The week before last (14-15 January), I made the trip up to Lancaster University for a conference on ‘Experimental Subjects’, part of the current Ex?erimenta!ity series.
Experimentality is a year-long collaborative exploration of ideas and practices of experimentation in science and technology, the arts, commerce, politics, popular culture, everyday life, and the natural world. Participants in a series of linked events will use the notion of the experiment to explore vital questions about the relationship between knowledge and power, freedom and control in the modern world.1
I missed a few of the earlier conferences as I was out of the country but took the chance to attend whilst I am ‘between’ field-sites. I was pleasantly surprised by how many people were present at the event – somewhere between 30 and 40 – and the papers/presentations were interesting, if varied. Some of the highlights included an exploration of different sorts of experimentation (experimenta fructifera and experimenta lucifera) by Bronislaw Szersynski, who later went on to argue that experiments create the conditions for the emergence of an event. He drew on Giorgio Agamben’s work at times, which is something I have not really engaged in (yet)… In the same session, although not presenting, Adrian MacKenzie was keen to focus on experience: where is the experiment experienced? Are there sites of intensified experience? Unfortunately, these questions were elided.
On the Friday there was a fascinating talk by Lisa Blackman who was interested in practices of experimentation as forms of experimental stagecraft and was perhaps the only speaker at the conference who engaged with affect (as an aside, she mentioned a forthcoming special issue of ‘Body & Society’ which tries to grapple with affect). She made reference to Stengers’ concern with ‘risky’ research: allowing questions to be re-qualified as the research unfolds.2
Perhaps most fascinating, for me, was the talk by Neal White. I have been in contact with Neal by email for several months so it was really good to meet up and chat. I am exploring the possibilities of working with him as part of my series of fieldwork sites/interventions/moments. Interested in the work of Trevor Paglen (who may have coined the phrase ‘Experimental Geography’) and fresh from a recent collaboration with the UCL Geography Department on a project (‘Dark Places’), Neal is no stranger to geography. However, the main reason I got in touch was because Neal is the founder and coordinator of the ‘Office of Experiments’:
An intermittent institution dedicated to experiments, experimental knowledge and intuitive logic. THE OFFICE OF EXPERIMENTS aim is to respond to or create a context for the production and display of materials, practices and events in which the experimental element is paramount, if not rationalised, as art.3
Drawing on Rheinberger (1997), White argues that experimentation, as a machine for making the future, has to bring about unexpected events. He is interested in the relation between experimentation and events, whilst not reducing it to ‘spectacle’ (arguing that most people expect spectacle rather than participation). His concerns are not dissimilar to mine: to problematise the subject/object relationship; to question the roles of viewer and artist; and to re-examine the space(s) in which experiments can take place. We are hoping to continue our conversation in early February.
There was time at the end of the two-day conference for a round-table discussion which raised some important themes, and asked ‘Why experiment, and why now?’ Tellingly, the texts that were most often referred to were far from recent4. Indeed, when looking for one of the books since returning from the conference, I stumbled across a review of it which noted that:
One of the most interesting and important trends in the history and philosophy of science has been the recent work on experiment. Most philosophy of science, and sometimes even history of science, either neglects experiments – how they are done and what role they play – or treats their results as unproblematical. Peter Galison’s How Experiments End is a major contribution to the growing body of work that is correcting that view.5
It makes me wonder what happened to that body of work, as it seems to be rarely referenced. Perhaps I have just been looking in the wrong direction! On a slightly different, another thing that struck me was that the students who were helping out were wearing lab-coats. I wondered why they were rehearsing a particularly scientific notion of experimentation. Perhaps it was mildly subversive that social-scientists were claiming the right to experiment but I thought it was a missed opportunity.
The next conference in the series will be ‘Experimental Objects’ on 18-19 February.
- Ex?erimenta!ity postcard; www.lancs.ac.uk/experimentality ↩
- See Whatmore, S. (2003) Generating Materials. In: Pryke et al. (eds.) Using Social Theory. London: Sage. Ch.5 ↩
- White, N. (2010) Experimentality: The Experimental Site; presented on 15/01/2010 at Lancaster University ↩
- Galison, P. (1987) How Experiments End. Chicago: Chicago University Press, and Rheinberger, H-J. (1997) Towards a History of Epistemic Things. California: Stanford University Press ↩
- Franklin, A. (1988) Review article: How Experiments End – Galison, Peter (1987). The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 39(3): 411-414 ↩