Living systems

  • Publish On 11 January 2017
  • Philippe Chiambaretta
  • 12 minutes

New relationships to nature have been fostered by the increasing awareness of our entry in the era of the Anthropocene and as a result the figure of biological life has largely become an obsessive metaphor. For artists, it is less a form of aesthetical inspiration than an opportunity to reconsider their work by circumventing the separations and simplifications of modern culture. Pierre Huyghe talks to Stream about his interest for the complexity of biological life, and the manner in which he is trying to incorporate it in his work over time, as well as his concepts of indifference, non-destination and under-determination. Introducing biological life in an oeuvre comes down to accepting a loss of control, creating a spectrum of undefined possibilities, and bringing about areas of “non-knowledge” and speculative conditions in the life forms.

Pierre Huygue is a French artist. A recipient of many awards, and having been exhibited in the most prestigious international cultural institutions, his work investigates the complexity of organic life in order to create the conditions for the emergence of a self-evolving work.

Interview with Éric Troncyadvises large companies on their strategy, organization and management culture. He is the co-founder of he consulting firm Quartier Libre, and Philippe Chiambaretta, graduated from the École des Ponts et Chaussées of Paris and MIT in Boston. He is the founder and director of PCA-STREAM.

Éric Troncy : Pierre, I suggest that Philippe starts by touching on the concerns he has which gave him the idea of speaking with you after seeing your exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I know you both, and I believe that you share some common areas of interest in your respective fields.

Philippe Chiambaretta : For this third edition of Stream, we began with a simple observation: humanity is becoming urban. This urban explosion is a new phenomenon given its unprecedented proportions correlated to an exponential demographic growth: we will be nine billion humans and we know full well that this urbanization will draw on the planet’s resources far beyond what it is capable of sustaining. This is a known fact since 1972—with the Meadows report—but it is now evident to all of us. Cities will become the place where the problem will be concentrated and where the solution will have to be found. As urban planners / architects, it is a consideration which we must already take into account: we must understand the fundamental elements of this phenomenon which is deeply transforming our living conditions, the tools we use to represent the world, to design, to model, and finally the changing of practices, and how all this affects our way of living in the world.

Everyone says that we are living a profound paradigm shift—I find this rather interesting and exciting. There are those who believe that this is a disaster and those who want to seize the opportunity to foster the rise of a new era. A certain number of phenomena have been identified and when I visited your exhibition at the Pompidou, I found some fairly unbelievable congruities with these minute discoveries, and some of these intuitions strongly resonate with what I have seen or read of your work.

"Streamside day", A score, 2003 © Pierre Huyghe

Simplifying for the sake of transmission leads to a loss of accuracy, precision, and complexity. Complexity is made of opposites which are not expelled to make it possible to generate something else. An external body. Simplification is unbearable. As an artist, “relational aesthetics” or the “artist who makes movies” are simplistic classifications which try to categorize ways of doing things. At the moment of The Host and the Cloud, to keep myself separate from this, I was trying to cast out these models of thought—the mad master of my position as an exhibit—including those that I had myself created, in part and with others, and which had become static. Something had to start flowing into the contingent; to start being porous, accepting one’s opposites, overcoming one’s condition by leaving a series of operations to self-generate. Let us be clear on something: it isn’t only a self-generating system which becomes an object, because that has been happening for a few years in architecture for example: we make models of ecosystems, the way clouds move, birds fly in flocks; a system of flows. And of course, modeling ends up becoming a design tool used to produce buildings.

Philippe Chiambaretta : Can you clarify the notion of destination?

Pierre Huyghe : There are things which are in themselves indifferent. I take interest in what grows indifferently from the necessary hysteric outlook. An art object is a hysteric object—it needs sight to exist, and that moment is the exhibition. That is why I have worked on this ritual, of its dynamic process between subject and object. I am trying to keep away from the ordinary word “exhibition” and to turn it upside down, for instance by exhibiting someone to something. An exhibition is a ritual of separation, the format we make do with. Again, it has too much destination, too much intention. I am referring more to the coming into sight of things which are indifferent to the “for us,” with moments where they exist, shift away from our sight, and moments of emergence. To come back to biological life for instance, Adolf Portman talks about self-presentation and appearance without any recipient in the animal world. I don’t know how that happens, where this suddenly falls into the field of architecture, with its political, economic, and social issues—at that level, I am relatively more sheltered. For instance, the reason why all urban parks are so predictably boring in their programming is that they are “intended for” an average. I thought that the problem was coming from the increasingly large public, but the problem is this destination: what the public should think and have.  

