In the Realm of the Insignifier. Cloud Formation at the ZKM Karlsruhe

Jacob Birken
ZKM Karlsruhe, 03.09.2015

“After five seconds there was a click, and the entire Universe was there in the box with him.”
Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


cloudscapesFig. 1

In June, the ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe opened the “Globale”—a festival lasting until 2016 on the occasion of the city’s 300th anniversary—with two large installations: Cloudscapes by Tetsuo Kondo and Transsolar, and Ryoji Ikeda’s Micro | Macro. With them, the ZKM returns to its founding claim of bringing together state-of-the-art technology and contemporary art. What both installations have in common is that they evoke—whether directly or indirectly—a classical concept of artistic experience: the ‘sublime,’ the localization of man in face of an overwhelming environment.
  In one of Douglas Adams’ novels of the science fiction series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the protagonist Zaphod Beeblebrox—intermittent President of the Galaxy and at all times an egomaniacal bon vivant—is locked into the so-called “Total Perspective Vortex.” No more than a wired box and a piece of fairy cake from the outside, the Total Perspective Vortex presents the person inside it with a realistic simulation of the entire universe and sets him in relation to it: Confronted with the enormous expanse of the universe, it is an experience one can hardly cope with, and that is why the “Vortex” is commonly used for executions. As an allegory, this story imparts quite a bit about the relationship of humans to their environment, and especially about the notion of a comprehensive representation of the world—including the psychological effect of this representation on the beholder (Adams plays with our idea of what is at all conceivable). So at issue here are aesthetic questions, ones that are preferably discussed under the concept of the ‘sublime’: How can the human psyche, the human mind, process an impression of the environment that reveals our own insignificance?[1] Zaphod Beeblebrox is lucky: Upon entering the Total Perspective Vortex he is already unknowingly in a further simulation placing him at the center of the universe. Even as the tiniest speck in the immensity of the universe, he thus feels confirmed in his uniqueness. Kant, in his classical analysis of the ‘sublime,’ explained the pleasure humans take in viewing forces of nature by pointing to the fact that they may seem immeasurable in our imagination, but our faculty of reason (which can grasp the ‘immeasurable’ as a concept) can cope with them all the same. Adams in turn suffices with the equally typical quality of human hubris to cope with the “infinity of creation.” “Really neat place,” is how Beeblebrox sums it up.
  In his essay “Against the Sublime,” the art scholar James Elkins is rightly skeptical about the extent to which the concept of the ‘sublime’ is at all viable nowadays, raising the question of whether it is not inextricably linked to figures of thought from around the year 1800. Yet as historical as the era of Enlightenment may appear to us, its images (of the world) continue to have an effect and are still evoked, not least in art history, to describe our present in its historical uniqueness.
  This is something that could be observed at the ZKM Karlsruhe, where the “Globale” festival was kicked off by two large-scale installations that directly or indirectly play with images of the sublime. The first work, Cloudscapes, a collaboration between the architect Tetsuo Kondo and the Stuttgart engineering office Transsolar, is already art-historically framed when entering it: Reproductions of Romantic paintings are meant to present a pre-history, in which the image of nature could only be conveyed through “representation,” while now “real clouds”—as the press text self-confidently states—“technically produced by man according to the laws of nature” enter the museum. This argumentation is surprising in several respects, including the venerable, modernist[JB2]  jump to the conclusion that earlier art projects failed in face of reality due to one or the other technical insufficiency (in the Middle Ages, the central perspective was not yet ‘invented’ and Caspar David Friedrich probably lacked a fog machine). But the ontological confusion is less trivial. What is Cloudscapes? For the installation, the ZKM emptied the spacious atriums that usually house its media museum. Merely the ramp designed by Tetsuo Kondo and a platform on the first floor form the exhibition architecture.


cloudscapeFig. 2

Above the heads of the audience is the “cloud,” which is walkable due to the ramp and the platform: When I was there, it was more like a screen of fog, into which new cloud material was occasionally injected. If the patches of fog didn’t float several meters above the ground, there would be no discernible difference to the fog effect in a dance club. This is also an interesting experience, albeit one that has just as little to do with Caspar David Friedrich as with the cloudy sky that I can see through the window of my study.

