Regla | Rule | Arau
Regla/ Rule/ Arau Regla/ Rule/ Arau is a research project that consists of a written/visual essay and a website. As a whole, it charts the last seven years of my artistic and theoretical work on and around the concept of measurement. In the essay, which spans four chapters and 46 sections, I discuss the concept by drawing upon the relevant science, historiography and philosophy, with the help of numerous pieces of contemporary art (including my own work, and that of others).In each section, the text is linked to an image and synopsis of one of my pieces, either to illustrate the argument or to elaborate on a particular theme. The Regla/ Rule/ Arauwebsite (hosted on my own site) rounds out the project, featuring images of all the artworks mentioned in this printed version, as well as the larger archive compiled over the course of my research.
The origins of this project can be traced back to the years I spent working as a land surveyor, following a series of misgivings I had at the time. Those concerns eventually took shape as artworks and writings, during my subsequent studies in Fine Arts. My initial science-based research — into the different units, instruments and processes that I had been using «out in the field» to measure the terrain — eventually gave way to a more philosophical line of questioning about the construction of reality itself. We might not even be aware of it, but selecting a certain unit to measure our surroundings completely conditions the results. This preoccupation of mine, which I later channelled into contemporary art, has culminated in this essay. Here, ideas from science (such as chaos theory and the uncertainty principle) are contrasted with the more deterministic approaches of administrations and governments, which try to take certain outdated regulations or social conventions and pass them off as universal, immutable laws.
The Regla/ Rule/ Arau project is for all those interested in the relationship between contemporary art and science. More specifically, it takes a closer look at the fundamental role of measurement — common to both disciplines — and how it influences the ways we acquire knowledge about the world. The units of measurement are a place of shared codes, riddled with ambiguities, and despite the clear differences between art and science, there are striking parallels in how they categorise things. By focusing on the symbolic representations of measurement within contemporary art, the two main objectives of this project are to reinforce my theoretical-practical artwork within the field of cultural studies, and to foster a space for art and science to come together, by studying the historiography and philosophy of both branches of knowledge. Numerous artists, since the early 20th century, have worked with units of measurement and their standards, often using them as a symbolic tool to carry out a general critique of objectivity (as explored and expanded upon by each creator, in their own context). Their artistic proposals have raised questions about the different mechanisms of control and organisation, and how power structures have used their authority to try to quash the vast range of unofficial approaches to measurement, from conflicting economic, social and cultural realities.
My own critique of today’s measurement systems centres on the definition itself of the metre, the standard of length in the International System. In my opinion, this definition is a tautology, a vicious circle (the result of scientific consensus, rather than any universal truth), much like when art itself tries to define the meaning art. By taking a broad look at the conceptual evolution of both metrology and art, I go as far as to draw parallels between them: both have undergone the same fluctuations, whereby sometimes the object is the most important element, and sometimes the concept. In the 1910s, Marcel Duchamp — one of the first artists to champion the value of the idea itself, as opposed to its physical manifestation — created the piece Trois stoppages étalon (“Three Standard Stoppages”), which marked the beginning of a form of artistic practice that replicated scientific methods (now a recurring approach in art, at least among those of us interested in the topic of measurement). The use of these methods for artistic ends further backs up the idea that art and science should be understood as closely-related disciplines, and that their absolute separation, ever since the early modern era, should come to an end — not only because new theories and experiments in quantum physics have posited the subjectivity of reality.
This text is divided into four chapters, in which I analyse what I learnt about the concept of measurement during my years working as a land surveyor. I interpret this knowledge through the subjective prism of art, while also making use of the existing scientific, historiographical and philosophical research into the creation and development of the various measurement systems, which try to quantify what our senses perceive by means of comparison. I also evaluate their authoritarian character, and their legitimacy and validity, based on how the distinct systems have evolved, in different ways, over the centuries. In this essay, the main systems of measurement and representation (as well as the spatial and cosmological models that derive from them) are discussed chronologically, in order to chart the changing role of imagination, perception and reason in the construction of a new way of thinking about reality and identity. In that regard, there has been a gradual change of approach, going from a quest for absolute knowledge, towards the conviction that any and all knowledge is relative. I therefore trace this relativist shift and how it has influenced science and religion, as well as the way humans relate with their immediate surroundings, and both the systems that define the habitable space and the models for representing the world. The emergence of subjectivity upturned the whole concept of measurement, and this breakthrough came about due to successive geographical and techno-scientific discoveries, such as the Magellan-Elcano expedition: this first circumnavigation of the globe, in the 16th century, was a practical demonstration that the Earth is a sphere, meaning that the existing worldview had to be replaced. In turn, this realisation changed the world’s scale, and, by also inadvertently confirming the planet’s rotation on its axis, it also presaged the relativity in the relationship between space and time (as would be posited by Einstein many centuries later). Here, I summarise the evolution of knowledge over time, at least in terms of observation and measurement, by discussing a range of methods and processes used to acquire it. I also suggest some alternatives to the scientific approach (that is, learning about reality by comparing it with some kind of standard). Furthermore, I question the objectivity of science and its own measuring systems, bearing in mind the rising importance of randomness in metrology, as well as the increasingly influential claim, from epistemology, that any absolute truth cannot be reached. As with Copernicus’ heliocentric system (which, due to overwhelming evidence, replaced the prevailing geocentric system), today’s discoveries of unforeseen quantum realities show that it is impossible to draw a definitive dividing line between the observed, the measuring device and the observer.
