Olafur Eliasson: a Science & Design alliance building activism in the face of world transitions

Today, but already yesterday, energy and switches, the Smartphone and the designer Jony Ive. Tomorrow, but already today, the works of Olafur Eliasson to be together facing the transitions of the world.

Featured image: Little Sun co-founder Olafur Eliasson (2012) © Tomas Gislason

Thanks from a teacher to Olafur Eliasson

Life on Earth is about co-existence – among people, non-human animals, ecosystems, and the environment. Co-existence is beautiful and generative, chaotic and challenging. The fact is, we’re in it together. That’s why we all have to take the climate emergency seriously. To respond adequately to the crisis, we – individuals, institutions, businesses, and governments – must trust the science and bring together our knowledge, creativity, and energy, said Olafur Eliasson in 2019.

Finally, this article describes how Olafur Eliasson and his works come to inspire me. The question is how to accompany students, the future actors of a world that is coming far too quickly, in the face of its major changes (global warming, collapse of biodiversity…), with the creation of new teaching methods rooted in a very broad interdisciplinary approach. This teaching is being experimented at the UGA (Université Grenoble Alpes France) with the school of art and design, ESAD and the school of architecture, ENSAG, and has been hosted in the FabLab of the CCSTI La Casemate for several years. It is close to others courses, equivalent and fortunately always more numerous in different universities. Everywhere they seek to bring together students and teachers in science, humanities, technology, design and the arts who are mobilised around the objectives of sustainable development.

The abundance of energy, yesterday and today.

Global primary energy consumption, measured in terawatt-hours (TWh) per year.

This curve shows an incredible increase in humanity’s energy consumption over the past century. It has become comparable to the solar energy captured by photosynthesis. Plants, trees, plankton, algae… the whole green planet. This is a major fact in the history of humanity.

COVID note: I wrote this article before the Covid pandemic. Of course, the big question today is: where will the points be added to this curve this year, the next year and the others? For comparison, we can look for the impact of past crises such as the financial crisis of 2008

The living conditions of mankind have thus changed completely. My grandparents, who were born around 1900, only experienced the beginnings of this evolution. In the 60s and 70s of the 20th century, my parents and of course myself as «a late baby boomer », were carried along by this brutal acceleration of the world, and lived in a country like France, in the idea of an infinite world and the dilution of pollution in the air or the ocean, unalterable spaces… Yet René Dumont, a prominent ecologist running for french presidency in 1974 sounded the alarm. I remember how we mocked him at school about his precious glass of drinking water shown on TV show. Carelessness is a pleasant luxury. In this period, I don’t remember seeing any mention of this energy consumption boom in high school. Yet that was the time of the birth of the French electro-nuclear program. This lack of curiosity is certainly also the result of a total absence of constraint in daily life. Energy was not an issue for a teenager in the 70’s.

Energy and the switch: a first Sciences&Design alliance

Electrical energy in particular has incredible properties: it is there, everywhere, invisible, immediately available, without apparent limits and very clean since the waste is far away. Magical when you think about it. Stronger than the genie of the lamp.

The vocabulary of the 20th century is explicit: power stations, networks, switches… The places where electrical energy is produced are thermal power stations. There are only a few dozen of them in France, of all types, but above all nuclear. They are the place of hyper-concentrated energy. And essentially invisible to the vast majority of users. They feed the network that transports electrical energy from its production centres to… everyone. Virtually faultless in a country like France. A scientific, technological and industrial feat. For everyone, it is activated by switches, commonplace objects in our daily lives. There are probably tens of billions of switches on earth. Unsurprisingly, Wikipedia dates its invention around 1860, when the energy curve began to rise. How could it be otherwise?

Image above from the Centre Pompidou website Autograph notes for “Inframince”, “Le Grand Verre”, “Projets” and “Jeux de mots”. © Georges Meguerditchian – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP © succession Marcel Duchamp/ Adagp, Paris
In this text « Transformateur” written by Marcel Duchamp and published in 1939 in André Breton’s anthology of black humour, we read about the switch :”Transformateur destiné à utiliser les petites énergies gaspillées comme : l’excès de pression sur un bouton électrique. »
which is: “Transformer intended to use small wasted energies such as: excess pressure on an electric button.”

The switch completes the device for generating and distributing energy. We can thus control huge energy flows with one finger, far beyond human forces, or conversely, insignificant ones. It makes no difference. Switching on has nothing to do with the energy associated with the action being started. The switches are both obvious and discreet, in the right places, and well installed in our lives. They accompany the “electric fairy” who is there, everywhere, invisible and immediately available without limit. Very nice design work.

The order placed by Legrand in 2013 with designer Victoria Wilmotte illustrates this and underlines its modernity.

