At some point on your journey to the center of the earth you look up. The face of a Japanese girl illuminates the sky. While you’re still looking she disappears. You call out to her, and the ground beneath you shifts, becoming more peaked as you raise your voice. The moment remains intact, but the physical trajectory inward is inverted. The terrain becomes lunar—the remembered landscape of the future accessed by memories of photos from Neil Armstrong’s moon landing and the graphic curves produced by your own voice.
In Pierre Huyghe’s films A Smile Without a Cat (2002) and One Million Kingdoms (2001), the protagonist is an animated manga figure created by a Japanese character design agency, from which Huyghe and a small group of other artists purchased the rights. This figure, shared by all the artists involved, becomes a sign claimed by different authors, existing in disparate settings at once before disappearing and taking her copyright with her. Excavating an object from isolation that might either have been fetishized or forgotten, and setting her loose to move in distinct and simultaneous relationships with the world around her is a typical point of departure for many of Huyghe’s projects.
In a body of work that moves freely among different media, Huyghe regularly stages encounters of past and present, fiction and reality, that disengage binary axes and break from the linear structures so pervasive in media culture. Presenting time as fragmentary, often through film and multiple projections, Huyghe charts a constantly moving set of coordinates in an open system where there is room for memory, personal experience, and physical sensation to engage with and even break from the conditions he determines.
Doug Aitken In the past you have been someone I associate with motion—moving many places in a very kinetic way. But you said you’re staying in New York now for a while?
Pierre Huyghe Yes. I’m staying here. I’m a bit fed up with moving around. This idea of being everywhere is a fantasy. I come back from being away with fewer ideas than before. Maybe elsewhere is becoming everywhere. So I just decided to spend more time on one project in one place for the moment.
DA How is working from a single place different for you than working on the road?
PH I like working on the road, but sometimes you don’t have access to things you need, like friends and books. The last three months I spent three days in each town I visited. At some point you don’t know where you are anymore. Moving around nonstop makes me sick in the end. I think part of this nomadic life is a capitalist fantasy.
DA It's not only capitalist, it’s also experiential. The desire to live in such a way that you’re feeding on new experiences.
DA And I think that there are two sides to that coin. It’s a capitalistic sensibility, but it’s also a desire for knowledge. That said, every individual has a different threshold for motion.
PH To me, this idea of mobility is about more than just the opposites of a horizontal journey and a vertical journey. There’s another kind of motion where you’re trying to break that binary. I guess I’m looking for this oblique alternative—the diagonal in the mix, the indirect route. I was lucky that my father was a pilot, so I used to travel for free everywhere in the world. Places and experiences become relative as you meet and compare differences and diversity.
DA When I look at your work, I see that sense of continuous transformation. There is a place-to-place, station-to-station quality to it, where the viewer is taken into landscapes of temporal experiences.
PH It’s true, in the work and in the practice. I’m more interested in looking for something transitory than in producing a conclusion or turning a resolution into an object. It’s the set of stations as a whole that I’m looking at, the dynamic chain of events.
DA And when you make work, the concept is the basis for it; all choices of aesthetics or mediums come later.
DA When we first met in Grenoble in 1995, you were making diverse works in many mediums. Your work has had a very interesting progression. I can see certain ideas are accelerating.
PH I’m interested in topological systems. In San Francisco in winter 2002, I met Jaron Lanier, the inventor of virtual reality, who’s now working on analogic systems. The condition of exchanging information between two computers depends on a protocol of dialogue, and he’s working to establish a way for computers to talk to each other without protocol, based rather on recognition. That’s a beautiful idea. I’m less interested in dramatic, linear processes where there’s a planned protocol. I’m more interested in open scenarios. Douglas Coupland told Disney that the problem with their films is that they’re too efficient, too seamless. I feel like recently every film or narrative structure is becoming too efficient. There’s no time to be distracted, you know what I mean? There’s no time to find your own time in the narrative. Rather than become a part of the film, you are held at a distance from it. It then becomes only an icon. It dominates. There is no possible dialogue between it and you.