The earliest world maps, which came long before the first complete circumnavigation of the globe, were made by combining, into one image, the known territories with the representation of the shared imaginary of the unexplored ones. The navigational methods based on observing celestial bodies, along with the creation of a new standard (following Magellan’s expedition), eventually gave rise to current cartography and geodesy. Today, our geographical location system is no longer based on the observation of the stars, but rather on the physical characteristics of electromagnetic waves (i.e. the basis of our global standard, and the key element in the network of antennae and GPS satellites).
In the first chapter, From measuring lights to light as a measurement, I focus on the aforementioned International System by looking into the successive definitions of the metre. I start by discussing its earliest definition, namely a section of the Paris meridian from Dunkirk to Barcelona — this new unit was not based on the human body, unlike many other previous standards. I continue up to the present definition of the metre, i.e. the distance that light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second. The metric system was born with global aspirations, and it also reflected the desire for social equality, as demanded by the masses around the turbulent times of the French Revolution. In this chapter, I go over the evolution of the metre, from its creation under the promise of social democratisation (following certain universalist, science-based notions, legitimised by philosophical and political principles), up to its current definition, which is linked to a constant property of physics. Along the way, I explain the numerous changes to the official metre during the 230 years of its existence: as the science and technology improved (also driven by rising industrial demands), more refined devices and instruments came to be produced, leading to greater accuracy in measurement and thus the need to update the standards.
The second chapter Peonada, looks into the strategies used by many leaders, throughout history, to impose sweeping rules for weights and measures, in order to perpetuate their authoritarian and patriarchal forms of rule. These proposals for standardisation — which also make it easier and more lucrative for the authorities to claim tax — work by quashing local character within a given empire, aiming to do away with the myriad of more provincial units. If an orderly measurement system goes hand-in-hand with political order, then the use of distinct, mismatched units represents the state’s failure at homogenisation. This is very much unlike the cultural sphere, where a wide range of different genders, races and beliefs can reflect the democratic strength of the institutions. The implementation of the metric system following the French Revolution was the first modern, large-scale formalisation of measurements, working under the premise of equality for all men (though not for women), and it was a sharp turn from the local towards the global. In this chapter, traditional units of measurement from the Basque Country and the surrounding area are revisited, units based on a profound knowledge of the terrain’s idiosyncrasies and customs, and I also consider how they link to the matter of gender. I discuss how, ultimately, local people were forced to ditch their longstanding, familiar units and take up other ones geared towards efficiency and progress. The newer models were able to step up more effectively to the demands of industrial development, and, in turn, they would bring about the demise of the rich and diverse measurement systems used in pre-capitalist cultures and rural societies. I show how the older, traditional units ended up becoming symbols of resistance: they stood against the all-encompassing politico-legal, economic and cultural push for standardisation, a strategy which accelerated amid the 19th-century expansion of capitalism.
In the third chapterStandard Deviation, I argue that the rationalist approach (which was central to science from the 16th century onwards, and based on demonstrating pre-held beliefs) has gradually shifted towards less deterministic ways of thinking, with methods that allow for some degree of unpredictability. Today, notions such as the observer’s influence upon what they observe, as well as chaos and catastrophe theories, fall within the bounds of contemporary science, and their assertions are essentially based on statistical laws. Even so, and long before quantum physics ever confirmed that it is impossible to make a clean separation between phenomenon, instrument and observer, Newton had already shown (in his analysis of the divergence between the physical and psychological aspects of colour perception) that the perception of a physical stimulus not only depends on the characteristics of said stimulus, but also on the individual traits of the observing subject. It is therefore crucial to bear in mind that our grasp of the measurement standards and their sizes is conditioned by our own individual perception of them. That is, any attempt to construct reality is a biased interpretation. The senses and reason do not always concur — especially when it comes to units of measurement — so our understanding of any given fact or phenomenon comes from a negotiation between our perception and reason, education and custom, intuition and analysis. Nevertheless, the workings of the perceptual systems remain a mystery, and most surprising of all is that there seems to be a direct link between what we sense from the world and what we want to sense. This ambiguity is fertile ground for the humanities, including, of course, the arts.
In the fourth chapter,Velocity=Space/Time,I explore one of the most fascinating fields of speculative scientific thought: the relationship between space and time. I begin by noting that, long before Einstein developed his theories, Galileo tried to disprove the Aristotelian belief system (i.e. that the natural state of any body is to be at rest) by throwing objects from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I go on to describe Newton’s work, in which he showed that a force acting upon a body does not set it in motion, but rather changes its velocity, a breakthrough that would lead to his crucial law of inertia. I also discuss current concepts in quantum physics, with regards to space and the motion of particles. I end the chapter by pointing out that the most reliable device for ascertaining the whereabouts of a given object or phenomenon, relative to our own position, is the clock. I further explain that this is why the metre is now defined as the distance travelled by light in 0.000000003335640952 seconds. This thought-provoking journey around the relationship between space and time brings together fundamental questions about the cosmological system upon which our reality is supposedly founded: the relativity of space-time completely conditions our understanding of measurement, and it implies that other levels of reality might well exist.