Interview with Clémence Agnez, Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion at Kunsthal Gent, April 9, 2021
Émilie Brout: Good evening, we are Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion, in the company of Clémence Agnez. Good evening Clémence!
Clémence Agnez: Good evening Émilie, good evening Maxime.
EB: It's past 8:30 pm, and we are gathered in the majestic main space of the Kunsthal Gent, where we are currently in residence. We are going to talk about our latest video, entitled A Truly Shared Love. In this film, which we like to call a tragedy – and where capitalism would be the curse –, we put ourselves on stage and show our true love story. The action takes place mainly in our own domestic environment, before extending into a sort of open-world, but always, with rare exceptions, behind closed doors.
Maxime Marion: We are surrounded by our cat and various connected companions, such as our assistant Alexa, Roomba the intelligent vacuum cleaner or Victor, the pool cleaner. There are also other gadgets that continuously work in the background to rationalize and quantify body-related data, such as the Apple Watch or the Somneo lamp, which through its light pulses guides your breathing and helps to “relax and wake up refreshed".
CA: In this closed-door setting, we quickly get the feeling that these companion species, animals, plants, robots, connected objects, do more than just surround you: they are fully-fledged protagonists. They appear, disappear, come back, interact, evolve, adapt, just like you, in the successive modulations that make up the film.
EB: Indeed, the film is built by modulations of recurring patterns, shots, keywords, moments of life. Work and leisure times gradually merge, as are the alternating days and nights. The spaces themselves are constantly reconfigured. It is as if there were a total loss of reference points, as if everything became liquid; but this liquidity is also a reflection of the technoliberal ideology.
CA: And this ideology is characterized, among other things, by finally accomplishing the opposite of what it claims to be doing. This liquidity of which you speak could make us believe that all is moving, possible; that the transformation, the individuation, the emancipation are within everyone's reach at all times. In fact, this liquid reality is meta-stable: it undulates, moves in all directions but always returns to its median point of stability. To represent it, we can think of a buoy on the surface of the ocean: it follows waves’ movements, adapts to each current but always returns to its average position. In this regard, the film speaks to us of the digital, with its patterns, its reiterations, its altered repetitions. The evolution of loops plunges us at first in a certain melancholy: the protagonists seem to sink into the tragedy of a world without language, thus without connection, subject or love.
MM: Until there is a certain rupture, halfway through, where Émilie appears in a paradisiacal universe that can almost seem virtual.
CA: And where the keywords of the mother tongue pass into international English, completing the deprivation of the subject’s locality. However, it is in the return of loops, in the symptomatic reiterations that something goes wrong. The image is constructed by leafing through various layers of reflection: depth of field rises to the surface, crushing the reflections of other inaccessible planes on the same screen. In the same way, the protagonists look at their reflections without seeing themselves. And chromakey green screen, filters, masks, gaze withdrawal gain ground.
EB: This omnipresent green refers both to the green screen, which allows it to be replaced by any other content, and to green as a symbolic color of Nature. But a nature always presented as a product throughout the film and taken in a chain of transformation: from the wildest state, with grandiose landscapes, to the most domesticated, as with the juice extractor or the terrarium.
CA: It is rather paradoxical by the way, because indeed green symbolizes Nature, but that very particular one used for chromakeying was chosen because precisely it is, among all visible spectrum colors, the one we encounter the least when recording an image. It therefore allows chromakeying by discriminating the least amount of nuances in the silhouetted image. It thus also occupies this place of what could embody the least natural tone in an image. This dialectic between natural and synthetic is the double bottom of the film and is also found in certain works of other artists that appear discreetly, as narrative relays or even as your diegetic works, i.e. as the works of your characters, or rather of yourselves who play your own role. This produces a disturbance and an ambiguous excitement as to the problematic status of these images.
EB: Like Julie Vayssière's minimal artwork Window, whose motif she displaces in different contexts, and which is presented here as if it were a work made by the protagonists. There are also the monsteras, those trendy indoor ornamental plants that catch fire and die on Jimmy Beauquesne's wallpaper; or Guillaume Constantin's sweatshirt representing Millais' Ophelia, which appear as harbingers of bad omens. Other works refer us more directly to the screen and its materiality, such as Caroline Delieutraz's Instagram filter or Carin Klonowski's screen massage taken from a previous performance.
MM: These pieces have in common an ambiguous status, playing with their broadcasting context or their utilitarian dimension. Here they are perceived not as artworks but as decorative elements, props or supports for the narrative. There are also many references to cinematographic, pop or artistic culture. For example, one shot makes explicit reference to a video by Wolfgang Tillmans, another to a scene from Xavier Dolan's Les Amours imaginaires, or the “night” musical theme uses a melody from the song Ghosts by Japan.
CA: These references to other works, other contexts seem less directly quotational than ambient. They seem to mesh the memory of the old world into the images’ synthetic framework. It produces an effect of melancholy, they are the last survival of past life traces before they withdraw in the only random reiteration of an image bank. They come back to us like spectres, with their unexpected resurgences, their stubborn ritornellos like this distorted song from Japan, whose detached chords punctuate the film.
