Meditationes. A metaphysical laboratory
"Thinking Machines. Ramon Llull and the ars combinatoria", EPFL ArtLab, Lausanne, Switzerland
3 November 2018–10 March 2019 Exhibition website
Impressions from the show
We know from the letters of the Dutch scientist and mathematician Isaac Beeckman that Descartes was already looking for a general art that would solve all difficulties while he was serving as a soldier in the Thirty Years' War (around 1619). But it was not until 1637 that the philosopher made a derogatory reference in his Discours de la méthode to Llull's Ars magna, saying that it is "of avail [...] in speaking without judgement of things of which we are ignorant, rather than in the investigation of the unknown".
This harsh assessment by the father of modern philosophy has raised questions regarding the philosopher's possible interest in Llull's method, which Beeckman himself would have spoken to him about. There can be no doubt that, in attempting to emulate the mathematical method, the Cartesian method ushered in a new way of doing philosophy, which was alert to discoveries in physics. But it is no less true that Cartesian "doubt as a methodical negation", as the first step in a sure method for arriving at "clear and distinctive ideas", has a certain ascetic and mystical aura inasmuch as it proposes something akin to an "apophatic way", a way or method in which any attribute of the divine reality is systematically denied.
Llull's Ars magna was presented in its first formulation as the Ars compendiosa inveniendi veritatem. It is an "inventive art" because in contrast with Aristotelian logic of the syllogism, Llull's is a combinatory logic in which concepts and propositions are converted in accordance with complex algebraic notation. In the context of the discoveries made in Europe following the Renaissance, Llull's Art had little to offer if we take it as a method with solely epistemological pretensions. The changes in the scientific paradigm affected Llull's archaic thinking machine. But if, in the new context of the technologies and the world of the media, we turn our attention to the inventive nature of the Ars magna, the true origin of which lies in the "art of composing" (invenire) of the Occitanian troubadours, then our perspective is considerably enhanced. The analytical aspects of the Ars are soon rendered obsolete, while its synthetic aspects become more significant. It is the poetological dimension of the Ars that must be revived, since it alone is truly creative.
With his MEDITATIONES. A metaphysical laboratory (2016), David Link embraces this poetological project by recognising the creative potential of Llull's ars combinatoria. According to the artist's description, the installation consists of an animated digital book that continues to write itself: while the visitor reads the two open pages, the next ones are in the process of being generated and so on. The scene is set in a space that calls to mind the cloistered environment of a monk's cell. On a lectern in the corner of the room is a paper copy of the book produced by the digital activity of the software, which visitors can leaf through. The work contains an ongoing meditation on the central concepts of Llull's Ars magna: the Absolute Principles (figure A) and the Relative Principles (figure T), as well as the lists of virtues and vices. The flow of text is not repeated and continually creates new meanings, with the result that it drains the concepts of meaning and seems to abolish the signification of any language at any time. The software created is based on semantic networks, shown on a screen in the room, in which each word is linked to another in the same way as the concepts in figure A of Llull's Ars generalis ultima. In Link, we have an example of an expert in generative and computer-generated text systems (see his book Poesiemaschinen/ Maschinenpoesie [Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2007]) who does not ignore the poetic aspect and the capacity for invention using a few given elements. The tension between poetic freedom and mechanism is not alien to poetry itself, at least that poetry that seeks in the meter the explosive surprise of the verse. Who knows if, in the title Meditationes, Link is not thinking ironically of Descartes' Meditationes de prima philosophia by using the title of the French philosopher's metaphysical work for his installation?