Philippe Parreno Sci Fi.jpg
Philippe Parreno, 'C.H.Z.', 2011 (film still) © Philippe Parreno, Courtesy Gallery Esther Schipper
Stories & Ideas

Thu 23 Mar 2017

Philippe Parreno and Science Fiction

Art Exhibition Film
Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens

Writer & Academic

Justin Clemens explores Philippe Parreno's contributions to this contemporary genre.

My guiding question for this response comes from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who once declared: "For me, the only true science is science fiction." What could Lacan mean by this?

Science fiction is, first and foremost, the name of a genre: that is, a kind of text. Yet there is something immediately noteworthy about "science fiction" as a genre. It’s that its name is a straight-out contradiction or oxymoron. After all, isn’t "science" about establishing facts, verifiable observations, repeatable experiments, and the getting of real knowledge, whereas ‘fiction’ concerns what’s not factual, the singular, the visionary, and the unknown? So science fiction (hereafter just "SF") is a paradox from the very start. It presents itself as a kind of disjunctive binding of the disparate, as a paradigmatically experimental genre.

Indeed, the word experiment may be a useful way into this paradox. Experiment is also closely related to the modern English words experience and expert. They all ultimately derive from the Latin verb experiri, "to try". That verb is itself a composite, from ex-, out of, and periri, the present passive infinitive of pereo; pereo means to pass away, to vanish, to perish. Experiment (and experience) is therefore a coming-out-of- or a passing-through-danger. On this basis, we could then define an experiment as something like: the emergent inscription and transmission of an artificially-produced event at the limits of the known. To cite another fabulous neologism of Lacan’s, an experiment is always a kind of fixion: it depends upon fictional elements which it fixes briefly into real knowledge.

Philippe Parreno, The Boy From Mars, 2003 (film still) © Philippe Parreno

Philippe Parreno, 'The Boy From Mars', 2003 (film still) © Philippe Parreno

So if the name SF is a paradox, it is a paradox that points us towards a zone of experimentation that simultaneously draws from the scientific and from the imaginary or imaginative. Unlike many other genres, its paradoxical nature is therefore placed front-and-centre, and, unlike many other genres, it is an entirely modern development. Whereas comedy and tragedy and melodrama and action and epic and fairy-tales have correlates from very many different cultures, ancient and modern, SF can only develop when there’s something like modern science for it to refer to.

For most historians, modern science developed in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is often telegraphically identified with such monikers as "the Copernican Revolution". What is new and specific about this kind of science (for there are of course many other kinds of knowledge) is obviously a contested academic topic, but let’s cut through these debates by noting how the new science integrally brought together four crucial elements.

First, the new science starts to rely not only on detailed observations of nature, or even provide more detailed observations than previously available (e.g., Tycho Brahe’s incredible mapping of the movements of the celestial bodies), but it starts to set up experiments proper; that is, highly-controlled artificial spaces directed at revealing universal behaviours and isolating universal laws, which can be reconstructed and repeated by others in otherwise entirely different (geographical, cultural, linguistic) circumstances to produce results whose viability depends on their repeatability.

Second, the new science doesn’t just describe these observations in ordinary language, but insists on the mathematical formalisation of its results. This mathematics is not just a more efficient way of saying things than in ordinary language: in fact, it is ultimately no longer bound to any ordinary or so-called "natural" language at all.

Third, the new science is practically and theoretically linked to the ongoing production of radical new technologies, such as the telescope, the microscope, the vacuum pump, and so forth.

Fourth, the new science constitutively requires a certain kind of publicity for its discoveries, for its procedures and results must stand the test — the experiment? — of collective public scrutiny from a range of interests. This means that the operations of authority (who you listen to, believe, and on what grounds) no longer primarily rests on pre-established social hierarchies, but on the limited and conditional assent of a mixed audience oriented towards the authority of new kinds of evidence.

