A Theory of Experimentation in Art? Reading Kubler’s History of Art after Rheinberger’s Experimental Systems

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  A Theory of Experimentation in Art? Reading Kubler’s History of Art after Rheinberger’s Experimental Systems
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  15  A Theory of Experimentation in Art? Reading Kubler’s History of Art after Rheinberger’s Experimental Systems Stefanie Stallschus Independent Researcher For the art of the 1950s and the 1960s, one of the most central keywords was “experiment.” How else should one understand the groundbreaking works of  John Cage, or the development of Fluxus and happenings, if not as the spirit of advanced experiment and as a break with tradition? Experiment was not only a synonym for an orientation towards the new, it was also equivalent to awak-ening, progress, and—from today’s standpoint, perhaps most irritatingly—an engagement with society. From an art historical perspective, artistic experi-ment is closely linked with the avant-garde and the dissolution of boundaries in the arts of the twentieth century, which in the meantime have become his-toric and museum-like, traditional themselves. Recent research work suggests that the experimental methods of the nineteenth century became a successful instrument in both the positivistic sciences and the modern arts, which, delim-iting the past, aimed now at renewal and change (Gamper 2010).Despite this history of experiment in artistic discourse, it is unclear what the term exactly means in artistic practice. Frequently the experiment appears to imply a meta-reflection on a relation to the sciences, which, depending on historical context and artistic intention, can tend to differentiation or to con- vergence. Since the Second World War, there have been many conscious refer-ences to experiments, made in order to strike a bridge between the arts and sciences. An example of this is the philosophy of technology of the scientist and novelist Max Bense, who held the artistic reflection of insights from the natural sciences and engineering to be a requirement of the time, and who constructed his theory based on artistic experiment (Bense [1965] 1997). Another example of the experimental as a mediating concept is the American group E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), which was founded in New  York in 1967 after a successfully realised series of multimedia happenings and  Stefanie Stallschus 16 performances. The group made the artistic application of the newest technol-ogies their programme, and with its institutionalisation wanted to create the basis for a long-term cooperation between artists and engineers. The group’s name makes clear that the common overlap for a cooperation of this sort was seen to lie in the technological and materials aspects of experimental practices. As a mediating point of reference, experiment also plays an important role in the history and theory of the sciences and the arts. That, at least, is suggested by the reciprocal references and roaming arguments that one can discover in essays on the history of science, aesthetics, and art history. The present essay  will look more closely at one example of this. The point of departure is given by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s 1997 historiographic treatise on protein synthe-sis research, in which he developed his theory of “experimental systems” and “epistemic things.” In this book about the procedures and modalities of nat-ural scientific experimentation, there are several reflections on the relation-ship between art and science. One book in particular is cited repeatedly by Rheinberger in this context: the theoretical essay The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things  by the American art historian George Kubler, which was first published in the United States in 1962 and has since received numerous translations. Rheinberger emphatically pointed out the topicality of this text a few years ago in the German art journal Texte zur Kunst  . There, he pays trib-ute to Kubler as a “structural thinker” and names him in the same breath as the post-structuralist philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida—an accolade unusual for an art historian (Rheinberger 2009, 109). Against the back-drop of current interest in the arts in Rheinberger’s theory of science, it seems only reasonable to go back to the author’s references to the arts and submit Kubler’s text to a new reading from this perspective. Kubler has yet to receive attention in the debates on artistic research, even though Rheinberger’s anal- ysis of his theory indicates that it could be more relevant to artistic research than this lack of interest would suggest. rheinberger’s reading of the shape of time  In the above-mentioned article, Rheinberger explained the extent to which Kubler’s essay had influenced his conception of the history of science and how he initially encountered this art historical text from the 1960s. He first read the book while preparing for a research fellowship at Stanford University, during  which he initiated his reorientation from the science laboratory to historical reflection about this type of practical knowledge. He describes his reading experience in retrospect with uncommon emotion with the words: “Kubler’s book then struck me as strangely inspiring, even electrifying” (Rheinberger 2009, 109). This enthusiasm can perhaps be explained in that the other domain, on which Kubler’s argument is based, helped Rheinberger to visualise more clearly the lines of connection to his own research interests, perhaps more than could have been done by an essay oriented to natural science. Similarly, artists today find inspiration in Rheinberger’s books and recognise in his descriptions of natural science experiments the principles of their own artistic practice.  