Relational Quantum Physics/Aesthetics

During my reading of the rest of Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, I began to think about relational art as a potential model for what Barad’s world would look like if enacted. Barad repeats, almost as a mantra, that matter is an entanglement of discursive and material practices. That matter and meaning intra-act; each is not established before their interaction; they are created through the interaction with the other. This formulation seems to be a heady mixture ready for relational art practices where the goal is not to create a singular piece of art by an artist, but rather to “establish intersubjective encounters in which meaning is elaborated collectively (Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 18 quoted in Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” 54). However, it is hard to say whether relational art practices can exemplify Barad’s take on reality and the creation of knowledge.

If we look at relational art as the apparatus, we can begin to see its benefits and faults in terms of Barad’s onto-epistemology. “Rather than a discrete, portable, autonomous work of art that transcends its context, relational art is entirely beholden to the contingencies of its environment and audience” (Bishop, 54). Though, the key difference here between relational art and quantum physics may be the issue of objectivity. In the model that Barad puts forward following quantum physics, even though the “nature of the observed phenomenon changes with corresponding changes in the apparatus,” (Barad, 106) objectivity is still possible. It is the recognition that “we are part of the nature that we seek to understand” that is required (Barad, 67). Relational art also recognizes this – we are the part of the art that we seek to understand – though, through a reading of the works, the divide between artist and viewer is reified. At first glance it may seem that relational art is able to transcend the object/observer positions that Bohr and Barad claim to be false (the “two” are actually inseparable), I don’t think many, if not all, of these artworks accomplish this task of breaking down the boundaries between the art object and audience.

(image found at

Claire Bishop in her article “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” discusses a few of artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exhibitions including Untitled (Still) where the artist cooked curry and pad thai for exhibition-goers, Untitled (Tomorrow Is Another Day), the artist reconstructed his apartment and invited the audience to use it, and Pad Thai, a room full of instruments the audience could enter into to make music. I have to say that personally I enjoy some of these projects. I have a tape from the music-session I engaged in when Untitled 1996 (Rehearsal Studio No. 6 Silent Version), a similar incarnation of Pad Thai, was installed for the show Sympathy for the Devil at the MCA; it was an entertaining experience to say the least. It becomes difficult to determine in these works what is the apparatus or where the apparatus ends – the apparatus being the tool with which we measure; “apparatuses are not merely observing instruments but boundary-drawing practices – specific material (re)configurings of the world – which comes to matter” (Barad, 140).  We could say, in the case of Untitled (Still) that the curry is part of the apparatus. And all of the other cooking ingredients. And the paper plates and utensils. And all of the furniture moved from the office into the gallery. And the gallery director who is sitting at his desk in the gallery working. And the audience. And Tiravanija. And then it becomes tricky from here. What about his parents? What about the countries he comes from? The audience members’ backgrounds and all that led up to the point of them arriving at the gallery to eat curry? The building itself and the city codes? The PR for the show and the artist’s payment? It becomes obvious from here that either the work becomes either everything or nothing. However, Bohr and Barad make it clear then that the “larger material arrangement enacts a cut that resolves the inherent ontic-semantic indeterminacy through which the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’ emerge” (Barad 143). The gallery-cum-kitchen becomes the non-arbitrary material configuration that creates the cut between “subject” and “object.” This presents a problem for relational art’s goal of breaking the Great Divide between art object and audience; the material configuration of the relational artwork re-creates this same divide.

(Image found at

Another aspect of quantum physics to consider here at this moment is Bohr’s indeterminacy principle: “the values of complementary variables (such as position and momentum) are not simultaneously determinate” (Barad 118). Meaning that “the more precisely the position [of a particle] is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known, and conversely” (Barad 116). What can this mean for viewing/engaging in/making/critiquing relational art? Can we be both the position and momentum in the work? If we are actors in the work, then can we also reflect upon the work? What then becomes of art that is not able to be reflected upon by the participants? Does it now require another cut? The critic or the viewer that was not there? The material configuration of “being there” – an old sentiment derived from New York “happenings” – creates a new divide between the work and the audience.

