, in the name of the critique of anthropocentrism, the subject is under attack from all sides. More generally, we may note that ever since post-structuralism ran out of steam, the invisible motor of contemporary thought has been the systematic critique of the notion of the “center.” Ethnocentrism, phallocentrism, or anthropocentrism—the proliferation of these highly derogatory terms indicates that the a priori rejection of any kind of centrality constitutes the great battle of our times. Deconstruction can exist only in the approach to a centrality, of whatever kind. The center, as a figure, is the absolute pet peeve of contemporary thought. But then isn’t the human subject itself the supreme center? It was therefore bound to be caught up in this general suspicion whereby today’s thought metes out justice on any kind of pretension. The true crime of humanity, after all, lies in its colonial essence: since the dawn of time, human populations have invaded and occupied those on the fringes, reducing other forms of life to slavery, exploiting their environment to an absurd extent. But, instead of trying to redefine relations between their fellow creatures and other beings, rather than helping to formulate other kinds of relations between the human and the world, contemporary thinkers have merely ended up reducing philosophy to a constantly ruminating bad conscience, to a simple act of contrition, and sometimes even a fetishism of the peripheral. Is not this spectacle of humility, which we call contrition, an extension and reversal of the old Western humanism?

 

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