Gathering Being: On Collecting and Making (1). Part 1 of 5

Published: 03.07.2021
Pravu Mazumdar
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In March/April 2020, an exhibition of works by ten artists was hosted by Gallery Meme in Seoul, seven of them from Korea and three from Denmark (2). The exhibition was curated by Bogki Min, Professor at the Seoul National University College of Fine Arts, who was also one of the participating artists. The curatorial concept was to reveal the role of collecting in the process of making. In the following, I would like to unfold some thoughts on collecting as an inherently human practice and explore, how such an ancient practice, which persists unabated in contemporary societies, is interpreted in this rather exceptional curatorial experiment.

The text will be presented in five successive parts, starting out with a few theoretical observations in the first two sections: Part I and Part II, and proceeding to discuss the exhibits and their makers from Part III onwards.

At this point, I would like to thank Amador Bertomeu and Leo Caballero of Klimt02 for their unwavering generosity and support throughout the years of our cooperation. Working with them has been practically indistinguishable from friendship.
Part I. Prelude: Gathering and Being
“I shall tell thee a twofold tale. At one time it
grew to be one only out of many; at another,
it divided up to be many instead ofone. There
is a double becoming of perishable things
and a double passing away. The coming
together of all things brings one generation
into being and destroys it; the other grows
up and is scattered as things become
divided. … But, inasmuch as they never
cease changing their places continually, so
far they are ever immovable as they go
round the circle of existence.”

Empedokles of Akragas (3)
“The electron existed prior to the humans
of the twentieth century, but the electron
never sang prior to the humans of the
twentieth century. Since then, however, it
sings in the cathode ray tubes. This phe-
nomenological realization took place at a
very specific point of mathematical and
technical maturity.”

Gaston Bachelard (4)

1. Gathering appearance

I would like to start out with two basic insights drawn from the history of European philosophy.

The first insight, which is about two and a half thousand years old and attributed to Empedocles of Akragas, stems from a vision of reality as an incessant, undulating movement of gathering and dispersal. Whether on the level of atoms, microbes, tectonic shifts, the vicissitudes of sunshine and cloudbursts that accompany our daily lives, the great historical dramas of human affairs, or the cosmic processes of contraction and expansion, the lowest common denominator remains: that things gather, driven by powers of attraction and things disperse, driven by powers of repulsion. Gathering is being. Dispersal is extinction.

The second insight, articulated by Gaston Bachelard in 1934 at an international philosophical conference in Prague, suggests that a scientific experiment is more than the mere observation of a reality sitting and waiting through the centuries to be finally perceived by human eyes at the dawn of science. In Bachelard’s understanding, a scientific experiment is also a technology for gathering impressions, crossing the threshold of their appearance and rendering them observable. It is only through the application of such a technology, that phenomenality – as the necessary condition for any observation – is attained, so that whatever existed prior to the process of experimentation can begin to “sing” like Bachelard’s electron (5). The scientific experiment can be depicted as a phenomenotechnical practice (6).

This idea has been taken up by contemporary trends in the philosophy of science and fleshed out as what is termed an experimental system (7), considered as a complex assemblage of material elements and discourses designed not only for the purpose of observing a scientific phenomenon, but also for generating its perceptibility. An experimental system is seen to initiate a process of gathering that generates a scientific phenomenon in its dual status as nature and artefact. Put in Bachelardian and Empedoclean terms, the experimental system functions phenomenotechnically to constitute a mathematically describable process of gathering and scattering.

Bachelard’s idea has also been applied recently to redefine art (8). There is in fact much that is common between a work of art and an experimental system. It is obvious that the creation of a work of art is dictated by ideas, just as an experimental system is constructed in tune with the ideas codified in a scientific theory. Bachelard in fact goes so far as to characterize an experimental apparatus as a “reified theorem” (9). However, the analogy between a work of art and an experimental system can also be articulated on a second level. Just like the experimental system, art can be regarded as a phenomenotechnical synthesis of materialities and impressions, designed to generate appearance.

The question I would like to explore in the following, is, whether an exhibition like FROM COLLECT can be regarded as a phenomenotechnical arrangement of objects, functioning to reveal the elementary traits of what we term a collection and to spell out the precise nature of the human drive to collect against the backdrop of the ancient Empedoclean vision.

But prior to that I would like to unfold some basic traits of the dual processes of gathering and dispersal.

2. Gathering and human existence

Gathering is inseparable from human existence on many different levels. It was part of an essential activity in the hunter-and-gatherer economies of the Palaeolithic Age and persisted in more than one sense during the great agrarian transformation. For it continued not only as the age-old practice of gathering roots and berries parallel to hunting, that co-existed for thousands of years with agrarian practices, as recent paleogenetic studies seem to suggest. Gathering also persisted in a variety of other forms like harvesting, storing, collecting things like firewood for energy, herbs for the Neolithic dispensary or stones, bones, skins, for tools, clothing and shelter. These practices correlated with crafts like wickerwork, carving, pottery. In the Industrial Age, gathering assumes forms like the global practices of mining, drilling, fracking, which are adapted to the reality of mass production.