MM: Also, the film summons and reproduces very explicitly the codes of stock videos. There are tens of millions of these short, royalty-free clips that are available for sale online, illustrating just about any situation. But in this smoothed imagery, which always carries with it its commercial purpose, there is no trace of reality. On the contrary, it aims to satisfy the most immediate visual impulses, by means of flattering lights, fluid camera movements and always idealized representations.
EB: In the film, the keywords come one by one, making it impossible to find natural language, and finishing to discretize the image; they characterize coldly. But they also come to qualify what one usually does not name, because they are assimilated to a standard. And it is precisely this normative dimension that we seek to criticize. We ourselves seem to embody it well...
CA: The norm is indeed the first problem that appears when we watch the film. Another discomfort, even more profound and not unrelated to the question of the norm, strikes us afterwards: it is this withdrawal from reality that you mention. We are faced with images that seem to have lost their referent. We switch suddenly from the paradigm of representation to that of simulation.
MM: Exactly, moreover - even if the aesthetic often refers to the synthetic imagery, there is no 3D modeling.
CA: There are bodies, skin, faces, but in the absence of language, abandoned to only keywords, and in the absence of any event, made impossible because of the extreme image standardization, the film does not reach any particular representation. All we are left with is a siliconized simulation of sensibly desirable life stases. Drinking a coffee, standing in front of the sea, looking at oneself in a mirror, all in a perfectly smooth setting that conforms to the most expensive products on the market. As in any simulation, no event can happen from the inside. In the paradigm of representation, movement and acts manage to insinuate themselves, even against the flow, even in a spectral form. In that of simulation, the represented reality disappears and with it the time that passes, supplier of actions and full of desire. Here simulation does without referent, on the contrary, its mission is to build a standard to look for and to sell. One cannot promote an event, in the sense that it is an unpredictable break-in in the making of time, but images sell very well.
EB: We evolve as best we can within these images, trying to negotiate with this environment and maintain a link between us. But these plans, closed, without cause nor effect, are not built in relation to each other, hence an relentless disintegration of our own relationship.
CA: It's the Palo Alto syndrome, to use the formula of the writer and critic Loïc Hecht: shrunken forms of life, which go from stasis to stasis, from the coffee in front of the pool, to the ideal work-out session without sweat and without aches, to the work on a gleaming macbook in the muffled softness of the living room, which has suddenly become the place of remote work and therefore the space of control. However, the film tells us something else, since the sequence of its loops, the remanence of its stases, are not identical: at the beginning we only think of modulations, more or less black, more or less happy, but at the end something breaks and it seems to us that a free action is ripped off from the procession of the different states of simulation.
MM: You refer here to the singing scene, which is indeed one of the only moments of the emergence of the subject, with a brief return of language. But this fragile moment immediately gives rise to an outburst that plays on obvious and proven emotional strings, before collapsing just as brutally and bringing us back into this universe of simulation. As if we were to end up disappearing as people, and even finally as characters in the film.
EB: Just like the few faceless extras, such as the artists mentioned earlier who accompany us for a dance, or our gallery owner and our first private collector in their black clothes who embody, even from behind, the spectre of their own stereotype to perfection.
CA: This reminds me of Ghost Dance, the film by Ken McMullen, where the graceful Növo icon Pascale Ogier asks Jacques Derrida if he believes in ghosts. He replies: "but first, do you ask a ghost if he believes in ghosts?". Bombshell, one does not understand at once. He explains that cinema is a "battle of ghosts" where the spectres fight, in a completely different way than in psychoanalysis. That the two are linked in the equation he poses: “Cinema + psychoanalysis = the Science of Ghosts”. But above all he specifies the very singular device in which he is involved, that of playing his own role in a fiction. Of this operation, he delivers to us, while accomplishing it, the striking formula: "I let a ghost ventriloquize me". In A Truly Shared Love, Émilie, Maxime, you play something that resembles your own role. However, unlike Derrida in Ghost Dance, nothing is certain anymore about your singularity on screen. The ghosts seem to appear not because of the filmic device that records you between person and character, as was the case for Derrida, but rather because of the withdrawal of both.
EB: But how does this differ from what Derrida was telling us?
CA: The standardized image replaces the player and the played, at least during a large part of the film. What is played seems to be the image of a standardized individual who does not manage to constitute himself as an authentic subject. With Derrida, it was a question of understanding how the capture devices transformed a subject, in his speech, into a resonant and ubiquitous voice, and redoubled the individual, in the performance of himself, into the ghost of his own person. Here, it is almost the opposite. This proto-subject, more or less digital native, maintains a fetishized relationship with capture devices and mass broadcasting systems inside which he tries to found his singularity, even before extruding the reliefs of a particular identity and the thickness of the connections to the world in the meanders of language. That is to say that where in Ghost Dance language was primordial before the becoming-ghost of the subject-actor, A Truly Shared Love seems to speak to us of a cinema where the departure between actor and character is annulled by the impossibility of founding a subject since this one is deprived of its language. Exiled to the threshold of articulation, speakers have lost language to keywords.
MM: These keywords, originally used to index and retrieve content on stock platforms, act in the film as a superimposition of these already extremely legible images. They sometimes drift towards more literary or even sung registers and other times are listed in an analytical way, clashing without perspective like the images.
