One must enter the catastrophe to reap its benefits without suffering its drawbacks. You cannot prohibit the catastrophe, you must surf it.” (Paul Virilio)
Catastrophe Theory is – quite likely – the first coherent attempt (since Aristotelian logic) to give a theory of analogy. When narrow-minded scientists object to Catastrophe Theory that it gives no more than analogies, or metaphors, they do not realize that they are stating the proper aim of Catastrophe Theory, which is to classify all possible types of analogous situations. (René Thom)
It seems right to start an introduction about a project titled The Age of Catastrophe with quotations from Paul Virilio and René Thom. Namely, the ever-increasing series of natural and man-made catastrophes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries deafeningly signify the need for an artistic and cultural response to the very phenomenon of catastrophe. Of course, the notion of catastrophe is not a novel one. The famous Mount Vesuvius eruption in the Bay of Naples in 79 AD that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum has been a source of the imagination and has been referenced amply in the past two millennia.
However, as catastrophe is always a novel and unpredictable situation, it is worthwhile pointing to Henri Bergson who claimed that we have to change our way of thinking when facing new objects. Being aware of the difficulty in doing so, he added that “the idea that, for a new object, we might have to create a new concept, perhaps a new way of thinking, is deeply repugnant to us” (Creative Evolution). And indeed, how are we to determine what is the object of catastrophe? How are we to spatialize it? What happens to the notion of time in times of catastrophe? Is logic always to be followed, or is there room for intuition in the deciphering? After all, “intuition is said to be a mode of sympathy by which one is transported into the interior of any object” (Bergson, The Creative Mind). But can we, in fact, today use the Kantian distinction between intuition from universals? Bergson’s contemporaries such as Benedetto Croce regarded intuition as an organic whole, as a full-on manifestation of consciousness. So what are the sensory and affective constituents of the intuition in order to get deeper insight into the modalities of catastrophe?
Let us begin by untangling the concept of catastrophe by pointing out to clear examples of catastrophe in the twenty-first century, especially in a society where our very existence is dominated by the techno-scientific sector. In terms of natural catastrophes, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami was a straight-forward natural catastrophe, similar to the Mount Vesuvius eruption, where René Thom’s calculations in Structural Stability and Morphogenesis are of immense interest, but the Fukushima disaster incorporated into itself natural elements as well as the techno-scientific and the biopolitical forces hidden behind the latter (the chosen technology for the nuclear reactors, the technological options foreclosed by these decisions, ecological impacts, the radiation suffered by the rescue teams, cleaners, local populations, etc.). Interestingly enough, although Thom was a mathematician, and catastrophe theory is a branch of bifurcation theory (the study of large phenomena caused by sudden shifts in behaviour arising from small changes in circumstances) in the study of dynamic systems, Thom initially applied catastrophe theory to linguistics. His model thrives on simplicity through the use of multiple and interactive variables in order to apply catastrophe theory to any phenomena whatsoever.
On the other hand, the three sociological paradigms that define a catastrophe, according to Gilbert, provide useful heuristics: a catastrophe erupts from an outer event; society is made vulnerable by its advent; and social insecurity results. Similarly, Dyregrov tells us that catastrophe strikes suddenly, is unpredictable and uncontrollable, and its effects transcend the time of its occurrence. A catastrophe is particularly indicated by the massive material damage it causes along with the suffering and threat to human identity, dignity and security that comes in its wake.
But perhaps natural and man-made catastrophes are not so different after all? Virilio has described catastrophe as the original accident, brought forward by us. Its effects ripple far and wide, and it incorporates into itself the representation of all other catastrophes. The very idea of technological progress thus becomes imbued with catastrophic potential, an indication of which is Chernobyl that brought us into the era of global accidents whose consequences are in the realm of the long term. Perhaps Virilio’s words are a distant echo of Heidegger’s dystopian reflections on the catastrophe of technology and his fundamental critique of the technological attitude. And indeed, it is obvious that catastrophes have a huge impact on social, psychological, ethical, economic, political and cultural realms, effectively unifying the natural with the techno-scientific, requiring new modes of regulation, management and control. The price we have to pay for the development of science-technology has only increased the possibilities of catastrophes occurring. And yet no political thinking can cope with the dynamics of the biopolitics involved, and must therefore upgrade itself constantly. As we know, science and technology are not void of ideological-political concerns. In this context, it seems clear that the mirroring of fundamental ideologies has social and economic parameters that will have to be taken into account. The connections between systems of power and systems of knowledge are fundamental to the construction of the reality in which we live, so any challenge to the prevailing ideologies will be met with resistance.
The role of aesthetics, surprisingly, might be in the presentation of views on catastrophe and the shedding of light on how our Zeitgeist’s understanding of what constitutes a catastrophe has shifted as a whole. “Time” and “temporality” (lived time) become metaphoric vehicles for art to convey modes of catastrophe. The artists involved in THE AGE OF CATASTROPHE offer responses to the above posed questions of the “lived catastrophe” at this point in history, as we experience it in life or via the media. We become fully aware as individuals and as societies of our vulnerability in the face of the next catastrophe lurking around the corner, whose consequences will have to be met. In this context, the artists in this exhibition are presenting current experiential positions in terms of catastrophe perception, some of them inspired by mythic representations of our imaginary, mathematical models, robotic engineering, biopolitical perspectives, post-apocalyptic imagery and evolutionary models of the post-apocalyptic human being.
Still, echoing Heidegger, perhaps the saving power of art (harboured with-in technology) allows for the recapturing of the original essence of science and will provide deep reflection into the phenomena that include combinations of tsunamis and technological disasters, radiation and fiery ashes, blue skies and barren land, scorching ash and napalm?