Jonathon Keats is an artist, writer and experimental philosopher based in the United States and Europe, who creates opportunities for philosophical reflection through art, such as his recent project that links timekeeping to ecological change such as 'river time'.
I spoke to Jonathan to learn how he thinks about the relationship between philosophy and art practice, about the place of reflection in public art, and much else.
Jonathon Keats. Image by Jen Dessinger.
Ciaran: Hi Jonathon, so to start could you tell me about how you got into doing what you do now?
Jonathon: I studied philosophy in school and found it on the one hand to be really exhilarating, but on the other hand to be deeply distressing, because of the fact that what I imagined philosophy was meant to do and what it could achieve in society didn't really seem to be what academia was set up to accomplish. I think I went into it with the idea of being trained to be a sort of Socrates, maybe not as smart, but nevertheless, to play some sort of a public role. That is what I think motivated philosophy historically, but philosophy has become more and more specialised, along with every other academic field. There are good reasons why this happened, to do with the accumulation of knowledge and the development of methodologies. Nonetheless, in my opinion, it increasingly strayed from that public function that seems to me to be absolutely essential. This is especially the case in a democracy, where we need to be able to think critically about the society we live in, the future that we want. We need to be able to have responsible discourse and we need to have a sufficient level of self-reflection and scepticism to be able to facilitate, both internally and externally, the process of collective self-determination.
So, I abandoned philosophy only then to find my way into what I perceived from the outset to be what a philosopher was meant to do. And I’m not implying that academia is worthless. It has enormous value and many of the techniques that I use are possible only because of academic philosophy and the training I received. But I found that I needed to step out of that milieu, out of that context, in order to be able to find my way forward in terms of what I had found interesting at the outset, which is to say, the exploration, the conversation, the discourse, the dialogue.
Another aspect of it that might be worth bringing up briefly is that I have a longstanding interest in Talmud. I grew up Jewish and had that background as another context for thinking about how to think - specifically the Talmudic method, which bears some resemblance to the Hegelian dialectic. The cyclical process of questioning is something that is second nature for me.
I suppose that’s the other side of what motivates me in terms of what I do. I'm not interested in answers because I don't really trust any answer or believe in the possibility of any conclusion. Rather I think that answers are useful for the sake of opening up new questions. This is completely essential to the Talmudic method, and also perhaps something that Socrates would appreciate, but contemporary philosophy doesn’t have much patience for it due to the professional advantages of reaching some sort of a conclusion, of having some sort of an argument that takes a position. I think this has to do with the culture of academia and is also related to our culture overall. Society prefers certainties to uncertainties. I don’t, and I think that the business of philosophy needs to be uncertainty rather than certainty. I’m interested in argumentation as a means by which to explore and to understand better the multiplicity of possible positions in possible worlds.
And so I took the thought experiment as a point of departure and also of re-entry into philosophy, thinking of it not as a rhetorical tool, not as a device by which to stake a position or make an argument, but rather as a method of inquiry that might truly be experimental. I took up the technique of positing an alternate reality in a thought experiment, but I didn’t want to be disingenuous. I didn’t want to use it to force others into a position that I had pre-determined, but instead to build out the alternate reality in a way that I could experience it together with other people. Perhaps I might have some sort of hypothesis going in, but I wasn’t set in that hypothesis. Instead I committed to making it as experimental as possible, in terms of it not being decided in advance; it might really be a means of discovery. By building out this possible world and inviting others into it to experience some aspect of our reality from outside, we could perhaps come to some new understanding or some alternate ways in which to think about reality.
So, to give an example of this, I been making movies for plants for some time now. I started out as a pornographer, which is how many filmmakers begin, and then subsequently went into other areas that were more elevated such as travel documentaries. In the case of the pornography I filmed honeybees pollinating flowers – smut if you're a plant – projecting it directly onto their foliage. Then, in terms of travel documentaries, I thought about the fact that plants really never get to go anywhere because they are rooted in the ground, so they might enjoy a vicarious experience of other places. So I filmed skies in Europe to project onto plants in New York. Finally, I have gone from travel documentaries to sci-fi, taking the spectra of different star systems and sending plants on an interstellar voyage.