DA This idea surfaced in your piece Snow White Lucie , in which you filmed the woman who was the voice of Snow White in the original French version of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs animation. She is now quite old and has sued Disney for the rights to her interpretation of the part, claiming that her voice has been stolen.
DA Which is almost like finding this minuscule imperfection or flaw in Disney’s language of fairy-tale perfection. In making these works, you are going into the media as a miner would go into a mine: you excavate the moments that are imperfect or unique and bring them to the surface. Maybe the role of cinema in creating illusions is no longer enough to satisfy us. Perhaps now there needs to be something more fragmentary and nonlinear.
PH Exactly. I believe in a nonlinear way of editing fragments, but not so much in the postmodern idea of collage. We are not thinking in terms of projection, but in terms of scenario. We are not even thinking of process, but in terms of jump cuts and vibrating time. The notion of time has crashed into this immediacy: the now. We act in this fold of the present, an exponential present.
DA Maybe all of this is a reflection of living in this increasingly nonlinear world. It’s a very interesting time because we’re forced in an almost Darwinian way to ask ourselves how we relate to the landscape that surrounds us. Landscape that is no longer purely physical, but a landscape of information. How do we evolve perceptually to sustain and thrive in it?
PH You have always dealt with this fragmentation of time in your work. The viewer is a kind of nomadic flâneur who goes through some sort of adventure and then edits the experience. It’s subjective editing.
DA I think that something similar happens in your piece L’Expédition Scintillante, a Musical , which you showed at Kunsthaus Bregenz. It seems to be more about creating hints or suggestions of a narrative where the narrative is actually quite interpretive.
PH This exhibition was a pre-vision of what might happen on an expedition. It’s all about describing a situation that has not yet happened. It’s a bit tricky. You envision and experience a situation—in this case it’s a collective journey in Antarctica. You’re in a visual translation of hypothetical situations, of what could happen.
DA In a very literal way, the work suggests this journey. The viewer goes into one room with the snow falling from the ceiling and a large ship made of ice is slowly melting. On the other floors the viewer discovers a skating rink made of black ice and handmade topographic books on the Antarctic.
PH Yeah, it was a series of temporal experiences. For example, on the first floor was a weather room based on Edgar Allan Poe’s book The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket . I took all the weather mentioned in this novel and made a logbook. It’s a metaphor for the mental journey of the main character. I took the weather report and I set it in motion as you would a musical score. From the ceiling of the museum, I created an authentic climate: real falling rain, snow, and fog. But all the while it’s fictional weather. A romantic time capsule.
DA It was such a fascinating show also because of the switching between media and materials. All of the elements were very experiential and temporal—the melting sculptures, the light show, and the cold air. It also seemed to work in a way that confused the notion of sculpture and space, creating a narrative experience that was interpretive.
PH I saw your show in Britain at the Serpentine Gallery New Ocean, . In its relation with space—whether as an object or film—you did the same thing. The viewer’s movement inside the space is important. The viewer’s perception is linked to space and to motion.
DA The tempo of the viewer’s experience of architecture can become an invisible tempo, and an incredibly important one to the piece.
PH Exactly. The tempo can be determined by a particular context. It can be folded like origami.
DA One of the things that work so well in L’Expédition Scintillante is its creation of a film-like narrative without the use of film. Is that something that you were thinking of?
PH That’s right, there is no cinematic or photographic image in this exhibition. You can almost think of it like an opera or musical in three acts. The viewer has to traverse floor one, then two, then three, so it creates a sort of classical linear play. And it is reversible—you have to ultimately go down from floor three to ground level again. But there’s also a sense of narrative in the process of the ice melting, the rhythm of the music and the lights. Each floor was a scene, an event—for instance, there’s this boat slowly melting and becoming a pile ice surrounded by snow. By the end of exhibition, the ship literally turned into landscape. It’s filmic without being a film.