The Empedoclean vision can also be exemplified on the level of the biological organism at the root of all human existence, with its elementary functions like ingestion and excretion, breathing in and breathing out, that are executed as processes of gathering and dispersal. The techniques of incorporating food, moisture, air associated with such functions, regulate the interaction of an organism with its environment, replenish its life in innumerable cycles and correlate with anatomical realities like the cup of the hand, or the architecture of mouth and nose, or the functionally determined structure of the lungs. The law, that such anatomical forms cannot contradict the function of gathering, is repeated in cultural prostheses like tableware or masks.

Shifting over to the framework of time, one may also regard things like memory or oblivion as the gathering or dispersal of past impressions, that go to constitute an individual sense of time in an individual organism. Similarly, the phenomenon of history can be spelt out in Empedoclean terms as a fluctuating concentration of social, economic, cultural, cognitive features within limited periods of time to constitute the historical processes of birth and decline of ages, dynasties, empires, systems of knowledge. Yet another level of human existence that corroborates the Empedoclean vision, is the sphere of communication and discourse, based on myriad semiotic practices that start out by gathering and organizing things like sounds, words, tropes, colours, movements, to end up with crafting symbolic artefacts like texts, symphonies or architectural configurations.

In all such practices, gathering takes place as a phnenomenotechnical process that concentrates things till the threshold of a critical density, rendering them audible, visible, palpable, palatable, memorable, imaginable, thinkable, in one word: discernible. In generating appearance, gathering constitutes the phenomenality of a phenomenon in an initial, preparatory phase, before the familiar cycle of use, consumption and assimilation of the phenomenon sets in. If the ultimate destination and telos of gathering is perceived as being, then human existence can be seen as an open series of cycles, in which being is repeatedly gathered and dispersed.


(1) The following essay is based on my contribution to the exhibition catalogue From Collect. See Mazumdar, Pravu “Gathering Being: Reading FROM COLLECT as a phenomenotechnical arrangement” in Min, Bogki, From Collect. Jewellery, Seoul: Gallery Meme, 2020.
(2) Janne Krogh Hansen, Helen Clara Hemsley, Soohyun Chou, Woojung Kim, Gavy Jo, Bogki Min, Sehee Um, Kim Buck, Sungho Cho, Yoojung Kim.
(3) Fragment 17 in John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, London: Adam & Charles Black, 1920: pp. 207-208.
(4) Bachelard, Gaston, La formation de l’esprit scientifique – Contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance objective, Librairie Philosophique, Paris: J. Vrin, 1938. German translation: Die Bildung des wissenschaftlichen Geistes. Beitrag zu einer Psychoanalyse der objektiven Erkenntnis, übers. v. Michael Bischoff u. mit einer Einl. v. Wolf Lepenies, stw 668, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1978: p. 358. Transl. into English by P. M.
(5) See quote above.
(6) See Bachelard: “We could therefore say that mathematical physics corresponds to a noumenology, which is substantially different from the phenomonography, to which scientific empiricism is restricted. Such a noumenology implies a phenomonotechnique, in applying which new phenomena are not merely discovered, but invented, or, in other words, constructed through and through.” See “Noumène et microphysique” (1931-32) in Bachelard, Gaston, Etudes, Paris: Vrin, 1970 : pp. 18-19. In another piece Bachelard writes: “The trajectories, that allow the separation of isotopes in a mass spectrometer, do not occur in nature; they must be technically produced.” See Bachelard, Gaston, Le rationalism appliqué, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949 : p. 103. Both quotes transl. into English by P. M.
(7) Hans-Jörg Rheinberger has introduced the twin concepts of experimental systems and epistemic things. The latter is generated, integrated and observed by the former. “The technical conditions not only determine the range of possibilities of epistemic things, but also the form of their possible representation. Conversely, sufficiently stabilised epistemic things can be inserted as technical elements into an existing experimental arrangement.” Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg Experimentalsysteme und epistemische Dinge. Eine Geschichte der Proteinsynthese im Reagenzglas, stw 1806, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2006: p. 29. Transl. into English by P. M.
(8) Thus Anne Sauvagnargues has depicted art as a process of capturing and gathering forces, using a Deleuzean version of Bachelard’s phenomenotechnicality. See Sauvagnargues, Anne, „Kunst als Einfangen von Kräften“ in Das Magazin des Instituts für Theorie, no. 18/19, Ins Offene. Gegenwart: Ästhetik. Theorie, June 2012: pp. 35-39. Also, Emmanuel Alloa has proposed what he terms “Techno-Aesthetics”, which would not only study a work of art with respect to its aesthetic construction but would also analyse the technicality of its “generative function”, which is to be taken as a technology of enabling something to appear. See Alloa, Emmanuel, “Produktiver Schein – Phänomenotechnik zwischen Ästhetik und Wissenschaft” in Zeitschrift für allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, vol. 60, no. 2, 2015.
(9) Bachelard, Gaston, Epistemologie, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 1993: p. 154.

About the author

Pravu Mazumdar
 studied physics in New Delhi and Munich and has a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Stuttgart. He writes in German and English, and his books, which use themes like migration and consumerism to unfold a diagnosis of modernity, are closely connected to French Postmodernism, in particular, the philosophy of Michel Foucault. His book on jewellery was published in 2015 under the title: "Gold und Geist: Prolegomena zu einer Philosophie des Schmucks" (“Gold and Mind: Prolegomena towards a Philosophy of Jewellery”), Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.