In depth: Philippe Parreno's Thenabouts
Philippe Parreno: Thenabouts is the first-ever retrospective of Parreno’s filmic work. Presented in the gallery as an evolving cinematic ensemble, the exhibition is an orchestration of films, lighting, sound and sculptural elements, choreographed live by an ever-present ‘host’.
‘Thenabouts’ is a word borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), a masterpiece of modern literature – notoriously difficult to read. In Joyce’s novel, and in Parreno’s exhibition, time exists as a malleable, cyclical entity, co-joined with space in reference to Einstein’s four-dimensional continuum, spacetime.
The single (invented) word of Parreno’s title alludes to our human experience of time, as it compresses and stretches, and encompasses the meanderings of our thoughts. It resembles a dream state in which visions flicker across our consciousness, constantly moving and transforming – like the images of cinema. This sense of time permeates Parreno’s films and exhibitions; it transports visitors into the uncanny worlds he creates.
Re-presenting the past, Thenabouts is not a chronological marking of history. It is, rather, a paradox of time akin to simultaneous existence in parallel worlds. The exhibition invites us into an experience that reminds us that our sense of reality is never solely restricted to the current moment, but is rather a convergence of the past (memory), the present, and the future (imagination).
“Parreno knows that fiction precedes the real, as in architecture, plans precede buildings.”
An air-conditioned dark space is always the space for fiction. – Philippe Parreno
Philippe Parreno started gaining recognition as an artist in the early 1990s, as part of a group of artists creating participatory and socially-engaged work influenced by cinema, the media, politics and information technology. Their experimental approach to art-making was cannonised by Nicolas Bourriaud when he coined the phrase ‘relational aesthetics’ to describe the collaborative nature of these art practices.
Parreno’s work, however, cannot be reduced to fit within a single categorisation. His approach to art exists within an avant-garde trajectory that can be traced through the experimental work of Marcel Duchamp, El Lissitzky, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, the Situationist International, and Fluxus, to name a few. Yet his artistic sensibility has much broader foundations in the influence of school teachers, including artists and philosophers such as Pierre Casalegno and Gilles Lipovetsky, whose open challenges to the conventions of practice and theory had a strong impact on Parreno at an early age. These inspirations were set against the background of the socialist city of Grenoble where Parreno grew up (he lived in nearby Echirolles), and the neighbourhood La Villeneuve, an experimental social and housing project situated to Grenoble’s south.
La Villeneuve was built collaboratively by architects, sociologists, urban planners and teachers. In the later 1960s, it attracted many post-May 1968 artists and intellectuals, including filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and his partner Anne-Marie Mieville, who lived and worked in La Villeneuve from 1974-78. With its (failed) utopian ideals and a dedicated television channel Vidéogazette – which was produced specifically for the neighborhood’s inhabitants and to which Godard contributed – La Villeneuve was a crucial ingredient in Parreno’s early interest in broadcast media, its creative potential, and his anti-utopian, relational attitude toward art-making.
While studying art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Grenoble (1983-88), and later at the Institute des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastique at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (1988-89), Parreno was influenced by teachers, including Ange Leccia, Daniel Buren, and Pontus Hultén, who were concerned with art as a process of production that creates relations. Buren, in particular, instilled in Parreno two crucial ideas that continue to influence his practice. Firstly, the notion of ‘in situ’ art whereby without exhibition there is no art. And secondly, that art should be concerned as much with time as with space. Buren was the first artist to show at Le Magasin, an art centre in Grenoble where Parreno worked and exhibited during the 1980s. Working as an artist assistant and painting Buren’s stripes in the gallery, Parreno understood that art is a living thing, a practice, deeply connected with the context in which it happens. Without Buren, Parreno has said, he would not be doing what he is today.
An exhibition is a format, just like a novel or a film, or a piece of philosophical writing. – Philippe Parreno
Since those early years, Parreno’s practice has continued to revolve around investigations of time and duration. For him, an exhibition is an event. His art is not object-based but incorporates objects, films, films-as-objects, sound, coding, light, biological organisims, and performance to produce scenarios that involve the visitor within an evolving choreography. His approach insists on the constant interplay between reality and representation, and the ever-changing nature of existence.
“Parreno prefers the symphony to the concerto.”
“He walks through the Paris streets, enveloped by the sounds playing on his TPS-L2 Walkman. Pure epiphany.”
“Parreno explores unknown territories, thinking about the eruption of the real into fiction; when fiction becomes as real as life.”
