Archeology tells us who we were but also who we are now. These signs from the past let us foresee our possible future. French artist Grégory Chatonsky understood this and goes even further. With Telofossils, his monographic currently on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Taipei, he tries to imagine what could be the archeology of our society. What could be the remains of a world that favours dematerialisation ? Technologies have played an important part in this phenomenon. If they are the core of Chatonsky’s work, they are always treated with a special sensitivity and humanity. The use of cutting-edge technologies in his installations is never gratuitous but underlines the complex ties our society has with them since the last decade. Does our desire for wealthe and consumption will lead us to our loss? It is too early to tell but before the extinction of our species, we ask Grégory Chatonsky to tell us more about his work, the future and destruction.
Why did you choose digital art as your main medium so early in your career?
When I was 16 years old, in 1987, I chose this medium even though digital art and digital itself were still emerging. Paradoxically, I am absolutely not a geek. But, despite this lack on interest for the coding part, I was immediately fascinated by computer generated images. They were very simple but I was attracted to their novelty and, practicing drawing and painting, I had the intuition this field should be explored. At the time, I had the opportunity to have access to one of the two Paint Box available in France. I read the 500-page manual and started experimenting. Then came the Amiga which popularized the digital image and enabled me to make my first experiments with slitscan.
How did you arrive to the idea of destruction, the central theme of Telofossils?
It has been a journey throughout the years which is at the crossroads of different notions I’ve been exploring since 2001. First of all, the question of the incident, of the failure which is at the core of my work. When a technological product stops functioning, it loses its use, which means the hierarchical relationship we had with it is broken. It is in this failure that the technique reveals itself. We realize afterwards that when the technique was at work, we could not see it because we only perceived it through the use we made of the object. Destruction is no longer negative but acts as an indicator.
Secondly, the notion of memory and archive, through the reading of Bernard Stiegler and Jacques Derrida. Memory is immaterial. However, the way we preserve these traces determines how our knowledge is constituted. In 1994, I had access to one of the first Internet connection in France, at the Centre Pompidou. I was impressed by the historical change this network would bring to our collective memory. With the Internet, each anonymous person could -consciously or not- leave his marks in databases, blogs, etc. We live in the first era where anonymous persons are remembered. The paradox is, of course, that this digital memory is becoming more and more excessive, amnesiac to to speak, because it is overpowering us. The inscription, usually distinct from destruction, becomes a form of destruction.
Finally, the theme of dislocation which is haunting me since 2001. Ever since the 09/11, we keep dramatizing the financial cries, scare people with figures. To me, there is a connection between this phenomenon and the way the history of art can be seen as a story about destruction. Many classical paintings represent ruins, as if our society, by exhibiting the destructions of the past, foresaw its own disappearance. The extinction of the human species is not a disaster on can prevent, that might be our only certitude about the future.
The exhibition, predicting the end of humanity in an unknown apocalyptic event, reflects a rather pessimistic point of view, is this what we are going towards?
Indeed, there can be a misunderstanding about this exhibition but it can be avoided. It is not a moralist proposition. I would like it to be neutral. The end of humanity is not a negative way to look at the future, it will happen eventually. I have always been surprised by the fact that when we mention the end of the world, we usually only consider the end of humanity. As if the disappearance of our species would signify the end of the planet. Earth precedes us and will also survive us. Telofossils is a speculative fiction about this Earth without us. If another species arrives on Earth in thousands of years, what will it find? It will uncover from the ground billions of unknown objects with no apparent use, fossilized. It will certainly wonder why there are so many of them. A plastic bag can last hundreds of years when I only have 2,500 weeks left to live. This disproportion between the human life expectancy and the one of our technical artifacts gives a new dimension to our time. It will be a material trace for our memories. Making this absence and this disappearance visible is the goal of Telofossils, an impossible project.
What part does technology play in the end of our society?
There is something paradoxical about technologies. They participate to the exhaustion of our planet but they also constitute traces of our existences. If you look closer, you realize that every object was conceived and produced by human beings who may be dead now. These objects are the marks of our past lives. All these products are like as many graves whose mortality we forget because of the way we use them.
I have the feeling you want to raise awareness on these issues, but how can one modify behavioral mechanisms that are so deeply anchored in our society? Is there another way?
The exhibition does not aim at offering alternative solutions, it is more about observation and fiction, or speculation. As a citizen, I have my own ideas on the matter and on the emergence of new models. But as an artist, I do not have any solutions to offer, no moral to give, my goal is simply to enhance perception in a situation of reflexivity. How can we consider this extinction as a necessity? Everyone can do whatever he wants with this proposal.
Can you tell s a bit more about the idea of narration that goes through the exhibition, in its format but also in the artworks themselves?
The exhibition is composed of 17 installations, it is hard to give a detailed account but to give you an idea, it tries to immerse the visitor in a paradoxical atmosphere that goes through the present and a distant future.
There is the specter of 09/11 and of a world that mixes conspiracy theories and surveillance. Then the financial crisis and a sequence of Fred Astaire dancing against a steam machine following the variations of the NASDAQ. Then come the digital amnesia and this experience we all had: what do you feel when a hard drive is broken? Our memory is a noisy broken hard drive which sound will launch a search for images on Flickr thus creating a bizarre story from an incident. This first part ends with a new installation that captures the heartbeat of the visitor shows him at each palpitation the portrait of the previous user. This heart that stops and starts again, this destruction we all carry, retraces the history of the installation itself.
The next room is the core of the exhibition. The soundtrack was made by Christophe Charles and sculpture by Dominique Sirois. An arid landscape is projected on a 22-meter long surface. A monumental sculpture presents fossilized technological objects like in a archaeological site. Tombstones display 3D models captured with a Kinect of fragments of the sculpture. The exhibition ends with a neuro-robotical installation. An ECG helmet enables the visitor to move a heavy metallic door onto a wall. Once it hits the wall, slowly destroying it, the visitor has to relax to get the door back to its initial position so it can hit the wall again. We think that we control the machine when in fact, it forces us to modify our mental states.
The destruction becomes a paradoxical phenomenon that blurs the frontiers between fiction and reality and that favors the possible.
The overconsumption you mention in your introduction goes along the dematerialization of our society where everything is becoming digital. What would an archeology of our future look like?
Dematerialization is indeed often used to define the digital. I believe the correct terms would rather be translation and re-materialization because I don’t think we are in the immaterial with the digital. Just go to a data center and you will realize how tangible a network is. There are wires, machines, ventilations, security systems, etc. Or when our computer is broken, we usually feel a deep irritation and the machine becomes right away a useless pile of plastics and metal. This materiality comes back at you in a second. It is the instrumental and anthropological conception of the technique that makes us believe in its “immateriality” but it is just an illusion because materiality got lost into usage.
The immaterial is an ideological construction. The conservation of hard drives and computers is very problematic. It is true for digital art which has yet to find a proper conservation model, but it is also true for the construction of our history. What will be the historians of the future? How will they select informations in the mass of data collected not only by the Internet, but also by states or banks? It feels like we collect data because we fear we might lose something by processing and sorting these informations. The costs implied by such a process will be humongous. Facebook collects the largest social graph of the history of humanity where one can read the evolution of relationships over the years. Will the historians have access to these data? On what conditions? Could archives be the property of private companies? This battle for the property of this collective memory is slowly taking place. Archeology, despite its appearance, is not only about the past, but also about the future. It consists in anticipating the conditions of the transmission at the moment of the inscription of our memories and therefore it is a speculation on our own extinction.