DA The time-based elements in the exhibition—a ship made out of ice that’s melting away, snow that is falling from the ceiling—they seem to evoke a kind of breaking apart of the image plane. At times these images come out at you and shock you unexpectedly. It seemed to be a very conscious attempt to look past formalism and to create something that is a living image.
PH A living entity.
PH You’re speaking about this idea of impermanence, in opposition to the idea of stability. It’s an expression of something that is still unclear and unresolved. The show itself was a kind of organism. L’Expédition Scintillante can be translated as “The Blinking Expedition.” When I did the French pavilion in Venice [2001 Biennale], the whole exhibition was a set of events happening and then disappearing again. It was a blinking, pulsating exhibition where these glass doors separated all the rooms. Sometimes you could see through them and connect things and sometimes not. One situation can be transformed into another without losing something in the translation. It can be different but also equivalent. Something may appear then reappear somewhere else. So its a blinking organism.
DA Is that perhaps the new form of narrative—narrative as a mutating organism, something that is living and breathing and pulsing?
PH Yes. Things have to breathe, to grow and die somehow.
DA Our culture often views itself in filmic terms. Our actions and ideas are in continuous reference to media images, and the stories that we pick up in the everyday are most often presented to us through cinema and the moving images of the media, like television. Yet these areas are limited in the kinds of narratives they present and their structures are predictable. But its also nice to look past that—to look much farther past that—and envision other approaches that are unpredictable and that break from these linear structures inherent in certain media. Do you feel that the relevance of cinema has died in a certain way?
PH Yes, in its actual form it’s dead. It’s too dramatically straight and well controlled. Have you ever experienced a kind of film where you can change the narrative when you want?
DA By defining the limitations of making art and of cinema, perhaps new options can evolve.
PH Yes. Structural rules come from the context, the program, the design inherent in a place.
DA It’s architecture.
PH I’m interested in situations—in the here and now. Travel in the here and now without going anywhere. It begs the question of how to reorganize sequences of events in reality, re-schematize the real.
DA Do you see it as an objective to make work that brings the viewer into the present?
PH Yes, in a way, but not to one single idea of the present. There are many different present moments possible. I’m interested in subjective viewpoints, in the multiplicity of viewpoints.
DA It’s like the project you did with the manga character, No Ghost Just a Shell [1999–2002]. I very much liked the idea of creating a character and sharing it with many different artists and filmmakers. Passing the story of this animated girl from person to person so that each one can stamp his or her ideas on it, change it and extend the girl’s story.
PH We bought the copyright of an existing character, Annlee, that hadn’t been used in any stories yet. We freed this sign from the fiction market and brought it into another reality. This sign was inhabited by different authors before disappearing. It was a polyphonic project. We gave back the copyright to the character. This sign belongs to itself, it owns its copyright. There were about 16 artists involved in this project using different forms and formats: films, objects, books, posters. Exhibitions of its different manifestations were always appearing and disappearing in different places. Annlee had a blinking existence too.
DA I like the idea of creating this modular narrative that can be passed around. It’s very generous.
PH It’s a sign around which a community established itself. It turns around the question, What is common in the singular and what is singular in the common? Each time it was passed on, you had to re-negotiate the conditions in which it was exchanged. Each time you saw how a group of people handled this one sign.
DA I have one last question. What’s the best encounter you’ve had this week?
PH I don’t know. I’ve been staying home, so . . . just thinking about it, it’s probably all I came across on Google. The saddest answer ever. No, Philip K. Dick’s nonfiction writing and particularly the essay, If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others (1977).
—Los Angeles-based video and installation artist Doug Aitken has had numerous exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad, most recently at La Caixa in Barcelona, the Kanazawa Museum in Japan, the Schirin Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and 303 Gallery in New York. Hard Light, a group exhibition he co-curated at PS 1, is currently on view, and The Broken Screen, a book of conversations between Aitken and other artists, will be out from D.A.P. in 2005.