Despite all the difficulties: On Axel Straschnoy's La Figure de la Terre
I spent my childhood in the city of Tornio, on the island of Suensaari – or Swenzar, as it was spelled by Maupertuis. Already as a child we were told, at different occasions, the story of Maupertuis’s expedition to the Tornio river valley in Finnish Lapland. This history, once it slowly started to make sense to me, always appeared as an impossible story. At first, the scientific aspect was not in the forefront, instead, my amazement had to do with all the practical issues. How such a distant and small city became interesting in the eyes of French researchers? How did they travel? How did they manage to converse with the locals, and what did the locals understand of their project? I could not help thinking how exotic both the French and the Finns must have appeared to each other. Axel Straschnoy’s La Figure de la Terre takes its point of departure in the expedition lead by Maupertuis to the Tornio river valley (1736–37).
In my mind, the work, besides opening questions concerning the scientific world view, poses the question of encountering and amazement. The work sets the scene for Finnish historians of science, Osmo Pekonen and Johan Stén, to pose as French scientists in Tornio and around. This is being filmed by Argentinian born artist based in Helsinki. Eventually all this is presented to the audience in Buenos Aires. Here the spectator encounters a kaleidoscopic image, where one’s exact position on the earth seems to become less and less possible to trace. Whose vision are following? Who is “Maupertuis”, or “Tornio” and “earth”, for that matter?
The motivation for the story – weather the globe is perfectly round or slightly flattened – is of course, from the outset purely scientific question that at the time “interested everyone” (tout le monde), and yet as such had nothing to do with Tornio valley. Its location simply happened to offer ideal conditions for measuring. So even though it was an intriguing location for the theories debated in scientific societies and practice to meet, it was coincidental. The expedition itself is an example of mathematization of the world, the success story for natural sciences to take hold of the world, measuring it bit by bit.
Yet on second thought we can see how the location served a perfect stage for Maupertuis’s endeavors. We see how the scientist-hero solves the shape of the earth in nordic extreme conditions. From this perspective it becomes easy to see how the expedition is not only about the measurements – who possesses the “right” knowledge –, but also about the story: how this knowledge is staged to the public. While taking hold of the globe through his geodesic expedition, Maupertuis takes himself to the limelight of both science and societal life in Paris. (To the point that Voltaire uses the expedition in his Micromegas short story.)
Watching Straschnoy’s La Figure de la Terre, I cannot help thinking about re-enactment. As a practice, re-enactment has come to the sphere of contemporary art through history hobbyists. It has been a way to both activate the public and to reach another kind of understanding of historical events. I am thinking how re-enactment seems to hide a fantasy that today appears to be both forbidden and self-evident: through re-enactment we hope to gain new kind of knowledge of the original event. This assumption is based on a presupposition that by positioning oneself in the same place, clothes, conditions – whatever is your chosen props – you may understand more, or even, become someone else. And why not? A story told to you surely sounds different from a story in which you are asked to be in. By acting it out the narrative becomes more personal, it suddenly involves you, touches you in a very concrete way.
In La Figure de la Terre we follow a process where we see layered projections and representations of men and their obsessions. Here the original event of the re-enactment has been lost from the beginning – it itself was already staged for somebody, somewhere else. Meanwhile, life, history and fiction intertwine so that it becomes impossible to tell them apart.