So all of this is an attempt to be the best pornographer I possibly can be for plants, to be the best filmmaker I possibly can be, because I think that I need to operate rigorously within the world that I've created. But then also at a meta level I can explore that world with others, and where that goes or what that means is completely open-ended.
For myself, I see it as a way in which to interrogate a number of areas that seem to me to be very interesting right now, and entirely unresolved. This includes the nature of experience for us as humans and the degree to which so much of it is mediated, and the flattening that tends to take place when we give little thought to the source of a given experience. I’m interested whether the difference between direct and mediated experience is a meaningful distinction. I don't know whether seeing something on the screen is somehow lesser or even different. Interspecies filmmaking is a way in which to consider that question. When we look at another species doing what we do all the time, vicariously experiencing foreign skies on film, we look at ourselves from afar, eluding many of the preconceptions we typically have.
I think that another question posed by interspecies film is the question of what makes us human. The standard definition often comes down to this idea that we are able to reflect, to think, to perform various cognitive processes. And so, what happens when you bring a typically human stimulus to another species that is seemingly not sentient? I don't mean to suggest that plants are secretly spying on us and know what we're talking about. I'm not trying to anthropomorphize them. But I am trying to understand and appreciate what their experience of the world is, which may help to elucidate what makes us human. I’m trying to understand whether there is anything really special about us. How does life process information, and what sort of universals and distinctions can be made?
Ciaran: Within your career, doing this kind of work, how has the way that you've thought about the practice of philosophy changed? Or if thinking about it just in terms of philosophy is too constricted, how simply has the practice of what you do, the way that you've thought about that, changed over time?
Jonathon: I think that it has changed and is changing all the time, in terms of what I recognise. So, I think that part of it is a matter of practice, meaning what I recognise as being a space that might be explored in an interesting way through some of the methods that I have developed. The methods have developed, and I've added over time to those methods and I have been able to better understand what I'm up to in terms of those methods. So, if I go back to before the beginning very briefly and talk about what I've often claimed as an origin story, as the first instance of doing what I do now (though I am uncertain on the truth of its details), was when I was around six years old and living in suburbia, having recently moved from New York City to Corte Madera, California. As you might imagine, I was rather bored. So I set up a table in front of the house and started to sell rocks. And the rocks that I sold - or attempted to sell - were identical to the rocks all around me. I see that now as being a sort of thought experiment or at least an attempt to try and understand something that happened around me all the time: commerce. The exchange of money for goods is deeply mysterious to a child. And I think it still actually is deeply mysterious or should be to us always. I think that many of the latent assumptions in economics and much of how we've ended up in the economic system that we currently take for granted, and that is currently trouncing us in many ways, we can come to appreciate and perhaps to change, when we get all the way back to the most simple of questions, the most naive of questions.
So, to me, that was a thought experiment, even though I certainly wasn't calling it that at the time. But the naivete that was inherent in it, I think, is something that I have tried to nurture all the way through going forward. This asking of a question and then the follow-through is something that I do now whereas in that case, I don't think that I'd asked that question or articulated it in any way that was abstract, but I think that I had some sort of sense that I needed to figure this thing out that was happening around me. The way to do that was by practicing it, but by doing so in a way where all the complexity was removed in the way that one does when trying to design an experiment. However, there was a lot that happened that makes this not in any way continuous with what I started doing in some sort of professional sense. Several years after graduating college, though I had been writing primarily, something that I continue to do, I had also started doing some work that might fall under the definition of conceptual art. I had started out by making, for instance, an artist book that was very much influenced by some of the 1960s conceptual artwork that really interested me, probably as a result of my study in philosophy of aesthetics, and the fact that it seemed that a lot of the most interesting work in aesthetics was happening within the realm of conceptual art.
