The Event of the Public: Convolutions of Aesthetic and Epistemic Practice
Location 121
Date and Start Time 01 September, 2016 at 16:00
Sessions 3


  • Mike Michael (University of Exeter) email
  • Alex Wilkie (Goldsmiths, University of London) email
  • Gay Hawkins (University of Western Sydney ) email
  • Kane Race (University of Sydney ) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Alex Wilkie (Goldsmiths - 1,3), Mike Michael (University of Sidney - 2)

Short Abstract

This track aims to explore the role of the aesthetic in epistemic practices with particular reference to the ways in which 'publics' or 'scientific citizens' are enacted.

Long Abstract

While STS has long explored how the epistemic practices of knowledge-making can be linked to a heterogeneous range of other practices (social, ethical, economic, political, care-ful, corporeal, affective, etc.), the place of aesthetic practices has been relatively neglected. The proposed theme aims to examine the role of the aesthetic in the epistemic, with particular reference to the ways in which 'publics' are enacted or eventuated. More concretely we can pose such questions as: what counts as 'aesthetic practice' and how does this relate to other practices (for example, of care, affect, social)? how do the aesthetics of a technoscientific artifact or assemblage (eg a plastic water bottle, smart monitor, or alternative systems of electricity generation) affect the ways in which publics enact environmental concern? how do the aesthetics of more or less typical STS research tools (such as focus groups, 'ethnographic' engagements, data harvesting or speculative design interventions) impact the emergence of particular sorts of 'epistemic publics'; how do the aesthetics of the representational practices found in STS, policy or the media (eg online data visualization or the narrative structures of academic accounting) shape the public and its issues? More broadly, we ask how might we understand aesthetic practice in the context of ostensibly related traditions, for example non-representational or arts-based modes of inquiry. Papers are therefore invited which consider the complex interactions - the convolutions - between aesthetic and epistemic practices specifically in relation to the ways in which publics (or 'scientific citizens') emerge.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Aesthetics and the Making of Technoscientific Publics

Author: Mike Michael (University of Exeter)  email

Short Abstract

The paper discusses a number of approaches to ‘aesthetics’. Drawing on various case studies, a typology is developed which tentatively describes the means by which aesthetics might illuminate the social, epistemic, affective, etc elements entailed in the eventuation of ‘technoscientific publics’.

Long Abstract

In keeping with the track (The Event of the Public: Convolutions of Aesthetic and Epistemic Practice) focus, this paper explores the multiple eventuations of 'aesthetics' in relation to technoscientific (and social scientific) enactments of publics. As such, it discusses a number of ways in which 'aesthetics' may be understood, including Bourdieusian practices of taste, Latourian modes of representation (iconoclash), and Mol's mediation of the senses. Applying these perspectives to empirical examples drawn from the public engagement with science and technology, the paper traces how 'aesthetics' can do different sorts of analytic work, illuminating, respectively, social, epistemic and affective dimensions of public engagement processes. Thus, for example, in the aesthetic engagement with 'methodological devices' (eg stimulus materials, cultural probes, science communication installations), perceived 'beauty' or 'ugliness' can evoke social differentiation, divergent truth claims, or variable feelings of comfort. Developing this line of argument further, a typology is tentatively proposed in which aesthetics is shown to articulate (with) a range of elements that attach to the eventuation of 'technoscientific publics' - additionally, the ethical, the political and the economic. However, in all these cases, the 'aesthetic' has been deployed as a partial 'cipher' for those other elements that contribute to the making of the 'technoscientific public' (the epistemic, the social, etc). The paper ends with a plea that the 'aesthetic' be treated 'on its own terms' and 'in its own right', though with circumspection given that the 'aesthetic' will itself be illuminated by the social, the epistemic, the political etc.

Queer Counterpublics in the Digital Context

Author: Kane Race (University of Sydney )  email

Short Abstract

This paper reformulates the problem of queer counterpublics from a topographic register to one that attends to the unfolding of events. The latter may be more suited to figuring the queer world-making possibilities of digital technologies.

