Image from This is Tomorrow’s livestream of Le Grand K at the Science Museum
Ten-minute performative lecture for Le Grand K at London’s Science Museum. This second evening of performaces and artist experiments honoured the retiring Le Grand K at a Museum Late dedicated to Metrology. Written specifically for the event, Taken Lightly brings together eighteen differently-voiced perspectives on measurement, desire, and the idealised body/world, telling a non-linear narrative of the origin of the metre.
Tracing our perimeters in chalk on the concrete, or in pen, on a flying carpet cut from a thick roll of paper. We were little. Backs to the wall, flat hands holding a tideline above our heads, fiercely debating the fairness of shoes and the thickness of soles. Then we could attend to the world.
Somewhere in the modern family home, you would be likely to find a corner etched with pencil scratchings. From this data, repeatedly annotated with dates and a consistent selection of first names, it was clear that this was a record of household members – their rise and fall. Some extended annually while others gently compressed.
The ‘nuclear family’ plotted themselves as graph-points on paintwork, sketching a skyline of their own growth and latter recession. This carefully charted constellation indicates a desire to document, and to seek differentials. Members of the clan aspired to see themselves relative to one another, marking their own measure of belonging.
Imagine a world where nations are united, where energy flows across borders, and objects housed in little boxes traverse each hemisphere, speaking a universal language of length and height and width. Imagine a plug slipping snug into a socket it has never met, yet they fit so right, so tightly. Imagine a world where these things are made to be.
The world, the whole world, would finally be FOR ALL MEN FOR ALL TIME. They said, ‘man the measures, de-man the measures, unhand the measures! Hands are not enough now, nor feet, nor any part that modifies its size per person. No enthroned body will be our baseline. We want equality, a precision spreading freedom across an earth that speaks its own shape!’
Keeping reality stable is a hard task, accommodating only the sturdiest representatives. Proudly anchoring a new reality, the prototype was a fine talisman. A shining example, warding off debate and disarray. Nobody would dareto overthrow an officiated kilo – Le Grand K reigned supreme.
Materials were stable; weighings were ceremonial; guards were loyal. Yet carelessness slipped in somewhere. Our chaste cylindrical touchstone lost an entire eyelash-worth of weight. As the officiator of reality, Le K could not change by changing. No – the world itself became heavier in mourning... An unacceptable tragedy. When the earth is not enough, one must look further.
It is precise to say that a metre is the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of one two-hundred and ninety-nine million, seven hundred and ninety-two thousand, four-hundred and fifty-eighth of a second.
We once wanted a touchpoint you could touch.
But that was the precise problem.
Earthly things have other ideas about permanence.
Still, we cannot afford to stand still on constants.
There are clocks to set, drugs to dose, rockets to launch.
This is drama of the highest order – of the highest orderliness.
This is the Halley’s Comet of metrology. This is Odysseus shooting an arrow through the holes of a dozen axe heads. This is an ecstasy of metaphors, from metrologists on the brink of a blissful redefinition. This is a passion of belief.
This time, will it be enough?