Bishop makes the claim that “such work [relational artworks] seems to derive from a creative misreading of poststructuralist theory: rather than the interpretations of a work of art being open to continual reassessment, the work of art itself is argued to be in perpetual flux” (Claire Bishop, 52). What are the stakes here? How can we both participate and know? What does it mean for the work itself and not just its readings to be constantly shifting? Barad might argue that of course the work itself is constantly shifting based on new material configurations, but when it comes down to it, I am not sure that she would actually go that far. How can we objectively judge these works? What is our actual place? What/where is our agency? Barad suggests an “agential realist account”:

human subjects are neither outside observers of apparatuses, nor independent subjects that intervene in the workings of an apparatus, not the products of social technologies that produce them. Nor is the issue merely of incorporating both humans and nonhumans into the apparatus of bodily production. The point is as follows: to the extent that concepts, laboratory manipulations, observational interventions, and other human practices have a role to play, it is as part of the larger material configuration of the world (Barad, 171).

How does relational art figure into this definition of reality?

The Quantum Physics of Mark Lombardi

Reading for this week in Feminist Science and Technology Studies: Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning by Karen Barad – Intro thru Chapter 3.

In thinking about a connection between art and quantum physics, it was at first difficult to get beyond art that uses quantum physics as material in making digital images and such. Though this kind of work is interesting in its own right, I wanted to try to think about work that may not at first glance appear to be about quantum physics at all. This led me to Mark Lombardi’s conspiracy-web works.

Mark Lombardi, Bill Clinton, The Lippo Group, and Jackson Stephens of Little Rock, Arkansas (5th Version), 1999 (found at

Lombardi’s drawings show us webs of players involved in controversial political events and groups – Iran-Contra, World Finance Corporation, United Press International, and others. Each node in these webs connects to other nodes by simple pencil lines or dotted lines, creating a visualization of the networks of power and money that undergird today’s politics. Lombardi calls his drawing’s “narrative structures” because each network he is presenting is meant to “convey a story”  (

Lombardi’s drawings point towards actor-network theory (or material-semiotic) and also notions of intentionality. Barad writes in Meeting the Universe Halfway that “the very nature of intentionality needs to be rethought” (22) because “intentions are not preexisting determinate mental states of individual human beings” (22-3). Rather, we need to see that “intentionality might better be understood as attributable to a complex network of human and nonhuman agents” (23). This reconfiguration presents us with a quandary in our traditional conceptions of free will and determinism, and thus our notions of agency and ethics. In light of this, how do we/can we look at Lombardi’s drawings?

Conspiracy theories hold fast to traditional notions of agency; someone has power and is exerting it upon others who do not have power. However, it doesn’t necessarily seem this simplistic in Lombardi’s drawings; there is not one particular agent of power that is determining the course; it isn’t always the case that there is one actor from which all the activity stems from. It is clear, though, that each of the nodes/players is a discrete entity that affects others – where would Barad’s notion of “intra-action” be found here? Intra-action being “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies,” separate from interaction that “assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction”; “intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action” (33). How can each of these nodes (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, various energy companies and banks, and etc.) contain within themselves “intra-action” and not just interaction amongst them?

This also brings up questions about the artist’s position in the drawings; where is Mark Lombardi in all of this? What are the particular conditions of production and his own web that led to the creation and showing of the drawing? Barad’s notion of “diffraction” and her statement that “practices of knowing are specific material engagements that participate in (re)configuring the world” (91) come into play here. Lombardi’s drawings are the culmination of mountains of research and studies on notecards; he draws from newspaper articles and compiles the “facts” to create the individual nodes and the connections between them. What does it mean for Lombardi the artist to be partaking in this knowledge-making practice? Drawing? Deven Golden writes in an article on Lombardi in artcritical about Lombardi’s choices of materials and what that means for the artworld. What does it mean to draw today and with only pencil on paper? Are the drawings purely representational or do they engage in a new performativity that Barad suggests? For Barad, “performativity” entails a “direct material engagement with the world” instead of representationalism’s belief that our experience with the world is mediated through representations that have an inherent gap built into them (49). Is Lombardi’s drawing practice engaging in Copenhagen physicist Niels Bohr’s indeterminacy, where “the boundary between the ‘object of observation’ and the ‘agencies of observation’ is indeterminate in the absence of a specific physical arrangement of the apparatus,” (114) in this case newspapers, paper, and pencil? It seems that now we can’t take for granted the entities called “George W. Bush,” “Bill Clinton,” “Mark Lombardi,” “pencil,” “paper,” and a whole host of others. How does each intra-act with others and themselves?