Long Abstract

Queer counterpublics have been seen as a significant resource for gay men's HIV prevention in the critical literature, where they tend to be conceived as rhizomatic structures consisting of relays among various forms of media circulation and visible, accessible inhabitations of urban space. While the theorisation of counterpublics can be criticized for its metro-centricity as well as its tendency to characterise digitally-arranged sex as ipso facto privatising, this paper argues that creating contexts for collective reflexivity about private sexual exchanges persists as an important problem for HIV community education and a priority for counterpublic health in the digital context. I read Warner's work on counterpublics against Alain Badou's 'In Praise of Love'. Though not concerned with the collective reconfiguration of intimacy, Badiou evaluates digital dating technologies in terms of how they predispose us to the risk of otherness and unanticipated futures. This reposes the problem of counter-intimacies from a topographic register to one that foregrounds events. Referencing a range of empirical examples drawn from common sexual media engagements among gay and MSM, I argue that some trajectory from private to public - or what I call 'frame-overflowing' - is a necessary precondition of counterpublic activity, even while it intrinsically runs the risk of breaching ethical sensitivities.

Rationality and Ritual: Public Randomization Ceremonies as Aesthetic and Epistemic Objects

Author: Margarita Rayzberg (Northwestern University)  email

Short Abstract

Researchers conducting randomized controlled field experiments convene “public randomization ceremonies” to make randomized resource allocation appear fair to retain research participants. I draw on theories of ceremony to examine this practice as both an aesthetic and an epistemic object.

Long Abstract

What does it mean for rationality to rest on ceremony? Development economists use randomized controlled field experiments to evaluate the impact of policy interventions in low-income countries. Because it is difficult to manufacture placebos of social interventions, researchers need randomized resource allocation to appear fair to enroll and retain research participants. To demonstrate the fairness of randomization researchers organize "public randomization ceremonies" (PRCs). In PRCs research participants gather to take turns drawing their treatment assignment and displaying it to the group.

While STS analysts have discussed ceremonial aspects of science such as award ceremonies and public meetings as critical to the work of science, I consider the PRC as an element of the experimental apparatus that make experimental knowledge production possible. Drawing on theories of ritual and ceremony, technologies of transparency, and public engagement with science, I examine PRCs as both an aesthetic and an epistemic object.

I suggest that PRCs formal structure presents the conflation of fairness with transparency as unquestionable and precludes discourse about alternative meanings of fairness. PRCs also function as rites de passage in which individuals "officially" become consenting research participants: the control group gives up rights to the resource being distributed and to contestation of the distribution process and the treatment group agrees to follow the study protocol. But because public randomization ceremonies are "junction ceremonies" produced for individuals among whom personal ties are fragile, the consensus they build is tenuous. Control groups do resist forcing researchers to do repair work to sustain their experiment.

›Artivism‹ - a new form of politics?

Author: Nora Rigamonti (Technical University Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

Contemporary debates on social issues are accompanied by various enactments of publics and their aesthetic practices, experimental interventions and materials. Do these forms of collective knowledge and participation by activists and artists contain specific possibilities of democratic politics?

Long Abstract

The contemporary issue of the European refugee crisis is directly connected to an emergence of situational publics, their aesthetic practices and experimental interventions in urban spaces and into dominant discourses on refugees: Activists and artists are attempting to constitute aesthetic oppositions by disrupting and negotiating dominant social structures as well as by establishing new forms of collective knowledge and participation.

These forms are coalescing outside the prescribed, institutionally orchestrated democratic formats and are not exclusively discursive processes, which are restricted to the mobilization of terms and ideas by human actors. There is also a heterogeneous multiplicity of non-human actors involved in producing aesthetic and experimental enactments of publics: different material things such as information and communications technology, buildings or specific artifacts. This constant interaction between human and non-human actors therefore constitutes the micro-structural conditions of felicity for collective knowledge and participation.

Drawing upon work in STS (i.a., Marres/Lezaun 2011; Braun/Whatmore 2010) and assemblage thinking (i.a., Farías/Bender 2010) the present study examines the ways in which these practices, interventions and materials may enable conditions of enactments of publics by focusing on the co-constitutive interaction of human and non-human actors. Methodologically, the study attempts to cross-fertilise a mobile ethnography (Blok 2010) with digital methods approaches and different web-native techniques (Rogers 2013).