CA: That returns us to the analyses of the medieval art historian Chiara Frugoni, who explains that what characterizes the pre-Renaissance in art is a completely different relationship of the image to its destination. Before the invention of perspective, what prevails is to incorporate messages in the liturgical image: destined to its mostly illiterate flock, each church is equipped with representations aimed at instruction and moralization. In the absence of possible reading, the image is the relay of the language. The perspective representation, on the other hand, makes the message secondary, it seeks to imitate human vision and represent what could be a capture made by the eye. Here, the scopic urge takes precedence over reading, the seat of language is elsewhere. In the film, we find ourselves in a place where language has disappeared. The relationship between image and keyword seems to reconstruct a rudimentary form of language that can only pass through symbols, standardized captures of a world that has entirely withdrawn into ultra-simplified visual representations.
EB: And this lack of perspective, this loss of horizon is also accentuated by the recurrent use of zenithal view, from satellite vision to the drone contemplating, like Narcissus, the reflection of its own mechanical eye, of which we would all be prisoners.
"THE CHAMELEON-IMAGE", by Etienne Hatt, Artpresse, February 2019
There are certain ever-present images we barely look at and never talk about: illustration or stock images. You could find them on the cover of a book or on the pages of a magazine article. But most of them are used in advertising and communication, especially online. These images, whether they be photographs or very short films, are not meant for specific occasions but are sold by stock photo agencies, the biggest one being Getty Images., Royalty free, sometimes taken by a nameless author, they can be retouched or even transformed. For that matter, some are marketed with a green screen to help insert other images.
Through their inherent powerfully colored and artificial aesthetics, they illustrate topics, situations, ideas or feelings as generically and concisely as possible: the models who mime the scenes are attractive but rather ordinary, the environments are neutral, reduced to a few details that serve as a synecdoche when used to render a place of some kind, and the backgrounds are bare - when the image itself isn't just a background or isn't completely void. Stock images appeared in the 1920's, but their use skyrocketed at the start of Internet and the digital age.
Meeting a new need and more easily available, they also posed no legal risks and were cheaper than the commissions that had been the heyday of press photographers and illustrators. However, they haven't been subjected to many studies and, as is often the case when it comes to visual culture, artists are the ones who have payed closest attention to them. Two recent works of art, both major, attest to this.
The first one is Clément Cogitore's video installation, winner of the 2018 Marcel Duchamp Prize. By means of bleachers and a large screen, The Evil Eye (2018) broadcasts a fifteen-minute film containing dozens of sequences bought from stock photography agencies.
If the box surrounding the bleachers calls to mind a movie theater, the LED display refers to advertisements. It is surprising to note that an artist who also directed movies such as Neither Heaven Nor Earth (2015) would resort to appropriation art. Admittedly, Cogitore draws attention to the fact that such images cannot be circumvented as well as to their undeniable quality and efficacy, based, among other things, on slow motion. But he says he intends to recontextualize them in order to "build a world" and "tell a character's story"(1).
That is done through editing images together, associating images with black screens, as well as images and black screens with a voiceover, the voice of a woman engaged in an apocalyptic narrative, who, in the face of catastrophe and in an archaic recurrence, will be summarily sentenced as "the evil eye". The contrast between this end-of-a-civilization speech and images of happiness collected from stock photo agencies is often blatant.
But one also notices how disturbing certain sequences can become. Against all odds, some of them - not always as bland as you'd think - seem to have this potential; Cogitore is able to pinpoint them. But The Evil Eye aptly shows that, without being equivocal (for profitability reasons, so as to enable using them in numerous ways), stock images, these chameleonimages, need to blend into different situations that will give them meaning. The reason behind this is that, beyond the key words used to identify them and to which they seem to amount to, they are, inherently, generally devoid of meaning, Clément Cogitore converted stock images into a film that transcends them. With an exactly opposite but just as ambitious approach, artists Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion intend to produce stock images from a film. A Truly Shared Love (2018) is a five-minute-long video shot by the couple whose goal is to sell the sequences separately on Shutterstock. Presented as the trailer of an upcoming movie, the video outlines an autobiographical love story, all the while meeting generic norms of stock image agencies. Before being shown at the Galerie 22,48m² in Paris (1st March - 11 May 2019), A Truly Shared Love was the major piece in a monographic exhibit at the Villa du Parc d'Annemasse which, curated by Garance Chabert, most likely marks a successful conclusion. Indeed, having until then favored appropriation of preexisting images, Brout and Marion have appeared in person in their work with increasing frequency, thus singling themselves out from other contemporary appropriationist processes. The hub of the exhibit was Ghosts of Your Souvenir (ongoing, started in 2014), a series of tourist photographs photobombed by the couple then collected online.
With this film, they've apparently chosen to produce an allegory of their couple, yet without neglecting the status of images in the age of Internet. Which is why in A Truly Shared Love, the succession of everyday scenes alternates between private moments and work moments, while a voice-over dully describes what appears on the screen, thus reflecting an image search, images that exist online by means of the key words associated with them. The film successfully attempts to combine stereotypes with intimacy and with the art project: according to Émilie Brout, "we'd like to genuinely move people, a bit like New Wave films do, keeping at a distance all the while being charged with real emotions (2)." In short, it's all about creating chameleonimages that are works of art.
