The Loop – Kader Attia

e-flux journal 56th Venice Biennale

This special issue of eflux journal is published in cooperation with Wuhan Art Terminus (WH.A.T.)


The Loop


Peoples from ancient times have left traces of astronomic observations, the origins of which are still mysterious. Indeed, it seems impossible to have seen or understood certain cosmic phenomena without the technological means that are at our disposal today. Even if Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Dogons, and Mayans may have benefited from exceptional conditions of observation (wave pollution from big cities didn’t exist at the time), many questions will remain unanswered.



How could, for instance, the Dogons, from Mali, observe and build their whole cosmogony around one star (the star of Sirius), which they named Sigui Tolo? This star is in fact a double star, made of Sirius A and Sirius B, which seem to be aligned on the same axis only once every 60 years. That’s also the rhythm at which Dogons celebrate the Sigui (the “ invention of speech and death “ ).


In July 1998, Jean-Marc Bonnet-Bidaud, an astrophysicist, goes to visit the Dogons in Mali to research the central role of the Sirius star in the Dogon cosmogony. He is taken to a place where two huge stones stand—one named Sun, and the other one Sirius—near a cave with a window that’s used as observatory. At this precise point, Bonnet-Bidaud observes the common rise of the Sun and Sirius, as described by the Dogons since always. How could they know this? How could they know about the “white dwarf”—which they named “the companion of Sigui Tolo”—and know that it revolves around Sirius every 60 years? This small star, visible only through large telescopes, could be observed for the first time only at the end of the 19th century.
From the concept of the infinitely big, present in Mesopotamian sciences, to the concept of the infinitely small in the works of the Greeks like Democrite, the common denominator of all these civilizations is without a doubt the fact that they added an intuitive imagination to the logical sciences.


On the altar of human knowledge, on each side of which stand sciences and arts, mathematics and arts are opposites. I am referring here to artistic creation in its unlimited and unexpected aspect: the perpetual and illogical movement that determines its development. A biological, physical, historical phenomenon can be explained, but it is impossible to write the equation that would answer why the human mind has always sought, and will always seek, to enhance the creation of emotion. Metaphorical formulas can be developed, but what endlessly changes the nature and purpose of art can never be logically explained. Even if unsolved equations do exist, it is impossible to build a mathematic reasoning to structure the unstructurable, where neither causality nor effect are controllable.


Emotion remains an unexpected juxtaposition of cognitive functions that, all gathered together in a certain moment and space, will activate the senses. This kind of bio-communicative system can be mathematically interpreted (which is, by the way, not only methodology used by human beings), but the causation of the talent that generates emotion from new shapes and concepts is totally irrational.

It is always surprising to see that when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used to write his masterpieces, there is no trace of marks or redactions on his scores.

What is important here isn’t so much the contrast between the unstained aspect of the work and the “humanity” of the individual (who makes mistakes by nature). What is striking here is the feeling that for music to come out of a human brain as perfection, the whole basis of the mathematic structure of the music must have existed beforehand, before even Mozart’s existence. Music shares with mathematics that both are discovered. Mozart does not invent a symphony, he discovers one that already existed somewhere and organizes it during month or year in his brain. Einstein discovered the theory of relativity, Higgs the one of boson particle. They didn’t invent them: the theories were waiting to be discovered.

It seems like music’s structure can be explained with mathematics, indeed, but not the irrational origin of the urge that triggers the process through which it will be ordered in a certain direction, and then renew itself indefinitely. What is a masterpiece if not a mysterious coincidence—an immeasurable quantity of totally unexpected and paradoxical circumstances merge in a particular moment and space: point T. This phenomenon, rare in any artistic discipline, keeps in itself the enigma of its unexpected and extra-human origin, which makes it forever fascinating. Of the billions of factors that converge toward this one point, only one is fundamental: the factor of repair. Why? Because it translates from one space/time to another one, an improvement.

The omnipresence of repair in the universe is without a doubt the only reason for being that mathematics and art share. Without the process of repair, there would be nothing—neither chaos nor stability. Everything is led by a determinist agency: repair.


One of the most characteristic phenomena of human biological and cultural evolution is repair. I first perceived this phenomenon through simple observation in the social-cultural and social-political fields in a concrete sense. From non-occidental tradition to occidental modernity, I have conducted many years’ worth of research that led me to reconsider the totemic dimension of traditional cultures and their connection to the immaterial worlds of the ancestors, as well as of the cultures of modernity and their dogmatic connection with its motor: progress, which turns it back on the past, toward an ambivalent relation between the artistic avant garde and the wars of the world.

I have been working on the visual and physical aspect of this issue and its virtual ramifications, but always from the cultural field.


Little by little, reading Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s theory on the evolution of species, synthesizing the “natural selection” necessary to any species to survive in their environment with a process of repair, my research has gone beyond the level of “bricolage” of the savage mind dear to Claude Levi-Strauss.



