Tomas Saraceno, the spider, science and perception of the world.

Image de l’exposition On Air au Palais de Tokyo (Paris) Palais de Tokyo

Tomas Saraceno’s “On Air” exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo ended on January 6, 2019. Like thousands of visitors, I saw, fascinated, for hours, these immense spider webs vibrating in the dark. Tomas Saraceno pointed out, about a year ago, in an exchange with Nadine Botha :

I think there are a myriad of other possibilities of embodied perception. We need to further reconsider our inability not only to communicate with each other, but also to understand the majority of species living on this planet that are not necessarily human. »

Wonderful spiders

It’s bad luck, on the face of it, this program is off to a bad start. Our days do not seem to be in the process of exploring new perceptions of reality through reconnection with the diversity of living things, which, moreover, is collapsing. A priori, the spiders, dear friends of the artist, have not finished succumbing to the blows of the broom and passing through the vacuum cleaners without an ounce of consideration for the living wonders that they are. To be the subject of very active scientific research today, for example on the astonishing properties of their yarn and the extreme conditions under which it is produced, does not really seem to be enough to bring them closer to us.

The “sensitivity crisis” and technology

Contrary to Tomas Saraceno’s vision, we have chosen to massively develop, from a substrate that is not embodied, a new human perception. This is based on ambient technology and its billions of micro-sensors. It has not been created as a tool for meeting the living in the exploration of reality. Quite the opposite. Through “displays” such as screens, headphones or buzzers, the multitude of data from these microsensors feeds our perception in real time, and first and foremost our perception of ourselves.

We count our steps and geolocate ourselves. There is no reference here to the “myriad of embodied perceptions” that are being severely affected by the emergence of this new perception of reality anchored in technology. With these sensors that massively measure our bodies and their movements, we are moving further and further away from the biological world, which is the one we are emerging from, without which our life is impossible.

No surprise, articles on the “crisis of sensibility” as named by art historian Estelle Zhong Mengual appear. Researchers Jacques Tassin, Anne Atlan, Rémi Beau, François Léger, and Anne-Caroline Prévot wrote in December 2018 in Libération :

« It is also through sensitivity that humans reconnect with other living beings, that they find in them a comforting conviviality. Exercised, it represents one of the forms of knowledge most in touch with the world, with which it maintains a relationship of inherentness. Whatever we say, our senses make sense. »


Through technologies, we artificially reconstruct our perception, our instantaneous relationship to the world and our (in)ability to communicate with each other. Spiders are not part of the program. But, in return, the prognosis is not much better for us.

Image de l’exposition « On air » au Palais de Tokyo (Paris). Palais de Tokyo

Exhibition of gravitational waves

During the exhibition, streams of data arrived at the Palais de Tokyo from sensors at the heart of scientific experiments or observatories around the world, in the air, under the sea, on the ground, under the ground… In the front row was VIRGO, the European gravitational wave detector installed in Italy near Florence.

By measuring its own deformation, it seeks to detect how the collision of two black holes “vibrates” space-time. Its sensitivity to this deformation of the detector’s own matter is unimaginable, even for physicists, because it is so disconnected from our perception and any reference point. Studying the sensitivity of this instrument in order to improve it, is a subject of research in itself that is probably as exciting as the result of the experiment that was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2017. The presentations by Alain Brillet, CNRS Gold Medalist in 2017 for his decisive contribution to the construction of this instrument, are a real treat. This is a personal experience when teaching in a Master program in Grenoble a few years ago: they are also a fantastic basis for courses on instrumentation.

Can spiders perceive gravitational waves? No, but that is not the question!

The Palais de Tokyo was then transformed into a nerve centre that put us, potentially at least, in touch with events measured with unheard-of sensitivity. Yet this imperceptible omnipresence is so far removed from our perception, and even from our time and space perception, as we can apprehend them on the most beautiful summer night.

Science and technology are thus reviewed and integrated by the artist into a grand narrative that is not satisfied with the classical categories and academic disciplines.