Shutterstock has already accepted several sequences filmed by Brout and Marion. It remains to be seen what meaning these images (generic only in their appearance) will take on when, once bought, they are inserted into new situations. Perhaps they will be claimed by other artists, since Shutterstock is one of the agencies used by Cogitore. In that case, they will surely tell all sorts of different stories.
Translation: Jessica Shapiro
(1) "Le Prix Marcel Duchamp avec Clément Cogitore" interview of the artist, Centre Pompidou, online,
(2) "The Ballad of Web Dependency" interview of Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion by Vanessa Morisset, Possible, no. 3, winter 2019.
"Quickening",by Sarah Ihler-Meyer, 2017, Editions du 22,48 m²
Post-internet, post-photography, post-human,...Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion seem to metabolize all these "posts". By tearing apart the classic dualisms opposing organics and technological, the real and the virtual, humans and animals, the wild and the domestic or even the original and the copy, the duo notes a cyborg reality, naturally and culturally hybrid, that has always already occurred but nevertheless keeps increasing its potentialities with the development of technosciences."Quickening" thus implements several zones of indistinction between a priori antinomic poles. Firstly between the body and machines, in particular with Denim, a series of jeans sealed under plastic, acting as specimens of an archeology of the future, showing the marks of mobile phones, as if they were just one with their owner, and have become prosthesis or augmented reality of their own bodies. This indifferentiation between organic and artificial can also be found in Oasis Max Life, a sculpture made of touchscreens embedded in a brick of floral foam showing animated GIF's of green plants taken from the internet. Let a cyborg plant, where nature, however wild it may be, is nothing more than just a digital code for domestic use. This shifting is represented in Chien-loup which consists of multiple camouflage jackets sewn together so to create the pattern of an endless tree on a neon-orange background, an invisible color for game animals. A high-tech textile here allows predators-hunters to fade into the forest and to adopt the principle of camouflage used by their preys, the virtual future of nature thus mixing up for human beings with a strange becoming-animal.
Another way of blurring boundaries is at work with the ♥ Paintings: four mobile phones hung up on the wall like little paintings display photos taken from different Instagram accounts followed by the artists, partly covered and reproduced identically by means of painting. It’s a way for the artists to take these picturesque images back to their possible unconscious, namely by a set of representations originating from art history, especially from German Romanticism, which built and informed our perception of the landscape. Here, just like with cyborgs, there is no more opposition between nature and culture, original and copy, everything is already hybridizations and replications with no origin, model or essence.
It's a similar type of indifferentiation which seems to operate with Clé USB reçue par erreur contenant l’œuvre La Liberté en écorchée – version longue d’ORLAN et saisie dans la glace par Laurent Pernot via www.matchart.net. As a matter of fact, like the title indicates, the work was produced from an USB key of ORLAN, a cyborg artist by the way, the artists received by mistake and which they seized in fake ice thanks to the artist Laurent Pernot. This piece made collectively questions notions such as the author, the original and the copy as well as the truth and the false.
With Lightning Ride, it is now poles of technology, organics and mysticism that collide with electricity as a connecting point. The video is produced from excerpts of "Taser Certifications", a sort of ceremony authorizing in the United States the use of Tasers in the condition of being tased by someone else. Filtered with the Photoshop’s "oil painting effect”, slowed down and accompanied by a disturbing soundtrack, the succeeding images show us bodies and faces whose deformations and positions evoke a feeling of pain as well as a Christian ecstacy. Everything unfolds as if the miracle of electricity, symbol of the rationalization of the world, revived paradoxically an aspiration to transcendence, antipodes joining each other and disappearing in profit of a new map of possibilities.
"Les Nouveaux chercheurs d’or", by Domenico Quaranta, AFK, Texts on Artists 2011-2016, 2016, LINK Editions
In the Oxford English Dictionary, value is primarily defined as “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something”. In the Merriam-Webster, “a fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged” comes first, underlying the prominence of economics in the age of capitalism. Both definitions, however, agree on one thing: setting a value for something is more a matter of agreement than objectivity. How can you say that a return is “fair”? That something is regarded as much as it deserves? In today’s post-capitalist, post-digital, post-whatever societies, moreover, both these definitions look outdated. Today, value is much more unstable, much more ephemeral, much more liquid than this. And it’s, more often than not, unfair. How much is worth one minute of labor? How much is worth the future? How much is worth Greece? How much is worth a company trading in information? How much is worth a single piece of information? How much is worth attention? How much is worth a work of art? Each of these things, the very same thing, may vary on a scale from 0 to 1 billion something.
The value of information, attention and works of art is so unstable that, very properly, they have become currencies themselves.
The meaning of value in a post-whatever era, the mass abundance of images - from amateur image production to professional images to algorithmically generated images - and the consequent shift of the artist from production to post-production - and from the creation of works to the generation of formats - are all recurring topics in the recent work of Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion. Since 2009 the French couple has been focusing on projects that, renovating the modernist language of film, make an extensive use of appropriated content from the web, which is freed from its status of meaningless, apparently valueless data floating in the information networks to be rearranged in complex, algorithmically generated, sometimes interactive narratives, or into powerful, iconic images.