A Theory of Experimentation in Art? 17 There are two characteristics that have contributed to the success of Kubler’s book even outside specialist academic circles—important also for Rheinberger. For one, there is the gripping language. Even today, one can be seduced by the poetic overtones of this seemingly jotted-down essay, which is able to link pro-found reflections on the history of science with vivid metaphors. The meta-phorical passages have been cited time and again—for instance, the compar-ison of the historical artwork with a star, still just visible, but actually already gone out; or the description of artistic activity as quest in the darkness of a mine—an image also taken up by Rheinberger (1997, 75). There is also, on the other hand, a generally held viewpoint that does not get caught up on particu-lar problems of art history as an academic discipline but rather raises itself to the level of the history of science, thereby thematising the possibilities and limits of art historical writing.In Rheinberger’s book on “experimental systems,” there are not only repeated references to but also extensive quotes from Kubler’s text (Rheinberger 1997, 4, 75, 80, 178, 180). However, it is striking that there is only one case in which Rheinberger comes close to speaking about a concrete term that Kubler employs, namely the “sequence.” Otherwise, he refers in these passages to epistemological problems, which he identifies as following on from Kubler but then, inspired by French post-structuralism and epistemology, develops fur-ther. 1  Kubler’s text doesn’t exactly deliver Rheinberger any ready-made solu-tions that he could borrow for his purposes. Instead, it offers him occasions to deepen his own interrogations and trains of thought. All in all, one can discern four aspects in Kubler’s book that Rheinberger highlights. In the following I would like to summarise as briefly as possible Rheinberger’s commentaries on The Shape of Time  and the references to his own research, in order to make clear the direction of the interpretation. Initially Rheinberger highlights the differentiated treatment of cultural development processes in Kubler’s text. Kubler avoids the use of terms borrowed from biol-ogy in his description of historical time. Instead, he tries to describe the forms of cultural time, or rather the possibilities of thinking about cultural time (Rheinberger 2009, 109–10). For Rheinberger, too, the idea of cultural time, in the sense of the immanent time of experimental systems, plays an important role. Thus he strives to define the specific time structure of work-and-process units of natural science experimentation—for example, in the laboratory of a molecular biological research group. For Rheinberger, this is characterised by the specific logic of afterwardsness, which he calls “historicality”: on the one hand the scientific outcome leads to retroactive interpretations of prior events,  which never happened as a so-designed relation; and conversely, practices in the present receive another status, in that they are treated as a future past of an outcome that is yet to happen (Rheinberger 2009, 177–78).Second, Rheinberger points to the strong association of the shape of tem-porality with the materiality of things; for Kubler works on a history of things,  which captures historical time by means of the relations of surviving things 1. For his arguments on historical epistemology, see Rheinberger (2010).  Stefanie Stallschus 18 (Rheinberger 2009, 109, 111). Rheinberger’s research interest is very similarly oriented on scientific developments captured not by their accompanying theo-ries, but rather by their material traces and the processes in the laboratory. He is interested in the knowledge embodied in things (Rheinberger 1997, 4). This point of view lets him designate all this, which is not yet known, and for which the efforts of the research apply, as an epistemic thing, although it could like- wise be structures, reactions, or functions (Rheinberger 1997, 28).Third, Rheinberger finds in Kubler’s text a parallel between art and science, in regard to how the new srcinates in these fields. That does not mean that Kubler ignores the differences between art things and science things. But the processes by which these things are brought about are comparable for him; in both spheres innovation is not the product of a brilliant plan, but rather the perception of one option in an existing framework, which is given through earlier artworks (Rheinberger 2009, 110). Rheinberger invokes Kubler as much as Thomas S. Kuhn in order to emphasise the principally open character of experiment. In experimental research, new insights cannot be produced by orientation towards a goal, but only in the recognition of possibilities ensuing from pre-existing processes. Concrete questions and answers are clarified only by passing through a whole system of experiments and controls. Innovation is more the product of chance or a by-product of the process of repetition than it is an invention already intended beforehand (Rheinberger 1997, 27–28, 75).The fourth and last point in Rheinberger’s interpretation is aimed at the con-crete description of such development processes. Kubler introduced the con-cept of the sequence to be able to reconstruct cultural developments properly.  