Green light – An artistic workshop
Hosting the Spirit of Green light
Olafur Eliasson in conversation with Andreas Roepstorff

Olafur Eliasson: I want to thank you all for cohosting us and one another because I think there is something very important going on here—the decentralization of hospitality, which means there is no center, but rather only periphery. Obviously, this is not completely true, because there is an organization, TBA21, behind this, but I would still argue that Green light aims to decentralize hospitality.


The reason I invited Andreas to come here today is that his work shows that systems can change. Systems are normally defined as hierarchical, top-down, institutional, and exclusive—also systems that claim to be inclusive are in fact exclusive, systems that claim that we can identify with them but that we actually struggle to identify with. Let me give one example: one system that we like is the EU, but we have no emotional understanding of what on earth the EU is. Another system is the UN: we have come to love the UN, but we have no emotional narrative to understand what the UN is. We all think that these systems are important, but we feel disconnected. So I am very interested in when we feel connected and when we feel disconnected.


For me the refugee crisis introduces a similar challenge. We know a lot about the refugee crisis from the media and from one another because we talk about it, but the emotional narrative is very difficult. It is so abstract! I know what I think about the crisis, refugees, EU, the climate—you name it. I know what I think about it, but it is so difficult for me as a civic participant to engage with. If I cannot feel the “we,” I am also a populist, because populism means anti-we. So I suffer because I have become numb and I don’t have a sense of we. That is why I called Andreas and asked him to help me!


Andreas Roepstorff: Thank you, Olafur. This has been a really, really interesting afternoon. It is wonderful being in this room, seeing how it is getting a little bit darker, and in this darkness the green light moves from being a metaphor to creating an environment that encloses us. There is something very interesting about the color green—does it make sense to speak of an evil green? Or green might be seen as naive or envious, and there is also something about growth that seems to go with the green.


Atif Akin said something interesting earlier; he said that Western history has largely been built in exile, by refugees. And the argument is, more or less, that different modules are being brought together, are being reconfigured—and out of that reconfiguration what we know as Western culture has arisen. I was wondering whether this might be one of the metaphors of Green light, as a construction. Is it exploring not so much the feeling of we-ness, of becoming one, but that feeling of modular assembly? Individual modules are being combined with one another to create something that transcends the individual. This motif of greenness, of modules that all look the same but somehow get recombined into something else, is what this afternoon has been about for me. And maybe that is better than being sucked into a we that dissolves each of us.


Constructing “We-ness”


AR: Going back to the question of these larger institutions that we do not feel that we are part of. It is a really difficult notion to open up to! How do you get across the idea that you belong to some entity that other people belong to as well? In the fields of cognitive science and anthropology, researchers are very interested in exploring the “we-mode.” Is there some kind of a feeling of belonging together as a species or as a group? The way to construct a we-mode might be through an invitation to sharing.


The we-mode is characterized by instances of sharing. It might be instances of sharing acts, of sharing language or food, because these transform the “I” and the “you” into some kind of we-ness.


OE: I like that—the we-mode. That is a good word to remember, we-mode. Also the other word, we-ness. It is nice to be in the cultural sector and claim to occupy the word we-ness before some commercial company exploits it. Let’s just sit for a second in the we-ness together. I am so excited about this idea that interdependence is something that you cocreate. Obviously you take for granted that if you pay taxes the government will make the we-ness for you, the civic interdependence—gesellschaftlicher Zusammenhalt. Actually, despite paying taxes, we are left in a situation in which we also have to cocreate our realities, our we-mode.


You talked about sharing—so what type of spaces would you, Andreas, see as representing a kind of sharing in which I don’t demand that you think the same thoughts that I think. Is it in parliament? We tend to think of democracy as a great host for disagreement. But the truth is that this system is also being influenced by populism, which has made it into parliament. So essentially, what other spaces, if not democracy, allow us to celebrate our shared base? I think culture to some extent is such a space, but if it is not, where do we find the type of sharing that welcomes the fact that we cannot agree on everything. What spaces are left?


AR: Maybe the best space to start with is a concrete space. What is critical is that once spaces get concrete people can get together, even very transiently. A place where you can relate to one another without dissolving into one another. It seems that what we are doing when we are together, even very temporarily, is that we become hyperfollowers of one another.


We did a very simple experiment with tapping, in which basically what I was producing became everything that you heard and what you produced became everything that I heard. Out of that emerged a very interesting pattern. People would start to fall into rhythms, but since you could only know what I was doing based on what I did previously, you tried to align with me. If I was slow, you would also become slower, but I would try to be faster to align with you. And as a result of that, we were never in sync with each other but were kind of dancing a beautiful dance of hyperfollowing each other. Because we each try to anticipate what the other is doing, we create this dance of having something that emerges stably between the two of us without one of us falling into the pattern of mimicking the other or becoming the other. So a good place to begin is with hyperfollowers in concrete spaces.