So: modern science = experiment + mathematics + technology + publicity. The knowledge that modern science produces is, as a result, qualitatively different from all other kinds of knowledge, whether revealed, inherited, commonsensical, etc. We could say, paradoxically, that scientific knowledge is more absolute than any other kind of knowledge (e.g., you can’t just argue with it, as you have to demonstrate its falsity), yet also more fragile (i.e., it’s also always susceptible to being updated, extended, or falsified).

Philippe Parreno, The Boy From Mars, 2003 (film still) © Philippe Parreno_2

Philippe Parreno, 'The Boy From Mars', 2003 (film still) © Philippe Parreno

Now it’s not that detailed observations of the heavens or earth hadn’t been done all over the world before; nor that there weren’t highly advanced mathematics of a variety of kinds; nor that there hadn’t been amazing technologies created in the absence of formalisation; nor, finally, that great publications of scientific import had not been available to a diverse and dispersed public. But never before had all four elements been inseparably combined in an ever-innovating system that was inherently collective and transnational. Let me give just one example, with reference to one of the most important early modern scientific figures and his discoveries: Galileo Galilei (1564–1642).

The first telescopes had appeared in the Dutch Republic in September 1608; by April 1609, commercial versions had already appeared in Paris. These early versions only magnified 3–4 times. Galileo, upon hearing about the invention of the instrument, immediately set to work on one of his own. Possibly without ever setting eyes upon a rival telescope, Galileo, through his theoretical, mathematical acumen, as well as his craft talents, produced one that multiplied 8x, which he offered to the Doge of Venice; only a few months later, he had created one that multiplied 20x. In late 1609 to 1610, Galileo turned his telescope on the moon, on the planets, and on the stars. These observations made him famous across Europe. Galileo drew the pockmarked face of the moon — thereby showing that it was not a perfect sphere, suggesting that it too was simply part of a single universe. Galileo saw four satellites of Jupiter — which he realised meant that other planets could have moons of their own. Galileo also saw many more stars than anybody else had ever seen before — therefore revealing the universe to be staggeringly larger than anybody had previously known. Moreover, he rapidly published a book on the matter, supported with a sequence of extremely detailed drawings, as 'Sidereus Nuncius' or 'Starry Messenger' (1610). All of these discoveries (and others presented in that book) violated most of the established, authoritative scholarly doctrines regarding the cosmos.

Galileo’s discoveries and their import go far beyond the many revelations broached in the Starry Messenger, but due to time constraints I will only invoke one relevant contemporaneous response. The mathematician Johannes Kepler, who had already begun in the 1590s to imagine what the earth might look like from the perspective of an observer on the moon, had, in 1609, and possibly as a direct result of hearing of Galileo’s researches, amplified his ongoing writing Somnium, the Dream (published only posthumously in 1634), which mixes Kepler’s own hard science with visionary elements. Such eminent commentators as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan have even seen Somnium as the first proper science-fictional work; for their part, Kepler’s contemporaries saw it as "strange and bizarre", "a satire", and so on.

Philippe Parreno, C.H.Z., 2011 (film still) © Philippe Parreno, Courtesy Gallery Esther Schipper_2

Philippe Parreno, 'C.H.Z.', 2011 (film still) © Philippe Parreno, Courtesy Gallery Esther Schipper

SF, as a literary genre that accompanies modern science, with its fourfold fusion of experiment, maths, tech, and publicity, not only takes up these aspects within itself but exaggerates, exacerbates or otherwise exceeds what science knows — by proceeding in the very direction of the new non-knowing that that science, and only that science, has managed to open up. SF constantly keeps itself up-to-date by relentlessly tracking the latest developments in science proper — whether these are cosmological or biological, physical or physiological. But then it also tries to push beyond them. SF is a radical fictive experiment with the fixions of contemporaneous science.

