Pierre Huyghe and Vincent Honoré

in conversation

Vincent Honoré : CURA. has asked me to have a conversation with you. I’m delighted, because we haven’t had the chance to talk for some time now. However, even though I’ve witnessed at first hand some of your previous projects, I haven’t been able to experience Variants. So, the first question that comes to mind is: can we really talk about it, without my having experienced it?

Pierre Huyghe : We can always try, though of course it’s a limitation, it’d be better to start by experiencing it.

VH: I have a fantasy version of the work. I’m projecting myself, while knowing, while having experienced, while having been a witness of several important works of yours in Kassel, Münster, London, Arles or elsewhere. I can project myself thanks to the note of intent and a few documents that I’ve received. It would be interesting for you to talk to us directly, rather than for me to give a description of my own projection, which may be subjective, abridged or inexact. To begin with, Variants was commissioned for a sculpture park.

PH: It was a commission for a permanent project. I found an island in the arm of a river which was previously inaccessible and thought it would be appropriate to construct something, or that events happening there would construct something, that could be experienced when crossing through it or along a pathway.

VH: I find it interesting that you immediately mention the pathway rather than the site. In your previous pieces, for example Or, or A Journey That Wasn’t, the pathway was also essential, a pathway towards a margin, or with Untilled in Kassel, between a mid-point which may no longer actually be a place.

PH: Yes, it’s a crossing, the same thing could be said about Untilled at documenta. It’s an environment, more precisely a milieu, a constructed entity constituted by milieux. Untilled was a passage, that had been side-lined as it was an uncultivated compost-heap, where things were deposited. This island, covered by a forest, is downstream of a former paper factory and partly submerged when an electric dam releases its water. There are traces of past activity, bits of metal, pieces from machines, chunks of bricks. Several months a year it’s inaccessible, covered by snow or water. This milieu can be immersive or else it’s impenetrable. It has a rhythm.

VH: So, it’s invisible at certain times of the year.

PH: At certain moment it’s invisible to us, which doesn’t mean it isn’t generating something anew. Even before Variants, I was trying to give something a certain indifference and sensitivity, an existence without it being dependent on a gaze or the experience you may have of it.

VH: Indifference is a fascinating notion which you have developed: an indifference about the viewer, about the witness who is no longer part of the work. An autonomous object, such as a painting, has no need to be looked at in order to exist. It could be plunged into darkness, or in a storeroom, and still exist, indifferent, differently.

PH: Exactly.

VH: So, what’s the difference here?

PH: Of course, a picture in a museum storeroom or a stone doesn’t need our eyes to exist, the word ‘exist’ here just means the process of entropy. The difference is that it won’t modify or generate something anew, unsupervised or unpredictable. This indifference, meanwhile, producing something new, makes explicit the separation. One way to break the subject/object asymmetry in the exhibition ritual, would be to give agency to the object, the possibility to not be remarkable, to be uninterpretable, or the capacity to be modified. Modify doesn’t mean change; a mechanic object changes position. Being modified implies a transformation, a metamorphosis, a plasticity, which is quite different. With a certain sensitive awareness of its environment an object shifts to a quasi-subject, an otherness that appears as it pleases. To come back to Variants, the rhythm of the water gave me a prompt for a speculative fiction. The island is an entity constituted of a milieu which is both biologic and algorithmic, physical and digital. One milieu is the given, the actual island covered by a forest, with living organisms: plants, animals, mushrooms, bacteria, and geological activities, minerals, chemical activities, water, etc. The other is what this island could be in an alternate reality, another possibility of itself. It is simultaneously both. How could the actual island host its possibility or how else it could manifest? This possibility takes the form of a live simulation. The simulation is affected by what it simulates, the given, and would affect it. There is a transfer of data going from one to another. The whole island was scanned to become the environment of the simulation, then an artificial neural network generates mutations from existing features present on the island. It’s a non-supervised learning process. The environment in the simulation is modified without control. At the end of the physical island, after crossing it, stands a daylight screen where the simulation is running. An intelligent camera goes around on its own in the simulation, activated by a set of parameters, it looks for change in things, sometimes forgets or get lost. Even when the island isn’t accessible, it keeps searching. It is a permanent work that has the capacity to be modified over time. Some of the digital mutations, randomly selected, exit the simulation and manifest in the physical space, contaminating the actual island by another possibility of itself.

VH: Yes, I see, conceptually. But concretely, how does the fact that these mutations become implanted on the island work?

PH: As the mutations in the simulation are volumetric, they are 3D printed using biological or synthetic materials. These artefacts, of fiction, of the algorithmic milieu are positioned in the physical island and at the same coordinate where they appear in the simulation. That’s the way it should work in time.

VH: Things are added. Are there also some things that are taken away?

PH: No, aside the decay of the material.

VH: Is this the motion that you have called a ‘permanent crisis’?

PH: It is. The perpetual tension between machine learning which generates forms in the simulation and the data from sensors covering the whole island that capture in real time its unpredictable biochemical activity: water quality and level, temperature, sun exposition and seasons, living organism movements… All these variations modify what is generated. The artificial neural network generates mutations of already existing elements present on the island and the geo-biochemical events modify or inform these virtual mutations, giving them a form; a form of tension that manifest on the actual. Yet the contingency does not break the simulation’s generative rules, but counters predictability.

VH: You have no control over all that?

PH: At minima. With the instauration of something, to take Souriau’s concept, come different collaborators or different instances, companions, life forms, entities, and certain intelligences which have been constructed digitally, that could communicate. There are constructive disruptors of identity, which could change or eliminate some of the decisions I could make and introduce others.

VH: This is another aspect of the work that really interests me. We’ve mentioned the notions of being a witness rather than a spectator, and of indifference: it’s no longer the viewers that make the work. There is, in your projects and in particular with Variants, maybe not a reassessment but at least a decentering of the notion of the author. In fact, this decentering isn’t recent. I’m thinking in particular about your research into John Cage and chance, and the piece I really like, which is an outdoor installation, Wind Chime (After Dream): a composition by John Cage which is decomposed and is being replayed by what is contingent, the wind.

PH: Yes, it brings contingency to Dream, which was written for a choreography by Merce Cunningham. I find interesting to accept unpredictability and let uncertainty enter the conception and actualization of something. Predictive models are used to ride the unknown; it’s quite boring. Simulation on the other hand plays with contingency in the actualization of something, it adapts its behaviors, as it has another time modality.

VH: Altering the notion of the author also means altering a form of domination, that of the person who will direct the conception and comprehension of a work.

PH: To collaborate with humans and non-humans, machines, living organisms, and other means of knowledge and thought that alter and enrich the way something is conceived, during its formation and through its existence. To answer your question, there’s no one author but multi-subjectivities.

VH: To come back to the origins of Variants, how does it work when Pierre Huyghe gets a commission?  Did you already have this project nailed down and the commission meant you could turn it into a reality or, on the contrary, was it an opportunity to give birth to a project? How was it constructed?

PH: I try to find the lowest common denominator in the place: from this a fiction is constructed. But prior to this opportunity, there are ideas or at least a set of desires, which sometimes find a context or don’t, unfortunately.

VH: I noticed, especially during the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, that you had several old projects which hadn’t been realized, all of which are quite structurally similar to your recent ambitious projects from over the past ten years.

PH: It’s difficult to escape from certain patterns. I have been trying for several years to produce an entity milieu, that has the capacity to generate and modify itself. Something with an agency, constitutive of heterogenous events and things, that could or could not affect each other or the whole, something crossed by a force, a thought in which one could occasionally be part, without being addressed or the center.

VH: With Variants, this project which I haven’t seen, there is thus an entity but also its double, a screen that completes it?

PH: The entity is simultaneously the actual and another possibility of itself. It can be experienced via the simulation on the screen, in between the two milieux.

VH: A double level of fiction, with the screen and the island?

PH: I would say the neural network and the bioactivity of the island, rather than the screen. The simulation is just a portal to experience a meeting point between them. Both are simulations. One is ‘natural,’ if we consider the way we perceived nature is a fiction. The other is a neural network generating mutations in the simulation, which is not less a reality than the way we experience the actual we just crossed to arrive to the screen. On the way back to the entrance, both simulations can be undifferentiated, you might get an augmented attention to the environment, take the actual for fiction artefacts or not. I like to think of it as a momentaneous sense increased in the umwelt.

VH: Are you then the witness of a fiction, of a narrative, or of the possibility of a narrative. Of an affect?

PH: I guess you witness an affected actual, through its possibilities.

VH: You’ve mentioned the idea of wanting to break the object/subject relationship. Can you say a little more about that? In particular, when it comes to what makes for an exhibition, what an exhibition is.

PH: In the classic sense an exhibition is a way something is addressed at a subject, under epistemical structures and generally with a requirement to be hysterical. I’ve often talked about not exhibiting an object to someone, but instead exhibiting someone to an object. If the object is becoming more of a subject, it becomes an exchange with an otherness, an alien. An animistic view? But who wants to exhibit otherness? So not an exhibition, as I said earlier, it manifests as it pleases without a dominant viewing subject and out of the control of the one that constructed its existence. The exhibition is a ritual of passage, an operation that makes a creature, an otherness appear. It brings the inanimate, matter, space and thoughts to a sensitive life, an agency to a milieu, a multi-umwelt subject. It is real-time self-operating theater of birth.

VH: That’s why I think so much about this alteration, which operates in your work, of the relationships of classic domination, whether this is the subject/object relationship, the status of the author, the refusal of a single narrative or else cultural resurgences. There has often been an evocation of the idea of coexistence in your work, which is right, but we’ve no doubt already talked enough about a more general recalibration of the structures of domination in artworks.

PH: The nature of the exhibition model, mainly western based, is a mono viewpoint on the others, it needs other perspectives. It can be extended to any relationship one has with another, think of races, genders, colonization, the established separation culture/nature and all the structures of domination. I prefer to let things be, not trap them in forced ontologies, identities or linearities.

VH: That was at the heart of The Host and the Cloud. The site of this project was also striking: a place of domination. Following this project, Variants, which seems to push certain questions to their limits, in particular, as we’ve mentioned, when it comes to domination and the author… how do you think your work will develop, how do you imagine the exhibition?

PH: I do not know. I’m thinking of giving voices to otherness, for now, through language, cognition and machine learning. A language that would self-generate, from the milieu it finds itself in. Sensibilized, it would acquire a certain complexity from the environments it would cross. Umwelt could change, which was the speculation around UUmwelt, meaning having other senses onboard, to access other means, times or species. Reality is the actual and its possibilities, multiplying time and space.

VH: When we were working together on the exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2006, I felt that A Journey That Wasn’t crystallized a moment of going elsewhere. And you did go elsewhere just after that exhibition with A Forest of Lines in 2008, the unrealized project Monster Island in 2009 and The Host and the Cloud that same year. I get the impression that Variants, too, may not close anything, but instead be an opening towards a new dynamic.

PH: Probably. I’ve been associated with a reduced idea of ecology since Untilled, life isn’t just allotted to the biological. Being without life is also of interest.