According to Kubler, the sequence is a succession of things that are related as solutions to similar artistic problems. The prevalence, repetition, and variation of things in the sequence can be observed over long periods and can, in con-trast to a linear conception of time, take irregularities and discontinuities into consideration (Rheinberger 2009, 111). Rheinberger draws a direct comparison between Kubler’s concept of the sequence and his own version of experimental systems with respect to the argumentative interrelation between materials and temporal development. Experimental system and sequence explain innovation as a process of differential reproduction that is characterised by repetition and  variation. Rheinberger alludes also to a fundamental difference, in that Kubler’s sequence is oriented towards macrostructures rather than the microstructure of the experimental systems. Moreover, he finds too narrow Kubler’s proposal that the sequence be defined by consistent problems and their solutions. For Rheinberger highlights the contingency of the scientific research process,  whilst explaining the object of knowledge as provisional and ambiguous—a dimension which is missing in the perspective of problem solving. In an exper-imental system, it can be the case that the epistemological thing changes, and  with it the research problem, without this having to lead to breaks in the mate-rial processes of experimentation within the system (Rheinberger 2009, 111).In particular, the comparison between the experimental system and the sequence makes one curious about Kubler’s theory. Is it really, as Rheinberger argues at the end of his article in Texte zur Kunst  , a “milestone” in the history of  A Theory of Experimentation in Art? 19 science regarding fundamental orientation towards concrete material? Which connections to artistic practice can be established here, and does the essay pos-sibly contain even a discrete theory of artistic experimentation? The following paragraphs will go closer into Kubler’s art historical theory and the sequence model, in order subsequently to build a bridge to artistic experimentation. george kubler’s art history and artistic experimentation Kubler’s structuralist art history puts the preserved material culture at the centre of consideration. The theoretical valorisation of things as a conse-quence of this was quite unusual in the period when the book was published. Customarily, cultural theory at the time devoted itself to the observation of things as signs or the decoding of their symbolic function (Baudrillard 1996). In contrast, Kubler was much more interested in the meanings that things develop between themselves in their relations to one another. Already his first sentences, which are accommodatingly formulated as an intellectual game, impart the radical aspiration of the text: what happens if we suppose that the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of human-made things? (Kubler 1962, 1) From today’s standpoint it is easier to recognise how much this desire for a widened subject area corresponds to the development of art in the postwar period. Thus, in the same way that Fluxus and happenings, performance, and pop art extended the concept of art, Kubler broadened the scope of art history.In his own research interests, Kubler did not have an immediate affinity with contemporary art, although he certainly followed the reception of his essay in the art scene and showed himself in interviews to be open to questions on the actuality of his deliberations (Kubler 1985). His research interests encom-passed South and Central American art, including the prehistoric cultures of Central America, the connections between indigenous and European tradi-tions during the colonial era, and acculturation in the modern age. In his stu-dent days in the 1930s, during which he studied under émigré art historians Henri Focillon and Erwin Panofsky, among others, he was already occupied  with the architecture of New Mexico (Kubler 1940). Kubler thus devoted him-self to topics that until then art history had given little attention, and he soon realised that he would have to modify methods that had been developed in the area of European culture. That is the background for Kubler’s essay, which rel-ativised established methodical approaches like the history of style, iconology, and the history of biography, and also pulled the rug from under the myths of the singular masterpiece and the artist as genius. Instead, Kubler adopted an interdisciplinary approach, by adapting methods and insights from other aca-demic fields—for example, anthropology, mathematics, linguistics, and infor-mation theory (Kubler 1962, 4, 10–12, 68–71).For Kubler, things become relevant because they make it possible to unite the material and mental aspects of art under the generic term “form” (Kubler 1962, 9). This accords well with Rheinberger’s inclination to think of
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