Think of some of the historically most famous works of SF, from Kepler himself to Kim Stanley Robinson. Mary Shelley explores the implications of galvanism and vitalism in Frankenstein; Samuel Butler obsesses over the machinic future of Darwinian evolution in his utopian Erewhon; in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne proposes a futuristic submarine under the command of the enigmatic Captain Nemo, just as he also offers us a Journey to the Centre of the Earth, exploring the monstrous unknowns of the globe’s watery and earthy depths; for his part, H.G. Wells gives us alien invasion in The War of the Worlds, time-travel and evolution in The Time-Machine, and genetic experiments in The Island of Doctor Moreau; the great Soviet SF writers, such as Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose We imagines a dystopian technopolis organised by extreme surveillance and behavioural constraints; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 further take up the social implications of a fully technologised society in alternative veins; then we have the epical space operas of writers such as Isaac Asimov and A.E. van Vogt … not to mention Stanisław Lem, Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula le Guin, Margaret Attwood, Haruki Murakami, William Gibson, and on and on. Let me also very briefly note how central the genre SF has been in the history of cinema from the start, from Georges Méliès’ animations, through Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, to Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, George Lucas’ Star Wars series, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., the Ghost in the Shell series ... SF is such a crucial, capacious, important and dynamic genre for modernity that this list is inadequate to convey SF’s influence and force, its anticipatory focus upon technical innovations, temporal paradoxes, evolutionary projections, environmental transformations, and apocalyptic visions.

This also means SF is essentially political in nature. I don’t mean that SF is necessarily political in the sense of running this or that political line, left or right, revolutionary or reactionary, but it is political because it is necessarily always implicated in showing the effects of science and technology on society as such. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt opens her great book on The Human Condition, speaking of the then-recent event of Sputnik: "Science has realised and affirmed what men anticipated in dreams that were neither wild nor idle ... what up to then had been buried in the highly non-respectable literature of science-fiction (to which, unfortunately, nobody has yet paid the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires)." Since Arendt wrote these words in 1958, SF has indeed received the concerted attention it once lacked. What is still current in her words bears upon the dialectic between science and science fiction: that the latter, in taking up the disruptive innovations of the former, in turn provides new images and directions for further scientific investigation, as it reveals new political possibilities and limits for humanity — and non-humanity too.

Philippe Parreno, Anywhere out of the world, 1999 (film still) © Philippe Parreno

Philippe Parreno, 'Anywhere out of the world', 1999 (film still) © Philippe Parreno

I believe much of Philippe Parreno’s work takes up the challenge of contemporary SF. To give only three instances of his short films in this exhibition in which the themes I have been elaborating are present, we could mention Anywhere Out of This World, The Boy From Mars, and C.H.Z. The first of these, part of a major collaborative project title No Ghost Just a Shell, first broached with the artist Pierre Huyghe, concerns a Manga character named Annlee, bought from a catalogue for 46,000 yen, and then licensed to other artists, before finally being given possession of her own copyright, and disappearing. Here, the futuristic elements of manga blur into a kind of melancholy, one which offers a lingering meditation on the losses — and not just the gains — inflicted by contemporary SF representations. Lisa Gorton has also mentioned to me what she sees as the melancholy of Parreno’s SF works. As Amelia Barikin writes of the project in her beautiful monograph Parallel Presents, "Huyghe and Parreno initially picked Annlee not only for her price tag but also because of her melancholic appearance. Her wide eyes and downcast expression were read as signs that seemed to point to an 'awareness' of her limitations. On the occasion of her death, Huyghe and and Parreno celebrated with a fireworks display on Miami Beach". In The Boy From Mars, a temporary architect-designed structure harbours an oxen which works a pulley system to generate enough electricity to power computers and mobile phones. C.H.Z. — which stands for Continuously Habitable Zones — is the film of a garden of dark plants which grows in an environment that allegedly mimics the possibility of life on a world with two suns. You can see straightaway that Parreno’s art is also an art of experiments — he often needs to work with specialised technicians and scientists to even get his projects off the ground.

Parreno’s films are contemporary contributions to this most crucial of contemporary genres.