Philippe Chiambaretta : I find that fascinating and those are also my permanent concerns these days: to no longer be in a design, a finished and therefore iconic form. These days, a whole system leads up to that—that is what we were describing in Stream 1, how the system of material economy leads to an iconic and hysteric production of closed and authoritarian objects. You are right, it is more difficult in the case of architecture. As for knowing how to allow a metabolism of the project to act? What is interesting is that I came to that idea by talking with the director Jacques Audiard, who told me “I have a script, but I want the participants to appropriate it.” It becomes what he calls the metabolization of film. I have the impression that our generation longs for it, that it is maybe a reaction to different forms of over-determination.

Pierre Huyghe : Yes, access and especially what it entails is an issue. A nightmare where everything must be open to interpretation by everyone. Even if is necessary to cast doubt on ideologies, when it becomes one, it’s difficult. There are different conditions, cultures, milieus, Umwelt, a thing which says “this” changes meaning, but within a same Umwelt, blue isn’t blue-purple-pink-green-yellow, or we would indulge in the instrumentalization of an art which must be accessible to all and into a form of populism.

Éric Troncy : Of course, it is the double utopia, both very 1970s and very 2000s, for completely different reasons—1970s for ideological reasons and 2000s because there was no more time to waste on ideology—but at the end of the day, they are the same utopia.

Pierre Huyghe : And they produce some ethics…

Philippe Chiambaretta : Maybe in the latent ideas which govern this intuition there is a notion of resilience, which is very present at the moment in architecture. For example, to have a city that would be capable of self-healing, an autonomy of the system to self-regulate in order to survive.

Pierre Huyghe : We are entering the century where the word “to repair” will enter into the field of ethics.

Éric Troncy : In fact, “to repair” comes just after “to redeem.” For quite some time, the idea was to redeem and to exchange something for something a bit better. “To repair” is of course something much more “hardcore”—it is insidiously indisputable. But let us maybe set that aside for the moment to look, as Philippe suggested in his introduction, at the matters of time and space.

Philippe Chiambaretta : I perceive in your work this idea of engaging with time, of departing from the format of time and of the exhibition. You started doing that at Documenta, by saying “now I would like to carry out a project which would spread out over several years,” this idea of non-determination at a moment where the system continues to develop. In our case, we are necessarily in the middle of this.  

Pierre Huyghe : There have been long-lasting examples…

Éric Troncy : City, Michael Heizer’s city / sculpture project in the Nevada desert, which you probably know, began in 1972 and has being going on for over forty years.

"Untilled", 2011-2012 (détail) © Pierre Huyghe

Philippe Chiambaretta : Ecosystems…

Pierre Huyghe : Yes, even though I banished the word. I got interested in the rhythms of a set of protagonists in a shared environment, a situated network, or in different conditions of friction, or the way in which something rhythmically emerges. There is something interesting in the fact that I am not the one exhibiting something but that it is the thing which is exhibiting itself. I turn into a curator, just like Éric, with the difference that I would like to define speculative conditions of life, not to have things appear and not only “for us.” The propositional impulse of a thing. So the issue of time has become rhythmical, a pulsation.

Éric Troncy : The way you talked about it twenty years ago certainly isn’t the same as now.

Pierre Huyghe : Indeed, I’ve shifted in this use of the word “time, toward something that emerges at certain moments and then disappears.

Philippe Chiambaretta : You are departing from the time you experienced as an artist, the one you controlled through the exhibition, with this process of loss of control. A bit of self-effacing and it becomes the time of the other—in this case, of the animal or of biological life.

Pierre Huyghe : A rhythm in which the human animal is present. I can get as interested in the aspect of a butterfly as in a Balenciaga dress, a technique for digging tunnels, or the presence of someone in a ritual known as an exhibition. Human culture is an extension of animal culture so I feel close to a bird of paradise singing to court a female or to a termite when I product artifacts.

Philippe Chiambaretta : A termite?

Pierre Huyghe : A termite, or a bird of paradise. I feel that I release artifacts according to a certain rhythm, for a very precise reason. I am now trying to distance myself from a mechanical way of thinking—I am not thinking in terms of “my work” or “my works.” I prefer saying that I do “things,” that I do “something” that emerges or not; I try to distance myself from habits that lead to ways of thinking which are simplified, categorized, or linked to a given period.




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