Nature of Knowledge - The Uncertain Structure

Nature of Knowledge - The Uncertain Structure

Jenny Brockmann: ‚Nature of Knowledge - The Uncertain Structure‘, aluminum, smart foil, controller, installation view in the anechoic chamber at JRC, 2019, photo: Paolo Vandrasch, courtesy the artist


'Uncertainty in science poses a problem, but for me as an artist uncertainty is a chance: I want to achieve the in-between, a state of uncertainty within my work, because then we really have to struggle. Only when we struggle do we get somewhere.‘

'A fundamental question is how to have knowledge within and between all the data.‘

Jenny Brockmann


The SciArt Experiment

The consequences of climate change depend on the quantity of greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere, triggered by increasing temperatures, and humanity’s response to its knowledge of these consequences. All of these factors are uncertain. The amount of greenhouse gases still being released depends, among other things, on human behavior, technological developments, and population growth. Uncertainty about the resulting temperature grows as a result of many types of feedback from the climate system. Some consequences of these increasing temperatures are predictable, but surprises are virtually guaranteed. This is especially true given the uncertain conditions, and their complex relationships with humanity’s other environmental impacts, as well as humankind’s generally unpredictable strategies for adapting to climate change.

The uncertainty of the forecast, regarding when the point of irreversible transformation has been reached, is one of the topics of this project, as is uncertainty in the process of knowledge production and transfer.

Generated by a real-time experiment at the JRC, “Nature of Knowledge - the Uncertain Structure” transfers data dealing with the consequences of climate change into a spatial installation in the shape of a spiral at VELA9 (JRC, Ispra, Italy) and BOZAR (Brussels, Belgium). The art historian and historian of science Hans-Jörg-Rheinberger writes in his Essay ”The Aura of the Spiral” that although we find the formal principle of the spiral as a natural form, above all in organic structures, the aesthetic interest in it has always been culturally shaped and as such has undergone manifold figuration in human history. The oldest spiral form known to us is found in Neolithic pottery; the spiral form provided mathematical basis for the calculation by the Hellenistic mathematician Archimedes, and Leonardo da Vinci and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were inspired by the spiral in their work in literature, art and science. Today the form of the spiral offers an important reference in the arts as well as in the sciences.

A structure corresponding to the test structure at the ELSA lab of the JRC is built at a remote location and put under increasing stress throughout the duration of the exhibition. This structure becomes more and more strained under the deforming pressure of mechanic devices used at ELSA that simulate geological movements and states of the atmosphere. Eventually, the structure will be permanently disfigured. The spiral-shaped installation is connected in real time to the data of the experiment, and transforms in time according to these data created by the smart energy of the deforming structure, relating with the materiality of glass to the transparency needed for the implementation of a smart society as researched by SGIlab. Accidental and deliberate factors like visitors’ paths through the space or physical data like temperature and pressure lead to the creation of certain variables in the experiment. These add a random element to the overall uncertainty of the project, while creating an integrated form of communication: opening a social channel of interaction between the observers and the element being tested and references people's mixed opinions on the rate of climate change.

This uncertainty provides a contrast to the expected trajectory of the experiment. Influenced by previous data, experiments, or models, expectations arise regarding the duration of the experiment and the moment when the structure becomes irreversibly transformed. The life expectancy of the experiment is updated continuously, according to new knowledge. This enhances the dichotomy between what we know about the ongoing phenomena, and the anticipation of what might happen, while affecting our "memory": our understanding of what has happened up until that moment.

'Uncertainty could be scaring and imposes the question of how to find ways not to be scared of uncertainty‘,

'A design engineer has to deliver facts and numbers, which are supposed to be certain and there is no chance of failure (handling with a part of uncertainty)‘,

'Uncertainty is a fundamental ingredient of the research process‘,

'A quality of human behaviour is to be uncertain or act in an unpredictable/uncertain way‘

Quotes from the scientists during the conversation between Jenny Brockmann and ELSA team in spring 2019

The core research activities of JRC’s European Laboratory for Structural Assessment (ELSA) are developed in support of the standardization of construction, and for assessing the physical vulnerability of critical structures. The main provision at ELSA is a Reaction Wall, unique in Europe, due to its size and capabilities. By means of computer controlled hydraulic actuators, it is possible to expose full-scale structures to significant dynamic forces and control the resulting movements with high precision. The wall and the floor are designed to resist the forces, typically several MN, which deform and seriously damage the test models. It allows for the testing of structures at full scale, in order to assess behavior when exposed to earthquakes or other types of cyclic loads. Work related to existing structures includes the development of techniques for their strengthening or repair, validated by representative models. Another resource at ELSA is a large Hopkinson bar (HopLab) that facilitates dynamic testing of materials and structures subjected to extreme loads, simulating high strain rates are representative of impact and explosion.

'For the majority of citizens, there is no vision for the (uncertain) future (not an utopia nor a dystopia)‘, 'It is a matter of fact that we lose (physical, biological) abilities (e.g. to be capable to see in the dark) and gain new ones (through technical prosthesis)‘

'Foreseeing the transformation and creating a vision, including future planning for energy, heating and communication is the first step to transform an uncertain state in a certain reality‘

'We all have conflicting links with knowledge (requiring more of it, or disbelieving so called experts), accept and fear uncertain data processes (from their collection, to their end use), suffering from our awareness of the limited/uncertain perception of reality, etc. The main difference is that the scientists (or at least many of them) are trained to deal with uncertainty on the technical side. Nevertheless they are not well prepared for dealing with the political, social and ethical uncertain impact of their work.‘

Quotes from the scientists during the conversation between Jenny Brockmann and SGIlab team in spring 2019

The Smart Grid Interoperability Lab (SGILab) of the JRC’s Directorate on Energy, Transport and Climate is a testing facility for the interoperability of smart grid systems. Its aim is to assess technological implementation according to proposed standards, use cases, and processes in cojunction with applicable models. The goal is to contribute to policy making and industrial innovation of the electric grid’s modernization. The lab works on the different layers of smart grid architecture, from protocols and communications, to devices and subsystems. It verifies interactions between grid components, benchmarks of different solutions, and identifies of gaps and challenges. The work is performed in collaboration with industry and research institutions. It is equipped with real time simulators, an energy storage unit, and an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Suite, enabling the emulation of complex communication settings. The lab aspires to apply the best available experiment design and analysis methodologies and disseminate the results to all relevant stakeholders.


Pierre Pegon
Diana Rembges
Marcelo Masera