When talking and writing about his work, Parreno often refers to science fiction. The elastic nature of time in science fiction narratives; the multiple and parallel worlds; the notion of the alien; the extraterrestrial. These concepts inhabit his work. They can be felt in the constructed landscape of C.H.Z., the avatar existence of the character Annlee, the familiar-yet-uncanny world of Li Yan, and the programmed ‘presence’ of the exhibition itself.
Despite the cinematic nature of Parreno’s practice, when he discusses science fiction it is usually to reference the work of writers who have long inspired him: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Greg Egan, Stanislaw Lem, Michael Crichton, Greg Bear, Don DeLillo, or Philip K. Dick, to name a few. He talks about the ‘distrans’ gates that characters in Hyperion cross to move between galaxies, the autonomous swarms in Prey, and the parallel worlds imagined by Greg Egan. He has created a work based on René Dumal’s Le Mont Analogue, and blends science and fiction in his work to create hybrid quasi-objects.
Working from the belief that the fictional and the real bleed into each other, Parreno has constructed actual buildings and landscapes that exist only to produce cinematic fictions. C.H.Z. (2011) – his film of a landscape created to produce a film – follows a tradition, he says, of representation producing reality: “When the forests were burned at Mont Sainte-Victoire, they were replanted according to Cézanne’s paintings. When part of Mount Fuji collapsed, it was remodelled with concrete according to Hokusai’s prints.” The film depicts a constructed ‘extraterrestrial’ environment that Parreno designed together with landscape architect Bas Smets. The garden, located in Rua do Tarrio, Famalicão, near Porto in Portugal, was created in the image of a yet-to-exist film, and was then captured to create the artwork.
The landscape that was created for and creates the film C.H.Z. was designed as a representation of the black vegetation that would grow under two suns. It imagines the possible habitable zones that have been identified by scientists, but also what Nancy Spector has called (in the accompanying publication) a ‘hypothetical space,’ which has “long been a favored destination within the realm of science fiction.” The film represents what could be an alien landscape; and yet at the same time, the futuristic but primordial garden situated in Portugal continues to grow.
There are traces of our present in the future… I am not interested in the prediction of the future, of its technology and its associated traumata. I am interested in science fiction because it provides great narratives of our time. – Philippe Parreno
“Parreno knows the plants communicate architectonically. He believes the machine is animal.”
Monsters, or the uncanny
Parreno’s embrace of the otherworldy is not only a science-fictional gesture: his work is populated by ghosts and monsters – creatures who exist between our world and another, or perhaps inhabit our daily lives but are neglected, feared, and misunderstood. These creatures reveal the unknown; they demonstrate that there are elements of life that we do not understand, and over which we do not have control. They are what Parreno has called the “excess, the remains, the waste, the banished, the dregs, unnamed, leftover, denied.” They are Mary Shelley’s – Frankenstein’s – monster, or what Nancy Spector has called “a terrible kind of beauty.” For Deleuze, cinema has the power to reveal these characters, who represent the “inexhaustible possibility that constitutes the unbearable, the intolerable, the visionary’s part.”
In June 8, 1968 (2009), Parreno places the viewer in the position of the dead. The film restages scenes captured by photographer Paul Fusco, documenting the journey of U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington in 1968, when mourners gathered along the sides of the tracks.
In Marilyn (2012), the ghost – the memory – of the late Marilyn Monroe moves through an empty hotel suite at the Waldorf Astoria where she once lived for a brief time. Her voice, created by a computer algorithm, describes the scene while a pen (later revealed to be controlled by a robot) writes her words on the hotel stationery. This ghostly image of Marilyn embodies another of Parreno’s recurring figures – the automaton. Created in the image of a human and animated to give the impression of life, the automaton embodies the uncanny.
Parreno’s automata are mechanical, computational, and organic; they are collaborators in the production of his films and exhibitions as much as the humans he works with. Through automated processes they generate movement and rhythmic repetition. One of Parreno’s projects involves him creating drawings of fireflies, one after another after another, and producing a series of images that when animated become With a Rhythmic Instinction for to be Able to Travel Beyond Existing Forces of Life (2014). In this work, a computer algorithm based on John Conway’s Game of Life generates animated sequences that flicker and die at irregular intervals; an automated process that replicates and represents the ephemerality of life. In The Writer, another automaton, built in the 18th century by Pierre Jacquet-Droz, questions our reliance on visual perception by writing the words “What do you believe, your eyes or my words?”
These automata – some material, some not – act across time: the image of Marilyn Monroe still inhabits our world (through images, memories, words), and the 18th century mechanical figure of Jacquet-Droz’s automaton communicates with us from the past. There is a merging of the organic and the mechanical, the programmed and the natural, a recurring theme in Parreno’s work which is even more overt in The Boy From Mars (2003). This collaboration with architects R&Sie(n) is a film of a building constructed in Thailand that included a water buffalo as part of the design. The movement of the water buffalo produces all the energy for powering the building, and also charged the batteries that were used to power the cameras that shot the film. The building is animal, social and machine; the resulting film is both fictional and real.
