The World Explained

Christel Vesters

Reviews / 27.06.2012

Erick Beltrán, The World Explained, 2008–2011, encyclopaedia and research project. Installation view, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam. Courtesy the artist and Tropenmuseum

Who were the first scientists? What is an android? How does plankton move? How does a lightning rod function? These are just a couple of examples from the long list of questions with which artist Erick Beltrán took to the streets of Amsterdam to lay the groundwork for the third edition of his ambitious project The World Explained.1 Accompanied by a group of young anthropologists Beltrán set out to uncover the cultural patterns that determine the decisions and actions of the average Amsterdam citizen. Armed with a recording device and a questionnaire of over 800 questions, he and his team interviewed people on a wide array of topics covering areas as diverse as biogenetics, economics, physics, history and politics. Other questions required less specialised knowledge and could not be answered in a straightforward manner; in fact, they were the kind of questions to which all answers are equally valid and true, like: what determines our preferences? When do we speak of freedom? How are memories stored in the brain? Or: what is a feeling?

The multi-layered and long-term project The World Explained consists of three different stages: interviewing and collecting ‘testimonies and observations’; categorising these materials and editing them into encyclopaedia entries, which are then illustrated, designed and printed in a live printing workshop; and, in the final stage of the project, detecting connections or parallels between the different entries to uncover the cultural patterns that lie underneath. Ultimately The World Explained results in a publication that, as its subtitle indicates, can be read as an ‘INDEX OF PEOPLE’S CURRENT UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD’.

Personal Theories

As Beltrán explains in the manual introducing the project, the objective of this anthropological-like pursuit is not so much to find right answers, or absolute truths, but rather to invite people to reveal their ‘personal theories’ with which they explain the surrounding world. According to Beltrán, in order to make sense of the context we live in, we navigate three different areas of knowledge: learnt knowledge, experience and the unknown. ‘Personal theories emerge when we, confronted with a situation we cannot immediately explain, start making our own connections. We tie various reference points together in order to satisfy our need for things to make sense… People don’t reveal their personal theories easily, but they can be provoked by asking them a set of questions that open up a field of tensions’.2

The concept of personal theories is the foundation of the intricate epistemological system that frames The World Explained. Beltrán uses his theory, which not only explains the production of everyday knowledge but also how personal interpretations make up social spheres and the belief systems of a social group, to establish the importance of ‘unspecialised knowledge’. Using diagrams, epistemic knots and visualisations of thought in intersecting lines of thought and movements, Beltrán’s assumptions mirror much of Gilles Deleuze’s perspective on the nature of thinking – a system of differential relations that creates actual spaces, times and sensations, never absolute, always changing and defined through our confrontation with reality. Like Deleuze, Beltrán’s theory abandons the idea of absolute knowledge; instead, it embraces the elements of chance and unpredictability.

Erick Beltrán, El mundo explicado, 2008–2011, encyclopaedia and research project. Installation view, MACBA's Study Centre, Barcelona. Courtesy the artist

The World Explained developed and grew over time. After realising an edition of the encyclopaedia in São Paulo in 2008 and in Barcelona in 2009, in December of 2011 the first results of the Amsterdam volume were presented to the public at the Tropenmuseum, commissioner of the project. Introducing the work in the context of a museum like Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, one of Europe’s leading ethnographic museums – with permanent and temporary exhibitions dedicated to the display of (art) objects, photographs, music and film from non-Western cultures, in particular from former Dutch colonies – invariably puts the focus on how we study and produce knowledge about the other and how we represent this knowledge. Although adopting a methodology similar to traditional anthropological field research, The World Explained adds an interesting twist to the discussion by turning our gaze inwards.

The exhibition took the form of an information centre and live printing workshop. On the back wall of the space a sequence of diagrams, info-graphics and texts illustrated Beltrán’s theory on unspecialised knowledge and the successive steps taken to produce the Amsterdam volume of the encyclopaedia. As such the diagrams and info graphics literally framed the activities taking place in the exhibition space: in one corner, refurnished as an office space, the team continued their interviews, whilst the other side was used as a printing room, with stacks of A3 paper and a mound of left-over wrapping material as silent witnesses of the ongoing production progress. To Beltrán, this live and on-site production of a body of knowledge – to which everyone can contribute – makes up the essence of The World Explained: ‘The real project is the editing process, and making this process transparent. We invite people to contribute their theories, regardless of their expertise or education, but we also show them how knowledge is produced and we make them aware that it is possible to change its sources’.3

The infinite scope – and potential – of the encyclopaedia is further visualised through the growing number of pages distributed on a long table stretching out in the middle of the space, free for everyone to pick up and bind into their own encyclopaedia. ‘Knowledge is power’ to paraphrase Foucault once more.

