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Upcoming conference: Simulations of the Unseen - In the History of Art, Science, and the Occult (May 11-13, 2023. ETH Zürich, Switzerland)

2023-03-15 15:15 | ESSWE admin (Administrator)


Organised by Chloë Sugden, Jonas Stähelin and Andreas Kilcher

The Simulations of the Unseen Conference will investigate the shifting meanings of “simulation” from an interdisciplinary perspective with contributions from the histories of art, religion, philosophy, science, and technology. The key theme the event explores is how unseen worlds are modelled and proliferated. The basic format consists of lectures by senior scholars, followed by question-and-answer sessions led by doctoral student respondents. Please visit the conference websites for lecture abstract and further information.

Registration is mandatory. Register before May 1, 2023.

After the registration deadline, all registered conference participants will receive information on the venues and the book of abstracts, including the full conference schedule, by e-mail.

If you have any question write us.

The conference is supported by Swiss National Science Foundation as part of the SNSF project "Scientification and Aestheticization of 'Esotericism' in the long 19th century".


Thursday, May 11

18:15 – 18:30 Welcome & Introduction by Andreas Kilcher

18:30 – 19:45 John Tresch (Warburg Institute): Mapping the Modern Cosmos, Seen and Unseen

19:45 Apéro

Friday, May 12

9:00 – 9:15 Welcome & Introduction by Chloë Sugden and Jonas Stähelin

9:15 – 10:45 Maria Avxentevskaya (MPIWG Berlin)
Simulation for Proof and Persuasion in the Experimental Practices of the Early Royal Society

10:45 – 11:15 Coffee break

11:15 – 12:45 Jeremy Stolow (Concordia University)
Thelma Moss, Aura Photographer

12:45 – 14:15 Lunch break

14:15 – 15:45 Philip Ursprung (ETH Zurich)
Simulations of the “Inner Design”: Franz Junghuhn’s Volcanoes in the mid 19th century

15:45 – 16:15 Coffee break

16:15 – 17:45 Judith Siegmund (Zurich University of the Arts)
Simulation as a General Form of Knowledge and its Relationship to Artistic Action Today

Saturday, May 13

9:00 – 10:30 Simone Natale (University of Turin)

Simulating Sociality in Machines

10:30 – 11:00 Coffee break

11:11 – 12:30 Isabel Millar (Newcastle University)

Post-Conceptual Art: A Pataphysical Object

12:30 – 13:30 Lunch break

13:30 – 15:00 Katrin Solhdju (University of Mons)

Simulation of Disease: Pathology, Delinquency, or an Act of Contestation?

15:00 – 15:15 Coffee break

15:15 – 16:45 Monika Dommann (University of Zurich)
Simulation in the TV Age. “Die Welt am Draht” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1973)

16:45 Closing remarks by Chloë Sugden, Jonas Stähelin and Andreas Kilcher


The meaning of both the term and the concept of “simulation” is bound up in an oscillating tension between depiction and deception. Contemporary scientific practice relies on models and simulations to stage realities beyond the limits of our ordinary senses. Scientific simulations enable the prediction of future events and the perception of their trajectories, such as viral spreads, economic upheavals and changes in climate. Yet simulations, spanning from simple graphic illustrations to highly complex computer-generated environments, should also be met with suspicion. Jean Baudrillard famously cautioned against the destabilizing effects that simulations can have on reality. In a world oversaturated by simulacra and mass spectacle, separating fact from fiction, the signs of the real from the real, is a precarious pursuit. Simulation, he writes, entails the generation of hyperreality: the production by models of a real without origin.

This conference is not, however, premised on Baudrillard’s diagnosis. Nor do we wish to praise simulations as instances of linear technical progress, or approach them as products of the digital era alone. Rather, we believe that the simulation, both theoretically and historically, is best understood as an ambivalent tool for revelation, yet also riddle and ruse. We seek to engage with, rather than eliminate or unmask this duality, expanding discussions to include the long nineteenth century, where simulation as a term took on manifold often conflicting meanings.

Two pivotal nineteenth-century scientific developments contributed to destabilizing the real. First, aided by various technical apparatuses, areas such as chemistry and physics envisioned an invisible world of ethereal undulations, electrical discharges, magnetic forces and subatomic particles. Second, sense physiology showed that human sense perception had little to do with the objective world, but was rather determined by internal physiological processes. These two factors contributed to a growing distrust in the accuracy of human vision, as mechanical recording and measurement devices that registered ever subtler spheres of reality were privileged. The reality to which these devices allowed access was increasingly mediated. This process raises a series of interesting epistemological questions regarding the problem of simulation: How are hypotheses derived from a plurality of technically produced images, representing sections of the world invisible to the human eye? Crucially, how are facts distinguished from artifacts in the absence of a visible referent? How does one translate measurable facts, which are at the same time technical artifacts, into scientific fictions or robust theories?

The epistemic uncertainties arising from this multiplication of the invisible become strikingly apparent when one considers the emergence of occultism that ran parallel to this process. While many contemporaries viewed science’s venture into the unseen with despair, occultists reveled in the new possibilities that increasingly simulated worlds invited. Accessing the invisible scientifically held the promise that invisible objects which had hitherto belonged to a speculative, transcendental beyond could now be naturalized and made visible. They could be simulated as “occult knowledge” with the newly acquired methods and techniques of science.

Fin de siècle discourses on hypnosis reveal another instance in which the epistemological implications of simulations were investigated. Known as the “simulation problem,” psychologists and physicians working with hypnosis struggled to determine whether the hypnotic state could be separated from a simulated one. Psychologists questioned whether a subject could convincingly feign hypnosis, deceiving even the most experienced hypnotists. Although generally acknowledged in treatises on hypnotism of the period, the emergence and consequences of this problem were mostly downplayed, as the matter exposed the limits of the male “medical gaze,” threatening psychology’s claim to scientific objectivity.

Investigations into the simulation of hidden phenomena also interweave with art history. Art objects have historically interacted with occult paradigms to generate productive ambivalences and enchantments. Occultism has cultivated an experimental epistemic uncertainty in art – a visual vocabulary of claimed occult knowledge has continued to circulate through certain image-objects. Modern artists and esotericists have experimented with various aesthetic approaches, attempting to positivize the occult cosmologies otherwise locked in one’s mind. Occult paradigms participated in the development of art movements of the fin de siècle, for example, Belgian symbolist painting. Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), Jean Delville (1867-1953), and Félicen Rops (1833-1898) sought to aestheticize hidden realms of experience through mystical imagery replete with arcane iconography. They rejected realism in painting, portraying a syncretic, intuitive inner life. Their works transcend the mundane to depict higher spiritual realities and incite visionary states in viewers. Aligning with the epistemological dilemmas that scientists face, artist-esotericists seek to simulate and thus enact the experience of occult illumination.

As this sweeping history reveals, the topic of simulation traverses historical subdisciplines, foregoing clear-cut boundaries between science and non-science. Scientists, artists, and occultists alike possess relevant knowledge of the ambiguity, treachery and duplicity involved in simulation; of the devices and deceptions involved in sensitive visual description. Simulations lie between the visible and the invisible, representation and the irrepresentable, idea and image, form and matter. They can be sites of illuminating microcosmic and macrocosmic visualisation, yet also beguilement, error and betrayal, which we look forward to exploring through the Simulations of the Unseen conference.

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