Axel Braun - Catalog text by Dr. Oliver Parodi


Technology … The first question is: What kind of technology? And what do we mean by “technology” anyway? In this catalogue we would like to present an artistic view of hydro(power) facilities, mainly in association with large dams. A look at the various photographs might create the impression that it is all about artefacts, i.e. technology as embodied in buildings. But this would be rather a superficial and indeed anachronistic way of looking at it. Nowadays, even if we do not necessarily want to sound out the very essence of technology (in Heidegger’s sense of the word) [1], we nevertheless have a desire to say something essential about it, and in our endeavour to do so we cannot help looking somewhat further afield and understanding technology at least in terms of eco-socio-technical systems. [2] [3]


In the light of our differentiated knowledge systems, we can see a vast range of connections between hydropower plants and the wider context, in a variety of different ways. First of all, there are purely technical connections: Hydropower plants form part of fragile power grids in which they communicate with other power stations. If a large plant breaks down completely during a peak period, then this may jeopardise the electric power supply of an entire region. Secondly, there are connections with the history of technology: Water engineering was one of the first major technologies and is seen as a crystallised germ of the world’s early advanced civilisations. [4] There is also the dimension of cultural history: Technology – and this often includes buildings – reflect cultural values and world views, of which many are several centuries old. Moreover, technology also contains a society’s institutionalised answers to questions about the position of man within the universe and about the right way of dealing with nature. [5] Next, there are legal and social questions: What are the legal provisions for setting up and operating a technical facility? Who benefits from such a facility and who suffers? Were people expelled or otherwise aggrieved by the construction of a reservoir? Things that create welfare and prosperity in Germany may cause considerable suffering elsewhere in the world. And of course there are also environmental, economic, health and ethical aspects – the list can be continued indefinitely. When we connect all these considerations, then the result is a rather unmanageable overall picture – complex, at best. But what can we learn from this overall picture of technology in general and from the connections of hydropower plants in particular? First of all, it should keep us from jumping to hasty conclusions and from being judgemental. Hydropower is … the engineer, the operator, the consumer, the conservationist, the cause, or the culprit. Moreover, depending on our level of understanding, it provides us with an opportunity to develop and implement better technical options and in many ways more appropriate ones and thus to ensure that technology becomes more humane. And if we really took our many different insights seriously, then decisions about (new) technologies would be much more difficult. Creating and interpreting the overall picture would in fact lead to something that goes far beyond any technical execution that may be known to us today but which is all the more urgent: we would actually slow down. Before coming to a decision we would spend a good deal of time pondering, reasoning, weighing the pros and cons, creating connections, communicating and, at best, endeavouring to gain in-depth “insights and understanding” [6]. Now any hope that we might slow down may perhaps sound cynical when we look at a global development that is hurtling towards human misery and which is urgently in need of a U-turn. Nevertheless, even if we cannot entirely escape this classically tragic theme of a wicked web which is our own fault, we should at least take the time to take a good look at this catalogue, from cover to cover. And – this is my plea – we should take the time to relate the various pictures to one another and let the freshwater snail (Illus. 40 [in the catalog]) creep up the Vajont Valley (Illus. 30 [in the catalog]), across the illuminated Koepchen Power Plant (Illus. 04 [in the catalog]) and up onto the 18th floor of the high-rise City Hochhaus in Leipzig (Illus. 27 [in the catalog]), the headquarters of the European Energy Exchange. It would be great if we could take the time to do this before we embark on anything new again.


But let’s get back to technology. Technology has long been part of our everyday life, surrounding us, nourishing us and underpinning our entire existence – often without being
noticed. We live in a technotop [7] world, a habitat that is largely technical and which has been modified by technology. [8] In particular, our electricity and water supplies are classic infrastructures – in several senses. They form the technical basis for numerous forms of use, delivering the very life blood of our contemporary industrial and knowledge society, often running covertly beneath the surface, having seeped deeply into our cultural self-image over a period of centuries. Being ‘infra’ and thus fundamental, obvious and normal, technology also involves risks, particularly when technology itself is no longer within our field of vision and when it eludes our perception. Itcan be due to its artefact nature that it appears physically hidden, or it may be that they are forgotten as man-made or long-established works in a society based on the division on labour. In the first instance, we have lost sight of the toil, the achievements and the hazards of underlying technology.
What is at stake is primarily the actual technology itself and therefore the smooth continuation of everyday life, of public order and perhaps also our human lives. [9] If it is the second instance, then it is fundamental or essential in character. As a result, technology would become inaccessible to us, becomes a thing of legend, and depending on perspective, as a technocratic system, Chimaera or redeemer – but in any case reappears later as legacy beyond the scope of humans. Seeing that there is no alternative to technology, it is ultimately the human race that is at stake – or perhaps at least our democratic societies.