Whether, and if so, how these practices, interventions and materials may contain specific possibilities of democratic politics is explored with ongoing comparative case study research on the artists' collective Center for Political Beauty and the transdisciplinary project The Gardening in Berlin.

Provoking Animal Publics: the case of wildlife documentary

Authors: Ben Dibley (Western Sydney University)  email
Gay Hawkins (University of Western Sydney )  email

Short Abstract

Using examples from the history of wildlife documentaries on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, this paper develops the concept of ‘provocative containment’ to investigate the internal workings of these representations and the kinds of animal performances and publics they generate.

Long Abstract

Many TV wildlife documentaries claim to be studying animals in the wild and capturing their genuine reality but most audiences are aware that these representations are highly constructed. This doesn't mean that the animal is fictional. Rather, that it is performing a particular social reality that cannot be separated from the institutional context in which it emerges and is contained: television. How then to investigate the internal workings of these representations and the kinds of animal performances and publics they generate without recourse to the assumption that there is a more real or valid animal beyond the screen that the representation needs to be assessed against? This paper approaches this challenge by developing the concept of 'provocative containment' (Lezuan, Muniesa, Vikkelso, 2012). Provocative containment describes the experimental processes whereby particular kinds of reality are provoked into being that are both artificial and also demonstrate very real social phenomena. 'Provocative containment is thus a technique for the production and display of social reality'. (p279).

Using examples from the history of wildlife documentaries on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the paper investigates changing forms of animal performance and their provocations. How are these animals captured and contained by the mediations of television? What devices and methods are used for the realization of these animal realities? How do animal performances incite audience interest and curiosity? And how do the practices of provocative containment reveal the performative dimensions of science communication as a technique for making animals often simultaneously objective, aesthetic and affective?

Proof and Beauty: On the aesthetics/forensics/politics/technics of surveillance and ornithological images.

Authors: Rocco Bellanova (University of Amsterdam)  email
Ann Rudinow Saetnan (Norwegian Institute for Science & Technology)  email

Short Abstract

Starting from differently valued wildlife photos and CCTV images, we compare the two sets of imaging practices and values across the two fields, using tensions within and between the fields to highlight theoretical perspectives on concepts such as truth, authenticity, proof ... and beauty.

Long Abstract

What makes a captured image beautiful? What makes the quality of a captured image? In this paper we explore similarities and differences in the aesthetics of images in two different fields where imaging is one of the key data-gathering activities: surveillance and birding. In both fields, judgment of image quality is related to the roles images play in various other practices within the field, as well as to field-contextual ethical/political and practical concerns, and aesthetical and practical choices pre-inscribed into the technical apparatuses of image creation. Starting from images (wildlife photos and CCTV images) that have been differently valued by audiences within their respective fields, we compare these two sets of imaging practices and values across the two fields, using tensions within and between the fields to highlight theoretical perspectives on concepts such as truth, authenticity, proof ... and beauty.

The Form(ation) of Insterspecies Aesthetics

Authors: Li Jönsson (Kakd)  email
Tau Lenskjold (University of Southern Denmark)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper we explore the event as an inventive (design) method that sparks interspecies relations into being through speculative artefacts. Furthermore we describe a set of different aesthetical conceptualizations of environmental concerns.

Long Abstract

Events are a process in which human and non-human actors come together and in this coming together they become something different (Fraser 2006). Supposedly, this allows us to follow how interspecies events inadvertently condition an issue and produce a public. This is certainly noteworthy in regards to current sustainable issues, involving ozone-holes, garbage-piles and the concept of biodiversity. Yet, we contend that this process is not entirely graspable by solely paying attention to the relational translations it entails. Across the micro-events through which issues comes into being, different affective forces that we may identify as aesthetical, play their part too. In this paper we discuss how these affective moments are grounded through the interplay of different aesthetic theories. We describe a set of different aesthetical conceptualizations of environmental concerns - from an activist aesthetic to a darker ecology, to a minor and more nuanced environmental aesthetic, enacted through the speculative artifacts deployed in the recent design research project Urban Animals and Us (UA&Us).