 cloudscapesFig. 3

The misconception of condensed water in the hall in Karlsruhe amounting to “real clouds” is already inscribed in the project’s claim, which is ultimately a claim to technological doability and controllability. The work description of Cloudscapes provides the historical horizon: “Until 1800, man adapted to his natural environment, his outer surroundings. Today, we create a human environment, a technological civilization, by adopting and embedding nature, the natural world.” Of course, such a description is dependent on what it withholds, namely, that the notion of nature as the ‘other’ of man is an historical and deeply ideological construction legitimizing certain actions and following specific interests. With the narrative of the progress of human civilization, it would today indeed be inappropriate to speak of a feeling of the sublime in view of the ability to technically produce clouds; the calculability underlying Cloudscapes already ridicules the idea that natural phenomena could be something ‘immeasurable.’ How does Cloudscapes relate to the preceding cloud pictures from the period of Romanticism? Not at all. For the installation is neither a ‘representation’ of a natural phenomenon nor a “real cloud”: Here, the rhetoric merely follows the notion of a ‘context independence’ of scientific insight, in which natural phenomena are viewed separately from the systems surrounding them and are conceived as reproducible—a notion that Carolyn Merchant already criticized in 1980 in The Death of Nature. As a meteorological phenomenon, to put is simply, a cloud is only ‘real’ in the sky; everything else, no matter how humid and expansive it may be, remains nothing but a special effect. It seems as if a loss of art-historical knowledge has accompanied technological progress, for the Romantic landscape of the year 1800 is not the depiction of an isolated phenomenon (the representation of a cloud), but at the very least the attempt to grasp the environment in a picture. In the end, Cloudscapes itself remains on the level of representation: It stands for the human hubris of being able to subdue the world, and thus a component of an even larger simulation, in which we are, as a matter of course, always at the center of the universe. Cloudscapes thus falls back behind works such as those of Olafur Eliasson, in which the visualization of the simulation technology is always part of the project.
  There is also no secret to the functionality of the Total Perspective Vortex: The simulation is fed by the connected pastry. “Since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation [...] from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.” Already in 2005 the computer scientist Robert Koiima named a space simulation comprising 2,533,774 stars after Adams’ “Vortex”; but a work coming closer to the overwhelming experience of the science-fiction apparatus is perhaps the huge installation Micro | Macro by Ryoji Ikeda that filled the other atriums of the ZKM at the opening of the “Globale.”

micro/macroFig. 4

Ikeda’s pulsating projections covering the entire area of one atrium and a wall three stories high play with a figure of thought of the micro- and macroscopic that can be compared with the Total Perspective Vortex. A stay at the CERN research center inspired the artist to create animations plumbing the limits of what can no longer be represented, because it is either much too small or much to big. Nothing is actually ‘visualized’ here, for the depicted volumes of data—psychedelic dot clouds, networks, and columns of numbers—elude being evaluated by the viewer. Micro | Macro is already spectacular in aesthetic terms, but it is the plethora of information one cannot cope with that evokes a ‘digital sublime’ here. Even if Ikeda hadn’t used data that describe our reality in a scientifically correct way, the image itself would be correct; we only need to think of the information no longer legible by humans that constitute our present-day, global communication channels (the transfer of content on this Website from the server to your screen). In the digital age, the alleged victory of human reason over the immensity of nature is faced with a ratio whose processes we will never be able to grasp in quantitative terms. Therefore, we stand before Micro | Macro as if gazing at a mountain landscape or the cloud-covered sky over the ocean: quite small, and in a comforting way freed from the idea of being able to comprehend the entire universe.

June 19, 2015 to April 17, 2016 at the ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie
Lorenzstraße 19, D-76135 Karlsruhe

[1] Jon Leaver already related Adams’ “Vortex” to the classical concept of the ‘sublime’ in regard to the image of the metropolis, see Jon Leaver, “Urban Sublime: Visualizing the Immensity of Los Angeles,” X-TRA, Winter 2014, Vol. 16/2

Fig. 1
Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo, Cloudscapes, 2015
Foto: Fidelis Fuchs / © ZKM | Karlsruhe

Fig. 2
Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo, Cloudscapes, 2015
Foto: ONUK / © ZKM | Karlsruhe

Fig. 3
Transsolar + Tetsuo Kondo, Cloudscapes, 2015
Foto: Felix Grünschloss / © ZKM | Karlsruhe

Fig. 4
Ryoji Ikeda, micro | macro, 2015
Foto: Harald Völkl © ZKM | Karlsruhe


Jacob Birken is artistic assistant at the School of Arts Kassel. He writes and does research on concepts of history and environment in art & pop culture.

Translation: Karl Hoffmann