“For this 2013 edition of D’DAYS, Victoria Wilmotte has been entrusted by Le Lab by Legrand with the task of translating the theme “And tomorrow…” through the reinterpretation of switches and sockets”.

This Sciences&Design alliance has made our use of energy doubly free. Of course, we pay for access to electricity. But in fact, not always. Charging your computer in a café will not immediately make your drink more expensive. On the other hand, we use, and in fact still use today, this energy without knowing exactly how much we consume and without really thinking about it either, as its use is so commonplace. But times are already changing.

COVID note: Again, this last point: «  But times are already changing. » written in the candor of life before the COVID … we will now see how we can contribute together to change the times. Maybe we’ll think about it when we start “loading our computer in a coffee shop” again…

Jony Ive and the Smartphone: a second Sciences&Design alliance

My children’s generation is the fourth in this story. As the curve shows, they grew up, at the turn of the century, in a world of ever-increasing energy abundance. At that time, with keyboards and screens already there, design combined with science and technology would once again brutally change the world. In Le Monde of October 7, 2011, following the death of Steve Jobs, Milad Doueihi, historian of religions who became a specialist in digital culture, wrote:

(…) Steve Jobs’ greatest influence was the return of the body to our digital daily life, a return that transformed our habitus by changing the work space, the public space and the intimate space.

In the end, a smartphone is first and foremost a system of sensors that gather information about the world outside of it. The gyroscope of course, but also the microphone and of course the keyboard. On-board intelligence, increasingly artificial, processes this information in real time using a lot of electrical energy. It then feeds the “displays”: screen, speaker, vibrator, etc.. These “displays” address different sensory channels of human perception, which merge them. Thanks to the design, this adaptation of the Smartphone to our perception, to our body, to our relationship with others, to our life in fact, is simply extraordinary. Who cares about technology and science so massively at work in real time in our daily lives? Not even the scientists plugged into their messaging systems and earphones like everyone else.

The story of the design-based collaboration between Steve Jobs and Jony Ive has become a legend. Its symbol is the smartphone. They helped to flood the world with smartphones in a decade, changing it profoundly. Daily evidence.

A Sciences&Design alliance built in the 20th century with obsolescence programmed as a vision for the future, but still present.

The Smartphone, which we must change quickly, is fundamentally an object of the 20th century. People still believed in the almost free abundance of energy, materials and resources. Waste was always far away. It appears that we are almost all in a state of awakening to the reality that does not negotiate. This awakening is very difficult as we have come so far, but the movement seems to be intensifying around these crucial issues for our future on this planet.

COVID note: Here again, the Covid will probably violently accelerate our awakening! We are called to work on our metamorphosis! Pupa time? Not really a choice in fact!

Olafur Eliasson: for a third Science&Design alliance rooted in sustainable development

At the time of my grandchildren’s birth, following this curve, world consumption of coal and oil seems to have passed its peak. It has been very recently and we know that this consumption is not decreasing fast enough. At the world scale, humanity should do everything it can to ensure that the consumption of fossil fuels falls sharply over the next ten years. Australia is already burning. Southern Africa is alternating floods and droughts as never before. This is not an exhaustive list. And, we know that too, this is just a foretaste. We’re talking about a 3°C, 4°C, even 5°C increase in the Earth’s temperature at the end of this century. When are we going to wish each other “good luck”?

Olafur Eliasson and new generations of artists and designers through their exhibitions, events and actions are not only witnesses but also activists in this field. They come to help us to be in the world together today and tomorrow. Works like Ice Watch are explicitly there for this.

Ice Watch, directed by Olafur Eliasson in collaboration with geologist Minik Rosing. December 2015 during COP 21 in Paris.

Firstly, being together through the movement of bodies

COVID note: We must then dream of our next “being together through the movement of bodies” in an exhibition of Olafur…

I visited Olafur Eliasson’s recent exhibition “In real life” at the Tate Modern in London. Very clear title…

One thing was obvious to me: in order to be together in action in the face of the terrible threats that were rising, he launched an alliance of Science, Technology, Design and the Arts.

Two aspects particularly moved me.

Your uncertain shadow” at the Tate Modern in London in the exhibition “In real life” 2019-2020

If you’re offered a private tour for yourself, say no outright. Seeing an exhibition of Olafur Eliasson alone makes no sense. It does not exist without a large audience.

« How do we live together ? ».

In this “How do we live together? “, there’s just a big mirror on the ceiling. Guaranteed result: visitors lying on the floor, or dancing, looking at each other, playing together, make this work come alive at every moment in unexpected encounters. All postures are possible. So simple. This is how I was first moved.