More specifically, we describe how the event can be used as an inventive (design) method that sparks issues into being and forms a potential interspecies public, using UA&US as case. The agenda for the design project has been to conceptualize a Danish neighborhood as an urban ecology that we as citizens merely co-inhabit with many different species.

Finally, following the event framing we discuss how the actants in UA & Us are potentially transformed; suggesting that aesthetic affect is part of design's capacity for issue formation.

Energy and Aesthetic Experience: Engaging Communities of Despair

Author: Alex Wilkie (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper reflects on a one-day engagement workshop with UK-based energy communities to examine the occasioning of novel aesthetic methodological techniques as a means to reformulate the ‘problem’ of energy-demand reduction practices as the ‘aesthetic experience’ of energy.

Long Abstract

As part of initiatives to achieve policy targets for energy-demand reduction, the UK government has pursued community-based interventions in order to develop instruments for stimulating the emergence of more responsible and informed energy publics. As part of this, the interdisciplinary 'Energy and Co-Designing Communities' project investigated the assumptions at play within the context of community-based energy-demand reduction efforts, not least around the notions of 'community' and 'practice' (e.g. Shove et al 2012) through novel methodological engagements. Drawing on the case of an 'Engagement Workshop' - where members from five UK-based energy communities were brought together to occasion experiences, views and understandings of community energy practices and environmental expectations - this paper reflects on how aesthetic methodological devices resourced approaches to researching community and public experience with technoscientific and catastrophic futures. The paper contributes to discussions on 'inventive' and 'speculative' methods and describes how visual workshop material occasioned the 'capture' of prehensive data, more specifically the 'aesthetic experience' of energy and community in the face of inescapable catastrophic expectations associated with climate change. The paper also contributes to discussion around the aesthetic dimensions of routine technoscientific practices by drawing on the work of Whitehead (cf. Kaplicky, 2011) and Shaviro and how such dimensions both shape energy-demand reduction practices and open up new speculative possibilities for understanding the aesthetic 'problem' of demand as a patterned contrast of danger and satisfaction. In conclusion, the paper reflects on the use of 'aesthetic' techniques to understand and come to terms with the aesthetic experience of inescapable dangers.

A Step towards Infrastructural Esthetics

Author: Masato Fukushima (The University of Tokyo)  email

Short Abstract

The pioneering works on infrastructure in STS have adopted the relational definition of it, failing in addressing such issues as politics of visibility in terms of urban landscape. This presentation reexamines the role of esthetic visibility as the legitimate part of the infrastructural dynamics.

Long Abstract

The pioneering works on infrastructure in STS have adopted the somewhat relational definition of it (Star& Ruhleder, 1996; Star & Bowker, 2002) reminding us of that of picture/background distinction in Gestalt psychology. This relational view overly tilted to subjectivity, however, poses problem when its physical visibility matters in terms of, say, urban landscape. The tajectory of infrastructure hinges upon the contradictory values assigned to it (value oscillation) (Fukushima, forthcoming), but the dynamics of its aesthetic aspect has not been given sufficient attention, which involves both the politics of invisibility and strategic mobilization of estheticizing what is visible.

By taking up the recent controversies on the national beautification campaign targeted on the forest of utility poles and exposed electric wires in Japan's urban landscape, this presentation claims the need for the renewed attention to the issue of visibility in the present study of infrastructure to shed light on its dynamics of esthetization as the major issue of controversy on the urban landscape. Beyond the conventional image of its life cycle from the birth to maintenance/ repair to its decay, this analysis of its esthetic side is expected to shed light on the more complex dynamic of socio-technical system where esthetics is the missing link of combining various factors so far not spotlighted.

Shiny, stinky, interesting!? Professional practices of dis/engaging citizens

Author: Nona Schulte-Römer (Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research GmbH – UFZ)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the aesthetics of public engagement and ignorance in the context of urban techno-scientific tests and demonstrations. The empirical focus is on street lighting and water management – two ‘techno-scientific assemblages’ with important but very different aesthetic and environmental effects.

