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“Complex problems cannot be solved within the limits of a single field.”

Humboldt-Universität’s Excellence Cluster “Image Knowledge Gestaltung: An Interdisciplinary Laboratory” is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

Aug 04, 2017

Hands-on: The Cluster’s focus is on the central role of images for acquiring, modeling, communicating, and documenting knowledge.

Hands-on: The Cluster’s focus is on the central role of images for acquiring, modeling, communicating, and documenting knowledge.
Image Credit: Matthias Heyde

From a laboratory setting to a seminar room, from a chemical formula to a theoretical construct – science is Gestaltung. At Humboldt-Universität’s Cluster of Excellence Image Knowledge Gestaltung, scolars and scientists have been examining images, objects, and knowledge as processes of Gestaltung over the past five years. An interview with Horst Bredekamp and Wolfgang Schäffner, spokesmen for this Cluster of Excellence.

Professor Bredekamp, looking back on five years of the Excellence Cluster “Image Knowledge Gestaltung” – which project did you find particularly fascinating?

Bredekamp: In an earlier project we had already begun to examine the issue of image activity, in other words, the self-activity of cultural products – and images in particular. We don’t see images as mere likenesses that reflect something that already exists elsewhere. We see them rather as co-producers of what they depict. We thus analyze and clarify the “pseudo-aliveness” of the images – their self-activity – as it occurs in the areas of politics, military, terror, medicine, the sciences and, of course, also in the humanities. The world and models are not represented in images; the images come towards us as though they have an aliveness of their own.

What does this mean for the concept of culture?

Bredekamp: This amounts to a far-reaching redefining of culture, which the world defines as “a product of our – only limited – perception.” Our starting point was co-developed by the late philosopher John Michael Krois. It’s a matter of recognizing that we perceive the world like an echo sounder or an “affordance.” We perceive it in interplay between brain, body, gestures, actions, and Gestaltungen and what then comes towards us and manifests itself. Biology’s anthropologically and biologically structured body image and the philosophy of the “extended mind” come together here. There is a strong link especially to the field of biology here. We believe that we have experimentally demonstrated, together with the area of psychology, the image active, and body schematic character of what comes toward us. This is a truly important discovery.

Mr. Schäffner, a lot of emphasis is put on interdisciplinarity in this Cluster. Which disciplines were especially important to you as a scholar of the humanities and the media?

Schäffner: My focus is primarily on “space as material structures” and on architectures. Collaboration between architects, designers who are guided by the Gestalt principles, and materials researchers with the fields of physics and biology is crucial here. As a common research object we have discovered structures that allow for fresh observation and thought on the questions of architecture and materials. This has taken my work – as an historian and theorist – directly to the laboratory. And this is a long-held dream of mine since it changes the way of thinking – both from a liberal arts and from a scientific perspective. It leads to a new take on the humanities and materials sciences, which comprise a multitude of scholarly disciplines. We will blaze this trail with the materials scientist Peter Fratzl, who also serves as our third spokesperson. Precisely this is the objective of the Clusters.

Why is interdisciplinary cooperation so important?

Schäffner: Complex problems cannot be solved within the limits of a single field. A university is necessarily organized on the basis of disciplines that can – and must – be rather specialized. However, it doesn’t really offer common rooms where all the diverse expertise can pooled for a collaborative effort. We have over 40 disciplines in our Cluster that work together very closely. Any sense of mutual foreignness has long since dissipated because scientists here work on questions that are central for all of them.

Bredekamp: It is especially our colleagues from the English-speaking world who are surprised, time and again, at the matter-of-factness with which we collaborate in the lab. This is, I think, the most important result. The Excellence Cluster advocates an interdisciplinary idea of “university” in the broadest sense because this idea is increasing beset by obstacles – or even under attack. Our magic formula is aiming not for a reduction of specialist knowledge but rather for its deepening to guarantee teamwork.

What, concretely, has this engendered?

Bredekamp: We succeeded in establishing cross-departmental and even cross-cultural trust. And this engendered something that has changed the concept of culture – as it has existed since antiquity – altogether. The concept of dead matter as passive and organic matter as active has become a problem for us. And, in the most refreshing way for me, Leibnitz has made a powerful comeback as the avant-garde, insofar as it is he who recognized a force of inherent activity in all spheres of Gestaltung – one that reaches all the way into the seemingly inorganic world.

Why is Gestaltung so important?

Schäffner: The challenge was to establish Gestaltung as an essential component of interdisciplinary basic research. What does that mean? We examine, for example, processes such as cutting, folding or filtering, which can be viewed as a Bauhaus-like ensemble of practices. But they are presently being completely reinvented. This applies to cutting in surgery, for example. Here, physical and virtual procedures are superimposed and the connection between theoretical, historical, and Gestalt-related matters becomes indispensable for success.

Excellence Clusters within the Excellence Initiative

What does your research mean for the day-to-day work of a surgeon?

Schäffner: By incorporating virtual technologies, the field of surgery is completely reinventing itself right now. The scalpel-and-hand scenario is changing dramatically as the operating field is increasingly being superimposed by virtual image guidance; the surgeon navigates an image while actually cutting a physical body. This constellation opens up whole new possibilities for the relationship between “image” and “materiality of the body.” Developing these questions together with disciplines that don’t normally play a part in an operating suite is an important piece of input that our Cluster offers the field of surgery. And we are able to do these things at Charité, the very location where a significant chapter of surgical history was written.

Since 2016, this Cluster has been part of the Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik. What’s the idea behind this fusion?

Bredekamp: There’s a long run up to this merger, which began in 2000 with the exhibition Theatrum Naturae et Artis at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. I designed the exhibition along with the mathematician Jochen Brüning. The Helmholtz Center has always been an institution that co-supervises the collections. And it is also where the precursor to the Cluster was domiciled. It was thus only logical that a union was entered into.

This interview was conducted by Ljiljana Nikolic; it was initially printed in HUMBOLDT, the Humboldt-Universität newspaper, in June 2017.

Further Information

The Excellence Cluster Bild Wissen Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Humboldt-Universität is an alliance of scholars from the humanities, the natural and technical sciences, medicine and unique for basic research also from the Gestaltung disciplines of design and architecture. More than 40 different disciplines come together here to explore the fundamental Gestaltung processes of the sciences.

Since 2012, over 30 research projects have been carried out; since 2014, three new professorships have been filled. Forty-five principal investigators and over 100 members are involved on a professorial level. Over 180 doctoral students and post docs are researching and working on their qualifying papers as part of these projects. About 170 student assistants got a chance to gather first experiences with interdisciplinary research.

Horst Bredekamp is a professor emeritus for Art History at Humboldt-Universität and has been a member of the Humboldt Forum’s founding directorate since October 2015. Wolfgang Schäffner is a tenured historian for the History of Civilization and Knowledge at Humboldt-Universität as well as Director of the Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturgeschichte. The Cluster’s leadership trio is completed by Peter Fratzl, a physicist and Director of Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces (Golm), who has been serving as the third spokesperson since 2016.