COVID note: Memories and sighs… Clearly, it is a bit complicated today to write in full confinement “being together through the movement of bodies”, and to describe people standing together, sitting or lying down in “How do we live together ? ». But coming back to this text to publish it today on Echosciences questions this “being together through the movement of bodies”. Thus the work of the designer Claire Eliot with Soft Mirror comes precisely there. How do I wave with Soft Mirror from confined to confined distant, how do the movements of my body become in the distance a testimony of my presence, a sign of my silent connivance or even of “my simple presence for you”, a presence transported beyond all words? Soft Mirror, a post-COVID artwork?

The designer documents his exhibition in the exhibition

Finally a huge frieze shows the detailed documentation of the exhibition. Tens of square meters of texts, handwritten notes, references, photos from all over the world. Showing the making of the exhibition in this way is a technique dear to designers who document everything. And you know what, Professor’s word, they’re right… This passion for documentation can be found, of course, in design schools but also in other militant artist-designer works such as one of Tomas Saraceno (Great Frieze also in his exhibition On Air at the Palais de Tokyo 2019. Magnificent.) and also well quoted by Olafur Eliasson in “In Real Life”. The same causes…

“I am conscious of the world by means by my Body”

Then, « We must trust science. »

When he was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for Climate Action and Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations in September 2019, Olafur Eliasson said:

Life on Earth is about co-existence – among people, non-human animals, ecosystems, and the environment. Co-existence is beautiful and generative, chaotic and challenging. The fact is, we’re in it together. That’s why we all have to take the climate emergency seriously. To respond adequately to the crisis, we – individuals, institutions, businesses, and governments – must trust the science and bring together our knowledge, creativity, and energy,

I read « …we must trust science…” and I see the explicit references to scientific works in this exhibition and in the frieze.

This is my second emotion.

As a scientist, I feel doubly welcomed in the exhibitions of these artist-designers. Their consideration for scientific results is explicit and serious. It also shows a confidence that obliges us. But they also invite scientists to join in the dance with everyone else, to participate fully in this gathering of humanity for which they are campaigning, and perhaps to get out of the dilemma highlighted by Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University:

But it also has to do with certain intrinsic values of science. Scientists have a certain vision of rationality. And that vision, which goes back to Descartes, is that to be rational is the opposite of being emotional. And this is also leading with a lot of gender stereotypes and gender prejudices. So if you have a result that is very dramatic, it tends to evoke an emotional response. And part of avoiding emotion is to avoid claims that could trigger emotion.

Little Sun Lamp: how to be augmented with a little “artificial photosynthesis”…

Drawing from Little Sun Lamp web site : https://littlesun.com/about/

A billion people on earth don’t use switches. No electricity, no switches. No artificial light either, even though it’s often at night that we study. So we light up by burning oil by-products. Expensive, polluting, unhealthy.

Little Sun Lamp provides clean light on every studious night. Without a full tank of fuel. Without a break. It’s just a piece of solar panel, a small white LED, a rechargeable battery, a fairly basic piece of electronics and a switch. The whole thing is inserted in a plastic case. This lamp represents a pretty yellow flower that can be quickly produced with a 3D printer. Technically, nothing difficult, original or new. The equivalent can be found elsewhere in fact. And frankly, it’s at the level of student projects like I’m supervising in Grenoble.

Image of Little Sun Lamp by Vladimir Hermant @CRI Paris

And that’s where Little Sun Lamp is awesome. Today a community of over a million people lights up at night with the sunlight collected during the day. The Little Sun Lamp network is not the purely material and dehumanized network of centralized power distribution, but a horizontal and international human community symbolized by the hashtag #ConnectedByTheSun. Symbol again of this Sciences&Design alliance in the 21st century. The strength of the project is best described by Jacques Attali in his Histoire de la Modernité. He writes about Little Sun Lamp:

A work of art will be an act, an object, a situation, a creation that makes you want to be altruistic and appreciate altruism.


And so thanks to Olafur Eliasson

Thanks to Olafur Eliasson for inspiring me to create new teachings rooted in a very broad interdisciplinary approach.

It is a question of knowing how to accompany students, future actors in a world that is coming far too quickly, in the face of its major changes (global warming, collapse of biodiversity, etc.), with the creation of new courses rooted in a very broad interdisciplinary approach. This teaching is being experimented at the UGA with the school of art and design, l’ESAD and the school of architecture, l’ENSAG, and has been hosted in the FabLab of the CCSTI La Casemate for several years. It is like others, equivalent and fortunately always more numerous in different universities. Everywhere these courses seek to bring together students and teachers in science, humanities, technology, design and the arts who are mobilised around the objectives of sustainable development.

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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