Long Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic research in the lighting field, I will first show that professionals engage or disengage citizens in their public techno-scientific projects and evidence production by visibilising or invisibilising their public work. I will argue that lighting designers' nocturnal 'light walks', engineers' measurements and artistic displays constitute powerful 'investments in form' (Thévenot 2007), which all have a distinct and audience-specific aesthetic appeal. In a second step, I will contrast these findings with urban waste water projects, where techno-scientific assemblages tend to be less visible than in the lighting field and evoke rather negative than positive associations.

The comparison between urban sewage and city lights reveals that public ignorance or interest in these matters is not socio-culturally determined. Shiny illuminations are not necessarily attractive, stinky sewage systems not necessarily perceived as disgusting. Instead, public perceptions, knowledge production and evaluations are shaped by professional actors through their particular aesthetic epistemic practices. Based on these insights and in line with recent 'co-productionist' approaches to citizen engagement (Chilvers and Kearnes 2015), I conclude that professional ways of testing and presenting techno-scientific assemblages help produce both urban publics and urban infrastructures.


Chilvers, Jason, and Matthew Kearnes, eds. Remaking Participation: Science, Environment and Emergent Publics. London: Routledge, 2015.

Thévenot, L. (2007). The Plurality of Cognitive Formats and Engagements. Moving between the Familiar and the Public. European Journal of Social Theory 10(3): 409-423.

'There is a township growing in your backyard': exploring a chief's entanglements in processes of 'issue making'

Author: Eva Riedke (University of Mainz)  email

Short Abstract

How do semiotic and aesthetic qualities of infrastructures feature in processes of ‘issue making’? In South Africa, a chief who is said to have ‘lost his land’ becomes entangled in a variety of political practices, with other actors, aimed at defining matters of concern pertaining to land.

Long Abstract

In a chieftaincy on the peri-urban fringes of Durban, South Africa, a chief was said to have failed at preventing housing development projects from being built on 'his land', that he had been a mere bystander as shack settlements simply mushroomed - his land that had once been 'rural', was said to now be lost. Drawing on ethnographic field research, the paper explores these concerns around matters of land from an issue-centred perspective on politics. More specifically, foregrounding the pragmatist-inspired notion that publics form in a process of 'issueification', the objective is to concentrate on how practices of issue formation draw upon the semiotic and aesthetic qualities of infrastructures that have 'come to matter' (houses, water, electricity, sanitation). In what manner do infrastructures store within them desires, fantasies -partly autonomous from their material function - and come to serve as concrete vehicles oriented towards the articulation of particular issues? It is by focusing on these qualities, the argument goes, that we can come to understand how infrastructures draw actors together, and how they feature in the formation of issues and publics. At a stage, when 'a public' may still be in the process of being 'eventuated'. How do infrastructures come to reveal larger affectuated relationships, or simply logics of 'being in the world' - of rurality, tradition, of post-apartheid citizenship - that are themselves partly disjunctive? Said to be a chief 'who has no land', the paper explores his entanglements in a larger process of 'issue making' and what comes to mediate his involvement.

Art-and-energy convolutions

Author: Lea Schick (IT University of Copenhagen)  email

Short Abstract

In this presentation I analyze a big art and energy project – the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) – and discuss how art and aesthetics may offer not only other means for engaging in the making of energy futures, but also other means for STS researchers to intervene in the field.

Long Abstract

In Denmark, and many other places, policy-makers, utility companies, infrastructure developers, and social scientist struggle to make 'the public' more engaged in energy infrastructures. A discipline seldom considered when tinkering with infrastructure development is the arts. In this presentation I ask, what it take for arts and aesthetics to intervene into the making of alternative energy futures.

Analyzing a big art and energy project - the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) - I discuss how art and aesthetic may offer not only other means for engaging energy publics, but also other means for STS researchers to intervene in energy politics, infrastructure innovation, and in complex practices of future-making.

As part of my PhD research I worked as a project manager for LAGI as the project took place in Copenhagen in 2014. Doing an auto-ethnographic analysis of my own work of establishing local support and partnerships, securing funding, and communicating the project, I will discuss how the practice of 'project management work' can function as a method for studying and intervening in the field. Proposing and negotiating artistic practices as means for infrastructure development and engagement of energy publics reveal important insights into the complex political and epistemic work of imagining and making different energy futures.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.