This work led me to think about my own art practice. Specifically, how as an artist I might take the found object - or the 'readymade' as Duchamp called it, which interested me at the time and continues to do so - and find its equivalent in terms of what really seems to matter in our society. This, I believed, is a rather a process, so what might be a found process? And how could I take that process and make use of it in a way that it was not designed for, but through the act of doing so might be a way of appropriating it and using it as a means by which to generate art? The way in which I did this initially was with a factory time clock. So, I sat in an art gallery and thought, and I had a model posing nude, who contextualised the space as my studio. And each of my thoughts was an artwork and I punched in on a factory time clock and then thought through that thought and then punched out and the thoughts were then made available for sale, where the factory timecard served as a receipt of the purchase of a thought. The thoughts were not revealed because there's really no way I don't think, even today, to “reveal” a thought. You simply owned that thought. So it was very much in the tradition of conceptual art, but it also opened me up to the fact that I was interrogating some other processes that were not on the side of making art, but rather we're on the side of punching in and punching out, and therefore on the subject of labour. And that came about, I think, largely because of the conversations that were unexpected and were exciting and which had that feel of the sort of conversations that I most enjoyed in philosophy that seemed to happen spontaneously in the gallery and out in the world. I think what I was doing was I was developing a method by which to do philosophy in public: a method where I find a process and by misapplying it or applying it in another context, by taking it into the art world where the typical practical concerns are not in place, that might be a way in which to investigate that process.
That led to thinking about other ways in which to enrich these explorations. The thought experiment, I think, initially came about in my practice out of the recognition that that might also be a found process, and that I might undertake thought experiments within the context of art and might make art in that way. Furthermore, I realised that it went both ways: that making art was a way in which to undertake the philosophical process. Also, I was increasingly looking at science and philosophy of science was another area that I had studied in school and was particularly interested in and epistemology in general. I was looking at science and realizing that the experiment was yet another valid process. I think that somewhere in all of this, in a way that I haven't entirely sorted out and that I am bringing up right now just because you stimulated this line of thought through your question, that putting all that together in ways that were not predetermined, led to this process, the thought experiment, as one of the principal processes, by no means the only one, but one of the principal processes by which I'm able to work.
Ciaran: I hadn't considered the notion of repurposing in your work in that way. In an interview with the Gray Area Foundation you’ve referred to how in philosophy thought experiments have typically been used as a mode of argumentation but that you've never really had set positions, and you were always more interested in open-ended investigation. It comes up a lot in these conversations I do that people are interested in the dialogical, procedural, conversational element of philosophising that comes to the fore in the public philosophical experience. It comes to the fore perhaps because some of those pressures that may be there in academia aren't so prevalent and people might have very different reasons for wanting to get together and philosophise or be provoked to think about something in a different context. You talk later in this interview about your interest in 'biomimicry', to the extent that we may learn things about how to solve certain problems through attention to these processes.
I'm interested by what seems like a tension here, and whether this is something you've encountered. A value of posing these experiments is to encourage this kind of open-ended investigation without the pressures of having to take firm positions, but do you find that when conducting these thought experiments you are still faced with either an urge to, or some people's responses to them are such that they think "Ah, this is so that we can solve some problem or we need to reach the end of this investigation to to do X"? For some, the fact that they can just have these conversations and it doesn't need to be finished and then written up in a paper and be the end product, that's an attraction for them.
Jonathon: So, I see what I do as having practical value, or at least I hope that it does, and if it doesn't then I have failed in a significant way. That is to say as, as I mentioned at the outset, I think that a democratic society is really only viable when people are in dialogue with a degree of introspection and scepticism, and with a habit, or at least an opportunity for foresight at some level, that allows for the sort of collective decision making that leads us somewhere, deliberately and intentionally. And the fact is that we must make up our minds at one point or another. We don't need to do so for all time. We don't need to do so in certainty. And in fact, I would argue that we need to remain humble, and to recognise that the uncertainties are part of the groundwork for any decision such that we’re able to change over time, but I think that we need to find a ways in which to act in the world as a result of the thought experiments or the thought processes that are afforded through philosophy.