In this context, the foundation of Untitled SAS (2015) may look like a smart yet radical move out of this line of research, while it is, in fact, a further step in the same direction, though less visual and more conceptual. In French, SAS stands for “société par actions simplifiées”, the equivalent of a registered limited company (LTD or INC in English). Untitled SAS is an immaterial work of art whose medium is a business company, with “work of art” as corporate purpose and with a capital open to everybody interested in buying shares at their own price. The starting capital of the company is set to 1,00 € (the minimum legally possible), and 10,000 shares are made available. With a freely negotiable capital, the company allows each collector/shareholder to buy and sell shares at the price he set, thus influencing the company’s overall value (displayed on a dedicated website).
In order to set up the company, the artists worked with one of the largest and oldest lawyer’s office of Paris, Granrut Avocats, who had to resolve many new legal paradoxes for its official registration in the French Trade and Companies Register. A similar gesture was performed, years ago, by the Austrian-Swiss collective etoy, who registered themselves as an actual company in Switzerland, with making art as its corporate purpose. But while etoy, in the early years of the internet, were embracing - in an over-affirmative way - the utopian dream of the new economy in order to set them free from the rules of the art market, Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion are more interested in giving birth to a useless yet fully functional machine that performs and mirrors the ways of working of the current art market, where the value of artworks looks less rooted in the material value of the object or in the cultural value of the work, and more in the ability of a few disruptive characters to manipulate it at their will. At the same time, however, as a socially owned, immaterial artwork with a starting value set to the minimum and able to increase with the help of a community of collectors/shareholders, Untitled SAS is the archetypal work of art: like a medieval church, it mirrors and represents the power in charge, while at the same time being available for the larger society. It also bears some spiritual connotations, recalling the Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1959) by Yves Klein: the empty space exchanged for gold is replaced by the empty shell of a company turned into shares. Finally, it is the perfect portrait of companies like Facebook, that started valueless and evolved into modern golden calfs.
In such companies, value is mostly generated by their ability to attract users, to welcome user generated content that draws in other users, and to capitalize on their private data: which turns amateur cultural production and privacy into two key issues to understand the present day. In this context, Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion often become modern gold diggers involved into what David Joselit called “an Epistemology of Search”. This can be seen in many works on show, including Regulus, Ghosts of Your Souvenir (2014 - ongoing), Les Nouveaux chercheurs d'or and Return of the Broken Screens (2015).
Regulus is a generative animation based on a program that browses websites like Flickr, Instagram and Google Images in real time, in search of pictures that respond to some formal criteria then used to organize the visual flow. While the focus of their interest - the presence of round shapes - takes center stage, the main subject of these pictures - and the reason why they have been shared in the first place - fades in the background without disappearing completely, being perceived as a background noise or a flow of subconscious images. The piece also shares with Untitled SAS an experimental attitude toward how cultural value is translated into market value: instead of being sold as a unique or an edition, this ever evolving piece is chunked into small samples and sold by weight.
Like Regulus, Ghosts of Your Souvenir is an ongoing collection of found amateur pictures where the main subject becomes secondary when the viewer understands the organizing principle of the collection: the presence, in the background, of Émilie or Maxime (or both), posing for a photographer who’s not interested in them. In order to develop the project, the artists stood for one or more days in a chosen place of touristic interest - on the Rialto Bridge in Venice, or in front of Notre Dame de Paris - trying to be featured in as many tourist photos as possible; and later spent hours on image sharing sites like Instagram and Flickr, looking for images taken that day in that place. The collection thus becomes an outsourced self-portrait, that takes advantage of the ubiquity of the camera eye, the seamlessness of sharing and the informational nature of digital images, all equipped with their metatags.
If Regulus and Ghosts of Your Souvenir deal with the explosion of amateur cultural production, other works in the show are a take on online economics. Les Nouveaux chercheurs d'or is an ongoing collection of free golden samples of golden products sold on the internet. Gold is a universal symbol of value, and a way to turn any prosaic, mass produced item into something shiny and desirable. By collecting these samples, Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion are interested in the conflict between their luxurious look, their free nature and the complexity of the economics that produced them, that they research in depth, trying to provide as much information as possible about the collected item.
This interest in the background story of the collected pieces is shared by Return of the Broken Screens, based on a collection of broken display technologies. Commercially speaking, tech items are valuable when they work, and totally valueless when broken. A small incident can turn an expensive gadget into something you are lucky if you don’t have to spend money to get rid of it. But a small incident can also be an interesting story; and a damaged display is just another kind of display. That’s why Émilie and Maxime research into these stories and create customized abstract videos for these displays, responding to their cracks and choosing shapes and colors according to their ability to activate a given part of the screen - fully aware that the decay will go on and that the work in the present form will be short lived.
Actually, most of the works by Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion have a performative nature that makes the work displayed in the gallery appear as the temporary, inevitably limited instantiation of an ongoing process, rather than a finished piece. This is literally true for Nakamoto (The Proof), 2014 - 2015, an attempt to produce a portrait of the legendary founder of Bitcoin using the economic and technical system he gave birth to as a “brush”. Bitcoin is a virtual currency widely used on “darknets” like the Tor network, and allowing to perform online transactions anonymously. Despite (or thanks to?) its virtual nature, during the financial recession its value has grown up constantly, and it has been perceived as a safe-haven asset. With an estimated fortune of several hundred million euros, Satoshi Nakamoto still lives in the grey zone between fiction and reality, thanks to his ability to preserve his identity. After collecting all the available information about Nakamoto, Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion browsed Tor in order to get in touch with a group of passport forgers, probably based in Cambodia, and commissioned them a fake passport of Nakamoto, in the attempt to produce an evidence of his existence using the technology he created. After getting a scan of the passport for validation, they paid the second instalment and the passport was shipped on June 7, 2014, but it was never delivered to them, the scan still being the only evidence of its existence. Unavailable as an artifact, as a story Nakamoto (The Proof) works as a research into the folds of contemporary economics, and a tribute to a modern myth that was both able to reinvent value as well as to preserve himself to be turned into a product.
