School of Art, Media, and Technology

VLC 001:2014 — Harmonization Bodies

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Representation of a high-purity silicon sphere meant to replace the current international kilogram prototype. Image courtesy of Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 7:00–8 :30 p.m.
The New School, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Auditorium
Sheila C. Johnson Design Center
66 Fifth Avenue at 13th Street, 1st floor
New York City
Free Admission

Our world is surprisingly, impressively uniform: we have determined the proper dimensions of batteries, thickness of credit cards, concoction of concrete; the proper method for preparing pasta, achieving social responsibility, handling complaints from customers; the proper metrics for clean water, greenhouse gas emissions, risk assessment. As part of his 2013–15 Vera List Center fellowship, Alexander Provan is organizing a series of conversations and presentations that delve into the phenomenon of standardization, ponder the power of measurement, revel in interoperability, and reanimate the aesthetic forms that characterize—and act as conduits for—so many “recipes for reality.” For the first iteration of “Harmonization Bodies,” Provan is joined by Sarah Demeuse and Nader Vossoughian.

The uniformity that surrounds us is due largely to the efforts of so-called private authorities, such as the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission, which have worked tirelessly to measure the world—each metal screw, book page, JPG—and construed a remarkable range of commercial products and human activities in terms of measurement. The rules and regulations issued from these havens of technocracy make up an invisible infrastructure that increasingly molds our conduct, our lives. Provan, Demeuse, and Vossoughian consider the work of these organizations and the ways in which we all submit to, and reinforce, various kinds of measurement.

Sarah Demeuse discusses the relationship between the worlds we imagine in art and literature and the measurements we make with repeating circles and geometrical analysis. In 1588, Galileo established a blueprint for theoretical physics by puncturing a consensus around the dimensions of Dante’s Inferno. How might the projections of art and the facts of measurement intersect today, so as to enlarge rather than reduce our conception of reality, so as to enrich experience rather than merely distill it into data?

Nader Vossoughian narrates the emergence of architectural standards in Germany in the 1930s: norms for construction processes and components; templates for apartment buildings and cottages; measurements for ironing boards and utensils. Germans, having just gotten used to A4 paper, welcomed standardization, which promised to harmonize knowledge, limit waste, and ensure stability—and ended up contributing to the militarization of civilian life, to the cause of total war. What does standardization promise us today, and how can we evaluate that promise?

Alexander Provan accounts for the International Organization for Standardization and poses a basic question: Where do we position ourselves on the spectrum between control and freedom, and how can we tell where we are being positioned? We hardly ever consider standards, and anyway we are hardly capable of comprehending them, at least not in aggregate. Most people would agree that zealous regulation is preferable to the alternative. But does the proliferation of standards promulgated by the ISO—an unaccountable body composed of “neutral experts”—suggest that we are sacrificing too much for efficiency and interconnectedness?

Harmonization Bodies is co-presented by the New York-based magazine Triple Canopy with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. A forthcoming issue of Triple Canopy, devoted to standards and standardization, will include projects authored by the participants.

Sarah Demeuse reads, writes, translates, and makes exhibitions. She was trained as a specialist in Romance literatures, and has studied and published articles about Spanish literature, the impact of new technologies on literary practice, and the relationships between visual culture and writing. In 2010 Demeuse and Manuela Moscoso founded Rivet, a curatorial office that combines exhibition-making with publications, events, and long-term collaborations with artists. Rivet primarily focuses on object-oriented thinking in contemporary art and has worked with partners in Spain, New York, Beirut, and Belgium. Demeuse was recently a Cloud Curator for the Ninth Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Alexander Provan is the editor of Triple Canopy, a magazine and publishing platform based in New York. He is also a contributing editor of Bidoun, a magazine of the arts and culture of the Middle East and its diaspora. His writing on digital culture, aesthetics, literature, and politics has appeared in The Nation, The Believer, n+1, Bookforum, Artforum, and Frieze, among other publications. Triple Canopy has recently participated in exhibitions and organized public programs at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial; the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Provan is a 2013–2015 fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics.

Nader Vossoughian is an associate professor of architecture at the New York Institute of Technology. His first book, Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis, was published in 2008 by NAi. He has curated exhibitions at Stroom den Haag, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, the AIA Center for Architecture, and the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. From 2008 to 2010, Vossoughian was a researcher at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht. In 2012, he was a visiting scholar at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. In the coming year, he will be a Humboldt fellow at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. Vossoughian is a contributor to the Vera List Center’s forthcoming book, Speculation, Now, and is currently writing a book on the standardization of standardization.

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