Philosophy is a great luxury and I luxuriate in it. Curiosity is a great luxury and I luxuriate in it. I enjoy these things, genuinely and completely and I think that everyone in the world should have the opportunity to enjoy these, because in a way they make us human. I don't know that, but I feel like there's something to that. It's not that other species are not doing this, but I think this is one of the great pleasures of being human is to be able to reflect. And I think that we are in a world that is so incredibly harsh and under such enormous pressure and that many people are under much greater pressure than I am as a result of the circumstances under which they grew up and the resources that they have, that this is largely unavailable. And so, part of what I seek to do is to make available to as many people as possible, as much of an opportunity as possible to engage in this sort of open-ended curiosity. I think that it is a birth right perhaps, I think it's something that we all deserve. And I think that we all can find our way to this, at least in some small way, with the little bit of time that everybody has, even if it doesn't seem like they have that time. I think that that's important as a matter of the fact that I genuinely value it, and I think that others will appreciate it as well. I think it's important because it is part of a humanising process perhaps and again, I don't say this to the exclusion of what other species do, but I think that humanism in the sense of the empathic and altruistic qualities that have often been associated with that term, that these are qualities that can be encouraged through curiosity and through engagement in ways that are inconclusive, and that invite dialogue and invite conversation that invite other ideas and other experiences into your world.
All of this, I think, is really important and that in its own right, I think, has a practical value because I don't see how we can be civil as a society, unless we are humane, unless we have these qualities that I think come about through the processes that are potentially accessible through philosophical practice being done out in the world. I think that there's also the problem-solving aspect that I definitely see as being essential to what I do, though I don't claim that I do it well. And that is this process of positing possible worlds in order then to be able collectively to decide, with due reflection, on the direction that we wish to take. So, I will often undertake a project that will come to some conclusion, that is not meant to be "the" conclusion, but which might be. So very recently, I've been working with the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics on a year-long collaboration where I've been artist-in-lab. It is also a partnership with the Berlin Natural History Museum and is in terms of its instantiation in the art world, which is a problematic place in general, but has remarkable outposts for the fact that they are very public and can engage a lot of people who otherwise would never, never access these sort of ideas or thought experiments.
You brought up biomimicry earlier, which is why this project came to mind. So, it started with the thought that the future is going to become increasingly harsh, in terms of our lives and life on Earth; it already is getting to be quite harsh with climate change, and it will presumably get worse. So, the most analogous situation perhaps to the future is the deep past, when life was first establishing itself on the planet. My initial thought was that perhaps what we need to do in terms of this practice of biomimicry - which tends to be much more about the present e.g. we find thistles attaching to our socks and therefore invent Velcro - is to look into the deep past as inspiration for how we build society going forward. It also needs to be large in scale and systemic rather than just at the level of a specific quality of a specific species, a specific organism that is completely taken out of context for some other purpose. So, thinking about cities as places that are under increasing pressure, it seemed to me that the very first cities were stromatolites; these microbial communities that occurred potentially billions of years ago, these incredibly complex and rich communities of multiple microbes all interacting much as is a case with how with people in cities today.
So, I decided to try to develop a city of the future inspired by stromatolites. And one of the interesting aspects of stromatolites is that they lived typically in tidal environments. And the reason for that was, well, there were many and we don't know all of them of course, and we're supposing in all cases, but certainly, there are advantages to a tidal environment thermodynamically because of the fact that you are able to achieve dynamic homeostasis more readily, given the fact that a tidal environment can absorb heat in a way that you're basically moderating your swing from hot to cold. So the thought experiment was initially to say, what if we were to build the city of the future on that basis? This and the realisation that the urban heat island effect and more broadly, the overheating of cities, and more broadly still, the temperature extreme within cities, and all of the energy that goes into air conditioning and other systems that only exacerbate the conditions that lead to the changing climate that lead to the increasingly hostile environment, that all of this might potentially be addressed by looking to stromatolites for inspiration and recognising that in fact, the tides are coming anyway, because of sea level rise.