"Strategy 2: Fake Documents", by Marie Lechner, Streaming Egos - Digital Identities, 2016, Goethe Institut-Paris
Last May Satoshi Nakamoto was defined one of the latest “big mysteries of the digital age” by the New York Times. We are talking about the creator of the crypto-money Bitcoin, a revolutionary and decentralised payment system through which anonymous and non-falsifiable online transactions can be made independently from governments and central banks.
What seems quite extraordinary is that, in an era in which the surveillance systems of the NSA and other intelligence agencies could get hold of any information they want, we still do not know exactly who Satoshi Nakamoto is. For this purpose, the artists Emilie Brout & Maxime Marion have tried to create some (real) fake ID documents for him in order to provide some proof of his existence.
Completely out of the blue, in 2008 someone using the name ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ published a research paper on the mailing list Cryptography, setting out the basic principles of the revolutionary Bitcoin protocol. In 2009 the first version of the Bitcoin software was made available and he created the first units of the currency. Satoshi is well-known for communicating uniquely through e-mails and not over the phone. His last contribution dates back to the end of 2010 ? which was exactly when his new technological invention was starting to attract attention. That was also when he handed the control over to Gavin Andresen, Bitcoin’s chief scientist. It seems that Satoshi Nakamoto, who is described by his peers as a genius, disappeared from public view just as suddenly as he had attracted attention to him.
Despite the regular media announcements claiming the identity/ies hiding behind the pseudonym has/have been discovered, all the potential people have denied being behind it with statements such as “I am not Satoshi Nakamoto … but even if I were I wouldn’t tell you”.
A name which is often quoted is that of computer specialist Nick Szabo, an ex-cypherpunk (a group whose aim was ensuring the protection of private life through the use of cryptography), who developed a decentralised digital currency called Bit Gold ? which in a way was a direct forerunner of Bitcoin. Before him, Satoshi « Dorian » Nakamoto, a 65 year-old Japanese-American based in California made the front page of the magazine Newsweek on 6th March 2014 when he was presented as “the face of Bitcoin”. Because of his name, his life became a nightmare due to all the media attention. In order to support his “revelations”, the Newsweek journalist brought up his past as a systems engineer working for top secret defence projects, together with some statements by people close to him describing him as a humble genius obsessed with private life. It must be said that, if that were true, it would be legitimate to wonder why he chose to use his real family name.
Fascinated by this modern myth, the artists Emilie Brout & Maxime Marion attempted last year to create some (real) fake ID documents for him by using darknet, i.e. networks ensuring anonymity and the hideout of all sorts of activities (whether legal or not).
That was the beginning of a long investigation online to try to gather all the necessary elements in order to create a fake Japanese passport. Indeed, Satoshi states he is Japanese on the forum of the P2P foundation. “Research on web.archive.org and the reddit.com Bitcoin forum confirms that the date of birth given by Nakamoto himself is 5th April 1975”, state the investigators. They chose to make the passport issue date coincide with the registration date of the bitcoin.org website by Nakamoto in Panama on 18th August 2008.
“From his first public message and up to his disappearance on 12th December 2010, Nakamoto did all he could to protect his identity”, wrote the artists while listing the strategies he used to cover his traces. Neither the analysis of his code (which seems that of brilliant mathematician good at cryptography and a skilled but not professional programmer) nor his writing style have led to a conclusion ? therefore giving rise to all sorts of more or less supported speculations and conspiracy theories. As he has always used different IP addresses, identifying his exact location has been difficult. Others have paid attention to when he sends and replies to emails, but he writes at different times and therefore cannot easily be linked to a time zone. Some people have even tried to analyse his writing in order to determine his nationality. However, although his favourite language seems to be English, he switches between British and American spelling and colloquial expressions. This could either mean that Satoshi tries to hide his nationality or that he is in fact more than one person or even a whole organisation.
As ID photo, Emilie Brout and Maxime Marion chose the portrait which is usually used to represent him on the Internet and in the media. “In reality, this image comes from the video Seven Billion: Are you typical?, produced by the National Geographic in 2011, which presents a synthesis of the average human face, the face of M. Everybody”, explain the artists, who had to touch up the low definition photo to make it credible. “We tried to reconstruct an identity on the basis of the information we were able to gather and to produce proof of Satoshi Nakamoto’s existence by means of the technology he created …”. .
Once this biographical information had been gathered, Emilie Brout and Maxime Marion started navigating with TOR ? the anonymity network ? to get in touch with forgers, covering their traces via a secure email service and a VPN (virtual private network). After searching for several weeks, they reached a deal with a group probably based in Cambodia that could produce high-quality Japanese passports. Of course, they paid for this in bitcoins, the popular currency for online anonymous transactions.