Parreno’s films are often set in a time and space that resists resolution; a space that resists definition; a space for dreaming. They recall what Deleuze has called “the hour when it is no longer possible to distinguish between sunrise and sunset, air and water, water and earth, in the great mixture of a marsh or a tempest.” His films reflect life as a process of continual change and movement. The worlds Parreno creates emerge from and are also removed, cinematically, from reality. As Parreno has said: “a repetitive moment becomes eternity. And, for the automaton, eternity is perpetuity.”
“Parreno devotes his art to the eccentricities of time, suggesting in the process other temporal realities.”
“He wants to write a recipe in such detail that it could be performed in a theatre. He understands that a garden produces silhouettes.”
Parreno’s film Credits (1999) was based on a text by Pier Paolo Pasolini; his Palais de Tokyo exhibition, Anywhere Out of the World (2013), was structured according to the score of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Since the 1990s, Parreno has been working with various kinds of texts to script the experiences he creates. This scripting is not always overt, but always has the effect of constructing a particular choreography within his exhibitions – not only in the sequencing of the works but also the movement of the public. This motion is musical, a score played in time and space: the exhibition is a composition. By programming his exhibitions in this way, according to a score or a time code, Parreno embraces information as a primary material for his work.
As puppet master, his control is sometimes more direct, as in his Palais de Tokyo exhibition[e14] , but at other times, randomness is introduced in the form of computer algorithms or, as in Thenabouts, human beings. At ACMI, the sequence of events that forms the exhibition is determined by a living host. This human element underscores the relational and unpredictable nature of what we experience as reality, and brings a sense of performativity into the exhibition. This theatrical gesture references the hosts who once presented theatre, cabaret and early film screenings, as well as the ‘horror’ and midday-movie hosts who used to appear on television. This analogue programming brings a sense of the pre-modern, and with it comes the merger of human and technology – a promiscuous intermingling that is associated with pre-modernity and with the present.
Playing the role of host, but also as puppeteer, there is an uncanny sense in the relationship between this person and the exhibition itself. While the host is clearly directing the show, another presence (or other presences) permeates the space. This is felt in the films (populated as they are by ghosts, automata, and other pseudo-science fictional life-forms) but also in the automation of the exhibition’s other elements whose animation could be a form of interspecies communication.
This is reality performed for us as puppet show, theatre, film; as art.
“Parreno is convinced, as was Cedric Price, that buildings should be flexible enough to allow the occupier to adapt the building to serve the needs of the moment. Pure potentiality, without resolution.”
An exhibition is a kind of ritual - I just want to find new ways of performing it. – Philippe Parreno
Ritual: a repeated practice, a guided experience.
In 1985 Jean-François Lyotard curated Les Immatériaux for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition was a labyrinthine construction that combined texts, artworks, new technologies, and snippets from popular culture to create a representational experience of the profound uncertainty of contemporary life. The experience of this event was highly influential for Parreno who understood it to be “an exhibition that produced ideas.”
While studying at the Institute des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastique at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (1988-89) Parreno met Lyotard, who shared with him an idea: “he explained another exhibition that he would call ‘Resistance’. Not resistance in the political sense of being against something in society, but in the sense that resistance in an electrical circuit can produce heat. When you develop an equation in physics, you disregard certain empirical factors, as if everything took place in an ideal sphere without friction. What Lyotard said was: let’s go back to the frictional points! The places where the general theories run into the real world and produce difficulties.”
Nancy Spector has said of Parreno’s work that “It’s a resistance to any kind of codification or narrative closure.”
A ritual is something we do over and over again; a repeated practice designed to remind us of something. If an exhibition is a kind of ritual, Parreno’s work seems to urge us to remember that life - and art - is ephemeral, that it happens together with other people, that it happens in time, and that often it is not what we were expecting.
As with art, we cannot understand life without the experience of it.
Parreno’s references are filled with people who have devoted their lives – and their art – to the endeavour of trying to understand that experience: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Pierre Paolo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Umberto Eco, Thomas Pynchon, Charles Baudelaire, David Foster Wallace, Samuel Beckett, and so many more.
Biological, experiential, sensual, and conceptual, Parreno’s art contains beauty, fabrication and false starts. Through luminescence and humour, darkness and the alien, Parreno aspires to show us that there are many, many things we do not understand.
The quotes in this piece are borrowed from Nancy Spector, Christine Marcel, and Philippe Parreno.