The typical way in which people think sea level rise seems to be, we'll build a wall and then we'll build a higher wall and eventually, it will all come tumbling down. I mean, if we're not being totally arrogant, which is rare, it will all come tumbling down and we’ll just go to higher ground, we'll run away. So, the thought was, what if we didn't? What if we were to build for the tide? So we did the experimental work, both using computer modelling developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, and also using an artificial sun that they had for thermodynamic experiments, and we were able to show in terms of initial data, that in fact for a city such as Shanghai or Manhattan, that there would be a positive effect in terms of the thermodynamics or the liveability of the city in 100-300 hundred years, given the climate conditions and given likely tidal levels. So then on that basis, I developed some architecture and infrastructure for the city of the future, and put this forward as a proposition at State Studio in the form of a showroom, an exhibition, which is part of what will be a traveling and larger initiative, all of which is potentially practical at that most basic level, the level of which we tend to think of what is practical. That is to say, it seems that this works, and it seems that maybe we could do this and it seems that it might actually be necessary to do this at some point. But it's far enough in the future still, that we can also use this, I think at another level of practicality which is the practicality of thinking through and working out the conditions that will lead us to the city of the future. That is to say, for instance, our use of fossil fuels.
I think that when you put this forward as a possible world, as a possible city, that you don't say is probable or inevitable, that is still something that we have potentially and can make use of potentially in a practical way. There's also the highly practical proposition that it is much more practical to think then not to think; to think things through then not to think things through. So, these experiments mean that becomes possible as well. So I see what I do as being on the one hand a great luxury but also a necessity in the same way that any highly practical work might be, and if it lacks that then I am failing at a serious level and I am not worthy in a sense of the luxury that has afforded to me by having the privilege of being someone who is doing what I do.
"Part of what I seek to do is to make available to as many people as possible, as much of an opportunity as possible to engage in this sort of open-ended curiosity. I think that it is a birth right perhaps, I think it's something that we all deserve."
Ciaran: You were saying about it being a luxury or people having the opportunities and you mentioned artistic spaces and galleries and so on as being interesting kind of places for this. What I find interesting talking to anyone doing this kind of work outside of academia is it challenges some of ideas about where you can do philosophy and what's required in the first place to be able to do it. I've been particularly struck by people who have spoken about how their work brings out what is actually a very mundane, every day, interstitial aspect of philosophising, or more broadly just reflecting on things. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this, given how you were saying about doing this kind of work in artistic spaces, that these are places where people might be invited to think, or they might feel they have permission or by being there they may have time to reflect and to indulge curiosities that they might have.
You construct these thought experiments and that'll be exhibited somewhere. How do you see the relationship between this kind of construction, or it may be more immediate - I mean, when you were a child there with the rocks, that's a pretty immediate thing, there’s not too much preparation - how do you see the relationship between the construction of these things which provoke this reflection, and just the day-to-day mode of reflection? Someone I once spoke to put it well: “If I'm chopping vegetables to make dinner, and I start reflecting in a philosophical way, am I philosophising there?” Where does that kind of ‘kitchen philosophy’ fit into this more constructed kind you work on?
Jonathon: I think there are several questions there that are all very much interrelated and all very much interest me. One is to do with where ideas come from and how those ideas develop, and what the balance is, if there is one, between private and public reflection. Another is the question of where the work really takes place. And I guess that those are really in a sense, now that I say that, if not the same question maybe there is some sort of a response that connects all of that. I work often within the art world as a matter of convenience, mutual convenience I think, because the art world is as sceptical of me as I am of the art world, perhaps more sceptical of me than I am of the art world. The art world is highly problematic, because by and large, it is self-referential and self-indulgent and motivated by a sort of survival instinct, it is motivated by self-preservation. And as a result, the sort of work that tends to happen within these institutions is often far too limited and constricted in ways that actually remind me of how academia constricts philosophy. Also, far too limited in terms of the content and methodology by which that content is considered or that content is handled. Also, in terms of the audience; it is potentially a much larger audience, but it's still a very small audience, relatively speaking, and is still highly self-selecting, socio-politically, far too much so from my perspective. Nonetheless, often it is a place that is convenient to work in and where I am able to find people who are really interesting people who bring out really interesting qualities in the work and where I feel will benefit from that process of collaboration.