After obtaining a scan of the passport for validation (photo), the artists paid a second down payment and the passport was sent on 7th June 2014 (placed inside a book according to the counterfeiters’ version), but never reached its destination. According to the latest news, the “goods” are stuck in Romania. There is no way of checking.
The scan is to this day the only existing trace of this passport ? ultimately, it is a digital file which is just as intangible as its owner. “We did not manage to make him real, which means Satoshi Nakamoto remains in a grey area, between reality and fiction, thereby increasing the rumours and fantasies surrounding his character”, says Emilie Brout. Even if the artists didn’t manage to capture him in an artefact, their project Satoshi Nakamoto (The Proof) encourages us to delve into the troubled waters of contemporary economies and the darknet ? a place with a strong fictional element to it. At the same time, through this project we can pay tribute to a contemporary myth who redefined value while also enabling Bitcoin to develop as a real open source project, regardless of the true identity of its creator.
The project also has a second more psychedelic side to it, called Satoshi Nakamoto (The Myth). The artists produced an animation using one of the 3D face models that is most widespread on the net. Then they placed Satoshi Nakamoto’s appearance over it. What we see is a mask that doesn’t look at us but constantly divides into two and changes. A Janus with multiple faces ? a monstrous enigma that is not ready to reveal its secrets.
"Reading a Wave", by Douglas Edric Stanley, Dérives, 2013, Editions du 22,48 m²
Standing before a work such as Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion's Dérives, spectators will perhaps experience a certain sensation of disorientation, of floating adrift. In the work, 2,000 images of water, excerpts from throughout the history of cinema, are edited by a machine into a single continuous sequence: an endless film. This film contains only one central character: the image of water. Excepting power failure, the film never ends, preferring instead a slow deceleration into moving images of ponds, of puddles, or a glass of water, before transforming into tears, mist, a light drizzle which eventually breaks out into a downpour, leading to thunderstorms, hurricanes, shark attacks, and tsunamis before calming back down into a light stream of images and then starting all over again. It is a constant ebb and flow, without end, that rises and falls like the tide; an endless film that is always the same — a film about water — and yet which can never be exactly the same: a fluid-film flowing straight out of the fragments of Heraclitus.
It is easy to be swept up into the pleasures of the spectacle in a work such as Dérives. Its form allows us to permanently oscillate between recognition and anticipation: a sort of name-that-sequence game wherein we try to identify each one of its famous and not-so-famous sequences, mixed in with a certain feeling of anticipation as we wonder what next image will carry the wave on its journey.
As for actually attempting to read this wave, i.e. to dive beneath its surface and to observe its construction from within its depths, the exercise is far more perilous. If we start with the 2,000 images, we quickly realise that this database is nothing more than a cloud of disparate points. Nowhere do we find this wave, this flow of water with its internal movement; instead we find nothing but a collection of drops. For, in reality, the work is far more than a simple collection wherein one need only to collect a series of images in order to capture the "image" of water in all its states. Indeed, there are 2,000 image sequences that together make up the work; but it is not enough to reunite 2,000 sequences alone in order to compose a work such as Dérives. Hence a drunken sense of disorientation before a flow of images that we appreciate on an intuitive level, without being able to fully identify its origin.
"Mr Palomar sees a wave rise in the distance, grow, approach, change form and colour, fold over itself, break, vanish, and flow again. At this point he could convince himself that he has concluded the operation he had set out to achieve, and he could go away. But it is very difficult to isolate one wave, separating it from the wave immediately following it, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away…" –Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar
When spectators are informed that the film they are watching has been "generated" by a computer with a dedicated algorithm, their first reaction is often to ask if the result has been "programmed in advance". If one where to reply no, the algorithm varies the film endlessly, the spectator often concludes that the process is therefore "purely random". As if it is perfectly natural, even necessary, to oppose "programmed" (i.e. "predetermined") processes and "random" (i.e. "undetermined") processes. But just such an opposition would never work in the case of Dérives, whose operating principle is to create a sole and unique film, always coherent, while navigating within a fluctuating collection of images that never produces the exact same result. In other words, a purely "random" film would be nothing but incoherent juxtapositions of sequences that had nothing to do with each other, a cacophony without much artistic value. This is clearly not the case of Dérives, for whom the sinuous juxtapositions of images are not only logical, but also full of an undeniable poetic and emotional force. On the other hand, a film created by an entirely "predetermined" program, i.e. wherein the machine would have no room for autonomous action, would harken back to a classically linear film, more or less edited "by hand" with a sequence of images more or less determined by its creator in advance. This is clearly not the case either, given that this flow of images named Dérives will never be exactly the same sequence of images.
The difficulty comes from our inability to perceive the rich interaction of simple elementary particles (the images) and the process which reunites them into a common purpose (the image). If, perhaps inspired by Mr Palomar, the spectator attempts to analyse each algorithmic edit separately (sequence A > sequence B), he or she will miss the algorithmic ensemble which constructs the film over time. This larger sequence can only be observed as a whole, which ironically means in the role of a classical spectator of cinema allowing him or herself to be swept away by the image.
