CCA  Center for Contemporary Art and Ecology 

25 February – 14 May 2023



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Participating artists:
Karl Blossfeldt, Madison Bycroft, Filipa César & Louis Henderson, Laura Huertas Millán, Esther Kokmeijer, Sasha Litvintseva & Beny Wagner, Claudia Martínez Garay, Pedro Neves Marques, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Uriel Orlow, Andrew Pekler & Kiwi Stefanie Menrath, Erik Peters, Jol Thoms

RADIUS starts the year with the group exhibition THE MEASURE OF THE WORLD, revolving around the ghosts of Western Enlightenment thinking and the relationship between science, truth-finding and the consequential creation of worldviews. With the work of fifteen artists, the exhibition forms a conversation starter for the NATURECULTURES year program and presents a first counterpoint to the current crises that bear witness to the perverse reality of modernism.

THE MEASURE OF THE WORLD exhibition campaign image by Lisa Rampilli, modelled after the frontispiece for Thomas Hobbes' publication Leviathan (1656).

THE MEASURE OF THE WORLD departs from the legacy of Western Enlightenment thinking. The Enlightenment, in its broadest sense, can be understood as the late 17th-century and 18th-century European period of progress based on empiricism—gathering knowledge from human experience—and rational thinking. This thinking has always been aimed at liberating people from fear of nature and establishing them as lord and master. Now that the lights of the Enlightenment have slowly dimmed, the wholly enlightened Earth is radiant with triumphant calamity and ecological decay. What have we actually inherited from the Enlightenment? What happened when the ideas spawned from this epoch turned out to be toxic?

The basis of Enlightenment thinking can be briefly summarized as the modern separation of natural and social worlds—also called dualism. Well-known Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Carl Linnaeus, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Denis Diderot, Charles Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexander von Humboldt are at the origin of these divisions of European modernity, including the division between object/subject, nature/culture, human/non-human. Using criticism, purification and categorization as methods, completely separate zones were created: those of humans on the one hand, and those of non-humans on the other. The representation of citizens belonged to the political domain, whereas science represented the category of non-humans. Scientists mediated (between) the nature of non-humans—including plants, animals and those people who were not considered human—and the culture of people, society. The modern project of purification between nature and culture took many forms, including a sharp increase in the production of philosophical epistles, mathematical treatises, encyclopedias, cartographic expeditions and surveys, political theories and botanical world tours, with the common denominator: the European enlightened human as the center and measure of the world.

Drawing by Lisa Rampilli, modelled after Les Perspecteurs (1647) by Abraham Bosse.

For humankind to become the measure of all things, the human also had to go beyond itself, become external to itself. Scientific objectivity required an (immaterial ubiquitous) perspective based on universal mathematical abstraction and an absolute scientific method. The epitome of this attitude can be found in the work of René Descartes, a French philosopher and mathematician who lived in the Netherlands for a long time and laid the foundations for the later Enlightenment. In his famous publication Discours de la Méthode (1637), Descartes creates the framework of his overarching method: to unify the sciences and to base all knowledge on a single (mechanical-mathematical) universal method, thereby abolishing so-called 'non-objective' sciences such as scholasticism, mythology, and witchcraft. In his radical reductionism of the non-human, Descartes stated: "There exist no occult forces in stones or plants, no amazing and marvelous sympathies and antipathies, in fact there exists nothing in the whole of nature which cannot be explained in terms of purely corporeal causes, totally devoid of mind and thought." and: "The only principles which I accept, or require, in physics are those of geometry and pure mathematics; these principles explain all natural phenomena."

Drawing by Lisa Rampilli, modelled after drawing by René Descartes from Treatise of Man (1662).

That same so-called 'objective' and objectifying view of the human as a central perspective on the world formed a division between human and the non-human, the modern enlightened and the pre-modern. Through human mediation, nature was conquered and tamed, measured, cataloged and categorized to form a stable background for human, civilized culture. Not only non-scientific methods were externalised, also groups of people that did not make a distinction between nature and culture were categorized as inferior, non-human or primitive according to these ideas, in contrast to the modern European Enlightenment thinker as an exalted species and category.

THE MEASURE OF THE WORLD foregrounds the ghosts of these earlier knowledge regimes by providing insight into the ways in which they continue to contaminate our ways of seeing and thinking to this day. Although the modern project of thinking in divisions, boundaries and dualisms has failed, it has real and polarizing consequences; the exclusion, exploitation and exhaustion of humans, more-than-humans, natural resources and ecosystems are still rampant in humanistic, religious and capitalist systems. Which embodied, reciprocal, feminist, indigenous and decolonial worldviews are possible as an alternative to thinking in divisions, so that we no longer have to "see double" between nature and culture, object and subject? Or, to conclude in the words of writer Ursula K. Le Guin: "One way to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills, only as "natural resources," is to class them as fellow beings—kinfolk. I guess I'm trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination."

Drawing by Lisa Rampilli, modelled after diagram by Bruno Latour from We have never been modern (1993).

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  1. Text excerpt quoted from Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002. (link)
  2. Text fragment quoted from Bruno Latour, We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  3. Text fragment paraphrased from Clemens Driessen, 'Descartes Was Here — In Search of the Origin of Cartesian Space' (2020).
  4. Text fragment quoted from Clemens Driessen, 'Descartes Was Here — In Search of the Origin of Cartesian Space' (2020).
  5. In this scientific mediation we find the paradox of the moderns, as philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist Bruno Latour formulates: "By using both the work of mediation and the work of purification, but never representing the two together, they were playing simultaneously on the transcendence and the immanence of the two entities, Nature and Society." Text fragment quoted from Bruno Latour, We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  6. Text fragment quoted from the foreword of Ursula K. Le Guin, Late in the Day — Poems 2010–2014. Oakland, California: PM Press, 2016.

Curated by Niekolaas Johannes Lekkerkerk, assisted by Sergi Pera Rusca.

THE MEASURE OF THE WORLD has been made possible with the support of Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds, Municipality of Delft, FONDS21, Mondriaan Fund, Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Overvoorde Gordon-Stichting / Pauwhof Fonds, the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.