The Hyperfollowers


OE: Do you think that public space is a platform where this can happen? Public space is such a broad term, but let’s just say it is a space that is not privatized. That is a better way to put it.


AR: This space that you create today here is a public space, a sort of temporary space and yet a public space. I think there is something about this concreteness of being together that allows these processes to happen.


OE: So hyperfollowers create a kind of hospitality. And I like that you point to this space here because I always feel proud when cultural spaces support a feeling of we. I could not agree with you more. But we should not forget our own limitations. I had the good fortune to speak with a lot of talented journalists earlier today, and there was this interesting assumption that this space, our common space, is a neutral host containing the newly arrived refugees. There was this assumption that Vienna is standing still, and that the people are on the move coming here. Whereas I would suggest in terms of your hyperfollowing concept that we are also on the move. Our movement is a movement toward populism; it is a movement of nationalism; it is a movement of a certain type of arrogance, but it is also a movement of compassion. So we are not not-moving, do you understand? And this is interesting, and I say this also a little bit to celebrate the great Doreen Massey, who passed away two weeks ago, who would say that it is a meeting up of trajectories. Hyperfollowing becomes a sort of exchange.


As one press person said on the phone, clearly the refugees have been traumatized to various degrees and are struggling with posttraumatic stress. Yes, for sure they are, and if we are lucky, we can host their trauma with such generosity that there is an element of detraumatization. But let’s not make the wrong assumption, that the Viennese are not traumatized by populism. Vienna and Europe have been traumatized by a sort of arrogance, by non-compassion-based activity, and exclusion.


Embodied Spaces


AR: The idea about a neutral space is an interesting one. In my experience it takes an enormous amount of energy, effort, and power to maintain something that looks like a neutral space. Spaces are always politicized. Spaces are also changing; spaces are always reflecting the type of processes that go on within them. The experience of walking around in this part of Vienna, as I was just flying into town today, has been really opening and welcoming. My first experience in Vienna was about twenty-five years ago, when I was here as a student at a conference. Somehow no matter what I did in the city, someone told me off when I walked the street or sat in the tramway. I am usually not told off in a public space, so the experience was that it was a neutral space, but a space that could be kept neutral only by constantly enforcing norms for what was wrong and what was right, for how to behave. It was not in a kind of disdainful way but simply stating to the wild person coming from the north that there are certain ways to behave or not to behave. And of course these norms, as well as that enforcement of particular norms and rules for engaging with one another, are also part of social space. It might even be a necessary part of the social space.


Thus the notion of space as simply being there, as an empty area where billiard balls roll around bumping into each other, is just not a good characterization of human lives. Rather, the history of the space and the patterns of interaction that were already there also shape what can happen in the here and now. This is why it is so important to think about spaces, to think about creating spaces that allow particular modes of being together, because in setting up spaces, you also set up rules of interaction, ways of engaging with one another. You create hierarchies, suggestions for what can be done and what cannot be done. In that sense to explore spaces is really a political, an artistic, a creative way to enable rules of engagement for human interaction.


OE: I agree. Can you say something about how we physically embody something, how we actually become a spatial agent? How do we make sure that we at least don’t become disembodied?


AR: The notion of what it means to embody is a critical one. Let’s just shift frame for a moment and look at artificial intelligence. Some twenty years ago we held the notion that chess was the ultimate test of intelligence. So when Kasparov played and lost against Deep Blue, that was a paradigm shift. A couple of months ago we saw a similar thing repeating itself with the game of Go. Previously it was thought that it was such a complicated game that no computer would ever master it. But we can see that when it comes to those kind of processes, in particular rule-bound games, there is no doubt that we will increasingly come up with algorithms that can do a lot better than we can. What humans seem to be really good at, probably better than any other system that we know of, is being embodied, acting in the world and realizing that it is through being in the world with others that we have access both to the other and to ourselves. So the critical starting point here is to say, “Yes, we are embodied!” We can be outcompeted in formal games, by computational processes, etc., but what people are really good at is being in the world as bodies with others. And the moment when you are that, when you are here as a body—also a body with a mind—it is almost impossible not to be affected by others. The experience of being affected, of being touched by others, of being bodies interacting with one another, that realization is a critical instance of what it is like to be human.


OE: The reason I am so excited about this is that exactly these types of considerations—if not so beautifully articulated—are what I toss around in my studio throughout the day. And of course the worst fear I have is of becoming disembodied like a chess-playing computer. You can be really smart but create no consequences.


Intersubjective Objects / Interobjective Subjects


OE: Do you know the experience of standing in front of a work of art—and certainly this does not happen often, for me at least—and you say, “Oh, I know that feeling! I identify with it; it is something that I had not yet verbalized!” This green sphere is a form in a way, a language—it gives language to an idea. It speaks, verbalizing on my behalf something that I was working on emotionally but had not yet come to the point of articulating. It was not given a shape, a form, a sculptural language, a space in architecture, an urban plan, a landscape.