To ensure that technology does not fall prey to this ‘infra’ and that it is continually brought to mind, we need to have engineering skills that are preventative and circumspect. At the same time, we also need a sensitive approach to propagating an understanding through ethics, through a philosophy of technology and indeed through art. The individualism and sensitivity of art make it continually open to new perspectives on technology that should irritate us, cause stirrings within us and pull us out of complacency. Art gives us an opportunity to rethink and to think outside the box. Moreover, by depicting and exhibiting technology, art provides technology with a (secondary) public that will initiate a debate and the formation of views and which will create space for democratic decisions. Its power of penetration and depiction helps us make informed decisions which technology we want to have in our environment and which technology we want to avoid.
Technology must be cruel in order to assert itself. Although this slogan may seem strange to us today, its exaggerated wording does express a strong theme within a world view that has accompanied technology since antiquity. It is about technology as a counter-concept and as the exact opposite of nature. It is the struggle of civilisation against the wilderness and barbarism, the tangible triumph of order over chaos – using all the available resources. Incidentally, this one-sided view has not always been the sole prerogative of engineers. [10] And the wording “must be cruel” somehow gives the impression that it was formulated with some reluctance, as if to say: This is how things are, and there is no choice, although it would be good if things were different. Obviously, the way we handle our environment through different technologies partly depends on feasibility, on our state of knowledge, on our technical capabilities and on the stage of our development. Fundamentally, however, it also depends on our attitude to the environment, to those around us and to future generations. How do we see ourselves, and how do we relate to our environment? Do we see ourselves as part of a whole, as the crown of creation, as creatures with deficits or as being outside of nature? The answers to these questions will determine the features and shape of technology. When we take a close look, we can see that this is also reflected in the construction of hydropower stations.


Today water engineering needs to be smart, gentle, close to nature, eco-friendly – and sustainable. Much of the talk about technology, however, turns out to be empty words, and technology fails to meet the lofty demands expressed in those words. When we try to look into the reasons, we find quite a few. They range from deliberate and intentional deception through a changing framework of economic conditions, energy policies and environmental conditions to misconceptions, technical shortcomings and the unpredictable. The latter is of course beyond anyone’s control.
The following two examples should illustrate the discrepancy between rhetoric and environmental reality. Firstly, fish ladders: to enable certain kinds of fish to continue their migration along streams and rivers, despite dams, fish ladders have been and are still being installed, either at the construction stage or as later additions. Unfortunately many of these fish ladders either do not work at all or they only work to a limited extent. The majority of fish refuse to use them as they proceed upstream. Fish that migrate downstream, on the other hand, continue to die in large numbers in the turbines or in the interception systems that precede those turbines. Modern fish ladders are mainly a matter of rhetoric and are out of synch with environmental reality.
Secondly, hydropower from dams is often depicted as a perfectly climate-friendly form of energy [11]. But this is not always the case. Especially in warmer areas and in waters that are rich in nutrients, at reservoirs gases can be released and may impact the climate to a greater extent than the equivalent production of electric power from a conventional coal-fired power plant.
Both examples concern highly specific issues of hydropower plants, and in fact decisive ones, as they are about questions of climate protection and eco-compatibility. They show that, even with the consequences and the side effects of technology, the devil is often in the detail. Specific issues of this kind become weighty when we look at large-scale industrial installations such as hydropower plants because they have a substantial impact on existing systems. The two examples also illustrate the high level of complexity in the planning and use of hydropower plants.
Planners in the 1920s did not have to bother about climate protection in the construction of dams – and even less about fish ladders, citizens’ initiatives and new directions in energy policy. Today, however, complexities are increasing. In one way, this is a problem, but from an ethical point of view, it is also a good thing. After all, rising complexities are evidence of widening horizons of both our understanding and our morality. We know more and we are more aware.
What is more, increasing complexities are of course the first conscious step towards creating connections in a fragmented world that is drifting apart. The (rational) maximum of these expanding horizons and these endeavours towards coherence can currently be found in the vision and sincere demand for sustainable development.