"While our senses respond to everything, our soul cannot pay attention to every particular. That is why our confused sensations are the result of a variety of perceptions. This variety is infinite. It is almost like the confused murmuring which is heard by those who approach the shore of a sea. It comes from the continual beatings of innumerable waves." – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Discourse on metaphysics, §33; Montgomery, George R. & Chandler, Albert R., translators.
In its natural form, as in the program conceived by Emilie and Maxime, a wave is composed of a multitude of different components, interacting on multiple levels and all at once. The global form emerges from the complexity of these individual interactions, hence the sensation of an intangible perception: the "confused murmuring" of which Leibniz speaks, and which cannot be perceived outside of an emotional affect, both intuitive and all encompassing.
For the author of an algorithm, it is often impossible to write the program in one single stroke, especially given that the complexity of its final output makes it all too difficult to orchestrate via some masterfully rationalised architecture. Nevertheless, a computer program must be executed within the constraints of the machine, which requires for its part both explicitness and rationality. There is no room for ambiguity in the machine, for whom such an ambiguity can only lead to a refusal of execution:
"error: call of overloaded 'function(type)' is ambiguous"
How then does one write just such an algorithm — at once subtle and evolving, i.e. generative — within a materially determined assemblage with its language of explicitly rational constraints?
The solution lies in the orchestration of individual interactions of each drop, but multiplied up to the scale of an ocean of possible droplets. This technique of using the singular, only propagated to fill a field of possibilities, is precisely one of the internal logics proper to computer programming. It is a method for treating a great number of data points individually, but all at once.
There is a table of values at the heart of Dérives which describes the possible interactions of all the images contained within the work. It is a list of keywords and values arranged in categories and which allow for the establishment of a general framework for the different narrative, logical and aesthetic possibilities for the images. It is a table of values cross-referenced with each and every image. In the category "divisions of water", for example, we find values such as "unitary mass", "numerous droplets", or "rain". Through such a description we can begin to see a certain distinction made between two complex ideas of "unity", along with the transition that might lead us from one to the other: ocean and rain are two opposing forms of water masses, opposed precisely in the manner in which they gather their internal elements. By explicitly describing this opposition and the transition between them, the machine can then deal with such subtleties much more easily. Each of the 2,000 images is described to the machine in this fashion, image by image. This category, "divisions of water", is more or less factual, as are descriptions of "weather" or of "light". They allow for the program to understand characteristics of the images that are more or less objectively perceivable by the spectator. But we also find other, more subjective categories, such as those of "hedonism", which describes images to the machine on an entirely different scale of measure. This category, along with descriptors of the level of "tension" within the image, allow Emilie and Maxime to reunite images in a far more subtle manner, on the level of sensations, all the while making them readable to the machine. From these descriptors they can then run a series of routines that string together images in sequences that progressively increase the "tension" until a certain level of "hedonism" is achieved. By multiplying these criteria and running them in parallel, the result is made far more complex without having to play off of one and only musical cord. It is a subtle dance of sine waves, flowing in and out of interactions between several simultaneous criteria which, individually, are linked together linearly but which collectively make possible a more complex form: a wave of images.
This central table of Dérives — these descriptors of the internal forces of the images — is a lot smaller than one might think: not more than about twenty categories. And within each category there are very few levels of variation: usually two or three, sometimes a little more, but never growing beyond a dozen. For it is not in multiplying the number of categories that such a table will somehow improve the "generative" qualities of a work. To the contrary, it is precisely the reduction of criteria to their strict minimum which gives Dérives its force as a work of art, allowing it to dance a fine line oscillating delicately between the chaos of a tsunami and the calm of a sleepy riverbed. Too many criteria would push the work to the edge of entropy: a chaos similar to a film edited by the roll of dice. And too few categories would force the film into an all-too-predictable form: a sort of mechanical loop of the same repeating themes. It is in this in-between state where we find the internal current of the algorithm, wherein the film is always at the edge of change while retaining coherence and a sense of logical progression. It is at once discernible, perceptible for the spectator and yet impossible to fully grasp, impossible to put put our finger on the exact nature of the image which would allow us to freeze the wave in one single frame.
As we let wash over us this dance of differing and deferring criteria, generated in an undulating movement of the program which is also that of the image, the spectator enters and exits the image as they please. Given that the program theoretically never stops, Dérives has no "duration" in the classical cinematic sense of the term, i.e. a time delimited by the physical beginning and end of the media device. Nevertheless — and this is the case with any film —, there is yet another "duration" which emerges from the image: the duration generated by the consciousness of the spectator. Just as in Bergson's description of sugar dissolving in a glass of water (here held by Mia Farrow or Emily Watson) and the time it takes to dissolve, each and every spectator drinks these images in their own manner, as if they were destined for us individually. Dérives is this particular scene: each and every spectator perceiving their own specific moment within the ebb and flow of an image generated here and now, before our very eyes, just for us, and yet which does not stop for us either. By following the movement of the algorithm we are perfectly capable of perceiving the logical transitions from one sequence to the next, and even of understanding the criteria which unite them; and yet incapable all the while of freezing the image as a whole and observe all its interactions in a rational unity. Our consciousness enters and exits this current while the ebb and flow of the image remains quite objectively within its own logic and its own temporal existence. A play, algorithmic in its nature, of the rising tides of images and of the image. The misty image of a wave, a vague, floating image, or, as one can only say in French, une image vague.
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