Nicolas Bourriaud

Letter to Pierre Huyghe

Gravure map monde © Creative Commons

Nicolas Bourriaud sent this letter to Pierre Hyughe while the artist was on an expedition for several months. The historian and art critic questions the artist’s approach, addressing notions such as spare time and exploration in the light of a finite, well-known and already completely mapped world. How can the artist create knowledge on contemporary space without this knowledge being categorized in the existing disciplines?

Nicolas Bourriaud is an art historian, art critic, theorist and exhibition curator. Since 2016, he is the director of the future Montpellier Contemporain (MoCo).

A visual artist, Pierre Huyghe has long been associated with relational aesthetics, having explored the relationship between reality and fiction, the issue of memory, of expeditions and exhibitions. A recipient of many awards, and having been exhibited in the most prestigious international cultural institutions, he is now investigating the complexity of organic life, which is a way of departing from the control of authorship to create the conditions for the emergence of a self-evolving work.

Catalog text for the GNS (Global Navigation System) exhibition, Palais de Tokyo, Éditions du Cercle d’art, Paris, 2003 (pp. 118‒9)

Dear Pierre Huyghe,

You embarked on an expedition in early March for the purpose of gathering information and experimenting a mode of exploration slated only to come back in June. The idea was both to collect data and to invent the cognitive mode that would be used to parse it. The place you have chosen is neither truly rural, nor really urban: it is the East Coast of the United States; but this is of little importance, at least for the moment.

I believe that to understand your methodology and your ambition, it is necessary to take a few steps back, back to the time when you founded the “Association des Temps Libérés” (the Association for Liberated Time) for the Morale Maze exhibition that was organized by Liam Gillick and Philippe Parreno: “Isn’t a group exhibition also a new form of association?” “Liberated time,” as opposed to “social time,” questions the way in which “leisure time,” during which we are supposed to do nothing, is allocated. When we introduce ourselves, we state our professional identity; there would be many other possibilities, but they are yet to be clearly defined.

That being said, the key question you raised was: “Is my work similar in nature to the type of activities that an entertainment company offers? Is it possible to make a difference, to conceive of a sort of spare time that would be time for thinking and self-construction? ”

A few years later, your Expédition scintillante follows up on this key issue: is it possible to produce knowledge on the contemporary environment while keeping that knowledge free from the existing categorization of disciplines? Does the present division of knowledge induce limitations, boundaries beyond which other forms of knowledge would be possible?

When we return from our travels, we often claim to have “learned” something. But this empirical insight is to knowledge what leisure time is to work: mere remains. It seems to me that your expeditions aim to “free” the cognitive mode from its “professional” drivers.

To paraphrase your own words: “Is art a minor aspect of the knowledge industry or does it aim to produce something else?” An epistemologist, Bruno Latour, accompanied a team of scientists in the Amazon: botanists, pedologists, geologists, etc. Each of them analyzed the jungle with the assistance of their tools of choice, and Bruno Latour compiled a synthesis of their work, asking himself what we can ultimately know of a forest environment. But could it not go even further, beyond the mere combination of various disciplines? Art as a multiplier effect, or a divider.

"A Journey That Wasn't", 2005 © Pierre Huyghe

The very form of the expedition/journey/discovery was an important matter in the early Modern period. This form came into being a long time ago, based on a specific nomenclature in science that is now obsolete although no new cognitive format has introduced new ways of traveling—on land to the very least, mind you. In all cases, major navigators—Magellan, Drake, Cook, Bougainville, and the like—concretely produced new instruments of knowledge, simply because they did not know what they would find during their travels, because the holds of their ships were not full of projections.

The earth has now been fully mapped: an expedition is now a hollow endeavor, given that the instruments are already prepared. These are no longer voyages of exploration, but deploration—historical comparatives—, or competition—crossing the Atlantic faster than the others. And your challenge consists in imagining that art could contain the seeds of new exploratory paradigms.

So which artistic forms would correspond to exploration? How can knowledge be generated without resorting to the optical and intellectual tools of the Science Academy? You believe that art is to be found near the starting points rather than the ending points; in clearing the way rather than in engaging in skirmishes. I therefore look forward to reading your logbook once your ship returns to port on June 18.


This article first appeared in Stream 01 in 2008.