BY Jochen Volz in Opinion | 12 DEC 11
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Issue 144

Uncertainty Principles

How art can provide new tools for living in a precarious age

BY Jochen Volz in Opinion | 12 DEC 11

Entropy describes the loss of information. In information theory, it refers to the measure of uncertainty, an idea borrowed from thermodynamics which determines how close a system is to equilibrium or disorder. The idea that we can quantify both uncertainty and entropy can be found across many disciplines: from mathematics to astronomy, from linguistics to communication science, from biology, sociology and anthropology to history.

Art has always played on the unknown. Historically, it has insisted on a vocabulary that describes mystery and that quantifies uncertainty. Information is lost and doubt persists, but art can moderate such paradoxes by creating new systems, scales and standards, by introducing alternative patterns and measures. Art dwells on the incapacity of existing means to describe the system we are part of – it points to its disorder. Most importantly, art can do this because it naturally joins thinking with doing, reflection with action.

In his performance Stone and Numeral (1969), Jiro Takamatsu set out to number the stones along the Tama River in Japan. This action – which was documented in a photographic series – is an iconic attempt to gauge the world. To count the uncountable or to measure the immeasurable is an impossible enterprise, but the relative uncertainty of all measures inspires conjecture about the measurability of the universe. And what about the measures that provoke us to re-evaluate existing measures? Is failure a valid assessment of uncertainty? What are the measures of failure?

Fiction has also been a great escape from this dilemma – could it be understood as an index of uncertainty? Marcel Broodthaers once stated that ‘fiction allows us to experience reality and simultaneously what reality hides’. Entropy is often referred to as a gradual decline of order, but are there gradual states of fictiveness?

For Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term ‘liquid modernity’, liquidity serves as a metaphor for a modern society, incapable of maintaining its form, having an effect on all dimensions of our lives. Old social bonds, such as family and community, are replaced by concepts of identity that are, by their nature, fluid and flexible. The dissolution of strong ties sets a new sort of challenge for our individualized and globalized lives, pushing us to be adaptable under conditions of endemic uncertainty. The image that Bauman draws is that of walking on a thin crust of ice, too slippery to run across yet too fragile to stop.

We can state with certainty that uncertaintygoverns the beginning of the leap year 2012,whether it’s the series of eschatological events that some have predicted or the social, ecological, economical and political crises and challenges the world is facing. It doesn’t really seem to matter whether our planet collides with Nibiru, is sucked into a black hole or has to deal with a radically new world order: the classical forms of governmental deliberation and decision-making have increasingly begun to fail. Yet pragmatism sneaks in everywhere, andnetworks based on individualized communi­cation have proven to be a potent alternative to traditional top-down governance.

But if we truly believe in art, then shouldn’t we also think of new ways to make art’s methods of reasoning and execution applicable to other fields of public life? Here, we can think of another meaning for the word ‘measure’: a plan or course of action taken to achieve a particular purpose. In Bauman’s analogy, precautions are necessary in order not to drown beneath the ice. Abstraction, chance, participation and intervention are just four in an endless series of tools and manuals that artists have invented in order to point to subjects such as order and disorder, inversion, misunderstanding and change. It is in these strategies that we might find new tools for life in an age of uncertainty.

Art is powerful. It discovers, occupies, invents and defines places, in cities or in the countryside, in the centre or at the margin, whether as large as a lake or smaller than a coin, in historical, newly developed, continuously changing or precarious places. Historically, periods of political oppression or social instability have proven this to be true. Artistic creativity is fostered by force and by love. It can be born out of resistance, but truly grows in peace. We also know that, while art has the capacity to define place, culture needs space. Culture isn’t constituted solely by the common history of people, a region or a period. It is created by shared perspectives. In this sense, culture is never symbolic, but always concrete.

Jochen Volz is a curator of the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo.