[interview] GRÉGORY CHATONSKY image and flow…


This interview comes from the 12th Digitalarti Mag. Read it online, for free.

Whether it’s videos or online pieces, small applications or sound installations, the artworks of Grégory Chatonsky are committed to revealing what we don’t see, or what we no longer see, to capture the traces and dig out the rhizomes, all the while being anchored in reality, in urban and human geography… Image, still or animated, and flow (technological, corporal or physical) are the primary guiding threads of this work, even if this thread is turbulently spinning… 

To start with, can you tell us about the pieces you presented this December  for Ososphère (Notre MémoireLes Villes au loinÀ l'image du texte)…?

Thierry Danet invited me to participate in Ososphère. I had presented an installation there about 10 years ago, so we were getting back in touch. Thierry knows my work very well, I believe that he understands the different themes of my production as a coherent whole. I went to Strasbourg and discovered this factory that had been abandoned overnight. It’s a surprising venue, strangely inhabited, like many derelict places. Thierry and I decided to show pieces about disappearance and memory in order to form a narrative that would match the tone of the space. Notre mémoire is an abandoned hard drive that rattles off sounds, which I use to make visual queries in Google. As such, the incident becomes the source of another function through formal translation. Les villes au loin is a city generated from feelings, and À l’image du texte is a text by Beckett, where each word is also translated into images on the Internet, so that the book becomes a contingent visual series. But these language experiments represent just as many possible areas of meaning for the viewer.

And what about Das Ding II, which follows the Forum on Democracy in Strasbourg and is also online?

The Forum on Democracy in Strasbourg was rather formal, but some good ideas must have come out of it… I wasn’t there, Laura Romero recorded some fragments of the talk and sound atmospheres and very precisely localized on a map each one of these sounds. Then I modelized the space in 3D and spatialized each sound in its original location. Now you can move around the space, through various sounds and reconstitute little by little what is between them all. This is part of a larger research that I have been doing for several years with projects such as Revenances (2000) and Interstices (2006) on interactive and spatialized fiction—fiction that is based not on a temporal narrative but on a spatial reconstitution. I believe that there is a link between this way of moving around and the democratic promise of a public place, with its conflicts and friendships, meetings and separations.

das ding II -  gregory chatonsky

Das Ding II

Can you talk about Somewhere, which you made for the “virtual” exhibition La vanité du monde, organized by SPAMM (Super Art Modern Movement) / Arte Creative?

Somewhere (2009) is one of my everyday projects—the kind I feel like doing in the morning and finish the same evening. I like the lightness and the independence, to be able to do everything from A to Z in my own home studio and then distribute it on the Internet without waiting for an institutional decision. It’s a site that reappropriates Google Maps by picking a random location. You can end up anywhere on the globe. Then, for a few minutes, you move around in this place that usually you’re not familiar with. This randomness is not insignificant, because Google is systematically mapping out the globe on a grid, whether in Maps or StreetView. I did another project on this with film (Vertigo@home, 2006). Google is an ontological entreprise for sharing between the globe and the world.

Your exhibition Telofossiles will be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, in February. What circumstances led to this event? What will the installations be like?

I was invited to Taipei last year by Shuling Cheng for an exhibition on light, and I fell under the charm of the Taiwanese people and the country. I’m regularly invited to Asia, by Paul Devautour to his incredible Xi Yi Tang school in Shanghai, or by Samson Sylvain to the Franco-Japanese Institute. But Taipei crosses all these regions and influences. What’s more, it’s very open to technological arts, with the Digital Art Centerand the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was able to organize a solo show for me in one year that occupies half of their big building.

Anyone who knows national museums knows that this is an exploit, and solo exhibitions for “digital” artists are still rare in these venues. I must admit that it was made possible by the tenacity of Shuling Cheng and Sylvie Parent, the two curators of this exhibition, as well as the will of the museum director and his entire team.

Telofossiles is a show that collects various projects of mine about the destruction of the world since 2001. So there are about 15 digital and analogue installations. What interests me about this theme is less the apocalyptic side than the esthetic and sensitive aspect of destruction, the way that an object wavers between realism and abstraction, between function and incident, between totality and fragments, between relation and solitude.

The show concludes with a monumental environment made in collaboration with Dominique Sirois and a soundscape composed by Christophe Charles. It’s about positioning yourself after the destruction, when all this, this civilization, these machines, we will have all disappeared. It’s about doing away with the romanticism that always portrays human drama in order to face things as they are. There will be nothing left but the surface of a deserted and mute Earth, Earth in our absence. If a conscience discovers this Earth, if it digs into the soil, it will find many buried objects that it will not know what to do with. It can observe them, handle them like precious things devoid of any instrumental function.

Could this be what a work of art is? Time covering up our footprints? The disappearance of human lives? This speculation places us in our own absence. I think about this autonomous esthetic a lot, without a subject, in inordinate time frames where we immerse ourselves in anticipation of our own death. We will see this immense deserted Earth, technological fossils, affects recorded on the Internet. The space closes with a question: the visitor puts on an EEG headset. If she concentrates, a heavy metal door moves forward and hits the wall of the white cube. She must then relax so that the door moves back and is able to hit the wall again, which is marked by the concentration of the previous visitors. The headset forces people to adopt a certain way of thinking by alternating attention and inattentiveness. The door stubbornly hits the wall of the exhibition. (see the installation web page)

In general, your work suggests that you prefer simple, straightforward applications—little calculators (Au moment de ma mort) and/or random generators (Cette absence), a video projector…

It depends on each project. Some are complex, like the interactive and generative fictions or the rock group Capture; others are more simple. But simple in what sense? Technically? I’ll admit that I’m not very sensitive to this question, because I refuse to side with technological innovation and application. What’s important to me is the ambiguous and paradoxal nature of the pieces; it’s this speculative complexity that interests me.

You can make enormous installations with lots of sensors and stuff blinking all over that entertains the public, but one minute later you’re ready to move on, you’ve done it all, because there wasn’t anything to do in the first place. What’s more, by using technology to show off, you participate in a society based on domination. A big part of media art follows this logic of socio-cultural animation. Au moment de ma mort is indeed very simple, almost dumb. It’s a clock that counts time from the moment I was born. This time is my time. We share the same time: a physiological time for me, a linguistic time for the clock.

Au moment de ma mort

But at the moment of my death, all that’s left will be this digital time that keeps counting and will no longer be the contemporaneity of my life, but the monument of my birth. We sometimes celebrate the birth of famous people, like Arthur Rimbaud’s 158th birthday, as if they were eternal. In this sense, my death will be an event for a computer program, the same way that the passing of Opalka changed his paintings. In Cette absence, a program captures an image from your webcam at a random moment and e-mails it back to you at an equally random moment. So you receive yourself while being a stranger to yourself. Maybe you weren’t even in front of your computer. Then you will see your apartment strangely inhabited by the machine, like the house in Lost Highway.

Sound is also prevalent in your interactive installations in terms of ambience, resonance, etc. How do you define the sound dimension of a piece?

I have a hard time separating sound from the other elements. Most often it goes together as a whole. Sometimes, like in Notre mémoire, sound is an operational element of the piece, as it is translated. Sometimes the music industry is questioned, like in Capture (2009), which involves a rock group that is so productive that nobody can (wants to?) listen to it, neither the audience nor the alleged authors, including myself. I have a lot of respect for sound, which is why I regularly work with musicians, like on the network fiction Sur Terre (2005), where the soundtrack involved Fennesz, Scanner, Atau Tanaka, Pita and many others [1]. I also collaborate frequently with Olivier Alary. Of course, there’s something strange that happens between images, sound and text, which is difficult to express through language...

Ever since the very first photographs were retouched on Amiga in the late 1980s, images (photo, video) have often been the centerpiece of your works…

Images are indeed the foundation of my work. Very concretely, I became an artist because as a child I couldn’t stop drawing, it was an insatiable passion. I was lucky to have parents who took this passion seriously and sent me to drawing classes at a young age and took me on weekly visits to the Louvre. So my passion never began with technology. That came later, as a way into images when I got the chance to work at Canal+ on one of the first Paint Box programs in France in 1986. I still find images absolutely fascinating and mysterious, the power of images, these things that shouldn’t take place and that produce a place.

Images reappearing on Google, generated on Web pages… Net art is sometimes hard to explain. What’s your definition?

Defining an art form is a problem in general, especially when the nature of artistic production is to challenge definitions. We could define Net art through Greenberg’s perspective of referencing the medium: Net art is what can only exist on the Internet and through the Internet, feeding on the network and becoming the network.