So one could go on with this conversation, heading into some psychological conundrum, but the point is that a work of art reflected me. It actually hosted my experience—I felt seen by the work of art. It is looking at me, and I am the one being watched. I am the object; the work of art is the subject. We are both subjects and objects. Subject and object do not matter, as in the triple-O theory formulated by Timothy Morton, object-oriented ontology. But you see, slowly you are hosted—and now that is the question. Where does embodiment actually take or claim space? Because it does take space.


AR: Bruno Latour wrote a beautiful article years ago called “On Interobjectivity,” in which he pursued the idea that humans are characterized by interobjectivity rather than by the more traditional idea of intersubjectivity. If you want intersubjectivity, pure, Latour suggested, you should go see a baboon tribe. That is all about hierarchy, social emotions that are being played out aggressively and unaggressively. Instead, Latour suggested, what really seems to characterize us as humans is the ability to set objects out in the world in such a way that they become, on the one hand, extensions of ourselves and, on the other, a configuration of the space within which our lives unfold and reconfigure.


We are involved in some interesting work with archaeologists who study the very early record of object production. Researchers used to think the “early Europeans” invented complex objects and decorations, for example, in Lascaux, France, some thirty thousand years ago. However, it seems now that a lot of those “inventions” that were ascribed to Western Europe really originated in Southern Africa, probably sixty or seventy thousand years earlier. This is a very interesting and in a sense beautiful development. One of the questions we explore with the archaeologists is the tangible way in which patterns and marks on things have been put out in the world, at first maybe just by coincidence but later as markers of something. One idea is that when the marked object appears, then what you also put out there is a form of agency, that is, a sense of a person comes out with the object. Thus, by living in a world with made objects, you come to live in a world with other people’s agencies as well. Via the object the world becomes in a sense, animistic, because behind every object there is agency, and thereby you may get intentionality, the presence of other people. At least this is one hypothesis, one idea that we are exploring, the evolution over time of environments of intentionality. That may have created quite unique ways in which people can deal with one another. Objects become “technologies of the mind”; they are a kind of externalization that creates ways to be with ourselves and others, that create ways to transform the world.


The Sharing Game


OE: And if you think about it, isn’t that just what the object called Green light does? It hosts exactly in a funneling way—funneling, just like a vortex that drives you down a black hole, but like a green hole, it hosts the effort.


This is so interesting because we work within what is called the cultural sector, and that to a great extent, is a supplement to the rational sector. But why is the cultural sector marginalized instead of being seen as the vehicle or the identity machine, the we-machine, the we-mode, the we-ness creator? I generally have great confidence that the book of cultural strategies actually has more solutions to conflicts—let’s call them counternationalistic or anationalistic agencies—than the political sector. Why do you think that the cultural sector is not seen as the guiding light in Europe?


AR: That is a good question!


OE: The guiding green light in Europe.


AR: The guiding green light! Well, I think what it might take for the cultural sector, or any sector, to achieve what you are asking is the return of agency to the people who are consuming it, who are taking part in it. The interesting shift from being consumers of objects to being somehow coproducers of objects or situations, etc. It seems to me that this is really the critical challenge that we are all facing now. At the moment materiality is almost produced automatically, so the knowledge of how particular items are produced, either as symbolic ideas circulating around us or in the objects that we are surrounded by, is disassociated from you. I think if there is a change needed, then it is to regain that feeling of agency, of being part of the objects we are surrounded by. If the we-ness is also an experience of taking responsibility to form certain things, then the critical element is that when you are confronted with them, you should hopefully realize that you should see yourself in these particular projects or in these particular objects.


We constructed a simple experiment, in which people first had to build something together and then they had to play a sharing game with each other. This is an investment game; it is called a public goods game among economists. The idea is that I put something into a pool and you put something into a pool. We don’t know what the other person puts into the pool, but this pool magically grows and we share whatever is in it. Now the best for me would be if you put everything into the pool, I get half of your things and then I keep everything for myself. Of course for you this would be a very bad strategy, and the crucial question is if we could come up with a situation in which we both trust each other to invest the maximum. What we found in this experiment is quite surprising, namely that when people built something together, which they knew the purpose of, then they were basically investing everything in the communal pool afterward. Whereas when people didn’t know the purpose of what they were doing, then they were much more reluctant to engage in the simple collective play of investing in a sharing kind of way. And very interestingly, when they knew what the result of the work was all about, they were also much more willing to trust or invest in another person whom they hadn’t met previously.


OE: So that means that when they knew the narrative, their we-ness was experienced more deeply.