It seems that the splendid isolation of these highly specialized academic disciplines blocks the impulse towards this “hacking” of knowledge that the artist is calling for, when he evokes the “myriad of other embodied possibilities of perception”.

During the meetings at the Palais de Tokyo on November 23, 2018, I thought I heard Tomas Saraceno asking two physicists whether spiders in their webs could feel gravitational waves. There was a certain provocation and a clear dose of irony in this question. Poor spiders, their ability to detect the vibrations of their web is incredible but… let’s be clear: scientifically, the question makes no sense. Moreover, if you feel it too well, you risk drowning in the noise. To measure the effect of gravitational waves, one must first eliminate everything else, all ambient vibrations, parasitic vibrations that should not be captured. Measuring here means isolating these sensors from the rest of the world in a way that has never been achieved before.

Encounter of the third kind?

But there was a further question addressed the next minute to these physicists, and remarkably underlined by the fullness of the first one.:

How can we explore the particular perceptions that different forms of life have of reality? How can I feel like a spider, thus entering into a new vision of the world, and perhaps into a dialogue with it? »

It seemed obvious to me in this exhibition: Tomas Saraceno cannot bring himself to see this technology becoming more and more a vector of our withdrawal into ourselves. He also feels well that humanity must today, on the contrary, seek the path of a new alliance with the living world. Put more brutally, the living world is, apart from the newly arrived digital world, this incredibly complex and sophisticated place of massive creation and transformation of information. Is a confluence possible between these now two inescapable realities? In this vision, the question that this exhibition addresses then becomes how to « hack » the present human world and its technologies, in order to explore the «  myriad other embodied possibilities of perception » .

Feel the vibration

Who is the winner ? The spider or my fingers thanks to the extension of touch by silicon microsystems ? I remain fascinated by the comparison of the performance of spider vibration sensors with the nanotechnology-based microsystems that equip our smartphones. This is not a recent fascination, as this 2016 article, “Good vibrations : The Smartphone and Scorpio” and this video show :

Jeux avec les vibrations d’un mur captées par un Smartphone lors de la Game Jam Mouvements et Smartphones au Carrefour du Numérique à Universciences (octobre 2016).

Scorpions and spiders are “the same family”, the class of arachnids. Vibrations on the surface of sand in the desert or spider webs, it is the same question, that of the astonished and happy encounter of examples “of the myriad of embodied perceptions”.

Seek and learn, again and again, through sense(s) and reason

Inspired by the example of the scorpions, we were looking with the ENSCI les Ateliers, the graphic design laboratory of ESAD Grenoble/Valence and IRCAM to make the ambient mechanical microvibrations immediately perceptible.

The surprising performance of smartphones as vibration sensors opened up the prospect of easily exploring this imperceptible but ever-present vibration of the world. This can be done on the one hand by reflecting. As usual, especially in science, one is tempted to say. Today we can also perceive with our senses increased by the sensors, extended beyond the perceptible, as we can see in the video above.

With the help of scorpions and now spiders, we then wonder how to cope with this new touch. Thanks also to Tomas Saraceno: it’s good to feel in good company!

Published by JoelChevrier

a physics professor at the university passionate about contemporary art . Scientific curator of the Soulages Arts&Sciences exhibition « Noir, c’est noir ? » Lausanne Switzerland (2016-2017) . Collaboration with Giuseppe Penone for artwork Essere vento : we pushed sculpture on sand grain down the micrometer size. Exhibition Corps de Pierre 2017. . Collaboration with choreographer Yoann Bourgeois for exhibition at Pantheon Paris 2017 . Member of Strategic Council at ENSCI Les Ateliers Paris (2017-…). . PI of Descitech project (2014-2018): « Sciences, design and society: the factory of contemporary worlds » . Member of the Board at Ecole Supérieure d’Arts et de Design Grenoble/Valence (2015-...) . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Science Frugale” at science museum Espace Pierre Gilles de Gennes . Member of Scientific Comity of Exhibition “Luminopolis” at science museum Cap Sciences (Bordeaux 2017-2018).

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