I see that milieu as only one of many where my work is situated, and I would say that it is often a waystation, it is often perhaps the least significant of the places where the work is situated (when the work is situated in a museum or gallery at all). So, it is situated first of all in my own mind, and in my own everyday process of being alive and in the naivete that I still maintain that led me to sell rocks when I was six years old. I simply misperceive all the time. And I see the serendipity of juxtaposition of one thing and another or a misperception of something as an opportunity to go down the path of exploration that that misperception led me toward. I will continue down that path, with a lot of research often, that supports it over a very long period of time, on the order of minutes, ranging to decades. There are projects that I have been working on that are still not ready to be out in the world, that I have been working at for decades. There also are projects that are totally impulsive in the sense that within a few minutes, I'd put something out and I'm able to start exploring it with others.
The second space is often the space where the project is developed, which might be in my own mind, but it often is in collaboration with others and the Fraunhofer Institute of Building Physics is a good example of this. So, in that case, I was embedded there, I worked with scientists over a period of a year. And I think that that was a genuine collaboration. Collaboration in the sense that the work that came out of it wouldn't have been possible otherwise. But I also see the scientists and engineers there as an audience for this practice that I was undertaking; that I was undertaking this practice within the Institute in a way that they might be able going forward to make use of in their own way. So that is a second audience, a second level. A third one is in terms of the exhibition and public presentation that have happened at State Studio in Berlin, and the presentation there with the Natural History Museum of Berlin, also represented in one of their researchers, Richard Hoffman. So, I had as my primary collaborator at the Fraunhofer Institute, Bernhard Gurin, who is a professor of engineering, and I had a paleontologist, Richard Hoffman, working with me as well. And so, in that second stage, it was a matter of that gallery, effectively a public gallery, so a museum sort of a context.
Then there's the media and I think that that is really important as well. So this project, as is the case with most of my projects, has been written about in very public places that have not necessarily anything to do with art, or with science or with engineering, and that therefore allow for all sorts of audiences to engage in these ideas in ways where I might not be present, I often am not present. And then I would say that finally, it's the realm of rumour. It's the realm where this has completely escaped any sort of control whatsoever. Where it's gone from the control that is absolute when it's in my own mind to the discourse that happens in the gallery or in the gallery presentation, to the media instantiation where the journalists will take it someplace that may be factually incorrect of my understanding of the facts, but is equally valid, I think, because it is another life of this project, to finally the realm of rumour where anything goes and what it means becomes something that is utterly clearly out of my control.
I also try to think when I am developing a project about where it should be situated in those earlier stages, and that need not be situated in a museum or gallery at any stage along the way, even if a museum or gallery might potentially be part of the supporting structure that allows it to happen. So, for instance, I've been looking at time and at alternate time standards, alternate ways in which to reckon time. Instead of this top down way of thinking, where we calibrate society based on the atomic clock, which dates all the way back to the mechanical time of the Industrial Revolution, and of course, has a precedent before that using astronomical phenomena, but where in the Industrial Revolution that becomes an incredibly powerful mode of organisation that leads to all sorts of technological advance but also leads us to be increasingly disconnected from the natural world, to denature ourselves and ultimately to do enormous damage to the world.
My thought has been that we need to find timekeeping methods and calibration that is based on the conditions of the planet on which we live; based on a sort of a ground truth. So, I’ve been looking at natural systems, for instance, the growth of trees. I’ve been looking at Bristlecone pine trees in Mount Washington, Nevada, and listing them as clocks and calendars. Their growth is steady, but it isn't. And to the degree that it isn't steady - that is say the degree that it is accelerated as a result of increasing carbon dioxide levels for instance - if you build a clock where you take that as your calibration, and then you allow it to vary, or you take the variability and you make that your constant, and you then live by that, you then are living in a sort of a natural time that becomes contingent. It also potentially builds a sort of feedback loop where your effect on the planet in turn effects the time keeping system that in turn influences you; it builds you into the planetary system. It situates you in a place but also that situates that place within the larger world. There's also the effect that it has of enhancing your observation of yourself within that broader context of the world. So, time becomes a sort of a gateway into all these dimensions of thought that I think are essential for us as a society going forward in order to reintegrate with the natural world.