Microhistorical Encyclopaedia

Although Beltrán appropriated the most authoritative and canonical format in which information is collected and disseminated,4 the encyclopaedia produced by Beltrán and his team does not resemble an official canon of objective data or absolute knowledge. As its cover reads, the volume is a ‘MICROHISTORICAL ENCYCLOPAEDIA, CONTAINING: A COLLECTION OF PRECISE DESCRIPTIONS. WITH DETAILED PICTURES AND DIAGRAMS OF THE WORLD IN ALL ITS FACETS. ALL BASED ON AN UNSPECIALISED VIEW ON EVERY AREA OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE’. By adopting the ‘microhistorical’ perspective, the research and the encyclopaedia resist grand narratives and global pictures; rather its points of departure are the small events and personal stories and experiences of a time and place.

The pages in the encyclopaedia contain different texts, each based on a personal theory and categorised using a constellation of topics as disparate as ‘Future / Machine / Perfection’, ‘Brain / Database / Ancestor’, or ‘Phase / Affinity / Shades’. Many of the explanations seem to escape any kind of linear, scientific logic, but in someone’s private world they must make sense. However, the encyclopaedia is more than just a collection of separate, subjective views on the world. In the last phase of the project, another discursive layer is added to the texts, indicating the cultural patterns that may be detected through a close reading of the personal theories. By rearranging and highlighting different passages from the personal theories, adding typographic elements like circular forms, arrows and lines, Beltrán hints towards larger themes that may define the social reality of Amsterdam. In the Dutch volume more abstract matters like the notion of evil, the value placed on emotional lives or the balance between inner and outer lives – and which of those two determines our true selves – underlies the various points of view given in response to Beltrán’s questions.

Erick Beltrán, The World Explained, 2008–2011, encyclopaedia and research project. Installation view, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam. Courtesy the artist and Tropenmuseum

This summer all three volumes of the Encyclopaedia – São Paulo, Barcelona and Amsterdam – will be gathered in one publication. This collection presents the artist with the unique possibilities to compare the three different cities in terms of the cultural patterns discovered. In an additional English chapter, various connections and relations are suggested without any concrete (objective or scientific) conclusions being drawn. But some tentative conclusions point towards comparable themes: in both São Paulo and Amsterdam people talked about the mind as a computer, while in Amsterdam and Barcelona many theories indicated a sense of a ‘split subject’, and – maybe less surprisingly – in all three cities the topic of global economies echoes more then once.

Just as The World Explained sets out to uncover and document a portrait of the local Amsterdam community via their current understanding of the world, the project itself may also be understood as a product of its own zeitgeist. Beltrán’s interest in unspecialised knowledge and his efforts to establish their significance vis-à-vis formal and official places of knowledge production corresponds with the current interest in other epistemologies, be they represented via the figure of the amateur, indigenous or ‘primitive’ knowledge or other forms that exist outside of the dominant order of Western, scientific knowledge production.

However, while the majority of these debates departs from dualist, if not oppositional positions and the amateur is considered as undermining the primary position of the professional, The World Explained does not privilege one over the other. In fact, it is not Beltrán’s aim to establish a ‘counter-academy’, or to critique or question the hegemonic order of logocentric knowledge production. Rather, the project claims and establishes a legitimate ground for another, complementary form of knowledge – that of everyday life.

Erick Beltrán, The World Explained, 2008–2011, encyclopaedia and research project. Installation view, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam. Courtesy the artist

  1. The first edition of the project, O Mundo Explicado, took place in São Paulo in 2008, on the occasion of the 28th Bienal de São Paulo. The second edition, El Mundo Explicado, was organised in Barcelona in 2009, on the invitation of MACBA as part of the exhibition ‘The Malady of Writing’

  2. Erick Beltrán, from the manual for The World Explained: Microhistorical Encyclopaedia, pp.2–7

  3. Interview with the artist, 12 April 2012

  4. The design of the encyclopaedia is based on Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728), generally considered to be the first English encyclopaedia