Beyond this modernist self-referencial figure, I think that for my generation, the Internet is a world, whether you’re tech savvy or not. The Internet changed our access to the world, and that’s why it affected contemporary art as a whole rather than a particular sector. It transformed our way of working, accessing other artists, organizing exhibitions, writing articles, etc.

What’s paradoxal is that the victory of the Internet—and an increasingly wired society—signs the death warrant of Net art, which loses its specificity. No doubt this is why Net art is now more and more nostalgic of itself and repeats obsolete forms such as animated GIFs, HTML forms, etc. This vintage nostalgia is taking over society with increasingly shorter cycles. The 2000 revival is already in motion; pretty soon we’ll be nostalgic about ourselves in our own present.

You also do what could be called virtual autofiction (My spaces, My life is an interactive fiction, Au moment de ma mort)…

There is a moment, there are places where life becomes impersonal, where it’s not about your factual life consisting of a series of happy or sad events, but of a totally contingent life. This is the life that interests me and that I try to touch upon in my work. I don’t know if the term autofiction is appropriate; it’s more the opposite, something like hetero-realism: speaking of this man as I might speak of any man (or woman). It’s often a case of disposession or anonymity.

In My spaces, childhood memories that were never photographed are illustrated by aereal views from Google Maps. In Ma vie est une fiction interactive II, for 30 days I sent every choice I encountered (turning left or right on the street) to an exhibition venue (Oboro in Montreal), and I let the audience decide for me. So for one month, my life was like a video game where I was hitting my head against the wall, because not only did someone have to be there, they had to decide to make a choice. An impossible life to live.

Ma vie est une fiction interactive

You made several artworks in collaboration (with Reynald Drouhin, Jean-Paul Civeyrac, Jean-Pierre Balpe…). What “advantages” and limits, if any, did you find in this method of working?

I am both very solitary, in the sense that I can make pieces on my own, and very solidary, because I love working with others. It’s quite simply a story of friendship. Very early, when I was doing art in high school, I worked on projects with my friends. It was a great way to express this friendship, to say that we shared something important and that we could forget our egos and personal interests to make something concrete. No doubt it was also because I came from an underground scene where we made music bands, fanzines, concerts, etc. I like teamwork when several people, for different reasons, strive toward a common goal. It’s certainly related to what I was saying about existence: something impersonal at the heart of the most intimate.

You divide your time between France and Canada (Quebec). Is there a notable difference in institutional support for digital arts and their place in the contemporary art circuit?

In general, the situation of digital arts (assuming that this is the appropriate term) is more fluid in Quebec. There are lots of infrastructures for support, both in production and distribution, such as SAT, Elektra, Oboro and many others. Often these structures were created by artists themselves, who continue to manage them. The classic institutions are open, they approach digital art as art. Period. Otherwise, at the national and provincial levels, the evaluation rules for attributing grants are much more explicit, and artists are on the committees that make the decisions. It’s a very pleasant biotope, which France could learn from in order to relax the relatively heavy atmosphere here. The main difference is the collective involvement of the artists. You can’t expect an administrative power to be something it’s not, especially when you leave it to itself.

Besides your artistic activities, you’re also a teacher. What do you learn from this confrontation with students who have grown up in a digital world?

I don’t distinguish teaching from my artistic activities. It’s not a confrontation with the students, but rather an equal exchange, because I don’t know any more than they do. I try to listen to them, to help them technically and conceptually in their projects, to increase their power to act. Simply making yourself available for someone’s else’s project is a joy. I’m moved by these exchanges, because they force me to rethink some of my artist’s reflexes at the root. It’s touching to see artworks being made, hesitant and fragile, sometimes on the verge of collapse or a miracle. I don’t think that I could produce as much if I didn’t teach.

In conclusion, what are your thoughts, in general and with hindsight, on the development of technology (computing, IT, Internet, etc.) and its impact on art?

There is a conscious impact, when art questions technique as technique, but there is also an unconscious impact, because everyone, even the most technophobic, is constantly surfing the Internet, writing texts in Word (or OpenOffice), and perhaps they even enjoy it. Technology certainly configures a new relationship between the globe and the world, but hasn’t this always been the case? But when the impact is too conscious, it can become naïve and literal, as when artists adopt the latest innovations just because they’re available, following tech trends. We must offset ourselves better, from the inside, offset ourselves from the flows.

interview  by Laurent Diouf
Grégory Chatonsky's website

This article comes from the 12th Digitalarti Mag. 

Read it online for free.