This becomes possible only when it's a highly public project. So, working with the trees and also now working with glacially-fed rivers. In the case of the trees, I'm working with the Nevada Museum of Art and with The Long Now Foundation. In the case of the rivers, I'm working with the Anchorage Museum in Alaska. In both cases, there is the idea of a municipal clock as an aspect of this as a time protocol and a time standard. So, then the municipal clock becomes a way in which people are really living potentially in this alternate time standard in a way that it enters into their world, it takes on the vernacular, that is one that they're familiar with, that of the clock and of the municipal clock at that, and it puts another foundation for that clock to operate. That also then manifests more broadly in terms of the time protocol that could become the basis for your smartphone or your smartwatch potentially to be on arboreal or fluvial time, and so too for your scheduling software. It continues to integrate into your life.
And then a third part of this is conversations that I'm already having is that I hope this will lead to legal recognition of these standards. So in all these different ways in which this becomes a part of the world in which we live, the museum is really essential in terms of being a cultural institution at a scale that can support this, not only financially but also can support it in terms of the institutional structures that need to come into play. Ultimately still the manifestation of the project is out in the world, because that is really where it makes sense, because that's what it's about: it is about timekeeping as a public process. So the thought experiment there is one that has to take place out in the world. And it is an extremely long and arduous process to get there. And we have not yet managed to complete any of these projects. There also is simultaneously a project in Ticino, Switzerland to, again, enlist rivers. I'm now also looking at tidal systems in San Francisco and various other systems and all these projects ultimately ideally lead to these different time-reckoning systems. But even the process of trying to achieve this and all the conversations and all of the people who have become a part of the conversation - legislators, engineers, the US Geological Survey, and so forth - all of these become integral to the project going forward, as well as integrated into the project as it now stands; it is, in its own right, a sort of a thought process where we're doing philosophy right now.
Ciaran: One last thing I’d like to touch on steps away from a premise of the previous questions, where you are Jonathon ‘the philosopher’ or ‘the artist’. Do you think your work has changed you in yourself?
Jonathon: If I have not changed as a result of the work that I've done, then I have failed my first audience and I can't expect any other audience to have been in any way influenced by the work. I see myself not in any position of authority, or in a position of knowing more than others in the work that I do. But I also don't see myself as being merely a facilitator. I see myself as being in the thought experiment as well, and in the conversation, with a need to participate in the conversation that ensues as a result of the space that I've created literally or figuratively. So, the dialogues that come about through the instantiation of that alternate reality are dialogues that I take seriously and that I very much enjoy, and then inform my worldview which is constantly changing. And so, as I go forward as an experimental philosopher, I certainly hope to become better at what I do in terms of the instrumental aspects of it. But more importantly, I hope to become wiser and more nuanced in my thought as a result of the opportunity to be in all the situations and in all the dialogues that my work brings about.
I have found over time, that in spite of my best efforts to do something that is utterly original and different every single time, first of all, that I'm not at all original and that actually that's a good thing because it grounds what I do, but also that everything is interrelated and that projects often inform each other, whether I liked it or not, whether I think of it in that way or not. Or they can inform each other when considered together, and that ultimately, I find myself in an increasingly complex ecology of ideas that these concurrent and ongoing thought experiments can potentially inform each other and that they become part of some sort of a larger realm that I create. It is a realm, unlike the realms that I intentionally go out to make, which are internally consistent to the best of my ability, or in this case, a realm that is more of a Luna Park, that is entirely inconsistent, internally speaking, but in the inconsistency is of it, perhaps might be truer to the world in which we live, then the sterile spaces that I use as a starting point for these thought processes.
Ciaran: Thank you for your time Jonathon, it’s been a pleasure to hear about your work.
Jonathon: Thank you!
A new book documenting Jonathon's work, Thought Experiments The Art of Jonathon Keats, edited by Julie Decker and Alla Efimova, is out now from Hirmer Publishers.