AR: It was almost as if when you don’t know the outcome of the labor that you are involved in, you become, so to speak, disembodied. If you become disenfranchised from what you are going to make, this also translates into the relations of how we can do things with each other. This of course is something that Marx had some early thoughts on. This is perhaps another version of embodiment, somehow what we are doing with our objects translates into what we do with each other—and vice versa, what we do with each other translates into what we do with objects. From that perspective I find the kind of thing that you are doing here both a really interesting experience and an interesting experiment. Potentially it is exploring the idea that by doing things together, by constructing things together, by taking shared responsibility, that sense of shared responsibility both gets inherited into the objects and defines what we have between ourselves. And that is a version of the type of concrete spaces that we talked about earlier.


The Unpredictable Talent


OE: Maybe you could say something about stability and the scale of events, because clearly we are on the nano scale of the refugee crisis with Green light. We are barely touching it with a needle, but still we are doing something! I was very curious about your research on the stability of systems, because it is also about democracy, right?


But what do you do with a person who is in fact not predictable? How do we still say to that person: “You are welcome! I don’t understand you exactly, but you are still welcome?” Now that takes a little bit of talent, what I call “unpredictable talent”. This is a very significant part of the success here, when Franziska [Wildförster] approaches someone and says: “Maybe if you just write a poem which expresses your dissatisfaction, maybe this is stronger than when you say that you are so happy being in Vienna!” The unpredictable curatorial muscle is very much part of the success, which makes it so difficult to scale up. It is easy to do the Green light, but to actually say: “I know you are not happy,” that is much more difficult on a larger scale. Getting back to you, Andreas—the stability of systems, of course bigger systems are more stable, that is nothing new, but how can we scale up what Boris [Ondreička] and Franziska do, and eventually also Francesca [von Habsburg]? The unpredictable component!


Scaling Systems


AR: I mentioned earlier the idea of the hyperfollowers. We had a situation in which basically I would be tapping, you would be tapping, and I would hear your tapping while you would be hearing my tapping, and we would constantly adjust to each other. What we saw was that people are somewhat unpredictable; they don’t act like a static metronome. But if they are responsive at the same time, if you can adapt to me and I to you, then the emergent system can be very stable. We also saw in these experiments that if there is a situation in which the other person is both unpredictable and not responsive, then it is really difficult to coordinate. So a way to get around unpredictability is to set up ways to introduce responsiveness into a system, because that allows us to become hyperfollowers, to fall into these patterns of mutually coordinating with each other. Now the question of scale is a very interesting one. There is a famous British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, who has an interesting idea about language. What language allowed us to do is to expand into larger groups. Again, if you look at baboons, they can host a group of about thirty to forty individuals, and the idea seems to be that the way that they solve conflicts is that they spend a lot of time grooming one another. You can only groom so many others if you have to do it body to body. Dunbar’s idea is that with language you can extend that to a group of say three to four hundred people, this is the group that you can keep track of and that you can groom through words, for example, through gossip and flattery. But Dunbar has some difficulties explaining how we can move into even larger groupings. There is a Dunbar’s number, which says that one to three hundred might be what people can contain. This is both a very interesting and a somewhat dissatisfying idea, because we know that we organize ourselves into much larger groupings. If you look at something like a nation-state, we know a few things about what it takes to create the idea of being able to coordinate within the borders. Denmark is in many ways an interesting case here. It seems that an idea of homogeneity within the borders and differences from others is a very effective way to set up this feeling of we-ness within such a situation.


There is a need for explorative work about how we enact social organization that takes us beyond the three or four hundred people, into larger collectives, but without falling into the trap of the nationalisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here the main way to create these kind of stable communities was to assume and produce homogeneity on the inside as opposed to differences on the outside. An interesting case, one fitting to Vienna, may be to look at empires rather than nation-states. They may provide another solution to this problem, because an empire is more concerned about the center than the periphery. The difference at the border may be less important; it’s more of a gradient. What may be needed is another way to think about how to get out of the notion of borders and how to create systems that are sufficiently responsive for us to feel part of it and to contribute to it, in order to allow us to scale up. It may not just be homogeneity but also differences and responsiveness vis-à-vis larger systems. That might be a challenge, not just of contemporary states but also of entities such as the EU or the UN.


OE: Thank you for bringing up the issue of borders, nation-states, empires, and the new models that are needed. For this to work, the need is obviously to scale it up. I was just calculating that if Germany has one million refugees, and we had fifty people here last month, that means we would need twenty thousand Green light workshops in Germany alone! So do you see the importance of this type of thinking, the scalability of the system? Because clearly it is easy for me to say that the sustainability of cultural strategies is a more socially inclusive model on this scale. But I think we should leave it here; it is a lovely place to stop.

Photo: Sandro E.E. Zanzinger / TBA21
Read more

Read more
Read more
Read more
Read more
Read more
Read more
Read more
Read more
Read more
Read more
Read more