With the main emphasis on justice and respect for the needs of future generations, via sustainability we can see the widening of our visible horizon of knowledgeand the moral dimension. As a result, this high level of complexity sometimes makes it virtually impossible to arrive at assessments and decisions that will meet the needs of sustainability. And it also means at times that our lofty quest for “sustainability” becomes totally meaningless, as everything and nothing can be described as “sustainable”.
Can we say, in the meantime, that a hydropower plant might actually be helpful towards a sustainable development? At least there is nothing that speaks against it as such. In real terms, however, the question can only be decided from case to case, through an accurate and painstaking analysis of the current situation, based on a sophisticated sustainability concept – and even then it can only be provisional.
Nevertheless, the very thing that drives planners and operators to the edge of insanity and which presents scientists and governments with almost unsolvable challenges is what holds the key to a future which is (and will continue to be) worth living. As I see it, it would therefore be fatal to drop the demand for sustainability just because it cannot be fulfilled in every detail just yet. Rather, we should be aware of the magnitude and scope of this task. If we were to realise a sustainable way of life, it would be nothing short of a cultural revolution and indeed a new milestone in the history of mankind. This might be a great relief – also for planners and operators. After all, it is important to try out, embrace and communicate sustainability as an intellectual route and as a lifestyle and of course also quite simply to practise it.
With all our reflections, the connections we create, our planning and our weighing of pros and cons, we must not forget to devote ourselves to art. Art helps us understand technology as a human expression in general and indeed an expression of our flawed humanity. Moreover, its lack of utilitarianism, its critique, individualism, sensuality, beauty and joy provide us with some highly essential elements so that we can accommodate ourselves within our natural structures – ecologically, socio-culturally and also technically – in a way that makes life worth living.

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1 – Cf. Heidegger, Martin: Die Technik und die Kehre. Pfullingen 1962
2 – Cf. Ropohl, Günter: Allgemeine Technologie. Eine Systemtheorie der Technik. Munich 1999.
3 – Cf. Lenk, Hans & Maring, Matthias: Natur – Umwelt – Ethik. Münster 2003
4 – In fact, Karl August Wittfogel started to paint the picture of a “hydraulic society” as early as the 1930s. (See Wittfogel, Karl August: Die orientalische Despotie. Eine vergleichende Untersuchung totaler Macht. Cologne 1962)
5 – Cf. Parodi, Oliver: Technik am Fluss. Philosophische und kulturwissenschaftliche Betrachtungen zum Wasserbau als kulturelle Unternehmung. Munich 2008.
6 – Cf. Gadamer, Hans-Georg: Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik. Tübingen 1960
7 – Cf. Erlach, Klaus: Das Technotop. Die technologische Konstruktion der Wirklichkeit. Münster 2000
8 – This fact underlines the urgent need to be ambitious in the protection of “nature”. Yet it also unmasks the naivety of such ambitions and an attitude that is often romantically backward-looking.
9 – Today‘s true heroes of everyday life should therefore be the masses of engineers and maintenance teams that are keeping our infrastructures running. It would be appropriate and indeed far from excessive to bestow on them the Nobel Peace Prize or a human rights award.
10 – “Technology must be cruel in order to assert itself. In many cases, however, it has the power to alleviate and to shield piety from the purity of nature.” 1928 in the (party) paper Vorwärts, author not known (see also Illus. 10 [in the catalog])
11 – We normally talk about “power generation” or the “production of electricity”. However, this phraseology indicates a rather anthropocentric viewpoint that is remote from nature. From a natural, physical perspective, the energy which already occurs in nature is simply transformed into a form of energy that is of benefit to humans. However, man is actually quite incapable of “generating” energy.

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Dr. Oliver Parodi (KIT – Karlsruhe Institute of Technology)
Published in the exhibition catalog
"Axel Braun – Technology must be cruel in order to assert itself"
p. 6-11
Editor: RWE Stiftung, Essen, 2012