A discovery of 2012 Physics Nobel Prize winner Serge Haroche opened my eyes to other horizons where repair seems to be omnipresent. When trying for years to imprison an elementary light particle (a photon) between two mirrors, he and his team could capture it only for a tenth of a second. What comes next is fascinating: after the one tenth of a second, this photon disappears. Where does it go? No one knows. Why does it disappear? “Because nature isn’t perfect,” says Haroche. These two words put together tackle a fundamental issue: nature, and imperfection. Would that which the human mind misses or mistakes also be imperfect? Would that which culture does not understand be totally imperfect? Extra-human phenomena belong to an order of things that surpasses us, and then reappropriates tirelessly what belongs to it—repairing a situation that, for a short moment, takes away its power. Because the “imperfect” interpretation of nature, from a human’s point of view, has its virtual symmetry from nature’s point of view: the abnormality triggered by this experience. From the quantum order of things’ point of view, it is the situation of this experience that is imperfect. Taking the photon “anormaly isolated” back after a tenth of a second, the quantum order of things repairs this fault through which this subtraction has been possible.


I discussed this situation with quantum physicists, and all agree that the symmetry of connections exists at the quantum level, the universe being symmetrical, or rather each particle having its symmetry in the universe. There are different reasons why this wave disappears from our world, but what is sure is that, to reappear somewhere and be pieced together again, the information that defines it must be stored somewhere.


In the universe, the only known phenomena able to make anything disappear, from matter to light, are black holes. Their mass depends on the quantity of matter they swallow, and keeps increasing.

The black holes are invisible and can’t be observed with the naked eye; they can only be noticed through the gravitational influence they operate on their close environment (which has recently been observed by astrophysician Andrea Ghez on the black hole at the center of our galaxy : Sgr A*), or through a “mathematical journey” that, with the help of equations, makes it possible to get close to its periphery and ultimately, to its center: its singularity.


Different astrophysical theories have debated what happens at the surface and the inside of black holes.


In 1976, according to Leonard Susskind, the British theoretician Stephen Hawking claimed that “black holes did violate the fundamental principle of the keeping of information because of the process of evaporation that leads to their progressive disappearance: Hawking’s radiation.” And yet, still according to Leonard Susskind, we should consider the concrete example of a computer. The information stored in its hard drive can be erased. But in reality it is only ejected in the atmosphere, as a quantity of energy absorbed by the molecules around it. But it hasn’t totally disappeared.


Here is what Susskind says: “when a particle interacts with another one, it can be absorbed, reflected, or also disintegrate in several other particles. But its initial state (electrical charge, mass, impulsion, etc…) can be rebuilt from the product of its interactions. The information borne by this particle is, then, always kept.” This is a fundamental law of quantum physics, and maybe even the most important one were it quantum or “classical.” Since Leonard Susskind developed the Holographic principle, we know that when a black hole swallows an object, it keeps the information that define the latter at its surface called its horizon of events.


The name given to that principle comes from the analogy with an hologram, a process through which an image in three dimensions is built from the projection of coded details in a two-dimensional film. The holographic principle then stipulates that the horizon of a black hole contains the totality of the information included inside.

The information contained in a black hole isn’t forever lost, but coded on the surface of its horizon as data.



“The horizon would then keep all information borne by all the elements that gave birth to the black hole, but also of all the objects that attracted by the force of gravity, have gone through the horizon. They would then be returned through photons produced during the evaporation process. Information associated to black holes would then be rejected in the Universe, even if in a blurred form,” writes Leonard Susskind. “From then on, they should not be seen as devourers, but as some kind of information tanks.”


Because of the acceleration of the circular movement on the black hole’s horizon of events, a disk of accretion forms that works like a dynamo: the more it swallows, the more it turns, and the more it turns, the more it rejects energy.

The more a black hole attracts matter, the more it rejects its elementary information. Let’s try, for example, filling a dog’s plate using a fire hose… a huge quantity of water will spilled out.  The movement created by acceleration generates a huge and powerful electromagnetic issue that creates, on both sides of the black hole, two gigantic jets of gamma rays, electromagnetic eruptions and rejected gas.

What seemed, for decades, destructive, is now clearly acknowledged by every astrophysicist as creative. Even Hawking admitted he made a mistake. Through Susskind’s theories and the phenomenon of reject, it is now clear that black holes contribute toward the forming of new stars and galaxies. This intermediary cataclysmic phenomenon leads in fact to a cosmic act of creation. It illustrates, at an extraordinary physical scale, a fundamental principle of creation: repair. From the death of a massive star by an explosion into a supernova new other stars are born.

Repair in the cultural sense of the word can apply to politics, economy, art, and sciences, but it is above all the continuum of an extra-cultural activity. What we claim to control, gathering information to re-use it, is only pure imitation of fundamental physical phenomenon that structures an order of things which precedes us and will succeed us…

It is not the universe which is a gigantic computer, but us who are mimicking it.


“Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything transforms,” wrote Antoine de Lavoisier.


The Universe seems therefore to be then a gigantic fractal vortex swallowing itself and endlessly regenerating.


Kader Attia


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